The Irony of Epcot and Disney's 'Tomorrowland'
The movie Tomorrowland
opened last weekend to fairly mixed reviews. Yet, being the theme park enthusiast that I am, this film made my "must see" summer film list. Whether you are a fan of the movie or not, it should be recommended viewing for all theme park fans because it raises an interesting moral question about the film's distributors themselves. At its very heart, Tomorrowland
is what Epcot should be.
Film image courtesy Walt Disney Pictures
Tomorrowland revolves around three main heroes: Frank Walker, played by George Clooney, Casey Newton, played by Britt Robertson, and a girl named Athena, played by Raffey Cassidy. Without revealing any spoilers, the central plot is about an inevitable apocalyptic future that these characters come together to reverse — with some fun, fantasy technology and one of the most necessary assets given to humanity, hope. It starts as a pretty standard fantasy adventure, with its point being driven home in the climax of the story.
For my money, I found the film to be enjoyable. It wasn't the greatest film I've seen, but it also wasn't the worst, and it had some fun theme park Easter eggs thrown in throughout. You see a rendition of the old 1964 New York World's Fair, a cameo by "It's a Small World," and Space Mountain in the distance as we see the land of tomorrow. The purpose for this article is not to review the film, but to reiterate something that fans who remember an earlier Disney World have been saying for many years now — Let's bring back that hope.
I was lucky enough to visit Epcot Center for the first time as a child in 1987. I remember a lot of little things any kid would get excited about, like sending my friend a "Food Rocks" postcard, getting a little plastic case filled with Runts candy, and getting a package of freeze-dried apricots that, for a few years, made the fruit synonymous with the park in my mind. Much more importantly, I remember being blown away. The animatronics on every ride created such a fantasy world for me to get lost in that I didn't care how slow they all were. I didn't care that they didn't have a roller coaster. Every ride had a purpose and a point, and my imagination was flooded. We had our history of communication explored, cars from the future, a giant aquarium, and many more great attractions.
The one that stuck out the most to me was the trip to the future — Horizons. We went on that at least three times one day, mostly because the ending where you could pick your destination was so fun. As I've gotten older, after riding it many many more times before it closed, I realize that it gave people so much more than a theme park thrill. It gave a positive message for the future. It gave the very pill Disney is asking us to swallow in its new film. It gave hope.
Most of us know the history of Epcot, how Walt never wanted it to be a theme park, but to be a city of the future where great minds would converge, advance technology, and work on making the world a better place. It was his final dream, that he never got to see realized. The Tomorrowland we see in the picture is built on that very premise, which is such an odd thing for the Walt Disney Company to ask us to accept. When faced with the choice of seeing through its founder's dreams or seeing the potential in its founder's assets, the company's management in the 1970s made the logical choice — they built another gate and another step toward building a mega resort that, basically, can print money.
The compromise seemingly was to create a park with a vision, which Epcot once had. But, eventually, Disney replaced World of Motion with the mild thrill of Test Track. It replaced Journey into Imagination with a shell of itself, and threw in a celebrity's face. It replaced "If you can dream it, you can do it," with "We're going to pretend to shoot you into space... but be careful, you might throw up."
I have trouble understanding how Disney can spend hundreds of millions to make a film about the necessity of hope for the future while having no issue with replacing that hope in its theme parks. I'm sure Disney wasn't expecting Mission Space to have 10-minute wait times as early in its lifespan as it did. (The same could be said for the Imagination pavilion.) I own video games that look better than Mission Space. Now we are dealing with a CEO of Disney who believes rides based on film franchises do better, and we haven't seen anything but since. Elsa's moving in and culture's moving out. What child out there would even pick up on the theme of the future from Future World anymore? Does it even have a purpose to hold that title? Will any child leave Epcot with the thrill of the future and its promise, or will they just leave saying that Magic Kingdom was better?
