William Watkins was an aerospace engineer who had worked for companies like Honeywell and Lockheed when he replied to a newspaper ad for a job at Disney.
On the job interview, he brought pictures of race cars he had worked on — a decision he credits with the company’s decision to hire him. They wanted a mix of both mechanical and artistic proficiency, said Watkins, now 86 and retired in the Bluff Park area of Long Beach.
He worked on a number of projects for the company, but his best known: he was the engineer behind Space Mountain, the iconic ride that marked its 40th anniversary this year.
Watkins’ focus was on solving such engineering problems as making sure the park’s roller coaster cars had enough momentum to take riders along the entire distance of the rides’ tracks. Artists handled the aesthetic side of ride design.
“It’s all mathematics and physics and all those things you have to use in any kind of engineering,” he said in a recent interview.
He was initially hired by Disney in 1966 to design the Anaheim park’s PeopleMover attraction.
“Up ’till then, they didn’t really have any engineers,” Watkins said. “It was a lot of artists deciding things, and they decided they needed an engineer to complete the job.”
Watkins was born in Shelbyville, Indiana, and he spent his youth in the Hoosier State before studying mechanical engineering at The Ohio State University, where he graduated in 1953. He followed that achievement by taking a job in Burbank with Lockheed Aircraft Co. the same year. He spent more than a decade working on aerospace projects — including NASA work — for The Marquardt Corp. and Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Co. (now simply known as Honeywell Inc.), according to his personal bio.
Watkins followed up his work on the PeopleMover with assignments to design bumpers for Autopia’s cars and as Disneyland’s project engineer for the cars that carry guests through the park’s Snow White’s Scary Adventures Ride.
He then proceeded to roller coaster design, serving as project engineer for both Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which opened in May 1977 and September 1979 respectively.
Michael Kouri, author of “The Ghost of Walt Disney & Me,” which tells the stories of people who have reported encounters with Disney’s specter, said he was present for Space Mountain’s debut.
“I remember it really well. A lot of astronauts were there, and people just loved it,” he said. “I rode four times in a row.”
Disneyland converted Space Mountain into Hyperspace Mountain in late 2015. The rebranding gave a “Star Wars” theme to the classic ride, but that change proved to be relatively short-lived. Disneyland announced earlier this year the ride would go back to its original theme in time for summertime.
“I’m kind of sick of ‘Star Wars.’ I like ‘Star Wars,’ but I don’t like it in Disneyland,” said Kouri, who was happy with the decision to take the hyperspace out of Space Mountain.
Although Space Mountain fans like Kouri can appreciate a return to the ride’s now vintage take on the future, Disney’s embrace of Star Wars is continuing with the construction of new park sections dedicated to the space fantasy franchise at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Park in Florida.
As for Watkins, he continued to work for Walt Disney Imagineering. He earned a promotion to chief mechanical engineer in 1979 and oversaw mechanical design work for EPCOT Center in Florida and Tokyo Disneyland.
He left Disney’s employ in 1985 to co-found Ride & Show Engineering Inc. The San Dimas-based company took on projects for Disney, Universal Studios and other clients.
Watkins retired from ride design in 1994.
His mementos from his era at Disney include a framed illustration of Space Mountain tracks.
“You know it’s pretty exciting to work on projects that everybody knows about and enjoys,” he said.
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