Some Secrets of Spaceship Earth

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

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.

Evil Twins in Spaceship Earth

Audio-animatronics figures are expensive, so the Disney Company found that they could do "value creation" by re-using the expressive robotic husks in other attractions. Thomas Jefferson from Epcot's American Adventure pops up as the sheriff on the balcony shooting at the bank robbers in the Western scene of the Great Movie Ride. Several pirates who had escaped from the Caribbean can be glimpsed in the gangster scene just moments earlier.

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:

  • Shaman – Chief Joe/American Adventure
  • Egyptian Priest – William Taft/Hall of Presidents
  • Phoenician Sea Captain – Store Owner/American Adventure
  • Centurion – Zachary Taylor/Hall of Presidents
  • Roman Senator – Teddy Roosevelt/Hall of Presidents
  • Turk (front/right) – John Tyler/Hall of Presidents
  • Sitting Scholar – Franklin Pierce/Hall of Presidents
  • Writing Monk – John Adams/Hall of Presidents
  • Printer Pulling Tray – Andrew Jackson/Hall of Presidents
  • Gutenberg – James Buchanan/Hall of Presidents
  • Printer Pressing – Andrew Carnegie/American Adventure
  • Mandolin Player – Dwight D. Eisenhower/Hall of Presidents
  • Steam Press Operator – Banjo Player/American Adventure
  • Telegraph Operator – Matthew Brady/American Adventure
  • Reporter/Telegraph – Store Owner/American Adventure
  • Sound Engineer – Matthew Brady/American Adventure).

Authentic Props

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.

  • Cro-Magnon Scene – The animal skulls in this scene include a saber-toothed tiger, a lion, a cave bear and two dire wolves. They were cast from molds of actual animals in the Paleolithic collection of the Page Museum, Los Angeles.
  • Egyptian Scene – The hieroglyphics are accurate and the gods Anubis, Soker, and Thoth are all represented. The translation of the hieroglyphics takes up several pages. The words being dictated by the pharaoh in this scene were taken from an actual letter by a pharaoh to one of his agents. "Royal decree to the royal scribe and vizier Ammon Hotep…may he live, be happy and prosperous. Lo, everyone who shall make petition to vizier concerning fields, the vizier shall order him (to come) to him—in addition to listening to the overseer of lands and the officials of the cadastre. He shall hear every petitioner according to this law which is in his hand."
  • Roman Scene – The Latin inscription which appears at the entrance to the Roman scene comes from the first of The Twelve Tables of Roman Law that were codified about 451 B.C.E. and were regarded by later Romans as the foundation of all their laws. The laws were originally written on bronze tablets and placed in the marketplace for all to see and discuss. The statue in the Roman scene is Augustus. The graffiti which appears on the walls in the "Fall of Rome" also appeared on the walls of ancient Pompeii and was taken from a collection of graffiti titled Loves and Lovers of Ancient Pompeii by professor Matteo Della Corte. One example is "Quisquis amat pereat" that translates to "May whoever loves perish!"
  • Islamic Scene – The astronomer on the balcony holds a quadrant reproduced from photos of a 10th century Islamic quadrant supplied by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Medieval Scene – Mary Robertson, the curator of Rare Manuscripts of the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., was consulted regarding creation of manuscripts during the Middle Ages.
  • Gutenberg Scene – Carey Bliss, the curator of Rare Books of the Huntington Library, was consulted regarding the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. In the Spaceship Earth scene, the page Herr Gutenberg is examining was recreated from a page from the actual original Gutenberg Bible in the Huntington Library collection.
  • Renaissance Scene – The statue behind the mentor in the Renaissance scene is Sophocles. It is believed that the original marble statue was copied from a 4th century B.C.E. prototype in the Dionysus theater in Athens. The statue in the Renaissance workshop does not represent a specific work of art, but represents the art of the period.
  • Renaissance Music – Experts in the field of Renaissance musicology like Genette Foster from Occidental College in Los Angeles were engaged to consult and perform the music in this scene. The male musician is shown playing the lute and the female musician is playing the lira da braccio.
  • Steam Press/Newspaper – The steam press, which dominates the newspaper scene, was designed from the actual patent drawings filed by William Bullock in 1863. The newspaper is a reproduction of the "New York Daily."
  • Telegraph Scene – The calendar in the telegraph scene is a copy of a calendar from 1867 by Hatch and Co. Lithographers supplied by the Smithsonian Institution, from the collection of Business Americana.
  • Telephone – The magneto switchboard was fabricated from an actual model circa 1898, supplied by AT&T.

Sounds of the Past – Cro-Magnon Scene

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."

Entrance Mural

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.



  1. By Avant Gardens

    "air cannons only onto the ride path to minimize air-conditioning costs" .... Hey! Maybe thats what the retail spaces need so they can go back to keeping the front doors open.

