My Disney Top 5 - Things to Love About Epcot's Spaceship Earthby Chris Barry, contributing writer
Welcome back to another Disney Top 5. As always I hope you are all well and safe out there in these crazy times.
Speaking of crazy times, as I was considering what to write for this installment of Top 5 I realized that it's been one whole year since all this pandemic madness began. I was perusing through my old articles looking for some things to talk about that I, hopefully, haven't covered before here on MousePlanet and I realized that just about a year ago I was writing a series exploring each of the Walt Disney World attractions up close. March 6, 2020, in particular, was where I put the brakes on that series with my Top 5 Things I Love About Storybook Circus in the Magic Kingdom. That was the last area in the Magic Kingdom that I had to cover and it was an area that I had pretty much ignored since its opening in 2012, mostly because my kids were older now and there was very little reason for us to head back to that corner of the park. My sons and I made a point of visiting Storybook Circus back in the Fall of 2019 – which was regrettably our last trip to Walt Disney World so far thanks to COVID. We were there during Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party in an attempt to get a photo with all of the Seven Dwarfs at once, something you can only do during the Halloween season and only at the nighttime event. The line was way too long for us, but we spent some time wandering around this oft-neglected land and enjoying the rich details and nods to early Disney animated shorts.
My goal with that series was to cap off the Magic Kingdom and then head on over to Epcot and start taking a crack at writing a Top 5 list based on each and every Epcot attraction. The pandemic sort of sidetracked me, as it did for many of us in oh so many ways. I didn't feel like writing about being in Walt Disney World so much when I couldn't really be there. As most of us Disney aficionados will admit, when we're not at Disney, we're probably planning our next visit whether or not we have an official return date or not. I thought it kind of counter-productive to count down my favorite things about Walt Disney World attractions if I couldn't actually be there and had no idea when the next time is that I would be there. I also wondered if you readers out there felt the same way, so I put that series on hold. Now that it's been a year and I'm missing the place a whole lot more – I didn't think that was even possible – it's time to get back to my series of Top 5s honoring specific attractions. I did all of the Magic Kingdom back then – except for The Hall of Presidents which I still haven't stepped foot in and the Tomorrowland Speedway, which, in full apology to its fans, I deeply regret hasn't been bulldozed over to make more room for Tron. With Magic Kingdom done, it's time to move onto the "second" Walt Disney World park, Epcot.
Quite simply stated, and it's a line I've written many, many times here on MousePlanet, there's just nothing else like Epcot. One could argue that there are several "Magic Kingdoms" throughout the world. The Universal Studios theme parks are sort of in the same camp as Disney's Hollywood Studios. And I'm selling it short for the purposes of making a point here, but Animal Kingdom does share qualities of some of the finer zoos in the world like The Bronx Zoo and the San Diego Zoo, not too mention a nearby competitor like Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Don't get me wrong, the comparisons for the Studios and Animal Kingdom are a bit of a stretch, but I hope you get my point. Epcot, on the other hand, has no equal – not since the grand World's Fairs stopped occurring at least. Once again, there's simply nothing else like it…anywhere.
Having said that, there's also nothing else quite like Epcot's icon and first attraction you hit once inside the gates, Spaceship Earth. So let's return to the parks and count down what I feel are the very best things about this venerable and iconic attraction with my Top 5 things to love about Spaceship Earth.
5 - The Ingenious Ride System
Spaceship Earth utilizes a Disney standard ride operation system inside it's geodesic sphere. It's an Omnimover, meaning it keeps moving at all times and riders simply step on while the ride vehicles are in motion. The Haunted Mansion and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin are examples of other Disney Omnimovers that have been consistently churning for decades. It's an efficient way of moving guests through attractions, especially when they don't have to buckle up or lower safety bars. What makes Spaceship Earth's Omnimover so much more impressive to me is exactly where and how it takes you through the attraction. Sometimes people forget that when you're walking past Spaceship Earth that there are dozens of ride vehicles filled with dozens of guests making their way through the interior.
That's right. There's people moving through that sphere. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
It's an amazing utilization of space, given the fact that not only is there a full Omnimover ride system fit into close confines, but the series of elaborate sets and animatronics as well. On top of that, it has to slowly spiral its way up into the top of the sphere and then work its way down. Building such a large sphere was an impressive construction feat in the first place. Figuring out how to wedge a complete ride system inside flanked by sets was pure genius.
4 - The Sistine Chapel
What you have to admire most about the Disney Imagineers is their boldness. Was it a simple question at a planning meeting that garnered a simple answer? Did it go something like this? Head Imagineer says, "What can we put in the various rooms inside the Spaceship Earth attraction?" Imagineer responds, "How about Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel?" Yes. Brilliant. Recreate one of the most significant artistic moments in human history inside a geodesic sphere attraction at Walt Disney World in Florida.
The master at work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Photo by Chris Barry.
