Tomorrow Never Dies

Disney’s next-generation Tomorrowlands head off in an entirely new direction from their predecessors, with mostly amazing results.

As a kid, Tomorrowland was always my favorite part of Walt Disney World; I would sketch over and over again its main thoroughfare, framed by its two towering waterfalls. On the left and right I’d draw Mission to Mars and CircleVision 360 featuring “America the Beautiful”, and in the center, the StarJets and its Saturn V centerpiece perched atop the PeopleMover station. Along with this fascination came an equal but opposite incredulousness that none of the adults around me were exerting any effort to make our reality into the future that Disney was showing us. I kept looking for my hometown to start taking its design cues from Tomorrowland, with its speedramps and beautiful white concrete buildings, but to no avail: my town never strayed one inch from being plain, old Davison, Michigan, built from cinder blocks and aluminum siding. My dreams then turned inward in an effort to make my own environment more futuristic, but there I was stymied as well, waiting for technology to catch up with my ambitions. That big, twenty-inch TV that sat in the corner of my bedroom, with its huge dials and rabbit ears? I couldn’t wait to someday laugh at it as the RCA Home of Future Living wall-size model took its place.

Amazingly, thirty years later, almost everything in the Home of Future Living actually has come true: we do have huge, beautiful high-definition television, we can shop for dinnerware in the comfort of our own home, monitor our children through video cameras, even go skiing virtually through our video games. So, if we have what they had, why does our present feel so…unspectacular? Our daily existence seems pedestrian compared to the sparkling, beautiful future that the Home of Future Living family inhabited.

This is understandable: our past and future always seem more enticing than our present. Walt Disney knew this, hence Disneyland: a place designed to take you to the past and future…everywhere except the present. And despite the jokes that people made over the years concerning the aging concrete facades of Tomorrowland, to me it was always the most inspirational land of them all.

Alas, nothing stays the same, and the Tomorrowland I saw as a child has been updated. This new Tomorrowland—and its companions in California’s Disneyland and Disneyland Paris—are a whole lot different than the old ones. Their ancestors tried to foresee the future; these new ones try to show us alternate-reality futures, thereby making them immune to the ravages of time (there’s nothing more inconvenient than the forward march of progress showing up your predictions.) It’s easy to criticize and claim Tomorrowland should have stayed the same, but you have to be sympathetic to the dilemma that today’s Imagineers face: it isn’t as easy to build a Tomorrowland today as it was back in 1955.

Look at the approach that Imagineers of the past used when trying to build a Tomorrowland: take that day’s technologies, carefully project them thirty years into the future, and voila: an accurate vision of the future! Well, maybe not. Our priorities today are rarely our priorities in the future, hence the technologies of yesterday—outer space travel, atomic power—don’t progress as far as we expect. Innovation takes place in entirely different areas that we hadn’t imagined, and as a result, our futures are different than we could have predicted.

The era in which the original Imagineers lived—the 1950s—was a particularly fortunate time to build a Tomorrowland since the most exciting technologies then translated easily into theme park attractions. In the ’50s and ’60s, America’s collective vision of the future included advances in transportation (producing the PeopleMover, the Monorail, Autopia, among others) and space travel (Space Mountain, the StarJets). The future at that time was about traveling, and traveling fast. It’s not too hard to come up with amusement park rides based on that.

Today it’s not so easy. We live in an era where our most exciting technologies make lousy rides. Computers? I could imagine an attraction or two based on computers, but if Disney’s biggest fear is that Tomorrowland becomes dated too quickly, then computers are too fast moving to touch. Communications? Okay, but sort of boring: Spaceship Earth already covers this territory, and I’m not sure it’s worth reproducing outside of Epcot. Genomics? Not highly ride-worthy, and probably too controversial. The environment? A lot of money is put into green technologies, but again, it’s not a rich source of attraction concepts. All in all, it’s not impossible to come up with a few ideas related to today’s technologies, but enough to base an entire “land” around?

