The Future that Never Was
“This piece is an amalgamation of three essays that I wrote in the Summer of 2012, as well as a more comprehensive look behind the influences and thematic devices of the Tomorrowland refurbishment. In addition, I produced the above artwork in hopes of setting a specific tone and as a tribute to the “New Tomorrowland” attraction poster crafted by Anne Tryba and George Stokes. The piece hung above my bed for the majority of my childhood and provided immeasurable inspiration.”
Like a great film, a good theme park environment immerses the participant with its richness in experience and in aesthetic. The proverbial curtains are lifted when the guest enters, the background music slowly fades and the scenery unfolds. The myriad combinations of media, lighting, and architecture accent this “visual overture,” painting richness with each layer. As in a theater, we are bathed in light and scenery. We share this environment with strangers; we are apart of a collective whole. The world’s best parks use these artificial environments to play to our senses and immerse us in distinct settings. When done right, the result is remarkable.
By 1993, the Tomorrowland of the Magic Kingdom had become stale. What was once viewed as sleek and pristine was being referred to as “antiseptic.” Twenty-two years of white-laced streamline architecture had grown tired of constant maintenance. In addition, the ever-present “Tomorrowland Problem” seemed to be more relevant than ever, posing the question “How does one present a tomorrow that does not become dated by the time of its construction?” The creative at Walt Disney Imagineering, not eager to abandon a fundamental pillar of the revolutionary Disneyland model, looked to extrude the clean Space Age representation of the future in favor of a more timeless approach.
The concept of a “new Tomorrowland” for the Magic Kingdom was introduced in a company memorandum in 1991. The copy reads that the new land would be “redesigned as an intergalactic space port for arriving aliens” and explains that science fiction has replaced reality, allowing WDI greater creativity with the area. The move made sense. Given WDW’s blessing of having EPCOT Center’s Future World with holistic representations of a foreseeable future, there was no need for lesser grade reflection in the Magic Kingdom. Also, works in pulp science-fiction magazines could be classified as romanticized American literature, with a heavy emphasis on escapism.
In retrospect, WDW’s Tomorrowland was never particularly rich or impressive in its attraction base, save for pioneering Space Mountain. By the park’s opening in 1971, man had already set foot on the moon; the last Apollo mission would come a year later. Albeit in Anaheim, Disneyland was still in its construction phase six years before Kennedy’s “we choose to go to the moon” speech. For Disneyland, 1955’s Tomorrowland was the first and only instance where the theming of Space and Time fit.
Disneyland’s Tomorrowland was far from perfect, especially in its nascent stages. Original attractions such as Space Station X-1 and Rocket to the Moon were archaic by today’s standards. Then, Tomorrowland was essentially a showplace for modern American industry, filled with corporate displays from the major scientific companies of the day: Kaiser Aluminum, TWA, Monsanto, American Motors, etc. This Tomorrowland appealed to an older and more informed audience. Other former Disneyland offerings demonstrate this well; the Monsanto House of the Future and the Kaiser Aluminum Hall Of Fame were exhibitory and hardly child oriented.
This point is further explored in the concept art for the various Magic Kingdom-model divisions. All of the other lands that branch from the hub depict families engaged in whimsical settings of adventure, frontier, and fantasy. In Tomorrowland there is a striking difference. Most of the artwork takes place during the nighttime; even the indoor landscapes are dark. John Hench’s concept of the queue for “Adventures in Science” demonstrates this well. Hench describes how forebodingness in dark landscapes can become inviting, explaining that small illuminating lights that twinkle can guide the visitor’s path as well as reassure their comfort into dark spaces such as indoor queues. This connect-the-dots approach to lighting and crowd movement would be utilized in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland in the form of lighting fixtures underneath the WEDWay PeopleMover track, illuminating the pedestrian space.
The iconic concept painting of Space Mountain, complete with an outdoor track and tall spires, depicts adults taking in the atmosphere, relaxing in a futuristic city. These lighting principles were about to be drastically altered and employed in a different kind of futuristic setting.
I. The Avenue of the Planets and Aesthetic Influence
Billed as “the future as envisioned by Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers,” the aesthetic of the land was a striking departure. A display of neon and kinetic energy led visitors into a futuristic metropolis, an expressed interplanetary center of the galaxy, with the towering Astro Orbiter and Space Mountain looming in the distance. Historically, Tomorrowland had always depicted a world in motion, and the renovation would only enhance the experience. Spinning globes and rockets from the Astro Orbiter, moving traffic down the “Avenue of the Planets” from the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, automobiles from the Tomorrowland Speedway, and even a show building moving itself in the Carousel of Progress reinforced motion. Under most visitor’s level of perception were gear patterns visible in the pavement. Tomorrowland continued to be a land literally and figuratively on the move.
The end result is a more romantic vision of what forward thinking visionaries thought the cities of the future would look like: a never-realized working model of how people would live, play, and work in the future. It was a future that Senior Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering Eric Jacobson declared “timeless.” Show Producer Paul Osterhout explains, “We landed on the future depicted in the ‘20s and ‘30s, it was fun and full of optimism.” The look that eventually triumphed was a golden-age impression on the machine era. However, the question remains: how did WDI achieve this look? It’s easy to cite a specific work as an influence, but it’s much more interesting to digest those works and exact specific examples.
With a screenplay written by the eminent H.G. Wells, Things to Come (1936) tells a thought provoking tale of the effect of progress on world civilizations. The film presents a forward look into the cities and technologies of tomorrow, often displayed in sleek and metallic form. Being a science-fiction film with a real emphasis on science’s power to shape the human experience, it conveys some of the core themes behind the Tomorrowland refurbishment, themes such as a “community enhanced by science, invention, and intergalactic influence,” according to Osterhout. The sleek metallic support structures seen above, embossed with circular reliefs appear throughout New Tomorrowland. Examples that are not pictured include along the top exterior of the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover Track and support structures on the Tomorrowland entry and directional signage.
