Walt Disney World

Why Space Mountain Works

Why Space Mountain Works:

Environmental Storytelling and the Thrill of the Unknown


“We were alone. Where, I could not say, hardly imagine. All was black, and such a dense black that, after some minutes, my eyes had not been able to discern even the faintest glimmer”

–  Jules Verne “Mobilis in Mobili”

At its best, Space Mountain is an abstraction: both in form and in concept. Just as the classic “Pirates of the Caribbean,” at Disneyland acts a visual extrapolation of the “idea of piracy,” “Space Mountain” follows a similar line of thought, touching on the “idea of space travel,” often without revealing specifics. I like to call this themed design mode “environmental storytelling.” In environmental storytelling, the guest acts as the protagonist, while the changes in environments and the staging of various tableaus (in both the attraction and the queue space) gives the impression of progression through visuals, instead of through dialect or narration. The best attractions that employ this medium often pass the cultural litmus test of ride repeatability throughout generations.

We can trace the origin of this approach to the advent of Themed Entertainment design in 1955, more specifically during the development of the Fantasyland dark rides. Ken Anderson, one of the primary WED artisans assigned to the project, realized the medium’s limitations: guests would have little time to appreciate the subtleties of character development that are essential to a feature film while bouncing around in their ride vehicle for a little over two minutes. Anderson’s genius was his telling of these stories not through linear sequences, but rather through the emotions conveyed by the environments of the stories. Twenty years later, Space Mountain debuts in the Magic Kingdom and tells a different kind of environmental story.

It’s not an immediate thought but, on the surface, Space Mountain is riddled with contradictions. It’s name: “Space” implying an endless, negative void contrasts with “Mountain,” a solid, concrete, and tangible entity. Along the same lines, its gleaming bright white exterior is balanced with the negative of the dark star tunnel and the near-pitch black environment of the projection space. Aesthetically, it’s a much different experience than the colorful interior of planets, pedestrians, and PeopleMovers that John Hench sketched in 1965.

SpaceMountainOpeningThis is a great example of effective visual communication. Space Mountain’s exterior linear pattern acts as a visual magnet. Prospective riders and armchair astronauts are drawn closer as they look upward to the spires that point towards the sky. It’s a great moment that I love to observe when I’m in the park. In a sense, it almost evokes of a Robert McCall painting of astronauts waiting for their own departure. I think that’s the point. Foxx from the unrivaled “Passport2Dreams” blog has coined the term “Theme Architecture” to describe Tomorrowland, and subsequently, Space Mountain’s architectural style in her essay “The Tomorrowland Problem.” I couldn’t be more fond of the distinction. Hench recalls that “(Space Mountain) begged to be cone shaped; it wanted to echo the expanding spiral of the ride itself.” The cone-like structure allows for clever forced perspective towards the top of the mountain. At our eye-level, the base of the ‘mountain’ is imposing. The exposed T-Beams that lace the exterior of the structure have come to an ending focal point, which appear to be shortly in the horizon. George McGinnis recalled, “a spherical form would be perceived as space related from a show standpoint.”

The Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland was originally designed to emulate the success of Disneyland’s iconic New Tomorrowland of 1967, with Space Mountain becoming the pivot point. Clem Hall’s 1973 concept for Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland suggests a faithful directive to the final realization. In John Hench’s book, Designing Disney, Tim Delaney recalled, “the timelessness of the structure allows us to change our focus for the attraction. Originally, we were in a time fascinated by what the future might become; now, the focus is to create fantasy about the future.” The “cartilaginous structure,” as Hench described, does maintain an enduring futuristic presence, but is vague enough to have thematically fit, to a reasonable rate of success, through the lenses of multiple Tomorrowland incarnations.

SM_napkin_sketch_mcginnis_lgAn early concept by George McGinnis drawn on napkin.

Since it’s introduction to the Tomorrowland model, it seems to have served as a literal and metaphorical anchor to the Tomorrowland model. To see how it has assimilated to the themed space over the years, let’s take a look at the following:

Walt Disney’s original Tomorrowland dedication on July 17, 1955 states:

“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 unified world.”

Now we can compare the statement to John Hench’s thoughts in 1971:

“(Space Mountain) evokes such ideas as the mystery of outer space, the excitement of setting out on a journey, and the thrill of the unknown.”

There are some definite parallels, despite Disneyland’s Tomorrowland of 1955 and the Magic Kingdom’s fully-fleshed Tomorrowland, twenty years later, existing as very different environments. Hench’s thoughts are narrowed due to speaking on a singular attraction, but the biggest takeaway (and a cardinal “theme” behind many successful themed attractions) is the sense of exploration. Instead of the exploration of ideas through exhibition in 1955’s Tomorrowland, the fantasy-based journey is manifested with Space Mountain. I make the distinction of a “fantasy”-based journey, because Space Mountain’s predecessor was the very linear, hard science-fact Rocket to the Moon, which attempted to approach the venture of space travel from a very realistic lens. Along with the switch from a direct approach to a fantasy approach, and perhaps more importantly, is the switch from a “passive” show to an “active” environment. As the best themed attractions do, Space Mountain allows us to inhabit and explore environments that we would not have the chance to do so, outside of a theme park.


This also harps back to a discussion on “frontiers” in themed attractions and themed environments. Attractions like the Jungle Cruise, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, or the Rivers of America allow us as observers to receive a better impression of the environment that we occupy. They extend the environment past shop facades and detailed walkways, often taking us to “real” places. It is the themed entertainment equivalent of a child sitting on their father’s shoulders to catch a better view. But “frontier” attractions also can serve as a wilderness for a themed environment and with these attractions there is an implied danger. We do not know what lies beyond the first corner on the Jungle Cruise or as we pass into the mined caverns of Big Thunder Mountain. Space Mountain is no exception, providing the ultimate “terra incognita” for Tomorrowland, once occupied by the primitive (in comparison) Flight/Rocket to the Moon. This “danger” is mostly implied. It is not simply because one may be afraid of a roller coaster, albeit one in near-complete darkness, but because the risk of casual space flight is part of the bargain. As a participant we are entering an unknown environment.

Some of the best themed environments in the world present to us a time and place unavailable to us in the real world, but often are rooted in some familiarity. We may not be familiar with inhabiting a space station, but we are comfortable with planetariums and are often eager to compare. The correct aesthetic choices create emotion through tactile and environmental means. Again, Hench nails the concept of Space Mountain in ways I fail to dictate: “the mystery of outer space, the excitement of setting out on a journey, and the thrill of the unknown.”

Now that we have examined Space Mountain’s fundamental themes, so to speak, we can begin to explore it’s minutiae from the outside in. To start, something that I think is particularly interesting about Florida’s Space Mountain is that it given to us in whole. We can see it from almost every angle. .We can easily observe it from the railroad, the brick-laden pathway to the Contemporary Resort, from the ferryboat, and even traveling on World Drive. However, at no time can we actually get close enough to touch the structure itself. We are separated by green space, fences, and by show buildings.

When we traverse through the entranceway to Space Mountain, we first enter an open chamber as we walk on railing-laced pathway. There are tall spires that reach the ceiling towards our left, but the main focus is on the back-illuminated panels that draw us forward. The copy on the main side reads: “Welcome Space Travelers (STARPORT Seven-Five), Your Gateway to the Galaxies.” However, this was not the show originally presented in this room. To best understand the thematic sensibilities of the current show, we must look at what occupied this space in the past and the inspect the changes thereof.


Upon descending the entrance ramp, guests were originally greeted by Nipper the Fox Terrier: RCA’s mascot. Enclosed in a slowly rotating spaceship and accompanied by his ever-present phonograph, it conveyed “RCA Welcomes You to Space Mountain.” RCA”s musical theme “Here’s to the Future”  played here and in the elaborate post-show. You can see George McGinnis’ faithful rendering of the scene to the left. Following the entrance room, guests enter the ever so memorable “Star Tunnel” corridor.

