Who stole Tomorrowland's soul?

Janelle Brown reports that Disneyland's much-hyped new Tomorrowland presents a fresh fa

By Janelle Brown
Published April 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The media buzz about the relaunch of Tomorrowland at Disneyland, as far as I can recall, began last fall. My first exposure to the new Tomorrow was a glowing New Yorker profile last October of Disney Imagineer Bran Ferren, one of the "visionaries" who conceives Disney's creative projects; my second was a similar Wired profile of Imagineer Danny Hillis in April. So by the time I got the fancy press invite -- with a rocket ship on the cover and a mechanical voice that counts down from 10 when opened -- I knew the hype (a future based on yesterday's fantasies!) by heart.

But my first personal introduction to Tomorrowland is the man who calls me and chirps, "Hi, I'm Steve, and I'll be your slave for your stay at Tomorrowland."

Slaves certainly don't play a part in the World of Disney, so I have to assume that the man on the other end of the phone is speaking figuratively. In more literal terms, he has been assigned to be my "Astro Guide" -- my personal, one-on-one navigator to Disneyland as I come down to check out the bigger-better-newer Tomorrowland.

As it turns out, Steve is just one of hundreds of Astro Guides escorting many thousands of reporters, cameramen, journalists and radio personalities around the fancy new relaunch of this 43-year-old portion of The Happiest Place on Earth. Disney, you see, is quite aware of where its bread is buttered -- it woos each of these press members with not only personalized Disney-style care but feasts of oysters, jumbo shrimp, steak and free martinis. We get Tomorrowland lunch boxes, baseball hats, CDs and solid chocolate rockets delivered to our rooms. In return, Disney hopes to get the kind of eye candy coverage that sends kids to their parents begging for a trip to the Magic Kingdom.

From my room in the Disneyland Hotel, this ruse appears to be working. The six months of build-up have culminated in a veritable press frenzy: The TV stations are running not only Tomorrowland commercials, but teasers for their special sneak peeks of the "exciting new vision of the future" and retrospectives of Tomorrowland's history. There's a story in every local newspaper and most of the nationals, too.

Tomorrowland, in my childhood memories, was the dullest part of Disneyland -- I preferred fairy princesses to space ships -- but after all the hype I am curious how Walt's visions have been translated into 21st century family entertainment. So on Thursday morning, after washing my face with Mickey soap and conditioning my hair with Mickey shampoo, I go sit under a looming plastic Mickey statue (his arms outstretched in a rigid hug) and drink a cup of coffee from a Mickey Styrofoam cup while I wait for Steve, my Astro Guide, to show up.

He arrives in the form of a genial round man with a toothy grin and a balding pate. Steve, it turns out, is a 19-year veteran of Disneyland, a manager of the Plaza Inn (a Victorian-themed restaurant on Main Street, U.S.A.) who has been rounded up specially for this assignment. He is also a veritable font of knowledge about All That Is Disneyland.

One of the first things he points out to me, as we climb onto the monorail to head into the park, is the enormous pile of dirt to our right. That dirt is destined to be a mountain in the California Adventure park (which, our monorail narration tells us, will open in 2001). The $1.4 billion California Adventure will be a miniature version of the Golden State: a "wilderness" with hiking and hang gliding, a "Hollywood studio" with special-effects shows and limo rides, a "seaport" with beaches and watery fun. There will eventually be a San Francisco portion, complete with a miniature winery and a Golden Gate Bridge -- all of the greatness of California in a mere 55 square acres.

California Adventure is part of Disneyland's attempt to become more of a resort than a theme park. Although still the flagship of the Mouse's mighty empire, Disneyland brings in only one-fifth the revenue of Disney World, its rodent sibling in Orlando. The difference is based primarily on length of stay -- 70 percent of Disney World's visitors come from out of state and remain in the area for an average of four days while visiting the multiple Disney World attractions (the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, MGM Studio and the new Wild Animal Kingdom). Disneyland, on the other hand, attracts primarily locals who stay just for the day, and sits all alone in the suburban concrete wasteland of Anaheim.

