The Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland has an identity crisis.
The main thoroughfare, with its neon and kinetic visuals, seems to reflect the spirit of Tomorrowland's newer attractions. Stitch's Great Escape, Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin share a cartoon-like spirit of fantasy science fiction and fit into the loosely developed theme of a Tomorrowland League of Planets. Unfortunately, the pun-heavy narration on the PeopleMover, static, silly-looking robots scattered here and there, and the tacky, temporary-looking Tomorrowland Stage (once home to the now defunct, much lambasted Stitch's Supersonic Celebration) tend to take this idea of a "bright, big cartoon-filled" future to the extreme.
Moving towards Space Mountain and the Tomorrowland Speedway, remnants of the 1970s vision of the future—such as extended parts of the PeopleMover track, several of the retail facades, the linear lines and sleek design of the eateries, the lighting fixtures, Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress, and the Tomorrowland Speedway represent the original design of this land. There's a sense of the "tomorrow on the move" feeling that once permeated Tomorrowland, and a glimpse into the 1970s architectural philosophy that stressed function over form (the newly rebuilt area around the former Skyway station takes this idea to the extreme; that area is so industrial-looking that it looks incomplete. Here's hoping that it's all temporary, waiting to be integrated into the area once all the other building in the Magic Kingdom is complete). There's a little bit of retro-coolness happening in this part of Tomorrowland, but not much. In contrast to much of the Magic Kingdom landscape, this area of the park seems stark and uninviting.
Then there's Space Mountain, which for reasons both unexplainable and mystical, remains timeless in its look and appeal. Up close or at a distance, this structure is a marvel. When viewed from the monorail with the Contemporary Resort in sight, Space Mountain still evokes the spirit of excitement and promise that the worlds of space and the future represented in the early 1970s. With the obvious exception of the incongruous addition of a tan colored arcade, Space Mountain's gleaming white spears effectively anchor one of the Magic Kingdom's largest lands.
From a distance, visual details like the Astro-Orbiter, the warm neon of the Avenue of the Planets, and the brushed chrome details on the PeopleMover track evoke the look of Discoveryland in Disneyland, Paris. At one time in the early 1990s, there were plans to change the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland into a Discoveryland. A large model, displayed at The Walt Disney Story attraction in the Main Street Opera House, detailed plans to re-theme restaurants, shops, and attractions to a consistent "retro-futuristic" look that presented a view of the future from the past: Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to be exact. Restaurants, like the Tomorrowland Terrace and Cosmic Ray's, would have a look that blended more smoothly with the Victorian architecture of Main Street and with the fanciful, European inspired buildings in nearby Fantasyland. One attraction, Timekeeper (imported from the then new Euro-Disney and featuring the talents of Robin Williams, Jeremy Irons, Michel Piccoli, and Rea Perlman), would set the tone for this "new" land. The plans looked very beautiful and very promising. Sadly, this concept of Tomorrowland is a thing of the past; even the Timekeeper was removed for the new Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor attraction.
Because Tomorrowland lacks visual, thematic, and narrative clarity, it has never been my favorite. As a young-adult, I admit to logging countless hours on Space Mountain and the PeopleMover; even now, these two attractions are on the "must do" list when we visit the Magic Kingdom. But other than that, I rarely spend any time here.
That changed this summer.
After a very early breakfast date with Winnie the Pooh and friends at the charming Crystal Palace on the last day of our vacation, I agreed that as long as the queue wasn't too long and before the Florida heat intensified, we could visit the Tomorrowland Speedway. I did this to appease my two young sons and their grandfather. He has fond memories of taking me on the raceway on our first Magic Kingdom visit. I have happy memories of that experience as well, but as a rule, I avoid the Speedway now. The queue is hot, smelly, and slow-moving.
But early in the morning, when the line moves quickly and the sun is still low, the Tomorrowland Speedway was fun. The sightline of Space Mountain, the Contemporary, and the Walt Disney World Railroad seen from the Speedway is unforgettable. As we sped along the surprisingly long track taking in views of the park that I hadn't seen for years, "yesterday's memories" did indeed "sparkle and shine." I took a moment to "open my eyes" and felt the urge to "cheer" because I was, indeed, "glad I was here."
These lines from the classic Sherman Brothers' tune felt even more apropos when we ventured to another often overlooked Tomorrowland attraction: the Astro Orbiter. This attraction benefitted from the 1990s update; its colorful planets and sleek retro-futuristic rockets are a visual and kinetic delight. Again, it's the queue—and those elevators—that kept me away so long. Too bad, because the Astro Orbiter offers breathtaking views and the sensation of soaring over Tomorrowland is simply wonderful. I felt that we did, indeed, "have it made" in the "right here and now." Watching the crowds of smiling guests below us made me feel that the "world's forward marching [and we were] in the parade!"
I am not a video game sort of guy, so Toy Story Mania and Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin have never been high on my list of must-see attractions. After going to "infinity and beyond" time and time again this past summer, however, I found much to love about this little attraction. The bright colors, the incorporation of fondly loved toys (like the Etch-A-Sketch and the Viewfinder), even the bouncy soundtrack all add much to sheer fun of this ride. The audio-animatronic Buzz Lightyear figures are clever and effective, and the sight of the evil Emperor Zurg entrapped in a cage at the end of the ride was thrilling for my kids. The Toy Story films seem to be modern and old-fashioned at the same time, and this charming attraction keeps that wonderful spirit in tact.
The Peoplemover is not a major Disney attraction, but it represents an important link to Walt Disney's original vision of Disneyland and the Florida Project as proving grounds for technological innovations that could be incorporated outside the worlds of Disney. It is also a pleasant little ride over, under, around, and through Tommorrowland. Originally known as the WEDway Peoplemover and renamed the TTC (Tomorrowland Transit Authority) in the 1990s, the less wordy, less confusing Peoplemover name is back. The ride is the same, offering a cool, quiet respite from the crowds below as well as a wonderful overview of the Tomorrowland attractions. The thing that always impresses me when riding the Peoplemover is the clever design of Tomorrowland. From the ground, the interconnectivity between the attractions is less obvious. From the Peoplemover, guests experience an impressive, panoramic view of the ingenious ways all the attractions, shops, and restaurants interconnect. Plus the views of Main Street and Cinderella Castle are stunning. While the Peoplemover is far from perfect (the narration could use some punching up and to call many of the interior show scenes dull and silly is an understatement), there is something more than comforting about riding this Disney classic. And if you ask the attendants to stay on for another spin, they will almost always smile and send you on your way again.
Writers who passionately love Walt Disney World are often criticized for being too harsh on Disney, for expecting too much from the company. There's much truth in this observation. Even as a vacationing guest, sometimes I tend to obsess on "what could have been" or "what should have been" or "what used to be" at Disney parks, especially the Magic Kingdom. This preoccupation can, at times, make my visits less than "magical." Seeing things through the eyes of my children, however, has enabled me to appreciate the "right here and now." While I will always hope that there is a "great, big, beautiful tomorrow" waiting for the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland, I've learned that there is much to enjoy today. Here's hoping that during your next visit to Tomorrowland, you, too, will feel that "there's so much to cheer" because "you're glad you're here" and that your stay is one of many "best times" in your life.
(Send an email to Tom Richards)
Tom Richards is a life-long admirer of Walt Disney, something of a Disney historian, and a free-lance writer. His Disney interests include but are not limited to: Walt Disney World, classic Disney animation, live-action films made during Walt's lifetime, and Disney-related music and art.