by Jesyka D’Itri
Keeping up with the future: a built-in problem
On a website dedicated to the discontinued attractions of Disneyland, Yesterland.com, the section allocated for Tommowland lists thirty-seven attractions—double that of any other land. Tomorrowland said hello to the Monsato House of the Future, Adventure thru Inner Space, Mission to Mars, and Captain Eo. And then it said goodbye. Tomorrowland has been completely renovated twice since its opening in 1955: once in 1967 and again in 1998. Both times it reopened as “New Tomorrowland.” In addition to these complete overhauls, which included façade changes, it has seen many small refurbishments and additions. In 1959, the Matterhorn Bobsleds (now a part of Fantasyland), Submarine Voyage, and the Monorail were completed. In 1974, America Sings replaced the Carousel of Progress. And in 1977, the Space Mountain complex was added. Tomorrowland saw more additions in 1986 and 1987 with Captain Eo and Star Tours, when Michael Eisner and George Lucas collaborated (they had already established a successful business relationship as Eisner had championed Raiders of the Lost Ark when he was an executive at Paramount, no doubt also paving the way for the addition of the Indiana Jones Adventure, Temple of the Forbidden Eye to Adventureland in the mid-nineties).
Why the constant change concentrated in Tomorrowland? Tomorrowland has the built-in problem of needing to represent the future, but the future will always become the present. In order to keep up with the real world and remain a popular destination, Tomorrowland has had to undergo (and will continue to have to undergo) transformations. The changes in the façade and in the attractions at Tomorrowland directly reflect advances in technology, the pervasive use of similar construction in southern California roadside architecture, a shift in public opinion related to the rejection of 1960s utopian ideals, and the natural decline in popularity of the 1980s pop icons around which certain attractions were built.
Tomorrowland was originally designed to portray the year 1986. It represented a utopian land of the future where families would live in progress and peace. A few of the original attractions were 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Rocket to the Moon, Autopia and the Monsato House of the Future. 20,000 Leagues closed in 1956, just a year after it opened. The House of the Future was the model home for generations of families to come. It was made almost entirely of plastic, right down to the kitchen sink, and was equipped with such innovations as insulated glass walls, plastic chairs, picture and speaker phones, a nonfunctional television that hung on the wall, microwaves, and electric toothbrushes—all inventions that are now available and commonplace. Once these inventions became realities in the average home, however, the House of the Future became outdated. Rather than continue to update it, they tore it down. Or, rather, the wrecking ball bounced off the sturdy plastic side of the house and a crew of several men had to demolish it by hand. It, as well as several of the other original attractions, closed to make way for the New Tomorrowland of 1967.
How can it remain futuristic?
By 1967 it was evident that Disneyland was influencing the architecture of its surrounding area and the greater Los Angeles area as a whole. The building housing the Encounter restaurant at the Los Angeles International Airport, for example, was completed in 1961. Resembling a flying saucer hovering midair beneath two crisscrossing parabolic arches, it is the most recognizable landmark at LAX and a veritable symbol of Los Angeles. (Fittingly, the interior of the restaurant was actually designed by Disneyland Imagineers.) The Anaheim Convention Center was built during the construction flurry that followed the opening of Disneyland, and also looks like it was inspired by a flying saucer.
An architectural style, popular during the 1950s and 1960s, known as “Googie,” which is “loosely classified as a humorous but futuristic style of vernacular architecture,” became extremely popular in designs for diners, coffee shops, and gas stations (Extensions). People liked “Googie” because it “was all about the future, and the future was a theme that people were ripe to experience in the 50s, as Disneyland has shown” (Extensions).
Tomorrowland’s original façade was not especially innovative. Instead, it was influenced by a style characterized by “futuristic and whimsical leanings” that was already becoming increasingly popular and that would eventually come to dominate California’s roadside architecture (Extensions). According to John M. Findlay, the park was supposed to be “placeless” when in all actuality the park “was very much the product of a particular place and also an influential force in the reshaping of that place” (qtd. in Extensions).
It is difficult to completely disentangle the future from the present because all we have to go off of are our predictions, our own conceptions of the future, all of which are influenced by the present. We have no concrete knowledge of the future. For this reason, it makes sense that this would be a problem faced by a land that is meant to represent our ideas about the future. But if the purpose of Tomorrowland is to transport you to the future and you see the same types of buildings when you are headed back to the Five on your way home, how can it remain futuristic? People became accustomed to seeing “Googie” everywhere they went, and therefore the architecture of Tomorrowland, as well as some of its attractions, became outdated.
