FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail
The Timekeeper

For years, Theme Park Tourist has been committed to an ambitious project: capturing the complete stories of forgotten fan-favorite attractions and telling those tales in one-of-a-kind, in-depth features that we call Lost Legends. We've shrunk to the size of a cell aboard Body Wars, whisked through the glitz and glamor of The Great Movie Ride, survived a face-to-face encounter with Jaws, stepped into the elite Adventurers Club, and explored dozens more long-lost adventures in our In-Depth Library – a must-visit for theme park fans.

But today's focus is somehow even more ambitious. Sure, we've been thrust to the dawn of time aboard Universe of Energy and Back to the Future – The Ride; we glimpsed tomorrow itself in Lost Legends entries on Captain EO, T2 3-D, and Horizons... But the subject of this feature brings the past and future together as never before. The Timekeeper was a cross-dimensional, time-traveling, cultural adventure that turned '50s technology into a showcase of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Equally at home in Disneyland Paris' glittering, golden retro-future and the industrial, art deco tomorrow of Magic Kingdom, the attraction was timeless... until it disappeared.

Buckle up, because – like all of our in-depth features – the story of The Timekeeper begins long before the attraction ever opened... 

Light / magic

In 1867, a twenty-year old named William E. Lincoln (a college student at Brown University) submitted drawings to the U.S. Patent Office for a device he hoped to sell to toy manufacturer Milton Bradley and Co. A simple spinning cylinder with slits cut around its circumference, Lincoln’s “zoetrope” would come with long strips of paper printed with a series of images – each one only slightly different from the one before… For example, each showing a snapshot of a horse in motion as it trots.

When this series of snapshots was nestled along the inside of the device’s cylinder, a simple spin and a gaze through the quickly-passing slits would make the images appear to blend together as one moving picture… An early example of modern animation.

Shortly thereafter, photography came around, providing the almost-unthinkable ability to capture a moment on a light-sensitive piece of celluloid film. And by the 1890s, long lengths of this celluloid film could be quickly passed through the new motion picture camera, capturing fleeting frames of action that – when played back and projected with light at high speed – appeared to create a “moving picture” (or “movie” for short)! Surely, this had to be the end-all-be-all of innovation.

Image: Disney

Next, the 1920s brought about the “talking picture” (including, unbelievably, the first cartoon to feature fully-synchronized, post-produced sound: Steamboat Willie). Progress now made moving pictures speak, too, but there couldn't possibly be anything better.

Image: Disney

And yet, in the 1930s, it was all about the wonderful world of color, as evidenced in Walt Disney’s groundbreaking 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the world’s first full-length animated feature film, shot with the brand new multi-plane camera. And audiences of the 1930s must've felt that they'd truly seen it all.

Until the 1940s introduced rudimentary stereoscopic 3-D! And they must've thought... well, you know the drill.

They were wrong. Things could get better. In the 1950s came Cinerama (a portmanteau of cinema and panorama) that had the audacity to do the unthinkable: take yet another step forward. Now, three projectors could be synchronized to each display a piece of a motion picture on a curved, wraparound screen... Unparalleled immersion created a newly dimensional experience for moviegoers.

And to audiences of the 1950s, it must've seemed that... well, you get the picture. Motion… sound… color... surround sound... panoramic picture! Like trying to see around a corner, it was simply inconceivable to imagine what the next breakthrough in filmmaking could be. But as always, one particularly inventive individual and his team were hard at work on that very question…

Eyes on tomorrow

Image: Disney

If there’s one element of Walt Disney’s story that sweeps through all of our Lost Legends entries, it’s that – at his core – Walt was a futurist; an idealist; an optimist. Practically obsessed with the idea of progress and the hopes and fears it brought along with it, Walt dedicated much of his early career to finding new ways to infuse technology and innovation into animation, succeeding wildly as evidenced above.

And sure, we know that eventually Walt would shift his growing scientific thinking to big picture human advancement: high-efficiency mass transit, urban design, and what the communities of tomorrow would look like. But before any of that, Walt and his designers were determined to see the next step of filmmaking before anyone else. So what was the next step?

