As Disney’s Tomorrowland hits theaters, we reflect back on those memories of visiting the futuristic area of the Magic Kingdom, whether Walt Disney World’s Florida park or Disneyland in California. Some may have even traveled to Disneyland Paris’s Discoveryland or the Tomorrowland found in Tokyo or Hong Kong.
My first experiences at Disneyland’s Tomorrowland occurred during a transcendent juncture, a state of transition for the now-dated environment. I initially crossed the cracked pavement in 1996, a period when Tomorrowland progressed into a state of massive refurbishment. New Tomorrowland would land in 1998. But its anticipated arrival would quickly cease. This is a story of great vision undermined by disappointment and dysfunction. Set on your Rocket Rod and shoot back 17 years to New Tomorrowland.
Disneyland guests said good-bye to Tomorrowland staples over the course of the 1990s. Mission to Mars, PeopleMover, America the Beautiful, Rocket Jets, Captain EO, and, last but not least, Submarine Voyage, all closed during this tumultuous decade to transition Tomorrowland from an antiquated concept to an idea of endless possibilities steeped in elements of steampunk.
Tony Baxter, the incredible Imagineer responsible for Disneyland Paris and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, among other projects, was greatly at the helm of this redesign of the park that took cues from his own Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris. It was an enviable and idealistic plan: turn the white-coated walls of Tomorrowland – and all of its ’60s/’70s-era attractions – to the 21st century through also incorporating some retro-futurism. How would Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci, along with other futurists, have imagined the future? This played into the design and aesthetics of New Tomorrowland.
A costly undertaking that spanned several years, New Tomorrowland aimed to include the best assets from the old era of Tomorrowland, bring in some popular Epcot attractions, and add a few originals in the mix. Star Tours and Space Mountain remained, the E-ticket attractions that they were and always will be. The empty America Sings and Carousel of Progress building, vacant for a decade, would serve as a massive exposition: Innoventions. The latest technology was showcased in the rotating venue. At one point this space actually drew lines stretching outside the building. Autopia, which had tracks in both Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, closed in 1999 – shortly after New Tomorrowland’s opening – for a more expansive and combined version that carried over the gold and bronze found in much of the refurbished land. A renovated Monorail station accompanied the nearby Autopia.
Michael Jackson’s Captain EO became Honey, I Shrunk The Audience, essentially a clone of the then-new Epcot 4-D experience. A major new eating establishment opened in the form of Redd Rockett’s Pizza Port, occupying where Mission to Mars once stood. Rocket Jets, the space spinner that sat high atop the PeopleMover boarding station, was removed. Astro Orbiter, placed at ground level, now existed in the front of the land as its grand entrance.
But the centerpiece of New Tomorrowland existed right in its center: the Orbitron, an odd-looking contraption that would occasionally play music and move around. The Orbitron took over the Rocket Jets. But what would replace the slow-moving PeopleMover, whose track circumnavigated the entire land? Rocket Rods! A three-minute zippy experience embodied one of the park’s most costly and shortest-running of E-tickets. Guests would sometimes wait hours – and I was one of them – when stepping into the air-conditioned queue of what was once America the Beautiful. The Circle-Vision 3-D theater now housed endless lines for this ride. Footage from old futuristic Disney films and specials filled the screens, accompanied by designs and actual ride vehicles of now-extinct Tomorrowland attractions around the rest of the area. Finally, after ascending an enclosed staircase in the middle of the land, guests would reach the Rocket Rods boarding station just underneath the Orbitron. Sitting one in a row, save for the back row that could hold two guests side-by-side, eager passengers awaited the light that would flash green. And on they would go on a high-speed thriller that would constantly, constantly slow down around sharp turns – or worse, break down at some point.
The video below shared by YouTube user ozzyray captures how the media aimed to depict New Tomorrowland at the time of its opening.
The 30-year-old PeopleMover track had been only equipped to handle slow-moving vehicles. The Rocket Rods was a different beast, and the Disney Imagineers had to contend with the limits of the machinery. Any turns or bends required the Rocket Rods to hasten from maintaining those exciting speeds. The only thing pumping more than the squeaks and sounds of the vehicles was the high level of frustration from guests who stayed in line for hours, only to discover that Rocket Rods had shut down due to mechanical issues.
As an eight-year-old boy who only experienced this attraction once, all I remember is our ride party’s smiles and delighted screams. We were immune from the technical troubles that plagued many a rider. Rocket Rods’ zoom around Tomorrowland ended as abruptly as its anticlimactic ending back to the station. Two years after its initial opening and the doors closed. The attraction was to return the following spring after a refurbishment. I remember seeing those signs in early 2001, only several months after riding the Rods. But it would not. Rocket Rods was forever shuttered, though the reminder of its existence remains all throughout New Tomorrowland.
The tracks have been barren for nearly 15 years now. Several of the former New Tomorrowland attractions no longer exist. Innoventions recently closed – likely for good. Honey stopped playing in 2010 prior to the return of Captain EO. Cosmic Waves, which opened in front of Pizza Port as a water playground for screwball children, especially during warm summer afternoons, shut off its valves after several years. No more futuristic fountain. The American Space Experience, a neat NASA-themed exhibit that existed part of where Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters does today, closed in 2003. Some of the giant murals at Tomorrowland’s entrance are also no more.
New Tomorrowland was awesome at the time. To the elementary school-aged kid who adored learning about space travel, electronics, and anything futuristic, this was my land. In many ways, it still is. Some of my favorite memories at Disneyland unfolded in Tomorrowland. I participated in game shows in Innoventions, drove my first car on the roadways of the Autopia and overcame my fear of roller coasters by riding Space Mountain. Elements of New Tomorrowland remain, and though most of it is gone, a better Tomorrowland exists today. It needs much work and even more effective renovation execution than the last one, but that is another story. Promise me, that will fit into another edition of the column. New Tomorrowland focused on the concept of “promise,” though this disappeared as its attractions and color scheme faded. The message remains, though, in what has stayed and what may await in the not-so-distant future.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Geeks of Doom, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.