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Spaceship to Tomorrow
by Edward L. Prizer
Another day. The monster globe rises above us, perched on six steel legs, like a silvery golf ball magnified to the tenth power. It is, we're told, the first large-scale completely spherical geodesic structure.
Sure, there have been other geodesic whoppers, like the U.S. pavilion at Montreal's Expo '77, but they've been only partial spheres. Disney's globe at EPCOT Center is 100 percent ball. [Web author's note: It is not a perfect sphere. The steel supports give it slightly uneven dimensions.]
"Some people make jokes about it," says Bob Mervine. "They say things like, 'You ought to paint Dunlop on it.'"
You always have some smart alecks.
Spaceship Earth is certainly no joke. Certainly not to the Bell System, which is spending perhaps $30 million or more (no figure has been announced) on this communications showplace. Certainly not to Walt Disney Productions, which has designed it as the symbolic landmark of an $800 million [or more] project. And not by any means to the thousands of guys and gals who've been working on this massif for a year or so.
Never has there been a structure like this one. Anywhere. It stands 18 stories high. The steel supports that hold it 15 feet off the ground are fully 30 feet wide. The diameter is 164 feet, the interior space 2,200,000 cubic feet. It can withstand winds up to 200 miles per hour.
A total of 1,450 steel beams were joined in triangular patterns to form the inner sphere. They were covered with a black, waterproof membrane. To the inner structure 954 triangular aluminum panels, shiny as silver, have been bolted, creating the exterior sphere.
The last panels are going are going on as we stand there, among hills and valleys of churned-up earth.
A slim yellow crane, with a panel dangling at the end, swings toward a triangular gap in the sphere. A hundred feet up, a seemingly disembodied arm protrudes from the gap, directing the crane operator.
[Spaceship Earth under construction. This photo was probably taken around the time the article was written. Note that CommuniCore and the Magic Eye Theater have only just been started.]
A strange, incongruous sight. That lone arm dangling far up there. The kind of strange sight that greeted us everywhere as we toured the 220-acre construction area. After all, this whole project - Walt Disney's Greatest Dream - is incredible. Who would spend all those bucks on a great big ball on steel legs stuck in Florida sand? Who would even think of fabricating lifesize dinosaurs to thrash around in a solar-powered jungle? Who would bring France's three premier chefs over to run an exquisite restaurant by a hole dug out of a marsh?
Good gosh! Papayas growing lushly in a greenhouse. Pools for farming shrimp. A horseless carriage colliding with a peddler's cart. An Oriental pagoda. The rocky peaks of the Canadian west. A German beer garden. An erupting volcano, so close you can smell the sulphurous fumes.
If you came upon all this, cold, you'd think the world had gone bonkers. Only Disney could fit it all into some kind of logical pattern.
Even knowing that pattern, as I do, you still find yourself grasping for credulity. It is. It can't be. Good gosh, what next?
We are now climbing the metal stairs that parallel the tracks that will carry carloads of guests up into the bowels of Spaceship Earth. I am slightly concerned, in my overweight condition, whether I'll be able to make it to the top. But my much younger editorial associate Pam Parks is charging on up ahead of me, with Bob Mervine (our guide from the publicity office) and I sure as heck am not going to let my age show.
We detour away from the stairs and find ourselves in a maze of wallboard-sheathed corridors. We peek into control rooms fitted out with switches and consoles and high-voltage equipment. Far more complex, I muse, than the electronics stuffed into the space shuttle Columbia. Well, bigger and more spread out, anyway.
What it must take to run this "spaceship!"
You become aware of the complexity even on the ground when you see the batteries of pipes and conduits, like a series of pipe organs, running up into the base of the globe.
We are back on the stairs, going up some more, puffingly. Into the dim recesses of this great globe. We pass clusters of workmen busy at various, not readily identifiable tasks along the way - pounding, drilling, grinding. A guy passes us jauntily perching a stepladder on his shoulder. Someone out of the dimness shouts, "Hi there, Pete." And then he is gone, somewhere down in the stratosphere.
Here and there among the work crews is a young woman in overalls. Affirmative action is at work - something you didn't see on the original Magic Kingdom site.
Up and up ... and then the stairs end at a plywood ramp which continues to follow the spiraling track, still ascending. This is the start of the show area, the raison d'etre of Spaceship Earth.
It is to be a dramatization of man's ability to survive by communicating with fellow human beings. Ponderous presumption, it seems. But wait a minute!
A series of luminous footprints on the simulated rock wall lead us to a cave where plastic-encased Audio-Animatronics cavemen, not yet costumed, await their cue to go into action, painting hunt scenes on the cave walls.
"A shaman (priest) will be supervising the painting," Bob Mervine says. "He becomes the narrator for the trip through the other scenes."
