Friday, December 21, 2007

Tomorrow is Forever



"The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

-Alan Kay, Computer Scientist


In this technological age, it is not uncommon to find that "the latest thing" becomes ripe and falls of the techno tree in a very short period of time. That astounding gadget that gripped the media's attention yesterday already has a successor in heavy development for release the following season. Though I'm sure there are some technologies that have truly endured the test of time with little to no revision, I'm hard pressed to think of more then I can count on one hand.

Some would suggest that for this very reason, Tomorrowland and its big brother, Future World, face a terrible theming dilemma. They submit that technology is progressing faster then Imagineers can keep up; that by the time they implement a concept of tomorrow into the parks, tomorrow has already arrived. But are we really living in that rapidly developing a technological age? Are we living in such a technologically Utopian society that all we have to do is dream it, and it's suddenly here? And if so, does this mean Tomorrowland will perpetually be a victim of circumstance?

The Future is Nowadays
Does this line of reasoning make any sense to you? Depending on your way of thinking, it does. Close your eyes after reading this paragraph and imagine yourself in a place where the latest cutting edge technology is right at your fingertips. Around every corner you see things that are so new and pushing the limits of technology, that you can't help yourself. You want to touch, hear and experience as much as you can. Friendly people are all around and ready to explain to you the details of these wonders. You find yourself imagining what it would take for you to bring these wonders into your home or community. Will you have the money? Will it be out soon? Will your community or family invest in it? When, oh when, will this fantastical idea be a part of my life?

Now open your eyes. Look around. You were just in a Sharper Image.

Now lets imagine that same experience, only this time, we're walking though the avenues of classic Tomorrowland. The same experiences seize you. The wonder, the contemplation, the eagerness is all there and, naturally, you find yourself experiencing these things on a much higher level. But beyond the magnification of these experiences, there is something else that makes this different. It's no one thing. It's not the rockets or the People Mover or the Sky Lift or even Space Mountain that make this different from a day at a technology store. It's the fact that these concepts are far flung, perhaps so far flung into the future as to be even considered far-fetched. Your not just looking into a window of what will be, your looking into a dream of what could be.

What people often forget is the concepts and ideas presented at Tomorrowland and Future World had always been about far more then that which was just around the corner. It was also about what we could make the world be once we banked that corner. A trip to a technology store is little more then that; a preview of the latest gizmos and gadgets soon to be at your local Wal-Mart. But a trip through Disney's techno themed lands took you beyond the technology, and into optimistic views of what we could do with it. It dared to dream big, beautifully and ideally. It dared to think impractically, trading pragmatism for what at that time might even have been considered Science Fiction. But it did so, with the tenet that thinking this way will not only leave a good feeling in the hearts and minds of its Guests, but inspire them to dare dream as big, beautiful and ideally.

Somewhere along the way, this mentality slipped out of Future World and Tomorrowland design, and the inclination to make it a simple presentation of what's under development (a "Super Sharper Image", if you will) slipped in. This, I believe, is where both future themes falter.


A Chair is Still is a Chair. But a House is Nemo...
Another area where both Tomorrowlands and Future World fall short is in loose associative theming. Buzz Lightyear's fictional TV persona (which, interestingly, is fictional even within the Toy Story universe) is a cartoon about the future, so he was added to Tomorrowland on that basis alone. Star Wars, although supposed to have taken place "long ago" and in a galaxy "far, far away", is "futuristic" in appearance, so why not add it in too? The Living Seas was about the ocean, and Finding Nemo took place in the ocean, so even though there is no futuristic connection, there's the ocean connection, so why not? Soarin'...well, we fly over dirt, and food is grown in the dirt.... Monster's Inc.?... Need I go on?

At times this type of theming is biased in the connection wanting to be drawn between the latest Disney film project and the parks. Other times it's a blatant attempt to appeal to a younger demographic, forgetting that all kinds of people visit Disney parks, both young and old.

But that's not where Tomorrowland should be going. Why? Quite often when I make this argument, Disney's recent financial successes and the average park Guest's lack of knowledge about Disney history is sited to me as a valid reason for park management to think this way. But I consistently make this comment: The popularity of a thing is not tantamount to the success or correctness of a thing. Success isn't always measured in dollars and cents. It can also be measured in longevity, connectivity and lovability. Where one ride can make millions of kids drag their parents to a park, a solid theme can create unbreakable connections with millions of families for generations to come. You tell me which is more lucrative in the long run?