That's the kind of thinking that sets Disney apart from everyone else and the results are actually quite stunning. The music in the background, Dame Judi Dench's narration and the sight of that "artist" laying on his back, on top of the scaffolding manages to give you an insight into just how that amazing piece of work might have been created in the 1500s. Once again, it's Disney boldness in full display. Don't aim low. Aim high.
3 - A Garage in California
My favorite room in the whole attraction has to be the one depicting the creation of the world's first personal computer in, as the narration states, "…of all places, a garage in California." Much speculation has been given to who exactly the lone figure working in the garage actually is. Is it Steve Jobs? Is it Steve Wozniak? Both would make sense. The company's official designation is that it's neither founder of Apple Computer, nor anyone else specific. It's more of a tribute to the computer aficionados working in their garages and kitchens out of which came the birth of the home computer.
The best shot I could get of the garage in California. Photo by Chris Barry.
Little details are often what I enjoy most in any given Disney attraction. The blue skateboard hanging in the garage is identical to the one I had hanging in my garage in the late 1970s. That's the kind of Imagineer propping that I appreciate. I'm also still in awe about the fact that they actually managed to get a 1970s Chevy Vega that high up into the attraction. I'd love to hear just how that was accomplished. Piece by piece I imagine? There's so much going on in this scene that next to the graveyard in the Haunted Mansion, the garage scene in Spaceship Earth is the attraction room I'd most like to get out and walk around in if I could.
2 - The Apex
As you leave that final animatronic scene in Spaceship Earth, you are treated to a very cinematic moment. After traveling through history, Dame Judy Dench completes her narration, the music builds, your vehicle begins to slowly turn and as you come around the bend, the music crescendos and the wonderful sight of Earth projected on the ceiling of the geodesic sphere surrounded by the stars is revealed to you.
The moon on top of the top of Spaceship Earth. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
This type of cinematic moment goes all the way back to Walt Disney himself. Walt couldn't find people in the amusement park business to accomplish the storytelling that he wanted in his parks, so he turned to his artisans and filmmakers working in his studios. The big reveal at the top of Spaceship Earth is a film style reveal and it works beautifully. I find Epcot to be a very inspiring place, and this is one of its finest inspirational moments.
1 - The Sphere Itself
Spaceship Earth in and of itself is a truly unique, beautiful, and awe-inspiring technical feat to behold. The Magic Kingdom style parks all have their storybook castles. Hollywood Studios has its theater. Animal Kingdom has the stunning Tree of Life. Granted, the Tree of Life is pretty amazing and calling it "just a tree" is an insult, but it is modeled after something you see everywhere, trees. Where else can you see something like Spaceship Earth?
The lighting of Spaceship Earth contrasts with the early evening sky while walking to Epcot's turnstiles. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka
There are several geodesic domes out there in the world, but to my knowledge Spaceship Earth is the only constructed representation of a full geodesic sphere. The trick, of course, is that it's essentially two geodesic domes connected to each other to form a sphere. Once again, it was bold Imagineering thinking to even attempt it's construction and over the top thinking to put a moving attraction inside. I'm going to throw this quote at you from Wikipedia which is credited to Jeff Kurtti's 1996 book, Since the World Began: Walt Disney World, The First 25 Years.
Geometrically, Spaceship Earth is derived from the Class 2 geodesic polyhedron with frequency of division equal to 8. Each face of the polyhedron is divided into three isosceles triangles to form each point. In theory, there are 11,520 total isosceles triangles forming 3840 points. In reality, some of those triangles are partially or fully nonexistent due to supports and doors; there are actually only 11,324 silvered facets, with 954 partial or full flat triangular panels.
To be clear, I don't understand a word of that quote, but it made me realize something; Spaceship Earth, much like many things at Walt Disney World, is a lot more than it appears to be. Take the science aside though. Put aside the fact that there are water channels built into the outside of the structure which channel rain water into World Showcase Lagoon so guests don't get constantly dripped on during the all too consistent Florida summer storms. Forget the fact that its support structures go 185 feet into the ground which is 5 feet higher than Spaceship Earth itself. I could go on and on. Yes, all of those things are super impressive. But is that what makes Spaceship Earth so impressive? Or is there some sort of indescribable wow factor when you walk into Epcot and it's standing there before you? How about when you see it from across World Showcase Lagoon when you're at the waterfront in Italy? There's something very awe-inspiring about Spaceship Earth. It's simplistic and yet extremely complex. It stands as a beacon in Future World, a land that was supposed to represent the future and its possibilities. One of the reasons that Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland abandoned its future theme was that they thought the future would catch up and the land would look dated. Spaceship Earth was futuristic in 1982 when the park opened, and for some reason it still is. Its design is futuristic and yet somehow classic at the same time. To be perfectly honest, I never get tired of looking at it. Epcot is one of my most favorite places to be and Spaceship Earth is a tremendous part of why.
