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The History of Disney World's Spaceship Earth

Melissa is a huge Disney Parks fanatic, going at least once a year with her family. She is fascinated by the work of Disney's Imagineers.

Spaceship Earth is an icon of innovention, a testament to mankind's creativity.

Spaceship Earth is an icon of innovention, a testament to mankind's creativity.

Like a grand and miraculous spaceship, our planet has sailed through the universe of time. And for a brief moment, we have been among its many passengers.

— Dame Judi Dench, the current narrator of Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth is one of Disney World's most iconic rides. Who could forget sliding backward through space and staring up at our planet in all its glory? Traveling through history from the dawn of time to the internet age, we see everything from ancient Egyptians creating papyrus to Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, and eventually we see the programming of the first computers, giving us the opportunity to contemplate the future of mankind. This ride not only shows us how fascinating our history is; it also has a fascinating history of its own. Read on to learn how the icon of Epcot came to be.

Michelangelo and his painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling embody the driving concept behind this ride: Since the beginning of time, humans were created to create.

Michelangelo and his painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling embody the driving concept behind this ride: Since the beginning of time, humans were created to create.

The Original Concept of Spaceship Earth

To know the origins of Spaceship Earth, first you have to know where EPCOT came from. EPCOT stands for the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. It was Walt Disney's own futuristic city that would showcase new ways of urban living and create a safe environment for Disney Employees to live in. It was the dream he worked toward even when he was in the hospital; he would map out the city on the tiles of the ceiling in his room. Sadly Walt Disney died of lung cancer on December 15th, 1966, and he was never able to finish his dream.

After Walt's death, his notes were still available, but Disney's directors decided EPCOT the community was too risky of a business venture and thought nobody would want to be constantly watched around their neighborhood by tourists, so EPCOT the theme park was designed to honor his legacy in a different way. The new park was partially modeled after the World's Fairs that Walt loved, and showcased new developments in science and industry, exhibiting Walt's desire for a better tomorrow.

Originally, Spaceship Earth was conceptualized as a geodesic dome, inspired by the Expo 67 dome in Montreal (now a biosphere museum), which was designed by Buckminster Fuller. However, soon the Imagineers began to want something even bigger and more dramatic and came up with the never-before-seen geodesic sphere, where guests would go up inside of a ball instead of entering a door on the side of a dome.

The Imagineers wanted a unique icon for their second park in Florida that would showcase the innovative spirit of Walt Disney, something that would stand out compared to the castles of other Disney parks. The eloquently written original script of Spaceship Earth, by Ray Bradbury, emphasizes Disney's love of creativity and desire for a better tomorrow. While it wasn't quite Disney's original vision, Spaceship Earth is now one of Disney World's most beloved rides.

This is concept art of EPCOT's original city plan by Herb Ryman. Notice how the hub layout is similar to that of the modern day theme park.

This is concept art of EPCOT's original city plan by Herb Ryman. Notice how the hub layout is similar to that of the modern day theme park.

The Design of Spaceship Earth's Structure

Spaceship Earth is an engineering marvel that took 26 months to build. It is designed to look like a geodesic polyhedron, which is a sphere made of triangular faces, but it is actually made up of two domes, one on the bottom and one on the top. There is a ring in the center of the structure which holds up the top dome, and the bottom dome hangs down from it; the ring is made from six trusses that make a hexagonal table-like structure.

The ride portion of the structure sits on smaller trusses webbed through the center of that ring and spirals upwards into the ball. The ring, in turn, is supported by six legs that are anchored on piles 160 feet deep into the ground. What you see of Spaceship Earth aboveground is 180 feet tall, so there is a lot more to Spaceship Earth than you think!

Here you can see the inner ring and its supports. The ring was built to keep the weight off the legs, so the outer shell wouldn't buckle under all that concentrated force.

Here you can see the inner ring and its supports. The ring was built to keep the weight off the legs, so the outer shell wouldn't buckle under all that concentrated force.

The outer shell of the structure is attached to the center ring with pyramids made of steel pipe called quadrupods that interlock and extend upwards and downwards to form a sphere. There are actually two layers to the outer shell, so the inner layer could provide water-proofing and fire protection while the outer layer could look really cool without anything messing up the design elements.

The inner layer is made up of steel panels and a neoprene sheet over it. A gutter system runs around this inner layer at the sphere's equator so no water goes underneath the sphere and drenches guests. Instead, the water runs through gaps in the outer layer, gets caught in the gutter, and drains underground and out into the World Showcase lake.

The outer layer is composed of 11,324 alucobond panels (alucobond consists of a sheet of polyethylene plastic sandwiched between two layers of aluminum), chosen for lightweight strength and its ability to withstand the frequent rains and hurricanes of central Florida.

A close-up view of the Alucobond panels.

A close-up view of the Alucobond panels.