In addition to the architecture and the attractions, the utopian ideals of a future full of promise founded upon the ingenuity of mankind and the progress of technology embodied by the original conception of Tomorrowland also came under scrutiny. Public morale was low as the nation threw itself into the Vietnam War. Young people of the period “rebelled against their parents’ can-do attitudes and embodied a sense of dark cynicism that rendered the playfulness of Googie offensive. The auspicious representations of the future in Tomorrowland now seemed dangerously naive and unlikely” (Extensions). As the optimism of the 50’s waned, public opinion became more cynical. In light of this new pessimistic world view, people were less willing to swallow the sugarcoated pill of the future that Tomorrowland had to offer. Tomorrowland simply became unbelievable, and not in the sense that was originally intended.
The more things change…
The reopening of Tomorrowland as “New Tomorrowland” in 1967 was an attempt to regain some of the awe Tomorrowland was once capable of eliciting from Disneyland-goers. In preparation for the reopening, an entirely new façade was created and several attractions were scrapped, added, or reinterpreted.
The entrance from Main Street was revamped; two spectacular gate-like walls were added, flanking either side of the walkway. Walt Disney’s vision of a transportation system that never stopped moving was finally realized. Called the People Mover, it took travelers on a 15-minute journey around Tomorrowland. The wheels of this functional perpetual motion machine never stopped turning, even in the queue. Also added in 1967 were the Adventure thru Inner Space, the Carousel of Progress, and the Rocket Jets. The Rocket Jets were a reincarnation of the Astro Jets, but rose far above the ground on a platform above the People Mover queue. They changed the name of Rocket to the Moon to Flight to the Moon. Some animatronics (like the electronically animated robots seen today in the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Tiki Room) were added and the seats were made to inflate and deflate to simulate G-forces. Tomorrowland had been given a whole new look. However, by the time we landed on the moon two years later, at least one ride was out of date. Already, the necessity for building yet another “New Tomorrowland” seemed imminent.
While the 1970s brought a number of significant changes to Tomorrowland reflective of both larger technological advances and a response to the public’s growing preference for “thrill rides,” few of these changes would prove to be permanent. Throughout the 1970s, more attractions were added and others were retired or replaced. In 1974 the Carousel of Progress, which featured a revolving stage and showed how life had improved since the advent of electricity, was moved to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida in time for its Grand Opening. In 1976, America Sings, a bicentennial celebration, was built in its place. It featured animatronic animals who narrated the history of music, from the cities to the swamps. In 1975 Mission to Mars replaced Flight to the Moon.
Yet it still seemed that something was missing. In 1971 Six Flags Magic Mountain, a theme park which made thrill rides its focus, opened in Southern California. Disneyland was (and arguably still is) a park centered around attractions that are fun and family-friendly as opposed to rides that could be considered frightening or exhilarating. Nevertheless, pressure to compete resulted in the development of the Space Mountain complex. Space Mountain is a thrill ride through (supposedly) pitch-black space at speeds of up to 70 mph. (Incidentally, Space Mountain is currently undergoing a complete renovation to reopen anew for the 50th anniversary of Disneyland in 2005.) A stage was added, as was an arcade, to cash in on the burgeoning video game craze. These changes continued into the 1980s with the arrival of new (and currently embattled) C.E.O. Michael Eisner.
The more they stay the same
The 1980s brought two major changes with respect to Tomorrowland, both of which came directly as a result of Michael Eisner and his decision to take advantage of the economic pull of two iconic institutions of eighties pop culture: Michael Jackson and Star Wars. Eisner invited George Lucas to create two new attractions at Disneyland. One was Captain Eo. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it premiered in 1986. It was a 3-D movie with, then state of the art, special effects and it starred Michael Jackson and Angelica Houston. It was half music video, half science fiction thriller.
The second attraction was Star Tours, which was inspired by the tremendously popular Star Wars trilogy and opened in 1987. Star Tours is a flight simulation ride that takes you to the moon of Endor (or so you think). Captain Eo and Star Tours basked in the reflected glory of Michael Jackson and Star Wars respectively. Both of these additions came to light because of the influence these two icons had upon popular culture at the time and they did manage to succeed in breathing new life into the park.
Also during the decade (1988 to be exact), the show that had nothing to do with the future (and was actually more concerned with the past), America Sings, closed. The building that had housed it was subsequently used as office space. By choosing to build two major attractions around two icons that were so specific to the 1980s, Eisner was taking a pretty big risk. In order to pump up attendance in the short-term, he effectively made the bet that their mainstream popularity and relevance would be lasting. Unfortunately, he was wrong and thus doomed Tomorrowland to yet another complete overhaul in order to keep it fresh and up-to-date.
