You only get one chance to make a great first impression and that is certainly the case with theme parks. The arrival experience must transport guests from where they are to where the designers want them to be. Come with me as we explore the front gates of Epcot, in Orlando Florida.
(For the purposes of this story, we use "EPCOT" in all caps to talk about Walt's ideas for a city of tomorrow and "Epcot" to discuss the theme park which was actually built)
First, let's got back to sort of the beginning. Over the years, it became a well-known fact that Walt Disney did not like to do the same thing twice. He said, "I’ve never believed in doing sequels. I didn’t want to waste time I have doing a sequel. I’d rather be using that time doing something new and different." Walt said, "It goes back when they wanted me to do more pigs." The Silly Symphony cartoon Three Little Pigs became a huge success in 1933 due in part to Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, a hit song that resonated with Great Depression audiences. Theater owners were clamoring for a follow-up. Walt hesitated," He proclaimed, "You can’t top pigs, with pigs." Nevertheless, Walt could be practical when necessary and he had ambitious plans for the animation studio.
Those ambitions cost a lot of money. Therefore, he relented and produced two follow up cartoon shorts. However, Walt was right and the follow-up films did not have the same impact or commercial success as the original.
Many years later, the same thing would happen with another blockbuster – Disneyland.
Walt liked new challenges and he already had a Disneyland. What was the point of building another theme park? That was the beginning of EPCOT the City.
Sadly, Walt passed away before his most ambitious dreams could be realized. Roy Disney, near retirement, decided to stay and to make sense of Walt's ideas and to create something his brother would be proud of. He wanted people to remember this project was one man’s dream, so he renamed it Walt Disney World.
In the first phase, Disney built the Magic Kingdom, three resorts, a multimodal transportation network, and the entire infrastructure to turn wetlands into a livable small city. The Imagineers would apply many of the lessons learned in the operation of Disneyland to facilitate guest comfort and high capacity in the Magic Kingdom. So what do you do next? How to build EPCOT?
The Magic Kingdom was to be an updated Disneyland. The new park, EPCOT, had to be just that, something incredibly new. It had to be different than the Magic Kingdom and that put a lot of pressure on the Imagineers.
There is an often-told tale about the genesis of EPCOT, the theme park. As the story goes, Imagineers John Hench and Marty Sklar were surveying two concepts that had developed pretty far and then pushed the two models of the two separate projects together
– Future World plus a permanent Worlds Fair called the World Showcase. They turned the two projects into one massive 260-acre park. The park would be twice as large as the Magic Kingdom and three times as large as Disneyland.
Epcot’s gateway performs the same function as the Disneyland and Magic Kingdom entries; it serves as a spatiality-constricted portal that becomes a time machine. At the Magic Kingdom, passing below the railroad tracks send you back in time to enter an idealistic American town around 1900.
At Epcot, guests arrive by auto, bus, and monorail. But no matter how they got there, the shared experience of walking under Spaceship Earth results in a time machine propelling you into the future. The gateway is a sequence of spaces separated by barriers that reveal ever-expanding opportunities as you move forward.
Once you exit the parking tram, leave the bus stop or walk down the monorail ramp you will enter a public realm geared toward the human scale. The urban park-like landscaping and the service buildings outside the gate create a timeless, clean, modern look. The emphasis is on the horizontal. Even the Monorail platform is oriented toward horizontal axis as are the low overhangs of the ticket booths and the entry gates. Everything outside the gates reinforces this intimate scale. The result is that Spaceship Earth acts as a beacon and becomes the center of attention, and a point of orientation.
Spaceship Earth is a non-threatening sphere, just like Mickey Mouse. It’s simplicity and good form has become an iconic structure and the perfect representation of the original intent for the park. The texture of the exterior tiles creates an oscillating pattern and the surface captures the light and changes throughout the day. The alternating repetition along the skin of building reflects the weather and time.
Spaceship Earth is a truly amazing piece of engineering. The structure was influenced by a number of icons from Worlds Fairs past. The 1939 New York World’s Fair featured a 180-foot–diameter spherical building called the Perisphere along with a 700-foot obelisk called the Trylon. The Unisphere from the 1964-1965 was certainly an influence.
Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome for the US Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo is a direct forerunner of Spaceship earth.
To make a bold statement, the Imagineers decided to do Buckminster Fuller one better. They were going to take his dome and create a complete sphere. This engineering feat had never been done before.
