Almost everyone knows the trouble that Disneyland had when they first opened. From the lack of drinking fountains, to high heels sinking in the still fresh asphalt, America’s most famous theme park had its share of trials and tribulations on opening day. 11,000 invites were sent out but 28,000 excited folks showed up! The park was packed on that hot July day in 1955! Temperatures hovered near 100 degrees and it was all shown live on television in the largest broadcast of its kind up until that point. Amid all the excitement of Adventureland, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and Mickey Mouse there was one land that was almost an afterthought on the day Disneyland debuted.
Yes, Tomorrowland, that shining beacon of what could be, of rockets to space and journeys to Endor was almost unrecognizable when the park first opened its gates. You see, every land was meticulously detailed from the stones on the signature castle to the live orchids on the Jungle Cruise (a luxury flown in daily from Hawaii (!) that was ceased almost immediately). But Tomorrowland was left to the end and apart from a unique and thrilling Autopia attraction (made even better when you see that the original highways had no track down the center and cars were free to literally swerve all over the road!) there was not much to see in the land of the future. Walt Disney’s dream of his own theme park came with the then hefty price tag of 17 million and there simply wasn’t enough time or money to stock that part of the park with dazzling rides and attractions. Instead, Walt Disney, ever the showman and businessman, turned to corporate sponsors to help him pad the attractions at Disneyland and get the park open on time. Thus, with the wave of his magical hand, Walt gave the world such memorable attractions as:
- The Monsanto Hall of Chemistry where you could behold the wonder of coal and plastics – located where a certain Tour of the Stars would one day open.
- The Dutch Boy Paint Gallery where you could try out color combinations and learn the wonders of Dutch Boy Paint products.
- Cox Model Airplane Line Control Demonstrations – watch professionals pilot scale models around and around the launch area!
- Space Station X-1 – take a tour of a real space station and look down on earth! (It’s just a tiny model but I bet it was really cool!)
- The Aluminum Hall of Fame – ‘nuff said!
That’s not to say there weren’t some amazing attractions on opening day:
- The Autopia (as mentioned above with no guide track in the center) sponsored by Richfield Oil.
- Walk-Thru exhibit of the sets from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – take a walk in Captain Nemo’s footsteps in the actual movie settings.
- Circarma sponsored by American Motors, which offered a 360 degree breathtaking view of America.
- The Tomorrowland Boats – zoom around the soon to be Submarine Lagoon in your own boat! This would be renamed The Phantom Boats a year later and then taken out altogether a short time later as the contraptions were prone to breaking down.
And that’s about it! The future was pretty dim if you have to count the World Clock as an attraction, but Walt did just that, in fact, he did just about anything to make Tomorrowland a viable land in his new theme park. That’s why, just a few short years later he would really concentrate on that part of Disneyland by adding the Submarine Voyage, Matterhorn (which is sometimes credited as being in Fantasyland, but for our purposes, we’ll claim it for Tomorrowland , as it featured the world’s first tubular steel railed rollercoaster), Skyway Gondolas to Fantasyland, the Monorail and Disneyland’s friendship with Monsanto would continue with the iconic House of the Future, which featured an interior and exterior made almost exclusive of plastic and plastic derived products. In fact, the House of the Future was so well made that the park would have trouble tearing the house down when they discovered that the wrecking ball simply bounced off of it!
In the 1960s Tomorrowland really took shape with the addition of the classic Adventure Through Inner Space attraction (sponsored by Monsanto, natch) that terrified many guests with a simulated journey into the wall of an atom.
Adventure Through Inner Space was also revolutionary as it was the first ride to feature the Omni-Mover ride system made most popular as the Dooombuggies on the Haunted Mansion attraction. As a kid I was fascinated by this attraction and would ride over and over (if we had enough tickets, of course) and I would marvel at the shrinking guests shown in the giant Mighty Microscope in the ride loading area. The ride itself was an ingenious melding of entertainment and learning as you were taught the basics of molecules in a very organic way. Plus, who didn’t love the giant eyeball at the end of the ride? “You are back on visual and returning to your normal size!”
The ’60s also brought the iconic Carousel of Progress attraction where the stage stayed stationary and you rotated around, an updated Autopia experience (and sadly, the addition of the guide track in the center of the road, thus robbing generations of kids of the joy of slamming back and forth into the curb until the ride operator showed you to the exit), Circarama became Circle Vision 360 and we also got the Rocket Jets (in their proper place high above) and the classic and unforgettable PeopleMover attraction (most remembered for its journey into the World of Tron to showcase the Disney movie in the 1980’s). I have many fond memories of riding the PeopleMover as it was quite long and offered views of Disneyland unavailable on any other attractions. Plus, who didn’t love being taunted and called a “User” by the denizens of the Game Grid!
The 1970s saw the replacement of Carousel of Progress with America Sings, the addition of Space Mountain and the arrival of the Starcade! As I was never a guy for thrill rides, I was most excited for the Starcade as Disneyland stocked some of the best videogames and pinball machines around. During the heyday of Tron, the Starcade featured an entire wall of the signature game with monitors above to allow everyone, even us short guys in the back, to watch the action. The Starcade is much smaller now, but they do have a Wreck-It Ralph game straight from the movie that is free to play! Flight to the Moon, a dated simulator ride introduced in the 60’s became Mission to Mars during this time. Sadly, each iteration of the ride was pretty sad and the ride was most remembered for the awful audio-animatronic flight control operators in the pre-show.
