When Walt Disney World announced plans to build a spaceflight simulator three years ago, it seemed like savvy timing. The first crew was getting ready to go up to the International Space Station, and Disney could capitalize on interest in the space program and its proximity to the Kennedy Space Center 70 miles away.
Now, following the space shuttle Columbia disaster, Disney finds itself facing a potential public relations minefield with the planned opening of the Mission: Space ride in 2003.
If Disney handles the ride's opening with sensitivity and markets it as an homage to the space program, it could escape any fallout, theme park consultants said. If Disney isn't careful and sells the ride as a thrill-seeking experience, it could backfire, they note.
"They're thinking, 'Really bad timing' from the viewpoint of the ride opening," said Dennis Spiegel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based consulting firm. "When you have a catastrophic tragedy like this, it doesn't bode well for you."
When it comes to opening a new ride, Disney isn't the first theme park to have tragedy collide with its fantasy world. Universal Studios in Orlando, out of respect for victims, delayed for a couple of months the opening of its "Twister" ride in 1998 following tornadoes that killed 42 people in central Florida.
If Disney officials "ignore what happened here and make it perceived to be a frivolous thrill ride, then that can peeve a lot of people," said Robert Niles, editor of themeparkinsider.com, an online newsletter. "But this is a company that thinks, rethinks and triple thinks everything when it comes to public relations."
Mission: Space, still under construction, will allow visitors to board a four-person simulator where they will be flat on their backs for liftoff. Using hydraulic lifts, the ride will create the feeling of intense G-forces as a spacecraft escapes Earth's atmosphere.
Disney has a lot riding on the $150 million Mission: Space, as it is only one of two new attractions opening this year at the resort. The other is the much less ambitious 3-D film, Mickey's PhilHarmagic.
Last year, attendance was down between 4 percent and 8 percent at Disney's four Florida theme parks, according to Amusement Business, a trade publication.
Since its inception, Disney has been promoting the space ride at its Epcot park. During the ride's announcement three years ago, Disney officials touted its sponsorship by the computer company, Compaq, which has since merged with Hewlett-Packard, and bragged that the ride was getting technical advice from former NASA scientists and astronauts.
The company has one advantage in that it hasn't set an official opening date, only saying sometime in 2003, and can be flexible.
Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Polack said Thursday it was inappropriate to comment on the attraction out of respect for the seven astronauts killed Saturday.
"Our hearts go out to the families involved in this tragedy and this isn't the time for us to be talking about our attraction," Polack said.
But Bill Warren, another Disney spokesman, said discussions on how to market the ride haven't even begun so marketing executives aren't even considering at this point how the Columbia tragedy will affect their plans.