When EPCOT Center opened in 1982, the icon for the new Disney theme park was Spaceship Earth that dominated the entrance. It served as the primary landmark and could be seen throughout Future World and World Showcase. It had a dramatic entranceway where guests were given the effect of going up into Spaceship Earth rather than just walking in through a doorway in its side.
This largest geodesic sphere in the world is 165 feet in diameter and 180 feet to the top covered by 954 triangular panels of alucobond (anodized aluminum on both sides heat-bonded with a polyethylene core in the center) and is supported 15 feet off the ground by six steel legs driven deep into the ground. The structure seems to be floating.
Spaceship Earth is actually two separate spherical structures, one inside the other. The inner sphere is composed of 1,450 structural steel members arranged in a giant triangular fashion and is the weatherproof enclosure for the show. The inner core also contains decking at several levels and a spiral route for Spaceship Earth's ride system.
The outer sphere façade is held about 2-feet away from the inner core by aluminum hubs. A gutter was developed about mid-point on the sphere to collect rainwater and channel it through the structure and its supporting legs to underground drains to eventually replenish the World Showcase lagoon. In that way, the water does not cascade down the side of Spaceship Earth onto the guests below.
Alucobond was chosen for the exterior because even after accelerated time testing for weathering, there was no discernable deterioration of the finish. In fact, the panels remained smoother than glass. Technicians even created artificial lightning to test the effect of strikes on the paneling. At the time, Disney claimed that the panels were "self cleaning" but, in reality, today they are pressure washed.
From a thematic perspective, alucobond was selected so that during the day, it would mirror the sky and the landscape as well as glimpses of the guests on the walkways. At night, it was to glint with the sparkle and illumination of the galaxies, the stars and the planets that it was supposed to emulate.
To minimize air-conditioning costs, air cannons direct cool air only onto the 1,552-foot ride path so that guests don't feel the heat and humidity just a few feet away.
Affable Dave Venable, who later became the general manager and vice president of Epcot, and who was there during the opening months, once assured me that there was no truth to the urban legend that the surface of Spaceship Earth was so highly polished and reflective that, originally, it would ignite the surrounding landscape on fire as the setting sun hit it. He also assured me that the legend that you might get severely sunburned by the reflection from Spaceship Earth, if you stood in a certain location near the World of Motion attraction, was also false.
Before considering a geodesic sphere, different design structures were considered for Spaceship Earth, including the Roman Parthenon in the second century, the dome of Saint Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican (150 feet high and 107 feet in diameter) and the 125-foot diameter steel frame supporting a map of the world at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. A golden geodesic dome, inspired by the Expo '67 dome in Montreal, was also seriously considered.
However, Imagineers kept coming back to the 180-foot, non-geodesic perisphere built for the 1939 New York World's Fair that was supported by eight legs just barely off the ground.
Project designer Gordon Hoopes remembered that the process began with drawings and models.
"At first the models were simple Styrofoam blocks to give our project designers an idea of the general layout," he said. "As the design progressed, the models were upgraded to reflect any changes. Eventually, with models, renderings and working drawings, the design was complete."
Imagineer John Hench told reporter Laura Kavesh in The Orlando Sentinel of October 24, 1982, "The columns of Spaceship Earth are constructed to reach out like beckoning arms. I defy anyone who is depressed to still be depressed when they walk through there. We do all this from experience. Walt did it from intuition. It's designed to say, 'You're OK. You're going to be OK.' We as humans must make sense of things or we feel threatened."
Science fiction author Ray Bradbury developed a preliminary story treatment and this concept was taken to Dr. Fred Williams, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. Nineteen pages of reference books were involved in shaping the final story.
A timeline of significant events in the history of communication was developed, with 17 scenes eventually selected. Experts from many different fields were consulted to make each scene as authentic as possible.
The show was to represent the evolution of man's ability to communicate and its importance in mankind's survival. Guests would leave a "time station" and board a four passenger "time machine" to discover the answers as to how man learned to communicate. Basically, guests explored the highlights of 40,000 years in approximately 12 minutes. Cave walls became library walls, and library walls became electronic displays.
"From the stone age to the information age" was the phrase used to describe the attraction.
