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  1. #1

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    "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    I’m writing this down mainly as an attempt to solidify a concept that’s been nagging around my head for most of the day, so that I don’t forget the salient bits when I actually start work on my thesis. This arose out of a conversation with a Plaid acquaintance of mine on the shuttle and in Costuming. The conversation turned toward the state of Tomorrowland, a topic of particular importance to me, and I began sort of thinking aloud and bouncing things off my friend. Most of this is still thinking out loud and it's rambly and quite long, but bear with me.

    I’m a Media Studies major (well, double Media Studies/English, but I’m only doing the one thesis), and the central argument for my senior thesis is going to be that the changes in Tomorrowland during the last half-century have reflected the changes in American society’s vision of the future. After our conversation concluded, I started testing the thesis.

    First, there’s the original Tomorrowland, which was a space-oriented cornucopia of edutainment (side note: it saddens me a little that MS Word makes no protest to “edutainment” as a word) with a heavy focus on science. So far, so good: the sciences were experiencing a renaissance and an unaccustomed public scrutiny in the ‘50s, and the Space Race had everyone’s imagination turned toward the stars. (Note: when I say “original Tomorrowland,” I’m sort of including everything that showed up before the nuke-n-pave, not just opening day attractions, so House of the Future and Flying Saucers fall under that rather general umbrella.)

    Then there’s New Tomorrowland of 1967, when the entire land was redesigned with a more unified vision. The edutainment aspect remained (Adventure thru Inner Space, anyone?), but the whole was more strongly influenced by an investigation of what these new leaps in technology could do for our everyday lives. This expressed itself in a strong transportation theme, though the Carousel of Progress certainly fits as well. Though I’ll have to do a bit more research into other media representations, this seems about right to me; technology in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s took a more practical and consumerist bent.

    But when I looked at the current Tomorrowland, the thesis initially seemed to fall apart. The eastern portion of Disneyland is a mish-mash of quasi-futuristic fare, with the fantastic (Buzz Lightyear and Star Wars) thrown in with the aggressively, ploddingly practical (Innoventions). The Tomorrowland of today (and even the Tomorrowland we would have gotten had the ’98 renovation not been so disastrously underfunded; I need to find the thread that discussed that for reference) lacks an identity. But as I started examining the question further, I came to a rather shocking realization: rather than contradicting my thesis, the present Tomorrowland practically proves it. You see, Tomorrowland has no identity because we, as a society, have stopped dreaming of the future.

    Think about it. Since this is, after all, for a Media Studies thesis, I look for confirmation in other representations of the future, namely in film. Just looking at my own DVDs, I see the following sci-fi titles that have been made in the past ten years: Vanilla Sky, Firefly, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the Matrix series. (I hesitated over whether to include Blade Runner, but it’s a little old to be included. It still fits, though.) Sense a running theme? All of these films are rife with dystopia. (I hear protests about Hitchhiker, but it starts out with Earth getting blown up. It’s not all sunshine and towels.) These movies are all strongly allegorical, and all present a view of the future that is not pretty. A quick mental catalogue of recent sci-fi spits out The Island, Minority Report, and I, Robot. All along the same lines.

    The more I considered it, the more it made sense. If someone asked me to describe what the world would look like in thirty years, I wouldn’t really have any idea, probably imagining a world that looked pretty similar to today. But posed the same question thirty years ago, Back to the Future showed us flying cars and rampant holograms. Some of the technology imagined in that film has already come to pass (though I haven’t seen it in a while, I think of video phones; though they don’t work in real life quite like they do in the movies, the technology is there), but I’m still waiting for my hover board. I think I summed it up in a comment I made during the conversation which started all of this: “We don’t dream of robot butlers anymore.”

    Part of this is because we have a sort of “the future is here” mentality. We are completely surrounded with technology that verges on miraculous. Twenty years ago, the neck injuries that my sister sustained in her car accident would have been fatal. Ten years ago, she would have been stuck on a breathing machine, or confined to a wheelchair. But today, she is almost entirely healed, and has come away with almost no lasting damage. The sort of computing power that once filled a room can be contained in the size of a thumbnail. And if we don’t have robotic butlers, we do have robotic maids (even if their skills are limited to vacuuming). Yet, you don’t see people making a big hairy deal about their Roombas. That sort of stuff is just… there.

