Remembering the Magic: Spaceship Earth

by Jonathan Heigl, contributing writer
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This month, we are going to remember the history of the Epcot park icon, Spaceship Earth. This was an original EPCOT Center ride, opening with the park in 1982. While the ride still has the same overall message and focus today, the story being told and the scenes depicting that story have changed over the years.

There have been four narrators in the ride's history, and that is how we are going to refer to each version of Spaceship Earth. Now, let's go back in time to the beginning of the iconic Spaceship Earth.


Original Spaceship Earth logo. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Spaceship Earth is a dark, slow attraction that tells the history of communication. On an Omnimover track, the ride vehicles are on a constantly moving track, similar to other Omnimover attractions such as Haunted Mansion and The Seas with Nemo & Friends. The ride is inside of the 18-story geodesic sphere, an icon of Epcot and which most people jokingly call "the giant golf ball." The track begins at the bottom of the geosphere and winds to near the top, and then winds back down again. [Please keep in mind, as we journey through the ride scenes in the following paragraphs, the track was not just a straight track but had many turns and curves.]

Spaceship Earth, voiced by Lawrence Dobkin (October 1, 1982 – May 25, 1986)

The original ride began with guests walking up into the loading zone (just like it is today). The ride vehicles were the same as the current ones and would come around the corner. Guests would sit two to a row. Each car had two rows, so as many as four people could fit in one vehicle. As the vehicle started to round the final curve of the loading area, it would begin a slow, sharp incline up the track. In this dark, somewhat foggy area, guests would hear the voice of the ride narrator:

"Where have we come from? Where are we going? The answers begin in our past. In the dust from which we were formed, answers recorded on the walls of time. So let us journey into that past, to seek those walls, to know ourselves and to probe the destiny of our Spaceship Earth."

Commonly (but mistakenly) thought to be voiced by Vic Perrin, Lawrence Dobkin was the first narrator (according to retired Imagineer Marty Sklar in a 2008 interview).

As the incline levels out a bit, the ride vehicle enters the first scene: a very dark room with fog and projections of lightning bolts on the wall. Projections of a singular man with a spear and a projection of a mammoth show for a few seconds, then ripple away, to return a few seconds later somewhere else on the wall, and ripple away. This signified a time in our history where communication was not yet discovered. Man was alone, not working together.

The vehicles continue to move forward, to a room with prehistoric Audio-Animatronic humans in a cave dwelling, with pictures and symbols painted on the wall, our first form of communication—a way of passing on and recording knowledge so that others may learn from past experience.

The next scene depicts ancient Egypt, and has a few Audio-Animatronic characters. One of the characters pounds reeds of papyrus to make the first piece of "paper," the world's first mobile form of communication. A pharaoh dictates a message while a scribe writes it down on papyrus.

As the track curves, riders enter the Phoenician scene, where two ships meet in the water to exchange goods. One is a larger boat and the other a smaller one, but both are being held next to each other by rope. Papyrus scrolls are also exchanged here, and the Phoenicians create an alphabet in which to exchange information with different cultures they trade with.

Next is an ancient Greek theater, where two men wear masks and perform on stage. A third man stands near the back of the scene with a mask in his hand, presumably waiting to come on stage for his role.

As the ride moves forward, the next scene to come is ancient Rome. In this scene, it appears as if a centurion arrives on a chariot and is exchanging information with another man in a toga. In the back of the scene, there is a painted scene of Roman streets and buildings. Every few seconds, a projection of a horse and chariot racing through the streets is shown. Around the corner from this Rome scene is the small scene where there are Roman ruins that are burning, signifying the fall of Rome.

An Islamic scene was shown next. On the right side of the vehicle, there are some men sitting on pillows on the floor around a table. Some are reading books, another is copying. On the left of the vehicle, there is a library with bookshelves that are not quite full. A little further ahead, there are two monks who are sitting at their desks, handwriting and transcribing the Bible. The second monk has fallen asleep at his desk.

In the next scene, on the left of the vehicle, Johann Gutenberg looks over a piece of paper that has just emerged from the printing press he invented. On the right of the vehicle is Italian scenery where a man is reading a book to a couple listeners. A little further ahead, in the same scene, musicians are playing in front of a large door. Back over on the left of the vehicle across from the musicians is a studio, where a few artists are working; one on mixing paint, another on painting a picture of fruit, and another chiseling a sculpture of a woman. Further ahead is a scene from the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo lies on his back on scaffolding, painting the ceiling of the chapel.

