I’m at Ohio State University in Columbus this week attending a lecture series taught by former Disney engineer Bill Watkins. Watkins, an OSU alumni, worked for Disney from 1966 to 1985, and in that time worked on some of the industry’s classic attractions, including “Space Mountain,” “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad,” and, as he put it, basically “everything else that moved” at a Disney park during that time.
Though I only understand about every 10th word during the highly technical discussion of mechanical engineering concepts, the overall presentation is nonetheless fascinating. In between examinations of formulas, Watkins sprinkled in anecdotes like how he took inspiration from Jaguar car concepts and adapted those to “Big Thunder” and the old “PeopleMover.”
“I didn’t title this course ‘How to Design A Roller Coaster’—I say it’s ‘A Discussion of Roller Coaster Design,’” Watkins said. “All the math and physics that’s involved in this gives you a good feeling for anything that moves. Any piece of machinery can be related to the kinds of things that happen on roller coasters. Everything that moves, moves according to these [formulas].”
Watkins held any number of engineering jobs throughout his career prior to joining Disney—Lockheed, Honeywell, NASA, and more. He came to the Mouse thanks to a small ad he spotted in the newspaper in 1966 that said Disneyland was looking for a mechanical engineer for design work.
Watkins recalled his interview: “I really didn’t think it would go too far, but I took in some pictures of a race car I’d been developing—I’d been racing cars since 1955—and what they told me later was, they figured if I could do that I could do what they had.”
He had never been to Disneyland prior to getting the job, but said: “I love mechanical design and building mechanical things—that’s what drew me to [Disneyland],” he said. “I thought, ‘If I go there, I’m going to design some vehicles.’”
Though he worked on all manner of projects at Disney parks—from films to monorails to submarine rides—his most famous attraction is, of course, “Space Mountain.” Here’s how he described the experience of creating it:
“I first designed that ride to go in Disneyland, but having no input from art direction, I just made a space that would have a façade in Tomorrowland and extend back into the employee parking lot. It ended up being shaped like a [baseball] home plate, and I managed to put two tracks in there. My boss at the time insisted I use a ‘Matterhorn’ chassis and connect two cars together. In order to get capacity over 2,000, it needed two tracks with a 16-second dispatch.
“By the time I got that all laid out, they decided they didn’t want to give up the parking space—it was too big—and they wanted a round building, not something with a flat façade on the front. So they just drew a big 300-foot-diameter circle around it and moved it to Walt Disney World, where they really needed a ride of that type, anyway—they already had the ‘Matterhorn’ at Disneyland.
“As soon as we finished that, one of the vice presidents came by and said, ‘Go home, we need a ‘Space Mountain’ at Disneyland—but I’m only going to give you a 200-foot-diameter building.’ I had to change everything. In order to get the 2,000-per-hour capacity, it needed a bigger vehicle on a single track. So it’s a 12-passenger [train] instead of eight.”
The original “Space Mountain” in Walt Disney World is scheduled for a lengthy rehab this year, and Watkins said: “I thought for about 10 seconds that I ought to offer my services, but it’s too good being retired.” He did call Disney with an offer to look over the original blueprints, because he had made some changes to the design on the fly and wanted to be sure they had made it to the final drawings; they were already there, however.
Watkins gives his final lecture of the week tonight.
“My whole purpose in giving the course was to get them to understand these engineering principles in applications,” he said. “Sometimes you sit in class and learn these things but you don’t know what they’re for. Things change, but the fundamentals don’t change, and you apply those fundamentals to everything you do. That’s what I’m here for.”