Because the last façade change had occurred in 1967, and because the changes in the 1980s were based more on contemporary popular culture than an actual vision of the future, Tomorrowland had become a place of the past by the 1990s. Imagineers recognized the need for a complete revision of Tomorrowland. Plans were in the works for Tomorrowland 2055, a spectacular place where alien life forms lived and worked harmoniously with humans on Earth (Hill). But Disneyland Paris opened in 1992 and was hemorrhaging money. (People don’t visit France to go to Disneyland.) Ironically, the most realistic idea for a future that would most likely not come for a very extended length of time (if at all) was sacked in favor of a simple, cheap façade change.
Staying power: what works, what doesn’t
The new New Tomorrowland, which opened in 1998, represented a change that Disney hoped would be “timeless.” It was inspired by visionaries like Leonardo DaVinci and Jules Verne. Mission to Mars closed in 1992, as it had also become outdated, and the building was left unoccupied for six years until it became an eatery for the reopening of New Tomorrowland. Additionally, many rides were removed or reinvented for the reopening. Captain Eo, which was by this time markedly eighties and thus an attraction that had become distinctly nostalgic rather than futuristic, was replaced with Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. The People Mover was replaced with the Rocket Rods, which occupied the same track as the original ride, but moved at considerably higher speeds. Yet because it was too expensive to curve the banks in order to keep the ride smooth, it was forced to slow down around every turn. The ride closed in 2001 due to constant breakdowns (good riddance—I was once stuck on that ride in heavy downpour and high winds for twenty minutes and was so cold I cried). After 40 years, the Submarine Voyage was closed permanently due to high costs.
Tomorrowland’s Autopia went under its first renovation since opening day in 1955. It was connected with Fantasyland’s Autopia track and got brand new cars. And the Rocket Jets got a new look, a new home, and a new name. The ride became the Astro Orbiter and was located at the entrance to Tomorrowland. Superficially, the new New Tomorrowland may have represented big changes, but it also represented a huge disappointment for fans and also for the Imagineers, who had had their hearts set on building their own original version of New Tomorrowland.
Autopia and the Astro Orbiter are the only two rides that remain from the original Tomorrowland when it opened almost 50 years ago; the staying power of these rides can be attributed to their simple qualities. Additionally, the fact that young children will never be allowed to drive on their own makes Autopia an attraction that will always represent the future for people under 16 (at least in California). Riding in rockets is not (yet?) a commonplace occurrence, which means that the concept for the Astro Orbiter will probably not become outdated any time soon. Its longevity may also reflect the fact that Fantasyland’s Dumbo—which is the same ride as Astro Orbiter but with a different façade—remains one of Disneyland’s most popular rides. The Astro Orbiter serves as an alternative to Dumbo’s long lines. The survival of these two rides is due, therefore, to their straightforward concepts and to the fact that they have never become relics of the past, unlike the vast majority of the other attractions that have graced Tomorrowland.
Change and the future: like peanut butter and jelly
What can we determine from all of these changes? First and foremost, the future is a difficult thing to both keep up with and to predict. The large number of attractions that have come and gone from Tomorrowland (not all are mentioned here) proves this. Second of all, it is apparent that popular culture and public opinion affect which rides will be created and that they help to determine which attractions and aspects of Tomorrowland will be closed, replaced, or revamped. The proliferation of “Googie” in popular architecture and the public’s eventual rejection of the 1950s ideals it represented necessitated the first façade change in 1967. And Captain Eo and Star Tours exploited the popularity of two of the eighties biggest pop culture cash cows, but the fact that they were so eighties also meant that it was inevitable that they would become dated. Autopia is the one attraction in Tomorrowland that has remained relatively unaltered since its birth; the Astro Orbiter has undergone more changes, but is also essentially the same ride. These two attractions have never been closed, just simply rethought.
Thirdly, technology significantly affects popular conceptions of the future, and therefore directly affects Tomorrowland, as with the House of the Future, and the overall theme of Tomorrowland.
Change is a necessity for the survival of a place meant to represent the future. A place of the future will therefore never be able to remain timeless because it is always influenced by the time in which it is constructed. It is through constant change that we determine what the future will bring, because stagnation does not lead to progress, which is what Tomorrowland is all about.
Jesyka D’Itri is majoring in Fine Arts and Visual Anthropology. She knows way too much about Disneyland. It’s okay though because her dream is to become an Imagineer.
“A Brief History of Disneyland.” Kingdoms.
“Encounter FAQs.” Encounter Restaurant.
“Extensions of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland and Adventureland: Googie and Polynesian Pop
Architecture in the American Landscape.”
Hill, Jim. “Remembering ‘Light Magic.'” Jim Hill Media.
Jepsen, Chris. Googie Architecture On-Line.
Weiss, Werner W. Yesterland: A Theme Park on the Web Featuring Discontinued Disneyland Attractions. 26 August, 2002.