To their thinking, movies had already come alive with sound, color, and even 3-D. The next stage of cinema would have to be even smarter.

Image: Disney

That’s when two prominent Disney Legends enter into the picture. The first was Ub Iwerks (Disney’s long-time animator, cartoonist, inventor, designer, and special effects guru) who’s credited with co-creating Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and his protégé, Mickey Mouse.

Image: Disney

The second is Ub’s son, Don Iwerks. Young Don had joined Disney in 1950 working in a machine shop, but by 1954, he’d taken the reigns of a cameraman on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

And now, the Iwerks and Disney would set to work on the next leap forward for film. And what could beat the curved screen of Cinerama?

Circarama

Image: Disney

Picture it like this: filmmakers would take eleven motion picture cameras and arrange them in a circle, lenses pointed out...

Image: Disney, via yesterland.com

...Then, that circular array of cameras would be attached to the roof of a car as it drove through cities, forests, or deserts with all eleven cameras recording their own unique point-of-view of what surrounded the moving vehicle.

The eleven resulting reels of film could then be loaded into eleven projectors set around the circumference of a circular room, each pointed at a movie screen opposite. 

Images: Disney

When played in sync, the eleven “films” would appear to create a sort of continuous, 360° image, surrounding viewers standing in the room in an immersive picture, like wrap-around windows into another world... a sincere glimpse into the future of film. Which is lucky, because Disney needed any futuristic technology it could get its hands on...

When Disneyland’s Tomorrowland opened in 1955, it wasn’t at all what Walt had hoped it would be, since a tight budget and quick construction had left it little more than a showcase of corporate sponsorships. The good news is that the land’s main entry corridor – flanked by mirror-image showbuildings – would have a touch of Disney.

Image: Disney

To quickly fill the south showbuilding, Walt had his filmmakers bring the sets of 1954’s 20,000 Leagues to Disneyland to put them on display as a sort of walkthrough (which we explored in our in-depth look at Magic Kingdom’s Lost Legend: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.)

Image: Disney

The north showbuilding along Tomorrowland’s entry would be Circarama, hosting “A Tour of the West” presented by American Motors: a picturesque travelogue of the American West and the natural splendors of the country’s unspoiled wilderness (though, more honestly, a tour of the deserts and landscapes within a few hours' drive from Los Angeles... Disneyland's opening was approaching fast, after all!) 

Soon after Disneyland opened, Walt and company duplicated the Circarama technology as a featured attraction for the United States pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. A New York Times article (sourced by our friends at Yesterland) reported:

“Innovations in photographic and movie projection methods will permit a 360-degree view of “the face of America” on a room-circling screen. The projection method, developed by Walt Disney, is known as ‘Circarama’. A color film, titled “America: The Land and The People,” showing a trip across the country, will be exhibited.”

When the film opened in Belgium, it had been retitled “America the Beautiful,” with Jerry Hulse of the Los Angeles Times noting, “…with the ending there is a loud applause... from persons of many countries... yes, even a few Russian visitors.”

Which is lucky, because the Circarama film moved to the American National Exhibition in Moscow, Russia for a 1959 showing next.

But here’s where our story really picks up… On the next page, we’ll explore how Disney was determined to integrate this new, futuristic filmmaking into Disney Parks as never before, leading to one particularly brave installation: The Timekeeper. Read on…

Circling back

Image: Charles R. Lympany, courtesy of Chris Taylor, via yesterland.com

In 1960, the astounding “America the Beautiful” film was brought home. Well, its third home, in its third country. “America the Beautiful” opened at Disneyland in 1960. It played until the arrival of a Lost Legend: The Peoplemover and Walt’s New Tomorrowland in 1967, when the 360-degree theater was expanded to take over the land’s north showbuilding entirely. A newly filmed presentation (still titled “America the Beautiful”) was developed for an updated, nine-screen format called Circle-Vision 360°.

Of course, Disney’s use of Circle-Vision technology was just getting started.

