“Walt Disney was not content to be the most influential entertainment figure of the 20th century; he also wanted to become the most influential urban planner of the 21st century.” – Sam Gennawey, Walt and the Promise of Progress City
When most people think of Disney theme parks, it brings to mind Mickey Mouse, princesses, and the manufacturing of “magic”. While these elements are part of the mystique, they aren’t the reasons for our attachment here at The Tomorrow Society. A key inspiration is the focus on transportation. After visiting Disney World as a kid in the 1980s, I dreamed about a future where Monorails and PeopleMovers dominated our world. Cars would be a thing of the past! We’d step outside our door, hop into a futuristic train, and choose any destination. That grand notion is surely naïve, but it shows the great impact from those parks on an eight-year-old’s mind.
Walt Disney was fascinated by trains and urban planning, and that emphasis on transportation is everywhere in Disneyland. That focus continued when EPCOT opened in 1982, particularly in Future World. That “permanent World’s Fair” translated Walt’s plans for a futuristic city into a modern theme park. Their initial approach was ambitious and fascinating, and nothing created since has matched it.
In 1950, Walt Disney created a 1/8 scale live steam train in his backyard and showed it off to family and friends. He was inspired by seeing a restored steam locomotive in animator Ward Kimball’s backyard. Named the Carolwood Pacific Railroad, Disney’s passionate hobby was the precursor to the vehicles at Disneyland when it opened five years later. Its centerpiece was the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad, which was present on the first operating day. While parks around the country have trains circling their lands, few have the reputation of the Disneyland attraction.
Although it’s hardly a headliner, this type of ride creates the atmosphere. You’re able to see the park from a new perspective and view sections that are inaccessible by foot. It also brings a sense of movement and activity from the moment you step through the turnstiles. Catching a glimpse of the train above you as you walk through the tunnel onto Main Street is one of the true joys of entering Disneyland.
Another factor in setting the stage are the Main Street vehicles, which create the sense that we aren’t strolling through the typical park. In the days before Fastpass, visitors weren’t as focused on running to their reserved spot. I clearly remember stopping to hop onto a horse-drawn carriage when they were a lot more common on Main Street. They’re still a part of the experience, along with trolleys and jitneys (old-fashioned cars) that offer a different means of travel. The current focus of guests has shifted towards maximizing your visiting time.
It’s difficult to quantify the importance of these minor attractions to the parks’ bottom line. All these elements add flavor and depth, but few would cite them as a personal favorite. That’s the challenge in a competitive marketplace dominated by roller coasters and movie-themed powerhouses. While I also love that type of ride, the thrills weren’t the draw for my early visits.
Heading further into the parks, the options are off the charts. A personal favorite are the boat rides. The front runner is Pirates of the Caribbean, which owes much of its success to being on water. You drop over waterfalls, float through a cannon fight, and jump inside the action. The California version even starts you in the Louisiana bayou right next to the Blue Bayou restaurant. Although it’s nearly 50 years old, it still is unmatched in terms of immersive transportation.
Just down the path is Frontierland, which offers multiple vessels to venture into the wilderness. Situated right in the middle of several lands, the Rivers of America create the sense that we aren’t just drifting from ride to ride. This park is alive, and things are happening. There’s even an option at Disneyland to grab an oar and explore the waters up close from a canoe. These water craft might not appear on the top of a must-see list, but they bring character that keeps the fans coming back every year.
It’s no surprise that my favorite Magic Kingdom spot as a kid was Tomorrowland. It proved that space flight would keep getting better, and it would be fun! Who would believe we’d be a long way from Mars and nowhere near returning to the moon in 2015? The king of this land was Space Mountain, which continues to deliver thrills in the dark. Although it’s a simple wild mouse coaster, the setting changes the experience. It’s a brilliant way to mimic space travel by enhancing an old-school amusement track.
Despite those thrills, I have the warmest memories of If You Had Wings. Sponsored by Eastern Airlines, the slow-moving ride conveyed their amazing destinations with a goofy charm. Opening in 1972, it used film projectors to sell the feeling that you were traveling around the globe. This simple yet brilliant device made great use of a cramped space. The vehicles were called OmniMovers and would turn to shift your perspective towards a specific scene. It’s a definite favorite here at The Tomorrow Society. We rode it repeatedly on early trips. It had a catchy, repetitive theme song that stuck in your head and never left it.
One of the highlights of If You Had Wings was the speed rooms. This deceptively simple device surrounded you with a screen of videos that mimicked high-speed transportation. While this effect might seem antiquated now, it works. It creates a similar feeling to the Circlevision 360 films that were a staple in the parks’ early days. You stand in the middle of the room and are surrounded by nine screens that put you inside the scene. There are several remaining examples in EPCOT’s World Showcase, but the rest are gone. The approach was applied in a different fashion to the popular Soarin’ attraction that draws crowds in Florida and California. That ride goes further and lifts you above the screen to simulate movement. While the technology has improved, it’s doing the same thing as the speed rooms but on a grander scale.