Second, we look at the early science-fiction film Transatlantic Tunnel (1935). Here we can see many examples of embellished line-work. Though most of the film’s setting takes place in a submerged interior, an industrial environment perfectly expresses the machine age. The rivet-laced bowed support columns of the Transatlantic Tunnel are echoed when they are everted to construct New Tomorrowland’s exterior. What the film lacks, and the environment adds, is the addition of color. When added to the metal, the facade is significantly less imposing, while maintaining an industrial boiler plate feel. At night, the cool tones of the structures are balanced by the warm hues of the recessed lighting underneath, which in turn lights the walkways.
Best known for the splendid Art Direction provided by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras, Just Imagine (1930) provides interesting interior design. The futuristic metallic archway as seen in the left image would be replicated in both The Timekeeper and Alien Encounter queue rooms. Interestingly, Just Imagine uses shadows to express contrast, a product of the film existing in the black and white era. This technique was employed by the designers of the Alien Encounter queue to create a foreboding atmosphere.
Finally, Fritz Lang’s iconic Metropolis (1927) lends a significant aesthetic detail, prominently used throughout the Tomorrowland renovation. Often ending in planters, the structural supports seen here reinforce and balance the angular architecture. While I’m sure Metropolis was a significant jumping off point for the designers, in terms of tone, in reality an environment such as Metropolis is drastically over-scaled to feasibly adapt as a themed environment.
Lastly, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the heavy influence of the stylings of pulp magazines from the 1920’s and 1930’s. Publications such as Amazing Stories, Popular Science, and early Buck Rogers seem to divulge just as much about color theory in the World of Tomorrow, as it does architectural interpretations. The work of Frank R. Paul in particular shows clear influence in the design of “The Avenue of Planets.” The color palette is where the magazine publications spread thematic influence, where the black and white films of the twenties and thirties cannot.
II. The History and Technology behind Alien Encounter
The mid-1990’s were an interesting time for the Walt Disney Company. In the Parks and Resorts sector, high-scale attractions like Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror began to open stateside, as EuroDisney was being “plussed” with Discovery Mountain. These attractions were expensive, elaborately themed, and offered more thrill than the archetypal Disney attractions.
Walt Disney Imagineering had been tinkering with an “effects chair” for quite some time and decided that the theaters occupied by Flight to the Moon and Mission to Mars could be converted into a new blend of attraction. George Lucas, who had previously collaborated with WDI on Star Tours, had worked with Imagineers to innovate a new binaural audio system, tested in the post-show for the Disney MGM Studios’ “Monster Sound Show,” provided some consulting for the project. This new type of technology was serviceable on a small scale, creating auditory illusions such as a simulated haircut. But WDI hoped that this kind of system could be scaled larger, using 3D sound to create a theater attraction equally exciting as Lucas’ Star Tours. Having secured the rights to the Alien franchise, designers began to dream on where and how it could be implemented in the parks.
Originally intended for Disneyland, there was a growing concern that using the monster from Alien in Walt Disney’s beloved park would dilute the brand and create irreparable disconnect. Yet, there was pressure to reach a teen audience from management, who hoped that “Alien Encounter” could be franchisable in the imminent Tomorrowland overhauls on both coasts building off the success of “Star Tours,” an attraction based off classic science fiction.
But Lucas’ original vision greatly differed from the final product in a far more interesting way. Rumor has it that Lucas’ original idea did introduce the fictional organization of XS-Tech, but involved them in a much more sinister storyline. The pre-show would feature scientists, not aliens as seen in the realized iteration, but recycled AAs from the Mission to Mars attraction. Guests would be invited to an open house with the hopes of seeing cutting edge technology demonstrations. In this alternate version, the grand reveal would occur just after guests were harnessed into their seats. The XS-Tech “open house” was a guise to bait visitors, the audience thus becoming experimental subjects for a different, intended Alien Encounter. Guests would be subjected to a dangerous species of alien, beamed in by XS-Tech with the intention of seeing the carnage this creature could produce. The creature is then beamed in, like in the final product, and briefly terrorizes the audience. But then the attraction reveals the second and better twist: the alien isn’t there to harm the audience: it wants to help everyone escape and to exact revenge on its captors. When the scientists of XS-Tech become cognizant of the situation they began making preparations to destroy all forms of life inside the chamber. The alien creature figures out how to release the shoulder harnesses freeing the guests before it is too late, thus thwarting the scientists. As the guests exit the show room, audio effects imply that the alien has made its way back to the pre-show area.
This is the infamous version of “Alien Encounter” deemed too scary.
The original Alien Encounter team assumed that Alien Encounter would first be seen at Disneyland, a cornerstone part of the “Tomorrowland 2055” overhaul, but when the project was significantly altered it was deemed that Alien Encounter would debut in Florida’s “New Tomorrowland.” This created a setback when designers had to adapt their plans to fit the Magic Kingdom’s “Mission to Mars” show building. As a direct result the original Alien Encounter team were shuffled internally to work on other projects. Therefore, a new group of writers were assigned to the show given the task to lighten the mood to make the attraction more accessible to a broader age group. This writing change drastically alters the tone of the attraction, the changes shift the overall experience.