The next scenes are about the Age of Invention (19th through 20th centuries). The first scene takes place on the left of the vehicles and is a large steam-powered printing press. A man looks over the printed newspaper to check it for quality. A boy stands on the corner of a street selling the newspapers. On the right of the vehicles, there is a scene where a man is telegraphing what another man is dictating. Back over on the left of the vehicles is a scene where three women are operators at a switchboard.

A little further ahead, on the right of the vehicles, is an old cinema scene, where a woman is inside the ticket booth. Inside of the theater is a rotation of clips from a few black-and-white movies. Across from this scene is a radio station where a man and a woman are in the studio acting out a scene. There is another man outside of the studio at a sound board. Next to this scene is a radio tower with a blinking red light, and another made to look like it is in the distance. Around the red light at the top of the foremost tower are "visible radio waves" radiating out. Next to this scene is a family's living room, where the father, mother, and daughter sit around a TV. There are four other TVs hanging on the wall behind the main TV.

Further ahead is a small bedroom from the 1970s, where a young man sits at his desk, working on a computer. In the following scene, set in the 1980s, a woman sits at her desk, talking on a phone and using a computer.

The scene after that is the Network Operations Center, where there were three large maps show and monitor network and satellite operations. The map on the left is of Florida, the second of the United States, and the third mapof the world as if you were looking down on a globe from over top of the North Pole. A man sits in front of these large maps at a control desk, and a woman sits at a desk next to him. The two are presumably monitoring the status of the network and satellites.

After this scene, the vehicles enter a tunnel where lines of light furiously race back and forth on the ceiling and the walls. This was presumably a "hyperspeed exit from time into space" as once the vehicle exited the tunnel, the entire surroundings were dark, with stars dotting in the black sky and the planet Earth visible in the near distance. At this point, the riders are at the top of the geosphere. As the vehicles make a slow curve around the top of the geosphere, riders got ready for "their return trip to Earth" by rotating so that the vehicle was pointed backwards. The riders would then experience the rest of the ride moving forward but facing backward.

The first scene on the descent is on the right side and shows what looks like clouds of gases in  blues, reds, and purples. Going a little bit further down the descent, more screens are shown with criss-crossing lines, like a grid and simulation of moving lines or dots, sort of like circuitry animation. Just a little further down are more screens with footage of a spaceship taking off and computer animated planets. Toward the end of the descent, both walls are mirrored, and string lights hang vertically, making the lights look like they were going further back deeper forever. The vehicles would slowly rotate back to face forward and the vehicles would arrive at the unloading zone.

After leaving the unloading zone, guests would exit out into Earth Station, where Epcot's original Guest Relations was located. A system called WorldKey was here, and with this system, guests could talk to real cast members over video to make restaurant reservations or ask questions. When the terminals were not used for making reservations, guests could get information on other pavilions, or locations of shops, restaurants, and restrooms. On the second floor, above this area, was the lounge for employees of the sponsoring company, originally Bell Systems.

Bell Systems had broken up into smaller companies in 1984, so its parent company, AT&T, took over sponsorship of Spaceship Earth. A few years later, the ride received a new narrator…

Spaceship Earth version 2, voiced by Walter Cronkite (May 26, 1986 – August 15, 1994)

The second version of Spaceship Earth featured the voice of Walter Cronkite as the narrator. In addition to the change in narrator, the script had changed, and there were also some other fairly minor changes to the ride itself. The scenes stayed pretty much the same.

The fog machine in the tunnel where the ride starts to climb the first hill (after the loading area) was removed, and was replaced with twinkling lights (signifying stars). "Tomorrow's Child," the new theme song for the ride, was added to the descent at the end. During the song, images (abstract; more of a colored object in the shape of a child's body, not real bodies/faces) of children were projected onto the screens.

Spaceship Earth version 3, voiced by Jeremy Irons (November 23, 1994 – July 9, 2007)

Future World in Epcot was being re-Imagineered in 1994, and involved a somewhat drastic change to Spaceship Earth. The musical score, script, and narrator changed; Jeremy Irons was the new narrator. Three of the ending scenes before the descent (boy in his bedroom with a computer set in the 1980s, a woman's 1980s office, and the NOC scene) were all removed, and in their place was one large scene where a boy in America was using the Internet (and his computer) to communicate via video chat with a girl in Asia. The descent was totally changed, as now there were multiple, somewhat large screens overhead as the riders exited the view from outer space, and these screens showed newscasts from all over the world.

As the vehicles moved further down the descent, a scene on the left showed a teacher with three students playing an educational simulation game.