George McGinnis recalls that early plans for the Florida pre-show’s second room were quite different. Claude Coats had fashioned an intricate interior based on Werner Von Braun’s “space wheel,” probably similar in fashion to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Space Station V.” Coats’ space wheel would feature audio-animatronic figures living in an interior habitat, accompanied by rear projections of space imagery. McGinnis worked with Coats’ concept to have it be retrofitted for Space Mountain’s interior. According to McGinnis, this concept was scrapped due to a moving ascending belt would move too many people into the loading area at once. If the ride would be delayed by any reason, Space Mountain’s upstairs queue space would have overflowed. The costs associated with Coats’ use of audio-animatronics were probably another large determinant. However, Coats maintained his audio-animatronic tableaus in the post-show: RCA’s Home of Future Living.

smstrcdrIn its place, McGinnis designed what we now know as the “Star Tunnel,” a long winding, ascending corridor that leads guests to the main queue room and the loading area. To fill the interior space, McGinnis utilized a great bit of WED Illusioneering with his “Infinity Windows.” Some of these spaces originally gave RCA their proper due in the queue, while others featured mirror illustrations of starfields, planets, spaceships, and rockets. Due to their convex shapes, they play a trick on the viewer’s eyes as they are walked past.

But surely, these windows can’t be the sole reason why Space Mountain’s queue is so memorable. Perhaps a broader look at queue functionality is in order.

In 1992, anthropologist Stephen M. Fjellman wrote a comprehensive overview of Walt Disney World called Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America. Calling the Vacation Kingdom “the most ideologically important piece of land in the United States,” Fjellman explores the resort’s impact on society and culture, while exploring it’s thematic devices: such as the cinematic scope of its attractions and landscapes. I find Fjellman’s classification of queue structures to be fascinating and of interest to this piece.

Fjellman’s “Five Basic Elements of Disney Line Practice” (Vinyl Leaves pg. 206)

  1. The Hidden Line
  2. The Illusion of Progress
  3. Sensory Entertainment
  4. Cooling the Line
  5. Loading/Unloading of Attractions

Fjellman’s “Three Basic Forms of Lines at Walt Disney World” (Vinyl Leaves pg. 207)

  1. The Open Snake
  2. The Preshow Balustrade
  3. Inside Corridor

(as well as combinations of these patterns)


So now, with Fjellman’s classifications, and an early diagram of the Space Mountain’s interior (taken from “The E-Ticket Magazine Issue 30 and assembled in Photoshop), there is only one more facet I’d like to explore: it’s soundtrack. In doing so, it is essential to discuss the 1985 makeover dubbed “RYCA-1.” Specifically, I would like to talk about the musical variations that were introduced. RCA’s “Here’s to the Future” had been replaced by a few pieces of music, the “Entrance Music” and “Star Tunnel” as well as the lyrical “We’ve Come So Far.” Kudos, again, to Foxx from Passport2Dreams for confirming my suspicions that the composer of these pieces was indeed, George Wilkins.

I suspected Wilkins, not only because of the time period that we are discussing, but rather his mastery of transitions of musical signatures. Wilkins’ earlier effort with the Horizons score is a fantastic, if not the greatest, example. Recall how Wilkins was able to transcend genres and blend the music for the Robida Flats area by following the same chord progression as “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” in the proceeding scene, then later repurpose “New Horizons” to fit each scene in “Tomorrow’s WIndows,” i.e. using traditional rural instrumentation for the Desert Farm scene. Wilkins was able to do this again by blending the three compositions for Space Mountain ever so seamlessly by having them follow the same chord pattern.

Screen shot 2013-07-30 at 3.20.46 PM

The changes in tone come with differences in instrumentation, tailored to mirror the intended queue experience. Let’s follow the queue experience, once again, through it’s soundtrack. The “Entrance Music,” with it’s regal french horn melody, evokes Hench’s “excitement of setting out on a journey.” I almost feel as if the piece acts as a call to action, starting with long-toned strings then phasing into a staccato movement accentuated by light hi-hat symbol work. It’s upbeat and keeps us moving forward. I’ve expressed this before, but I think the greatest special effect in Florida’s Space Mountain is the auricular transition between the “Entrance Music” and “Star Tunnel” compositions. It’s a seamless, yet instant, movement in tone. The “Star Tunnel” composition is permeated with theremin-like sounds that always evoked what a shooting star may sound like, a high note descending rapidly before fading into the distance. It’s especially poignant when passing one of McGinnis’ convex illusions and the sound effect happens to be in-sync. Eventually, “Star Tunnel” fades into a piece that I see commonly referred to as the “Third Tunnel.” In this selection, the common theme is still there, but is masked by darker, ambient tones. There’s a significant increase in audible texture as the number “shooting star” sound effects increase, as well as the “com chat” track from Disneyland’s Space. The dynamic is carried over to the load/unload area as a result of the 2009 refurbishment.

Screen shot 2013-07-30 at 3.17.27 PMI adore the 2009 refurbishment of the attraction, because I believe it strengthens the Florida show’s strong suits and preserves its eccentricities. Enclosing the load space makes the environment even darker, a facet that is absolutely essential for the gradual dim. Not being able to see the ride structure is essential for the illusion of the on-ride lighted tunnels to work as transportive mediums. Also, the control buttons for the inoffensive interactive games bring some nice accent colors to the deep blue queue space.

One last note, the “Check Invisible Oxygen Dome” pre-flight backlit signage was the hardest I had genuinely laughed in a theme park since the first time I saw MuppetVision 3D.

I would now like to take into consideration everything that has been discussed about the queue thus far and apply it to Fjellman’s classifications.

1. The Hidden Line – Fjellman actually cites Space Mountain as an example, as the flow of guest traffic in the Star Tunnel often moves swiftly, leaving the majority of the queuing portion to the switchbacks before the loading platform. This can be observed in the diagram shown earlier in this piece.

2. The Illusion of Progress – In designing effective queue spaces, it is essential to provide the guest with movement or other stimulation to ease the tension of lenghty wait times. Fjellman rationalizes that adding more “open snake” turnstile channels will promote near-constant guest movement and increase wait time tolerance. Even though the potential majority of wait-time is held in the loading area, common guest perception assumes that once they have ascended the top of the Star Tunnel that boarding is immediate, hence the illusion.

3. Sensory Entertainment – Before the 2009 refurbishment, guests were able to see part of Space Mountain’s infrastructure, allowing anticipation to build through seeing the kinetic movement of the ride vehicles above. Now, the experience is different and the main sensory element (other than total immersion into darkness) are the interactive video games.

4. Cooling the Line – Refers to Walt Disney World’s necessary practice of air conditioning it’s queues. It is noteworthy that the Florida iteration put it’s loading and unload stations on the far side of the show building to draw the queue inside, while in California and Tokyo a more significant portion of the queue is held outside. It’s design by necessity as the Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain has become a respite for many tourists to the Vacation Kingdom from the hot Florida sun.

5. Loading/Unloading of Attractions – It’s noteworthy that the two tracks are nearly identical, but are mirrored. The 2009 refurbishment has upgraded the loading experience by introducing fictional written commands on backlit panels.

Screen shot 2013-07-31 at 1.12.13 AM

There’s not a whole lot for me to analyze (in this piece at least) for the on-ride experience. I do find the blue and red tunnels to be poetic bookends to the ride experience, especially because they act as portals. I do enjoy the symmetrical show staging on the lift hill as well, the designs of those control towers have withstood the test of time.

There’s much discourse over the lack of an onboard soundtrack. I don’t believe that I subscribe to that thinking as of this time (I have yet to experience Disneyland’s Space). I believe there is merit in both practices. I’ve always appreciated Florida’s because, if I suspend disbelief, I can rarely anticipate when there is bound to be a tight turn or sharp drop. Disneyland’s Space Mountain embraces the aural cues and everything is in syncopation. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, it’s just different. My ideal improvement would be to illuminate the other ride vehicles to get a better sense of the echoing chaos of the interior space. As a rider, I often hear the other rocket ships but never see them and I don’t appreciate the disconnect.

The winding corridor denies the guest the ability to see the load/unload space and the “upstairs” switchbacks for quite some time. It’s a long, ascending march in the darkness. As riders, our eyes have adjusted to the low-light level by the time we have reached the boarding area, but how did we get there? It’s the abstraction of this space fantasy that counts. “How?” and “Why?” simply fail to matter.

In the queue, we observe diagrams of galaxies real and fictional before we gaze into “real” star-fields. If I had to make an argument, I would say that the beginning of the queue employs the more abstract elements (the spired towers and ballpit-like laced floor of the entrance room) and that the elements of the attraction based in realism (the control tower, the rocket ride vehicles themselves, and the diagetic sound elements) materialize in the latter half. However, I think Space Mountain is one of the few themed attractions where that kind of thinking is deemed unnecessary. If we return to looking at a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, we can understand that the effect of the film would be heartily diminished if it explained itself through every act. 2001 and Space Mountain each work best as ambiguities.

