I can hear you now.
“Spaceship Earth really hasn’t changed much since ’82, how on Earth can you go on for 2000 words about an attraction that still exists, has been modified multiple times, and still retains all the kinds of things that you typically rant about? It has a clear mission, it follows the original format, it’s iconic, you can’t possibly find that much wrong with it, can you?”
TL;DR – It’s about half of a great attraction as it stands right now, and some simple fixes could make it great again.
Let’s talk a little about what makes Spaceship Earth special. It’s an attraction that serves as the park icon, and it’s likely one of the more recognizable structures in the world. At least in the top 1% I’d be willing to guess. It serves as the welcome to Epcot. Back before everyone just waddled past it to find their way to World Showcase to get drunk, it was the logical first stop on a trip to Epcot Center. You have to walk under its support structure, and under the show-building itself to get to other parts of the park.
The designers of Epcot Center knew this, and designed an attraction that played at multiple layers of mesage. It was a pavilion focused on communication, but not just the act of communicating, but what the advances in communication have done to push society forward throughout its history. In this respect, it moved past just being a pavilion focused on communication, and turned into one that would set the tone for the rest of the park as a whole.
Future World and World Showcase both once focused on the global community working together. Future World was about collaboration and innovation to create a better future, World Showcase showed that the future was global. It took Epcot Center from being the Sam Eagle “A Salute to all Nations, but mostly America” and placed us in among the other nations of the world. Sure, we got front and center space and the best attraction in World Showcase, but we were just another nation in the world. Global cooperation was being fostered throughout Epcot Center.
How do you foster a global community? Through communication, thus Spaceship Earth hit on one of the cornerstones to all of Epcot Center. It was one of the Big Three (Spaceship Earth, Horizons, Journey into Imagination). I’d bet that a survey of most Disney fans would show that 95% of people would rate those the top 3 attractions from original Epcot Center. That is because they were the three most important concepts: Communications, looking towards the future, and the power of imagination. These are also three things that I feel were core components of Walt Disney himself.
Let’s examine the attraction a little and the differences over time.
I’ll admit that I do not have memories of the original narration. I cannot attribute that to anything more than the fact that Walter Cronkite was the second version, and when you are talking about being followed by “the most trusted man in America”, you would have to be pretty darn good to be memorable. Walter Cronkite as narrator brought authority and trust with him. It is a difference that he holds with all other narrators that this attraction has had. Right or wrong, Disney fans are going to likely associate Jeremy Irons’ voice with Scar (a villain) and Judy Dench as one of her many roles on screen. They are entertainers, so while they have fantastic speaking voices and hold a good degree of gravitas, they were no match for a trusted journalist. He may have been reading a script prepared for him, but he brought a degree of trust and objectivity with him that I believe made us subconsciously believe him more strongly. It’s quite sad that we no longer have people that fill that role in news casting.
The attraction itself has always been spectacular as you ascend inside the geodesic sphere. Starting at the beginning of known recorded communications, amazing scenes and animatronics guide us through advances in communications and their impact on advancing human society. From cave paintings to satellites in (geologically speaking) a blink of an eye has pushed us forward from being one of many species fighting for survival on the planet to a species who has developed the ability to mold the Earth around us.
If anyone were to ask me what attractions today could they ride to see what Epcot Center was once like, it’s Living with the Land and the ascent in Spaceship Earth, up to the top. Why the top and not the rest? Well, it’s all downhill from there. <rimshot> Sorry, I really couldn’t help that. I tried, but it was inevitable.
But it is true. Comparing what happened from the moment that our ride vehicles turned around for the steep descent down is one way to truly view the differences in versions of the attraction.
The original attraction all built up to the reveal, the climax at the top of the pavilion. We have gone from cave paintings to the ability to communicate off of our own Earth, and not just that, but we have been able to view our planet from the perspective that shows us as we truly are: one world, racing around a single star together in the infinite universe.
If you listen to astronauts speak, they almost all talk about the shift in perspective that they achieve when first looking down upon the Earth from space. The feeling of perspective that is revealed when they see our world as the small planet that it truly is. This is what the scene in the top of Spaceship Earth is meant to convey, and I feel that it does a spectacular job of it. The script, the score, the physical motion upwards all build through to this one moment.
It makes sense that what follows should be a diminuendo of sorts. We've reached the peak, it's time to wind ourselves back down, both physically and from a story arc perspective.
What existed during the first versions of the attraction was sparse visuals, giving focus to the theme song "Tomorrow's Child". We've seen human history, now it's time to build the future together. That was the message of that song. It set up the rest of the park perfectly. It was not selling a product, it was selling an ideal, and one that was at the core of the entire park. I'll again cover music and Epcot Center in a different post.
The Jeremy Irons update removed Tomorrow's child, but it gave us more physical sets. More hints at communications technology helping us globally. The tie to the attraction was still there and strong, matching more visuals to underline the message. I missed Tomorrow's Child, but this still fit well due to the quality of the scenes.
What we have today is a mess due to (rumored) budget and time cuts. A larger refurb of the descent was planned, but then cut at the last minute, leaving entire sections literally tarped off upon the attraction's reopening. In its place, we were given screens in our ride vehicle. A flash at the beginning of the ride takes our picture to be used in this final descent. What follows is a terrible animation that tried (and fails) to play on the choose your own ending style that Horizons did so well. We are treated to our face (though typically the thing never actually gets all of my face) pasted on a Jetsons animation in a way that my daughter can do on her Leappad kids tablet. We are told how our lives are going to be so much better with technology, but not in grand ways, but in small, unrealistic ones. And then, eventually we are treated to:
We are not together looking forward, we are passive passengers that technology companies are going to help live a little more comfortably. Gone is the message of communications driving us forward as a human race, instead I might get to my travel destination a little easier.
It may not be something that many people notice, I'll bet a lot of folks react with a "ha, that's cute", but look at the massive tonal shift that has taken place. From active participant to passive consumer. I cannot stress enough that this tonal shift is a major theme throughout all of the recent pavilion updates. The collaboration is gone, the inclusion is gone, it is more presentation to a captive audience. Working together to build a brighter tomorrow is gone, replaced by "look how awesome our company is".
I have a bit of an update I think could help rectify this for Spaceship Earth, one that would not require a massive investment, but I believe will fit well with the original pavilion and the original intent of Epcot Center. I was going to include it in this post, but think it is likely best if I slide it to a follow-up post.