For the film portions of the experience, Jerry Rees was brought in to direct as well as to shape the dialogue. Rees had previously worked on sequences for the Disney MGM Studios “Back to Neverland” and “Michael and Mickey,” as well as sequences for “Cranium Command” at the Wonders of Life Pavilion in EPCOT Center. But Rees’ true background was in animation, co-writing the screenplay for The Brave Little Toaster with the late Joe Ranft. The first sequence shown serves as a promotional film for XS-Tech: introducing guests to the company and its leader: L.C. Clench. On screen, Tyra Banks portrayed an alien spokeswoman who gives a quick history of the company and its business dealings. Next, an animated sequence shows planets radiating from a central hub, each signifying a differentiated business venture that X-S Tech now holds a monopoly in. This solar system motif is reflected in signage outside the attraction and behind Clench’s desk. The tone of the film shifts when the audience first meets Chairman Clench, played by Jeffery Jones. The character tries to dissuade the notion that the company is invested in Earth for commercial reasons, condescendingly acknowledging the moral obligation to help the less fortunate. The mantra of “Seizing the Future with X-S” is expressed once again as guests are moved into the next show room.
The first iteration of this room featured a robot named T.O.M. 2000 (Technobotic Oratorical Mechanism Series 2000), and was described by Senior Show Writer Dan Molitor as “not the brightest robot around.” Voiced by the late Phil Hartman, T.O.M. 2000 lightheartedly echoes the selling points of the previous film, but also expresses a fundamental theme of Tomorrowland 94’: “Science Fiction becoming Science Fact.” We are then introduced to “Skippy” a cute alien Audio Animatronic with a bevy of facial expressions. Skippy is the guinea pig for this demonstration of teleportation. The excellent character design of Skippy makes him a sympathetic figure in the eyes of the audience when he is significantly damaged in the transportation process, mostly due to T.O.M.’s inability to harness the power of the technology at hand, an effect cleverly achieved through the use of mirrors angled at 45 degrees. The same effect would be replicated in EPCOT’s Journey Into Your Imagination ride. “He does his best, but his memory circuits aren’t what they used to be…unfortunately for Skippy” comments Molitor. Although the original pre-show displays the imminent danger of the technology, the tone is light and the dialogue is unthreatening.
Next, visitors enter a dark corridor, perceptually enhanced by the use of shadows and ominous noises. This created an environment dubbed “Deco Tech” by Senior Show Producer Ron Chesley. Chesley explains, “It’s a sinister blend of Art Deco designs and menacing machine-age technology.” Similarly, the art directors for “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992-1995) had produced a style they coined “Dark Deco,” very akin in aesthetic. The hallway serves as an important transition into the imposing teleportation chamber theater. The guest’s eyes transition into a darker environment while the threat of imminent danger becomes more and more real. The audience is strapped into the shoulder harnesses and the show begins.
When test audiences experienced the attraction in December of 1994, problems in the show structure were exposed. The tone of the pre-show inadequately prepared test audiences for the intensity of the experience. The experience itself wasn’t communicating well: the audience’s screams were drowning out crucial binaural audio tracks, leaving guests confused upon exit.
It was this disconnect, not Michael Eisner’s insistence that attraction lacked adequate thrills that spurred a six-month rework of the attraction, ultimately streamlining the story for the average visitor. These audio and video changes did take weeks to calibrate due to the complexity of the attraction’s running system. Alien Encounter ran on what is called a show-supervisor unit. You may recall Disney’s impressive, yet bulky DACS system: which controls the majority of the Audio-Animatronic figures for use in Epcot and the Magic Kingdom; Alien Encounter was ran on an similar individual system. The SSU is a rack-mounted system that coordinates the audio, video, lighting, and special effects for a given show. Three SIUs (show-interface units) were necessary to run the show, one for each of the show rooms and another for the pre-show, and are controlled by the parent SSU. For Alien Encounter, MAPO specifically designed MFSC (Multi-Feedback Servo Cards), which could control up to eight specific functions on an audio animatronic figure. Given the new learning curve on the technology, even the slightest adjustments prolonged the process. After six months of modifications, the show was ready to debut, with the only technological aberrations occurring as a part of the show’s storyline.
Alien Encounter opens to guests on June 20, 1995 as the centerpiece of “New Tomorrowland” retailored to close plot holes and help the storyline obtain a better flow. Pre-opening literature dubbed the experience as a “sensory-thriller.” Senior Show Producer Ron Chesley adds “This show is definitely different than anything ever seen.” He was right.
III. Analyzing Alien Encounter and Marketing the Product
Now that the fundamental backstory for Alien Encounter has been divulged, as students of themed design and storytelling, we can analyze the entire experience.
To set a more accurate tone, Phil Hartman’s performance as T.O.M. 2000 in the pre-show was stripped in favor of a more facetious interpretation of the character, provided by Tim Curry. Now dubbed “S.I.R.” (Simulated Intelligence Robotics), the robotic salesman adopted a much sinister personality, better reflecting the show experience to come. Curry’s delivery is fantastic: part Machiavellian salesman – part televangelist. S.I.R.’s disrespect toward Skippy the test subject enforces the fundamental notion shown in the pre-show film: XS-Tech isn’t the least bit concerned with the safety or side effects that may accompany their new technology. I note this because it marks a major shift in thematic tone between the first and second iteration. Originally, it was the malfunctioning equipment and inadequacy of T.O.M. 2000 that led to Skippy’s unfortunate fate, whereas in the final cut the salaciousness of the demonstration is a product of the technology and the company itself. Before making our way into the main theater, S.I.R. invites us to relish the opportunity to participate in a scaled demonstration of what we just saw, revealing that one audience member will be chosen for teleportation.