Given these roadblocks, it’s appropriate that Disney headed in new directions for its more recent visions of the future. Disneyland Paris’s Discoveryland was the first manifestation of this trend: it attempts to create a future dictated by the ideals and aesthetics of the 19th century. (This was the first new “Tomorrowland,” and the name “Discoveryland” indicates a certain discomfort with the idea of calling something so blatantly fantastic “tomorrow.” Disney obviously got over this hang-up in succeeding years.) Discoveryland succeeds for numerous reasons, the most obvious one being that it’s just plain beautiful. The “Jules Verne” aesthetic that, to my knowledge, was codified by Harper Goff’s Nautilus submarine from the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, proves to be an incredibly rich architectural foundation for a themed land. The Orbitron, looking like some sort of enormous mechanism modeling a far-off solar system, is breathtaking. (Who knew you could make the StarJets seem so special?) Spectacular also is the Hyperion blimp emerging from its Videopolis hangar. The later addition of Space Mountain and the full-scale Nautilus were the icing on the cake. (If only they’d put a little more effort into rendering the interior of the Nautilus more faithfully! Still, that’s a quibble—it’s great.)

More important than its good looks, Discoveryland does a phenomenal job of setting a consistent tone. As with Disneyland’s 1967 Tomorrowland remake themed to “transportation,” it all looks as if it came from a single designer. The attractions all feel like they’re part of the same world, each infused with the same “advancement through science” aesthetic—and the effect is thrilling. Yes, Discoveryland’s designers had the advantage of starting from scratch—the renovators of the U.S. Tomorrowlands didn’t—but it can’t be overstated how important this sense of unity is to providing an immersive experience.

Discoveryland only stumbles when it includes warmed-over attractions like Star Tours and Honey, I Shrunk the Audience from other parks. The realities of theme park economics unfortunately come to bear here (not every attraction can be an original) and these two attractions are out of place. But the overall effect is still a tremendous success, and Discoveryland is among the very best of Disney’s creations. Despite the fact that it doesn’t contain any giant-screen TVs or homes of the future, it’s as inspiring to me as Disney World’s old Tomorrowland. Even though the approach is completely different, there’s something about it that’s the same, and I think it’s the subtle sense of optimism about the future: that through our technology, we can tame our universe and achieve something incredible. Whether the predictions actually come true or not is secondary.

When it came time for Disney Imagineers to redo Tomorrowland in Disney World in 1995, it might have seemed an obvious choice to clone the Discoveryland they’d built just a few years earlier in Europe. Disney did something different, however. Instead of the sober tone of Jules Verne’s future, we get an over-the-top rendition of “Flash Gordon,” inspired by sci-fi serials of the ’30s more than any one man’s dream. It is a vision of the future, but unlike Discoveryland’s, it mocks visions of the future, making fun of the effort of even trying to guess what might lie ahead. You get the sense that the theming was chosen simply because it’s so out of touch with reality. Its vision—what you see here could never come true—is its salvation. It’s relieved from the burden of trying to be real, and park visitors can refrain from challenging it.

Like Discoveryland, Disney World’s Tomorrowland is incredibly beautiful. (The designers did an amazing job of transforming the park’s already-existing structures into something completely new.) Unlike Discoveryland, this land’s sensibilities are totally different. The American sense of humor has turned deeply ironic in the past decade—David Letterman’s influence has reached nearly every nook and cranny of U.S. culture—and maybe designers were worried that Paris’s Discoveryland might play a little “square” in the States. In some sense, Discoveryland—with its ornate cast iron submarines and moon rockets—still exhibits the same naivete that inhabited the earlier Tomorrowlands. In Florida, substituting for this breathless enthusiasm is arch humor: Disney World’s Tomorrowland “winks” at its guests. The attractions play along: Alien Encounter pokes fun at past corporate sponsors that once solemnly claimed that they saw the future. Carousel of Progress changed from a “real” attraction into a museum piece. Space Mountain, through the addition of wacky video ads with outer space used car salesmen and interstellar weather reports, mocks its own former concept of space travel.