Let’s face it, from a narrow on-ride standpoint, Space Mountain is truly a just roller coaster in the dark. However, the average park guest to the most veteran park aesthete will argue to the contrary: and that is a testament to the marvelous illusion that it is! And in this case, we owe credit to one of the best designed queues ever built.


George Mc Ginnis on Space Mountain (2005) Part 1 Part 2

Looking Back at Tomorrow

“Looking Back at Tomorrow”

The Dream of Horizons and the Merit of Great Design


“It is a careful synthesis of all the wonders within Epcot, and applies the elements of communication, energy, transportation, creativity, and technology to a better life-style for the family of the future.” 

– A Pictorial Souvenir of Walt Disney World” © 1990 Disney

There’s no one thing that makes a great dark ride. No magic formula, cure-all, or simple trick can produce a great experience or fix an ailing one. This is what makes great themed design an intricate puzzle. These experiences are incredibly complex entities that operate under fairly simple pretenses. Dark rides immerse guests in new settings, recall familiarity, and have the power to leave riders with a lasting impression. Just as a powerful film or a great novel can inspire an emotional reaction, themed attractions have the ability to do so, as with any other art form. By looking at their intricacies, we can award great aesthetic choices and examine the components of effective themed show.

Fundamentally, these experiences are designed for entertainment, but at times can represent additional purposes. Among these: education, inspiration, and reassurance. EPCOT Center’s Future World showed us, by example, how the use of information could benefit our lives. World Showcase taught us how to absorb culture. The Horizons experience was unique because it stood on the shoulders of Future World’s other pavilions, embraced those ideas, and dared to look ahead. It was the synthesis of EPCOT Center’s vision: to provide a better life for our Future World by best utilizing the information and resources available.

Horizons’ exterior, designed by the architect George Rester, was fittingly vague in contrast with Future World’s other pavilions: World of Motion resembled a wheel, the Universe of Energy had solar panels on its roof, The Land’s murals appearing to be cutting into the terrain. Even later pavilions like The Living Seas would continue this aesthetic trend. Like the future, the architecture of the Horizons pavilion was indefinable: was it a finely cut gem? a spaceship? (the generalized consensus) Perhaps it’s perceived to be a spaceship in the same fashion as Space Mountain. It’s still largely unclear. Maybe the answer is more symbolic, lying in the form of the exterior. It’s lines reaching into the far perspective may represent a mountain in the distance, a road going into the sunset, or even a mirage on the horizon line. Regardless, the Horizons pavilion was never defined from the forms of its exterior, its message was found inside (quite literally).

“If you can dream it, you can do it.” There it is – a given thesis statement, displayed to the guest immediately through its entrance. The exhibitionist nature of EPCOT Center’s pavilions marked a paradigm shift from the Disneyland model on how themed attractions were displayed. Mostly linear stories drawn from works of classic fiction were substituted with non-narrative discourses. However, Horizons, along with the Universe of Energy and other single-attraction pavilions, followed a more familiar pre-show/show/post-show format. The closest comparison to an attraction revealing its fundamental theme in its early stages may be X. Atencio’s “When hinges creak in doorless chambers…” script for the Haunted Mansion, I can’t think of any other off the top of my head although I’m positive there are more. The primary theme is usually revealed at the attraction’s climax or made aware at the end of the experience.


The travel windows themselves, described by Richard Beard in the pre-opening EPCOT Center book as “Large octagonal picture windows-the future equivalent to travel posters” were likely influenced by Show Designer George McGinnis’ work on the Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain. Florida’s queue, which brilliantly doubled as its RCA-sponsored pre-show, featured a series of, what McGinnis called “infinity windows.” These illusions, which use convex mirrors to create the illusion of movement for objects like asteroids and satellites, differed from the kaleidoscopic motions of the travel posters beautifully rendered by the artist Robert McCall, yet provided essentially the same function. The illusion of infinite space was also suggested in the queue: notably, the use of mirrors behind the “Futureport” sign. Also, Gil Keppler placed a few faux sliding doors to nowhere throughout the Futureport to give the illusion of a greater space.

This was not the first time that WED Enterprises had utilized an airport setting for an attraction’s queue: this distinction belongs to 1972’s “if you had wings” in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland. It’s important to note that Claude Coats, the primary creative force behind “if you had wings,” was involved in determining the Horizons attraction’s early scope. “if you had wings,” which drew influence for it’s contemporary terminal queue from another Coats show: Adventures Thru Inner Space, may also serve as an influence for Horizons’ use of visual patterns.

Perhaps most importantly, the Futureport worked to adjust the rider’s eyes to dark spaces just as Space Mountain’s queue does so well. Essentially it introduced the reoccurring musical theme, primed the ride experience, and began to create the illusion of a ‘dream state.’

Act One: Yesterday’s Tomorrows

George McGinnis once admitted that the Horizons show was derived as a spiritual successor to the Carousel of Progress, with optimism as an undercurrent, but with “dreaming” as the message instead of “progress.” So, in accordance with the ride’s thesis statement, the Horizons experience invited us to “take the trip you’ve always dreamed of.”

Much like Spaceship Earth’s use of alternating lighted panels as the riders pass under archways to simulate an mysterious journey through time, Horizons used a wall of acrylic clouds laced with fiber optic effects to create the illusion of going into a dream.

The designers must have determined that “clouds” were synonymous with “dreaming,” for the motif appears several times within the avant garde “Looking Back at Tomorrow” segment. We pass through them as we begin our journey and then view the early show scenes through their outlines. An example of this can be seen here in Collin Campbell’s rendering for the Parisian future scene, taken from the G.E. Promotional Booklet.



Not only is this a framing device for the themed show, it reinforces that what we are seeing is the result of dreams and the dreamers behind them. Tom Fitzgerald, who was a primary architect in crafting the story, noted that the designs of the earlier scenes are rooted in the time period in which they were dreamed.

It’s important to note that these early sequences were viewed as the ride vehicle was rounding a gradual arc, which the show scenes mirrored, slowly panning from left to right and revealing details as we peek into the cutouts.

Our first foray into the thoughts of past visionaries is a series of projections that mimic attempts at flight: drawn from the legend of Icarus, early attempts at balloon aviation, and eventually Verne’s own ‘Rocket to the Moon’ launch (complete with adoring spectators). These projections were done in the style of traditional woodcuts, which in accordance with Fitzgerald’s quote, fits the designs of the time period.






Let’s start by looking at a 15th century woodcarving by the artist Albrecht Dürer. Likely the oldest influence on Horizons, the Dürer illustration doesn’t represent a direct lift, but rather a borrowing of style. It’s an appropriate time period to begin with, Early-Renaissance art fits both the woodcut illustrations and the DaVinci-esque flying machines. From a narrative standpoint, here marks a transition from “mythology” to “fantasy” to “near-reality” as “the stuff that dreams were made of” materializes and disappears. This only perpetuates the notion that the Horizons experience is nothing more than a ‘dream state.’ The Horizons attraction was not the Walt Disney Company and G.E. predicting what the future would be, but rather what it could be. G.E. executive Ned Landon, who worked with WED Enterprises in developing the attraction, gave the subtitle “An Achievable Future.”


The staging for the Jules Verne tableau was influenced by the work of Henri de Montaut, who was the primary illustrator behind Verne’s De la terre à la lune. The Victorian furnishings of the cabin, with its plush crosshatched red fabric walls, are replicated as well as the curved furniture and the viewing portal in the upper left section. Horizons’ Verne is accompanied by two audio animatronics: a chicken and a dog. An element of whimsy is added with the figures, which derive from the “From the Earth to the Moon” novel and cross-references another piece of classic science fiction in the next scene: George Meilies’ 1902 classic “Le Voyage dans la Lune.” The attraction script’s narrative of “the grand old man himself” gave gravitas to Verne himself and his representation as the singular futuristic visionary. The following scene completes Horizons’ mini three act play as we have followed Verne’s vessel from takeoff, to mid-space, and to it’s landing site in Meilies’ moon.



There’s a unique balance of warm and cool tones in these early scenes. The soft yellows and pinks in the early aviation projection scene contrast the dark black background, while the shifting between projections guided the rider’s eyes through the scene accordingly. The Jules Verne staging is a good example of effective set design, for it communicates it’s message quickly and directs the viewer’s eyes to a  focal point, using selective lighting to hone in on details. The placement of the moon to the right correlates to the ride vehicle’s movement and viewer sightlines as well as the progression of Verne’s capsule in the ‘mini-three act play.’

