Friday, October 24, 2008

Futures With No Future

“Tomorrowland attractions… have been designed to give you an opportunity to participate in adventures which are a living blueprint for our future.” – Walt Disney as quoted in Walt Disney’s Disneyland A Pictorial Souvenir, 1975

One of the least bemoaned results of Walt Disney Imagineering’s wars against all things not “Story” is the overall Presentationalist aesthetic – that mode of design which forgoes convincing, unified places and times for the straight, linear, didactic shot into information and conceptualization. Individual elements are sometimes mourned – EPCOT Center’s Future World pavilions chief amongst them – but nobody seems to reserve much love for Tomorrowland in its “white period”. Yet I think of all elements removed wholesale from The Magic Kingdom, the loss of all the character from that portion of both parks ranks as the most damaging. Tomorrowland balanced and reinforced the rest of the Disney lands, and the park is now a scale tilted too far off balance to ever fully recover.

The future has always been remade. In the 1960’s, Disney did the chief sensible thing and had the 1955 Tomorrowland removed entirely to make way for the 1967 model. This version of Tomorrowland probably got the formula the “most right” of them all: the movement of the spinning Rocket Jets attraction to the top of the Peoplemover platform created perhaps one of Disney’s most recognizable architectural features, giving the land interest and form. Those little pastel Peoplemovers dashing this way and that, the monorail, the Matterhorn bobsleds, Rolly Crump’s rising stage, the spinning Carousel of Progress and more spoke of a hub of energy, interaction, the “World on Move” Disney wanted. Many of the key features were already in place: a dark ride inside a commercial, a circle-vision film, a simulated moon flight in a theatre with vibrating seats. When Disney would add Space Mountain to this mix in 1977, the energy of the place would be nearly uncontainable.

The Florida version added scope and size. Those little triangular ridges atop the buildings housing America the Beautiful and Adventure thru Inner Space became enormous spires fighting the castle for attention; whereas Anaheim had little fountains outside the entrance to the land, Orlando’s spires would spurt water straight down into the castle moat while water cascaded down the sloped walls to the left and right; a true torrent unmatched by any other Disney structure ever devised. Inside, the symmetry of the Disneyland version become even more pronounced, each building on the main pedestrian corridor becoming a terraced, glass enclosed, buttressed expression of modernism (fans of California Googie unfamiliar with this version would do well to study it). Claims about this “white Tomorrowland” often ignore the fact that, even in those early days, the area was overflowing with pastel yellows, oranges, blues and pinks. In later years the subtle palette would be cheapened to bright whites, blues and reds, but at least this earlier paint scheme was perhaps the best affirmation of John Hench’s claim that he had something like 70 versions of “white” in his paint palette.

Nor was the land totally monochromatic; in full evidence were bright reds and blues inside Space Mountain and on the Star Jets, black and yellow and white inside If You Had Wings, green and black on the Grand Prix, and astonishing yellows, oranges, reds and browns inside the Tomorowland Terrace. Once the area was fully built up with its own Carousel of Progress, Space Mountain, a less meandering but more advanced Peoplemover and more, it was distinctly related but very different from the Disneyland sibling.

What these future worlds were all about was variety. While much of the rest of The Magic Kingdom, for example, was lit by ornate lanterns and sconces, Tomorrowland was ablaze with bright halogens, neons, and incandescents casting variations on white too carefully planned to be ugly. The Tavern Singers and J.P. and the Silver Stars offered area/period correct music elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom, but at the Tomorowland Terrace, the modern and tastefully suspect Kids of the Kingdom offered show tunes and red polyester. In later years, the fascinating Michael Iceberg held court here in his fog-spewing electric organ shaped like a pyramid. In Anaheim especially, youth held court in Tomorrowland with dancing and nighttime festivities, while adults were more likely to be found over in the Blue Bayou or Tahitian Terrace. Tomorrowland was a fully developed deviation from something like Frontierland or Adventureland and their fantasies nostalgic. Without the 1971 Tomorowland, for example, the east side of the 1971 Fantasyland makes no sense, gradually becoming more austere and angular around the Mr. Toad area in comparison to the rich Germanic atmosphere of the Skyway area. The loss of this variation makes the overall “palette” of Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom less rewarding.