  2. By danyoung

    I was proud to ride Spaceship Earth during the first week of E.P.C.O.T.'s opening. I remember it broke down a lot. I remember this well, as I had the sunburn of my life, and the steep angle of the cars meant that I had to lean back on my surnburned shoulders quite a bit while waiting for the vehicle to start up again!

  3. By Jim Korkis

    One of the questions that often comes my way is where do I find all this information. I worked especially hard trying to find material for a series of Epcot Center columns that is not generally available or known to Disney fans.

    I worked at Epcot for a decade. I was working for Disney Adult Discoveries (the Disney Institute group that developed tours and programs for conventions and guests like BACKSTAGE MAGIC and INNOVATIONS IN ACTION). After seeing the success of tours at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Guest Relations wanted to develop an Epcot tour. I was loaned out to help and to write one-fourth of a new tour I called "unDiscovered Future World" (since at the time Epcot was considered the "Discovery" park). I turned in my section and they liked it so much that I ended up writing the entire tour and becoming part of Epcot Guest Relations. I struggled to research information (and interview cast members who were there since opening) since even in 2000 so much material had already been lost. Over the years, there were changes to the tour as the park changed. Two Epcot Guest Relations cast members Brad Anderson (an underappreciated cast member) and Glen Lewis added to the new scripts. I have not seen the current script but I was told alot of my material still remains. I also trained cast members to do the tour and faciliatated the tour myself for two years.

    Epcot Guest Relations had to pay big money to have Walt Disney Imagineering review my original script...they found only one small change they wanted made. (That's a story for another time.)

    I used some of the research I did for that tour in today's article like the comments from Dave Venables. Venables and John Kemp gave me some amazing insights into the opening of Epcot. So many great stories that I can't even include a fraction of them in these columns.

    Other sources I used for today's article include:

    "Spaceship Earth Research, a description of authentic props, inscriptions, dialogue translations, listing of consultants and selected reading" put together in October 1982 by Peggie Fariss at WED Enterprises. That was the source for alot of the information on the Cro-Magnon scene including the dialog and the translation. The document itself is over 200 pages long and includes detailed descriptions of every individual movement by every audio-animatronics character in the attraction.

    "The Epcot Center Adventure" handbook was given to cast members as part of their training in 1982-83 as "an ambassadorof the Spirit of Epcot" and we were still using it for reference over a decade later when we developed programming at Disney Adult Discoveries. I got some of the information about props from that resource.

    How did I know the supports or Spaceship Earth were supposed to be welcoming arms? Well, Imagineer John Hench was talking about it in one of the four supplements in the Sunday, October 24,1982 edition of the Orlando Sentinel. (Specifically, the Technology and Future World sections gave me some more info about the attraction.)

    I've got a copy of Epcot Center: A Profile (with the original letter from Dick Nunis) given to opening cast members so I got the names of the consultants to the attraction and what they consulted on. I've got a set of the Epcot Center News Briefs that were given daily to cast members beginning September 1, 1982 and running through October. The one for September 2 (Vol. 1 No. 2) was an entire article on Spaceship Earth. Issues of WED/MAPO Imaginews had some information. Not just the Orlando Sentinel but the Miami Herald had articles for the entire year leading up to the opening.

    Of course I went to the usual suspects as well, like the first edition of Walt Disney's Epcot Center by Richard Beard, the original thin edition with concept art instead of photos, David Koenig's RealityLand (which should be in any WDW fan's library), Jeff Kurtti's Since the World Began and more.

    THEN I phoned my contacts in California and Florida who were worked on Epcot and tried to verify the information I found elsewhere. Just because a cast member is told something doesn't mean it is true. Lots of legends (like cast members getting sunburned off the reflection of Spaceship Earth) were told to me as absolute truth when I first joined Guest Relations.

    I should charge Mouseplanet by the hour and then I could afford a mansion and a yacht. I do this because I want this information preserved and shared. I do this because I want the readers to have something more than just the rehash of things that are out there. I write these columns because I want to share what few pieces of the Disney history jigsaw puzzle I have in hopes that others can add to it.

    Somebody wrote me about where the information came from because it sounded like a Disney document. Certainly material that appears in the article came from a variety of Disney documents and that information may have been reprinted elsewhere but when I started researching today's column, I certainly couldn't find it except in the material I have already cited.

    In the coming weeks there will be three more Epcot Center columns filled with stories you may never have heard before....I just wanted to assure readers that the stuff is documented AND checked. However, it is material from that specific time period. Over the decades, things have changed and will continue to change. To the best of my knowledge (like the stories of Danny Kaye's unusual behavior when he was filming the opening special) have never appeared in print.

  4. By a71678

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Korkis View Post
    So many great stories that I can't even include a fraction of them in these columns.

    So that means they might fit nicely into a new book, maybe...?

    No matter what I get under the Christmas tree this year, it won't compare to the thrill of ripping the paper off the copy of "The Vault of Walt" I received last year. I've yet to read a Disney book that compares--and I've read a LOT of them!

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