Today, however, the star of the show is Tomorrowland, and at 9 a.m. the park is already crawling with press and their name-tagged Astro Guides. Tomorrowland doesn't open to the public until tomorrow, so today the newsies have the future to themselves. The only kids allowed are a passel of local schoolchildren in identical green Tomorrowland T-shirts brought in so the TV cameras have smiling faces to film.

Disney, which is fond of reminding the public that Disney is America by aligning itself with patriotic occasions, has chosen Space Day to preview Tomorrowland. Fifty former astronauts -- including Andrew Thomas live from the Mir space station -- have been invited onstage for the dedication. The ceremony is Disney-style picturesque, with flag dancers and confetti and military jets flying in formation overhead; not surprisingly, only TV reporters are allowed in the arena, while camera-less press are relegated to the sidelines.

Instead, Steve and I head for the rides.

Every ride, restaurant and land in Disneyland has a carefully scripted "legend" concocted by the Imagineers -- the casual visitor may never hear them, but the employees know them by heart. The land of Toon Town, for example, was supposedly Mickey Mouse's private home that always existed behind Disneyland but just opened to the public six years ago. And Redd Rockett's Pizza Port, the new theme restaurant in Tomorrowland where Steve first takes me to witness the communal hugs and cheers of the daily staff meeting (as a 19-year veteran of Disneyland's eateries, Steve is anxious to show off the restaurants), is supposedly the first Earth outlet in an intergalactic chain of pizza joints.

We head first to the Rocket Rods, possibly the most hyped ride in the new Tomorrowland. It has replaced the old PeopleMover (an above-ground tram that sped along at 11 mph) with a zippy 35-mph ride, designed to look like the bare chassis of a race car. Above us looms the Observatron, a rotating sculpture that appears to be made of satellite dishes -- and that Steve informs me is supposed to be "communicating with aliens." The Rocket Rod cars zip, zoom, whip us around in a circle above Tomorrowland, giving a great view of the people below, before landing us back in just three minutes.

Across from the Rocket Rods is the Astro Orbitor, the signature monument of Tomorrowland. This ride is based on the old Disneyland classic Rocket Jets -- personal rocket ships attached to arms that rotate around a pole -- but the center looks like a Renaissance astrolabe, an astronomical model of the galaxy. I want to give it a go, but the ride appears to be closed to the press today -- instead, it's strapped with video cameras that are filming the group of schoolchildren brought in for the event.

Steve and I manage to get seats in the first showing of "Honey, I Shrunk The Audience," a 3-D movie much along the lines of your normal theme park 3-D movie, but based on the supremely irritating (and, apparently, supremely lucrative) Disney series about the zany inventor with his wacky shrinking machine. The narrative and acting leave much to be desired, but I have to admit the special effects are pretty cool: I am shrieking and squirming as much as the kid sitting next to me (again, from the special group of schoolchildren) when we are inflicted with swarms of loose mice, enormous sneezes and lunging snakes.

"Star Tours," the "Star Wars" movie, is closed for the day, but the technology showcase Innoventions is open in the old rotating theater, which used to host the warbling animatronics of "America Sings." Innoventions won't actually open to the public for a few months, but the press is being allowed in today as a preview. We have to wait in line for 45 minutes, and once we are in, there's not much to view except Internet consoles, some high-tech sports equipment and a full-size animatronic robot, the inventor Tom Morrow, who wails a grating song about the glories of technology.

All of Tomorrowland has been given a face lift. While the old Tomorrowland colors were the white and red of NASA space exploration, the new Tomorrowland is covered in antiqued and distressed golds and greens and purples -- a scheme that, according to press materials, is supposed to evoke the fantasy worlds of Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci. The buildings, meanwhile, are painted with odd WPA-like murals depicting men holding satellites and profiles of Mickey working at computers. In the center of the plaza is a giant fountain that, my materials tell me, is styled after Elizabethan hedge mazes. The mishmash of historic and cultural references is bizarre, to say the least, but the area looks fantastic with the looming sculpture and rocket ships profiled against the sky.

