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My New Book!

Monday, January 4, 2016

January 4, 2016: DisneyStudying: Spaceship Earth

[In November, I finally visited DisneyWorld for the first time, accompanying my 9 and 8 year old sons. We hit the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios in a whirlwind three days—and as you might expect, this AmericanStudier found a great deal of interest in all three places. So this week I’ll DisneyStudy five such details, leading up to a special weekend post on themes parks in America!]
On what stood out most to me and to my boys on Disney’s most interesting ride.
Located within that big silver sphere that has come to symbolize Epcot, Spaceship Earth takes its riders on a compelling, multidirectional journey through time and human history. The ride (narrated by none other than Dame Judi Dench, whom even an AmericanStudier finds about as cool as it’s possible for a human to be) first goes back in time to the earliest humans and their prehistoric struggles for survival, moves chronologically forward through thousands of years of social and technological changes and innovations until reaching the 21st century present (located at the top of the ride, and presumably the top of that famous sphere), and then as it descends back to its starting point presents an interactive game through which each car’s riders can create a video depicting their own ideal version of future innovations and society. The ride was both my and my boys’ favorite at Epcot, for different but complementary reasons that reflect each of our perspectives and identities.
What this AmericanStudier appreciated was the central thrust of the social and technological innovations on which Spaceship Earth focuses at every stage: communication, both in its most practical and most artistic senses. It was the invention of cave paintings that made isolated groups of cavemen into organized societies, in the ride’s opening scenes; from there, sections focus on the Phoenicians inventing the alphabet, on Alexandria and its great library (and the way its knowledge was preserved even after the great fire), on Gutenberg and his printing press, on Michaelangelo and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, on the telegraph and the radio and the computer and many more innovations. It stands to reason that a ride sponsored by Siemens would emphasize the role of technology in human development—but I was very pleasantly surprised that language and art were the most consistent threads of the communication advancements through which the ride moves, and the cores of its argument about what has made us most human. That’s an argument I wasn’t expecting to find in a theme park ride, and one I can get behind!
What the boys loved most was the ride’s final section, that interactive segment during the starry descent back to the start. There’s no doubt that their enjoyment was closely tied to the video’s most interactive component: having secretly taken a picture of the car’s occupants at some early point in the ride, the video is able to position their faces atop animated bodies in the imagined future they have created, a feature that both personalizes the ride and makes it different each time. And at least for us, this feature was far more than a gimmick: it really allowed the boys to think about what kind of future society they would want to create and how they would want to experience it, and on our subsequent rides they carefully considered their answers to the questions that help imagine that future. Of course I hope that language, art, and communication continue to play important roles in their futures, and they remained important to this part of the ride to be sure; but at the same time, it’s most important to me that my boys have a say and role of their own in shaping both their and the world’s futures, and Spaceship Earth gave them a chance to do so in an imaginative and inspiring way.
Next DisneyStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of Disney or theme parks you’d AmericanStudy?

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