How Did the Spaceship Earth Beacon of Light Show Come to Be? Interview Sheds Light on Popular EPCOT Offering

A new piece by Samantha Schwirck for Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), “EPCOT’s Next Era,” highlights the technical aspects of the new lighting package of Spaceship Earth and the surrounding EPCOT entrance plaza, which debuted in 2021 for “The World’s Most Magical Celebration.”

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Photo: Disney Yellow Shoes/David Roark

“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,” Jason Scott Read, principal lighting designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, said. “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.”

The Spaceship Earth luminaires are nestled between the icon’s panels and illuminate in different patterns during shows each night, including a special show celebrating the 40th anniversary of EPCOT. Imagineers had to get creative to make sure the luminaires wouldn’t impact the appearance or structure of Spaceship Earth.

“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,” said Read. “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.” 

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Photo: Disney Yellow Shoes/David Roark

The Imagineers designed round luminaires meant to blend into the existing Spaceship Earth architecture. Each one sends light outward through six sets of RGBW emitters and contains six white side-firing emitters that “connect” the light between them.

When it came to the new fountain in the EPCOT entrance plaza — which is inspired by the park’s original 1982 fountain — Imagineers constructed a custom-designed “beam of light” fixture that is hidden in the center.

“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 explained to Schwirck.

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Photo: Disney Yellow Shoes/David Roark

The pavilion logo flags to the sides of the fountain are uplit by narrow-beam RGBW spotlights. And around the plaza is a 10-inch tall by 900-foot long backlit milk-plex “ribbon” with more than 1,800 individually controllable RGBW fixtures on 6-inch centers.

All of the lights are synchronized to create the nightly shows, with as many as four shows rotating at once during EPCOT festivals. The lights also synchronize with the nighttime spectacular “Harmonious” and are expected to match up with future nighttime spectaculars.

An astronomical time clock runs the system at night. Read explained, “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.”

To curb downtime, the luminaires on Spaceship Earth have constant-current power. The drivers and electronics are inside, while the luminaires only contain emitters and a heat sink. More than 60 miles of cable run through Spaceship Earth to achieve this.

“In some ways, everything old is new again,” Read said. “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 new lighting package reflects some of the themes of EPCOT, like connection and communication represented by the lines of light across Spaceship Earth.

“EPCOT is a theme park about hope and inspiration, and how we can all achieve more together,” Read said. “This installation is all about getting us all to look up, both metaphorically and literally, and watch communally.”

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