For nearly 40 years, Spaceship Earth has been one of the defining landmarks of Walt Disney World and the main symbol of EPCOT. However, while the exterior of the geodesic sphere – or more colloquially the giant golf ball – has remained relatively unchanged during that period (outside of a certain regrettable seven-year stretch that we’ll discuss) the attraction housed within has gone through numerous changes and three major refurbishments during that time period.
Come along with us as we chart the evolution of this classic attraction and see if we can use where its been to glean any insight onto what the future holds for Spaceship Earth.
The initial concept for Spaceship Earth was born in the mid-1970s, as Walt Disney’s dream of an Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow evolved into the EPCOT Center theme park. Since the park was essentially going to be a “permanent World’s Fair”, Imagineers took inspiration for its icon from the United States Pavilion at the 1967 International and Universal Exposition (AKA Expo 67) in Montreal.
That structure, designed by Buckminster Fuller (who also coined the name Spaceship Earth), was a geodesic dome. Disney decided to take things a step further, constructing a complete sphere instead. WDI achieved this by essentially building two individual domes, one upside down, on top of each other, setting it on 6 giant legs, and covering the structure in triangular tiles. Structurally, the complete Spaceship Earth stands 180 feet tall, with structural pylons running underground as deep as 160 feet.
Initially, Disney planned on having the bulk of Spaceship Earth’s attraction be housed in a show building behind the sphere, with only climax happening within the structure. However, in the end Disney decided to have the entire ride housed within the sphere, using a twisting Omnimover ride system that would wind up and down a circular ramp.
Spaceship Earth’s Attraction
While Spaceship Earth’s structure was being designed, Imagineering’s show producers were attempting to figure out what kind of attraction they wanted within. Eventually, with the help of legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, they settled on a trip through the entire history of humanity. Because the attraction was sponsored by the Bell System network of telephone companies, heavy emphasis was put on the concept of communication throughout history and how evolutions in communication technology played massive roles in humanity’s history.
Taking this history through communication theme as their guide, the attraction as it appeared on opening day in 1982 isn’t all that different than the Spaceship Earth we know today. Guests would board their Omnimover vehicles at the structure’s base and begin rising up a ramp.
Once they reached top of said ramp, they would be brought passed animatronic scenes that told the story of human history. The ride moved through various eras, from cavemen through ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, right through (at the time) modern computer technology.
During construction, the climax of the attraction was to be a massive set piece set on a moon base that was to be featured at the very top of Spaceship Earth’s structure, while a projected image of the Earth and satellite and space station props hung above them. Installation of these props actually did begin, however according to most sources Imagineers were never satisfied with the moon sets, believing the forced perspective simply didn’t work.
It was decided to simply abandon the scene, covering the pieces of moon set that had been built in dark shrouds, lowering the lighting so that the animatronic astronauts hovering around a satellite as well as the space station commander were barely visible. This left the ride’s climax as simply a planetarium-style projected visual of the Earth, before riders went down a ramp backward to ground level before exiting the attraction to the Project Tomorrow post show.
EPCOT Center Early Years
This initial version of Spaceship Earth opened with EPCOT Center in October of 1982, and was an instant success. However, the first major changes came to the ride only four years later. In 1986, the Bell System was declared a monopoly and broken up by the U.S. Government.
AT&T, one of the companies that was birthed out of the breakup of Bell, became the attraction’s sponsor. They requested and bankrolled several changes, which were implemented that year. The ride’s scripted narration was re-recorded by veteran news anchor Walter Cronkite. (Initially, the narration was done by either actor Laurence Dobkin or radio host Vic Perrin. Both men had ties to Disney, and it’s still unconfirmed which of them was the actual narrator). In addition, the attraction’s post-show area was slightly updated to more closely skew to AT&T’s corporate vision.
In the early 1990s, Disney planned to build an updated version of Spaceship Earth, known as Spacestation Earth, as the centerpiece of WestCOT, the planned second gate at the Disneyland Resort in California. Initially, the plan was for the spherical structure to be larger and gold-colored. However, due to financial and political issues, the park was eventually cancelled, and the replacement second gate, California Adventure, didn’t feature anything like Spaceship Earth.
First Major Refurb
Even as the WestCOT concept was dying on the vine, Walt Disney World’s original was still going strong. In 1994, Spaceship Earth was given its first truly major refurbishment in conjunction with AT&T renewing their sponsorship agreement. While Jeremy Irons replaced Cronkite on narration, the first half of the ride remained relatively unchanged, while the later portion saw the most changes.
The animatronic scenes featuring heavily 80s technology were replaced with updated scenes featuring videophones, and the aforementioned climax of the ride saw a larger projection of the Earth, the removal of the astronauts and satellite, and the complete blacking out of the space station and it’s animatronic. This refurb also saw the addition of several dioramas depicting various futuristic communication methods on the backward ramp that ended the ride and a redesign of the ride’s post show to The Global Neighborhood.
The 1994 version of Spaceship Earth remained unchanged for over a decade (though, there was a plan in the early 2000s known as Project Gemini, part of which would have seen Spaceship Earth completely gutted and replaced by a roller coaster known as Time Racers. Yes, really).
However, the same couldn’t said for the exterior. In 1999, as part of the Walt Disney World Millennium Celebration, a 25-story representation of Mickey Mouse’s arm wielding a magic wand and spelling out the number 2000 was affixed to the sphere.
The following year, the 2000 was replaced by the word Epcot in a scripted font. The wand was, to put it mildly, unpopular amongst many Disney fans. However, despite this outcry to remove it, the want remained for years. It was finally removed in 2007, allegedly at the request of Siemens, who took over the attraction’s sponsorship from AT&T that year.
Second Major Attraction Refurb
The removal of the wand wasn’t the only change to come in 2007, however, as Spaceship Earth went under its first massive refurbishment since 1994. Once again, the narrator was changed, this time to Dame Judi Dench. Also, once again the first half of the ride remained essentially the same story, scene-wise, though many animatronics and effects were updated or removed from these sequences, while the major changes were saved for the back-half of the attraction.
These included new scenes depicting the invention of the first home computer featuring an animatronic that was an amalgamation of numerous Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, including Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, an early super-computer from the 1960s, and a new interactive ending replacing the dioramas in the backward tunnel. Outside of Siemens’ sponsorship ending in 2017, this version is essentially still operational today.
The Refurb That Wasn’t
In August of 2019, it was announced that Spaceship Earth would be reimagined as part of a larger transformation of EPCOT. According to Disney, the attraction would be “updated with a new narrative about the human experience and the art of storytelling.” It’s unclear how much of the ride would have changed, as the concept art seemed to show preexisting show scenes. However, in summer 2020, the project was put on indefinite hiatus due to the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic.
It’s unclear what the future of Spaceship Earth is following the pandemic. However, looking back at the rides history, we can easily surmise that it will live on after being updated to fit the times, likely with a new voice guiding the way.
Which version of Spaceship Earth is your favorite? 1986? 1994? 2007? What would you like to see in the attraction’s next refurb? Let us know in the moments below.