Following along with Walt's credo that "Disneyland will never be completed," Epcot is undergoing a massive transformation and the areas immediately adjacent to Spaceship Earth are changing drastically. When the plans were announced, a major reimagining of the Spaceship Earth attraction was also announced. New narration, new music, changes to scenes and sets and, rather cryptically, something about a "Story Light" that will tie the whole journey together. That, of course has been put on hold indefinitely due to the pandemic related closures and financial losses. The reimagining was slated to take about two years and according to Disney Imagineer Zach Riddley, "the ideas we are working on inside that geosphere will be well worth the wait."
Oh well. Hopefully the ideas will percolate back to the surface when all this is said and done and life, hopefully, will start to return back to some sort of normalcy. Until then, if you can get over to Epcot, enjoy the current iteration of Spaceship Earth in all its glory. At the very least, stop and appreciate just what a unique and inspiring structure we're all lucky to have with us down there in Walt Disney World. As I said above, there's simply nothing else like it.
That's all for this time. I'm pretty sure I'll be continuing this series with more Epcot attraction Top 5's to come. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below, share your thoughts on my list or let me hear your own Spaceship Earth Top 5. Stay safe and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.
Yes! I agree with all of your comments about this wonderful structure and the attraction inside. And I guess my only addition would be 1a. One of the things I love most about this ride is that over the years it has been fairly easy to get on. We have had pretty good luck with being able to get on without much of a wait. Most of the time. Disney knows how to move the people. Hope you get to WDW soon!
Thank you for your interesting and informative articles. Being from California, I’ve only been to WDW a few times, and I’m always in a rush to try and see everything. You’ve made me wish that I can take the time to just LOOK. And enjoy the world behind the world. Maybe when we retire...
Next to Expedition: Everest, Spaceship Earth has always been one of my favorites, all the way back to my first visit a week after E.P.C.O.T. opened. I really enjoyed hearing a couple a few years ago. After riding the ride the guy said to his girl "I really liked seeing Bill Gates inventing the first computer!"
Oh, and the guy in question is definitely Woz, no matter what Apple says . . . . .
YES. Chuck. Can't believe I forgot that aspect. If there's a line at Spaceship Earth, you know you hit a crowded day.
Thanks so much for the kind words and for reading. That's always been my goal, to get the readers to stop and literally smell the roses in a Disney park.
Woz - the Great and Powerful! I think it's him too.
Another nice Top 5 article! As you mentioned, this structure and attraction is quite a complex engineering effort!
Prompted me to go looking into design info again about the whole thing, and even though I've probably done so before, I learned a few new things in the last hour doing so! Specifically, I had not previously read the info that the support is effectively a hexagonal "table" created by interconnecting the six huge legs, and that the top 3/4 of the sphere sits on this table and the lower 1/4 hangs suspended from it. It was just other fan sites I was reading, but if anyone would like the link, let me know.
I have to admit your quote referring to "Class 2 geodesic polyhedron with frequency of division equal to 8." will probably make the math geek in me go read up on that some day too! While I can certainly envision probably even a standard home computer of today having enough processing power to do a decent job of modelling such a structure in CAD, I'm sure if it was computer based in a significant way in the late 70's, it was a huge deal at that time!
So you can guess my Top #1 is probably the sphere/structure itself. The rain management part too, to me is very impressive. Designing so as to allow people to freely walk underneath and across the perimeter that would have been a huge round waterfall without the gutter system is really cool. So much better than having some sort of obtrusive roof line closer to the ground to divert the water so it would not drench every visitor to the park on rainy days.
As to scenes, fully agree on the Apex. I would hope that element always remains part of this attraction, even if slightly modified over time. I always thought they meant the garage scene to be Steve Jobs. I'll need to look again whenever I next make it down, but I thought there were elements in the garage display that seemed like early Apple history. Could be Woz also, I suppose. Guessing Woz was maybe a little more , uh .. "streamlined" in his younger days ? (weren't' we all! )
Slightly off topic, but since it was in your intro, I think you can also see the Seven Dwarfs as one group during MVMCP. Still an after hours ticket, but I believe I got a photo with them in 2018. I'm sure it was not a walk on, but I think they were a much shorter wait than Scrooge McDuck who was the nearby other meet and greet in Storybook Circus during that event.
Nice top 5. Apex would’ve been in my Top 5 but on our Fall 2019 trip, the ride broke down and we were stuck at the apex for a long time. Then, we witnessed negligence of the attraction when Disney turned the lights on and we had to walk downstairs parallel to the ride track.
Here is my 5 in no particular order
1. The Ingenious Ride System
2. The Sphere Itself
3. The Sistine Chapel
1 thru 3 I agree with everything you said
4. Physical sets- I love the audio-animatronics, detailed set pieces, and wonderful ride soundtrack.
5. Feelings of nostalgia – I have fond memories of riding the Tomorrow's Child version and the Irons version. Spaceship Earth reminds of beloved classic EPCOT Center omnimovers like original Journey into Imagination, Horizons, and World of Motion.
Honorable mention – smell of Rome burning,