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Disney Tried to Invent a Timeless Tomorrowland. Here's Where it All Went Wrong

1998: New Tomorrowland '98

Location: Disneyland Park
Timeline: 1998 - 2003 

With practically no money, Baxter and Imagineers borrowed from their own catalogue to minimize cost. When Tomorrowland re-opened in 1998, it was clearly based on Paris' thoughtful Discoveryland. But without the benefit of building it from scratch, that wasn’t saying much. What it amounted to, really, was that the land was repainted from the bright whites and clean lines of the 1967 New Tomorrowland and covered instead with dark browns and coppers, nonsensically splashed against obviously Space Age architecture.

The land’s entry fins flanking the mirror showbuildings were still carved with the geometric look of the 1960s, now just painted... brown. The beloved Rocket Jets that had revolved over the land for decades were removed from their third-floor platform at the center of the land and a new spinner called the Astro Orbitor – an exact clone of Paris’ – was placed right at the entrance to the land, complete with the red rocks jutting from the earth around it. While beautiful, the contraption only served to further narrow the infamously tight paths of the itty-bitty Disneyland, congesting traffic.

Even the beloved and iconic Space Mountain was repainted in bronze and oxidized copper – a nonsensical color scheme to apply to the obviously Space Age building. While Paris’ “steampunk” Jules Verne inspired mountain was a sight to behold, it was simply stupid to apply the same colors to Googie architecture... It just made no sense. What’s worse is that upon going inside of the new, brown-and-copper Space Mountain, guests saw… well… exactly what they had since 1977 – cool grays, a 1970s style spaceship, and sci-fi computers from the era.

As for the land’s additions, there weren’t many. The Carousel Theater (emptied in 1988 for Splash Mountain and intended to become Plectu's Intergalactic Revue) finally got a new inhabitant after a decade empty: Innoventions, a tired rehash of the tired Epcot exhibit.

Nearby was the Magic Eye Theater, originally constructed to show Michael Jackson’s Captain EO. But by the late 1990s, that was a relic. So New Tomorrowland found a replacement: Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. (Of course, it didn't last long, either. Captain EO came back as a tribute in 2009 after Michael Jackson's death. After six more years, EO was vanquished again. Now the 3D theater is temporarily playing a "best of" Star Wars tribute, but long term, the plan is unknown. 3D theaters aren't the draw they used to be, and it's unlikely Disney would bother producing a new 3D film for it.)

The old Mission to Mars building was closed in 1992 and preperations were underway to turn it into the debut of Alien Encounter. Eisner's stop-order on Tomorrowland 2055 simply meant that the building remained empty and dark, just waiting for the go-ahead to finish Alien Encounter. Instead, Tomorrowland 1998 turned the building into (are you ready for this?) Red Rockett's Pizza Port quick service restaurant after Magic Kingdom's Lost Legend: Alien Encounter proved far too terrifying for Disney World's guests. 

Image: Steve, Flickr (license)

The final (and only substantial) new addition was the a ride so disastrous, it earned its own in-depth feature in our series – Disaster Files: Rocket Rods. Disneyland’s venerated Peoplemover had closed in 1995 with promises that the track would be re-used for a stunning thrill ride as part of the New Tomorrowland. And indeed, the Rocket Rods were a thrill – the high speed, five-person cars (using a version of Test Track technology) took over the aerial highway, zooming along the elevated tracks of Tomorrowland. The Rocket Rods completed in three minutes a course that took the leisurely Peoplemovers 16 minutes.

The trouble is that with practically no budget, the Peoplemover track was not adequately prepared for the high speed, high energy Rocket Rods. The turns and twists in the convoluted track remained flat, and were not banked. The result was that at every turn, the Rocket Rods had to slow to a crawl before speeding up for every straightaway. The constant start-stop wore out tires daily and frazzled computer systems, E-stopping the ride constantly. Over its short lifetime, it was closed more than it was open. Ultimately closing after barely two years of on-and-off operation, the Rocket Rods today are remembered as one of the biggest flops in theme park history.

