Thursday, December 25, 2014

Scale, Future and Decay in Disneyland

Christmas Day, 2014

This is the second part of my impressions of a recent trip to Disneyland, the original park, for the first time in many years. You can read the first part here.

It has been speculated that Disneyland has a function in our civilization beyond merely being an entertaining vacation destination. From Tinkerbell, to the ancient myths, to the promise of tomorrow, these concepts manifested in Disneyland but originated in our unspoken hopes and beliefs for the future. At least they were our beliefs in the future back when we were naive enough to believe in a future.

When I approached Disneyland on this occasion, I was moving fast to meet my friends who were waiting for me in Frontierland. I was late. I was also disoriented because the traditional parking lot was missing and the entire entrance now reconfigured into the space between two gates and a transit center. My pass worked and I sprinted to my rendezvous.

With my friends, I paused to catch my breathe. There was something wrong. I felt a sense of disquiet as I walked around New Orleans Square, past the river, across from Tom Sawyer's Island. It was something to do with scale. It was smaller somehow. Jungleland, Frontierland, the River it all seemed smaller than I had remembered.

Of course my first memories of Disneyland were from the mid-60s and I was much smaller and the park was much bigger, relatively speaking. Is it possible that the memories from visiting Disneyland all those times when I was young remained in ways beyond what we normally think of as memory, but as a sense memory of the rightness of things, of its basic size and dimensions? Could this unconscious dissonance be the cause of the unease that I felt?

Familiar and yet unfamiliar some of the dissonance was probably a reaction to the crass repurposing of classic attractions for more current popular product placement, the Swiss Family Treehouse was appropriated by Tarzan for example, but the feeling of a scale difference was persistent.

As evening approached this sensation finally went away. I had chosen to walk around the Matterhorn to New Orleans Square to meet my friends for dinner, and the dark of evening restored the sense of mystery and of scale that had been missing during the day. Night made it less apparent how the pieces all fit together, night allowed the park to expand in my imagination.

It was in this darkness that I was able to pass through Fantasyland and it was at night that I was finally able to get to Tomorrowland.

The old TWA rocket still remains, unlabeled, but defiant

Lets review for a moment the Tomorrowland of 1967 or so. On one side of the entrance is the AT&T Bell System Circlevision film with a working Picturephone to their headquarters in New York City. On the other side was the Monsanto exhibit “Adventure Thru Inner Space” which talked of the promise of microscopy and the quantum world through a journey into a snowflake. Dare I go any further into the center of the nucleus itself?

Further on was a recreation of our nuclear submarine force which had just recently gone under the polar ice cap for the first time. There was an external and beautifully plastic House of the Future. The GE pavilion's Carousel of Progress swept you away in a narrative of white suburban American's singing about their home appliances. Trans World Airlines took you on a trip to Mars. The future of transportation opened in July 67 with the PeopleMover to augment the Monorail, the overhead tram, and the Disneyland Railroad. And even that 60s vision of world peace: There's so much that we share that its time we're aware: its a small world, after all.

We would go to the moon. We would explore the ocean floor. We would create new and unlimited sources of energy. We would look at the night sky and explore its mysteries.  We would heal the sick. We would live in a world of peace, freedom and harmony. We would save the world.

We jump to the present and we find the promise betrayed. AT&T and TWA no longer in business.  GE a shadow of its former self threatening to just go bankrupt rather than take responsibility for the gross environmental destruction of the Hudson river which they did with deliberate malignancy and for a fast buck.   A NASA without the capability of going to space without assistance from the Russians.  The people betrayed and unemployed.  A cluttered monstrosity of a “rocket jets” attraction destroys the symmetry of the entrance to tomorrow. The rotting hulk of decaying urban transportation infrastructure lies abandoned and rusting in the center of everything, attached to the former location of the “rocket jets”, now a transit hub to nowhere. Silent it stands abandoned at night. The Circlevision film about our country has been turned into some sort of video game arcade to promote a Pixar film. The Mighty Microscope (Monsanto Exhibit) becomes a redo of the original Star Tours continuing the theme of idle tourism for the wealthy  The Carousel of Progress is now a house of tomorrow that is more like a house of today, but for the very rich. You see, it seemed to be saying, this is how you could live today if you had a lot of money. The Submarine Ride which formerly presented the sense of adventure of those heady days of the submarine pioneers, now advertises a fish movie.

Abandoned rocket jets and Peoplemover turnabout

No transportation, the transport was all gone. Only the rotting infrastructure remained. The promise of how we would live in the future became the betrayal that said only the rich would live well. Advances in science were turned into cheap movie promotions. Symmetry became clutter. It was all outsourced to China, perhaps to Shanghai Disneyland, by our government.  I guess if you wanted to see the future you would have to go there, if you could afford it.

But if you look, you will find remnants of the former greatness. With the help of some docents at the Illuminations pavilion we were able to find elements of the Carousel of Progress hidden in plain sight on the outskirts of the exhibits.  In urban archaeology, you find the old doors, you walk to the end of the hallway and check to see if there is space beyond.  And there on the floor was the track of the former Carousel of Progress, now stopped with no promise for the future. But still there, nevertheless.

Look on the floor to see the seam that separated the unmoving stage from the rotating audience platform.

So what does the future hold for Tomorrowland?  We know that the Brad Bird movie of the same name and shot in part in Tomorrowland is coming out in a year.   I have no doubts that many plans are in the works for the rehabilitation of the future.   Will it convey an articulate and inspirational vision ?

Vision of Tomorroland from the first trailer for the movie

Trailer for Tomorrowland (2015)

PeopleMover on Wikipedia:


  1. I am shocked, shocked, to learn that Disneyland has been commercialized!

    You will perhaps be pleased to know that in Disneyland's clone sister in Florida, as of a year and a half ago, the People Mover had been refurbished and was back in operation.

    The Carousel of Progress is still in operation there and pretty well corresponds to my memory of it from the New York Worlds Fair in 1964. Presumably it has been refurbished too, but its essence is unchanged. If you haven't read Cory Doctorow's novella The Great Big Beautiful Tomrrow, you should.

    The train people are cool in Florida, too.

    --Dave Moon

    1. Dave

      Its great to hear from you and I am astounded and flattered that you read my blog. I have posted your reply as a post of its own (so that more people may see it) and replied to it as well. The post is at