Image: Disney

 

Just a few years later, Magic Kingdom opened at the brand-new Walt Disney World in Florida, with its own nine-screen Circle-Vision 360° quickly opening with “America the Beautiful” on display. Just like at Disneyland, Magic Kingdom’s installation was given a prominent position in one of the mirrored showbuildings along the land’s main entry (albeit, in the south building rather than Disneyland’s north... see the screen protruding in the lower right above?)

Over the next two decades, Magic Kingdom’s Circle-Vision theater would play “Magic Carpet Around the World” (1974 – 1975), an encore of “America the Beautiful” (1975 – 1979), “Magic Carpet” once more (1979 – 1984), and the new “American Journeys” for the next decade.

Image: Disney

Unsurprisingly, the inspiring film format – perfect for a travelogue – became the de facto attraction in EPCOT Center’s World Showcase upon its 1982 opening. Both the China pavilion and the Canada pavilion offered Circle-Vision films as cultural ambassadors, capturing the Wonders of China and O Canada!, respectively. Impressions de France in the France pavilion likewise resembles the technology, but with only five screens in a 200° wrap-around configuration.

Image: Disney

The year after EPCOT Center opened, Tokyo Disneyland debuted with a Tomorrowland closely modeled off of Florida’s, including a Circle-Vision theater in the “south” showbuilding along the land’s entry corridor. But upon its 1983 opening, a glaring problem was growing...

Yesterdayland

When first pioneered by Walt and his designers, the idea of a 360° theater was sincerely a cutting-edge display of the filmmaking of the future – a glimpse into what the next leap forward in movies might be.

Image: Disney

By its Japanese debut in 1983, Circle-Vision was approaching its 20-year anniversary, and it had to have been clear that the technology wasn’t really going to take off in an applicable way outside of Disney Parks. It's really not so different from the Monorail or the Peoplemover, which Walt had intended as mere prototypes of actual, utilitarian technologies of tomorrow, but had become so closely associated with theme parks as to negate their public use.

Meanwhile, the new Lost Legend: Captain EO parked directly across from Tokyo’s Circle-Vision theater offered a much more current idea of cinema’s next steps: starring a true global celebrity and crafted by the filmmakers behind Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and The Godfather, Captain EO was a pop culture phenomenon. It was also the debut of the “4-D” film, mixing in-theater special effects like fog, lasers, and starfields. Now this was the future of film, leaving Circle-Vision and its “American Journeys” travelogue in the dust.

But Circle-Vision wasn’t the only problem. At the three Tomorrowlands across the globe, Imagineers began to face the dreaded “Tomorrowland Problem.” We’ve discussed this recurring roadblock in a number of Lost Legends features, but it amounts to a simple concept: tomorrow always becomes today. And if you wait long enough, it’ll become yesterday, too.

Image: Disney

Put another way, if Tomorrowland were to be dedicated to actual displays of potential futures, emerging technologies, and sincere innovation, each Tomorrowland across the globe would need constant, continuous, and costly upgrades, forever. It wasn’t just that Flight to the Moon would need to become Mission to Mars (which it did), or that the Monsanto House of the Future (with its groundbreaking microwave oven) would need demolished for an icon of the Atomic Age – Lost Legend: Adventure Thru Inner Space… No… The very fabric of Tomorrowland would need to change… and keep changing.

And plunged into the dark, dismal, gritty vision of the future that had invaded pop culture during the 1980s (thanks to Alien, Blade Runner, Star Wars, and even TRON), the hippy-dippy, sleek, concrete, Space Age influenced Tomorrowlands in California, Florida, and Tokyo were looking like yesterday’s news. An optimistic world of swirling white and red rockets, pastel Peoplemovers, and gentle, geometric architecture looked naïve and outdated.

Change was needed.

And change was coming.

Prototyping Parisian possibilities

Across the globe, Tomorrowlands not only featured outdated attractions showcasing uninspiring technology disconnected from the modern world… they also looked like products of another time… though not long ago enough to make them nostalgic and quaint. Luckily, Disney had just the project on their docket that would let them experiment with new possibilities for Tomorrowland.

