Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Fate of Tomorrowland, Part 2

Note: this is part two of a two-part blog post. For the first part, click here.

In the 1990s, the Disney company decided to change the image of Tomorrowland. No longer would it reflect Walt Disney's Space Age-imaginings of what the future might hold; now it would be a retro-future, based off sci-fi work from the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (even more retro than Space Age!). Gone were the sleek and clean whites and silvers of the old Tomorrowland. Now everything would be painted in browns, golds, and reds, the colors of rust.

The "new" TomorrowlandSource and License

In large part, this new Tomorrowland was based off of "Discoveryland," the retro-future land built in Euro Disney as a nod to old-fashioned European visions of the future. Despite having a few copied attractions from Tomorrowland, it was never intended as a true vision of the future. And it relieved Disney executives and designers of the burden of having to actually think about what the future might look like, let alone have to update it to keep up with a changing idea of the future. You can argue that this makes sense from a business perspective, but it also illustrates a lack of the visionary spirit that defined their company's founder.

"Orbitron Machines Volantes" at Euro DisneySource and License

The Disney company made a lot of weird decisions in the 1990s, especially when it came to its theme parks (the ill-conceived original "California Adventure" park springs to mind). But this re-branding of Tomorrowland seems particularly ill-advised. The PeopleMover, once envisioned by Walt Disney as a model for future transportation systems, was replaced by an operationally-inept thrill ride. And then there was when the re-branding occurred: a grungy, rusted image of the future might have made sense in the 1970s or 80s, when such images were in vogue, but by the 90s the Space Age look had finally become dated enough to be cool again. It's one thing to embrace a retro future, but then why not embrace the retro future you already have? Why this weird hodgepodge?

Grunge Space MountainSource; by Jon Sullivan

The "Observatron," emblematic of the cluttered appearance of the "new" TomorrowlandSource and License

In recent years, Disney has repainted Tomorrowland to take it back to its original Space Age colors of predominately whites, silvers, and blues, a sign that someone with a lick of sense has taken over design choices for the park.

The bright colors of the new "new" TomorrowlandSource and License

However, Disney still maintains that Tomorrowland is intended to reflect retro science fiction visions of the future. Today, among the attractions based on Buzz Lightyear and Star Wars (which, as we all know, took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), the only attraction in Tomorrowland with any semblance of predicting the future is Innoventions, a walk-through attraction where the Carousel of Progress once welcomed visitors, where guests are treated to displays of the latest technology (although as of writing, much of the building is given over to Marvel-themed attractions based on the Avengers movies).

This change of intent for Tomorrowland also reflects a wider cultural shift in America: the loss of the utopian image of the future in the cultural mainstream, of which Tomorrowland was its most realized example. There are obvious benefits to abandoning the concept of utopia, but nothing optimistic rose to take its place. Instead, Americans increasingly took comfort from images of the past.

Main Street, U.S.A.Source and License

Which leads me to the ultimate irony of Walt Disney's vision of the future. In the end, it wasn't Tomorrowland that reflected the actual future of America. Rather, it was Main Street, U.S.A., the fanciful re-creation of a turn-of-the-20th-century small town at the entrance to Disneyland. By the turn of the 21st century, urban planners were singing the praises of "new urbanism," walkable suburbs built to resemble early 20th century New England towns. And Disney's company got in on the act, developing the town of Celebration, Florida near Disney World. Walt Disney's dream of building a town in Florida came true... but instead of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, it looked more like Walt's homage to yesteryear.

Celebration, Florida, built in the 1990sSource and License

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I've always found it kind of tragic, though I think that EPCOT to some extent tries to (or at least tried to, as of the last time I was in Disneyworld) kind of take over from Tommorrowland as Disney's vision of the future.

    To be fair, though, Disney never saw what the future would actually be like coming, and neither did pretty much anyone else - the Internet changed everything.

    I do suspect that there is a market for a new futurism out there, untapped and waiting, but I'm not sure what it looks like - maybe whoever does it first will get a whole bunch of architectural ideas sold, only for them to look very silly not very long afterwards.