Urban Design and The Epcot Arrival Experience – Part 2

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Not long ago, I was privileged to be a guest on the world famous WDW Today Podcast. I get my WDW news fix three times a week from Matt, Mike, Mike, and Len. The show topic was the design behind the arrival experience at each of the 4 parks. Making a great first impression is one of the hallmarks of the Disney parks. So let’s try and get into the head of the Imagineers and figure out why each entrance is unique but distinctly Disney.

Yesterday I started to describe the Epcot arrival experience and why it was designed to make a different type of statement than the Magic Kingdom.

Spaceship Earth is an amazing structure. The structure was influenced by a number of icons from World’s Fairs past. The 1939 New York World’s Fair featured an obelisk called the Trylon and a spherical building called the Perisphere. 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.

So to make a 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 first hurdle was to figure out how to build a sphere. The solution was to build the structure in three parts. The first structure was a structural table with six pylons sunk 120 to 185 feet into the ground. On top of this table is a geodesic dome. Hanging upside down from the table’s edge is another dome. The combination makes up the sphere.

The skin of the sphere is made up of two structures. 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 run off out to the lagoon.

The sphere 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 954 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.

Spaceship Earth is visible from miles around. I look for it when I am flying in or out of Orlando. I have learned to sit on the right side of the plane from Los Angeles. The sphere’s simplicity, good form, and the alternating repetition of the skin has created a structure unlike any other. The surface is ever changing in color and texture. The weather and time of the day are reflected upon its surface. It’s beautiful.

From a distance it appears as a clean white globe. Move closer and the articulation of the surface from the Alucobond panels creates an oscillation that enlivens the surface. Step into the plaza in front or pass underneath and you are humbled by its sheer scale.

Once you exit the parking tram, leave the bus stop or walk down the monorail ramp you will enter a public realm that is at a very much at the human scale. The landscaping creates a human-scaled park-like environment. The service buildings outside the gate are timeless, clean and modern. The emphasis is on the horizontal. The Monorail platform is horizontal as are the low overhangs of the ticket booths and the entry gates. Everything outside the gates reinforces this intimate scale.

Then there is that magical moment, that moment when your apprehension fades away and you feel awe and delight as pass through the entry gates. Once you pass under the entry gate shelters, the roof pulls away, the buildings to the side force you to focus straight ahead and the shear-curved wall of Spaceship Earth defines the space. The buildings on both sides and the extensive entry gate structure help to form a large outdoor room. But it is Spaceship Earth that is focus.

The Imagineers wanted to do more than create a structure with a visual impact. They wanted something that could strike an emotional impact. They used the size of the structure to make that connection. From the deck to the bottom of the sphere is only 18 feet. It feels so close you want to jump up and tap the bottom. The planters, buildings, and the little shops adjacent to the loading are for the ride funnel visitors under the globe. All must pass beneath and be humbled by how small we are and how big the world can be.

I know the initial concept for this article was to suggest that the Imagineers were trying to pioneer a completely new kind of theme park and to make it as different from Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom as they could. However, both parks actually share more qualities then they are different.

Both parks force the visitors to share a common experience before they go on to their adventures. At the Magic Kingdom you have to pass through Main Street. At Epcot you have to pass under Spaceship Earth.

Once you are pass this constricted space you are deposited into a large plaza. The Plaza Hub serves this function at the Magic Kingdom and the plaza formed by the Innoventions buildings creates a true center of Epcot. From this point you can peer through the Innoventions buildings and peer at the “wienies” that include the iconic Future World structures or continue south towards the World Showcase lagoon with the American pavilion off in the distance.

You have arrived at the “future”.

I recognize that Epcot has the rare second interest called the International Gateway. I won’t get into too much detail (my next trip is at the Boardwalk so I will get very familiar with this entrance and will report on it later). I do know that it is designed to be sympathetic with the French Pavilion inside of the park and in that respect it is very successful.model

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Posted on October 20, 2009

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