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It's always awkward when an old friend appears after a face-lift. How do you comment on all the work they've had done, when you can't see much improvement? That's the uncomfortable position Walt Disney World places us in with the rehabilitated Space Mountain, which reopened Nov. 23 for the first time since April.

Along with Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain is one of the Magic Kingdom's most iconic E-Ticket attractions. But unlike its classic cousins, which received significant upgrades (robotic Johnny Depps and a floating crystal ball) this decade, Space Mountain is essentially unchanged from a generation ago. So fans of the world's first indoor roller coaster had stratospheric hopes that the past seven months of downtime would inject some of the modern amenities afforded the ride's international offspring. Time to stow those expectations under your seat and prepare for landing.

Approaching the albino Mount Fuji on the outskirts of Tomorrowland, the only difference you're likely to notice is that the attraction signage now sports a suspect shade of day-glo lime green. More obvious is the demolition of the adjacent abandoned Skyway station, from which buckets of stoned, horny teens once soared; all that remains is a restroom. Inside, a backlit display now introduces the new "Starport Seventy-Five" ("Your gateway to the galaxies") thematic overlay, which combines retro-futuristic styling with winks to Disney trivia geeks. (The name refers to the ride's 1975 debut.)

The new theming retains favorite elements from the old, like the faux-holographic "star tunnel" windows and spacey synth soundtrack. But 21st-century tech has been installed in the form of large video screens and railing-mounted control buttons. While FastPass express ticket-holders whiz by in their own lane, guests in the standby line pause their shuffle every few minutes when the new hardware lights up to play a brief, basic video game. A handful of space-station-themed mini-games, each lasting about a minute, are in rotation; I got to vacuum floating luggage and blast asteroids. The left/right/shoot controls and PlayStation 2—quality graphics don't offer much depth, but it's satisfying; I got unexpectedly competitive over my score.

The games don't slow the line as much as you might think and are sadly left swiftly behind, replaced by a maddening maze of steel switchbacks. From this waiting area, you used to be able to look up and see the screaming riders on the towering track. Now, a ceiling has been added to seal the view of the loading station. Overhead digital projectors simulating a window into space have been added, and the Horizons-esque spinning space station (one of a couple of nods to the lost Epcot ride) is a nice touch. But the wait here can feel endless — I spent 45 minutes of my hourlong wait in this section — and the back corridor that you walk through before finally boarding is (at this writing) shockingly undecorated.

When you finally pass through the freshly installed automatic safety gates and step into your rocket-shaped car, you'll appreciate the padding that's been added to the notoriously uncomfortable seats. Other than the removal of the glow-in-the-dark racing stripe on the side, the vehicles are unchanged, so you're still forced to adopt a Larry Craig-style wide stance and straddle the stranger ahead of you. The ride begins as before with a tunnel of flashing blue lights, except now a strobe effect covers the flash of the on-ride photo op (available for purchase at the exit, of course).

After ascending the lift hill past the upside-down astronauts in spiffier spacesuits, you crest the hill and descend into darkness, and the ride's biggest upgrade becomes obvious: By sealing off the queue and removing the glowing stripes, Disney has finally fulfilled the promise of a pitch-black attraction where you can't see which way you are going. Enhanced projections of star fields and galaxies, along with the classic chocolate-chip-cookie meteors, still don't cast enough light to illuminate the upcoming turns and dips of the vintage "wild mouse" coaster track, making the voyage more unpredictable than ever.

But otherwise it's the exact same ride that's been abusing your lumbar all these years; if you expected a smoother track or banked curves, dream on. Finally, the familiar '70s-era glowing red "re-entry" tunnel appears, and the rockets come to a stop at the carpeted exit platform. Moving sidewalks still glide guests past post-show displays, in which the old "RYCA-1" space colony sets have been redressed yet again (this time as advertisements for futuristic vacations to "Crater Caverns" and "20,000 Light Years Under the Sea"), and up into the inevitable gift shop.

If only I hadn't seen the promised land. For Disneyland's 50th anniversary in 2005, California's version of Space Mountain was given an elaborate overhaul, including a rebuilt track and cutting-edge effects. Their lift-hill and landing tunnel feature mind-blowing warp-field illusions that put anything in Orlando to shame; the G-forces are engineered to be enjoyed instead of endured; and the entire trip is backed by a superb soundtrack from in-seat speakers. On its own, this rehab gets a solid "B." But in comparison to Cali, our Mountain looks like a rusting relic with a fresh coat of shellac. Having seen what Disney can do, it's hard not to feel Florida is second-class.

skubersky@orlandoweekly.com

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