Unlike the first version, the Curry-narrated pre-show casts a shadow of general unease and discomfort over the audience. For example, S.I.R.’s dialogue tries to mix in bits of humor, often expressed through careful articulation by Curry: [“Don’t worry, it’s prac-tic-al-ly painless”], when the teleportation process clearly is. However, the attempt at humor is usually lost under the unease of the gallery. Even more direct attempts at humor such as [“Oh, shut up, scruffy! You’re not burned; you’ve just got a healthy glow”] are lost in a sea of anxiety, instead of being embraced as macabre comedy.
Now the guests are ushered into the teleportation theater with a fairer expectation of what lies ahead of them. A live video feed shows two additional aliens, one male and one female, mid-conversation regarding the overall readiness of the teleportation device. Dr. Femus, portrayed by Kathy Najimy, is arguing that the technology has yet to produce a successful transmission over a great distance. Spinlock, played by Kevin Pollak, insists on the contrary. Then the fundamental argument of Alien Encounter is reciprocated yet again: Dr. Femus accuses Spinlock of once again putting sales before science, to which Spinlock sardonically replies [Exactly. Someone’s got to be a role model].
Before the audience demonstration can be properly executed, the proceedings are interrupted by the emergence of Chairman Clench on the video screen. His entrance is hurried and seems delighted when he is told that the program is ahead of schedule. Dr. Femus, who is still being largely ignored, continues to plead for reconsideration. This is not the calm, dissuading Chairman Clench that we were introduced to in the pre-show, instead we are shown a Chairman Clench who expresses a mixture of nervous energy and intransigent determination. Claiming that he had been “seized,” Clench volunteers to make the trip to Earth himself. Whether in a burst of ego, or a panic from an undisclosed event, Clench demands to be teleported immediately, providing the catalyst for the grand theme park attraction cliche: something goes wrong.
There is no better instance than the main show scene of Alien Encounter to call attention to the attraction’s lack of continuous vision. Almost immediately after the transmission is sent to Earth, and Spinlock benightedly introduces the creature as Chairman Clench comes the first of the “faux tourist” dialogue, designed to make it seem that the strangers in the audience are interacting with the show. Dialogue like [It’s my mother-in-law!], [we’re just screaming for the fun of it!], and [whose blood is this?] were recorded by radio and comedic actors, sought after by Jerry Rees, describing the show as “a certain sense of dark comedy.” In fact all of the actors in the show hail from comedic backgrounds. The “black comedy” of the second writing team shines through in a way that does not balance the attraction. The horror element still largely outshines the comedic bits.
On paper, the concept of Alien Encounter has appeal. A spooky science-fiction story with memorable characters, using instruments and technology from the wildest of 30’s pulp magazines. Even if it was bred for Disneyland, it was adapted to fit New Tomorrowland. So where is the disconnect? The juxtaposition in dialogue has been addressed. But tonal differences have not always been detrimental to an attraction. Often the clash in individual influences leads the visitor to (sometimes) accidental “flashes of brilliance”: Claude Coats’ moody interiors for Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion paired with the light character work of Marc Davis. Perhaps the solution falls in their placement. For example, on the Haunted Mansion the more serious-toned Coats portion-is paired with X Atencio’s dialogue and Yale Gracey’s illusions. When we as visitors descend from the attic into Marc Davis’ elaborate and whimsical graveyard scene, the narration stops completely. Is this the key? To blend styles by separation instead of convergence? Perhaps.
I think that Alien Encounter as an attraction walks on a distinct tightrope between an interesting morality-play and a cheesy B-movie. What it did well was to cast a very large shadow of discomfort, building up incredibly well to the climax of the attraction. But from an audience participant perspective there is no significant experiential payoff to the attraction other than “I survived.” Unlike an attraction such as “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror”, whose payoff comes with the release of tension through its free-falls, Alien Encounter’s resolution is the alien (unseen) exploding within the tube. Instead of experiencing zero-gravity, the audience is doused in water disguised as alien guts.
It is important to note that Alien Encounter revolutionized what a “first-person experience” could be within a Theme Park setting. Unlike a traditional ride or show, experienced in groups, Alien Encounter used the effects chair to isolate the participant from the collective whole. The guest is not thinking about who is directly next to them, when they perceive an man-eating alien to be behind them, breathing down their neck.
Sensing a hit on their hands, the marketing team materials produced especially interesting materials for The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. In park, the construction walls for New Tomorrowland boasted Alien Encounter as the featured experience “It’s coming and there’s nothing on Earth you can do about it.” On television and in promotional videocassettes depict Alien Encounter as the thrill to be had in the New Tomorrowland, boasting its reputation as the scariest experience in any Disney Theme Park worldwide.
But by far the most interesting aspect of the New Tomorrowland advertising campaign was the use of guerilla marketing in the form of a television special entitled “Alien Encounters from New Tomorrowland.” Originally (and only) aired in March 1995, in only five U.S. cities, as a documentary on the existence of UFO’s and extraterrestrial life. Hosted by Robert Urich, a minor celebrity with a slight resemblance to the great American astronomer Carl Sagan, and with an introduction by Michael Eisner, the special features New Tomorrowland, albeit briefly. The special saves the blatant promotion for the end of the program.
Andy Thomas, who was the head of “special marketing” for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and had produced the TV show “Cops” was chosen to write the script and direct the special, with the only stipulation being the final segment promoting the Alien Encounter attraction. The special was an unusual way to familiarize the public with the new offering.
Eisner’s introduction, added unbeknownst to Andy Thomas, can be viewed at 1:15, while the Alien Encounter segment can be viewed starting at 39:48. It is strange that Michael Eisner had taken the trouble to presumably write and record a piece for a minor effort. Even stranger, the documentary was aired at seemingly random times within those distinct markets, with virtually no advance notice.