Getting My Fix
The overall theme of Tomorrowland and Future World is broken, but could be "easily" fixed. A former Imagineer once used an interesting term with regard to Walt's creation of Disneyland. "Entertainment Balance." And what an elegant and functional tenet that is. What is wrong with current future thematic is that their out of balance, not out of date. What we need less of is the drive to pull in young ones and make connections to feature films, and more drive to balance out the "lands" so that they offer something for everyone. And ironically, sticking to their theme can do just that. How so? Let's consider the perfect balance that existed in classic Tomorrowland.

The People Mover was an easygoing, straightforward imagining of futuristic transportation, that in addition to accommodating Guests with any kind of physical limitation, also served to keep Tomorrowland crowds down with its high capacity and short, almost non-existent lines. It catered to no one in particular, but created an opportunity for both the aggressive ride-everything Guests and the casual take-your-time Guests to relax and wind down for the day. It provided an escape from all the usual park hubbub into something peaceful, yet also interesting and thoughtful.

Space Mountain served two functions: sating the appetites of all those speed lovers and thrill seekers out there, and at the same time, playing upon the excitement and adventure that the Tomorrowland theme brings, perhaps even generating it. While most of the land's rides where not genuine pulse pounders, Space Mountain provided that release for those that needed it. It also served as a point of triumph for some. It's interesting to note the number of people who don't like coasters, but each time they approach Space Mountain check their resolve to see if that's changed. The testament to its designers is that Space Mountain is so unique and enigmatic, from its architecture to its queue to the on load, that even those fearful of the ride will either attempt to build up courage to try it this time around, or be gradually lured in by its powerful theming.

The Rocket Jets, another straightforward, but classic attraction, set the tone and ambiance for classic Tomorrowland. The eye catching familiar shape of space age vehicles rounding a even larger rocket ship set the stage for the future thematic you were entering. It wasn't intended to be a complex or fantastical ride. But in its own way, it served more theming functionality then any of the structures around it. Rather then being a static or lifeless rotating sculpture, the Rocket Jets were alive with people, making it a very organic "weenie" and different from the often austere portrayals of what the future might be. In addition, a seeming traditional ride was given subtle "edge" by being so far off the ground as to create the illusion of flying. That subtle twist greatly demarcated it from it's Dumbo counterpart, which was precisely the same technology, to where it could actually be considered a preference over Dumbo. Somewhere between the thrills of a coaster and the freedom of the People Mover, the Rocket Jets provided a kind of escapism in its freedom for those too timid for Space Mountains thrills, but wanting a little more juice then the easygoing People Mover could provide.

Autopia, originally, was intended to foreshadow the multilane highways of the future. While that theme shifted over the decades, the actual charm of the ride remained. Now, not only did we have another easygoing, laid back attraction, but we also had the first example of an interactive Disney attraction. It wasn't just another ride through with automation at the wheel. This time YOU were the one in control. Of course, limitations were necessary for safety reasons, but you still were very much the driver of your very own ride. Interestingly, no other current attraction at Disney Theme Parks can make that claim.

The Disneyland Monorail System was the perfect complement to the escapism of the Tomorrowland thematic. Originally just a way to tour the park, the track was eventually lengthened to carry Guests to and from the Disneyland Hotel. This significantly altered the functionality of the vehicles and the impression it gave to Tomorrowland. Rather then just a glorified People Mover, the Monorail was now a practical, functional operating system of the park. Becoming a part of park operations made it more the just futuristic eye candy. It was the future incarnate, working for the enjoyment and in the service of the park and its Guests.

Adventure Thru Inner Space went one step beyond practical application of future technology and took us on an adventure we never knew we wanted to go on. The Omnimover (which I have always personally felt should be standard at least one time in any land or pavilion) took us into those realms in a way that we had not imagined we could, and in a way that even future generation may never actually do. It forewent technical practicality, developing technologies and current movie tie-ins with the simple prospect of going somewhere we had never gone before. And it took it seriously enough that Guests never felt they were simply being "taken for a ride".