The ‘French future’ scene brought kineticism what would have been a static vignette, which was nothing more than painted flats. It’s equivalent to a pop-up storybook coming to life, enriched by colored lighting. While often attributed, and rightfully so, to the French Artist Albert Robida, I have found elements of another French artist named Villemard, who in turn, was likely influenced by Robida. A comparison can be seen below. Throughout the show scene, Campbell did great work with placing people and vehicles at varying heights in the foreground and architectural details in the background. The result is a visual cacophony which mirrors the American “Future from the 50’s” shown in a later scene.  The works of the two French artists provided an essential absurdist view of the future and continued what had been a dominantly European view.




From a film perspective, Horizons was essentially a continuous tracking shot from left to right, as the vehicles traveled sideways. A modified omnimover, the Horizons ride system was still able to produce manipulated sightlines, even if it was limited to only facing the left side of the track. It is interesting how the narrative at times could echo the ride vehicle movement: we sink below the sea level, we ascend into outer space, and easy living is “right around the corner”…




It is at this point where the clear European influence fades into twentieth century American thinking, with regards to the future. We enter a more familiar environment too: it’s a cross section of an urban apartment. Having the apartment set in an Art Deco styling was a brilliant choice for a transition in art direction. Art Deco, as a design style, first appeared in post-World War 1 Europe, but was popularized in the United States. Perhaps best encapsulated in style by the World’s Fairs of the 1930’s: 1933’s “Century of Progress” and 1939’s ‘World of Tomorrow,” both fairs reflected themes of easy living and innovation. Depicting “easy living” in the Machine Age allowed Imagineer Ernie Soos to dream up some of Horizons’ most recognizable characters: the robotic servants.



It is a testament to the great character and set designs that the show scene is so fondly remembered to this date. Later in this essay, during the “Urban Habitat” scene, we will discuss the use of stratified levels to build emphatic interior spaces.

The beauty of exhibitionist pavilions like Horizons, and what let its designers have creative freedom, is that the experience isn’t bounded to a single location i.e. Caribbean Plaza. We are temporary transported to different periods of time and place. Yet, the locales that riders visited aren’t seemingly infinite like The Universe of Energy’s expansive prehistoric dinosaur diorama, or set between endless voids like those in Spaceship Earth. Horizons’ show scenes were shallow in comparison. The depth of field was smaller, but the show scenes were larger in width. Large backdrops coupled with projected effects gave the illusion that there was more beyond the interior.

A nod to the attraction’s spiritual predecessor and shared sponsor was placed with the addition of “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” written by the Sherman Brothers. If one listens carefully, one will notice that the scene music for the Robida segment follows the same chord progression as “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” It’s a testament to the brilliance of the George Wilkins/John Debney score. Personally, I think Wilkins’ true genius lies in his ability to craft exceptionally captivating musical hooks with seamless transitions. For example, look at the Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain. In my opinion, the transition between the entrance music in the first room to the familiar “Star Tunnel” piece, to the ambient sounds as we reach the loading platform is just as brilliant as any special effect in any attraction.

The backdrop of a science fiction city was clearly influenced by the work of Frank R. Paul. Paul’s work would be revisited for the Magic Kingdom’s Avenue of the Planets, a land heavily influenced by pulp art. It’s quite easy to compare and contrast the backdrop in this concept model (below right) with Paul’s 1942 rendering of a ‘City of the Future’ (below right). Horizons was originally set to have more of a pulp influence, but McGinnis and Campbell’s “Amazing Stories” spiral track to the top of the Omnimax theater was cut for budgetary reasons.



We then view the future through the lens of popular culture. Both the “matinée” and the “Future from the 50’s” sequences share a similar neon-outlined aesthetic. As noted earlier, I believe that the “Future from the 50’s” sequence was the American mirror to the “Robida Flats” tableau.

We should note that the bill of film and television specials (listed below) compromise the primary list of influences for the Magic Kingdom’s New Tomorrowland expansion in 1994.

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926)

Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang, 1928)

Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)

Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

Things to Come (William C. Menzies, 1936)

Buck Rogers (Ford Beebe, Saul Goodkind, 1939)

Magic Highway USA (Magic Highway USA, 1958)

The “Looking Back at Tomorrow” segment does more than just to just ground us in familiarity, it primes us for the later show scenes, as one Future World slogan read “travel the corridors of time and discover the future.” Our visual palette is cleansed with in the transitional space by alternating colored theater lights on a curtain.

Act Two: Today’s Achievements

While not directly tied to Horizons, and rather early in the development for the Wonders of Life pavilion, Imagineer Rolly Crump once spoke on the power of these attractions to stimulate thought. “If it’s a ton of fun, and an ounce of information, you’ll reach a teachable moment,” Crump parlayed. I believe that Horizons’ “teachable moment” occurs in this second act during the film message. Not only did it depict the leading technology of the day that helped inspire the proceeding scenes, it reflected the ethos of Future World at that time. Let’s take a look at some dialogue from the attraction’s script for this Act:

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“This is no distant dream, “we’re at the threshold now.”

“The sun. Today we’re learning ways to harness its limitless energy.”

“A living tribute to our richest resource – people.”

“ready to fuel tomorrow’s needs.”

In arguing my notion that the Horizons experience is a trip into a dream state, no other quote is more important than the first listed. It’s meant to act as a narrative “boost for the finish line,” a call to action for achievement. Act Two represented real accomplishments and hard sciences that we can use to construct our future. One could view it as a “commercial break” of sorts, non-fiction placed in the middle of two sequences of fiction. It’s the true brilliance of the attraction’s script that presented a future that was warm and reassuring, yet not overtly naïve. One can hear an echo of “we’re learning” today, found in Living With The Land’s barn scene.

The Omnimax format is a wonderful illusion for Disney’s use of multiple screens and optical tricks made the image appear static, even though the participant was moving around the theater space at all times. It’s easily arguable that a viewer engulfed in an 80-foot high screen in the Omnisphere message will have more weight than something displayed on a 12” plasma screen. While McGinnis had hoped to utilize the technology for the attraction’s finale, the sequence added weight to the current message of Future World.

Act Three: Tomorrow’s Windows

As with any attraction that dares to look into the future, there are two fundamental obstacles. That is, “how does one present and design a vision of the future that will not become dated by the time of its operation?”  The second is echoed here by Marty Sklar: “One of the problems we face is getting people to make predictions, particularly companies who don’t want to show a product they’ll have in ten years, for competitive reasons, If we go too far, people will say it’s just fantasy … a balancing has to take place when you’re talking about the future.” So Fitzgerald’s team added a qualifier after the Omnimax sequence: “What you’ve just seen are the building blocks for the future up ahead. And while it may look fantastic, remember, it’s all possible.”

The differences in the attraction’s acts are as follows:

Act One explored in an avant garde fashion how the visionaries of the past viewed the Future.

Act Two exhibited in grand fashion the innovations of the day and worked as a ‘call to action’ for an achievable future.

Act Three builds upon both acts to present it’s own vision of the future, utilizing the hard science of the time.

The “Tomorrow’s Windows” sequence had been primed since the beginning of the attraction. The Futureport displayed the wondrous vistas that we could travel to, then Acts I and II showed us the dreamed futures of the past and present.

The design team looked for a timeless constant that could make a foreign concept such as the future instantly relatable and found one in the family structure. “We wanted to emphasize the family unit,” Fitzgerald explained. “Some people think that it may not exist in the future, but our feeling was that advances in transportation and communication will bring families closer together.” So when that was determined, in turn, it was set that most of the show scenes would take place in domestic environments.

George McGinnis was concerned about how Horizons’ set design would affect the tone of the rendered future. He recalled “the future is often presented as all sterile colors and threatening angles, so we used a lot of soft forms – the circular kitchen comes to mind-and warm colors, particularly in the urban setting, the first future habitat presented. We kept ‘people’ details in mind, too. We’re convinced that even though environments will change, people won’t. Teenagers in our show still monopolize the phone; kids and dogs still exasperate mom and dad. We believe one of the main differences high technology will make is that it will give us more choices.”