    Which is the point, in essence. There’s a distinct apathy that surrounds technology these days. While technological advances still make news, they’re small, special interest pieces. The latest developments in computers are still important, but not as much as they used to be. It’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt. My generation grew up with computers, they’re just part of the normal world. (Hell, in my room right now, I can count no fewer than six computers, not including my PDA, my iPod, my thumb drives, or my Playstation 2, which are all close cousins of standard computers. But then, I’m not exactly average.) The latest developments in technology are seen more through the lens of consumerism than of optimism for the future. One of the biggest complaints about Innoventions is that it feels no better than Best Buy, but Best Buy is the destination of most of our current technological developments. The latest and greatest in personal computing isn’t valued for how it can help mankind and make our lives easier, but for what sort of framerate it can get playing World of Warcraft.

    I think there’s also more to that aspect of things. Back in the ‘50s, the sort of technologies that were explored in Tomorrowland were practically alien. The average person knew nothing of how they worked, and so understood the possibilities to be limitless. Now the average person has a much better grasp of the basic technology, and is much better able to see the natural progression of technological advances. There’s also a sense of the limits being reached. How much smaller can they make iPods, anyway? How much bigger can TVs get before we give up the pretense and start installing full-size movie screens in homes? Does anyone other than Slashdot really care?

    And what does all of this mean for Tomorrowland? Unfortunately, nothing really good. While the new Finding Nemo attraction promises a Disney-caliber display of modern technology, its theme can be tied to Tomorrowland by some fairly strained wishful thinking, further muddling the issue. Our social consciousness shows no sign of developing any sort of distinct vision of the future, to the point where calling a design “futuristic” is pretty meaningless. My initial reaction to the “Future that Never Was” concept of the ’98 renovation was that it smacked of cop-out, but now I see that perhaps, without our own dream of the future, the dreams of the past are all we have.

  2. #2

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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    I like it It's a lot better than everyone just rehasing what they read on savedisney all the time that tomorrowland's just missing the motion it once had ;P

  3. #3

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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    I think I agree with you.

    that is to say I agree with you if you are saying the following.

    The future of technology just isn't as exciting as when we were traveling to outer-space for the first time, discovering the sub-atomic world for the first time, building freeways for the first time and the like. Now we have Blue-ray disks and the possibility of robots.

    Most other scientific advancements are too controversial for or boring for a theme park. Does anyone want stem-celltopia or The land of a thousand solar panels? No.

    I think Sci-fi is the way to go with Tomrrowland, though I don't think the allegorical message is a must. Space Mountain is a first class attraction without some kind of Utopian message brought up with it.
    Not to say that allegories should have no place, but they should be secondary to the attraction itself. Give me the story of Star Wars first and any pseudo-political messages second (or third or fourth for that matter)
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  4. #4

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    Wink Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    Don't forget that Star Wars was set "A long long time ago..." yet it still remains in TL.

  5. #5

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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    I agree that people don't dream of the future in the traditonal sense. They still want hope of a better life. Technology being the focus of what makes the future bright may have changed. Disney gave up on giving us that hope.
    "As usual he's taken over the coolest spot in the house"- Father re: Orville 1963

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  6. #6

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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    Quote Originally Posted by aerinpegadrak View Post
    “Future that Never Was” concept of the ’98 renovation was that it smacked of cop-out, but now I see that perhaps, without our own dream of the future, the dreams of the past are all we have.
    The future that never was is not quite a cop-out if you see its proper presentation in Paris. Also, if you have not yet looked it up, you should investigate into the Discovery Bay concept and the Discovery Bay chronicles by Tom Scherman. Though definitely not a vision of Tomorrow, this new land concept was colorful and rich. We didn't get the full treatment in 98' on the west coast due to many other issues than funding, and for that I suggest that you look into the Tomorrowland 2055 concept of Tony Baxter for material.

    It seems like the general thread in your discussion is that Tomorrowland is Todayland in both technology and spirit (Hall of Aluminum?). I suggest that you look at Space Mountain and its dichotomy. On the one hand, convenient semi-public space travel is still not possible and probably wont be for another century. On the other hand, the roller coaster technology inside the attraction is eclipsed by the majority of roller coasters built the same year and after. Where is the disconnect? I still dream of one day travelling to space (with a rockin' soundtrack), but do I feel that an early 70's basic steel coaster is the best representation? Is a motion simulator better even though that is technology that is also a couple decades old?