The significant technical hurdle was to figure out how to build a sphere. The clever solution was to build the structure in three parts. The first part was a structural table with six pylons sunk 120 to 185 feet into the ground. On top of this structural table they built a geodesic dome. Hanging upside down from the structural table’s outer edge is another dome. The combination makes up the sphere. The skin of the sphere is made up of two systems. There is an inner skin that contains the ride. Suspended by a two foot gap is an outer skin. Between the two skins is a sophisticated drainage system that channels storm water runoff out to the lagoon.
Spaceship Earth stands 180 feet tall and 165 feet in diameter. It took 1,700 tons of steel to build the superstructure. The outer skin is made up of 11,324 custom fitted triangular Alucobond panels. Alucobond is made up of two anodized aluminum faces and a polyethylene core. The result is a lightweight, extremely strong outer skin that is smoother than glass and self-cleaning. The geosphere is visible from miles around. You can easily see it from the air. The result is a surface that is ever changing in color and texture. I find it quite beautiful.
Spaceship Earth's Skin
The Imagineers wanted to do more than create a structure that was just big. Their goal was much more ambitious. They wanted something that could unite all of the themes of Future World into a single structure while striking an emotional note in the viewer.
The monorail station, ticket booths, and entry gate shelter help to deflect the view of Spaceship Earth. The Monorail and its beam are part of the show. When the monorail debuted at Disneyland, it was proclaimed as the transportation system of the future but remained a novelty. At Walt Disney World resort, the monorail would become a real transportation system that would be critical to the success of Epcot by tying it to the Magic Kingdom and the resorts. In the Imagineering Guide to Epcot the authors state that, "its no accident that the monorail passes right through the heart of this park. This connection not only transfers riders from the Transportation and ticket center, but also gives them an overview of the Park on their way in. And it provides additional show value and kinetics for those already there." Once you pass under the entry gate shelters, the roof pulls away, the buildings to the side force you to focus straight ahead toward the shear-curved wall of Spaceship Earth. For me, this is one of those magical moments when your apprehension fades away and you feel awe and delight.
My only disappointment is the current field of Leave a Legacy tombstones.
The planters, buildings, and little shops adjacent to the loading area for the Spaceship Earth attraction gently funnel guests toward the portal under the geosphere.
From the walkway to the bottom of the sphere is only 18 feet. It feels so close you want to jump up and tap the bottom. You and your party will share the humbling experience of passing under the iconic Spaceship Earth. The effect is to remind us of how small we are and how big the world can be.
So close you can almost touch it.
The portal under Spaceship Earth funnels you into the Millennium Plaza. The
Innoventions buildings create a strong boundary and frame the plaza. The slow removal of the tarps is helping the plaza return to its stark mid-century grander. At the plaza’s heart is the Fountain of Nations, which was dedicated by Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian, in 1982.
Go to the left, Future World East.
Turn to the left and you will discover that the east side of the park is devoted to the left side of your brain. This is where you will find the pavilions that deal with science, math, and rational, objective thought. The themes are energy, space exploration, and mechanical engineering. The landscape reflects this theme with geometrically shaped planters and pathways. Everything is rigid with sharp angles. The plantings are precise and formal, and public furniture is functional and uses technology to overcome environmental challenges.
Go to the right, Future World West.
If you go to the right and enter the west side of Future World, you get to stimulate the right side of your brain. This is where holistic thinking, music, the arts, and creativity thrive. The circle of life, both on the land and the sea, is celebrated in two of the pavilions. The Land pavilion pops up out of the ground as if from a split in the earth and the Seas pavilion is shaped like a wave or a huge shell. The Imagination pavilion invites you to suspend your disbelief as you pass through a magical garden and the pyramidal structures have been described as a "symphony of volumes, forms, tonal nuances." The pathways are gently curved; the plantings are less formal, there is lots of water, and seating areas under shady spots that are covered by a canopy of mature trees.
Future World has been compared to a World’s Fair and for good reason. The basic design principles are the same. Both filled with monumental pavilions, each focused on a single concept. The pavilions are tied together by highly detailed, well-designed public spaces. To create a memorable and meaningful experience, the public spaces integrate landscaping, water, sculpture, light, motion, and scenic vistas.
Although Epcot was meant to be a distinctly different experience than the Magic
Kingdom, the Imagineers were wise enough to repeat what works. You will find many similar environmental design elements. Both parks begin with the illusion of time travel.
Both Epcot and the Magic Kingdom parks force guests to gather in a forecourt, walk through a constricted space and exit into another much larger, wide-open plaza. This central plaza allows the guests to settle, get oriented, and makes decisions.
And what sort of decision do you make about Epcot? Do you find it inviting? Inspiring? Delightful or daunting? Does it make a good first impression on you?
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