Image: Disney

And voila, we’ve arrived at a pivot point common to so many of our in-depth features: Disneyland Paris. The introduction of Disneyland Paris (as EuroDisney) in any story is typically accompanied by how the French park changed everything (for better or worse, thanks to its ambition and financial failure, respectively). Luckily, this is a case of the former: a testament to Paris’ brave new way of doing this and the radical reinvention is inspired.

Designers responsible for the Parisian park recognized that – even before the first shovel of dirt had moved – the French press and public had mutually decided that they did not want Disneyland Paris. They launched an all-out media assault on the “cultural imperialism” of such a rooted American brand, akin to placing a McDonald’s atop the Eiffel Tower. Prominent journalists wrote of their hopes that rebels would burn Disneyland down, and numerous news stories throughout its construction suggested boycotts.

Image: Disney

What they didn’t know is that Disney was aware of the fine line they balanced in creating a European park for European guests, and Disney Legend Tony Baxter and his team set out to ensure that Disneyland Paris felt right at home in the French countryside. They meticulously recrafted Disneyland’s storied lands (each, of course, rooted in Americana) to redevelop them into literary, romanticized realms that would appeal to European audiences.

Image: Disney

Take Frontierland, which dropped its associations with Americans’ 1950 “Old West” fascination (Tom Sawyer, The Lone Ranger, Zorro) and instead was crafted into a land built around a love story that absorbed all of the rides, shows, attractions, and even restaurants in the land into one overarching frame story. We told that incredible tale in an in-depth feature, Modern Marvels: Phantom Manor.

Likewise, each of Disney's Tomorrowlands was modeled around a common ancestor; each a celebration of the Space Age. Products of pure Americana, those Tomorrowlands were anchored in mid-century wonder, Googie architecture, NASA, rockets, simple geometry, concrete towers, and a sleek, sterile view of the future through the lens of the Space Race.

There could be nothing less interesting or inspiring to French audiences of the 1990s. Which is why Disneyland Paris didn’t have a Tomorrowland at all. And this radical shift in what the concept of Tomorrowland could mean is exactly what created The Timekeeper, spreading this final Circle-Vision production around the world... On the next page, we'll explore the two ambitious Tomorrowlands that emerged and step into The Timekeeper that became a "Sci-Fi Double Feature" in both. Read on...

"Sci-Fi Double Futures"

In the 1990s, Disney's ambitious plans to revitalize the Tomorrowland concept lead to diverging futures; radically different and regionally unique concepts that would strip the land of its science fact and root it in timelessness, original stories, and historically-rooted identities that would never need updated. Put another way, each Tomorrowland needed another floor-to-ceiling reboot to disguise the aging styles of the Space Age… but if done right, it would be the last reboot they’d ever need… 

In this case, two very different futures emerged in France and Florida. Nearly polar opposites, these two lands of tomorrow both made The Timekeeper feel right at home... 

1. Discoveryland (Disneyland Paris, 1992)

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney, via Disney and More

Welcome to Discoveryland. In what may have been their most ambitious experiment to date, Disney Imagineers redesigned the “land of tomorrow” due for inclusion in Disneyland Paris into a land of tomorrow... as seen from long ago.

In other words, Discoveryland is the future... but as great European thinkers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, or Leonardo da Vinci might have envisioned it. It’s a brass port of bubbling lagoons, zephyrs, hot air balloons, Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, organic sail-like towers, oxidized copper, and iron-rich geometric rocks bursting from forested hills. Discoveryland drops the sterile, simple geometry of the era’s Tomorrowland in favor of a future that feels at one with nature rather than opposed to it; a steaming, glistening, golden retro-future.

Image: Disney

The land’s Orbitron – Machines Volantes is a version of the other parks’ Rocket Jets, but embedded in the ground, adorned with Zodiac symbols, and dressed as an ornate, da Vincian astronomical mapping device; the Café Hyperion, entered beneath a docked, floating zephyr; the Mysteries of the Nautilus, a true walk-through of Nemo’s ship, moored in a bubbling, geothermal lagoon; and reigning over it all, one of the world’s most phenomenal Lost Legends: Space Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune, a brass, steampunk, fantasy version of the fabled journey into the stars, here borrowing from Jules Verne’s novel of the same name.

