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A timeless tomorrow

By the late '80s, the Space Age inspired Tomorrowlands in both Anaheim (dating to 1967) and Orlando (1971) were out of sync with pop culture, and badly needed revived once more. But endless investment in futile futurism was not sustainable, and a new model was needed if the concept of Tomorrowland stuck around. Luckily, an Imagineering experiment in progress gave reason for hope...

Image: Disney

Across the Atlantic, Imagineers were hard at work on EuroDisneyland – a park that would forever change the face of Disney. Given the outright contempt that the French media had displayed around the Parisian park, Imagineers were tasked with doing something they'd never done before: stripping the Americana out of the inherently-American concept of Disneyland. And it makes sense, doesn't it? A Tomorrowland of swirling NASA-inspired rockets and Space Age iconography would be pretty meaningless to Europeans.

So designers did something amazing. EuroDisneyland opened without a Tomorrowland at all. In its place stood Discoveryland (interpolating elements of the never-built Possibilityland: Discovery Bay once planned for Disneyland). Rather than being stylized after modern (and ever-changing) ideas of tomorrow, this golden, literary seaport was instead a fantasy future based on ideas from the past. Discoveryland is the future as it was envisioned by late 1800s European writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne – a steampunk-stylized world of spinning astrolabes, docked zephyrs, Captain Nemo's Nautilus, and Victorian daydreams of science.

Unlike the sterile, white scientific Tomorrowland, Discoveryland presented a European fantasy future; a world at one with nature, derived from literature, and anchored by the sensational, epic, one-of-a-kind Lost Legend: Space Mountain - De la Terre á la Lune.

Image: Disney

A-ha! There was the answer! Discoveryland had solved the Tomorrowland problem! By bringing to life a future envisioned from the past, this new take on Tomorrowland had entirely avoided the messiness of making real predictions, keeping current with cutting edge concepts, or stylizing a land with ever-changing tastes of architecture. Discoveryland was timeless; it was evergreen; it would never need an expensive, floor-to-ceiling redesign! And just like that, Imagineers were tasked with designing similarly timeless Tomorrowlands for Florida and California...

Magic Kingdom: New Tomorrowland (1994)

Image: Disney

"The future that never was is finally here." At least, that was the promise set forth by Magic Kingdom's New Tomorrowland, debuting in 1994. Whereas Paris' Discoveryland had been a fantasy future based on late 19th century literature, Magic Kingdom's would be a science fiction future as envisioned in early 20th century pulp comic books. Metallic fins, neon signs in exterrestrial languages, metallic palm trees, robotic newsboys, docked alien saucers, and glowing silver accents swept across the land, crafting a clever way to make Tomorrowland timeless.

Amazingly ambitious, this vast New Tomorrowland was one of Imagineering's first attempts at a modern, immersive themed land. This Tomorrowland wasn't just a vague collection of buildings with sci-fi architecture; it was a "real" place with a mythology all its own, and an overarching design aesthetic and frame story connecting each ride, show, and restaurant within. And believe it or not, the park's Peoplemover was one of the central elements of that world-building.

Image: Disney

Now to be clear, Magic Kingdom has had a PeopleMover since 1975 – opening alongside the relocated Modern Marvel: Carousel of Progress and Space Mountain. However, the Floridian PeopleMover works a bit differently from Disneyland's, including a quite different layout (remaining at a steady elevation throughout), uncovered cabs (the entire track is covered instead), and using LIM electromagnetic motors along the course rather than drive tires. 

But in this New Tomorrowland, the PeopleMover would be reimagined as the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, cast as the "real" mass transit system of this alien spaceport city. Cleverly, nods to imaginary stations, spurs, and color lines throughout the rebranded ride "built-out" the world of this metropolis. But coolest of all, on-board narration got in on the story, too, with announcements and pages referring not to individual rides, but to the "venues" within the city they inhabited.

Image: Disney

For example, passing by the retrofitted theaters of the Floridian Mission to Mars, the narrator would point out that guests were passing the Tomorrowland Interplanetary Conference Center – nevermind that dystopian alien conglomerate X-S Tech had currently rented it to showcase their new teleportation technology, creating the terrifying Lost Legend: Alien Encounter. Similarly, the Metropolis Science Center offered its current special exhibit, a time travel demonstration alongside the Lost Legend: The Timekeeper.

Granted, this New Tomorrowland didn't last very long. Its substance was stripped away by a mandated character invasion in the late '90s, turning Tomorrowland into a catch-all for Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Buzz Lightyear. The pulpy sci-fi style meanwhile, hung on quite a bit longer, and is only now being phased out in favor of (ready for this?) the '70s simplicitly Disney was once so desperate to cover up. Florida's ride has been renamed the PeopleMover and continues gliding along the elevated highways of Tomorrowland in Orlando. Meanwhile...