Further down the descent, on the right, riders passed a starfield, clouds and occasional lightning strike projections. Then a little further, there were four more scenes. The first was a daughter in bed with her father tucking her in, while her mother was (presumably in a hotel somewhere else) says goodnight and sings her lullabies over a video phone. A second scene shows a student (Dr. Nap) receiving her diploma while her grandparents watch via video phone. The third scene was a pregnant woman in a hospital bed. Her husband and son are next to her, and a nurse doing a sonogram with a doctor observing via video phone from a remote location. In the last scene, an archaeologist is showing a remote colleague some of his finds using a video phone and holograms.

A city-scape is shown with fiber-optic light transmissions racing across wires, bridges, and buildings, signifying the sharing of communication and information due to the Internet network. As the descent continues, riders enter a dark tunnel. In this tunnel, streams of fiber-optic light (in a way sort of resembling a dust cloud) move from front to back and circle an Earth globe that hangs off to the side. The vehicles then rotate back to their normal position, and guests would disembark.

Earth Station was renamed The Global Neighborhood, which better aligned with AT&T's marketing at the time. In 1999, it was again renamed to The New Global Neighborhood, with all-new, interactive, hands-on post-show games and information. AT&T ended its sponsorship on January 1, 2003. Over the subsequent years, references to AT&T are removed and The New Global Neighborhood area was boarded up.

In 2005, it was announced that Siemens would take over sponsorship. On April 11, 2007, a major refurbishment for Spaceship Earth was announced. Two weeks later, the previous The New Global Neighborhood area was re-opened as Project Tomorrow: Inventing the Wonders of the Future, with all new interactive games and informational kiosks. On July 9, 2007, Spaceship Earth closed and began refurbishment to its current version.

Spaceship Earth version 4.0, voiced by Dame Judi Dench (February 15, 2008* – Present)

*Guest previews began in late 2007.

The script was updated for this version, with many references to technology. Dame Judi Dench was now the narrator. There were a lot of changes on the ride itself too. The ride vehicles include interactive touch screen. The screen asks riders to select their preferred language when they board, and then asks where they came from. The user can then touch the map on the screen. As the vehicles start to climb the incline on the way to the first scene, a camera take the picture of each rider, to be used later on. The screens turn off for the remainder of the ride until the descent.

Most of the scenes in the ride remain the same (with some enhancements) until the ending part of the ride (before the descent). In addition to updates to most of the animatronic figures, enhancements include:

  • The first scene – where one person is hunting a mammoth, the video projection system was updated (and thus the video being projected)
  • The second scene – the cave where a few people are gathered, there are some animated cave wall drawings (they move).
  • The Greek scene – now portrays a teacher and a few students; it is no longer a play being performed.
  • The Roman scene – the projection of the chariot racing down the street is no longer shown.
  • The Renaissance scenes – are a little different. Now, a man is painting fruit and the sculpted woman is a little more "covered up" with some unsculpted clay covering her original upper torso area.
  • The man inspecting the newspaper in the printing press scene (the steam powered printing press after the Sistine Chapel scene) – now wears glasses and has a moustache.
  • The paperboy who was previously facing the ride vehicles – now faces the background.
  • The radio station scene – only has one person in the recording booth.
  • The cinema scene – has one large screen showing the black and white clips of Jesse Owens.
  • The scene where the American boy was communicating with the Asian girl – now gone. In this place is a 1980s computer/server room, and after this scene, there is a car parked outside of a garage where inside, a man is working on inventing the personal computer.
  • The tunnel where the vehicles enter and "rocket" into space and view Earth and the stars has now changed to a Matrix-like style with alphanumerics scrolling through the tunnel.
  • All of the scenes in the descent – now gone in favor of vertical strings of light in front of mirrors on a wall, making it look like they go on forever. This was done mainly because the focus of the riders would turn to the interactive screens.

During the descent, the screens would turn on, and it was time for the riders to build their future. Riders would have to answer a few different questions, such as what their favorite future mode of transportation would be, where they would like to live in the future (city, country), and so on. All of the answers were then used to form the scene for the rider's future. This is an animated video (with the riders face) that would show them what the future holds in store for them, based on their answers. It is a tongue-in-cheek, cartoonish video. By the time the users are done answering the questions and watching the video, it is just about time for the vehicles to spin back around to face the front, and the riders can then disembark. In the Project Tomorrow area (post-show), the riders can see their animated characters from the video they were shown placed on the map that shows where they are from on the huge screen, and also the screens that surround the area at the top of the walls.

My verdict – revert, update, leave alone, or re-imagine?

This one is tough for me because there are things I like from the Jeremy Irons version and also the current version. I prefer Jeremy Irons as the narrator as well as the script he read. I also prefer the descent scenes in the Jeremy Irons version. However, with the current version, I like the interactivity and I like the updated animatronics and video projections. Therefore, officially, I think I would have to side with a revert back to the Jeremy Irons version, based on the script, his voice as narrator, and the descent scenes. The descent now is very plain and dull (besides the interactive screen use).

