Walt Disney had a vision – one of many really.
He wanted to take the lessons learned in building Disneyland in California and apply them to the mega-site he was preparing in Central Florida.
In addition to the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, Disney had a dream for EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
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What is the EPCOT ball?
The EPCOT ball is a geosphere that serves as the iconic structure at EPCOT. Inside, it houses a dark ride known as Spaceship Earth.
But friends, in my opinion, the EPCOT ball is irony, writ large. It is a celebration of the very journey of humankind that Walt overlooked in his assessment of “modern” cities. More on that later.
Can you go inside the EPCOT ball?
Yes, inside the ball is a dark ride known as Spaceship Earth. It moves on a slow track that carries riders through the history of human communication.
Starting with caveman drawings on the walls, it tracks through time as new ideas spread like wildfire.
From Gutenberg’s press to the modern age of media, it is a slow climb and descent through the history of man’s achievements.
The ride is brought to life through elaborate sets and uses the talents of Academy Award winner, Dame Judi Dench, who provides narration of the journey.
Is Space Mountain inside the EPCOT ball?
Nope! Space Mountain is another dark ride in the Disney theme park, and it is located in Magic Kingdom.
Does the EPCOT ball have a name?
Yes. The EPCOT ball is actually named Spaceship Earth.
Does that name make a lot of sense? No. I suppose it references the idea that the planet we live on is a spaceship carrying us through time and, well, space.
But the ride itself isn’t particularly space-related.
However, there is a moon landing segment. I think probably they just needed a name and Spaceship Earth rocked a lot harder than calling it a big golf ball.
Why was the EPCOT ball built?
The basis for the design and the name ultimately comes from the work of a guy named Buckminster Fuller. Fuller was an architect, engineer and futurist.
But the design and the name of the ride don’t seem to go together very well. Is the story of humanity really found in EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth? I don’t know.
The people at Disney wanted a striking centerpiece similar to the Sleeping Beauty castle in Disneyland and Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom.
Is the EPCOT ball a golf ball?
No, the exterior of the design was inspired by the Expo ’67 Dome in Montreal.
Designer Gordon Hoopes said he wanted to “create an atmosphere for our guests that raises their spirit and kindles an excitement for the human experience in the future.”
I think that’s grandiose, but I suppose building another cool princess castle was already off the board.
The symbolic structure at the Walt Disney Company took the basic design idea from the dome from Expo ’67 – which was basically a biosphere.
And at some point, they decided a full sphere would be cooler.
According to the website emtekalloys.com:
“The EPCOT ball is a 165-ft diameter geodesic sphere that is elevated above the ground to stand 180 feet tall. 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 3,840 points.”
What gives the ball its golf ball feel is the series of 1-inch gutters for rainwater all the way down the building that transport the water into the World Showcase Lagoon.
And it’s what gives the iconic geodesic sphere Spaceship Earth its signature look.
What is the EPCOT ball supposed to be?
Other than futuristic? Ultimately, it was based on Fuller’s work and his geodesic dome, according to the Disney Parks Blog which cites Disney’s John Hench.
From Hench’s book Designing Disney:
“We assumed from the beginning that we needed a large sphere for the EPCOT icon, and we wanted one with enough space inside for an attraction. … Fuller’s famous phrase ‘spaceship earth’ also appealed to us.”
The EPCOT ball is supposed to be what it is, the Spaceship Earth ride. Legendary sci-fi author Ray Bradbury played a central role in creating the themes for the original attraction.
Over the years, the icon of EPCOT has undergone some minor and some major refurbishments as has EPCOT itself.
For example, you may remember a Mickey Mouse arm with a wand surrounding the sphere between 2000 and 2007.
The inspiration behind EPCOT
EPCOT was originally built as an elaborate vision of a city of the future. It would house 20,000 souls and serve as a testbed for city planning and organization.
The community of the future would have an industrial park and a futuristic airport. It would also serve as something of a Utopia for city planners.
EPCOT would never stop growing, creating and testing new systems.
The legend is that Walt looked at his grandkids and worried about the world in which they would grow up. And Walt had begun to notice that modern cities were hectic and disorganized. They were dirty and filled with crime.
Walt wanted a better future and he thought he and his Disney Imagineers could create it.
They couldn’t, of course.
Why did Walt’s original plan for EPCOT fail?
Walt’s vision showed but the double-edged blade of his hubris.
In fact, it was the limitations of his seemingly boundless optimism and the perils of always looking to the future while neglecting the past.
Walt’s vision of EPCOT is similar to Saltaire, a Yorkshire town in England, by Sir Titus Salt – a textile magnate.
In 1851, Salt built neat stone houses for his workers – much better than the slums in which they lived previously.
For a while, in the glow of a post-Industrial Revolution era, Saltaire was a landmark example of enlightened city planning.
But ownership of the town fell eventually to Sir James Roberts. And over the years, Saltaire’s grand vision faded and it became just another English town.
Even if Walt could have created his utopia, it would have been impossible to sustain.
The inherent flaw in Walt’s original vision for the city of EPCOT
It’s strange to me that the uber-visionary Walt Disney was unable to recognize the basic flaw in his vision. If he truly looked at “modern” cities with dismay, it was a pessimistic vision.
Sure the cities of the 50s and 60s could be all the things he feared.
However, they were also significantly better than at any time in the world’s history.
Even in his own younger life, American cities were hard, unforgiving places.
American cities at the time Walt’s grandchildren were young were modern marvels as they are today, testaments to both the failures and the triumphs of the human condition.
Utopia cannot exist because we are human beings, not robots. In addition to our better qualities, we are filled with passion and vices and jealousies and prejudices.
You’d think that someone who fought so long and hard with Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers just to make a single movie would understand better than most just how stubborn and intractable people can be, even in the face of a spectacular vision.
Modern cities and even smaller communities are wonders of the modern age. They are superior in every way to Disney’s EPCOT vision because they are real and they reflect who we are and what we are capable of for good and for bad.
Walt passed, of course, long before he could put any real concrete plan together to create his utopia.
Then came the EPCOT we know today
It took nearly 20 years, but another vision arose in its place. Not a utopian city, but an amusement park that paid homage to the more practical pieces of Walt’s vision.
It’s a park that brings the world together and casts an eye to the future.
Today, EPCOT is broken up into neighborhoods that include World Celebration, World Discovery, World Nature and World Showcase.
And it’s a park with a giant golf ball smack dab in the entrance.
What’s next for the ball?
It’s hard to say. Disney had previously announced another extensive refurbishment for the ride but that was delayed.
It is, of course, a huge part of EPCOT theme park history but as a ride? Meh. It rises at an odd angle and in my experience stops frequently for loading and unloading.
The last time we rode, we were left at an odd incline angle for a while. It wasn’t painful or physically uncomfortable, it was just bothersome.
The full ride takes about 16 minutes. And it mostly serves as a nostalgia piece or a place to get out of the weather.
I know some are pushing for the park to make big changes inside the giant sphere. But EPCOT’s ride Spaceship Earth is one of the signature dark rides in the Walt Disney World Resort along with Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.
What’s next for EPCOT?
The park is going through some of the biggest changes in its history.
Long taking a back seat to Hollywood Studios and the Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, like the other Walt Disney World theme parks, is finally getting a much-needed assist from Disney designers.
The ambitious refurbishment includes the new Guardians of the Galaxy ride, which I believe is likely to be the only Disney Marvel ride east of the Mississippi due to contracts signed before Disney purchased the rights to the Marvel universe.
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Have you ridden Spaceship Earth at EPCOT? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!