The passengers wait eagerly in the ornate lobby of the enormous spaceport. Soon, a signal indicates that their spaceship is ready for boarding. As they wait, special displays instruct them about how their spaceship functions and what to expect once they leave Earth's atmosphere. Aboard the giant spacecraft — as luxuriously appointed as any yacht — they are soon on their way to a vacation on the Moon.
No, this isn't a vision of the future of space tourism. It's what happened in 1901, when people could pay a princely half dollar for a ticket to ride into space.
There had already been space extravaganzas on stage. "A Trip to the Moon", a play based on Verne's classic novel, appeared at New York's Booth Theater in 1877. This was followed by a music and dance number, "A Trip to Mars", performed by a company of little people called "The Lilliputians", at New York's Niblo Theater in 1893.
The success of these may have inspired architect Frederick Thompson to create a unique spectacle called "A Trip to the Moon," for the Pan American Exposition being held in Buffalo, New York, in 1901. "I had several ideas in my head," Thompson wrote, "all of which were unsatisfactory until I hit on the idea of an airship... and I immediately thought, ‘Where will I take the airship?' And then it occurred to me. ‘To the moon'."
Thompson spared no expense in creating the illusion of a trip to the Moon. To house his show, he erected an eighty-foot-high, 40,000-square-foot building that for sheer opulence put European opera houses to shame. It cost a staggering $84,000 to construct... at a time when a comfortable home could be built for $2000.
For fifty cents — twice the price of any other attraction on the midway, such as the ever-popular "Upside-Down House" — customers of "Thompson's Aerial Navigation Company" took a trip to the moon on a thirty-seat spaceship named "Luna". The spaceship resembled a cross between a dirigible and an excursion steamer, with the addition of enormous red canvas wings that flapped like a bird's. The wings were worked by a system of pulleys and the sensation of wind was created by hidden fans. A series of moving canvas backdrops provided the effect of clouds passing by and the earth dropping into the distance. Lighting and sound effects added to the illusion.
Thompson had twenty employees running the ride, in addition to 200 actors — including the 60 little people who played the Selenites.
Every half hour, at the sound of a gong and the rattle of anchor chain, the "Luna"—- "a fine steel airship of the latest pattern", according to one newspaper—-rocked from side to side and then rose into the sky under the power of its beating wings. The passengers, sitting on steamer chairs, see clouds floating by, then a model of Buffalo far below, complete with the exposition itself and its hundreds of blinking lights. The city soon falls into the distance as the entire planet earth comes into view. Soon, the ship is surrounded the twinkling stars of outer space. After surviving a terrific — and spectacular — electrical storm the "Luna" and its passengers sets down in a lunar crater. Image: Patent Drawing of Luna at its Launch Site.
As the passengers leave the spaceship, they are greeted by "Selenites" who guide them through a maze of stalactites and "crystallized mineral wonders" to the "City of the Moon". There (like any visitor to Disney World a century later) they find souvenir shops, samples of green cheese and "mooncraft demonstrations". The are finally admitted to the palace of the Man in the Moon and a spectacular stage show featuring illuminated fountains...and the journey is over. The return to earth was via an anticlimactic rope ladder.
"A Trip to the Moon" was the first electrically powered mechanical "dark ride"—-since then a staple at amusement parks everywhere such as Disney World—-and the first space extravaganza. Thompson even patented his creation: US725,509. Historian Frank Winter even believes this may have been the first-ever patent involving a spaceship! During the course of the exhibition more than 400,000 people took the trip to the moon. These included such notables as President William McKinley, Secretary of War Elihu Root, Secretary of State John Hay, members of the cabinet, several state governors and justices of the Supreme Court. Even Thomas Edison took the trip and personally congratulated Thompson's electrical engineers (Edison himself toyed with the idea of inventing a spaceship and his journey on the "Luna" may have provided him with the inspiration).
It's also possible that filmmaker George Melies may have been inspired by reading about the ride—-which was wildly successful and reported in newspapers and magazines all over the world. It's certainly true enough that there are a very great many similarities between his classic 1902 film, "A Trip to the Moon", and Thompson's ride.
After the Pan American Exposition closed in 1903, Thompson moved the ride to Steeplechase Park at Coney Island. It was such a success there that the park was renamed "Luna Park", a title it retained for the next forty years.
Souvenir of a Moon visit.
An overview of the Exposition with the Moon Ride at lower right.
Patent Drawing of the Luna
Moon Ride as it looked at Coney Island's Luna Park.
Passgengers Aboard the Luna.
Inside the Caverns of the Moon.
Meeting the Man in the Moon.
A Lunar Monster.