But even among the extravagent and ambitious projects to be born alongside Discoveryland, perhaps Le Visionarium is among the most elaborate.

Image: Photos Magiques

Yes, the golden Visionarium is simply yet another installation of Disney's nine-screen Circle-Vision 360 theater. But here in Paris, the concept was entirely reborn. While it's still that same 1950s technology that makes up Le Visionarium's substance, its style is all new... The attraction inside Le Visionarium – Un Voyage à Travers le Temps – takes the concept from mere demonstration to application, as Disney's first outright attempt to use the Circle-Vision structure to tell a story.

Image: Disney

Which is why guests stepping into Le Visionarium weren't simply queuing for a Circle-Vision film to marvel at the unusual and futuristic filming technique, or to see how well the encircling screens lent themselves to travel displays and capturing natural wonders.

Image: Designing Disney blog

Instead, they stepped into a retro-futuristic bronze and velvet library stocked with dozens of models representing transportation through the ages. A perfect match for Discoveryland's setting and story, this steampunk-stylized lab features suspended models of vehicles designed to explore the air (Da Vinci's fabled Flying Machine, zephyrs, the Albatross from The Clipper of the Clouds...), of the sea (Nemo's Nautilus, steamships, and more), and more...

This Victorian laboratory of contraptions is merely the workshop of our host, The Timekeeper, who's invented a new kind of transportation device... one that can propel through time. In this case, the test subject would be Timekeeper's assistant, Nine-Eye, a nine-eyed droid whose test runs (over Niagara Falls, through a barn of dynomite in Topeka, and stowing away on a space shuttle) give us some impression of the robots abilities...

Image: Disney

With her nine optical input sensors, Nine-Eye can provide us with a live feed as she travels back in time to encounter great European thinkers and dreamers... And as we advanced into the Theater where Timekeeper and his assistant await, the excitement builds...

2. New Tomorrowland (Magic Kingdom, 1994)

But before we get there, consider the other fabled installation of the attraction,  opened alongside Magic Kingdom's own New Tomorrowland in 1994. Remember, Magic Kingdom was built with a Circle-Vision Theater when it opened in 1971, in the southern showbuilding along the land's grand entry. When plans for a New Tomorrowland first broke, it was internally referred to as "Discoveryland USA" – a  nod to its search for Discoveryland-style "timelessness" – and initially it was suggested that Magic Kingdom's Circle-Vision theater simply be re-skinned as the Transportarium with the neighboring Plaza Pavilion restaurant becoming The Astronomer's Club – the time-crossing headquarters of the great dreamers from the attraction.

Ultimately, plans for Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland changed drastically. Whereas Discoveryland had been a fantasy future, Magic Kingdom's New Tomorrowland would likewise drop science fact, but in favor of a science-fiction future.

Image: Disney

Tomorrowland was redressed from head-to-toe in an industrial art-deco look that mirrored the sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s, recreating sensational, comic-book worlds of Buck Rogers. Just as elaborately retro-futuristic as Discoveryland but remixed with industrial silver and alien textures, this was a sometimes-intimidating world of gears, columns, gunmetal, domes, spheres, and metallic rings otherwise reserved for The Jetsons.

But even more bravely, this New Tomorrowland didn't just look like a real, functioning sci-fi spaceport plucked from a comic book. It was. Though it's hard to imagine today, there was not one single solitary cartoon intellectual property in New Tomorrowland at all. Instead, each of the land's rides, attractions, shows, and even restaurants were designed to fit together into one continuous, overarching story of a "real" city.

Entering via the new Avenue of Planets, guests would be greeted by signed erected by the Tomorrowland Chamber of Commerce, the League of Planets, and the Sleepless Knights of the Milky Way – organizations, clubs, and governing bodies of this world, equivalent to the sponsor signs and corporation limits that stand at entries to cities around the globe.

