In 1963, Ray Bradbury and Walt Disney had a chance encounter. Both men were Christmas shopping when Bradbury recognized the icon beneath a mountain of gifts. The writer seized the opportunity to introduce himself, and was delighted when Disney knew who he was.
When Bradbury asked if they could have lunch, Disney invited him to his office the next day. From there a quiet friendship built on mutual admiration, respect, and imagination was born.
That lunch turned into countless more, during which Bradbury and Disney exchanged ideas on many projects. Walt introduced Ray to Disney Imagineers, writers, and artists who welcomed his suggestions with open arms.
In 1964, Disney even asked Bradbury to consult on the American Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Hearing that they planned on destroying all of the fair’s exhibits and buildings sparked Disney’s original idea for EPCOT Center.
Though plans for EPCOT were initially scrapped after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, Walt Disney Productions did move forward with Magic Kingdom as part of Disney’s vision. In 1967, construction began, and Bradbury was asked to help with several projects within Tomorrowland.
Most notably, he added one small but major design element to the Astro Orbiter attraction. This attraction was based on the 1956 ride, Astro Jets. The version at Magic Kingdom was designed to be different than the remodeled version at the California park, but Bradbury thought making the rockets and planets move in opposition to each other would make it appear to move twice as fast.
It’s a subtle change, but one that makes a striking difference. The change was kept when the ride was added to Disneyland Paris in 1992, and remains in place today.
Bradbury also worked on a design proposal for Yestermorrow Time Machine, a carousel ride that would have replaced the Carousel of Progress. Ultimately, however, his proposal was declined.
In the late 1970s the company decided to move forward with an altered version of the EPCOT theme park. Walt Disney had imagined it as an immersive community with people living and working in it. The name itself, Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, encapsulates this vision. But running a city without Walt seemed impossible, and so the company decided to make it an attraction instead.
Bradbury was brought in to work on several key projects. The most visible project was Spaceship Earth, the enormous geosphere at the center of the park known as “the icon of EPCOT."
Imagining the future was one of the things that brought Bradbury and Disney together, and Disney Imagineers believed in Bradbury’s ability to bring Walt’s vision to life. He developed the storyline and narrative script for the ride. Although this version of the script was edited to make it accessible to small children, the heart of Bradbury's story remains.
Bradbury also began working on the Space Pavilion—one of the many pavilions envisioned as part of EPCOT—in 1977. It was initially conceived as an orbiting space station, in which guests would take off from a launch pad to explore a multitude of interactive exhibits. The main feature was planned to be a motion simulator theater that would take guests through space. Unfortunately, plans were initially pushed back due to budget issues.
However, the project was revisited in the 1990s as Journeys in Space before finally coming back to life as Mission: Space in 2003. Though the script has been changed, Bradbury’s vision of taking guests through space remains intact.
The work Bradbury did with Disney in bringing the future to tangible life was noticed by the U.S. government. In 1988, Bradbury and Ward Kimball were asked to discuss ways that the Walt Disney Company could assist the U.S. Space Program.
Bradbury opened the meeting with a powerful speech on why it is humanity’s duty to go to space. He argued that Disney can do more than provide stunning visuals regarding space, but tell such a compelling story surrounding space exploration that it opens the public’s hearts and minds.
Heading into the early 1990s, Bradbury was asked to help in the design and creation of Disneyland Paris. He worked to create a distinct and unique Discoveryland, the Parisian version of Tomorrowland. His suggestions also influenced the Phantom Manor attraction.
Though Bradbury and Disney only met three years before Disney's death, their friendship was deep. In fact, Disney cherished the relationship so much that when he wanted to express his gratitude to Bradbury in the form of payment, he opened the Animation ‘Morgue’ where all of the animation cels, sketches, animation shorts, and more were meticulously stored. Disney instructed the archivist to allow Bradbury whatever he wanted.
Bradbury left with 20 pieces that he cherished for the rest of his life. He considered this gift all the payment he needed, and never asked or accepted another form of payment from the Walt Disney Company.
For the rest of his life, Bradbury not only continued to work with Disney Imagineers, he remained one of Disney’s most vocal defenders. Even before meeting Disney, he had been a vocal advocate of the parks and products. When pieces were published downplaying or outright insulting Disneyland or one of Disney’s movies, Bradbury would write back. He had no tolerance for artistic snobs and believed in the genuine happiness and optimism Disney—both as a person and a company—brought.
This outlook was one of the things that cemented the friendship. Both Bradbury and Disney believed in the future. But for Bradbury, it wasn’t simply imagining any future. It was imagining one filled with hope and optimism.
Bradbury is quoted as saying in his anthology Yestermorrow, “predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look… and predict more of the same. To hell with the same. I want better!”
Bradbury believed there was happiness and joy to be found by embracing imagination, and he made it his priority to voice that opinion through the work he did on his own and with the Walt Disney Company.
This mission meant Bradbury was a staple among the Walt Disney Imagineers for decades. The company relied on his words to bring their attractions to life, and they trusted him to maintain the vision Walt himself had for his parks, movies, and features.
Bradbury would share ideas with almost anyone over lunches, answering questions and engaging in conversation. Many of the Imagineers remember how he would spark ideas within these teams, and even if he didn’t have a direct hand in creating features, he certainly influenced them in immeasurable ways.
Bradbury's own work ended up making its way into Disney, as well. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1972) was made into a movie (1983). "The Veldt" was used as the basis for a Disney Channel Original Movie, Smart House (1999).
And in 2007, a gorgeous oak tree in Frontierland was decorated and dedicated to Bradbury’s novel, The Halloween Tree. Bradbury credited Disney's Silly Symphonies—The Skeleton Dance (1929) as being responsible for his love of Halloween, which eventually brought forth the story. The tree has been decorated and lit every Halloween since.
The inspiration worked both ways. Bradbury wrote Downwind in Gettysburg after seeing the attraction Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and he wrote the screenplay for Disney's The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998).
Ray and Walt were kindred spirits who were lucky to find each other. And the community Disney built was cemented throughout his organization long after he died. Ray Bradbury became a part of the heart and soul of Walt Disney Company, and his impact remains to this day.