The “Tomorrow’s Windows” scenes were aesthetically different than the tableaus in Act I. They were rich in giving the illusion of depth. If you recall, we have discussed how Horizons’ show scenes tended to be long in width, but short in depth, as our vehicle travels sideways. This horizontal space allowed WED’s designers to play tricks on the eye as we will see with techniques like forced perspective and implied space. The “Tomorrow’s Windows” sequence showcased future living, work, and recreational spaces, the blending of these spaces is what makes “Tomorrow’s Windows” particularly interesting.

Let’s take a look at a concept piece for the Nova Cite apartment:



As shown here in this concept, and in the attraction, we mostly view these show scenes from their exterior. We quite literally peer into “Tomorrow’s Windows.” This is no coincidence, this is a good aesthetic choice. I don’t know the validity of my assumption, but I always viewed the window support structures were a similar framing device to the cloud motif that bordered the early show scenes. I think that the soft curved forms of the clouds contrast with the sleek, practical lines of the framing for these show scenes, the latter representing a more feasible future. It could be the author putting to much faith in EPCOT Center’s affinity for geometric symbolism, but I would like to believe it to be true. To further explore the interior space, we can look at a rendered model as well as the finished staging.



The living space presented in Horizons’ “Urban Habitat” (more commonly known as Nova Cite) scene was inherently believable because of its functionality. Our sightline is crafted so the ceiling is visible and it includes its recessed lighting. But even before we can peer into “Tomorrow’s Windows” we see the exterior of the apartment complete with exotic foliage furnishings. We are then showed the living space and our eyes are led to the distant exterior: The beautifully rendered Nova Cite backdrop. The painting’s deep blues and purples, featured light projections that simulated movement. It tricks the rider’s eyes into thinking there is considerate depth to the scene.


Tlefthere is a direct contrast between the cool tones of the backdrop and the rich tone of the living room carpet. White furniture is used, not only for modernism, but to accentuate focal points: specifically the placement of the audio-animatronic figures.

This type of themed design is effective, because not only does it suggests lived space, it perpetuates it. For example, we may see a propped exterior balcony in New Orleans Square or Caribbean Plaza that implies lived space, a show scene like Nova Cite displays it in full with “living” characters. One is not a better type of immersion than the other, it’s just different. In a dark ride setting like Horizons, we experience immersion in a passive way: we peer into environments to see how the characters relate to them. With an exterior environment, themed queue, or walk-through attraction, we experience immersion in an active setting: it is a first-person experience.


Returning to Nova Cite, “warmth” is a very hard thing to quantify, yet it has unanimously been attributed to this scene.  It seems to be of essential human nature that we desire to occupy these lived spaces. It does help, in the case of Horizons, that the protagonists invite us to this space in the narrative. Perhaps domestic environments like this Nova Cite apartment or the Act IV scene from the Carousel of Progress are often desired spaces of occupation because we inherently know that we are guests and visitors, not residents. At the end of the day we know that we don’t belong. I am not a psychologist, but I believe these experiences do perpetuate a craving to spend time in these false spaces. We do so because these spaces are primarily, believable. This speaks to the validity of great aesthetic choices and well-thought show design. Let’s refer to the following image to examine implied interior space.




All three images frame the Father figure, but do so from distinct vantage points. Ultimately, these perspectives give the illusion of additional space. The first, on the left, is the reveal of the male protagonist, we see him through the exposed beam supports of the apartment. The illusion of depth from this angle has already been explored, so we can move on to the center image. Keep in mind, this perspective requires that the rider’s eyes track the father figure. On the right hand side of the center image, we view the exterior set elements, added for the illusion of depth, as well as my favorite accessory of implied space: the faux stairway (to nowhere!). The third panel offers a striking view of the space that suggests considerate depth of field, as well as being exquisitely framed.




I suppose this would be an appropriate time to address the attraction’s narratology. Horizons operated in a similar way to its Carousel spiritual predecessor. The rider is directly addressed from the beginning of the attraction by the tandem narration of the Mother and Father characters. They guide us through the early non-diagetic tableaus, then become protagonists when we are exposed to their story world. If the rider was not directly addressed and the fourth wall remained unbroken, there would be more of a sense of voyeurism to the living spaces. However, there is no tension because we are invited by the hosts.




The narration does something terribly interesting as we leave the Nova Cite apartment onto the Harvester scene. We pass through an implied exterior terrace that showcased the genetically engineered fruits modeled by Imagineer Alex Taylor, providing a brilliant transition into the farming sequence. While we still have the narration by the two protagonists, we do not share the correlation with the secondary family members. Although we are seeing these exotic environments and the family members that live in them first-hand, they are expressed and explained by the parental figures. What this means is the fourth wall is put back up and riders revert to being spectators. We are not engaged in conversation with the figures we are seeing, we easedrop. Going back to the notion that the Horizons experience is a dream state, the seamless transition in naratology makes sense. The parental figures are boasting about their kids, and how the future has impacted their lives to us as if we have never left their living room. The ‘dream state’ allows us to view those environments and to overhear their dialogue.

We now enter what was commonly known as Mesa Verde. Remember, the travel windows in the Futureport maintained that Mesa Verde was a “desert reclamation complex.” Horizons had an undercurrent on capitalizing on unused potential.

But this idea of desert reclaimation in an attraction was not a unique one, for it had been explored almost two decades earlier in General Motors’ Futurama pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, which was really an extension of the 1939 Futurama show. I recommend watching this promotional film produced by GM, for it might allow a quick digestion of the similarities in attractions.



Familiar, isn’t it? Let’s continue with other influences, but this attraction will certainly be revisited.


Possibly influenced by serialized comic strips in the late 50’s that looked to present the future, the Harvester scene showed an innovative way to new techniques in harvesting our land’s resources.

The top panel comes from a March 30, 1958 strip of “Closer Than We Think.” The text reads:  “A floating tower will oversee a swarm of robot implements and tractors operated by electronic command.” The second panel emphasizes that “by the turn of the century, farmers may do some of their most important jobs from the air.”


P1968greenfarmererhaps Claude Coats, who developed the early concept and layout for the harvester scene, came across these images and was inspired to utilize them in a forced perspective setting. The harvester scene that Coats had designed, later refined and detailed by McGinnis and Gil Keppler is a master’s crafting of effective forced perspective in interior themed show. The triangular positioning of the robotic harvesters on an inclined plane only truly worked when viewed from the middle of the show scene. This presented a problem, for Horizons’ sideways-moving ride system pans from left to right, only a small proportion of the scene would be viewed correctly.


The concept model to the right shows how some of these problems were fixed. Like the previous scene, we are first exposed to the environment by natural elements. Faux rocks and trees help frame the scene and integrate us into our new environment. However, these efforts were most likely trumped by the memorable and pleasant orange smell that was piped in. The woodland elements do help mask the disproportion, but do not provide the answer. The solution? The form of the control room designed by Gil Keppler. See, a circular shaped set piece maintains its proportion from any angle. That’s why the control tower was placed in the exact middle of the scene, it creates a central focal point. Keppler’s open forms for the circular tower, not only worked to correct proportion, but allowed the rider to peer through and appreciate the intended perspective. When the perspective dissolves past the mid-section of the scene, the hovercraft (seen on left) misdirects the eyes of  the viewer so the disjunction is not observed.




Also designed by Keppler, the circular kitchen in the following scene featured a glass floor and partial sightlines to the backdrop and accompanying scenery. We transition from a “work” space back to a “living” space. We can appreciate the use of levels and layered space when we look back at the scene. Observe how the foreground elements are separated from the kitchen scene. When we look back at the kitchen scene (shown in the image below) we can see the fully realized space.

The circular ceilings mirror each other but serve different aesthetic and practical functions: the kitchen scene is open and airy to allow a greater visual of the exterior, while the closed ceiling in the living space directs our attention to the screen showing the ‘beach boy’ and the granddaughter animatronic figure. Combined we get a true sense of the domestic environment and the exterior space. It’s quite interesting that this stratified theme design is arguably more effective when seen from this perspective, than the intended, and given sightline of the omnimover.  These transitional spaces made Horizons appealing to me, in retrospect. Transitions between work areas, domestic areas, and recreational areas made sense. This harps back to the emitted “warmth”  from displaying a indicated living space.



Our ride vehicle travels the contour of the show scenes as they start to influence our elevation. The ride vehicle travels downward as we approach the floating city. The Sea Castle backdrop painting by Shim Yokoyama establishes our position by showing the sea level. As our ride vehicle dips down further, revealing more show scenes, we reach the understanding that we are traveling underwater.

