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THE TIMEKEEPER: How Disney Turned Walt's 1950s Tech into an International "Sci-Fi Double Feature"

"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... 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, when it 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," 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 and (in our opinion) brilliantly.

Image: Disney

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.

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...

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There is 1 comment.

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?

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