III. The Timekeeper and Meta-Tourism
Walt Disney often spoke on the merits of “plussing” an experience. An early proponent of innovation in film, The Walt Disney Company pioneered the CircleVision 360 format, first showcasing “America the Beautiful” for Disneyland’s Tomorrowland in 1955. The format would continue to please visitors as it expanded to the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center, and Tokyo Disneyland. But when Disneyland Paris’ Discoveryland was developed, Imagineers looked to once again “plus” the CircleVision experience.
“Le Visionarium: Un Voyage A Travers Le Temps,” better known as “From Time to Time,” or stateside as “The Timekeeper,” promised a different experience. Not only would guests be surrounded by nine screens, each equipped with a speaker embedded behind them, they would be accompanied in this journey by two audio-animatronic figures.
If one were to try and put nine cameras in the center of a room to create a similar field of vision, it would be impossible due to the size of the cameras. The solution comes through a process called “folded optics” where the design of the cameras uses mirrors to achieve the overlapping effect. Show Director Jeff Blyth calls this immersion a “total environment.”
Operating as an integral part of the park’s innovative Discoveryland, “From Time to Time” incorporated the visionaries who helped shape the land into the film. The narrative of “From Time to Time” is just as much about Jules Verne as it is about the character of The Timekeeper.
Largely re-purposed for an American audience, The Timekeeper was slated to be the running mate to Alien Encounter on the revamped Avenue of Planets. As students of themed design we can laud “Timekeeper” for its storytelling. Up until 1992, CiircleVision 360 films were pretty much limited to travelogues and a display of stunning naturalistic vistas. What “From Time to Time” did was to tell a story: from the beginning of the attraction. Instead of forcing a stringed narration through a juxtaposition of show scenes. “Timekeeper” justifies its existence early, beginning the storytelling process during the queue and in the preshow.
First, we must understand our role as a visitor to the Timekeeper attraction. It is widely accepted that as a guest we are simply tourists in the New Tomorrowland. We delight in the the opportunity to fly into starlight in rocket ships on Space Mountain and the Astro Orbiter, or to consume ice cream straight from the Milky Way. We attend nostalgic displays on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority and on the Metro-Retro Historical Society-sponsored Carousel of Progress.
Furthermore this Tomorrowland isn’t an environment that implies residence. Unlike a Main St. U.S.A. or a New Orleans Square, whose facades resemble housing, the buildings in Tomorrowland are decidedly commercial/industrial. That isn’t to say that a different Tomorrowland couldn’t depict urban housing of a particular “future,” but that is a subject for a different day and time.
Why is this important? Because to better understand the Timekeeper attraction, and New Tomorrowland as a whole, we must understand the role we play as a participant in the land. We are tourists, literally and figuratively. We explore a metropolitan area, which seems to operate completely separate from the other lands of the Magic Kingdom (a notion that would at least excuse the lack of intra-land transitions).
So here we are, “tourists” in a real and story sense, in the New Tomorrowland to witness product demonstrations at the “Tomorrowland Interplanetary Convention Center” and, in this case, the “Tomorrowland Metropolis Science Center.” The Convention Center is promising demonstrations in time travel: once again, Science Fiction has become Science Fact. A shiny robot called “The Timekeeper” has invented the medium of time travel, as well as our vessel to view the experience: the “Circumvisual PhotoDroid” christened “Nine Eye.” It is explained that we as tourists will have the opportunity to witness great moments in world history, through the lenses of Nine Eye, creating an encompassing experience.
In many ways, “From Time to Time” is a tribute to H.G. Wells’ classic science-fiction novel The Time Machine. More accurately, it is a reinterpretation. The unnamed “Time Traveller” is present and uses the technology to travel into the far reaches of the past and future. A true representation of Wells’ work would not be an appropriate offering for all age groups. Instead, we are given a whimsical construct of the piece, also drawing from separate time-travel clichés, heavily interlaced in comedy. However, the experience reaffirms Wells’ insistence that one could conquer time.
When we do begin to visualize time travel, the attraction premise is finally justified. Through the eyes of this robot, we are gifted a look into the past and future. The CircleVision format retains its spectacle by displaying large vistas like New York City or the rural countryside of England, but concurrently tells a continuous character-driven story.
A continuous story has its challenges, especially when adapted to the CircleVision format. Traditionally, when viewing a CircleVision film, one is free to look in any direction to admire the unlimited vantage points, to discover landscapes previously unseen. But with a set story, the film has to be crafted so that it communicates well. The filmmakers must take into consideration where the audience would ideally be looking and how to craft the film to change their sightlines. Yet, too drastic of camera movement could have a largely negative effect, as the guests standing to view the film could begin to get disoriented.
I believe a film like “Timekeeper” does forfeit the classic “total vantage point” for most of the film, for the main characters do need to be emphasized. However, the addition of The Timekeeper A-100 figure, and the small set dressing that accompanies it, allows the visitor to take a step back from the film and asses the entire environment at hand. In this case, CircleVision is no longer just a “movie,” it is a component of a larger experience. The guest can watch as the pulling of a lever by the Timekeeper figure facilitates each cut in the film.
The Timekeeper only reinforced New Tomorrowland’s futuristic fantasy. Casual space flight, teleportation and time travel were not presented as devices of the near future, but fanciful nods to the forward thinking of the past.
Personally, what I especially enjoyed about “Timekeeper” was the positive reinforcement of the attraction’s ending. Jules Verne parlays to the audience: [“In the future, anything is possible!”] I thought that this added some tonal balance to the Avenue of the Planets, contrasting Alien Encounter’s vague and largely maligned ending. Verne’s sentiments echoed much of what was lost during the refurbishment: an overarching optimistic vision of the future.
