Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Real Problem With Tomorrowland

tomorrowland-disney-picture-045Picture from

The Walt Disney World fan community is more or less united in the belief that there’s something wrong with Florida’s Tomorrowland. The most common complaint, aside from the existence of Stitch’s Great Escape, is that Tomorrowland has turned its back on a realistic future in favor of a fantastical “future that never was”. I don’t really see that as a problem, and here’s why:

The original intention at the first Magic Kingdom park, Disneyland, was that the overt fantasy be restricted to Fantasyland. The other lands were more or less based on reality, or at least reality as we perceived it in 1955. Main Street was supposed to simulate a real turn-of-the-20th-century American town, something that was an actual childhood memory for some of Disneyland’s early guests. Adventureland’s sole attraction, the Jungle Cruise, had not yet acquired the comical edge it has today but was presented as a “real” trip into the jungle. Westerns were still hugely popular, and Frontierland was presented as an actual tribute to America’s past and the “frontier spirit” of the people who settled the West (as was customary back then, very little attention was paid to the fact that there were already people in the West when the white settlers got there). It’s worth noting that, since the days of the Old West were only 70-90 years in the past in 1955, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that an elderly visitor to 1950s Disneyland might have childhood memories of that time. Finally, Tomorrowland-with an attraction lineup that included the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry and the Kaiser Aluminum Hall of Fame-was devoted to real science and technology.

Let’s compare that to today. I’d argue that the areas of the Magic Kingdom that once allegedly represented aspects of the “real world” no longer do. The American Main Street of the 1900s is too far in the past to serve as a nostalgic touchstone to anyone. The idealized, sanitized Old West of Frontierland never really existed, and the same can be said of Adventureland’s Afro-Poly-Caribo-Asiatic tropical pastiche. Really, adjusting Tomorrowland to represent a fantastical “future that never was” caused it to be more consistent with what the rest of the park has become.

Secondly, the opening of EPCOT Center in 1982, with its detailed Future World, made Florida’s Tomorrowland kind of redundant. Future World was Tomorrowland on a much grander scale. Perhaps this is best illustrated by Delta Dreamflight, the aviation-themed attraction that made its home in the southeastern sector of Tomorrowland from 1989 to 1996. It followed the same template as several Future World attractions-a ride through the past, present, and future of something accompanied by a soaring 1980s-flavored melody. Dreamflight would have been a good fit in California’s Tomorrowland. But in Florida, located a short monorail trip away from EPCOT Center, it looked like a pared-down Future World attraction. Converting Tomorrowland into something more fantasy-based served to differentiate it from EPCOT.

Still, I believe that the 1994 Flash Gordon overhaul created a problem that didn’t exist before. You see, this was one of the few times where Michael Eisner’s edict that everything had to have some kind of a backstory actually worked. The storytelling details that peppered the land-from the drone of the pre-2010 TTA announcer to the posters advertising the Tomorrowland Towers Hover-Hotel and the Leonard Burnedstar concert-really helped to create a sense that the Tomorrowland you could see was a tiny sliver of a much bigger retro-futuristic metropolis. They also whetted your appetite for some kind of an immersive family attraction that would take you on a tour of the “invisible” Tomorrowland that was implied but not seen. Sadly, no such attraction exists. The result-at least in my experience-is that walking through Tomorrowland creates a kind of indefinable frustration. The storytelling details are telling you that there should be something more there, but none of the land’s attractions adequately scratch the itch that those storytelling details create. It’s a real shame, too, because I really think that the presence of a satisfying family attraction that immersed you in Tomorrowland’s retro-futuristic theme would serve to lessen the antipathy a lot of us feel towards the land as it currently exists.

I certainly don’t have enough of a knowledge base to do any armchair Imagineering, so I don’t have a detailed idea of how such an attraction would work or where it would go. I just know it’s something that I keenly feel the absence of.

We’re not through with Tomorrowland yet. I’ve got a post in the works about the land’s Holy Grail, the Carousel of Progress, and farther into the future you’ll see an article about the history of space rides at Disneyland and Disney World. Thanks for reading!


  1. I quite agree with your premise, but I do think that TL 94 provided the touchstone for what COULD be done with the land, but what sadly didn't happen.