Around the curve, the course of the ride takes us into a Phoenician harbor. Workers are putting a couple of straw boats in place. This is where the first alphabet was born, and writing on papyrus was introduced. Even though the setting is incomplete and in disarray, you get the message: you are not plowing through a dry history book. You are there, living, with the animated seamen and scholars, this crucial chapter in the drama that made the world of today what it is.
Time telescopes. Folds in on itself. Then. Now. Your orientation subtly changes. Is it Orlando, or Phoenicia, or ... doggone, Los Angeles? ... descending from the skies into a welter of lights by the Pacific, and, in the morning rush hour, driving over the Hollywood Hills, over to Glendale and an unmarked, gray stone building - WED headquarters - where, in a maze of studios and workrooms, the secrets of EPCOT are carefully guarded.
There is a big black box, like a photo darkroom, and they have pulled back the curtain of the mockup and instructed you to walk up the ramp inside. In that other darkness you are gazing at this very scene, this Phoenician harbor, meticulously crafted in miniature. And, one by one, the outer Spaceship Earth dioramas as you move upward in the black box.
Improbable as it may seem to have these marvels emerging from a Florida piney woods, it is even more improbable to realize they have been conceived, designed and originally constructed all the way across the continent, mostly by people who have never set foot on Florida soil. (although the president of WED, Carl Bongirno, spent several years as an executive at Walt Disney World.)
We spot a loose-leaf binder on a shelf by the ramp. Each page, wrapped in cellophane, contains a color picture of a part of the set. The pieces are marked by numbered circles.
"Every set was built in California and then disassembled and shipped here," Bob Mervine says.
I wonder how many of these books are distributed around the 220 acres of EPCOT Center, in each of the pavilions, in the construction trailers. And how many separate items are cataloged for reassembly? Bob Mervine wouldn't even guess. A hundred thousand, maybe? Half a million? Every last twig and screw and bottle - to find its place, eventually, right where it belongs in the infinite complexity of the whole.
All during my tour of EPCOT Center, I am harking back to the things I saw at the lair of the Imagineers in California, WED Enterprises. Marveling at the way they have faithfully grown from renderings and models to the reality around me now.
Still on up and around the spiral of time and history. Seeing the grandeur of Greece during the full flowering of the Grecian tragedy, and on into the ruins of Rome. Beautifully wrought Corinthian columns are lying on the ramp. A man is antiquing one of them and we have to squeeze carefully by in the small space left. We are looking in on an Arabic library, just far enough along to identify the Byzantine motif. Farther on, we are with Gutenberg in his printshop looking out on a Bavarian town, and then we see the first modern printing press, a huge contraption driven by steam. Quickly we move into the age of electronics - two guys in an early telegraph office tapping out Morse code. And then there is radio, and then TV and movies. And finally satellite communication as we become a spaceship and blast off into the great black yonder.
Whew! At last we are at the top, where the ride will take you into outer space. We are on a platform. The top of the globe, painted black, curves over us to a height of 60 feet.
"This will be the world's largest planetarium," Bob tells us. "You'll see the space shuttle floating in the distance, and astronauts working on an antenna."
As he talks, several workmen lunching below us at a crude table cast an admiring eye at Pam. You don't usually encounter an attractive young woman in outer space.
"Enjoying your lunch?" I call to them.
One blond youth, munching on a sandwich shouts back: "I never thought I'd be eating in outer space."
"From here," Bob says, "the car turns around and descends at two feet per second. You are a beam of light traveling to earth."
For us, it is not quite that easy. We retrace our course along the ramp and start down the stairs. Halfway down, the sides of the globe are open and we get a breathtaking view of the whole construction site - the seeming chaos of it ...
Great mounds of brown, tortured earth ... the excavation of the lagoon with a shallow layer of water ... the steelwork and variegated towers of the World Showcase pavilions on the other side ... the gleaming circle of the transportation pavilion ... the sloping solar roof of the energy pavilion ... the superstructure of the imagination pavilion ... the sprawling walls and dome and greenhouses of The Land.
Like an animated Disney cartoon magnified many times over, the bulldozer-scarred landscape is awash with motion and frenzied activity ... earthmovers racing down rutted trails ... trucks bringing in loads of pipe ... tiny figures of men scurrying around high scaffolds ...
A panorama comparable, in all my experience, only with the construction site of the Magic Kingdom in 1971. Or, as I've remarked more than once, the battlefield of the Normandy beachhead.
We would, within a few minutes, begin to witness close-up the manifold scenes of this great panorama. Scenes now being played out, never to be seen again except in the images recorded on film during the construction period.
Spaceship Earth Introduction | Spaceship
Earth Script - Original ('82-86) | SE
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Created October 1, 1996 / Last modified December 19, 2001