Disney World’s Tomorrowland succeeds by delivering exactly what it promises. For me, however, it’s less gratifying than Paris’s Discoveryland. In my ideal Tomorrowland, I don’t want the designers winking at me. I want to see for myself that it’s not real, but I want the people who built it to believe with all their hearts that it is. Discoveryland’s designers, like those who made the original Tomorrowlands, wanted to believe that what they built could somehow be the future. Disney World’s designers instead made a joke: a meta-Tomorrowland about the folly of building a Tomorrowland. It’s clever, but ultimately not as satisfying.

With two victories under their belts, how did the designers of Disneyland’s new Tomorrowland, built in 1998, turn out such a disaster? Forget that the Rocket Rods never worked properly; that’s beside the point. What were they thinking in the first place? Unfortunately, they stumbled early on by thinking that a design concept as vague as “Imagination and Beyond” could lead to anything good. It’s so broad that virtually any ride concept or architectural element could fit under its umbrella. Take a quick walk through Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, and it shows. Unlike Discoveryland, it doesn’t feel like one man’s dream. Unlike Disney World’s Tomorrowland, it doesn’t present a single, consistent face to the guest. A direct clone of Discoveryland’s Victorian Orbitron sits only a hundred yards away from Redd Rockett’s Pizza Port, a funky ’50s style restaurant with a TWA Moonliner sitting out front. It doesn’t hang together.

The main fault with Disneyland’s Tomorrowland? It doesn’t “point” to anything. Tomorrowlands of the past pointed towards transportation and outer space exploration; Paris’s points towards the Victorian ideal of scientific achievement; Disney World’s points teasingly towards a Hollywood-style sci-fi future. Disneyland Tomorrowland’s architectural references don’t really look like anything we’ve seen elsewhere, so they don’t resonate. And it’s all presented as a wacky melange of futuristic ideas, almost like a museum or science expo. If it were stated that that’s what it was—a museum—it might work. But we’re never told what we’re looking at, and it’s too hard to figure out on our own. It’s been claimed by many outsiders that Disneyland’s renovation fell victim to a tiny budget that couldn’t pull off its ambitions. Maybe, but that’s not an excuse. If budget’s a problem, then use a smaller sum of money to sharpen the old theming rather than try to invent something expensive and new as was done in Paris and Orlando. Contrary to what most believe, fine-tuning the old Tomorrowland could actually have worked: it had been great in the past, and as I’ve tried to show here, its success had absolutely nothing to do with whether it was accurate, or even relevant, to today’s concept of the future. All it needed to be is fun, beautiful, and exciting—and none of those qualities required ditching the old theming.

So Anaheim is a strikeout, but Paris and Orlando do show that it’s possible to radically change the concept of Tomorrowland while still leaving the inspiration intact. Interestingly, today’s far-out Tomorrowlands make obvious what wasn’t clear to me as a child: the old Tomorrowland’s white concrete vision of the future wasn’t “real” like I thought; it was a dream, only a tad more authentic than the cannon that launches Discoveryland’s guests to the Moon. In that sense, these new lands aren’t inconsistent with the old ones. New or old, they’re all about dreaming, and viewed in that light, the best of the new Tomorrowlands work as well if not better than their ancestors. “Inspirational” doesn’t have to mean “accurate.” Discoveryland isn’t accurate in even its smallest detail, but to me, it’s moving: we’re seeing the physical expression of one man’s dream of the future.

The Home of Future Living is a far cry from what we find in Tomorrowland today, and it is a little sad that we don’t see that particular vision of the future in the Disney parks anymore. There is, however, one place you can find it: Magic Highway, U.S.A., an episode of the Disneyland TV show that airs occasionally on The Disney Channel. Its first forty-eight minutes tell a relatively dull tale of how our nation’s interstate system was built, but its last ten minutes feature a spectacularly animated vision of how we’ll move about in the future. Its predictions are rarely on target, but its artistry and vision are never less than thrilling. Spend ten minutes watching this, and you’ll remember exactly what you felt the first time you cast your eyes on “Progress City,” or took the speedramp by the Home of Future Living. Visions of the future don’t need to be accurate. They just need to point to something: something beautiful and inspirational.

Note: This Disney article first appeared on LaughingPlace.com, where I’m a semi-regular columnist.
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