    Here is another thought. Tomorrowland must still entertain guests, as you pointed out. Theme park design is an art a lot like Opera. It is the accumulation of all crafts; design, music, storytelling, lighting, costuming, performance, etc. In order to put on the show, the producer must inevitably bow to tradition and practice. Does this effect the showman's ability to put on the future?

    I like your initial thoughts a lot and I hope you keep it up. In order to get a really good sense of Tomorrowland I would quiz David Koenig by emailing him from the other mouse related website that Al has been connected with (if you don't know it, message me) in order to get the most accurate info. DO NOT RELY ON INFO FROM THE WEB!!! Most of it is not complete or outright wrong. In the same vein, don't believe what Disney tells you, they still believe that Fantasyland was Walts favorite land (dead wrong) because he put his own family crest above the castle portcullis (also wrong, it was added during the 1983 renovation of fantasyland and the subsequent installation of the heraldry shoppe).
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  7. #7

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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    I do have to agree with your assertion that we have as a society become rather blasť towards the idea of the future. I think we really do believe that the future is here and that there is no where left to go from here. Being of a scientific bent myself I see another link appearing in this chain. Education shifting more towards the arts and away from science. Everyone wants to be a singer or play guitar and make it big on American Idol or in a band. 30 and 40 years ago, NASA was going to the moon and everyone was excited about science. And Tomorrowland reflected that. Now, when the entire country is take up with Idol fever and reality TV and science just isn't on the forefront of the publics mind, Tomorrowland, a place based largely in our scientific imaginations of "what could be" is struggling to engage people.

    I love Tomorrowland though, whatever it's problems or shortcomings may be, and always have. I don't think it's as much a Disney Co. problem as it is an American isn't sure what they heck it wasn't to do with itself problem.

    Very well worded and thought out essay though. Excellent writing. Thanks for posting it.

    Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep. mycroft16 on Twitter

  8. #8

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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    The future is more exciting now that it has EVER been. Science Fiction is only that until they invent a way to do it. Verne's trip to the moon was fiction till they made it fact. Tomorrowland was always SF, do you think they knew how to get to the Moon when they did the TWA ride? The thing that is lacking now is imagination and commitment. Give me a Tomorrowland that has Nanotechnology, Mission Space, hydrogen cars, Holographic Theater of the future, underwater cities, etc.
    "As usual he's taken over the coolest spot in the house"- Father re: Orville 1963

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  9. #9

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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    I want a robot butler. Don't you remember Rosie from the Jetsons? Awesome.

  10. #10

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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    Quote Originally Posted by Cousin Orville View Post
    The future is more exciting now that it has EVER been. Science Fiction is only that until they invent a way to do it.
    So very true... people just think it's boring now for some inexplicable reason. Why are we going to the moon? We've already been? What's so big about space anyway huh? "My cell phone is smaller than yours" seems to be the limit of technological and scientific excitement from the "general" public. But yes, there is so much more out there that is amazing and incredible and exciting. I wish a ride could be brought in that shows that stuff off. Like Mission: SPACE for example. How cool of a TL addition would that ride be!?

    Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep. mycroft16 on Twitter

  11. #11

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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    Quote Originally Posted by Cousin Orville View Post
    The future is more exciting now that it has EVER been. Science Fiction is only that until they invent a way to do it. Verne's trip to the moon was fiction till they made it fact. Tomorrowland was always SF, do you think they knew how to get to the Moon when they did the TWA ride? The thing that is lacking now is imagination and commitment. Give me a Tomorrowland that has Nanotechnology, Mission Space, hydrogen cars, Holographic Theater of the future, underwater cities, etc.
    sadly even scifi writers have had trouble keeping up with the technology its very hard for them to keep things in the scifi catagory instead of steming out into just fantasy writing these days

    the sad thing is Nanotechnology, hydrogen cars, holographic theator and underwater cities are all not very far off (well maybe hydrogen cars are who knows we're still searching for a better way to generate power) but the nanotech and holograms already exist today in prototype form

  12. #12

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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    lets ust change the name of the land to "Discoveryland" because there is no tomorrow there any more.

    All Disney does now is rehash old stuff.. nemo anyone?

    how is that Tomorrow?




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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    Thanks for the kind words, all. I still have a full year before I have to begin work on that daunting, fickle monster known as the senior thesis, but I wanted to get down these ideas while I was still thinking of them. I think the chapter on the present state of Tomorrowland is going to prove the most difficult (the rest of it is going to be pretty much a research paper), and I liked the direction my thoughts were heading in.