But much of Tomorrowland hasn't gotten much more than a new color scheme. Space Mountain is still a fast indoor roller coaster that whips you around in the dark -- only now it has a Dick Dale soundtrack. The "Star Tours" movie is still a special effects "Star Wars" extravaganza, and the Submarine Voyage and Autopia seem to have languished without even a new coat of paint. And actually, two of the new attractions -- Innoventions and "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" -- aren't even original; they're imported from Disney World.

The "new" Tomorrowland is, essentially, a fancy paint job with some fantastical moving sculptures, a new movie and one fast new ride. There's no doubt the relaunch was massively expensive, but there seems to be more surface than substance. Even Steve seems a bit nostalgic for the old Tomorrowland: "America Sings was my favorite ride," he says mournfully. "I loved the animals. It was so fun."

Steve and I dodge the coifed TV anchorwomen and their enormous cameras and take a couple more rides. After a final turn on Space Mountain, we've exhausted Tomorrowland. Instead, ducking under the barriers, we head out into the crowds in the rest of Disneyland.

My favorite ride as a child was the Pirates of the Caribbean, and it is still wondrous even to a jaded 20-something. The animatronics may be 30 years old, but they are amazing -- so many pirates and wenches and animals battling it out in the debaucherous fire-lit underworld that you can't possibly take it all in. Steve knows all the Pirate secrets: the donkey that's been hidden under a sack of treasure because PC police complained that it implied animal abuse, the trays of food that the wenches being chased by pirates now hold (so that they are being pursued for food, not sex) and the hidden Mickey in the shadow of the pirate captain.

Steve is an endless source of these kinds of tidbits and secrets. At the spinning teacups in Fantasyland, he points out the thatched roof of the house beside us -- made of telephone wire, he says, because it's not flammable. At the Wild West-themed Thunder Mountain ride, he tells me how the roller coaster was prototyped out of marbles by Imagineering SVP Tony Baxter when he was still working on the park floor ("Tony Baxter is kind of a hero to us cast members," Steve confesses). At It's a Small World, Steve points out the color scheme, which used to be blue and white and silver when Bank of America was the ride's sponsor, but is now all pastel pinks and purples in the colors of the new sponsor, Mattel. At Mickey's House, where we wait in line to get our picture taken with the oversize rodent, he tells me there are actually four Mickeys, carefully hidden behind moving doors so that no child knows that there are multiple mice in the house.

Steve loves working at Disneyland -- "Someday I'll get a real job" is one of his favorite jokes, repeated at various moments throughout the day, but of course he doesn't mean it. As my Astro Guide, I assume that he is supposed to enthuse wildly about the joys of working for Mickey, but in his case, at least, the joy is genuine. The look on his face as we traverse the Indiana Jones Adventure (a lavish ride that replicates a cursed treasure cave) is pure delight, and he tenderly holds the hand of the terrified little boy sitting next to him.

By the time we've finished Thunder Mountain and had our pictures taken with Mickey, I'm exhausted. When we part ways, Steve hugs me and tells me this is the best time he's had in ages. I had a pretty swell time too.

The next morning, I head back to Disneyland alone to watch the official Tomorrowland opening. The public doesn't get photogenic astronauts or fireworks -- just Mickey, Goofy and some confetti -- but they don't seem to care. A pack of cast members has to physically restrain the thronging crowd that is trying to rush the barriers. When Tomorrowland finally opens at 10 a.m., tens of thousands of desperate parents, kids and teens rush into the area, hoping to be the first in line.

By 10:10 a.m., the line to get on Rocket Rods stretches all the way to the front gate of Disneyland. One employee estimates that it will take four hours in line before the frazzled Disney faithful get on the three-minute ride.

Park officials are putting today's attendance at 60,000 visitors, and even more are expected on Saturday (the first day of Memorial Day weekend). Consistently high numbers are predicted throughout the summer. Most of these visitors, it seems, will spend their $36 entrance fee to stand in line -- as I wander around the park, even the non-Tomorrowland rides have ludicrous waiting times. I want to get on the Matterhorn, but with a two-hour wait, it doesn't seem worth the bother.

