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Disneyland Ex Machina

Anything for a Buckminster Fuller: Spaceship Earth, (p)reviewed

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I need to qualify this post in a couple of ways. Firstly, Spaceship Earth is at EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World in Florida, and I’m not going to make a habit of writing about WDW in this Disneyland-focused bl-g. WDW is not my Disney resort, and as I’ve previously said, the Passport to Dreams Old and New bl-g has the place expertly covered. (I may bust out a few more WDW posts in the coming weeks. I just spent eight days there, y’know, and the Adventurer’s Club is fairly wonderful. But I’ll try to bring it all back to California as often as I can.)

Also, this is not a review. The revamped Spaceship Earth — a twenty-five year old attraction that’s enjoying a “re-imagining” thanks to an infusion of sponsorship cash from Siemens AG — isn’t officially open yet. I lucked into a sneak preview of the attraction on my last day at WDW, and the attraction is still in pretty raw shape. The outside construction walls remain in place, the show scenes continue to be tested and adjusted, and the ending of the ride is in a nascent state. It would be unfair of me to review the attraction in this transitional guise, unless I were to praise it.

Spaceship Earth is EPCOT’s signature attraction. It’s got solid egghead pedigree — it was named for a book by Buckminster Fuller and Ray Bradbury reportedly had a hand in its conception. Even today, two-plus decades after opening day, the attraction remains one of EPCOT’s most literate and educational. Inside that 180 foot-tall silver ball (from Soho down to Brighton … oh, never mind) is an 14-minute ride detailing the history of communication, from cave drawings to the internet, through a series of Audio-Animatronics set pieces.

The revamp preserves Spaceship Earth’s original gee-whiz factor and even improves upon it. The new narration, by an uncredited Dame Judi Dench (who succeeds a veritable gentleman’s club of Vic Perrin, Walter Cronkite and Jeremy Irons), makes the historical thread linking the scenes more evident and easier to follow. Where Perrin, Cronkite and Irons delivered narrations that were respectively austere, avuncular and flat-out pompous, Dench takes the tone of a patient teacher, and her “Our Miss Brooks” schtick makes the attraction considerably more personal. The narration condenses the attraction’s large concepts down to a size that any kid — or TV-reared adult — can readily grasp within seconds. (That said, I’m not sure about the Imagineers’ assertion that the libraries of ancient Islam contained “backup copies” of the scrolls destroyed by the burning of Rome. It’s a clever conceit, but it misses a lot — and it’s probably going to get Disney picketed.)

New show scenes involving the creation of computers (specifically the home computer, in a “garage” scene featuring a faceless geek who may or may not be Steve Wozniak) sharpen the communication theme to a point, and the animation of those scenes has been greatly improved. The innards of Spaceship Earth’s Audio-Animatronics have been replaced by newer tech and move more fluidly, and the lighting and sets around the figures have been freshened. (That said, I still think that the “skin” of your basic Audio-Animatronics figure looks like wet leather.)

Spaceship Earth’s ride vehicles run in one long, continuous train, and when they reach the top of the sphere, they turn around and lower you to ground level at an angle not unlike that of a dentist’s chair. In his less-than-enthusiastic September 1983 appraisal of EPCOT in Rolling Stone, “It’s a Stale World After All,” John Rothchild used the prone ending of Spaceship Earth as a metaphor for the entire theme park: “I have never felt less control over anything.”

The ending is the most appropriate place for a sponsor to make its presence felt. Original sponsor AT&T did so through a tunnel filled with pretty lights, visual gibberish and a ghastly ad jingle called “Tomorrow’s Child.” Disney got Siemens to take another path, and it makes the ride worthwhile: By way of a touch-screen, Spaceship Earth now checks to see if you actually learned anything.

Here’s how it works: At the beginning of the ride, your picture is taken, and at the end, you’re asked a series of lifestyle questions, and a snazzy, Googie-styled animation of “your vision of the future” is created. (Though the effect wasn’t yet working, I assume that your face will be superimposed over the animated figures.) That’s all well and good (and I love the fiber-optic “cube” that you travel through as you descend), but what I really love is that “while your future is being created” — meaning, your big fat future head is superimposed on that Googie animation — Dame Judi asks you to answer questions about what you’ve just seen on the ride. What was our first communication written on? What tools did Benedictine Monks use to record books?

It’s a particularly righteous tack to take, seeing as EPCOT’s days as a field trip destination are long behind it. Nearly every ride in EPCOT’s Future World section ends in a bank of touch-screen games that young kids delight in and everyone else ignores. Even Spaceship Earth has a post-show full of such games — but they’ve also placed one on the ride, where even the most technologically-averse might feel compelled to reach forward and gently touch the screen in response to a query. Disney and Siemens are asking the unthinkable: They’re asking kids to read, and parents to think.

Not surprisingly, that part of the ride isn’t going over well. I hope Disney toughs out the criticism and stays the course. For the first time ever, Spaceship Earth — the attraction that details the history of communication — is actually provoking communication between family and friends, between ride and rider. Control has been restored.

When viewed in the context of its thrill-ride neighbors — particularly the spectacular but empty-headed General Motors thrill ride Test Track, which shamelessly dead-ends in a showroom of 2008 Hummers — the revamped Spaceship Earth and The Land pavilion are the only EPCOT attractions that are doing the holy work that EPCOT was built to do. They’re clinging to their low-paying teaching jobs, even as the other Future World pavilions go for the big bucks in public relations.

I’ve a small gallery of Spaceship Earth shots here. Please forgive the blurriness and poor light; I didn’t want to pop my flash and ruin someone else’s ride. Wish everyone else felt the same way.




  1. George Taylor

    2008/02/15 at 8:18 PM

    I really enjoyed your non-review review!

    When we rode it in December, we had the same feeling you did about the return trip and the touch screens. I thought the screens were more of a return to early Epcot than anything else we have seen.


  2. I enjoyed your thoughtful comments on Spaceship Earth (and polished writing style!). Having visited EPCOT several times during the past decades, I have been increasingly disappointed and irked with its transformation. Future World is morphing from mimicking a grand world's fair to a bunch of pavilions housing bland roller coasters. I am at a frustrated loss as to what a lame simulator (Mission Space) and a brief car ride through one of Epcot's backstage parking lots (Test Track) have to do with the future…?! Being from Southern California, the latter was a particularly big head-scratcher for me. "I do this everyday at home on the freeway," I sighed aloud as the ride came to end. Huh. All this, and Albert Brooks bellowing ad nauseum for Nemo at the Living Seas. At least, thank goodness, there is still the big ball and The Land. Let's all do a dance to the audioanimatronic gods that the latest Disney decision makers elect to restore some of Epcot's original thought-provoking ideas, which infused the park's visitors with hope and optimism. Or, if that's too much to wish for, at least LEAVE FUTUREWORLD ALONE! Enough with the pointless thrill rides already.

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