In Paris, the golden, bronze Discoveryland aesthetic was beautiful and substantial and a compliment to the European style of its attractions… At Disneyland, things were different. To apply dark, grimy brown paint to Space Age stories was just wrong. Even those who appreciate the golden look of this New Tomorrowland would admit that the “European” style spinner and bronze exterior to Star Tours simply made no sense. It was style over substance. A fantasy exterior to sci-fi attractions.

Image: Chippycheeky, Flickr (license)

If you asked Disneyland fans, the abysmal New Tomorrowland in 1998 had been a plight. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the land had half-heartedly and nonsensically been painted in dark brown, New Tomorrowland saw the closure of the Peoplemover and the Submarine Voyage (and the failure of Rocket Rods) effectively making the “redesigned” land amount to brown paint, a new 3D film, and Innoventions.

As a reminder of all that the land doesn't have, the skeleton of the former Rocket Jets still sit atop the pedestal at the center of the land. The passenger rockets were replaced with satellite dishes to create what Disney called "the Observatron." In initial explanations, the old skeleton would kick to life every 15 minutes to the elegant sounds of Discoveryland's orchestral score. Today, it doesn't move at all. 

Worse, the tracks of the Peoplemover / Rocket Rods remain to this day as a sad testament to the loss of one of the park's most thoughtful attractions. Last year we published a must-read feature detailing the history of that elegant and much-missed fan favorite, and how its removal signaled the fall of Walt's Tomorrowland

All in all, this New Tomorrowland was nothing to write home about.

Apologies

In 2003, Matt Ouimet (now CEO of Cedar Fair) became the president of the Disneyland Resort. With the open wound of California Adventure still fresh and the park’s storied 50th anniversary approaching, Ouimet had one goal: to reverse the cost-cutting of his predecessors and give Disneyland a new lease on life. He had his work cut out for him, but one of his top priorities was the restoration of Tomorrowland.

A white peak in a brown land.
Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

Just five years after the copper paint, Ouimet and company began to transition Tomorrowland back toward its roots. Space Mountain closed for an in-depth, two year rebuild that gave the ride completely new track, new trains with synchronized on-board audio, a renewal of its ‘70s retro style, and – of course – its return to white.

The rest of the land followed in a publicized and intentional repaint as part of the 50th Anniversary celebration, returning not to its original white, but to blues and silvers and purples that brought it more in line with Magic Kingdom’s, just without the ornamentation.

Image: HarshLight, Flickr (license)

The long-vacant north showbuilding that had been a Circle-Vision theater and then the queue for Rocket Rods became Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, an interactive laser-shooting dark ride, in 2005 as well.

By 2007, even the Submarine Voyage – empty for a decade – re-opened as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage and the legendary Monorail received all new trains.

Essentially, there's no evidence today that Tomorrowland's 1998 renovation ever happened, except for the golden, ground-level Astro Orbitor (though half-painted silver, with the rest left as the only gold in the land) and the empty Peoplemover tracks. 

What’s Next?

If we're being very honest, Tomorrowland 2055 might not have been the right fit for Disneyland. It was a response to the grittier, industrial future envisioned by the 1980s and '90s, and now - 20 years later - even that is pasé. Plectu's Intergalactic Revue and Timekeeper would probably look pretty dated in 2016. A Tomorrowland that can REALLY last forever is a difficult thing to come by. 

Every once in a while, Disney fans get ahold of new concept art like the set by Imagineer Scot Drake shown above and below (found around 2008) that at least indicate that Disney is aware of the problem and has top minds working on a fix for Tomorrowland. And just look at the art shown here: a vibrant, sleek Tomorrowland of color and light, floating fountains of mist, pulsing searchlights and glowing arches that highlight the 1967 fins rather than trying to hide them beneath brown paint and plants.

Golden ribbons streaming with light wrap throughout the white and silver land. Stepped fountains with statues celebrating humanity's reach for the stars... The apparent removal of the Magic Eye Theater, providing up-close access to Space Mountain and a return of its grand escalator entry. And perhaps best of all, the artwork below imagines that the beautiful and kinetic Astro Orbitor be incorporated into this new Tomorrowland, too, but painted silver and placed back atop the land's central pedestal where it belongs, with rockets circling above the new KUKA Peoplemover.