What are your thoughts? Leave your comments below! Thanks for reading!

Comments

  1. By Boundyman

    I've seen all 4 version and liked them all. Don't care who the narrator is because I can't see him/her anyway. What I would change though, is the focus of the ride. While the current ride's theme is about all technology; communication, transportation, medicine, energy, and so forth; it still focuses heavily on communication. It needs to make the scenes focus on all equally. For example, in the caveman scene I would keep the Shawman talking and the people painting on wall for Communication, and add a man inventing shoes (Transportation), a man discovering fire (Energy), a woman badging up a hunter's wound (Medicine). And then other scene can be taken out, like burning of Rome, and replaced with new scenes, the invention of the wheel. As for the descent, I think it just needs some color added that won't distract us from the screen.

  2. By DisneyGator

    I like that it has changed. My first trip was in 2002, with 2 more trips with Jeremy Irons. When it was redone, I like the subtle change. The ride was the same, but the details had improved. I'm a Bond fan, so hearing Dench's voice is almost soothing to me. The upgraded scenes definitely keeps the ride current instead of seeming like an old attraction - you can keep a ride like Pirates or Haunted Mansion "feeling old", but you can't do that with a ride design to tell the story of advancements. As for the interactive part at the end, I actually like it better than the scenes that were there....as long as I'm not doing the ride too often. Then it can become boring. Overall, I like the new version of SSE. Especially the fantastic musical score. In fact, I think I'll head over to youtube right now and give it a listen.

  3. By duke68012

    I must admit I too preferred Jeremy Irons as the narrator but I prefer the update on the scenes in the latest version. However I heavily dislike the interactive screens, I feel they should either have been properly integrated into the attraction throughout or not used at all. I go to Disney to be immersed in the experience, for me its a break away from screens and personal gadgets. I feel that they are a bit of a waste.

  4. By jheigl

    Quote Originally Posted by Boundyman View Post
    I've seen all 4 version and liked them all. Don't care who the narrator is because I can't see him/her anyway. What I would change though, is the focus of the ride. While the current ride's theme is about all technology; communication, transportation, medicine, energy, and so forth; it still focuses heavily on communication. It needs to make the scenes focus on all equally. For example, in the caveman scene I would keep the Shawman talking and the people painting on wall for Communication, and add a man inventing shoes (Transportation), a man discovering fire (Energy), a woman badging up a hunter's wound (Medicine). And then other scene can be taken out, like burning of Rome, and replaced with new scenes, the invention of the wheel. As for the descent, I think it just needs some color added that won't distract us from the screen.
    I think I might be misunderstanding you, or perhaps you might be misunderstanding Spaceship Earth. The main focus of the ride IS communication. It doesn't really have a direct focus on transportation, technology, medicine, etc. While some of those are mentioned or touched upon, they are in regards to communication. For example, the cave scene is about communication by writing pictures/symbols on the cave walls. The Egypt scene is the hieroglyphics and papyrus, Greek scene is on the theater, 80s server/computer room is about the invention of the computer and how it would lead to global communication, etc. Spaceship Earth aims to show how communication has built the future, one step at a time. I'm not sure adding in other topics for focus would stay true to the original idea and aim of Spaceship Earth, but if they wanted to adjust the focus a little bit, your ideas would certainly make sense!

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneyGator View Post
    I like that it has changed. My first trip was in 2002, with 2 more trips with Jeremy Irons. When it was redone, I like the subtle change. The ride was the same, but the details had improved. I'm a Bond fan, so hearing Dench's voice is almost soothing to me. The upgraded scenes definitely keeps the ride current instead of seeming like an old attraction - you can keep a ride like Pirates or Haunted Mansion "feeling old", but you can't do that with a ride design to tell the story of advancements. As for the interactive part at the end, I actually like it better than the scenes that were there....as long as I'm not doing the ride too often. Then it can become boring. Overall, I like the new version of SSE. Especially the fantastic musical score. In fact, I think I'll head over to youtube right now and give it a listen.
    The improved details are certainly much welcome, at least to me, however, I feel the script is (to put it bluntly) "dumbed down" and not quite as "educational" or "informational" as previous ones, especially the Jeremy Irons version. As mentioned below by DisneyGator, the removal of the descent scenes in favor of screens is not something I was thrilled with as I also feel it removes a little bit of the Disney magic and the full immersion that I tend to look for in a Disney ride. I think Dame Judi Dench does an excellent job with the script she was given, however, I feel it is weaker than previous scripts.