IV. The Carousel of Progress
( relevant materials borrowed from my essay “Narratives in Cyclical Movement” )
Tomorrowland ’94 repurposes the Carousel of Progress as a historical demonstration presented by the “Metro-Retro Historical Society,” and in many ways this lets the essence of the Carousel flourish.
Guests enter the theater to find that not much has changed since the 1964 World’s Fair. A vague flair of sixties corporatism exists with the carpeted floor and walls. Hues of blues, greens, and greys titivate the small enclosures of the Carousel theater. The lights dim and the dark green curtains reveal the attraction signage while our narrator: American humorist Jean Shepherd, introduces the story behind the attraction. Walt Disney’s role in the attraction’s development is underscored while Shepherd boasts the show’s proud history and the overarching theme of progress.
“There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” made its return to the attraction in tribute to the essence of Walt Disney’s idealism and the 1964 iteration. The virtuosity of the piece is demonstrated throughout the attraction in terms of its adaptability to be played in a variety of musical styles. The Carousel begins to spin the theater and we are greeted with a familiar show set. The father figure, voiced by Shepherd, joins in the melody as the theater locks into place. The first act has now begun, depicting a warm early spring day.
Without much prompt, save the overheard call of robins, the Father begins to speak directly to the audience. He explains the time (right around the turn of the century) and the setting (his immediate household). The Meta-commentary in place is less Jean Piaget’s “la praise de conscience,” or becoming aware of one’s consciousness, but more exhibitory in nature: such as the opening monologue in Annie Hall. The breaking of the fourth wall is the initial intermediary between the audience and the father figure. The viewer is welcomed into the family’s household and the invitation is extended from act to act.
Act One introduces most of the characters as well as the reoccurring family dynamics. The banter between family members is lighthearted, yet sometimes deviates from its guilelessness. The daughter is shocked to be revealed in her undergarments, very modest and appropriate by today’s standards, while the son is found observing a stereoscope image of the Norwegian dancer at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Yet the elementariness of the time is echoed through props like newspapers, smoking jackets, gas lamps, and iceboxes. The father concludes the scene on an anecdote about the name change from sarsaparilla to root beer, laughably attributing the change to progress.
Act Two builds on the family dynamic, changing the holiday season and the year. The act marks the height of the show’s Americanism, showcased by allusions to baseball, jazz music, and of course, the family’s preparing for the Fourth of July parade. The dialogue finds humor with the audience through its benighted skepticism. The Father’s cynical perception about Charles Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic mirrors the previous scene in which the Father doubts the possibility of a “flying contraption.”
Act Three probably maintains the most resonance with today’s audiences, especially older audiences, given its opportunity for the recollection of memory. Fall in the forties introduces most of the appliances that grace households today. The automatic dishwasher, for example, propels the Carousel family into the age of “push button living.” Changes in entertainment mediums such as the spectacle of television are embraced, yet lightly discarded as “fluff.” Opportunities for more traditional recreations like walking the dog are bred from time saved through innovation. Importantly, the family dynamic has not changed. Patricia, the daughter who craves greater freedom and self-expression has gone and embraced the institution of college. Jimmy, the son, continues to exhibit juvenile, yet mostly endearing behavior. Sarah, the mother figure, continues to involve herself by participating in a DIY home renovation.
The fourth act of the Carousel of Progress requires special consideration. As the link between the attraction and the land, the fourth act has experienced many of the same issues that have plagued the overall effectiveness of Tomorrowland: the ability to present a futuristic setting that will not become dated. Yet the Carousel itself has to be grounded in reality for the concept to work and the sequences to mesh.
Can a mixture between a fantastical future while grounded in reality exist in the Carousel’s fourth act? Perhaps the fourth act can mirror the 1964 World’s Fair ending with the Carousel family living in Walt Disney’s Progress City. While times have changed and there have been advancements in urban planning, Disney’s vision of a progressive city of the future has yet to fully come into fruition. In this case, Disney joins the ranks of Verne and Wells as visionaries ahead of their time. This, of course, implies that the Magic Kingdom hasn’t fully abandoned “The Future that Never Was” for Tomorrowland’s doctrine. Showing a city of the future set in Progress City would be a good intermediary between the progression of real life cities and the fantasy innovations (desert farming, colonies in sea and space) set by the Carousel’s “sequel:” EPCOT Center’s Horizons.
What makes the Carousel an interesting fit into the Disneyland model is its conventions against escapism. Disney’s revolutionary concept was successful because he was able to take patrons of his media and place them in immersive settings of adventure and fantasy. The Carousel of Progress doesn’t embrace this concept. In fact, it argues against it. Acceptance of “the now” and the appreciation of family values endured the attraction to Walt Disney and the millions of visitors who have experienced it.
Although historically, technology and innovation stand in the forefront of the Carousel show, the narrative is the backbone of the attraction. The fourth act drives the theme home by featuring all of the characters, save the unseen Uncle Orville, together in a single setting. Instead of only appearing when lit behind shim cloth, we can see the dynamics between characters. Reaffirming traditional family values, such as the holiday celebration is the show’s real primary theme. A heavy emphasis on old-school American conservatism shines through the narrative, clear evidence of Walt Disney’s influence.
This Carousel of Progress plays to an assured nostalgia. The 1994 iteration builds upon sentimentalism by straying away from an appliance showcase, instead filling the dialogue with reflections on shifts in culture. Advertences to World’s Fairs, Suburbanization, and civic exhibitions of patriotism reflect sentimental, yet distinctly American portraits. The Carousel script is carefully treated so the dialogue never paints the time in a negative light or tarnishes the values and themes demonstrated. For example, this selective retention excludes World War II from the “fabulous forties.” The time periods are irrefutably viewed under the lens of nostalgia. Faulkner in Light in August describes this phenomenon: “Memory believes before knowing remembers.”
