The invitation was rather grand…
It was also unexpected.
Of course, I knew the event was happening and I also knew that my friend, the science fantasy writer Ray Bradbury, was going to be there…
Incidentally, I love the proprietorial way in which Ray refers to Spaceship Earth as his building! With justification, of course, for he had helped create the journey through a history of communications that was recounted to guests riding its interior.
I was in Florida, making a BBC radio documentary about the soon-to-opened EPCOT Center. Earlier in 1982, I had spent a couple of weeks filming in both Florida and Los Angeles for another EPCOT-centric documentary – this time for BBC TV's 'Everyman' series.
The plan had been that I and my producer, Norman Stone, would return with a crew to film the finished project when the park debuted in the October. In the intervening months, however, the BBC ran out of programme funding and were unable to send us all back to Orlando to capture the opening ceremony and the necessary wrap-up interviews with our contributors.
Disney offered to fly us out and take care of us, but since such a gesture might be thought to compromise the independent editorial voice of the BBC, the Corporation declined. Norman, it was decreed, would have to make the trip alone and work with a US film crew.
Then, while in Florida during EPCOT's preview weeks, making my radio programme (separate division, separate funding), Disney in true fairy-godmotherly fashion waved a magic wand by telling me that I was going to be invited to the opening events as their guest and the BBC, with an example of dubious (but gratefully accepted) reasoning, argued that whilst it would have been unacceptable for Disney to fly me out to cover the opening, if – 'as a guest' who just happened to be there anyway – I chanced to meet up with Norman and his US film crew and was able to record a few interviews (unpaid, of course!) then honour would be satisfied.
And that is what happened.
Which is why, on 22 October 1982 – against all expectations – Ray and I found ourselves chatting in the shadow of his wonderful, iridescent Spaceship Earth and I came away with a now treasured souvenir of the occasion...
Later that evening EPCOT was closed to the public for the black-tie Spaceship Earth Gala Party. The press contingent (of which we were, nominally, a part) were not invited to this posh bash, but were, instead, bused off to enjoy an evening at the well-known Orlando night-spot, Rosie O'Grady's Good Time Emporium –– except, that is, for Norman and I…
Through the generosity of the friendships we had made with the folks at Disney Imagineering, we were handed that posh invitation at the top of this blog…
There was champagne and food and there was music from some of the all-time greatest American dance-bands: all of which meant that the celebrity guests had more than enough to occupy them during the evening without actually riding Spaceship Earth which, for most of the evening, had empty cars spiralling up through its geodesic structure. That was when Norman and I bumped into Ray and his daughter Bettina.
Two meetings in one day –– wonderful!
"Have you been on Spaceship Earth?" Ray asked excitedly.
Well, yes, of course we had – a couple of times, in fact.
Ray looked totally crestfallen.
"Damn!" he said, "I was going to ask you to ride it with me."
There wasn't a moment's hesitation from Norman and I!
"Of course we'd love to ride it with YOU!" we exclaimed.
And we did. No one else. Just us. Ray and Bettina in the front seats, Norman and I, in our hired tuxedos, behind.
There was Walter Cronkite's narration coming out of car's speaker system, while Ray provided his own unique commentary over the top – adding detail and explanation about why he had chosen this or that moment in the history of communication to be part of the Spaceship Earth story.
When a few days later, while waiting at Orlando airport for my flight home, I picked up a copy of Time magazine and was astonished to see a photo of Ray sitting in an airplane. How could this possibly be? Everybody knew that Ray never flew: the man who had envisioned the age of space travel, the man who had written The Martian Chronicles was afraid of flying! And yet, there he was – on a plane!
What had happened was that his cross-country train had been cancelled. Needing desperately to return home to work, he acquiesced to his aviophobia, telling his Disney hosts to buy him an air ticket, give him three double martinis and “pour him on the plane.”
Which they did, as witnessed to in Time magazine with its photo of an air-hostess helping Ray buckle his seat belt and the witty accompanying story:
TIME Monday November 8, 1982
Flushed of face, a little white in the knuckles and after a send-off of what appeared to be one tee many martoonies, Science Fiction Novelist Ray Bradbury, 62 (Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles), nervously strapped himself into his seat.
The master of intergalactic fiction was embarking on his first airplane flight. (He doesn't even drive, a rare feat for someone from Los Angeles.) Bradbury, who set out by train and limousine, was returning home from Orlando, Fla., where he had taken part in the opening ceremonies of Disney's new Epcot Center.
After over 40 years of earth-bound travel, how did he like it aloft? "The stewardesses petted and smoothed my feathers," he said happily. Will he go up again? "No, not often."Fast forward to last year’s sale of Ray’s estate at auction. There, among the myriad lots, was a piece of cartoon art commemorating that memorable event with a depiction of Ray enjoying one of those "tee many martoonis" in company with Mickey Mouse!
The auctioneers were unable to give more than the briefest of descriptions. The artist’s signature was, they noted, indecipherable… But not to anyone who knew their Disney names!
Veteran Disney artist and Imagineer, Francis Xavier Atencio (left) had designed the ‘Spoonful of Sugar’ nursery sequence in Mary Poppins with its cavorting toys, clothes and furniture; had animated on Fantasia and the acclaimed 3D cartoon, Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom; was one of those responsible for Disney’s brief dalliance with stop-motion animation in the experimental short, Noah’s Ark, and title sequences for, among other movies, The Parent Trap and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.
Atencio, whose company ID badge simply read ‘X’, went on to do legendary theme-park work for Disney Imagineering: helping to design the Disneyland Railroad's Primeval World diorama and writing the scripts for two famed attractions: Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, for which he also penned the lyrics to their respective theme songs, 'Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)' and 'Grim Grinning Ghosts'.
The surrounding mount is inscribed and signed by some of the senior members of Imagineering team responsible for the creation of EPCOT Center, including Marty Sklar, John Hench, Randy Bright and Pat Scanlon – all of whom had appeared in my BBC documentary.
It was Marty Sklar who had given me the title for my programme – ‘Waltopia’, which had been Marty's playful suggestion to Walt Disney as an alternative name for Walt Disney World.
With so many personal associations, I decided I really ought to give Ray and Mickey a new permanent home! So I did...