In cryptic fashion, the film's main antagonist, David Nix, played by Hugh Laurie, has a speech about human beings resigning themselves to despair and destruction rather than embracing optimism and life. He blames humanity's course on our laziness and our self-gratification in the moment, throwing tomorrow to the curb for today's payoff. Disney is using an old magic trick here. It would like us to watch one hand while it does the dirty business with the other.
The movie's central theme is to applaud the select few who do not accept a future of compromise and watching their ideals decay. In a microcosm of life, we all see the heart of the Epcot's demise, and we've just learned to accept it. Maybe it's my naïveté, but the idea of practicing what you preach never seemed more obvious.
Of course, in true Disney film fashion, the positive message always shines through, and the future is bright. George Clooney's character encourages his animatronic friends to go to Earth to find those who "haven't given up. They are the future." Epcot's is still my favorite park in Walt Disney World, not because of what it is but because of what it wanted to be, and the idea still flickers in some attractions. It brings back that feeling it gave me as a child that I will never let go of. Does Disney really want to encourage the spirit of Tomorrowland? Then give Epcot its identity back.
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Well said. Thanks!
Epcot really is a shell of its former self. Walt is rolling in his grave especially after they replaced horizons with that mission space crap
The irony is modeling Future World after the movie Tomorrowland is the ultimate compliment, thus adding Frozen to an existing attraction gives hope to many kids that love the movie. That Tomorrowland is likely not a franchise means such idealism doesn't work in the marketplace.
I agree wholeheartedly! I was lucky enough to visit EPCOT in it's opening year. I was and still am filled with wonder. Watching Tomarrowland had brought that feeling back, in full force! Brad Bird has seen what Disney has done with the vision of tomorrow and was unimpressed. With Tomarrowland, he is trying to get Disney back on course with a visionary age of the future. I hope that Disney takes his advice and fixes EPCOT Center (as it will always be to me).
My point isn't to model the park after the movie but to recognize the ideals it portrays and actually utilize them
Unfortunately you are correct on every point. Something tells me another visionary will come along like Walt Disney and the corporation, now know as Disney, will fade away like office depot.
Sorry to disagree. Technology is moving so quickly. Epcot's Future World will always be obsolete.
This was perfect. Thank you!! Epcot needs a Horizons/World of Motion revival! What I wouldn't give to see the headlines now "Epcot is bringing back Horizons!!" Oh the excitement there would be.:D
As nostalgic as I am i know that putting the old rides back brick for brick wouldnt happen, No matter how much Id love it......and agreed technology does move very fast. I guess I just don't think its too fast. There are several new attractions out in the last 10-15 years that don't seem dated, and they'd need to have some rapidly changing attractions, a better use of innoventions for example. For big ticket rides remember that the most far out impossible technology in human creation started with imagination. Ideas are what make the world advance, and lots of creative people can dream up things that are way off in the future to entertain the masses. Thats what the imagineers used to do and that's how they entertained people for decades. They were ahead of the curve. Just my opinion.
Great article. I feel the moment Roy Disney died and the board of directors had no Disney presence anymore the whole spitit of what Walt wanted the parks to be went out of the window.
Here Here, very well said! EPCOT is dying and I don't think it necessarily begins with Frozen taking over Norway, I think it begins with Future World just being non existent. I'm only 25 but have been blessed with a family that loved Disney and went multiple times a year through my childhood, and still to this day Figment holds a special place in my heart, not because he was a silly purple dragon character. But rather because of what he stood for, that with imagination you can do anything.
One of the best written, most thought-provoking articles in TPI for a long time. Well done!
Nice article, I enjoyed it, too bad the second half of that movie was not as good as the first half...
Well said. As a former Cast Member (I did the College Program in 2001) I worked in Future World I have seen the downward spiral start from before I was even there. Though when I was Mission Space was starting to go up and Horirzons had been out the door.