Aesthetically, one can draw influences for Sea Castle from a couple sources of retro-futurism. Klaus Bürgle, a renowned forward-looking artist produced the rendering on the left, and other forward-reaching works in the 1950’s. The scene on the right is recognizable as “Hotel Atlantis” from 1964’s “Futurama” attraction.



When looking at the circular interior design pattern for the Sea Castle scenes, one can observe that both the Repair Bay and the Undersea Classroom “rhyme” with the Mesa Verde kitchen and living spaces.

Note that the show scenes in “Tomorrow’s Windows” progress to more and more exotic environments. We are familiar with cities and have occupied them. We have spent time in deserts and are familiar with their offerings. We have spent less time exploring the depths of the ocean. We have neither spent time or have occupied an outer space setting: it is the ultimate foreign environment. Horizons reverses the order of “Futurama”and shows the City of Tomorrow first. Instead of the environments getting more familiar, Horizons pushed the audience into more far reaching spaces. I do wonder if an arctic scene, as depicted in “Futurama,” was considered when developing the attraction. Yet, all of the environments shown are frontiers: wilderness areas that if we journeyed there in 1983 – or today for that matter – would take us out of our comfort zone. Horizons countered and tempered that notion through it’s themes of ‘family’ and ‘innovation’.


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In Sea Castle we continue to easedrop. There is a break between the family segments. We observe restaurant patrons, a classroom, and scuba divers. It’s not as important to hear what the figures are saying (often we can’t), but rather observe their actions. Our visuals are accompanied by the omniscient narration which acknowledges our unfamiliarity: “There’s always been something sort of mysterious about our oceans. We knew they were filled with valuable gifts for us.”

The friendly back-and-forth nature of the mother and father dialogue (which ironically, may have inspired the “sitcom” 1994 iteration of the Carousel of Progress) explores how these future environments are not only practical, but “fun.” I’ve always viewed the Horizons experience as Future World’s payoff. Through the other pavilions, we were introduced to a bevy of hard science and serious information. Horizons represented “the fruits of our labor,” so to speak. I’m not sure how many people actively dream about living in the depths of the ocean or in a space colony, but “Tomorrow’s Windows” gave us the luxury of choice. It embodies the pavilion’s mission to show us how we can apply what we are learning to enhance our future lives. “If we can dream it, we can do it.”

When some of the non-domestic spaces like the underwater restaurant and classroom were in jeopardy for budgetary reasons. McGinnis was able to draw a solution by crafting two-sided sets (seen below).



We can observe from the concept model and the McGinnis sketch how the support structures for “Tomorrow’s Windows” are detailed. As we’ve explored, the windows frame the show scenes and give us our bearings as we traverse through this dream state which I have discussed. In fact, the Richard Beard text specifically refers to these shown as “the underwater observation tube.” McGinnis’ two-sided set design had other benefits, which helped with implied space. Since the ride vehicle traveled downward when passing the “Sub Repair” and “Underwater Classroom” scenes, and the trio of domed windows were close to the “sea floor,” the set piece had to be very tall. One could not see the top of the show set from the omnimover vehicle. A result of this height was a feeling of tranquility in a deep undersea setting. The environment was also supported by kelp on tension springs, often hiding support beams, and lighted effects.

Of course, another visual pattern was the vehicle design. Much has been written about the ill-fated special effect developed by Don Iwerks that bridged the gap between sea and space, so I won’t delve into specifics. The concept models shown below demonstrate their similarity. However, the spacial transition in elevation gives ample weight to the effect of rising into outer space.



Allow me to revert back to the genius of the musical score for a brief moment. In my opinion, the sequence from the  “Undersea Classroom” to “Space” scene music are just as quintessential contributions to the Disney Parks canon as any other work composed by Walt Disney Imagineering. This musical transition helps us believe that we are entering the last, and most exotic frontier. One can note that more stringed instruments are used here, to implicate a more grandiose spectacle.

Again, we can recognize aesthetic patterns. Seen below is a concept model for the much remembered “floating family” segment.



We see the soft, warm, curved forms once again, avoiding the harsh and sharp lines that McGinnis strived to avoid. Just as we saw in the Sub Repair Bay and Gil Keppler’s Mesa Verde Kitchen, the dual circle configuration is seen again from a different angle. In Mesa Verde, we see the open roof of the kitchen from below. In Sea Castle we see the pattern from above with the “Tom II” audio-animatronic figure sitting on the edge of its center. Here we observe it from a sideways perspective, but the motif is subconsciously familiar.

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As we approach the final show scene, Horizons’ third act: “Tomorrow’s Windows” concludes with visual and musical resolution. The synthesis of all of Future World’s ideals ends with the family structure, utilizing the technology for an improved lifestyle. Compare the scene shown to the left with the first reveal of the protagonists in the Nova Cite apartment. It’s absolutely striking how each vantage point is framed. We must applaud Horizons for its ambition and  its continuity of aesthetic vision.

By framing the attraction from the perspective of a ‘dream state’ we can begin to see why it was so successful. The ‘dream state’ that Horizons employed helped solve a few issues that plague other themed attractions:

  1. The use of clouds, alternating lights and other motifs helped signify a transition between acts.
  2. The seamless shifting of narrative structure simultaneously adheres the rider to the family.
  3. The lucidness of spacial differences can signify scene transitions i.e. the sea to space transition.
  4. The “Looking Back at Tomorrow’s” period stylizing and contrasting to the Art Direction of the rest of the ride.

Now, this does not mean that any attraction’s disjunctions in sequencing can be classified this way. Horizons can do so because it exhibited this notion from the start. The reoccurring narration rationalizes what we are seeing, because it pertains to their “story world” that we see in the Third Act.

The lessons that Horizons bestowed on us will help create the compelling experiences of tomorrow. We can observe the importance of a ‘capstone’ attraction to a park or land. Much as been said about Horizons being the synthesis of Future World’s ideas. While completely true, what often goes unsaid is how it enriched the existing pavilions. By being warm, optimistic, and relatable, Horizons gave weight to the ideas and hard information exhibited there, an illustrated payoff.

Something that will always stick with me is the grandfather’s closing dialouge: “And I’ll tell you something … if we can dream it, we really can do it. And that’s the most exciting part.”

horizons 16


An Addendum:

I was very lucky to “take the trip you’ve always dreamed of” once in my lifetime. The day was January 7, 1999 and my eight year old self had no idea that I had nearly avoided having never experienced it. While Horizons clearly reached me at an impressionable age, for it helped developed my passion for themed design, I could have never developed all of these points from one ride-through of the attraction alone.

If you have never seen the attraction, and in turn are probably very confused, or if you’d like to relive it, I highly recommend Martin Smith’s Ultimate Tribute Video.

Also, this past October I had the opportunity to experience a virtual simulation of the attraction developed by the incomparable Chris Wallace. The work that he is doing is truly inspiring and I am so grateful to him that I got to experience the attraction in a near real life setting, once again. Check out his simulation if you haven’t already done so: Horizons Ressurected

Another unique Horizons resource is a blog named Mesa Verde Times. If you take a look at the site, you will see Horizons from a unique perspective to say the least. At EPCOT’s 30th event I, coincidentally was seated by Hoot and Chief who were nice enough to swap some stories. I finally took Hoot up on his offer of a piece of gum when he insisted that it was “orange flavored.”

Also, I would like to thank my friends who helped look over this article and gave great suggestions. You can follow them on Twitter @EPCOTExplorer and @joebillmatt .

Lastly, we shouldn’t mourn the loss of Horizons. Let’s take the lessons that we learned from it, apply them, and look further.

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 (raymondscott.com), 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.”

the watch I wear everyday.

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.

The Significance of EPCOT Center

The Significance of EPCOT Center:

Walt Disney World’s Pièce de Résistance and the case for Sentimentalism

Through the convenience of timeliness, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about EPCOT Center and its meaning as of late. I didn’t particularly intend to proffer to the plethora of EPCOT content that has recently found resurgence on the Internet, but as you can see I yielded to my thoughts. This essay marks a departure in my typical writing conventions for it is places emphasis on nostalgia instead of analysis.

Pardon the confusing nature of the following statement. EPCOT has never been my favorite Theme Park, yet it always will be. Allow me to explain. This will date myself chronologically I suppose, but I was introduced to Disney Parks at the tail end of the EPCOT Center’s “Golden Age.” Epcot 94’ and 95’ had just passed and the “Center” was forever dropped from its namesake.

