Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Disney In Space Part 4: From Ray Bradbury to Lt. Dan

EPCOT Center may have been the boldest, gutsiest thing the Walt Disney Company ever did. Instead of rides based on familiar Disney properties like Snow White or Peter Pan it had pavilions devoted to big, sweeping topics like agriculture, transportation, and energy. Each pavilion either contained one huge experience (like Universe of Energy and Horizons) or a number of experiences under one roof (like The Land or Journey Into Imagination), allowing you to spend an hour or more exploring one topic. Since Future World was devoted to, well, the future, and since all optimistic projections of the future always included space travel in some form, it seemed logical that EPCOT Center would open with a Space pavilion.

It did not.

However, a Space pavilion was definitely planned. In fact, Disney’s 1977 Annual Report actually contained a description of the proposed pavilion:

A huge, interstellar "Space Vehicle" will transport passengers to the outer frontiers of the universe, highlighting man's efforts to reach out for the stars around him ... from the early pioneers who looked and wondered ... to modern-day space travelers and their triumphs ... to the challenges and possibilities of future space technologies and exploration”

Although lots of concept art and photos of early ride mock-ups for EPCOT’s other pavilions have been published, we’ve only ever seen a tiny number of images from that early Space pavilion concept. The most common are a photo of the ride’s scriptwriter, the great Ray Bradbury, and designer John de Cuir examining a model of the show’s theater/ride vehicle . . .


. . . this artistic rendering of the same theater/show vehicle:


. . . and finally, this rendering of the pavilion’s exterior:


According to Martin Smith’s excellent Mission:Space tribute video, the pavilion would have been located on the plot of land now occupied by The Living Seas. the experience would have started with an Omnimover ride that took visitors “up into space” and deposited them into an area where they could choose from several activities, including the main show.

Supposedly, outer-space visuals would have been projected onto an Omnimax sphere outside the “windows” of the huge theater/simulated space vehicle, which would have moved in sync with them in some way. As near as I can tell from all these fragmented pieces of information, the show would have been a cross between Universe of Energy and Horizons’ Omnimax sequence. If the Ray Bradbury-penned narration for the original Spaceship Earth is any indication, his script for the Space pavilion’s show would have been similarly majestic and profound. Much like the original Universe of Energy or the original Spaceship Earth narration, though, it likely would have been rather mirthless and scholarly. Kids like me who were weaned on Star Trek would have loved it, but our more numerous Star Wars-oriented peers-who thought of space travel as a thrilling roller-coaster ride where you shoot lasers at enemy spaceships while making wisecracks to your Wookiee co-pilot-would surely have been disappointed.

The Bradbury Space pavilion, as we EPCOT Center geeks refer to it, was unfortunately shelved due to the lack of a corporate sponsor. A scaled-back version called Journeys In Space was planned for a while in the late-80s/early 90s, and would have occupied the expansion plot between The Land and The Seas pavilions, but it, too, was shelved.

Which brings us to the space attraction that EPCOT actually ended up getting. Notice I said “attraction”. By the time Mission:Space opened in 2003, EPCOT’s “permanent World’s Fair” concept had long been abandoned by unimaginative executives who couldn’t and wouldn’t understand it. So we weren’t getting any more pavilions with their multifaceted experiences that a person could spend hours exploring. Also, since the prevailing opinion was that Disney needed more “thrill” rides, there’s no way we were getting one of those fun-but-mild-experience-that-can-be-enjoyed-by-the-whole-family rides that EPCOT Center did so well. No, Mission:Space will go down in history as the first Disney attraction to come equipped with barf bags. Still, it’s not without its good points.

The queue is extremely cool. Also, the attraction features some very advanced technology, and I’m not talking about the simulators. I’m talking about the Lt. Dan Animatronic. Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking: “That’s no Animatronic, that’s really actor Gary Sinise!” But look more closely:


Notice how his forehead is completely smooth. Next time you watch the preshow video, observe how as he talks, his forehead and most of his other facial features remain completely immobile. That’s the sure mark of an Animatronic. Or it could be botox.

Finally, for all its flaws, Mission:Space is the most realistic space attraction Disney has ever done. I was as imaginative a kid as you’ll ever see, but when I went on Mission To Mars back in the mid-80s, I never once believed I was in a rocket ship and not a show building. And as I discussed in previous posts, neither Space Mountain nor Star Tours really tried to realistically simulate spaceflight. Mission:Space, though, gives you the most realistic space launch experience you’ll get outside a NASA training facility. Yes, the Orange Team version makes a lot of people sick, but so would an actual space launch. It’s one reason why so few people qualify to become astronauts.

So, removed from the context of the thing it replaced (Horizons) and the grand Space pavilion we never got, Mission:Space isn’t as bad as some people make it out to be, in my opinion. It’s certainly a product of our current era of scaled-back ambitions and MBA thinking, but at least it gives the space travel concept the seriousness it deserves* and doesn’t try to shoehorn in any licensed characters.

I mean, we could have gotten Stitch and Duffy Take a Ride Into Space (starring Lt. Dan). Right?

*I meant to say that the main show treats space travel seriously. The post-show is another story. The “Space Race” game is more like a space-themed game show, and the rest of the post-show is like a high-end McDonald’s play area.


  1. *In response to the Stitch reference* At least it could have been worse. And with regards to Lt. Dan's animatronic-appearance, this might have brought the term 'uncanny valley' to a nearly new level.

  2. Thanks for an informative look at what could have been. It's pretty interesting to me.

    Re: Lt. Dan... I've been up close to Gary Sinise twice (on a flight from LA to Chicago, he was in first class but when we were deboarding there he was face to face with us, and once when we were at a function where his Lt. Dan Band played, he walks out in the audience with his bass and I was almost as close to him as I am to my computer right now)...he really looks exactly like the picture! And he's pretty short too.


Thanks for taking the time to comment!