    Mission Seagull: I'm definitely planning a chapter on the Discovery concept as executed in Paris, and if funding and scheduling permit, I'm actually going to go to Paris and explore it. A chapter on the Tomorrowland that never was would also be a good idea, to explore concepts that never quite made it and to see how they fit in with my thesis.

    Another concept that's floating around in my mind, that I think I talked about but maybe didn't quite nail down, is that the look of the future has changed. The future of the '50s had a very specific look, while the future of today (lord, that's clear as mud, isn't it? Douglas Adams was right; you have to practically invent a whole new tense to deal with the subject) looks like, well, today. That doesn't work very well for a theme park.

  14. #14

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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    Your theory makes a lot of sense and, in my opinion, is headed in the right direction.

    Regarding the statement that today, we feel we already live in the future;

    We felt that way in 1955 too. There was a sense of wonderment and excitement about the marvelous advances we were making. Look at pop culture from the mid 50s through the late 60s. We were watching stuff like The Jetsons on TV. We were driving around in cars with rocket fins on them and chrome trim shaped like jet aircraft. We were seriously talking about flying cars, harnessing the atom for peaceful means and actually going to outer space. The future was finally here and we were living in it! Granted, it may have been a more naive and hopeful vision, but Tomorrowland reflected the notion that if we just kept going the way we were going, look at all the nifty stuff we could do! Why... we could fly tourists to the moon! We could develop some sort of neat system of transportation to whiz people around cities!

    After the bleak depression era of the 30s, then the war years of the 40s, the peace and prosperity of the 50s produced a bit of giddiness. Walt's timing couldn't have been better.

    Many of the advances of the 50s and 60s involved transportation. Jet airplanes and rocketships. Reliable submarines were still fairly new and innovative public transportation ideas were emerging. This was serendipitous for someone designing an amusement park that required fun and novel rides. At that time, even the Freeway was a novelty!

    Most of today's advances don't lend themselves well to theme park amusements. Computer and Information sciences are a little cerebral and sedentary. Hence, Innoventions isn't really very fun.

    We've grown blase about space travel. Riding Space Mountain or (maybe someday again) The Rocket Jets is still fun, but for a different reason. They're just fun rides. The wonderment of what they represent is a little retro now.

    Let me veer away just a bit here and mention something that I've posted before. Budget cutting wasn't the only reason TL98 didn't work. I can see the philosophy behind creating a retro-Victorian future that never happened. But all that really happened in Disneyland was they painted the land brown. The attractions remained exactly the same. So now, the land lost it coherency. Star Tours, Space Mountain, The Monorail, etc. had nothing to do with the supposed theme of the land. Besides: it was just ugly and the new edible landscape sucked.

    A key to Tomorrowland's (and, in fact, all of Disneyland's) success is "edutainment." Walt was a great teacher in addition to being a great showman. He mastered the art of weaving education into his Disneyland in a way that made the learning fun.

    When you walk down Main Street USA, you get a sense of what life was like in a small town at the turn of the century. An idealized and sanitized version, to be sure... but you come away with a little more understanding than you had before. You don't get to see a cold, dead steam engine on static display. You get to ride a real working one! If you're lucky, you might even get to ride up near the engineer and watch him work the strange controls!

    The same with Adventureland and Frontierland. Fantasyland could be viewed as pure escapism, but each of those dark rides tries to impart a moral lesson.

    Tomorrowland 2006 doesn't attempt to educate anymore. Innoventions doesn't really show us anything new. Maybe ASIMO, but a plodding and slightly creepy robot show isn't exactly exciting.
    "Yesterday, a man walked up to me and said, 'Isn't it a shame that Walt Disney couldn't be here to see this?' and I said, "He did see this, that's why it's here."
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    Re: "We Don't Dream of Robot Butlers": The Problem of Tomorrowland

    Quote Originally Posted by Professortango View Post
    Don't forget that Star Wars was set "A long long time ago..." yet it still remains in TL.
    Its set "A Long Long Time ago..." from the year 60,000 a.d.

    It's all about perspective.

    The future as viewed by people today is a nonstop funhouse where robots dream of electronic sheep and starfighters clash in the sky like fireworks.
    Last edited by Ghostbuster626; 08-29-2006 at 09:08 AM.

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