Disneyland: New Tomorrowland (1998)

Image: Disney

Initially, plans were moving forward with transitioning Disneyland into a sci-fi future, too. In fact, we dove deep into the concepts floated for the never-built Possibilityland: Tomorrowland 2055, looking in awe at glowing alien night parades, extraterrestrial cabarets, and more. In fact, Tomorrowland was in such a sorry state in the early '90s, its own Mission to Mars theaters were closed and emptied in preparation of housing the generation-traumatizing Lost Legend: Alien Encounter there. 

But, as we know, plans changed. The 1992 opening of Disneyland Paris didn't exactly go over as executives had hoped. In fact, the overbuilt and undervalued park practically caused the cancellation, closure, or downsizing of every single project in the Imagineering pipeline for two decades... including the ambitious Tomorrowland 2055.

With the budget slashed and half of Tomorrowland rotting in plain view, Disney needed to move forward with a New Tomorrowland in California. But now, it would need to be cheap. The solution?

In 1998, Disneyland's Tomorrowland came out from under the knife looking... well... quite a bit like Discoveryland. In an attempt to reimagine Tomorrowland with as little new research and development as possible, the literary, Jules Verne inspired aesthetic of Paris' fantasy future came to California (albeit, explained now as an "agri-future").

Honestly, the idea of diverting the two U.S. Tomorrowlands into sci-fi and fantasy, respectively, is interesting! Unfortunately, the execution of this New Tomorrowland was... well... bad.

In fact, New Tomorrowland 1998 amounted stylistically to little more than dousing Walt's Space Age architecture in buckets of dreary brown and copper paint, up-to-and-including Space Mountain. But unlike the custom-built look of Paris' brass steampunk peak, California's mountain (and the rest of the land) still looked like mid-century masterpiece... just painted brown.

The Rocket Jets that once revolved high atop a pedestal in the land's center were grounded. Following in the footsteps of Paris, they were replaced with the earthy Astro Orbitor, set awkwardly at the land's entrance and surrounded in Discoveryland-style rocks burst forth from the ground. And that was emblematic of the problem. While the beautiful, entrancing Astro Orbitor makes great sense in Paris, the new look of the ride and the rest of the land felt entirely at odds with Star Tours, Space Mountain, and the "new" attraction: Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, none of which made sense in the context of a European retro-future anyway.

Vacant highways

But of course, the true tragedy is that this unfortunate redesign also spelled the end for the PeopleMover. The attraction closed forever on August 21, 1995 in anticipation of the land’s makeover. When New Tomorrowland made its debut in May 1998, those elevated tracks throughout the land remained... but now, rather than the elegant and simple pastel trains of the PeopleMover, they would house the revving, squealing, rubber-burning Rocket Rods.

Traversing in three minutes the same course that had taken then PeopleMover sixteen, the Rocket Rods were meant to not only be the anchor attraction of New Tomorrowland, but an adrenaline-packing hot rod thrill ride that would redefine Disneyland.

Image: Disney

If you're in the mood for heartbreak, this would be the time to make the jump to our official, in-depth exploration into the Disaster Files: The Rocket Rods and Tomorrowland 1998 – a sort of sequel to the story of the PeopleMover. The short version of the story is that the Rocket Rods literally didn't work. Despite being the "starring" prototype technology of New Tomorrowland, the ride's frazzled computers and blown tires lead to multi-hour waits and days, weeks, and months of closure on-and-off for about two years before Disney officially threw in the towel.

The Rocket Rods may have burned off in a flash, but the heartbreak left in their wake sure hasn't.

What’s left of the PeopleMover? Unfortunately, all of it. The tracks still twist above Tomorrowland and dart in and out of the land’s show buildings, often overgrown with weeds and treebranches. Since its closure (and especially since the closure of the Rocket Rods in 2001), guests and fans have rallied endlessly for the return of the PeopleMover. Occasionally, Imagineers will cryptically state that they recognize fans’ fervor for the ride and mention, “We’re working on it” or "Be patient." But it doesn’t seem that the PeopleMover will ever be back.

For one, the removal of the Rocket Rods' bus-bar hardware would be a land-spanning challenge in its own right, much less the installation of new PeopleMover propoulsion and vehicles. More damning, the compelling reason often cited by industry experts is the ride's relative inaccessibilty under even the baseline requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In other words, if the PeopleMover were built today (especially in California), it would require widened pathways and guard rails for evacuations, frequent staircases, ADA ramps, and other substantial rebuilds that would inherently impact every showbuilding in the land. 