Overhead, the trains of the Tomorrowland Transit Authority whisk by. That's the "real" city's "real" public transportation – and according to the on-board narrator, it's just one line of many that criss-cross this bustling metropolis, with in-universe warnings about keeping eyes and tentacles inside the car. After all, this is a world of landed alien saucers, neon signs in extraterrestrial languages, mechanical industrial palm trees, stamped gunmetal, pearlescent domes, and robotic neighbors.

Image: Disney

If you're stopping by for a bite, try Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe, an intergalactic hangout where the beloved alien "lounge lizard" Sonny Eclipse on the keyboard, entertaining diners. 

And as the Tomorrowland Transit Authority passes along the north showbuilding's exterior, it tells you that you're passing the Tomorrowland Interplanetary Convention Center. Like all major cities, Tomorrowland needs a convention center to rent out to industries, and it just so happens that it's currently rented out to a Martian technology conglomorate – X-S Tech – eager to show off its newest innovation: an intergalactic teleportation technology (which is why that massive, gleaming yellow antenna is on the roof, of course) that can transmit alien life from lightyears away. What could go wrong?

Image: Disney

(Ask the generation of Disney Parks fans traumatized by the scariest attraction Disney's ever designed – fellow Lost Legend: Alien Encounter.)

Ah, and the south showbuilding? Formerly home to Circle-Vision? It's still there. But now, it's the Tomorrowland Metropolis Science Center. After all, any major city needs a science museum showcasing the next great technologies.

Image: Yesterland

And in Tomorrowland, it's time travel. Step beneath the glowing, alien saucer entry and you'll pass into the Science Center's inner sanctum.

THE TIMEKEEPER

Now, whether you're in the retro-futuristic European fantasy future of Paris or the sci-fi art-deco industrial future of Magic Kingdom, your experience will be the same.

Image: Disney

Except for some final name-drops... The film itself features familiar faces, like French vinema star Michel Piccoli as Jules Verne, Italian actor Franco Nero as Leonardo da Vinci, and the spectacular English actor Jeremy Irons (the voice of Scar in the Lion King, among thousands more credits) as H.G. Wells. 

As for Timekeeper and Nine-Eye, in French they're voiced by Michel Leeb (French actor, singer, and comedian) and Myriam Boyer (noted French actress) respectively. At Walt Disney World, the characters are voiced by the incomparable Robin Williams and Rhea Perlman (of Cheers and Matilda fame). A third installation at Tokyo Disneyland (where the attraction was called Visionarium: From Time to Time) starred George Tokoro and Yuki Saito – both singer-songwriters with acting and comedy backgrounds.

Given the performances of such legendary actors, it wouldn't be fair to try to recreate the experience in words alone any further. Only the real thing will do. That's why we include this point-of-view video below so that you can experience what it was like to stand before Timekeeper and Nine-Eye and bare witness to some of the greatest historical figures on Earth in a wild, wonderful, out-of-control adventure.

More than a travelogue or a history lesson, Timekeeper was a journey. Like never before, the attraction repurposed the Circle-Vision technology into a storytelling medium, adding in Audio Animatronics, legendary actors, and a time-hopping, cross-continental journey that felt equally at home in two very different visions of tomorrow. 

So where is it today? The story of Timekeeper's closure is as fascinating as its opening. The story concludes on the next page...

Changing fortunes

Image: Disney

Both Discoveryland and Magic Kingdom's New Tomorrowland were ambitious and elaborate, perhaps moreso than any Imagineering projects to come before. Both bravely drew all aspects of a land – its rides, shows, shops, and restaurants – into larger-than-life frame stories, and both did it without relying on proven intellectual properties or well-known characters opting instead to invent their own.

We've already spoken at length about the dismal opening of Disneyland Paris and how the financial losses suffered from the overbuilt resort fundamentally changed CEO Michael Eisner. The man who had once been a forward-thinking big-spender willing to finance massively-scaled projects instead decreed that he would never again make a mistake like Disneyland Paris. The result was that – just about 25 years ago – an entire portfolio of projects at Disney was cancelled, classics were closed, and cop-out parks opened.

Eisner seemed to decide that Disney characters were key, and that leveraging the stories that had been developed by the animation studio ought to become a priority. 