Tomorrowland was an example of a perfectly balanced theme park within a theme park. Careful consideration for the thematic created seamless integration of the land experience; it all fit together and complimented each other. But that consideration also created an unspoken set of rules that required all the attractions to be distinctive, and thereby expanding the land's overall appeal. If you stick to your theme, you have to be broader in your attraction design, otherwise your just creating the same thing over and over again. Failure to consider the theme is why we've lately seen ideas creeping into the parks that just seem like rehashes and forced fits of recent cartoons and movies.

"From His Armchair, He Exclaimed..."
I would submit to Imagineering that restoring that entertainment balance to Tomorrowland, and even to the parks in general, would fix all the problems with its design and functionality. In addition, it would enhance its popularity, giving it longevity, rather then just making it fanciful for the decade.

The future that Walt Disney dreamed about is here in many ways. Robot servants and pets are already items available on the market, as are trips to the outer reaches of our atmosphere. People are already living in space for months at a time in permanent orbital space stations. And computers are as much a part of daily life for most of us as the refrigerator or the electric oven. With that vision of tomorrow so very much resolved or negated, it's time to look with that same farsightedness, ingenuity and optimism into our new future. We can use current technology to better demonstrate and theorize what that dream is, but we shouldn't be displaying the technology like a presentation at an Apple convention. It's time to think one to twelve steps beyond Steve Jobs and into those realms that even Science Fiction isn't really considering anymore.

Whatever happened to the research on matter/energy conversion as a form of transportation and shipping? We've been to the moon, and sent probes to Mars. Why don't we find out what's on the other end of that Black Hole? We have computers in the dashboard of our cars that are light years ahead of what was in the Apollo lunar modules. What would it be like when computers one thousand times more powerful as ours can fit on the head of pin? What about the day when computers become obsolete? What could possible replace them? What kind of world can we make if we really could build a better place?

These ideas are not anachronisms. They are the inherent evolution of thoughts that come to bear in the minds of every generation. Perhaps we're a bit more cynical then our 1950's counterparts, and perhaps we're a bit more sophisticated and want a little more "edge" to our experience. That doesn't mean Tomorrowland cannot be optimistic or fire the imagination. And that certainly doesn't mean that we need a celebrity, a cartoon or a movie persona to satisfy that edge. It simply means that a new Tomorrowland would need to be smarter, bigger and better then it was before. And I have every confidence that, given the freedom to do so, Imagineering could make it happen.

To say Tomorrowland and Future World are dated concepts is to say that tomorrow is dated. Only the vision changes, but not the intent. Even a cynical generation hopes for the best, and Tomorrowland and Future World should be the flagships of that hope. With the spirit of the originals in mind, the cutting edge technology of today and the creative genius that helped build or was inspired by the original, I believe all the Disney parks can return to that special kind of greatness they once had. Stick to that theme, and the entertainment balance becomes a necessity. Balance the entertainment, and you create a feeling in your Guests that brings them back to the parks for reasons of nostalgia and not marketing. Help to restore the dream and help our critics, the ones who complain about the complainers, see exactly what it is they've been missing all this time. Remind them that Tomorrow is forever, and that dreams are eternal. And as Walt Disney once said, be curious, as curiousity will keep leading you down new paths.




"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."

-Eleanor Roosevelt

4 comments:

Davelandweb said...

Spot-on analysis of Tomorrowland, which is the one land I so often skip when I go to the park. Loved your analogy to Sharper Image. There's plenty of buzz these days about Tomorrowland being a problem; hopefully the Imagineers will be allowed to do a real fix, not a quick "Hey this is popular let's stick this in" type fix. Thanks for being so eloquent.

1983horizons1 said...

Amazing post, touching on every detail about what is wrong with the future worlds. The pictures made me laugh because it's so obvious what's wrong, yet Disney may need these visuals to understand it for themselves.

I do like the new retro-future theme of WDW's Tomorrowland, only to avoid monotony when visiting Future World. However, I agree that the retro-future of Tomorrowland and real future of Future World are both in danger of being overpopulated with cartoon characters (and irrelevent cartoon characters at that).

Spokker said...

Write more blog updates!

Scott said...

I love your ideas, and I love the way you think about this subject. (I've blogged a couple times about this subject, possibly inspired by your comments over at Reimagineering...)