05 August 2010

The History of the TWA Moonliner

In the fall of 1955 a new Disneyland attraction opened to great fanfare as the centerpiece of Tomorrowland. Designed by Disney imagineer John Hench, the TWA Moonliner stood 76 feet tall as a 1/3 scale replica of what a 1986-era Moonliner was conceptualized to look like. Hench worked with the NASA rocket scientists Werner von Braun and Willy Ley in creating the Moonliner. Early in the design process, Ralph Damon, the president of TWA, was brought in as part of a classic marketing coup by Disney to sponsor the Moonliner attraction. At the time, TWA was the official airline of Disneyland, and TWA's classic red stripes on white would adorn the new Moonliner. The Moonliner stood eight feet taller than Sleeping Beauty's castle that formed the centerpiece of the Disneyland park.

Inside the main attraction housed next to the Moonliner, Disney visitors entered a futuristic ticketing and boarding area complete with flight attendants and gate agents in futuristic TWA uniforms. TWA signage adorned the simulated terminal area and large viewscreens and animated models demonstrated to waiting visitors the workings of the atomic-powered Moonliner and the planned routing to visit the Moon after liftoff. The passenger compartment of the attraction featured one of the first uses of air jackhammers and hydraulics to heighten the sensation and simulation of a rocket launch and spaceflight while two large screens displayed the progress of the flight. The PA system featured a baritone voice announcing himself as "Captain Collins, welcome aboard the TWA Moonliner 'Star of Polaris' for our flight to the Moon."

Once visitors exited the ride, they were ushered through what Disney called "Hobbyland" where they could buy toys and models of the TWA Moonliner and other space-themed attractions at Tomorrowland. Disney inked an exclusive deal with Strombecker Models to create the models and toys to be sold next to the attaction in the first widespread instance of what we now call cross-marketing that features so prominently with today's movies and television shows. At the same time Disney opened the TWA Moonliner, their Sunday evening television program featured a three part series titled "Man in Space" in which one part of the feature used scenes shot at the TWA Moonliner.

One year after the opening of the TWA Moonliner attraction, Howard Hughes had a 22-foot replica of the Moonliner added to the roof of the TWA headquarters building in Kansas City, Missouri at 18th Street and Baltimore. When Howard Hughes sold his stake in TWA in 1962, not only was this replica Moonliner removed and sold to a local company, but TWA also ended its sponsorship of the Moonliner attraction and Disneyland. It became the Douglas Moonliner when Douglas Aircraft Company became the attraction's sponsor and the Moonliner itself was repainted in Douglas' blue and red colors with the company name running down the side. With the merger of St. Louis-based McDonnell Aircraft Company and Douglas Aircraft Company in 1967, sponsorship ended and the Moonliner was taken down. In 1975 the Flight to the Moon attraction itself became the Mission to Mars attraction.

In 1997, a Missouri-based collector of Disney memorabilia purchased the deteriorating Moonliner replica that sat atop the TWA headquarters building. After a long restoration process, it now sits as part of the Airline History Museum's display at Kansas City's Wheeler/Downtown Airport. In 2006, a real estate development group bought the old TWA headquarters building and remodeled it as part of a new arts district. As a tribute to the building's past history as TWA's Kansas City headquarters, a slightly smaller but fully lit TWA Moonliner replica was built atop the building.

Source: From Props to Jets: Commercial Aviation's Transition to the Jet Age 1952-1962 by Craig Kodera, Mike Machat, and Jon Proctor. Specialty Press, 2010, p70-71.

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