I lament missing out on opening day EPCOT entities such as Kitchen Kaberet, Communicore, the original Universe of Energy, and World of Motion. However, I did receive a sort of “sentimental education” from attractions like The Living Seas, Horizons, and the Jeremy Irons narrative on Spaceship Earth. The pedagogical nature of the park didn’t particularly thrill me as much as a young individual, but rather left a delayed but indelible impression through its exhibits of edification and wonder.

EPCOT was not my immediate favorite park as a child, the Magic Kingdom was. If I had to wager I would probably bet the majority of my age group at that time would have agreed with me. I idolized the Disneyland model and developed an early appreciation for the value of themed environments. The Magic Kingdom fulfilled all the expectations set by all the promotional material that I had watched beforehand. Walt Disney World’s famed retailing of magic had caught another consumer.

Not that my childhood experience with Walt Disney World was fundamentally different that anyone else’s, but a brisk excitement lingered for months after. I clamored to go back. I must say that I was fortunate (and blessed) to frequent the parks despite their far proximity from Akron, Ohio, my parents being the generous benefactors of my travels. I did find merit in my local parks: Cedar Point and (the now closed) Geauga Lake, but they weren’t art forms. There was nothing behind the limited aesthetic. Popcorn lights and flowerbeds didn’t justify acceptable theming in my book. A cardboard cutout with a screen-printed picture of a superhero in front of a rollercoaster didn’t sell any kind of illusion to me. There was no story.

I was probably around the age of twelve when I began to look at parks differently. I read every book I could find about Walt Disney. My heroes changed from Bill Clinton, Kenny Lofton, and Bruce Wayne to John Hench, Herb Ryman, and Tony Baxter. I lamented the closure of The Timekeeper and Alien Encounter, knowing the thematic unity of the “New Tomorrowland” that I grew up with (and was particularly fond of) had died. “New Tomorrowland” represented the first in a chain of vicissitudes that I had come to notice. However, my unwavering faith in WDI had no doubt that Mission: Space would be a better attraction than Horizons, whom I briefly was acquainted with. I watched Mission: Space open from afar, caught up in the publicity and commotion over its new technologies, only to disappoint. It was at this time (2003) where I began to really appreciate the EPCOT Center of old for its amplitude.

In my book there are two monumental paradigm shifts in the history of Theme Parks and Themed Entertainment. Of course, the first one came when the Disneyland model was introduced in 1955. Everyone is aware of Walt Disney’s trademark contribution to the industry, but the second came in 1982 with the opening of EPCOT Center. I’m not a fan of the phrase, but I truly believe that EPCOT Center was the world’s greatest “cop-out.” Even though EPCOT Center was a far cry from Walt Disney’s grandiose vision of a working, breathing, city of the future, it did mark a significant landmark in the industry. When two separate models for future parks (a future themed area) and a permanent world’s fair (a world showcase) were pushed together to form a cohesive prototype, the future of Theme Parks changed. Not only could there be a successful profound deviation from the Disneyland model, but a park could represent something more. A Theme Park could educate, exhibit culture, and reflect change in modern society.

Visually, EPCOT Center was a striking departure from typical Theme Park conventions. The pavilions of Future World were given unique and monolithic forms. In aesthetics, the structures were contrasted by the clean landscape. Guest sightlines were carefully constructed; simple curved paths led guests on wide paths, which brilliantly juxtaposed the landscape in color. The pavilions carried an aggregate theme of optimism and importance; their sponsorships recalled the sterile corporatism of the famed World’s Fairs of the twentieth century. The physical separation of the pavilions allowed for effective guest distribution as well as an imposing visage, partly due to forced perspective at times, when seen from far away.

But as much as the Future World pavilions seemed daunting in their exterior, visitors found warmth and reassurance once inside the pavilions. Ray Bradbury once wrote that the constructed metaphors that emanate from the very minutiae of EPCOT Center allow the park guest to experience feelings of assurance, an optimistic argument in favor of solving the world’s problems. This sort of intellectual stimulus gave EPCOT Center a rather unique distinction, yet plagued it in reputation. What came to be known as “Edutainment” gave a somewhat negative connotation to the park with some of the younger audiences viewing the experience as a negative extension of the classroom.

This set stigma resulted in management’s demand for more thrilling attractions. World of Motion was shuttered in 1996 in favor of the more thrilling Test Track attraction. The inside of the circular pavilion was gutted of its audio-animatronic scenes, but gained a high-speed exterior track. EPCOT Center could now boast Walt Disney World’s fastest attraction. Only kept open by the construction delays in Test Track, Horizons followed World of Motion in suit, closing in 1999 to make room for another thrilling attraction, Mission: Space. Test Track and Mission: Space contributed to Orlando’s thrill-ride proliferation while simultaneously subtracting commitment to theme and warmth from Future World East.

Other changes beleaguered Future World West. The once charming Journey into Imagination was stripped of its trademark characters and upstairs post-show area, while the track was drastically shortened for a callous ride. The Living Seas abandoned all semblance of respective theming in favor of Pixarification. The Seas with Nemo and Friends, while a sound attraction, now exists as a garish pastel-colored protrusion in theme.

The problem with EPCOT Center lies in the direction of change. Regardless of the ride nature of the 21st century thrill-based additions, they did little to reflect the theme of Future World. Test Track was set in the present (and perhaps the past given its datedness at the end of its first iteration). Mission: Space projected into the future, but ultimately exhibits motion simulator technology readily available in the present. Worse, the pavilions lack the warmth and reassurance that used to grace EPCOT Center. Look at the post-shows for Test Track and Mission: Space. The first iteration of Test Track dumped guests into a moderately common GM showroom, a living commercial. Sadder, Mission: Space leads guests straight down a un-themed long white hallway upon their exit. Besides the clichéd “good-job by making it through this ride” in the attraction scripts, there is no reassurance or prefiguration of inspiration.

The fundamental irony behind the all of the changes is that EPCOT itself never embraced the innovation it preached. Monumental changes in the modern world were barely reflected in the park. The Internet, which had made the world a smaller place during Epcot’s tenure, was seldom addressed. Yesterday’s answers weren’t sufficient for the problems of the present day, and Epcot’s age began to show in the mid-1990’s.

Reverting back to a personal anecdote, Theme Parks have always been sort of a solitary experience. I often traverse the parks alone, and even with others I sort of lose myself in my thoughts. For a long time I really didn’t have many people to converse with about themed attractions past the level of “I liked that ride, and this ride etc.” (which always bothered me to an extent). But I remember the attractions of EPCOT Center opening an inner dialogue for greater thought.

Fitzgerald, in his posthumous collection of essays The Crack-Up, famously questioned the value of a memory: “It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.” I fear this could apply. If one were to travel back in time to 1993, before the “Center” was dropped from EPCOT, would it be truly better than the present? It is hard to say in confidence.

However, some things remain constant in my mind when recalling the EPCOT Center of old. I remember seeing the Mag-Lev trains of Nova Cite in Horizons and drawing the parallel of having ridden the monorail into EPCOT, a creative treatment on reality. I remember overarching hues of deep greens and blues and fiber-optic illusions embedded in long purple sidewalks. I remember EPCOT Center being important, not just another offering in a series of parks. EPCOT Center was a place of visionary influence, Ray Bradbury and Buckminster Fuller its contributors. Well-crafted iconography graced attraction signs and fully orchestrated themes permeated the atmosphere. Large pools of water in-between pavilions symbolized power and structure, yet allowed for individual introspection. It was a place of classical academic detail.

This is where the case for sentimentalism is strongest. By retroactively identifying the very ethos of EPCOT Center through its minutia, we can identify its strong suits and hope that it is being steered forward in the right direction. The proliferation of thrill rides to make EPCOT more “exciting” isn’t the problem. Where EPCOT has faulted is in its commitment to “entertain, inform and inspire.” To recall my earlier story, I enjoyed my childhood experiences at local parks Geauga Lake and Cedar Point. A day there provided much thrill and indubitably was a fun experience. But here’s the thing: thrill diminishes and wears off over time. The impressions that I gained from EPCOT Center still remain to this date, a testament to their strength.