That's when things changed.

Unmaking "Tomorrow"

The story of what happened to The Timekeeper isn’t so unlike the story of any other Tomorrowland Lost Legend: it fell to “cartoonification.”

Look at Magic Kingdom's once-brave New Tomorrowland now.

Image: Chris Bales, via Yesterland

It all started when the park's aviatian themed dark ride, Delta Dreamflight – successor to the park's Lost Legend: If You Had Wings – closed in 1997, just three years after New Tomorrowland's debut. Now, to be fair, Dreamflight had never been affected by or absorbed into New Tomorrowland's otherwise expansive world-building, so its closure didn't seem like a scar on the land's ambitions.

Image: Werner Weiss, Yesterland

But its replacement – Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin – awkwardly painted the whole corner of the land in plastic stick-on marquees. Say what you will about Buzz Lightyear (a fun, family, laser-blasting dark ride through day-glo plastic scenes inspired by Toy Story 2) but it's decidedly not of the future (unless you count its setting in a toy-box version of space).

But one Pixar ride in an otherwise ambitious land can’t do any harm, right? The problem is best described by the old adage, “For every rat you see, there are 50 that you don’t.” Buzz came in peace, but he didn’t come alone. The opening of Space Ranger Spin also opened the proverbial floodgates.

Image: Disney

Alien Encounter was shuttered in 2003 after terrifying a generation for the better part of a decade. The Tomorrowland Interplanetary Convention Center became the Galactic Federation Prisoner Teleport Center, hosting what many consider to be Walt Disney World’s worst attraction ever – subject of its own Disaster File: Stitch’s Great Escape.

Designers might’ve intended 1994’s New Tomorrowland to be “timeless,” but The Timekeeper – one of its last major landmarks – closed in 2006. The Metropolis Science Center allusions were covered, the Circle-Vision theater was removed, and the clever entrance suddenly sported a new, non sequitor cartoon logo.

Image: Disney

It's now home to Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, a live, digitally puppeted interactive comedy show wherein on-screen monsters tell guest-submitted jokes in an effort to fill Monstropolis’ laugh canisters to power the city.

As you’d expect, any connection to the carefully crafted exterior and the once-pervasive Tomorrowland story was squashed. The Tomorrowland Transit Authority (renamed the Peoplemover in a nod to nostalgia, but also because the land’s continuity had been broken) stopped referring to Tomorrowland’s attractions by their “real-life” locations like the Convention Center and Science Museum because they didn't exist anymore, replaced with cartoons. Tomorrowland became a creative catch-all; a beautiful looking art-deco land that’s populated exclusively by mis-matched intellectual properties like Lilo and Stitch, Monsters Inc., Toy Story, and The Incredibles.

That leaves Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland with two distinct areas: a Pixar-populated first half dressed in the style of sci-fi with none of the substance, and a back half of the land still strongly tied to the simplicity of the ‘70s with simple, geometric Space Mountain and Walt's Modern Marvel: Carousel of Progress.

Image: Disney

Most oddly, the upcoming U.S. debut of the Modern Marvel: TRON Lightcycle Power Run will add yet a third “neighborhood” of Tomorrowland with its streamlined glass canopy and intellectual property that feels entirely disconnected from anything else in the land… No doubt TRON will be worth it, but it does make us wonder if there’s any plan at all for Tomorrowland anymore.

And unfortunately, it doesn't end there...

Undoing Discoveryland

While it would be wonderful to report that Discoveryland survived this era of "cartoonification," we have no such news to report.

Image: Designing Disney blog

Le Visionarium closed in 2004, its bronze and copper exterior being repainted in white, purple, and green. Le Visionarium became the Parisian home base of Star Command, containing Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast. It goes without saying that the toy-inspired dark ride feels even less at home in Discoveryland than it does in Tomorrowland, sapping serious credence from the concept. The good news is that Nine-Eye is still inside, hovering – hidden – behind the blacklight ride's oversized orange Box-o-Bot.