Great points! I was thinking very similar thoughts in terms of Tomorrowland and how it's lost some impact, but Future World is an even better example. I'd be thrilled to have any signs that the powers that be at Disney recognize what they could do with EPCOT. I still like the park, but it's lost the wonder that it brought for me as a kid in the '80s. My first trip was in 1984 as an eight-year-old, and I still have memories of that experience.
I loved this article, and I agree with you and have thought a lot about the issues you raise. I view the Tomorrowland film, as well as the Figment line of limited-edition Marvel comics (based on the original Journey Into Imagination), as an attempt by Disney to rebuild a franchise out of some of the old EPCOT and Tomorrowland stuff. Seeing how Iger has made franchise-building his M.O. as far as new theme-park construction goes, I think the jury is still out on whether EPCOT gets a wholesale reboot. Right now, Magic Kingdom has a premium price over the other three WDW parks. I take that as a tacit acknowledgment by Disney that that park is the only one that currently feels complete or whole. After AK gets Avatar, it will be more complete, the same is true with DHS and Star Wars, at which time I would expect those parks to also charge more. I think the EPCOT strategy is furthest behind, but hopefully the powers that be know that. (The Frozen stuff and the third Soarin' theatre are hardly a park-wide strategy.) Unfortunately, I don't know if Tomorrowland is doing well enough as a film to create a "brand" to build on at EPCOT. I hope it does, I really do. The movie was so close to being really good, but just didn't quite deliver, IMHO. So I do worry about it. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is knowing that there are probably amazing "shovel-ready" EPCOT future world attractions that have been imagineered over the years which will never get built. However, the fact that Disney seems to care so much these days about nostalgia, and about the company's legacy not just in animated film but in the history of optimism and futurism, is a sign that all may not be lost. Perhaps they are waiting for the right moment, when optimism about the future is on the up-swing again, to remake EPCOT as a shining example of Disney's history in shaping post-WWII America. On the bright side, Spaceship Earth is not going away (as Horizons and Imagination should not have), and I think Disney finally realizes that, like It's a Small World and Peter Pan's Flight, there are some attractions that are timeless and need to be preserved.
Horizons was the best idealized attraction to close, but Spaceship Earth, Energy, Imagination, Living Seas, and Living with the Land remain. I do think Test Track is a very good attraction. Imagination was ruined, but they could make another attempt to revive it. My own opinion is Figment should go away too. I'm tired of being admonished that I have no imagination without their help and they managed to show me a crappy ride. Spaceship Earth was updated in a good way.
I agree with you completely on this article. Not just EPCOT, but the Tomorrowland in Anaheim is suffering the same dillema. The spirit of inspiration and optimism that once was present in both places is now gone, leaving a decaying shell of what once was.
I like this article, but I disagree with it. The spirit of Epcot hasn't changed.
I remember Eastern's Trip into interspace. You got in this little bubble like car, rode into a telescope like ramp up, on the outside it showed the cars real small. As you went through, you were smaller then a snow flake. It was wild. As was 360 vision. You could feel the finger grooves that were dug in under the railing you stood behind. WILD! those were the good old MK days. yes, It would have been great seeing the "City Of The Future" you saw as you left Space Mtn. At first that is what I thought Celebration was going to be. I grew up 4 hours away, so was always going up there, to MK, when Epcot opened up.
Two words to blame for the fiasco - BOB IGER. The CEO has no interest in theme parks.
Great article, Michael! When I saw Tomorrowland, I felt exactly same way.
Actually fixing up EPCOT isn't a particularly difficult mess to clean, but the more I look at EPCOT the more I think that they're not entirely certain what to do, while at the same time, still have an idea of what made the old EPCOT great. You can still find a lot of the old EPCOT in the parks, just not in the same nostalgic form that the article and replies have taken on.