I recall being bathed in the light of Horizon’s massive IMAX screen, viewing tableaus of an optimistic future. That single experience provided just as much inspiration to me as a young boy than any schoolteacher ever could. This kind of inspiration and assurance is lacking from the park of today. Yet, I am eager and optimistic for the EPCOT Center of the future – because that’s what my favorite park taught me to do all those years ago.

Narratives in Cyclical Movement

Narratives in Cyclical Movement:

Anti-Escapism and the Unintentional Brilliance of the Carousel of Progress

“The great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Sometime in the late 1950’s eminent Disney Imagineer John Hench was in New York City. He found himself genuinely inspired after seeing the Broadway production of Thornton Wilder’s award winning stage play Our Town1. Impressed by the anecdotal dialogue and how the story flowed in absence of props or scenery, Hench became entranced with the musings of the play’s protagonist: the Stage Manager, a character who is aware of his relationship with the audience, often breaking the fourth wall. Hench saw Our Town twice more on Broadway to latch onto the charming small-town narratives, simply portrayed in front of a brick wall.

Hench suggested the play to his friend and superior Walt Disney, who attended a showing in Los Angeles. Disney enjoyed the production and was indubitably assessing the practical applications of a similar show for Disneyland. With Disneyland in its nascent stages, and still occupying the forefront of Walt Disney’s inner conscious, expansion was eminent and a plethora of new projects were being considered. Around 1958, plans were announced that Disneyland would soon be receiving a new themed area: Edison Square. Edison Square would exist as a suburb-like accessory to Main St. U.S.A. Architectural motifs from major American cities would adorn the exteriors of the building facades, creating a more accurate representation of an American Main St., expanding the scope from Walt Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri to a broader depiction of the country at the turn of the century. “Edison Square in Disneyland will dramatically present the story of the way in which one invention by Thomas A. Edison has influenced the growth and development of America…Edison Square is the story of that era: the birth, growth, development and future of electricity and General Electric products1” read Disney’s proposal to General Electric. Guests would travel through side streets positioned between Main Street U.S.A and Tomorrowland to experience the advent of electricity.

The showcase of Edison Square was to be a walk through attraction highlighted by audio-animatronic dioramas. Guests would travel from show scene to show scene on foot in groups of 125. “Harnessing the Lightning” would have featured four acts, as well as a prologue and epilogue. The show would elucidate on General Electric’s contributions to the American family, past and present, through the use of innovation. However, Edison Square never came into fruition. In 1961, General Electric was convicted along with Westinghouse, for the price fixing of electrical generators2. Two million dollars in damages were assessed and thirty G.E. officials were either put on probation or imprisoned. Along the way Edison Square was put on the shelf, but both the General Electric and Disney companies looked to forge a mutual relationship in the future.

That chance would come sooner than later with the billion-dollar enterprise that was the 1964 World’s Fair.  Flushing Meadows, New York was chosen to play host to exhibitions regarding “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” Symbolized by the now iconic, twelve story stainless steel sculpture of Earth, the Unisphere; the Fair personified the Space Age optimism of the sixties. General Electric view the far as the perfect opportunity to rebuild and rebrand their image to the public, as well as renew their partnership with the Walt Disney Company.

Disney already had invested in the fair, coupling with Ford, Pepsi, and the State of Illinois, but regarded the General Electric proposal as an opportunity. G.E. recruited Disney to show the American public how their lives have been bettered by General Electric appliances, under the guise of American history. The show would feature Disney’s state of the art audio animatronics and classic storytelling, reflecting the fair’s motif of human achievement. The pavilion would be entitled Progressland, and it would feature electricity’s role in the progression of society. The Walt Disney Company had much to gain from their involvement at the fair. Already co-branding with companies such as Pepsi and Ford, as well as the State of Illinois, Disney brilliantly used the fair as a vehicle to build public awareness about the quality of Disneyland attractions. Good corporate relationships were important to Walt Disney’s vision of an experimental city, with the understanding that funding could never derive solely from the company. Also forward thinking; the company utilized the fair to evaluate how a second park would resonate with east coast audiences. Note the cultural disconnect between the two coasts at this time: a testament to the fair’s theme of progressing in a shrinking world.

Progressland, along with the other Disney-based pavilions, proved to be very popular at the fair. It’s free admittance and its capacity of 250 per four minutes contributed to its universal approval.The Sherman Brothers-penned tune “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” became an attribute to the spirit of the fair. After the fair’s closing in 1965, plans were made to introduce the Carousel to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland revamp. General Electric’s Carousel of Progress made its debut in Disneyland in July 1967. Disneyland’s iteration capitalized on John Hench’s design for a revolving show building and the attraction continued to be well received.

The show format stayed consistent. The buildings’ six sections (four show scenes as well as a load/unload section) allowed for easy and expediency in loading guests into an intimate theater setting. The revolving ring around the show building revolutionized how a theater attraction could increase capacity and decrease wait times. When Walt Disney’s “Florida Project” was finally realized with the opening of Walt Disney World, the Carousel of Progress was uprooted from Disneyland to make way for the audio-animatronics show “America Sings” and placed in the Magic Kingdom, opening in tandem with Space Mountain.

With the move came perhaps the most changes to the Carousel show. General Electric requested a change in song to move the emphasis away from futuristic optimism, inviting guests to embrace the innovations and product offerings of today. Again, the Sherman Brothers were able to produce “Now is the Time/The Best Time of Your Life” for the show, subtly encouraging General Electric consumers to buy products today, not tomorrow.

When General Electric’s sponsorship of the attraction ended in 1985 a vast majority of the references to the company were removed. The attraction idled for almost a decade until it was refurbished to better reflect the theme and ideals of New Tomorrowland in 1994.  Renamed “Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress” the 1994 update was based heavily on sentimentalism. Given the 1994 refurbishment is the most current and recognizable version of the Carousel, this is where we will limit the scope of analysis.

Guests enter the theater only 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 green curtains reveal the attraction signage while out narrator, American humorist Jean Shepherd, introduces the story of 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” has made its return to the attraction in tribute to the essences of Walt Disney and the 1964 edition. The virtuosity of the piece is demonstrated throughout the attraction in terms of its adaptability. 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 meridian 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. On top of its thematic predicament, the Carousel has never meshed with Tomorrowland 1994’s mantra of “The Future that Never Was.”

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. Disney can join 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. Of which it very well could have already. Showing a city of the future set in Progress City would be a good intermediary between the progression of real life cities and the 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 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. Reaffirming traditional family values, such as the holiday celebration is the show’s reoccurring theme. A heavy emphasis on old-school American conservatism shines through the narrative, clear evidence of Walt Disney’s influence. The Carousel family has always had a conventional family unit. There are no single mothers or fathers, stepparents, or divorces. No diversity has existed in the show either. While the Carousel does paint an American depiction, it is through a narrow lens. Not to say the optimism is blind or wrong, Theme Parks must continue to inspire and reaffirm their visitors; societal problems cannot be pushed aside.

The Carousel of Progress plays to an assured nostalgia. The 1994 iteration builds on this 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. 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.”

Without Walt Disney’s heavy influence on the attraction’s development it is probably safe to say that the Carousel would probably be a defunct entity. Shepherd’s introduction recollects Walt Disney’s love for the attraction, watching the American family progress through the years under the vehicle of innovation. It is not difficult to determine why Walt loved the Carousel of Progress so dearly. In some ways the Carousel is a loose allegory for his life and times. Born at the turn of the century, experiencing struggles, growth, and change while retaining optimism and traditionalism, Walt Disney and his family lived through the show scenes portrayed. Act IV of the 1964 World’s Fair show was Disney’s literal and intended vision.

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 and 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 singular experience.

Wilder’s Our Town concludes with the character of Emily Webb realizing the merits of a nostalgia appreciation for everyday life and the human condition. The Carousel of Progress echoes this, insisting that while innovation and change may occur, the future is optimistic and values will stay the same. The future of the attraction is unknown. In the fourth act in the kitchen a post-it note exists reading “Marty Called, Wants Changes,” a more than likely reference to former Walt Disney Imagineering President Marty Sklar. Eventually, the irony around an outdated show about progress will need to be addressed. The attraction’s staying power has relied on its nostalgic importance as well as the show’s reaffirmation through anti-escapism, but changes or removal are certainly imminent at some point. But of course, that’s progress.



 1. John Hench, Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show, (New York City: Disney Editions, 2003), 10.

2. Lawrence Salinger, Encyclopedia of White-Collar & Corporate Crime, Volume 1, (SAGE, 2004), 94.

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