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“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:
“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.
There 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.”
Perhaps 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’.
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.
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:
- The use of clouds, alternating lights and other motifs helped signify a transition between acts.
- The seamless shifting of narrative structure simultaneously adheres the rider to the family.
- The lucidness of spacial differences can signify scene transitions i.e. the sea to space transition.
- 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.”
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.
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 universalSherman 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.