It’s often referred to simply as “The Tomorrowland Problem.” Imagineers from the 1950s on have struggled with the simple flaw inherent in the very concept of Tomorrowland: eventually, “tomorrow” becomes “today.”
In the years following Disneyland’s 1955 opening, Tomorrowland – one of the park’s five original themed lands – was set in the then-distant 1986. Walt imagined (mostly accurately) that America’s immediate future would be a Space Age of rockets, sleek Googie architecture, chemicals, and scientific advancement.
But it wasn’t too long before Rocket to the Moon had to become Mission to Mars. After Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act, the park’s Autopia, too, became less than futuristic. So it went with the House of the Future, which famously demonstrated a revolutionary microwave oven.
And as Tomorrowlands opened with Magic Kingdom (1971) and Tokyo Disneyland (1983), the Tomorrowland Problem followed close behind.
It wasn’t until 1992 and the opening of Disneyland Paris that the idea of Tomorrowland as a scientific, literal view of the future was turned on its head.
A Land of Discovery
Disneyland Paris had been built with perhaps more care, attention, and detail than any other Disney Park on Earth. Its scale was grand, and yet intimate. It was flush with details that very purposefully gave the park a European style and foundation, from its impressive Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant to its very unique Frontierland and romanticized Phantom Manor.
Disneyland Paris didn’t have Tomorrowland at all. In its place was Discoveryland, rooted not in the scientific hopes of the future, but in the fantastical dreams of the past. Instead of cold, metallic, silver streets of the future, Discoveryland was cast in gold and bronze, with oxidized copper towers, geometric rocks jutting from the ground, bubbling pools, and greenery, all focused on a looming copper and bronze Space Mountain.
The idea was that Discoveryland would be based on the fantastical ideals of European thinkers like H.G. Wells and Leonardo da Vinci. It was the kind of future Jules Verne might have envisioned, with sundials and zephyrs and hot air balloons in an environment that was one with nature, not against it. Rides like Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune were based on Jules Verne's classic works of fantasy and his ideas of space travel (being shot out of a cannon) toward a Georges Méliès moon.
Solving the Problem
Enlivened by the prospect of a Tomorrowland that needed no updating and that could theoretically represent the future forever, Imagineers set out to rebuild all of the other Tomorrowlands in similarly ageless styles.
In Florida, Magic Kingdom’s New Tomorrowland in 1994 became a science-fiction spaceport straight from the pop comic strips of the early 20th century, like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. It was a gleaming galactic landing with silver palm trees made of cogs and metal sheets, neon signs in alien languages, and exaggerated steel architecture. All of Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland was presented as a real, functioning city with a Convention Center (hosting X-S Tech’s exhibit on teleportation - Disney's scariest attraction ever) a public transportation system (the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover), a spaceport (Space Mountain), and even a nightclub with a live alien pianist (Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café).
The original Disneyland in California was deemed fit for a makeover, too. Disneyland, though, was on a strict budget under one of the resort’s more dubious presidents and a CEO newly cost-conscious after Paris’ financial struggles. Original plans for an elaborate "Tomorrowland 2055" were shelved. Eventually, the decision was made that Disneyland’s Tomorrowland would take a page from Paris’ book for its own New Tomorrowland.
A New Tomorrowland – A New Problem
New Tomorrowland opened at Disneyland in 1998 with the entire land painted in bronze. Paris’ Discoveryland-style rocks burst forth from the ground, and the land’s iconic Rocket Jets attraction that had spiraled on the third floor of a Peoplemover platform at the center of the land was relocated to the land’s entrance at ground level – the Astro Orbitor, modeled very precisely after Discoveryland’s.
New Tomorrowland floundered. The park’s own beloved Peoplemover had been replaced by a high-speed “thrill” equivalent called the Rocket Rods – the land’s only notable new addition during its grand re-opening. The Rocket Rods, however, traversed the long, winding overhead path of the leisurely Peoplemover in a fraction of the time, dramatically accelerating like futuristic hot rods. However, unbanked turns on the Peoplemover's docile track forced the Rods to slow to a crawl on each bend and turn in the convoluted layout, wearing out tires, sending computer systems fizzling, and closing the ride permanently after a little more than a year.
Otherwise, the meat of New Tomorrowland amounted to a new 3D film (Honey, I Shrunk the Audience) a tired rehash of Epcot’s Innoventions in the once-musical Carousel Theatre, a new pizza restaurant, and the closing of the park’s Submarine Voyage.
Aesthetically, the importation of Paris’ rocks and lagoons and flowerbeds and the ground-level Astro Orbitor clogged the already tight pathways of Disneyland’s infamously small park. What’s more, the vibrant golds and greens of Discoveryland had been transferred to Disneyland as dingy, dark bronze.
Disneyland's fiercely loyal local fans reacted with outrage as Space Mountain’s gleaming white exterior was painted haphazardly rusty dark brown to match the new land’s style. Perhaps most egregiously, the “European” overlay had been placed over distinctly science-fiction attractions with no attempt to incorporate the stories or styles of Jules Verne and the like beyond the buildings’ facades. A Da Vincian exterior to Star Tours just made little sense.
In 2003 – five years after its unfortunate renovation – new park president Matt Ouimet (now CEO of Cedar Fair) set out to reverse the cost-cutting decisions of his predecessors in time for the park’s 50th Anniversary celebration in 2005. Among his first acts was to re-build Space Mountain entirely (including synchronized on-board audio for the trains), replace the empty Rocket Rods queue with Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, begin work to re-open the park’s sub ride as Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, replace the park’s aging Monorail fleet, and restore the silver and white paint that had been the traditional look of Tomorrowland for 45 years.
The story doesn’t end there, however. More than fifteen years after New Tomorrowland overtook Disneyland, traces of it still remain. The paths are still clogged with the unused Peoplemover / Rocket Rods track and the mismatched architecture leaves Disneyland’s Tomorrowland as the only one internationally that’s not united in style and story. Innoventions continues to age, and the Submarine Voyage just closed again for an extensive refurbishment with no re-opening date that some claim is a permanent closure in disguise.
Rumors swirl about what’s to come for Disneyland’s Tomorrowland... Would you surprised if the key to the future was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away? We’ll dive into the surprising rumors of Tomorrowland’s next refurbishment in Part Two...