at the D23 Expo last month revealed more detail about the company's plans for Epcot, I decided to ride Spaceship Earth during my visit to the park last week - possibly for the final time before its upcoming changes. I wanted a fresh memory of this beloved attraction before it Disney "transforms" it, along with much of the rest of Epcot.After Disney Parks Chairman Bob Chapek
But after riding, I decided that I didn't need those memories after all. In fact, I can't wait for Disney to go in and completely rework Spaceship Earth.
Epcot's icon, Spaceship Earth is one of the few remaining "day one" attractions at the park, which opened October 1, 1982. Though the ride has seen a few changes to its narration over the years, Disney's current plans for Spaceship Earth represent a far more substantial alteration of the attraction, with the replacement of many scenes and a change in focus from the history of communication to that of storytelling, specifically.
Spaceship Earth was, and remains, an engineering marvel — fitting a 15-minute dark ride entirely within the structure of a 165-foot geosphere that is mounted 15 feet above the park's surface. If for nothing else, Spaceship Earth wins and retains fans simply by providing an all-ages attraction where visitors can sit in a cool, dark place for a quarter hour inside a park that's become notorious for making visitors walk long distances on sun-baked pathways. Heck, the biggest cheers Chapek got for the Epcot renovation plans came when he promised they would deliver "more shade" for the park.
Given that, Disney could scrap all the animatronics then project nothing more than a bunch of soothing, dimly-lit DisneyNature scenes along the Spaceship Earth ride path, ditching any attempt at narrative, and most park guests probably would love the experience. Hey, it's still a long sit-down ride in the dark, right?
But I am thankful that Disney seems willing to do better than that. Because this engineering marvel, this beloved symbol, and yes, this icon of hope for a better future world deserves Disney's very best storytelling effort.
Unfortunately, what is playing now inside Spaceship Earth is not that.
Spaceship Earth purports to depict the history of communication. Like most pavilions in Epcot's soon-to-be-renamed Future World, Spaceship Earth's development was supported by a corporate sponsor — in this case, Bell System, which became AT&T in 1984. That corporate involvement no doubt colored the focus of the attraction, which always has provided an almost exclusively Western view of communication, leading up to the development of corporate-driven communications technology. But given the enormity of the subject, that's a fair editorial choice for Disney's Imagineers to have made, especially given how all that corporate money allowed a far-less-wealthy-back-then Walt Disney Company to build this thing in the first place. No complaints there.
But a lot has happened in the history of communication between Spaceship Earth's 1982 opening and today. The current, Judi Dench narration, which debuted in 2008, attempts to address the subsequent development of personal computing and the Internet by padding the script. This version gives her 835 words — a 145-word, 21-percent increase over the 690-word average of the previous three narrators' scripts. More is not more, either, give how the current script forces references to Roman roads as "the first 'World Wide Web' and the Islamic Golden Age as "the first backup system."
That last example actually has been one of the more problematic script issues for Spaceship Earth since the second, Walter Cronkite version, which debuted in 1986. The original, Vic Perrin script said, "Islamic wise men preserve ancient wisdom and weave a rich network of new knowledge linking East and West." No problems there. While Europe went through its Middle Ages, Islamic scholars advanced human knowledge through the development of algebra, geometry, astronomy, biology and the sciences. Giving credit to Islamic scholars in this scene provides a rare (for Spaceship Earth) example of crediting non-Western sources. Bravo.
But the Cronkite script changed that to "Islamic and Jewish scholars continue to preserve ancient wisdom in noble libraries." While Jewish writers certainly preserved and advanced religious and philosophical scholarship during the Middle Ages, giving them equal billing with Islamic scholars in that period has a lot more to do with contemporary geopolitics than portraying history with any reasonable level of accuracy.
The third, Jeremy Irons script reduced Islamic scholars to second billing: "For far across the land, from Cairo to Cordoba, Jewish teachers and Islamic scholars continued the quest for knowledge." And the current Dench script erases Islam and its contributions entirely: "It turns out there are copies of some of these books in the libraries of the Middle East, being watched over by Arab and Jewish scholars. Call it the first backup system."
The Dench script aims for a lighter, more informal tone than the previous scripts, but those attempts sometimes trip over themselves. Take the attempt to crack a joke for the Tea Party crowd in the Egypt scene: "Papyrus, in turn, creates better record keeping of plans, designs, and... unfortunately, taxes." That's a bit rich, given that it was taxes that subsidized, if not paid for, for the development of pretty much all our modern communication systems, including the Internet.
Heck, every time Disney has rewritten Spaceship Earth, it's made the ride a bit worse. The first script worked best because, well, that's the script the whole ride experience was designed to support. So with this next revision, I hope that Disney won't hesitate to give its Imagineers that "blank sheet of paper" to reimagine a new and coherent narrative for Spaceship Earth.
Disney faces a huge creative challenge in designing new show scenes, given the tight spaces within the geosphere. Spaceship Earth long has been the darkest of Disney's dark rides, because the more light Disney shines inside the ride, the easier it is to see just how little space each scene occupies, potentially creating a sense of claustrophobia that I am sure Disney wants no guest to feel.
But if Disney wants to tell a new story inside Spaceship Earth, it can't rely on yet another script change to do it. New show scenes will need to drive those changes, and Chapek has promised to deliver them. Moving the focus from the development of communications technology toward the more enduring act of human storytelling also should help Disney to create an attraction that won't feel out of date in less than a decade.
A new focus on storytelling also provides Disney a fresh opportunity to increase cultural representation inside its Spaceship Earth. This is literally a global icon, so its story — at long last — ought to embrace a global focus that it has lacked. No more minimizing and ignoring non-Western voices.
So, yeah, count me as 100 percent in favor of an aggressive remake of Epcot's Spaceship Earth. While I love that long ride in the nice, cool darkness, Spaceship Earth ought to be better this. It needs to be. And I can't wait to see what Disney's Imagineers do to try to get it there.Tweet
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