Tomorrowland really became the stuff of dreams in the 1980’s. I was a teenager and I was ecstatic to find out that George Lucas himself was in charge of a new show debuting in 1986 – Captain Eo!
A 17 minute 3-D effects extravaganza, Captain Eo starred Michael Jackson, was directed by Francis Ford Copolla and, at a budget of 20 million, was the most expensive movie made up until that time if you counted it per minute of footage ratio. Captain Eo was loud, crazy and featured Michael Jackson’s signature moves, claymation work by Will Vinton and puppetry and creatures by Rick Baker – what a line up! Most importantly, to kick off the attraction in a proper way, Disneyland decided to stay open 60 hours straight! I took the day off from school, went in the gates Friday morning and didn’t emerge until Sunday night exhausted and spent, but what a weekend! Captain Eo screenings at 3 AM, Pirates of the Caribbean at 4 AM and naps aboard the PeopleMover as often as we could were the only way to survive!
A year later, Disneyland amazed Star Wars fans around the world when they joined forces once again with George Lucas to unveil the world’s first fully immersive simulator ride, Star Tours.
Another 60 hour party was thrown and I can remember getting in line for Star Tours at Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln on Main Street. Piloted by the insane Captain Rex (voiced by Pee Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens) Star Tours took us on a breakneck trip around the galaxy, through a comet and, ultimately, into the battle of the Death Star. X-Wings, Tie Fighters, Imperial Cruisers and flashbulb camera wielding Ree-Yees made Star Tours an instant classic for years to come.
Sadly, the party only lasted 12 years as in 1998, Disneyland decided to give Tomorrowland a make-over. It was decided that looking to the future severely limited the lifespan of the attractions as the future was always rapidly outpacing the park itself. The amazing room sized phone booths in the lobby of Circle Vision 360 were quickly losing their appeal, as was the static white look of the area. Optimistic Imagineers decided to look backward in their quest for the future and gave the entire land a bronze finish to give it a retro Jules Verne look that was working so well in Europe.
Space Mountain was painted an awful shade of brown, the Rocket Jets were moved from their lofty perch and placed right in the middle of the walkway, and the PeopleMover was removed to make way for the short lived Rocket Rods.
Red Rockets Pizza Port replaced Mission to Mars and America Sings, shuttered since the late ’80s when the animal animatronics were used in Splash Mountain, became a trade show of sorts when it opened as Innoventions.
It was a bleak future indeed.
Though the Rocket Jets remain in their awful place to this day, there have been many improvements in Tomorrowland since the late 90’s. Captain Eo was replaced with Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, only to be replaced by ol’ Eo again when Michael Jackson passed away. Currently, the building is being used to promote the latest Disney films, most recently Guardians of the Galaxy. Saner heads prevailed when Space Mountain was returned to its white glory and Star Tours was recently upgraded with an all new series of adventures from all 6 Star Wars movies, and will probably feature many locales from Episode VII when it debuts in theaters next Christmas. Circle Vision 360, which had become the queue for Rocket Rods finally found an attraction worthy of its walls when Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters opened as part of Disneyland’s 50th Birthday celebration. Even stale old Innoventions has become popular with the addition of Marvel Meet and Greets, which include one-on-one encounters with a living, breathing Thor and Captain America (a dream most Marvel fans would have never thought possible!) and even Iron Man’s signature armor is presented as a beautiful display.
Yes, Tomorrowland is slowly coming back to life and with promises of new Star Wars attractions to coincide with both the 60th anniversary of the park and the release of Episode VII, it’s a glorious time to be living in the great, big beautiful tomorrow that Walt Disney promised us back in 1955.
Which takes us to a mysterious case “discovered” in the Disney archives and revealed to the world as the basis for the Brad Bird/Damon Lindelof upcoming film “Tomorrowland.” Filled with tantalizing items, including a blue book rumored to be the government’s book of the same name about UFO’s, black and white photos of Walt Disney himself, odd machinery and files and folders crammed with who knows what, the 1952 case has been the subject of speculation for months. Just recently a teaser trailer for “Tomorrowland” was released and it shows a young girl picking up her effects from a visit to the police station only to find a mysterious “T” pin that she swears isn’t hers. When she finally touches the pin she finds herself transported to a beautiful field of golden wheat and a tantalizing view of the titular “Tomorrowland” in the distance.
Tomorrowland has been and will continue to be a place of imagination where the promise of the future is just beyond the horizon. From its beginnings as a corporate exhibition to the setting for the upcoming movie that promises to take us to the city of our dreams, Tomorrowland is just to the right of Main Street and just across from Adventureland…in our dreams and in the real-to-the-touch kingdom of Disneyland.
At the conclusion of the trailer for “Tomorrowland,” the gravelly voice of George Clooney gives the young girl with the magical pin this cryptic invitation, “What if there was a place, a secret place, where nothing was impossible? A miraculous place where you could change the world?”
“You wanna go?” Clooney asks.
Are you kidding? We the audience asks.
Yes, yes, we do.
Jeff Tucker works in the theme park industry. His magical book series, “The Sixth Key,” is available on Amazon.com. He also hosts his own Podcast, “91 Reasons,” available on iTunes.