It has been more than 40 years since he designed one of Disneyland's best attractions, and Bill Watkins can still remember everything it entailed — from finding the right material for the wheels (nylon was too fast, so he had to go with polyurethane) to the math he used for the fastest curves.
Watkins, 87, was the first person to ever go on Space Mountain when it opened at Disneyland in 1977, but he hadn't been on it for 13 years. That changed on Wednesday, when Disneyland opened early so the Long Beach, California, resident and his new friend Kyle King could go on a private journey through space. "This will probably be my last ride," Watkins told The Orange County Register. "I suppose it's goodbye."
Watkins built his first roller coaster as a kid back in Indiana, using a ladder and red wagon — while testing his creation, he broke his arm three different times. He started a career in the aerospace industry, but in 1966 he responded to an ad for an amusement park designer. He impressed the people at Disney, and was hired at a rate of $328 per week, working on the People Mover, Autopia cars, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
When Watkins and King, who became inspired by Watkins' work after he read about him as a child, arrived at Disneyland, the lights were on inside the normally dark Space Mountain, so Watkins could take a closer look at his design. After hurtling through space for what was supposed to be the last time, the suddenly sentimental Watkins wasn't quite ready to leave yet. "Can we go again?" he asked.