Twitter: @APeoplemover

The more likely scenario is that – because of that tangled layout placing track and support structures throughout the land's buildings – the remains of the PeopleMover are simply too difficult to remove. For that reason, any change to the PeopleMover – be it reimagining or removal – will likely coincide with the next complete renovation of Tomorrowland... whenever and whatever that may be.

Lost Legend

It's often said, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." That's probably true of the PeopleMover, a gentle, functional, high-capacity park addition that gave life to Walt's "World on the Move." A living prototype of potential mass transportation solutions of tomorrow, this Space Age transit technology was simple, sensational, and spectacular.

Image: Disney

Perhaps in part because of its absence, Tomorrowland lacks the optimism, fluidity, motion, and spirit that Walt and his Imagineers had so infused in the land back in 1967. In some ways, the PeopleMover proves that not every starring attraction has to be a thrilling E-Ticket. Perhaps the most appropriate lesson to learn from the case of the PeopleMover is one of the oldest adages in the book: "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."

If you enjoyed this in-depth look at Disneyland's forgotten highway in the sky, make the jump to our In-Depth Collections Library and set course for another Lost Legends feature. Then, share your memories, thoughts, and ideas about the PeopleMover in the comments below.

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Comments

I'm happy to say that in one way Rocket Rods still survives today. I was one of the two programmers for the Rocket Rods onboard vehicle software. My task was the layer that was more concerned with general features of ride control. So although the attraction itself was short lived the software framework developed for Rocket Rods has been reused in numerous other attractions including Pooh (Toyko), Tower of Terror and Cars. I like to think of Rocket Rods as the $16M test bed for the Imagineer's Ride Library which is still in use today. So just like Magic Skyway the pieces that are useful do get reused. :)

I am very blessed to own one of the cars. It makes me smile everyday.

I first want to compliment you for an outstanding article about my absolute favorite Disney attraction. Well sort of. While I have been to Walt Disney World many times, this past May 2015 was my first ever trip to Disneyland. I am an avid fan of the Tomorrowland Transit Authority ride (Peoplemover) at WDW and was so excited about the prospect of riding the original on my pending trip to Disneyland. I had absolutely no idea that it had closed and was thoroughly disappointed upon arriving there only to learn of it's demise so many years ago. How could I have missed that. After all I read about all things Disney every opportunity (Which is pretty much every day) and couldn't believe that this was gone. I would so love to be able to ride that original version of this classic ride some day.
After reading your article, I have to add that I don't think it would be as difficult to put this ride back in operation as one might think. I work in the construction industry and after watching the ride thru video embedded in your article plus what I saw of the tracks on my recent trip, I truly see this as a doable project. I know you have the ADA hurdle to deal with but that too isn't a big problem. I mean we ARE talking about Disney right, Imagineers and all that stuff. I know management would make many Disney enthusiasts / purists very happy if they were to find it in them to do exactly this. About the only think I see keeping them from doing it is of course... Money! Even then, I believe that see where having this ride in operation would actually benefit them greatly. As you stated this / was is a high capacity ride which because of it's ability to draw large quantities of people would relieve the burden on the other attractions thereby decreasing wait times. This intern would get guests thru the rides quicker & on to where Disney ultimately wants them to end up. That's right, Gift Shops and Restaurants / Food Kiosks. I think that corporates all too often are so short sighted that they are looking for the quick solution to return on their investment and they completely miss out on the big picture.
But then again, I am only one fan wishing for the return of something that was classic and actually makes us all fell as though we knew Walt personally. I want to again thank you for such a wonderful piece of work. Keep them coming because I have become a fan of your site even though I only recently found out about it.

P.S. I don't have my own website but I put the link to my son's sports blog. He will be starting at LSU this coming fall where he will study Journalism at the Manship School of Mass Communications. His goal is to become a Sports Journalist. I would appreciate if found a moment to give him a look. I think you will like what you see.

Being a season pass holder, I find myself drawn more to the California Adventure park now. The rides are fewer but more engaging. Also, the themed areas are still true to their vision. Not some piecemeal combination of stuff like Tomorrowland is. I don't think Tomorrowland will ever be a showcase of the future again. Instead it will be transformed into a branded land that will focus on merchandising whatever Disney owned property ends up being the star there.

GREAT read--I love this series.

One thing--no mention of Rocket to the Moon? Didn't it open in Disneyland's first year and surely it would be seen then as Tomorrowland's star attraction.

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