One of Orlando's most iconic rides is rumored to be closing for the biggest update it has ever received


  • Photo via Disney
There are plenty of updates supposedly in the works at Walt Disney World, but as we get closer to the 50th Anniversary in 2021, we’re getting a better idea of the possible post-anniversary plans slated for the Vacation Kingdom.

With Animal Kingdom’s massive addition now in the rear-view mirror and the plans at Hollywood Studios quickly taking form, the focus is now shifting to the long-term redo heading to Epcot.

Two of the most significant projects, the new Ratatouille family ride and the thrilling Guardians of the Galaxy indoor roller coasters, are well underway and both are likely to open within the next 24 months. Beyond those two additions, few details of Epcot’s grand redo are known. However, new rumors point to a major overhaul of the park’s flagship attraction, Spaceship Earth.

Opening with the park in 1982, Spaceship Earth has had two major updates over the years, the last in 2007. That was thanks to a sponsorship by Siemens, which was announced two years earlier in 2005. Now more than a decade since its last update, the history of communication narrative found in the ride is missing a key chapter on smart devices.

If current rumors are correct, Spaceship Earth will close for more than two years to undergo a major overhaul in which every scene is overhauled.

When it opened in 1982, Spaceship Earth stood out as an ambitious project in a theme park filled with them. Ray Bradbury, who was a close friend to Walt Disney and familiar with Disney Imagineering, oversaw the storyline found within the time traveling-themed ride, which drew heavily from science fiction writing at the time, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Bradbury begins his description of the ride’s story noting that “[i]t is an optimistic statement: It presupposes that man’s continuing dynamic is survival,” which requires “access to accurate and relevant information.” The 1977 document where Bradbury lays out his concept for the ride’s storyline, and with it his vision of humanity’s history and struggle, remains relevant to this day – possibly even more so than when it was originally written.

Since its opening nearly four decades ago, many scenes on the ride remain almost identical to this day with only the last third of the journey, where modern telecommunications and information technology is discussed, requiring updates.

The same looks true for this rumored upcoming ride overhaul. According to multiple sources familiar with Disney’s rumored plans, the Bradbury story found within the first half of the ride will remain virtually untouched, with the primary focus being on the scenes following the Industrial Revolution (the printing press).

Many of those same post-Industrial Revolution scenes were modernized in both the 1994 and the 2007 updates. The 1994 update ironically included a video conferencing scene in which children used real-time translation technology to converse across the globe. When it debuted in 1994, some criticized the scene as being too outlandish. The 2007 update included the addition of computers with a large mainframe computer and a Silicon Valley garage scene where a home computer is being built. It also added a new tunnel effect that celebrates computer coding.

While the 2007 update did add multiple new scenes, the most significant was touch screens within each ride vehicle. Some have noted this customizable ending pays homage, intentional or not, to the long-lost Horizons ride. It’s unclear if the Spaceship Earth touch screens will remain in the new version. The current system does use an antiquated Wi-Fi based communication for the onboard interactions.

According to WDW News Today, the rumored upcoming update could see the ride close for many than two full years, far longer than a typical ride refurbishment. This is likely due to issues with the current ride system. Despite new ride vehicles being added in 2007, much of the ride system hasn’t been updated since opening 36 years ago. After nearly continuous use for almost four decades, the ride’s track and other elements are in desperate need of major work. Unlike earlier plans that called for the entire attraction to be gutted and replaced with a roller coaster-based thrill ride (those plans were later used as part of the inspiration for the Guardians of the Galaxy ride that is currently under construction nearby), the new plan calls for the ride mechanism to be replaced with one that will seem nearly identical to riders, despite major updates to the technology used to control the ride.

New load and unload areas, possibly one that are more handicap-friendly and which don’t require the entire ride to be slowed when a guest is struggling to enter or exit a ride vehicle, are also possible as part of the updates.

The award-winning MIT designed geodesic sphere that is also named Spaceship Earth probably won’t see any significant update. Some have expressed concern that Disney might choose to cut a hole into the sphere in order to access the areas they want to bring up to date, but WDWNT points to the post-show area, currently known as Project Tomorrow, as where Disney plans to access the ride. This post-show building was used initially as Epcot’s central guest services lounge, providing park information, reservations and other park-related services. As more and more of those needs shifted online and to smartphones, the area was redone as an exhibit space with multiple interactive displays. According to WDWNT, this entire area will now be demolished entirely. It’s unclear if Disney plans to replace it with anything or merely have guests unload and directly exit the ride building. An unused VIP lounge is also in the area.
An artist rendering of Disney's plans for Epcot's Future World shared at D23 - IMAGE VIA SCOTT GUSTIN | TWITTER
  • Image via Scott Gustin | Twitter
  • An artist rendering of Disney's plans for Epcot's Future World shared at D23
Artistic renderings from 2017 give us an idea of some of Disney’s plans for Future World, and clearly show this post-show ride building missing. In its place is a mysterious empty space.

The exterior of the ride may also be used as part of the larger Future World projection and fountain-based nighttime show that is rumored to be coming to the park sometime in the 2020s. According to Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider, some of the triangular tiles that adorn the building may be replaced with LED tiles for use as part of the new nighttime show.

Little is known about what the new ride scenes will entail, but details on at least one room of the attraction are now being shared by insiders. On a recent podcast, industry insider and historian Jim Hill discussed details of the updates coming to the iconic top-of-the-sphere planetarium scene where the ride vehicles turn backward giving riders a breathtaking view of Earth floating in space. According to Hill, this scene will remain, but it will be receiving some of the same technology that Disney will use in the upcoming space-themed restaurant and Star Wars hotel.

There has been no indication of who might be chosen to do the onboard narration for the ride. In a company known for their partnerships with globally recognized celebrities, the Spaceship Earth narration remains one of the most coveted. Previous narrators include Jeremy Irons, Walter Cronkite and Dame Judi Dench (whose narration is presently heard on the ride).

Disney has indicated, via the aforementioned artwork, that the buildings holding Innoventions and MouseGears may also be removed. It is possible that Disney will do all of this work at one time, shifting the entrance pathway out from under Spaceship Earth and to the outer ring of Future World near the new Guardians ride. A small utilidor system connects much of the area now rumored to be getting overhauled.

Current rumors point to Spaceship Earth’s lengthy remodel beginning in early 2020, around the time Ratatouille and Guardians open in the park and just a few months after the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at DHS, with Spaceship Earth’s grand reveal just in time for the park’s 40th Anniversary in 2022. It’s thought that the construction crews currently building the Star Wars land at Hollywood Studios will shift their focus in the coming months as the DHS land readies to open.

No official word from Disney is expected for at least another year or so. Epcot’s future plans are expected to be one of the primary topics Disney covers at the 2019 D23 event.

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