In each act of the Carousel of Progress, the characters truly believe that they are living in the best time period yet. The Carousel is supposed to reaffirm guests that Act IV, “the future,” will be just as good, or better, as the now. But here is where the Carousel of Progress is unintentionally brilliant. The outdatedness of Act IV with its talk of “car phones,” “laser discs,” date the act in the past. As guests exit the Carousel theater, the common perception is that they have seen four historical tableaus, not a scene of the future. It is at this point where the Carousel reaffirms a common theme: the technological advancements of today have truly made living in the now a unique and extraordinary experience. Car phones, power gloves, and voice activated appliances are the products of a recent past. One steps out of the attraction to reveal an unintentional fifth act: stepping into the World of Tomorrow, whether it be under the guise of Tomorrowland or modern society.
V. The Tomorrowland Transit Authority and the Community of Tomorrow
The ’94 refurbishment brought a newfound depth of attractions, but no structure existed to tie the diverse show presentations together. The WEDWay PeopleMover was stripped of its computer narration and Googie-esque styling to be creatively repurposed to provide an annotation of the environment. The continuous loading ride vehicle, dubbed the Metroliner, functioned as an explanatory joy ride above the City of Tomorrow, illuminating attractions of the land both tangible and intangible.
A new narration voiced by Peter Renaday, featured a more authoritative announcer and replaced the subtle narration of ORAC-1.
The “Blue Line” was the only physical representation of the Tomorrowland Transit Authority’s backstory, and was the actual ride portion. The (fictional) “Red Line” took travelers to other intergalactic destinations while the (fictional) “Green Line” offered transportation to Tomorrowland’s “Hover Burbs.” Housed under the façade of the centerpiece of Tomorrowland: Rockettower Plaza, the TTA did more to perpetuate the notion that Tomorrowland was a working, living, and breathing entity than any other attraction.
But for all that was showcased, there was plenty more that remained unseen. Print advertisements with clever wordplay illuminate Tomorrowland’s cultural offerings; Leonard Burnedstar conducts the Martian Pops Orchestra, while the Convention Center plays host to Space Collectable and Recreational Rocket Vehicle shows. What is generated is an invisible environment. We are teased that entities like a “Tomorrowland Towers Hover-Hotel” exist, but we are never shown them. We are given the entire story of New Tomorrowland as a community, but are shown a sliver of it.
I think that New Tomorrowland could have improved by utilizing better communication. “The Future that Never Was,” save for the Stokes/Tryba attraction poster that hung in the tunnel under the Railroad Station and certain pre-opening materials, is never clearly expressed in the land. The Tomorrowland Transit Authority was a giant missed opportunity to make this notion clearer. I believe this is why the average guest doesn’t understand why there is a robotic newsboy or a stylized pay-phone in a futuristic environment. If it was made clearer that these elements exist because they are the visualizations of the forward thinker’s of the 1920’s and 30’s, then maybe there wouldn’t be such a disconnect. But the presence of a payphone and newsboy are so laughable in this day and age that one’s first thought is to be condescending towards the representation of outdated technology. I noted this when I saw a teenage girl take a cell phone picture of the Metrophone: “the future” exists in a tiny computer that most park guests carry in their right pocket.
This is where a fundamental flaw exists in the theme of “The Future that Never Was,” depicting a future that never happened, for better or worse, is saturated in irony. New Tomorrowland could be fun, but it could never be pertinent.
VI. The Music of Yesterday’s Tomorrow
Designers of Disney’s Tomorrowlands had always been posed with the daunting question of “what does the future sound like?” Earlier iterations of the Tomorrowland model drew inspiration from the corporatism of the 1964 World’s Fair. The Sherman Brothers’ composition “Music To Buy Toasters By” is a good reflection of that type of sound.
In the early 1990’s The Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland featured a “new age” background music loop, featuring slow, atmospheric jazz, interlaced with heavy synthesizers. Selections from Larry Carlton’s On Solid Ground (1989) and Andreas Vollenweider’s Down to the Moon (1986)populated the loop. Although unintentional, this marked the first transition from the “old” Jack Wagner-influenced Tomorrowland, to what we see today.
What premiered in 1994 was a collection of Raymond Scott pieces, composed and recorded in the 1930’s. Scott, whose works were adapted to score some of the great Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1940’s and 50’s, was best known for his piece “Powerhouse.” “Powerhouse” was often used in cartoons to accentuate visuals of a factory or the workings of an assembly line. The music was chosen because it hailed from the time period of influence and reflected the boiler plate architecture of the Avenue of Planets.
The problem becomes that compositions like “Powerhouse,” especially the “B” section where the piece breaks into the second part, are the least bit subtle. This, coupled with the poor audio conditions of the original recordings led to a re-evaluation. George Wilkins, WDI’s “Composer in Residence,” was commissioned to produce sound-alike renditions of the Scott tunes for a better fit.
So the Wilkins’ score came into fruition and played in New Tomorrowland until one day guests began to hear the “New Age” background music loop once again. Why was the Wilkins score removed? The rumor exists that the Scott estate took Disney to court over copyright violation. The following quote is said to have been mentioned on Scott’s website (), but it has since been updated and despite my best attempts to search internet archives, I have yet to find the original sourcing. So take it as you will:
Tomorrowland – DisneyWorld[sic]: (Orlando, FL) six Scott Quintette compositions and recordings blatantly used as musical template for constantly-running soundtrack loop at renovated theme park attraction; infringement settled out of court (1995-96)
It does make sense. Third-party music is allowable for fair use in Theme Parks given that it is used for ambiance, not in synchronization for “show” elements. Many parks such as Universal Studios, Cedar Point, and Six Flags take full advantage of this privilege. But Wilkins’ re-scoring, although not a maligned effort, violates the principle of plagiarism.
