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

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.

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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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