Fun Facts About Spaceship Earth

  • MIT scientists were asked to conduct wind tunnel testing on a 1/16 scale model of the structure in order to prevent guests from getting knocked over by strong winds as they walked under the ball!
  • Spaceship Earth is only the second largest structure in Epcot. The main tank in The Living Seas could actually submerge all of Spaceship Earth inside of it!
  • There is actually a secret VIP lounge above the area where you exit the ride. It was traditionally used for company meetings as it switched through various sponsors, but currently, the ride has no sponsors so it is used for weddings and small conventions.
  • The attraction was not only inspired by Buckminster Fuller, it also takes its name from his 1968 Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth.
  • The narrator of the video shown at the end of the ride with the results of your quiz is Cam Clarke, who was Simba's singing voice in The Lion King 2, played Flounder in The Little Mermaid 2, and is probably most famous for being Leonardo in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle series.
When Siemens was the ride sponsor, the lounge took on this futuristic look and was called Base 21.

When Siemens was the ride sponsor, the lounge took on this futuristic look and was called Base 21.

How Spaceship Earth Has Changed Over the Years

Spaceship Earth opened as the shining centerpiece of EPCOT on October 1st, 1982. Although it was commonly thought that the first narrator of the ride was Vic Perrin, it was actually Lawrence Dobkin, an actor who also served as the narrator of The Hall of Presidents from 1971 to 1993, coming back to add on to his rolecall every time a new president was elected. The original version started with a dramatic entrance; fog machines were used to take riders back in time to 40,000 years ago at the dawn of mankind.

Four years later in 1986, the ride received its first refurbishment, switching to broadcaster Walter Cronkite as its narrator and replacing the fog machine with a lighted tunnel full of twinkling stars. The Cronkite version was themed around Tomorrow's Children, with the end of the ride showing projected pictures of children and playing the new song Tomorrow's Child.

Eventually, changes in technology demanded another refurbishment to the ride. The 1994 version kept the lighted tunnel, but changed its narrator to Jeremy Irons, the voice of Scar from the Lion King, and removed three scenes of 1980s technology at the end, changing it to show two children communicating from across the world with the help of the internet. The ending now showed colorful fiber optic cables and lights blinking in and out, instead of the old Tomorrow's Children ending scene, and the space station scene was also edited out. The picture of planet Earth in the sky was even updated with a newer clearer picture. A new score was created for this version based on Bach's Sinfonia No 2 in C Minor, which you can hear below, and compare it to the soundtrack used today.

Spaceship Earth 1994-2007 Version Soundtrack, uploaded by ResortTV1

The New Spaceship Earth Soundtrack, 2007-Present Day, uploaded by mouseworldmusic

Mickey's Magic Wand

The exterior of the ride has gone through some changes over the years as well. In the year 2000, a 25-story Mickey arm holding a magic wand was installed to celebrate the new millennium. That year, the text next to it read 2000. It was originally not supposed to stick around for that long but after that year they kept it until 2007, changing the sign to read Epcot instead.

In 2007, the ride changed sponsorship to Siemens, and rumor has it they did not believe the sign fit well with the image they wanted to project, so it was removed and parts of it were auctioned off on eBay. The area where the sign was is now covered up by palm trees and vegetation.

Spaceship Earth is a magical ride, so it made sense to have a magic wand on it!

Spaceship Earth is a magical ride, so it made sense to have a magic wand on it!

Present-Day Spaceship Earth

In 2007, Spaceship Earth received its most recent refurbishment, where it is now narrated by Dame Judi Dench. This new version of the ride features a more interactive experience for guests. Your picture and your seatmate's picture are taken with facial recognition technology at the beginning of the ride as you're going up, and at the end, as you're about to leave you can see your face on a screen, where it sends you home to where you live.

At the end of the ride, there is also a quiz at the end to determine your future. It's a fun interactive moment and can provide some funny memories, with the photograph taken at the beginning sometimes cutting off parts of your face or catching other people off guard. Once I had my eyeholes cut out, giving me a hilariously creepy surprise jumpscare at the end of the ride. It is clear that their facial recognition technology is still working out its kinks, but once it's perfected, they could probably do a lot of cool things with it on other rides. Who knows where they'll take the Disney parks next?

Some new scenes include the Ancient Greek teacher and what might be Steve Wozniak creating the Apple 1. Currently, the ride is unsponsored, as Siemens ended their sponsorship in 2017. And rumor has it, changes are coming again to EPCOT in a big way...

The Current Ride, with footage by iThemePark

This video by iThemePark shows the full ride experience as it is now, complete with the quiz at the end. I really like this version of the ride, it's very relaxing and feels more personal than the last version. I can't judge the first two versions since I wasn't even alive back then, but the fourth rendition is definitely my favorite.

The Future of Spaceship Earth

In 2020, EPCOT is getting a major overhaul with a new digital play zone in the former convention center building, a Ratatouille ride in France, and a brand new entrance area, designed to delight guests with a beautiful fountain display. Unfortunately, Spaceship Earth will be closed for refurbishment and is projected to be closed until the second half of 2022. The new version of the ride will have a new theme: Our Shared Story. It will have new scenes, a different track layout, and different loading stations. Rumor has it that everything before the industrial revolution will be scrapped, so we will no longer be thanking the Phoenicians. However, it is exciting to think about what they have in store for us. Here are some concept art images for the new EPCOT.

© 2018 Melissa Clason

Comments

DerpyPusheenLover on June 28, 2018:

I liked the article about the most famous deaths at Disney

Liz Westwood from UK on June 20, 2018:

This is a fascinating article. Our family are Disney fans, but so far we've only made it across the Channel to Disneyland Paris. Maybe one day we'll make it to the States.