This is the story of something memorable that happened 40 years ago, today…
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...
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 spiraling up through its geodesic structure. That was when Norman and I bumped into Ray and his daughter, the late Bettina Bradbury.
"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 the official narration (by The Outer Limits 'Control Voice', Vic Perrin) 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.
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."
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...
[A version of this story was first posted on this blog on 22 October 2015]