Perhaps the Timekeeper couldn't have kept his Visionarium forever, but Toy Story 2 seemed a thoughtless replacement for a brave original idea. And like in Florida, Buzz's arrival was only the beginning.

In 2004, the uniquely Jules-Verne style Videopolis theater (entered under the zephyr from Island at the Top of the World) began hosting a long-running musical stage show... The Lion King.

Image: Disney

Then, in 2005, that uniquely-fantasy Lost Legends: Space Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune closed to become Space Mountain: Mission 2, essentially giving the ride the same sci-fi ornamentation and soundtrack as all the other Space Mountains, just in a gilded, golden shell.

In fact, today at Disneyland Paris, both Space Mountain and the Videopolis theater are home to Star Wars, which couldn't be a more unusual fit for a golden, literary seaport designed by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Forever future?

Image: Disney

Interestingly, both New Tomorrowland and Discoveryland, then, were brave concepts that have both been overrun with intellectual properties, breaking any of the world-building and continuity Imagineers smartly strived for. Does that make the concepts failures? Maybe.

In any case, it certainly answers the call Imagineers had set forth in the 1990s. Can you make a timeless Tomorrowland? Well... no. Imagineers wanted New Tomorrowland and Discoveryland to never need a facelift by designing worlds that aren't rooted in real predictions of things to come, but anchored to timeless, literary, pop culture concepts that would never come true. They wanted a new generation of Tomorrowlands to look forever-fresh even as times changed. They succeeded. But unfortunately, such brilliantly-crafted facades require something of substance to back it up.

Image: Disney

It doesn't make sense that our Star Wars journey requires us to be shot out of a cannon affixed to a golden mountain in a bubbling lagoon.

It doesn't fit that in the midst of a literary, thoughtful, smart, Jules Verne inspired seaport of bronze-and-copper (above), we should be shrunk to the size of an action figure to rescue stolen double-A batteries.

And it doesn't stand up to even Disney's loosest standards that, upon stepping into a art-deco industrial city of tomorrow, we're somehow taken into a comedy club run by the characters from Monsters Inc.

Fans would riot if such sloppy storytelling was allowed in Frontierland or Adventureland or Main Street, but in Tomorrowland, we collectively allow cartoons and characters to stand-in for substance and smarts. Whether that's wrong or right is left to guests, Imagineers, and executives to debate.

Image: Disney

But one thing we know for sure? The Timekeeper was an icon of another time at Disney... a time when brilliant original ideas weren't just tolerated, they were celebrated. The Timekeeper and Nine-Eye were an unusual experiment in turning 1950s technology into a world-building, headlining attraction to set a new standard. We argue that it suceeded. The Timekeeper felt at once nostalgic, modern, and forward-thinking, and the same three qualities can't be said of too many modern projects.

If you enjoyed our detailed look at The Timekeeper, be sure to make the jump to our Lost Legends Library where you'll find dozens more must-read features to explore. Then, use the comments below to share your memories. Did you experience The Timekeeper? Was it a brilliant re-use of an age-old technology that showed just how important such C-Ticket asides are in building larger-than-life worlds inside of Disney Parks? Or was The Timekeeper dated, dull, and doomed? We can't wait to read your thoughts.

FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail

Comments

Thank you for this article. Oddly, it does definitely seem that the age of the IP-focused stuff is far from over, what with Tron coming to Tomorrowland, and across the resorts on both coasts, Star Wars Galaxy's Edge, even though things are seemingly becoming more and more detailed, and in my opinion it is very exciting to hear about what they are doing.
What do you think of this idea, of creating very detailed concepts for IPs, almost like living worlds? are they good ideas? Also though, do you think they might create an attraction with a theme park only character ever again?

Add new comment

About Theme Park Tourist

Theme Park Tourist is one of the web’s leading sources of essential information and entertaining articles about theme parks in Orlando and beyond.

We are one of the world’s largest theme park guide sites, hosting detailed guides to more than 80 theme parks around the globe.

Find Out More About Us...

Plan Your Trip

Our theme park guides contain reviews and ratings of rides, restaurants and hotels at more than 80 theme parks worldwide.

You can even print them.

Start Planning Now...