I don't think Future world at EPCOT and Tomorrowland will ever return to what they once were. The problem is that that kind of happy look to the future isn't popular right now, and Disney did take a crack at it with the new movie, but I don't think that is going to work. I think that Disney doesn't spark a new popular trend, it sees something popular, and makes a version of it that is so well liked that eventually it "owns" it, and after a while everyone thinks Disney is the only reason it is popular and that they started it. For example, the whole princess thing was already in place, the consumer products person at Disney saw tons of girls in princess dresses and wondered why they aren't making branded ones this led to Disney Princess franchise/merchandise. The Pirates of the Caribbean did really well, but pirates were popular around that time (I don't know where "talk like a pirate" day came from in the 90s, but with that and the flying spaghetti monster thing, pirates were "trending" I think.) Halloween has been getting much more popular (possibly due to Martha Stewart's over the top celebrations, more people involved in cosplay in public (remember Triumph the insult comic dog making fun of people waiting in line for Star Wars) and also the unrelated trend of women wearing more revealing costumes), then Disney responds with Villain/Halloween parties and Nightmare Before Christmas ride overlay and a lot of merchandise and this stuff is very popular. There were tons of live action fairy tale movies and the people at Disney were thinking why aren't we doing this (this is something executives have actually stated in interviews) and now they are making tons of movies based on ones they animated and the movies are doing well, but they are following that trend. The new Lone Ranger movie couldn't spark a renewed interest in the whole Frontierland theme. Right now a distopian future is popular/accepted. I don't think the Tomorrowland movie is going to be successful because it goes against that, but it's only been one weekend so far.
Love this. So happy to see people's engagement in this whether they agree with me or not, great to see the energy on the subject. All I can say for anyone who says it wouldn't be as profitable, yea maybe that's true it wouldn't be as profitable as a franchise tie in at first, but remember that Disney used to take their park ideas and make them profitable by creativity and presentation, not by slapping a franchise tag on them. They are a company that has the money and the ability to get people interested in what they want to put at their parks, especially when properly executed. Clearly there's a lot of people here hoping they remember that.
"Clearly there's a lot of people here hoping they remember that."
The movies failing because the film itself isn't that great, in my opinion. Not because people don't care about what it represents, as is well found in the response here. I know most of my favorite disney rides had nothing to do with previous franchises. They made them popular and in some cases, made successful movies out of the ride itself. They are a gigantic corporate machine that was based on a mans ideas once. Just because it's highly improbable doesn't mean it wouldn't be great to see some of that heart come back. This is one of many topics im going to not want to be a realist on, the park does have a ride based on imagination after all. I prefer having it excited rather than deeming it unprofitable.
Universal Creative is the new WED. They are not afraid to take chances on new complex ride systems or ways of doing things like Disney with their Soarin over Pandora and Test Track Radiator Springs clones.
Epcot is the most unique and imaginative park that Disney ever made that had no Disney IP when it opened because it had some of the most cutting edge technology in the world. Seeing them wedge Donald Duck and Frozen into 1980 boat ride attractions with little technological upgrades is heartless.
Very well said!
Wow. I wish I had written that story. So true! There are a few great new shows/exhibits... Turtle Talk really impressed me. And Soarin' was relaxing and fun. But I agree that these new shows just don't present the feeling of hope. Walt Disney had some great visions, and a team that helped form those visions into something great. Is Disney living on Walt's vision? Is that vision fading into history?
"Universal is the new WED...Disney reminds me of McDonalds"
The concept of innovation- which they push more than any other, seems to be what is missing from this park. There are plenty of things to display and return the fascination of science back to the park. Someone above mentioned that updating EPCOT with modern technology would be a waste of time, however, I tend to disagree. Disney needs to reflect the innovation and wonder behind STEM. Wanna update Mission Space? Show how spacecraft are designed and talk about the future of space travel. The Air Force is testing the new space shuttle as we speak. There is a plethora of technology to choose from that is innovative, but that's just one quick and easy example.
To my fellow anonymous writer above, (well, I doubt anyone's reading this anymore, but I just felt like I had to put this out there)
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