To some, it’s EPCOT’s signature icon—the theme park’s flagship attraction, its centerpiece ride. To others, the impressive 180-ft tall geodesic sphere is, simply put, “that giant golf ball in Disney World.” Across the board, however, Spaceship Earth has the same effect. As if on cue, everyone approaching the structure—from first-time visitors to Disney diehards—does the same thing: they look up.
The communal reaction is the perfect introduction to a ride that takes guests on a journey through the history of human communication and connection. It’s also the exact emotion that designers from Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) sought to reinforce with the attraction’s new exterior lighting scheme.
Unveiled in 2021 as part of Walt Disney World Resort’s 50th anniversary celebration, the refreshed façade and plaza lighting heralds a new dawn for the park. “We were asked to ‘dream big’ when it came to EPCOT, so the lighting team knew we had to deliver on a reimagining of the nighttime lighting of the park’s icon,” says Jason Scott Read, principal lighting designer for WDI. “Given Spaceship Earth’s iconic nature, and the fact that it can be seen from all over the park and Walt Disney World resort, it was imperative that the lighting look great for years to come, both during the day and at night.”
While the lighting design needed to make a statement and accentuate the dome’s unique characteristics, luminaires couldn’t mar the structure or impact its daytime appearance, especially since guests can stand within 15 ft of Spaceship Earth at its lowest point. “We were tasked with creating a custom fixture that seamlessly integrated into the structure and ‘disappeared’ during the day, and that would have exceptionally high reliability,” Read says. “We went through many iterations of fixture and system design in order to meet these goals. In the end, we went with a completely custom fixture made of the same materials and finish as Spaceship Earth, and with a system topology that remoted most of the components to indoor locations, where they can be easily maintained.”
Designed to fit into open spaces in the existing façade design, the luminaires nest within the panels’ void intersections. Prototypes were fabricated and refined, so the size, fit and materials blend seamlessly into the architecture. In addition to sending light outward through six sets of RGBW emitters, each fixture also contains six white side-firing emitters that “connect” the light between them. The side emitters provide an additional layer of visual interest by tracing the façade’s contours, while also reinforcing the themes of human communication and connection.
Included in the project’s scope was a reimagining of the football-field-sized entrance plaza, containing a new fountain, flags and horizontal light feature. Within the fountain is a hidden, custom-designed “beam of light” fixture, which is bright enough to make a visual statement while still meeting safety requirements. “It had to be low voltage to comply with NEC contact voltage requirements for lighting adjacent to water that guests can touch, requiring a unique solution,” Read explains.
Meanwhile, flags are uplit by narrow-beam RGBW spotlights, which synchronize with the plaza’s color scheme. Finally, a 10-in. tall by 900-ft long backlit milk-plex lighting feature creates a horizontal “ribbon” of light surrounding the entire plaza. More than 1,800 individually controllable RGBW fixtures, located on 6-in. centers behind the ribbon, wash the area with color-changing effects.
Each day at sunset, these elements combine to make the plaza come alive with a symphony of lighting. The localized system synchronizes with park-wide systems for special triggers, including a rotating series of light shows and the nightly fireworks spectacular. The entrance plaza lighting is also consistently updated to integrate with park events, as well as seasonally to present programs such as “winter snow”—a special treat in the warm central Florida setting.
Unsurprisingly, one of the resort’s centerpiece structures, visible from 360 deg, cannot allow luminaire failure and downtime. In order to meet the extreme uptime criteria, the façade fixtures leverage constant-current power. All the drivers and electronics are located inside the building, and the luminaires themselves contain only emitters and a heat sink. To achieve this, more than 60 miles of cable was threaded through the sphere, so that each fixture has a home-run connection to the driver racks.
“In some ways, everything old is new again,” Read says. “When EPCOT was originally created, thousands of individual cables were home run from a central computer core throughout the park for individual control of every function of the attractions throughout the entire park. We used that same topology here, with over 60 miles of cable threaded through the structure. Doing so minimizes the impact of any failures, and also allows us to keep the fixtures incredibly simple—most of the components are remote so they can be replaced more easily. This also simplifies maintenance, so if a fixture does have to be replaced it can be done easily, without any special tools or programming.”
The control system features an astronomical time clock, which only runs the system at night. “The system also takes inputs to know whether the park is open or closed, when the nighttime spectacular is playing as it synchronizes with that show, and a host of other inputs and statuses to ensure the correct cues are running at the right time and sequence,” Read says.
The designers hope the project will reinforce the park’s mission statement—bringing the magic and wonder of what’s possible to Disney guests—for at least 40 more years to come. “EPCOT is a theme park about hope and inspiration, and how we can all achieve more together,” Read says. “This installation is all about getting us all to look up, both metaphorically and literally, and watch communally.”
Jason Scott Read, the project’s lead lighting designer, is principal lighting designer at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) in Orlando.
Galen Lande is a lighting designer at WDI.
Many additional members of the WDI team—as well as Tennagels Creative Media Technology, Mareleng and Southeastern Towers—also contributed to the project’s design and engineering.