The 1994 Tomorrowland is really an effort to bring the area in line with the rest of the park’s aesthetic mode, to tame the wild aesthetic departure into a homogenous sameness. Whereas once the playful nostalgic was the sole domain of the West Side of the park, now Tomorrowland would be remade as nostalgic futurism, a la 30’s pulp. This concept is much better of paper than it is in actuality for, much how EPCOT Center is today filled with distracting junk, this makeover essentially involved putting shells over all the existing infrastructure. Those massive water-spewing towers were demolished and, in their place, jutting rocks arrived – and not cool, futuristic, Fortress-of-Solitude type rocks, but more like Big Thunder Mountain Wished Upon Futuresville Rocks. The two most obviously dated shows – Mission to Mars and the Circlevision film – were replaced with “edgy” attractions like the ambitious Timekeeper and witless Alien Encounter. The WEDway People Mover became the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, evicting the harmless if unremarkable ORAC-1 with shouted announcements and other nonsense.

Sky-reaching palms, added to reinforce the angular nature of the Tomorrowland 1971’s structures, were replaced with bland shrubs and flat-leaf plants. Anything not made metallic was painted purple or blue. It all amounts to a lot of work that doesn’t enhance what was there to begin with. There are some whimsical touches that are too little, too late, such as a phone of the future, a robotic newsboy and some clever parodies of local organizations which were, still, done better at Disneyland’s Toontown. There’s nothing wrong with the ideas present, but in execution they are too often straddled with low budgets and unreasonable expectations.

Disneyland’s Tomorrowland met with an even less enviable fate for at least Orlando was permitted to retain its’ Peoplemover, Astro Jets, and for several years Skyway. Bad decisions compounded on bad decisions in California and, among other changes seemingly calculated to remove the “local color”, the spinning attraction was moved to ground level and tacked onto the hub of Disneyland, the Peoplemover was replaced with an unreliable speed rocket attraction which destroyed the original open air track in the process of zipping around Tomorrowland, and the Skyway was long gone. Crump’s rising stage became a sign for the food court which it anchored. All of the life was sapped from the place.

The question then becomes what the role of Tomorrowland is in the Disney patheon. If Imagineering will no longer tolerate the Presentational mode, and if Tomorrowland must have a “story” and exist harmoniously with the other themed areas of the castle parks, perhaps Disneyland Paris had the best idea with their Verne-themed Discoveryland. Orlando’s pulp writing theme is promising, even if it needs less Buck Rogers and more Fritz Lang in its DNA and a lot more work and money after its abortive first try. Anaheim’s gold-hued Tomorrowland has already been vanquished in favor of that “old”, “white” version, but there is still no real life to the space. Both areas are in a transitional mode right now, and either need to be allowed to be what they are designed to be or rethought and reworked even more than they are now.

Space Mountain, one of Disney’s most viable franchises, seems to have doomed Tomorrowland to existence, and the inclusion of Star Tours and Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters seem to be the most viable opportunities to continue to resuscitate the land. But I ask: why? Hong Kong Disneyland’s flaccid, flat, vacant Tomorrowland is window dressing to their version of Space Mountain, so if the inclusion of a whole area to validate the existence of a single thrill ride is deemed important to the essential makeup of the park, then the solution is to reinvent Space Mountain so it doesn’t have to inhabit a Tommorowland area and axe Tomorowland from all future designs entirely. Disney seems uncomfortable with futurism these days, and real forward-thinking futurism died in mainstream culture around the time of Walt Disney’s passing.

What Tomorrowland really is doomed to be today is camp, in the true, almost lost meaning of the term: the elevation of unimportant things to places of undue prominence. The 1994 Tomorrowland is awash in irony, where the spectator is encouraged to perceive something like a robotic newsboy as a relic of an outdated era and its’ idea of what the future will be. The existence of such a “futuristic” but simultaneously obsolete figure creates a distance where the spectator is superior to but still celebratory of the object in question; it becomes camp. This isn’t a future that’s relevant to us today, which is the joke, and the “modern”, “cutting edge” Alien Encounter, with its’ attitude and jaded horror film vibe is what we were meant to see as the “dark heart” of that Tomorrowland, where there’s no beautiful tomorrow on the horizon.

This concept was antithetical to the rest of the Magic Kingdom, and now that Timekeeper, Alien Encounter, and much of that Tomorrowland’s ancillary themeing (remember when there were walk around alien face characters and rollerblading custodians??) is gone, the area – and the Tomorrowland concept - is waiting for its’ future to arrive.