Disney Abandons the Future in Tomorrowland: And What they Should Do About It
Walt Disney was a major advocate for the future. He designed Tomorrowland to showcase emerging ideas and technologies, to intrigue and inspire. Disney has all but abandoned science in favor of fantasy. While some might point to corporate sponsorships as the inspiration for Tomorrowland’s science, Disney created an aspirational engagement venue that brought science out of the labs into the public. Rocket to the Moon, sponsored by TWA, took people on a simulated flight to the moon starting in 1955, 14 years before humans actually landed on the moon. When we did land on the moon, Disney quickly shifted venues and pointed its rocket at Mars. The iconic rocket is now sits atop Redd Rocket’s PizzaPort, a nostalgically decorated restaurant that looks back more than it looks forward. Disney abandons the future.
Tomorrowland hosts Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, The Astro Orbiter, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, Star Tours and a Jedi Training Experience. Gone is the exploration of inner space. No longer can one enjoy the somewhat science-based submarine voyage under the sea. Nemo trumps science. The WEDWay People mover doesn’t foretell the future of public transportation on its second story above Tomorrowland. There is no house of the future or any meaningful exhibit that suggests an active future or invention. Circle Vision 360, a room-sized precursor to today’s 360-degree VR videos (and more stunning because you were actually in giant room with an audience) now houses Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Every attraction in Tomorrowland now suggests a consumption of someone else’s imagination.
Every attraction in Tomorrowland now suggests a consumption of someone else’s imagination.
The Carrousel of Progress was replaced by Innoventions, which kept some of the Tomorrowland spirit. It gave way to something Marvel. The only thing close to the original vision that remains is the monorail, which like the rocket, is more of a sad reminder of a stagnant vision than an active inspiration. The “It’s Tough to be a Bug” theater in California Adventure picked up the last remnant of better technology: 3D that outperforms the 3D we pay for in regular theaters.
Walt Disney World’s EPOCT Center has suffered the same fate on a much larger scale.
As Walt knew from the beginning, fantasy was less expensive than science. The iconic Peter Pan ride, which still delivers long wait times in Fantasyland, has changed little since its inception, save some cosmetic updating of its facade. The same holds true for most of the fantasy-based rides. Fantasy has no future, it only has its own now.
Science, however, marches on, and it requires investment to keep apace, and it requires an even bigger investment to think about how to present the next technology in a way that will inspire the next generation. Every business knows that most information technology used by the workforce (save servers and large networks) was probably honed in by consumers now rather than IT professionals. A VR adventure will likely age quickly, as will anything mobile or home entertainment-oriented. But there are still possibilities.
Disney Abandons the Future? A New Vision for Tomorrowland
Disney needs to resist the dystopian futures (which it did embrace at one point with Alien in Florida—now Stitch’s Great Escape!) in favor of ideas that can still create aspiration and wonder. So I’ve come up with a list of attractions Disney should consider, that would keep them ahead of current science with an eye toward timing runway. In other words, rides that won’t age out based on their concept (they may need refreshing as electronics continue to improve, but the concepts most likely won’t need major revamping).
Journey through the Quantum World. Monsanto had a start with the Adventure Thru Inner Space, but the quantum world is much more trippy than that ride ever hinted. Do this right and the narrative and images could be kept up-to-date as discoveries get made because it would just require some new CGI every now and again, along with some new insight about the quantum world. Think about not just shrinking to be in the quantum world, but experiencing the feeling of the electro-magnetic force, splatter out of control as one of a stream of particles after being hit at high speed in the Large Hadron Collider (or some future-named Collider). Have a group of cars converge to make a proton and then another group to make a neutron, then an atom. Make people into atoms, don’t just point at them. Make the trippiness of Quantum Mechanics real.
Einstein’s Relativistic Adventure. Come on, hitting the edge of an event horizon on a black hole, being slung at earth as a gravitational wave after two massive neutron stars collide, becoming the light that bends around a star during an eclipse. The Theory of Relativity has held up longer than the Tomorrowland vision and it is likely to hold up for the foreseeable future.
Visiting TRAPPIST-1. Or pick any of the hundreds of places where there is potential life and build some out. Let’s see what exobiologists not Hollywood creature makers think life on other planets looks like. Eliminate the need to put people into prosthetics. Sure, that’s a bit of what Avatar does, but its still a movie that runs more to fantasy that science. Think a safari or two on another world. Think about Star Tours not behind Star Tours but using the same tech to explore some other cool places with some education on why things look the way they do—Blue Planet, just not our Blue Planet.
Mission to Mars. Yep, bring it back. The original ride just did a fly-by, but do it right, and use all the detail now available, and Disney could rival going through shark-filled tanks on moving sidewalks (well, likely in a car on what feels like a moving sidewalk—CommuniCore style). Take people to Mars complete with space-junk warning from the space-based launch platform to cosmic ray encounters on the way, and once there, build Mars and let people go through it. Include a robotic hand game in the car that let’s people interact with a rover or something else on Mars. (Mission: SPACE-like, perhaps, but grittier and more Mars-bound).
Space Seed. Thousands or years in the future, human-made robots continue to colonize the galaxy. They are self-replicating and they have evolved. They communicate and they are seriously Darwinian in their ability to fit into cosmic niches. Let the imagineers and roboticists go crazy. They can’t get this wrong which means they could make it very fun.
My prescription for Disney: Go back to the future. Embrace the far flung and use science to drive the Tomorrowland Experience, then go rethink EPOCT again as well. Tomorrowland is really the prototype, so start small and get your space legs back again. It’s all too easy to leverage hit properties and create attractions, but those attractions won’t inspire the next generation of scientist (unless you create a CGI development experience, but that belongs at Hollywood Studios). Take a strategic step back and rationalize the properties. You don’t need a Star Wars land and Star Tours. You do need to get creative.
Walt said of Tomorrowland on its opening:
“A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying Man’s achievements… A step into the future, with predictions of constructed things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals. The Atomic Age, the challenge of Outer Space and the hope for a peaceful, unified world.” —Walt Disney
That’s a good mission statement with a bit of updating (thought we are still in the Atomic Age even if we don’t mention it much any more). Most science fiction writers converge on Earth being more unified in the face of overwhelming data that we are not alone. Want a more peaceful, unified world, let’s explore that side of the Sci-Fi equation and take the blasters out of Tomorrowland and replace them with telescopes, microscopes, probes and robots.