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Understory
The entrance to the Understory at the Amazon Spheres. (Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)

People hoping to visit the newly opened Spheres on Amazon’s Seattle campus would do well to double check just what that experience will entail — especially if they don’t have a blue badge signifying that they work for the tech giant.

Reports in Seattle media outlets this week, including The Everygrey and The Seattle Times, and rants on Twitter indicate that some folks who headed down to get a firsthand look at all the exotic plants and cool views were left underwhelmed by Understory, the visitor experience at the base of the Spheres that does not provide access inside the glass domes.

That access is strictly for Amazon employees, who will be using the Spheres as a work and gathering space to get away from traditional office settings. That point was made clear by John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities, in an earlier tour and interview with GeekWire.

“This is our office space, and we don’t invite the public into any of the towers,” Schoettler said. “This is just an alternative working space for our employees.”

Perhaps the Spheres website, and the page for Understory, wasn’t entirely clear about that point. There’s definitely some bold type on the page now, and here’s how Understory is described there:

Underneath the rainforest canopy, but above the forest floor, is the understory — the sweet spot that provides the perfect habitat for thousands of plants and animals. Get up close and personal with the story at The Spheres Discovery at Understory. With interactive exhibits about flora and design, Understory provides a fully immersive, 360-degree experience to visitors. Please be aware that the Understory exhibit is separate from the indoor gardens of The Spheres. A reservation to Understory does not grant entry into The Spheres.

Understory
Example of Spheres plants, inside Understory. (Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)
Understory
Hands on with a Spheres model, inside Understory. (Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)
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A small living wall in Understory. The real living wall in the Spheres is four stories tall. (Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)

By “fully immersive,” Amazon means visitors to that space can expect to spend under an hour looking at some photographs and videos to learn the backstory behind the Spheres. There are some building blocks to show how Amazon is fitting itself into the Denny Triangle neighborhood. There are some Spheres models which reveal the unique geometry of the structures. And there are some plants to demonstrate some of what’s growing in the building above your head.

Seattle writer Paul Constant summed it all up in his take at The Seattle Review of Books:

The reality of the Spheres is that if you have an Amazon badge, you’re allowed into the story of the corporation. You get to hang out in treehouses and write code surrounded by exotic plants. If you don’t have an Amazon badge, you’re cast into the Understory. You wander around a rinky-dink museum with one exhibit that enthuses about what it’s like to be allowed into the world above. You crane your neck and peer at the ceiling, and you wonder what it’s like up there, in what you’re told is the only story that really matters in Seattle right now. And then you’ll realize you’re never getting up there. And so you return, dissatisfied, to your story — to the understory.

Access to Understory still requires a reservation, and perhaps that requirement is what made people feel like they were signing up for more than what they got. Here’s a website snapshot of what the time slots look like in the coming days:

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A reservation page for Understory at the Spheres in Seattle shows time slots all booked up. (SeattleSpheres.com screen grab)

The public can get inside the actual Spheres and get a better look by booking a spot on a regular Amazon HQ tour. Those 90-minute tours take visitors through a few buildings on Amazon’s urban campus, including the Doppler and Day 1 towers which bookend the Spheres. But! They’re booked through the end of June already.

In his chat with GeekWire, Schoettler did recognize that more people are going to want to get a look inside at something they’ve been curious about from the outside for the past few years.

“There’s an amazing teaching moment here, and we envision being able to open these Spheres to the public occasionally for field trips and for educational purposes with different schools and universities,” Schoettler said.

So, go back to school! You’ll either join your classmates on a Spheres tour someday, or you’ll gain the smarts to land yourself one of those blue badges. In the meantime, you can just see inside the space again with GeekWire …

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