    Quote Originally Posted by duke68012 View Post
    I must admit I too preferred Jeremy Irons as the narrator but I prefer the update on the scenes in the latest version. However I heavily dislike the interactive screens, I feel they should either have been properly integrated into the attraction throughout or not used at all. I go to Disney to be immersed in the experience, for me its a break away from screens and personal gadgets. I feel that they are a bit of a waste.

    Great point. As I mentioned above, I agree 100%. I, too, want to be immersed in the experience and feel that the screens take away from that, at least in their current use. If they were to use them throughout the ride, like you were mentioning, then perhaps I would feel different!

    Thanks, all, for your comments!

  5. By spectromen

    Nothing will replace the Irons version - from the mystic narration to the much better music. I miss it greatly and constantly hunt for signs that the old descent is still there behind those fabric curtains.

  6. By yedliw

    I have only seen the Dench version, and I like it. I like the sound of Jeremy Iron's voice, so that would be cool, but Judy Dench does well too. The one question I have every time I ride it, is whose garage is it? Is it Jobs/Woz? Gates/Balmer? Hewlett/Packard? (did I miss someone?) I can't ever read the mailbox to know.. Is it even a specific one, or is it just representing all the tech firms that started out as garage projects?

  7. By jheigl

    Quote Originally Posted by yedliw View Post
    I have only seen the Dench version, and I like it. I like the sound of Jeremy Iron's voice, so that would be cool, but Judy Dench does well too. The one question I have every time I ride it, is whose garage is it? Is it Jobs/Woz? Gates/Balmer? Hewlett/Packard? (did I miss someone?) I can't ever read the mailbox to know.. Is it even a specific one, or is it just representing all the tech firms that started out as garage projects?

    I believe the official response to this question would be that it is not anyone's garage in particular. I have seen this same thing asked of one of the Disney Execs, mostly in regards to the animatronic figure, and they say it is not one specific person, but a likeness of the typical person from that time period.

  8. By jheigl

    Quote Originally Posted by spectromen View Post
    Nothing will replace the Irons version - from the mystic narration to the much better music. I miss it greatly and constantly hunt for signs that the old descent is still there behind those fabric curtains.

    I very much liked the Jeremy Irons version as well. It would be great to be able to go in there on a tour or something and look behind those curtains!

  9. By Boundyman

    The Guy in the Garage is Steve Jobs. They just assume you already know the history of personal computers and don't mention it.

  10. By Boundyman

    Quote Originally Posted by jheigl View Post
    I think I might be misunderstanding you, or perhaps you might be misunderstanding Spaceship Earth. The main focus of the ride IS communication. It doesn't really have a direct focus on transportation, technology, medicine, etc. While some of those are mentioned or touched upon, they are in regards to communication. For example, the cave scene is about communication by writing pictures/symbols on the cave walls. The Egypt scene is the hieroglyphics and papyrus, Greek scene is on the theater, 80s server/computer room is about the invention of the computer and how it would lead to global communication, etc. Spaceship Earth aims to show how communication has built the future, one step at a time. I'm not sure adding in other topics for focus would stay true to the original idea and aim of Spaceship Earth, but if they wanted to adjust the focus a little bit, your ideas would certainly make sense!

    When Siemens became the sponsor the theme was supposed to change to technologies for everything. That's why the interactive screen does technologies of the future rather than future of communication technology. Its also why interactive area has games focusing on Transportation, Energy, and Medical technologies.

  11. By jheigl

    Quote Originally Posted by Boundyman View Post
    The Guy in the Garage is Steve Jobs. They just assume you already know the history of personal computers and don't mention it.

    From all reports I have seen over the years, the guy in the garage is "a nod to all of the innovators of the time". Most people also believe that it more closely resembles Steve Wozniak, who was really the inventor of the Apple computer (in terms of designing and building the hardware; Steve Jobs was really more of the salesman for it). He was the one who built the first Apple computer in the garage, and the figure most closely resembles him, although officially the figure is not designed to be any one person in particular.

  12. By yedliw

    Quote Originally Posted by Boundyman View Post
    The Guy in the Garage is Steve Jobs. They just assume you already know the history of personal computers and don't mention it.

    That isn't a very safe assumption.. especially since HP, and MS were both started in a garage with 2 people as well.. contrary to popular belief, the tech world doesn't revolve around Cupertino..

  13. By worldlover71

    I would be fine with the current version (even the descent which I don't love) if they would find a way to incorporate even a snippet of Tomorrow's Child. I really miss all the Classic Epcot songs.

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