No future in Tomorrowland

Instead of predicting future technologies, Disney's updated playground opts for the predictable.


Janelle Brown
May 28, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

When Tomorrowland first opened in the 1950s, the future looked a lot like plastic.

Disneyland's original Tomorrowland was home to the Monsanto House of the Future, an oddly shaped house in which everything was made of synthetic materials -- plastic so durable that it had to be hacksawed apart when it was finally retired in 1967. It was also home to the Bathroom of Tomorrow, the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry and the Aluminum Hall of Fame. Walt Disney, it seems, was very fond of materials.

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Tomorrowland was a pet project for Disney, who often expressed his belief that modern technologies like plastics and freeways would revolutionize and improve our world. As he said, "Tomorrowland is a vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying man's achievements ... a step into the future, with predictions of constructive things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals: [the] Atomic Age ... the challenge of outer space ... and the hope for a peaceful and united world."

Peace and unity are no small goal for a theme park, but Walt was never one for thinking small. Tomorrowland was his kingdom's attempt to predict which unbelievable technologies would make our lives better. Back in 1955, that looked like freeways and monorails and plastic houses and men on Mars -- a vision that was played out over the years through rides like the PeopleMover (a snail-like tram), the Flying Saucers ride (essentially, bumper cars held up by air), multiple Autopia rides (even kids can drive a car!) and a ceaseless stream of 360-degree CircleVision movies that took you to the Moon, into atoms, out to Mars.

But in the 1990s, Walt's original prophecy of the golden future has come and gone -- and so the Disney Imagineers (the creative gurus behind the Disney theme parks) faced the task of updating Tomorrowland. The future has always been too potentially strange and ominous to find a neat place within Disney's realms of beautiful princesses and cuddly animals; but Tomorrowland was part of the Walt Disney inheritance -- the future couldn't simply be jettisoned from the Disneyland package. So the Imagineers faced the question: How can you predict a future that isn't scary, isn't alienating to most of the population and still captures the whimsy of Disneyland?

The acceleration of technological development today only compounds the Imagineers' problem, making it a lot harder to predict what's next, to showcase visions of what might be. And if you're dumping millions of dollars into that vision, you sure don't want it to end up looking as outdated as Monsanto's House of the Future.

"The microwave in the House of the Future was there for 12 years," explains senior Imagineer Tony Baxter. "Today, if we put a DVD player into Innoventions, next month we'd have to put a DivX player in."

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The Imagineers' solution in 1998? Forget the future -- let's look at the past. Even the technology Disneyland does offer, in the form of a new exhibition area called Innoventions, is less about what might be than about what has already been.

As Baxter sums up the new Tomorrowland ideology: "Paris is brilliant, is world-renowned because of its care and keeping of what it was, as well as what it is. We in California are too much into the culture of bulldozing everything. What really sticks with people is when they have dreams and images that fire the imagination. Today, the Leonardo da Vincis and Jules Vernes are as powerful as the George Lucases and the designers we have creating things in Innoventions."

While this argument might be just an excuse for Disney's newfound reluctance to predict the future, it certainly fits the Disneyland mold. Much of Disneyland, after all, is all about nostalgia for America's picturesque past: Frontierland evokes our pioneer beginnings, as does New Orleans Square with its Dixieland jazz and steamboats. Adventureland refers to the early exploration of Africa and Asia, including steamboat jungle cruises and "Indiana Jones"-style jeep rides, and Main Street U.S.A. is actually modeled on Walt Disney's hometown circa 1900. So perhaps it's fitting that Tomorrowland is more about Jules Verne than William Gibson -- more about reminiscence than tomorrow.

The new Tomorrowland attractions certainly seem nostalgic for the old Tomorrowland. The new Redd Rockett's Pizza Port restaurant -- a pizza joint designed to look like an intergalactic diner -- displays a series of old Tomorrowland posters, and the giant white-and-red rocket that stands in the middle of Tomorrowland's plaza is a more modern replica of the original rocket that stood over Tomorrowland in 1955 (today, it serves up Coca-Cola). The entrance to the flashy roller coaster Rocket Rods, which zooms you in open cars over the main Tomorrowland plaza, is the old CircleVision theater, which once played dioramic movies about America. Now, it shows an old black-and-white movie of Walt Disney talking about freeways, intercut with spaceship animations.

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Several old Tomorrowland rides have been echoed as well. The new 3-D movie "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience," which inflicts viewers with animal sneezes and eye-popping effects based on the irritating movie series, is simply a snazzier version of a '50s classic and past Disneyland feature, the 3-D movie. The gold and green and purple Astro Orbitor ride, which looms over the entrance to Tomorrowland and lets kids ride personal "rockets" attached to arms that rotate around a pole, is a rehash of an old Tomorrowland classic -- the Rocket Jets.

Even pieces of old rides have been recycled: an old PeopleMover tram and an outdated Monorail car have been repainted in blue and fluorescent pink and stuck under a black light in the Rocket Rod entrance.

