Can It Survive?
a series about the present, and what can last into the future.
Last year, 157 million people traveled to Disney’s 12 theme parks across the globe. The parks are a $4.5 billion a year business, and one that’s been skewing older and older. Adult Disney fandom no longer holds the stigma it once did, despite the best efforts of the New York Post. We’re all going to die soon, why not let a 28-year-old ride some teacups?
This is a sentiment I relate to. In an increasingly stressful and apocalyptic world, the only thing that gets me to sleep at night is two hours of Disney Food YouTube. I am intentionally regressing to a curated, utterly pleasant place, specifically and cravenly designed to make me happy. In his opening-day speech at Disneyland, Walt Disney outlined the mission statement of his theme parks: “To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past…and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.” As it turned out, the future has a lot more challenge and a lot less promise that he anticipated.
The same looming apocalypse that drives adults like me to Disneyland is the same force that makes one of its “lands” intolerable. All Disney theme parks are split up into distinct areas, or “lands.” Disneyland, for example, had Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Frontierland, and Main Street U.S.A. Introduced in 1955, Tomorrowland was Walt Disney’s love letter to a jetpack- and meals-in-a-pill future, where technology would make our lives cleaner and faster and more fun. But today, it’s nothing but a bad joke in the age of corporations-as-people, the end of privacy, and climate change. Tomorowland has become crowded, hot, and choked with corporate sponsorships and diesel fumes. It's the worst of the present, not the best of the future.
No one was more jazzed about the possibilities of “tomorrow” than Disney. Even as he was dying of lung cancer, he told the world about his dreams for the future. One of his last televised appearances was to promote his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, also known as EPCOT, a Tomorrowland the size of a small city. Twenty-thousand people would live on Disney property and travel via People Mover and monorail to jobs in EPCOT’s domed, air-conditioned central hub or at the industrial park that would serve as factory and showcase for the products of tomorrow.
It was a vision of the future in which technology propelled us forward instead of dooming us to an ice cap-less dystopia. That techno-utopian future never happened, and thus EPCOT became a theme park — one that highlighted innovation and science instead of an actual, livable city.
But now it looks like Disney has given up on even the watered-down vision of EPCOT as a city of tomorrow. In August, the company announced that it would be pivoting EPCOT to focus more on ways to hang out with our good pals like Moana and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Disney fans couldn’t help but also notice that once again, no Tomorrowland updates were announced — and especially at the first Tomorrowland in Disneyland, one is sorely needed.
The main problem with Disneyland’s Tomorrowland is that it sucks. I wish there was a more elegant way to phrase it, but it just sucks. Many formerly utopian and/or “edutaining” rides have been done away with and replaced with Star Wars tie-ins, despite the fact that there’s an entire LAND dedicated to Star Wars now. Gas fumes from Autopia — the automobile utopia — induces headaches, but at least it disguises the scent of the terrible $9 slices at Alien Pizza Planet. All the signage is in serifed fonts, and if there’s one thing less futuristic than a T with extra bullshit on it, I’d love to see it.
Autopia, in particular, exemplifies everything wrong with Tomorrowland. The only opening-day attraction that remains, it was designed to hype the newfangled interstate highway system. Today, there is little less futuristic than private car ownership. The main change to come to Autopia in its 64 years of operation is that it is sponsored by Honda and features dreadful beast Asimo, the millennial robot known for being in commercials and having no real-world applications.
As you drive through fake highways in cars that, for some reason, sound like jackhammers, you’re treated to tableaus of Asimo going on an extremely 1950s vacation with a robot bird. From the Grand Canyon to That One Redwood You Can Drive Through, Honda wants you to make these places a little worse by visiting them in your non-futuristic, carbon-emitting, wheel-having car. In the ride’s queue, you see Asimo use a miniature hovercar exclusively to load luggage into his boring, wheeled Honda Fit.
Branded sponsorship was at the heart of Tomorrowland in the ’50s and ’60s as budget constraints rendered the land more corporate showroom than vision of the future for decades. GE’s Carousel of Progress posited that self-cleaning ovens were the yardstick of advanced civilization. The TWA Moonliner, basically a Nazi V2 rocket with spoilers, advertised what private space travel could become. Monsanto’s House of the Future pushed a future in which one’s house would be made of single-use plastic. Today, the corporate sponsorships have been augmented by the rise of Disney as one of the biggest entertainment monopolies of all time. In Tomorrowland, you can visit the Disney Vacation Club kiosk to buy a timeshare, or immerse yourself in Pixar IP via Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, or the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. The main thing Disney sells today is Disney.
In 2015 Disney tried to sell Tomorrowland with an execrable movie of the same name. Intended as a ride-to-franchise success story like Pirates of the Carribean, Tomorrowland posited that the future is bleak because no one is willing to imagine a better tomorrow. Brad Bird, the director who delivered Disney’s ultimate retrofuturist statement with The Incredibles, painted a world in which thinking about the world ending makes it happen and thinking about jetpacks makes the world a better place.
It’s a message too stupid to be entertaining. Plenty of people are imagining a way out of our current environmental and geopolitical woes. We know what to do; it’s just that we lack the political will to do it. Of course, Tomorrowland-like “thinkers” such as Peter Thiel and Elon Musk argue that our problem is not thinking big enough, when it’s clear that the main obstacles between us and utopia are political ones, some of which were laid by the very companies that sponsored Tomorrowland.
If Tomorrowland really wants to make anyone optimistic about the future, it would figure out a way to make greywater reclamation as fun as rocketships. It would be covering the the Space Mountain queue in solar panels, or showing off carbon-fixing kelp forests in the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. What about getting Disney park visitors as excited for high-speed rail as we all were for Asimo in the year 2000?
Obviously, Disney has no incentive to do this; it’s more lucrative to let people relive the cantina scene from Star Wars than do anything difficult. It seems impossible to meld anticonsumerist sentiments with corporate sponsorship, but Disney’s done it before. At Disney World, Animal Kingdom is an entire park themed on conservation... with heavy sponsorship from McDonald’s. Every ride emphasizes our obligation to the planet, and to the McFlurry.
That arrangement is not perfect, but it at least makes gestures towards doing the right thing. If Tomorrowland wants to survive, it needs to do the same, because nobody is going to join the Vacation Club if we’re all dead.