The crown jewel of Disney World transportation remains the Monorail, which connects some lucky (and very rich) hotel guests with the Magic Kingdom. The trains still look futuristic, and they haven’t changed much during the past four decades. Why don’t we have these everywhere? They’re expensive, but are they that much crazier than constant highway construction? The problem lies with car companies, who ensured that public transportation would never grow like it should. The worst part is that even Disney World has turned to buses to transport most of its guests.
Initially developed for Disneyland in 1959, the Monorail is a relic that’s fun to ride but frustrating when you consider the broader implications. The same is true of the PeopleMover, one of my favorite Tomorrowland rides. Walt Disney hoped to sell this technology and create a new era of transportation, but the only significant example is at the Houston airport. How could such a brilliant and simple concept fall short? The Tomorrow Society wants answers!
“I believe we can build a community here that more people will talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world. I’m sure this Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow can influence the future of city living for generations to come.” — Walt Disney
When Walt Disney chose Florida as his second destination, his goals were loftier than finding a new profit center. It would include the Magic Kingdom and hotels, but they were a means to an end. His real purpose was creating an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, known commonly as EPCOT. This working city would use the latest technologies and change the concept of the urban landscape. There are questions about if it could have succeeded, but the possibly is fascinating.
After his death in 1966, the company leaders delayed EPCOT and struggled to find a way to build it without its visionary. They settled on a compromise that would spotlight our potential yet also have commercial appeal. The Future World section has the grand, imposing structures you’d expect to see in a forward-thinking city. Opening in 1982, it was a stunning project that used innovative transportation to tell the story of technological progress.
EPCOT made frequent use of the continuous OmniMover ride system, which was hardly new but had never appeared on this scale. A prime example is Spaceship Earth, which chronicles the history of communication instead an 18-story geodesic sphere. Although the current version falls short of its original glory, it’s still a grand experience. This attraction was a far cry from one-trick carnival rides and had a serious tone that took a reverent look at our accomplishments. This thoughtful approach was everywhere in the early days of Future World, and that brought such an original atmosphere to EPCOT. It was thrilling but on a completely different scale, and there was nothing boring for me when visiting it.
The attraction that summarized this feeling was Horizons, which took an optimistic look at the future. Its ride vehicles faced outward towards the show scenes, a move that really paid off within the giant Omnisphere theaters. Horizons’ “if we can dream it, then we can do it” concept may seem quaint, but there’s a certain brilliance to this simplicity. Like the recent film Tomorrowland, this message proclaims our power to shape the future and build something amazing.
Even the wonders of EPCOT in the ‘80s had limitations. The attractions were sponsored by corporations, so pavilions on energy and transportation were driven by that connection. World of Motion was a fun ride with a huge number of animatronics, but it also reflected the sponsor’s perspective. Riders left the attraction and entered a GM show room of cars that were not from the future. It was replaced in 1999 by Test Track, which offered more excitement but again focused on cars.
Another challenge was the serious tone, which could go too far in the wrong hands. The Universe of Energy’s first incarnation used a cool “moving theater” ride system but was lacking, for lack of a better term, energy. Guests like me still enjoyed the ride, but it turned off visitors expecting a fun vacation. Despite impressive crowds, it was only a matter of time before Disney started changing EPCOT into something less ambitious. Today’s version still has its charms, particularly at night, but the originality has been invaded by one-note thrills and intellectual property.
Visiting Disney World today is a much different experience than the place I loved as a kid. It still has incredible attractions, but it’s become so expansive. Despite being great fun, there’s a sense that something’s been lost, particularly in Tomorrowland and EPCOT. Walt Disney’s optimism about our potential has been replaced by movie tie-ins and rides that feel strangely dated when they open. The company has become so giant that its ‘80s incarnation feels simplistic by comparison.
The excitement of cool ride systems taking us to new worlds is replaced by sitting in front of a screen at Mission: Space or meeting cartoon characters at the Seas with Nemo & Friends. While it’s naive to think that a company would get more ambitious than selling their products, the focus has skewed so far in the other direction. Original standouts remain within the marketing, but they are exceptions.
Where do theme parks go from here? Disney hasn’t given up on delivering interesting rides in fully immersive environments. The popularity of Radiator Springs Racers at California Adventure shows that visitors aren’t just looking for interactive games. Over at Universal Orlando, they’re using inventive ride systems like the KUKA robot arms on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Even so, there are prime examples that keep me cautious. For example, the PeopleMover track at Disneyland has been dormant for more than a decade since the failed Rocket Rods.
Disney’s focus has shifted away from new attractions and towards “experiences”. Can they regain the drive that turned me into a fan? I’m grateful for the achievements and enjoy what remains in the parks. Creative minds still remain at Imagineering who are trying to build something that inspires us. There’s still plenty to like, and a creative renaissance could always be around the corner.
Sources: The Carolwood Pacific Historical Society, The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland, Walt Dated World, Walt and the Promise of Progress City by Sam Gennawey