    I don't mind TL becoming a "environment"... I thought that the TTA and the Avenue of the Planets tie ins were all pretty creative. However, they lacked depth, and before they could get that depth, nothing. They were taken out or changed.

    Now we just have a hodge podge.

    Eager to see what you write about COP...

  2. Have you seen the Disneyland USA special on one of the Disneyland: Secrets, Stories & Magic Treasures DVD? It shows a massive Frontierland that seems to be more than 1/4 of the developed land. I think that shows us what was important during the time of coonskin hats and grinning at bears.

    I kinda like the idea that you skirted around--let's get rid of Tomorrowland and add another, more fantastical realm!

  3. Good article. Not being someone who visited TL throughout its history, I only know that there are a few things to like about it, and a few things not to like.

    Some sort of attraction that shows the future that TL promises and purports to be a part of might just tie it all together, as you suggest.

  4. The recent changes to Pirates, the addition of Aladdin's Flying Carpets in Adventureland took this out of reality and placed it directly in fantasy. Similarly, Toontown was completely fantasy - and moving the characters to Main St. messes with this motif. Tomorrowland, though, is a hodgepodge of stories that are rather silly when looked at in total - race cars? monsters? toys come to life? The movie Stitch took place in modern reality, so it doesn't really make sense in Tomorrowland. Space Mountain makes perfect sense. As does Carousel as it point to the future.

    I appreciate your point about Epcot, and how it replaced the original concept of Tomorrowland. Maybe this area will get some attention after the Fantasyland update is complete.

  5. I for one love WDW's Tomorrowland, but completely agree that something is missing.

    Stitch, an obvious target to move, has to go.

    Monsters Laugh Floor belongs in DHS as a comedy club. That is easy too.

    Buzz Lightyear gets a pass, TTA, orbiter, SM, and CoP all get a pass. The Indy race track and the empty area in the southeast corner of Tomorrowland are all ripe for change.

    The design and theme of the land is fantastic, and original, plus it looks great at night.

    The land is missing something in the distance, maybe the rest of the tomorrowland universe can be on display as a distant facade much like the hollywood hills do in surrounding Toontown.

    CoP could point us further in the future, which alone would go a long way. I think the CoP should start with 1900s, then today, and move forward from there 100 years at a time.

    great article, lots to ponder.

  6. Well said. I would slightly disagree only with one aspect of your argument. Though I think the early marketing of Disneyland presented Main Street, Frontierland, and Adventureland as real places, I think the extent to which anyone actually recognized them as real was much less. Adventureland probably came the closest, but even there, the audio-animatronic jungle animals (even before the comic spiel was added) were clearly simulations and, therefore, somewhat fantastical.

    The Disney lands were always like the movies: not documentaries of reality, but satisfying interpretations of it. Again, the exception is the True-Life Adventure documentaries (upon which Adventureland was to be based), but, even in those films the narration almost always had a fantastical element to it. So, to reiterate the point, Disney marketed these lands as real historical experiences, but they were obviously not, and that was (and is) all for the better.

    It was, as you point out, totally fitting, therefore, that Tomorrowland also take its place as a fantasy land. In many ways, it always was. Uncle Walt's marketing notwithstanding, Tomorrowland was also closer to the future of the Jetsons than it was to anything that might have been considered realistic. Adventureland was a fantasy of exotic foreign lands (this is actually an old fantasy, known as "orientalism" that goes back to the early 19th century and the Romantic movement). Frontierland was a fantasy of the Old West. Main Street was a fantasy of small town America. New Orleans Square was a fantasy version of that real city. Fantasyland was, of course, pure fantasy. Tomorrowland was a fantasy of the future. The newer incarnation, in which that is made manifestly obvious, simply confirms overtly what was always subtly present.

    Much of the online criticism of WDW's Tomorrowland is merely a reflection of the nostalgia that so many people have for the Disney parks of their childhood. In other words, these well-meaning folk simply prefer the Tomorrowland fantasy of the 1950s/60s/70s to the later Tomorrowland fantasy. But I'm with you. If anything, Tomorrowland needs an attraction that would cement the fantasy, not remove it.


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