The Yesterday Of Tomorrow: A History Of Tomorrowland

A look back at the birth of the theme park that inspired the Brad Bird Disney movie opening this week.

When Disney makes a movie called Tomorrowland, but it’s not about their theme parks also called “Tomorrowland,” confusion is a valid response.

On one hand there’s a Brad Bird movie, starring George Clooney and co-written by Damon Lindelof, which opens May 22 and is being released by Disney. It’s about a young girl who visits a futuristic world that exists in a parallel dimension. Then there’s the theme park, an idea conceived by Walt Disney, which first opened in 1955. There, park attendees can go to experience rides and exhibits themed around science, fiction and a bit of both. Wait, are these things really not related?

“The Tomorrowland section of the theme parks serves more as an inspiration than as a literal part of our storytelling,” says Tomorrowland co-writer Damon Lindelof. “In other words, there's no Space Mountain in our movie. Walt's futurism, his commitment (and obsession) with building a City of The Future for REAL, was something we were much more interested in capturing. And hopefully, we did.”

So what was Walt Disney’s vision of the future and how would he realize it? It started in the mid-1950s when he began plans for what would soon become Disneyland in Anaheim, California. “Walt was a very inquisitive man. He was very fascinated with technology and what technology could bring to people,” said Steven Vagnini, a Disney expert, employee of Disney’s D23 Fan Club and former Walt Disney Archivist. Because of that curiosity, Disney’s plans for Disneyland always included something he called “a world of tomorrow,” where the latest and greatest technology could be on display. That vision was realized on July 17, 1955 when Walt Disney opened Tomorrowland at Disneyland. At the time, it consisted of only a handful of attractions and the vision of the future was supposed to be 1986, the next time Halley’s Comet would appear.

Over the next few years, fueled in part by corporations by like Monsanto and American Motors, Tomorrowland at Disneyland began to take shape. By 1959, it had introduced multiple new rides, including three that were referred to as “E-Ticket” or signature rides: a winter-themed roller coaster called the Matterhorn Bobsled, a monorail, which was the first operational monorail in the Western Hemisphere, and the Submarine Voyage.

“The Submarine Voyage was a big, exciting project for Walt,” said Vagnini. “He wanted to do this grand thing and some people suggested ‘Why don't you do a glass bottom boat ride?’ But no, Walt wanted a thing under the sea. And so the world's largest peacetime fleet of subs was introduced at that attraction. We worked with General Dynamics, which was tied to the nuclear subs that America was operating at the time.” All three of those E-Ticket rides are still at Disneyland, though they’ve all since been updated considerably.

Almost immediately after the introduction of Tomorrowland, Disney began to consider expansion, both in the already open California park as well as on the East Coast. One of his first opportunities to test these ideas was The 1964 World’s Fair in New York, which also plays a role in the Brad Bird film.

“Out of [The World’s Fair], we got amazing technology,” Vagnini explains. “The first full-sized human audio animatronics figure in Great Moments of Mr. Lincoln. This whole new ride system that transports guests sufficiently in the Ford Magic Skyway. The ability to send mass quantities of people through a physical space with great capacity atIt's a Small World. These were great innovations that were developed and designed for attractions at the fair. And of course when the fair was over, Walt could bring these attractions back to Disneyland.”

Keeping things new became one of the biggest issues with the idea of Tomorrowland. In presenting a vision of the future, the one thing Walt Disney couldn’t foresee was how quickly technology would advance and necessitate changes in the park. So, in 1967, Tomorrowland was completely redone, the first of two major renovations and dozens of smaller ones.

“[The 1967 renovation] was the biggest change that any area at Disneyland had experienced up to that point,” Vagnini said. “And it was all rooted in Walt's feeling that the problem with tomorrow is at the pace we're going, tomorrow catches up right when it gets built. We catch up with the future so often.” One example is an attraction originally called Flight to the Moon. That opened in 1967, two years before humans would actually land on the moon. It was rethemed to be called Mission to Mars in the mid-Seventies.

The 1967 expansion was also significant because it opened just after Walt Disney passed away in 1966. “It was really the last big Disneyland specific expansion he was working on,” Vagnini said. He was also in the process of quietly buying land in Florida for a second Tomorrowland, which would be part of Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida. That opened in 1971.

Over the next few decades, Tomorrowland would slowly and steadily grow on both coasts. Rides like Space Mountain became extremely popular. The Carousel of Progress, which was originally at the World’s Fair, would find a permanent home in Orlando. But by the mid-1980s, Tomorrowland would look to a new kind of future: the pop star.

“In 1984, when Michael Eisner and Frank Wells came in to lead what would become the Walt Disney Company, they toured Imagineering and there were some attractions that had been preliminarily designed,” Vagnini explained. “One included a concept for Star Wars.”

In other sections of the park, rides based on Disney movies like Peter Pan, Cinderella and Swiss Family Robinson were extremely popular, so Eisner had the idea to do that in Tomorrowland. And he would do it with a few non-Disney properties. To begin, they got in contact with George Lucas, himself a kind of Walt Disney of the day.

As development and construction on a Star Wars ride began, Lucas teamed up with his friend Francis Ford Coppola and the most famous person on the planet, Michael Jackson, to film a 3D movie called captain eo. That attraction opened in 1986. A year later, the Star Wars themed ride, Star Tours, opened. Both openings, both in Tomorrowland, necessitated the parks remain open for 60 hours straight to meet demand.

“This was a big boost to development at Disneyland,” Vagnini said. “And of course paved the way for its future in reenergizing it.”

Even with Walt Disney decades deceased, his forward thinking at the company never went away. By the late 1990s, once again, Tomorrowland was looking a bit un-Futuristic.

“We essentially found ourselves where Walt found himself in 1967 where - whether it's aesthetically or whether it's the portfolio of attractions - it was time to re-imagine Tomorrowland,” Vagnini said. In 1998, a new Tomorrowland opened. “This one was done to better match a classic future environment inspired by various futurists like Jules Verne. And this had been done successfully at Disneyland Paris where they opened Discovery Land, which is their version of Tomorrowland. And in the mid-'90s Walt Disney World had its major redo of Tomorrowland called their New Tomorrowland. And it was also heavily influenced by the timeless look at the future.”

Those redesigns, with a few tweaks and additions, of course, is what Tomorrowland looks like today all across the globe. In total, there are five Tomorrowlands in Disney parks with a sixth on the way.

Which brings us full circle to Brad Bird’s movie. If what Lindelof says is true, and the film’s aim is to capture a bit of Disney’s vision and ideas, it seems like they’ve not only done it, they’ve gone beyond that. One of the theatrical posters for the film has a building that perfectly resembles Space Mountain. And in a revealing, international version of the trailer, characters in the film bluntly reference the Tomorrowland theme park and say “The theme park is a cover for the real thing. What would happen if all the geniuses decided to actually change the world? Walt was one of them.” It seems Disney’s influence never fades.

Tomorrowland, the theme park, celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2015. At the same time, in a film of the same name, it’s imagined as a real place that obviously references back to the park itself. Which makes perfect sense. Thanks to his theme parks, Walt Disney’s vision of Tomorrow has and always will be a real place. A place people can go to travel to far away worlds, explore the galaxy and get a glimpse of a better future.

This was originally published in the May issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Tomorrowland at the Alamo starting Friday!

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