Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Recently I received an email with a deceptively simple question that seemed like a great topic for Re-Imagineering:

Hey Merlin,

When you get a moment -- just philosophically speaking, if you could take Tomorrowland to any place you wanted, what would you do? Would you just bring back the old stuff (Rocket Jets, PeopleMover, Adventure Thru Inner Space, Carousel Theatre, Circle Vision, etc.) as they were, or would you bring them back repurposed, or would you go forward to completely new ideas (the way Walt would’ve, I think), or what --?

I cannot believe the passionate debates this subject is creating --

Dexter Reilly

It's a good question. To answer it, let's look at what Walt really did in 1967: He didn't actually scrap the place and go forward with all-new ideas or an all-new aesthetic or point-of-view as is often ascribed to him, he simply grew the idea from what was most successful and updated his message with the latest technology and modern design.

Thematically, the same utopian, optimistic corporate global futurism was on display in New Tomorrowland, just with a better budget, a more complex show and entertainment experience for the 60s. The additions and revisions of 1967 padded out the original concept (as did those in 1978).

In terms of attractions: Astro Jets, Autopia, Monorail, CircleVision, Skyway, Submarine Voyage and Flight to the Moon all survived the original 1955/59 Tomorrowland into the 1967 New Tomorrowland, but in improved, technically advanced versions, while Carousel of Progress, PeopleMover and Adventure Thru Inner Space were added (and Space Mountain was being planned for), all extensions of the original theme.

The design aesthetic was updated and improved, but within the same family of streamlined ultramodernism that had been associated with science-fiction since the 1930’s.

In updating Tomorrowland these days, where thematic concept has gone off-track - - for the original Disneyland anyway, as Walt had a specific vision for his work and park that should be maintained - - is to discard the idea of utopian modernism. When Imagineers turn instead to recent trends in fantasy-science-fiction, Hollywood (Star Wars), eco-futurism (agri-future gardens), dark apocalyptic vision (Alien Encounter), cartoon franchise marketing (Buzz Lightyear) or nostalgic pre-modern futurism (Jules Verne, steampunk), it no longer feels like Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland.

Neither does it seem like Walt’s Tomorrowland to focus on other worlds than our own for answers to Man’s future. His concept seemed to be about how we can help shape our own destiny with optimism and imagination and stick-to-it-tivity.

People haven't changed all that much. They still want to see what it's like to live like the Jetsons or the Space Family Robinson - - in an exotic world of streamlined beauty and comfort and inner and outer space experiences. A vision that’s familiar and reassuring but once removed from our own. (Unlike the variation on a current tract home as we see in the new Innoventions. It looks so much like what we already have, it just smacks of consumerism rather than futurism).

The beauty of Apple, Mac and iPod design shows us that the design ideas of modernism still hold that same glamour and appeal and image of forward momentum for the consumer public.

WALL*E's starship Axiom shows a great model for an upgraded Tomorrowland design in that it embraces that same flavor of utopian ultramodernism we all loved in the past while adding the Tokyo-like technology of the present and future (video-screens and billboards, etc). The blend keeps everything minimalist in shape and texture, just adding a layering of the new and current. It’s a progression of the Tomorrowland ideal, not a replacement for it.

Though the film’s irony is that the BuyNLarge folks have a failed dream of their consumer Utopia, the humans on the Axiom handily ignore that outcome - - as guests of Disneyland always have (and would still if given such eye candy and futuristic pleasures at the park once again).

Is optimistic futurism selling a lie of corporate propaganda like BuyNLarge? Well, the ideal is still relevant even if the execution in our real-world has been misguided. To progress, we still need the optimist’s ideal that Man can and will make things better. We just have to do it more wisely.

As the filmmakers behind “WALL*E” have said: We are all still waiting for that jet-pack future we were promised. If we can’t have it everyday, we at least expect to find it at Disneyland.

In terms of attractions for a New Tomorrowland, a slate that features advanced technology with a variety of experiences should be the imperative, so let’s take another look at the varied pleasures Tomorrowland once provided when it was “A World on the Move” taking place Above, On, Below, Within and Without our Earth’s surface.

What have we lost?

The Rocket Jets up on the platform were not only an attractive “weenie,” but also a soaring experience high over Disneyland, the gift of flight. Skyway also provided this point-of-view - - But the "air" portion of the Disneyland experience parfait is gone now. It should be returned in some form.

Inner Space provided both a visceral shrinking experience to another dimension “inside” our own and a psychedelic visit to a world of surreal Disney design. It went internal instead of external to teach us about ourselves (and to blow our minds with abstract visuals and effects) - - another angle of the Disney experience we have lost without replacement. Exploring the world of the atom is still a relevant and compelling idea, we just need a new tech way to do it - - like the Spider-Man ride at Islands of Adventure, a moving, three-dimensional experience. With the theme still so fresh, why not bring it back in a new way?

As a show, perhaps Carousel of Progress has had its day, but seeing the progress of Man and the product of his imagination should not be a dead concept - - Is there another way to do it that's interesting today that still entertains and inspires us toward a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow? The original EPCOT’s late, lamented Horizons was a modern variation on the theme and points in directions a new attraction could go.

And there are new places to visit within and without Man’s experience on Earth that we haven’t even considered. These should be natural extensions of Walt’s approach, new visions that expand on the original idea without cannibalizing it.

So, here’s the answer for me: I'd bring back the nostalgic and reassuring images of a fantastic ultramodern future we love - - then add in the all-important new angle of exploration and adventure and thrill and wonder that extends the optimistic utopian theme, as Walt himself had done.

Keep what works, then PLUS it. Wouldn’t Walt have wanted to do both? That's what the company ALWAYS did in those times. They never threw away the past, only added to it. They brought along the best and built forward from it.

What is the new experience or two? Well, that's the fun part to dream up for today’s Imagineers - - But it should be flashy and memorable, exceed expectations, thrill us - - and grow out of the consistent theme, taking us to an experiential and design plane we haven't yet visited - - or provide a visceral experience that is lacking in other attractions and areas at the park. And it should be artistically beautiful and modern. And all within the parameters of established theme.

Disneyland should always be a complementary platter of Past, Future, Fact and Fantasy, Nostalgia and Challenge in all its angles, a unified timeline with a running theme. The recipe for the future is on the dedication plaque.

Go back? Go forward?

Do both.