Instead, I sit and eat ice cream and watch the tourists in Tomorrowland: a veritable forest of strollers, Mickey balloons, whining kids and two-foot churros. The most immediate entertainment today is the Cosmic Waves water fountain, which jets water straight up from the ground in rhythmic patterns. Hundreds of kids are darting amid the streams -- probably because there's nothing much else to do while they wait in line.

The more I think about Tomorrowland, though, the less I like it. Disney's hold on the theme-park market has never been because of its ability to build fast roller coasters; the Magic in the Magic Kingdom is because of its mastery of narrative and ambiance. Those dark rooms and scary landscapes, which you navigate in a jeep, a boat, a train, a bobsled, even a caterpillar, are fantastic and frightening because the Imagineers managed to turn stories into total experiences. The detailing is unparalleled -- there's always far more than you can see in just one ride, and the animatronics are still realistic even after 30 years.

But compared to the rest of Disneyland, Tomorrowland lacks that magic. With one exception (the robotic narrator at Innoventions), there are none of Disney's fantastic animatronics -- instead, there are movies that rely on special effects. Even the two rides lack the rich detailing of other Disney rides: Once you get past the futuristic entryways (designed to keep you entertained while waiting in line), Rocket Rods has no visual effects whatsoever, and Space Mountain is just a dark room with stars projected on the walls.

While Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World couldn't be anything but Disney, it feels to me that Space Mountain and Rocket Rods could be found at just about any theme park across the states.

According to park rumor, Imagineering isn't happy about this gap either -- one local geek who claims to be friends with Tony Baxter tells me that the new Tomorrowland was a budget struggle between marketing and Imagineering. Imagineering wanted more special effects and more rides. Marketing wanted to pinch pennies. Marketing won.

The battle is still being played out. The underwater Submarine Voyage ride, which is a 30-year-old kitsch nightmare (think plastic fish in a fluorescent blue pond) that was overlooked during the Tomorrowland relaunch, is slated to be removed. Imagineering wants to replace it with an underwater ride based on the secret upcoming movie "Atlantis"; the money people want to leave it as a lake. Imagineering, to provoke action, recently put up an unapproved sign over Submarine Voyage saying "Coming soon: Atlantis." The sign was quietly removed before the Tomorrowland press arrived.

It seems that the Disney of the past is being replaced by Michael Eisner's Disney of the future -- grand theme resorts where hapless families spend four days, five days, even a week before their cash runs out and they head home with their bags of Mickey ears and plush toys and "Little Mermaid" dresses. Instead of elaborate animatronics, it seems, we're getting the soulless California Adventure and the Disney Cruise Line, glorified zoos and zippy rides with four-hour lines (if they have to stand in line that long, perhaps they'll extend their stay an extra day).

But it's easy to be cynical when it comes to Disney's hold on our wallets. I don't doubt that Disneyland wants to make kids happy; Steve and his fellow cast members certainly have the best of intentions and a genuine passion for their jobs. So, it would seem, do the creative minds in Imagineering who envision the worlds that Disney builds. Tomorrowland may lack depth, but it certainly captures children's imaginations with spaceships and aliens and shrinking machines.

After all, Disneyland's appeal has little to do with what adults think -- it's whether the kids like it.

Even Carl Hiaasen, in his scathing Library of Contemporary Thought essay, "Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World," can't totally dismiss the magic of Disneyland. Disney may be taking over our lives with its greedy business practices, but as he begrudgingly writes, "Aren't the folks at Disney mostly good and decent and hardworking? And don't they honor, in spades, their pledge to bring fun and happiness to kids of all ages? Sure they do. Being dutiful parents, my wife and I made several pilgrimages to Walt Disney World when our son was small, and he always seemed to have a blast."

And to be quite honest, the kids at Disneyland don't seem to mind the fact that Tomorrowland seems to be more of an orchestrated PR event than a massive launch of a totally new land. As I sit eating my ice cream, I watch endless streams of kids run around with fists full of junk food, eyes big as flying saucers as they watch the enormous gold astrolabe spin round and the Observatron directing messages to invisible aliens in the blue sky above. Many are audibly gushing -- one young boy sitting next to me keeps repeating to his friend, "This is so cool."

As for me, I'll take the old but soulful Pirates of the Caribbean any day.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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