At the conclusion, the narrator, using language suggested by Bradbury, intoned, "Ours is the age of knowledge, the age of choice and opportunity. Tomorrow's world approaches, so let us listen and learn, let us explore and question—and understand."
As we prepare for Epcot's 30th anniversary celebration in a few weeks, here are some secrets about Spaceship Earth that was originally sponsored by Bell System/AT&T. (Bell System underwent a re-organization in the early 1980s with AT&T emerging as its own separate company.)
From the AT&T Archives, The opening of Spaceship Earth and a glimpse of the Official First Epcot Family. YouTube video (c) AT&T.
The attraction was officially dedicated on October 1, 1982, the same day that EPCOT Center first opened to the public. Card Walker, chairman of Walt Disney Productions said, "Communications is the beginning of understanding and thus fitting of the park's marquee attraction."
In less than a week, more than 100,000 guests had ridden the attraction. Within the first year of operation, nearly 7.5 million guests had ridden the attraction, letting it claim the honor of the largest attendance of any attraction at all of Walt Disney World that year.
While some may wonder how former U.S. Presidents stay busy after their term in office, Spaceship Earth demonstrates that they are recruited to perform new roles wearing new wardrobes.
Here is the 1982 WED Enterprises/Imagineering list of re-used Audio-Animatronics figures in Spaceship Earth:
Spaceship Earth was not meant to be a museum, but many of the props and inscriptions are authentic reproductions. Imagineer John Hench insisted that the props in the attraction be reproductions of the real thing or the closest approximation that could be created. Here are a handful of examples to look for on future visits to the attraction.
According to a statement by WED Enterprises/Imagineering in 1982: "With respect to the ancient languages spoken by Audio-Animatronics figures in the early scenes, we have worked with scholars who reconstruct these languages from the distant and now silent past. Here, the difficulty is that no one can know exactly how the languages once sounded. Even in our own language, a written work may have many different pronunciations as well as meanings and to compound this difficulty, the Phoenicians, for example, only recorded the consonants of their words."
Personally, I have always had a fascination with the Cro-Magnon Scene. The scene demonstrates two important forms of communication. The Shaman communicates verbally by telling the story of the hunt. A cave artist permanently records the event on the walls of the cave providing the oldest example of recorded communication.
It is not only a story of the necessity of collaboration of people to defeat a mastodon but to share information. According to the original WED description, it is indeed a mastodon and not a mammoth, although the two have similarities.
Cro-Magnon refers to people of the Upper Paleolithic period who settled in Europe 30,000-40,000 years ago. Cro-Magnon artists produced naturalistic paintings of animals in more than 100 caves of France and Northern Spain. The Shaman was the medicine man with magical powers and abilities to communicate with spirits through trance and ritual.
According to the official script, this is what the Shaman is saying:
"Mahree mooteer…Bahl skeetom
Madostee eelgar eelgar olk
Eem bahlo…Erksma erkeems
Erkweendahl felahges oomuhday
Heedo eelahges merk freer eelgahr
Feer madostee olk om feero
Eesto eelsteh orombo kail
Madostee oombahday madostee oombady
Oombady ahee recondorall"
To help out the poor voice actor who had to provide some meaning through the intonation of his voice, this is the rough translation:
"Many moon times ago…in the bleak skytime (just before dawn), a great mastodon came to this valley…he destroyed the trees, the bushes, and the small animals with his wild strength.
"We all ran away from him in terror.
"Then we made a great fire. We surrounded him with our torches of fire and then the mastodon became afraid and he ran from us.
"Then, in our valley—we were no longer afraid."
As guests entered Spaceship Earth, they were impressed by the entrance mural measuring 24 feet by 18 feet. It was painted by Claudio Mozzoli from Milano, Italy and took two months to complete. NASA provided the research for the astronaut suit that was shown and also information on the spaceship and satellite that were represented. The mural depicted two different aspects of communications: The development of communications over time, from the period of the caveman to future man, and communications over distance from earth to satellites.
Coming Up: We continue our celebration of EPCOT Center in 1982 as we approach the 30th birthday on October 1, 2012.
(Send an email to Jim Korkis)
Jim Korkis grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Jim describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.
From 2006 to 2010, Jim wrote under the pseudonym of Wade Sampson. He finally revealed his true identity in September of 2010. Those articles can be found here.