For some inexplicable reason, I always felt that the “New Age” loop transcended well into the new environment. The ethereal, space-like music played well with New Tomorrowland’s dynamics.
Take Larry Carlton’s “Bubble Shuffle.” The atmospheric synthesizers weave in and out of the staccato guitar work, before Carlton’s sweeping guitar riffs begin to play the melody: much reminiscent of his work on the “Deacon Blues” track from Steely Dan’s 1977 Aja album. This layered synthesis of sound accentuates the ever moving lighting package, creating a sort of “aural kineticism.”
Richard Bellis, who had done some composing work for the MGM Studio Tour and Star Tours, produced the score for Alien Encounter. “We’re Seizing the Future,” the cardinal composition for the attraction shares many of the same qualities that make “Bubble Shuffle” accessible. Through clever changes into minor keys, the track begins to reflect the adverse themes of the attraction.
I’d be remiss to intentionally exclude the Sherman Brothers’ “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” as it was discussed in-depth above.
Perhaps the best, and most memorable music of New Tomorrowland stems from the continuous shows at “Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe.” We are introduced to a literal “lounge-lizard” named Sonny Eclipse, who provides entertainment to the hungry guests. Perhaps a descendent of the proposed “Plectu’s Interplanetary Revue” show for Tomorrowland 2055, Sonny Eclipse fills a void in Tomorrowland’s entertainment offering. Written by George Wilkins, and wonderfully executed by blues performer Kal David, the show continues to play to audiences at the Magic Kingdom. Keeping in the tradition of musical acts performing in Tomorrowland, “the biggest little star in the galaxy” can help us grasp the bigger picture of New Tomorrowland community.
In researching New Tomorrowland I have found three main writing cliches, and they all are expressed within Sonny Eclipse’s show: derisive dialogue, space puns, and mother-in-law jokes.
One can find jeering dialogue notably in Alien Encounter [SIR: “Oh, shut up, scruffy!”] and in Timekeeper [“I’ve lost her! Miserable little piece of metal]. One of the main themes in Sonny Eclipse’s opening number is a lack of pay [So our boss, Mr. Cosmic Ray, will give us our pay today!] The word “edgy” gets used often when describing the efforts of the renovation, but in this case of this dialogue it remains true. We see a much different, less-crystal clean Tomorrowland.
Designers of the New Tomorrowland Fictional entities with intergalactic influence like the Tomorrowland Chamber of Commerce, the Sleepless Knights of the Milky Way, and the Loyal Order of Little Green Beings support Tomorrowland’s claim of the intersection of the galaxy. The witty verbiage continued in the land’s retail offerings, nodding to William Shakespeare with the “Merchant of Venus.” Sonny’s act is no exception to this in his song lyrics and in his one liners: [Hey, guess what kind of bugs they have up there on the moon. Give up? Lunar-ticks!]. The most famous example hails from the TTA: [Paging Mr. Morrow, Mr. Tom Morrow, your party from Saturn has arrived. Please give them a ring.]
And in the last case, who could forget the tourist dialogue from Alien Encounter?: [It’s an alien! No, it’s my mother-in-law!] Or Sonny’s quip: [But honestly, folks, I really do love your beautiful planet Earth. It’s big and round and blue and green… just like my mother-in-law!]
I’d be lying if I said this essay wasn’t heavily influenced by nostalgia. Similar to those who find themselves nostalgic for the white Space-age Tomorrowland, I find myself nostalgic for “The Future that Never Was.” My memory accredits the childhood evenings I spent riding the Tomorrowland Transit Authority listening to “Bubble Shuffle” as the catalyst of my passion for Themed Entertainment.
“Golden Age Thinking” certainly applies to theme park environments. Woody Allen explores this in Midnight in Paris, with the “pedantic” character of Paul dismissing nostalgia as “a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Thinking objectively on the subject, I see its flaws. “The future as envisioned by Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon” means little in retrospect. Other than the styling of the rocket ships of the Astro Orbiter and the pulp-influenced architecture of the Avenue of Planets, New Tomorrowland had little to do with Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. One can even observe where the theming falls short: past Rockettower Plaza, across from the Speedway.
While the attractions brought original characters to the Magic Kingdom, they weren’t ideas strictly intended for New Tomorrowland. Timekeeper was borrowed from Japan and Paris, Alien Encounter came off the heels of the “Tomorrowland 2055” project in Anaheim. Neither were intended to be paired together at the time of their respective conceptions. Timekeeper and Alien Encounter somehow fit, almost on accident, into a pulp-viewed future. They were unified under New Tomorrowland’s cardinal principle: Science Fiction becoming Science Fact.
New Tomorrowland struggled to balance the clever and the camp (I failed to even mention Space Mountain TV), and ultimately could not uphold the weight of its own ideals. What was once perceived as a timeless solution to “the Tomorrowland problem,” has given way to franchises based on animated films. While it didn’t provide the ultimate solution for other Tomorrowland going forward, it left an impression on myself and others: to believe in the merits of a “fantasy future.”
I don’t believe the Tomorrowland model is a lost cause. I believe that there are still stories to be told, environments to be created and explored. The world is not devoid of great science-fiction writing that could be harvested, adapted or created.
Today, most of the physical features of New Tomorrowland still exist, but without an attraction base to support them the show buildings become false fronts. “The Future that Never Was” now endures in nostalgia, another future past. If that’s not irony, then I don’t know what is.