Is it all too much to ask for? Maybe. But one thing is certain: a New New Tomorrowland needs to happen. As it is, Tomorrowland is an odd mix of the architectural elements of the 1967 New Tomorrowland, golden embellishments from 1998, Pixar movies, Star Wars, abandoned tracks, empty buildings, and underused space. Like every other land at Disneyland, Tomorrowland should be a thoughtful, detailed, cohesive, and smart land that's inviting and bright, with well-themed attractions telling the stories we want to hear. It should not be a catch-all for Pixar (Monsters Inc., Stitch, Buzz Lightyear, and Nemo?), or a Marvel super hero headquarters. It deserves more. 

So we'll see what happens. Once Disneyland's stand-alone land dedicated to Star Wars opens (predicted to be in 2019), Tomorrowland is going to look pretty vacant... And that may be just the impetus Disney needs to keep the momentum going and use the art provided here to give Tomorrowland a new and proper identity and life. What do you think?

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There are 11 comments.

Great info; well-written! My biggest peeve, perhaps, is the relocation of the jets from atop the Peoplemover tower to the entry at Disneyland. 3/4 of the thrill and pleasure of that attraction was the height and the views. Now it is basically Dumbo-on-the-hub. Hope they will fix this land one day. And thank you for the Pixar comment at the end. I completely agree. I wish they wouldn't worry so much about storytelling sometimes (and/or a retelling of film franchises) and just give us an awesome, orginal, sensory experience.

One page two you said

"Think about it: The Space Race had seen countries sprint to the moon throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, but by the ‘80s, the moon had lost its luster in the eyes of the public.

Which countries (plural) went to the moon?

They might be referencing the fact that Soviet Union and the U.S. had a bit of a race to the moon, with America finally landing it first despite Russia's initial lead at getting the first man to orbit the earth, and landing the first object on the moon? And maybe China, since they also had manned space travel, though I don't know much about it so I won't pretend I do, but maybe they're including them as well? I don't know if that's what they're referencing but perhaps?

The U.S. is the only country that's made it to the moon so far, which I expect you know based on your question. The Space Race refers to the race to get there by the Soviet Union and the U.S. After the Space Race ended, the moon was no longer a pop culture icon for people.

Im pretty sure, but no completely, Russia, China, US

The TPT retrospectives continue to be the most interesting articles on the site. Thank you for the history lesson; the stories of yesterday's rides, lands, and parks give the present status much more depth.

This may be Blasphemous, but why not do away with Tomorrowland altogether. (What??!!) Yes, at least at Disneyland ( though Magic Kingdom needs some new inspiration too. ) now hear me out, Both areas are struggling to "maintain" the concept of Tomorrow and with the growing popularity of Pixar, Why not turn Disneyland Tomorrowland into ToyStoryland? They are building it from scratch in Hollywood Studios, Fl but Could very easily turn Tomorrowland into it for California. I know, But Walt built Tomorrowland!! but did he? He himself had stopped the building of it only to have finished it because of the corporate sponsorship he received and they, the corporations, were the ones who spurred the concept of the land. Now that Pixar inspired rides have crept into the land I say bring it on! I think with a totally different younger generation growing up with Pixar and Disney Junior, it would be a much more attractive concept for them. Tomorrow is not what they are interested in, it is Now. Now can always be, Updated.

Or maybe replace Tomorrowland with Pandora. Regardless what happens with the space, the Tomorrowland redo should be the next thing at Disneyland Resort. Not Marvel in DCA, not an expanded Fantasyland...but, Tomorrowland. It seems Star Tours needs to go the day the Star Wars area opens. Then what?

Awesome write-up! I really enjoy your in-depth articles, especially when some of the daily articles on this site can be a bit short on substance. Thanks again for a fun read!

This was an amazing article! Well written with lots of really interesting factoids! Although having read this, one random/tangential thing keeps bugging me. With the failure of Disneyland Paris causing Eisner to stop "bet[ting] big on large-scale projects", how did Disney's Animal Kingdom get built? Was it just one of the projects that got dramatically scaled back from it's original vision (like the cancellation of Beastly Kingdom) rather than getting outright cancelled?

It is sad to think of what might have been if Eisner and Disney had simply devoted all of their resources to Disneyland and Walt Disney World. It doesn't like any of the over seas parks are doing gangbusters, and it would be amazing to see all of the new rides and concepts spread out between the two original parks.

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