Martin Sklar, one of the original Imagineers, sums up the difficulties with transforming Tomorrowland: "Disneyland is hard to change because there's a continuity here that doesn't exist in our everyday lives," he says. "This place means a lot to a lot of people. When we find things to anchor to, we don't like them to change."

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On the outside, then, the new Tomorrowland is in no visible way about envisioning our future -- it's about seeing the future the way past visionaries might have: a world of astrolabes and rocket ships, green, lush plants and happy children watching 3-D movies. Underneath the rides and shows may be some nifty technology -- each Rocket Rods car, for example, has its own computer that calculates the distance and speed based on the car in front and behind it ("like the highway of the future," enthuses Imagineer Bruce Gordon) -- but you'd never know unless someone told you.

But if Tomorrowland is in any way about technology in the way that Walt thought of technology, it's visible only in Innoventions, the technology showcase that has taken up residence in the old America Sings theater. This hands-on exhibit of high-tech innovations, housed in an antiqued gold and green building painted with odd, WPA-style murals of satellites and computers and Disney characters, is the new Tomorrowland's nearest equivalent to Walt's House of the Future.

Bruce Gordon says: "Innoventions is the closest we've come to what Walt thought Tomorrowland was going to be. He always said it was here to inspire the youth of the world to what the future held, so that they would stay in school and get a good education, get good careers. That's exactly what Innoventions is all about."

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But even Innoventions doesn't look that far into the future. Innoventions is supposed to look at technology that will be available in the short-term -- not just, as Gordon puts it, "fantasy stuff" that might never make it to the market. So the interactive displays will change every six months, and the technologues showcased are supposed to be ones that everyone will be using within a year or two.

That's an awfully close horizon -- and by shunning more exotic exhibits, Disney will continually risk erring on the side of technology that just doesn't seem all that novel.

Innoventions will eventually consist of five sections -- health and fitness, home, workplace, education and transportation and entertainment -- with hands-on displays sponsored by individual companies. GM, AT&T, Compaq, Kaiser Permanente and numerous others are already in the roster. With millions of visitors expected to march through Innoventions every month, more tech companies will doubtless be salivating for similar marketing opportunities.

The two-story, revolving circular showcase won't open for at least a month, so at last week's press preview only a few sections were open. There's an exercise bike with a video screen so you can take a "virtual ride," a hand-held body-fat-measuring device and a snowboard that measures bumps via electricity and helps smooth out the ride. But video-equipped bikes are already featured at many gyms across the country, and you could find computerized snow gear on the slopes last winter.

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In Innoventions, our guide told us, you'll soon be able to try out a sonogram, to play a computer game that will show you how the house of the future will "take care of you" and to "learn about car safety and security" by test-driving a virtual-reality GM car. Disney will show you how it creates digital animations by letting you wear a motion capture suit.

One large area of Innoventions, sponsored by Compaq, has been set aside for Internet consoles featuring the Disney Web site and a Yahooligans filter. Users learn about the Internet via a cartoon of a married couple who are rescued from their dull life by Modem Man, who shows them how the Internet can be used both to save time and have fun. ("Many of us take the Net for granted, and forget that others know nothing about it," announced our guide. "We bring them in to Innoventions, teach them about it, take the fear out of it.")

But can visions of next year's consumer products hold much thrill for the new Tomorrowland's audience? Kids in 1998 have a sense of the future built on the knowing ironies and special-effects wizardry of Hollywood science-fiction epics. Will baseballs with embedded computers chips be as enticing to them as rockets were for kids in the 1950s?

Compared to Walt Disney's original Tomorrowland, which in 1955 really was about revolutionary new ideas -- plastic houses, men on the Moon, engines in the freeway instead of in the cars -- Innoventions is a bit more earthbound. Flights of fantasy, after all, can frighten people, and Disney doesn't want to scare anyone. But many current technologies remain novel for much of Disney's mainstream demographic -- so it's easy to make tomorrow more about today.

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The full-size animatronic robot, the inventor Tom Morrow, soothes audiences in a supremely irritating song at the entrance to Innoventions: "There's a great big world of innoventions, shining in our lives each and every day. And it's a great big world of tomorrow, because tomorrow is happening today."

Technology in the world of Disney has to mean safety, security, family; so Innoventions has to be all about how technology will make your family life happier, better, more fun. The guides to the exhibit will eventually identify themselves as the "Family of the Future," and will tell visitors, as our perky guide told us, that "technology will hold up the family of the future, allow them to spend more time together by giving them more entertainment they can enjoy together."

In Walt's time, a better family life meant plastic couches. In the 1990s Innoventions world, that seems to mean family-size couches in front of video games with multiplayer capabilities. Walt's naive 1950s optimism for our technological future -- his grand "predictions of things to come" -- will not be replicated for the jaded generations of a 21st century Disneyland. Somewhere between then and now, Tomorrowland apparently lost the will to prophesy.


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

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