Tomorrow’s Tomorrowland

MiceChat has an amazing overview of the scope and scale of the new Star Wars project being added to Disneyland in Anaheim. Whatever they end up calling it (“Star Wars Land” is an unofficial name, apparently), it’s so much bigger than I thought it would be based on earlier descriptions.

The northwest corner of Disneyland has always been a little sleepy. Rivers of America eats up a giant chunk of real estate and the Big Thunder Ranch area has been relatively under-utilized for decades so when they said Star Wars was going in up there, it made a certain amount of sense. But this. This is stunning.

As a Disneyland aficionado from the time I was knee-high to Jiminy Cricket, seeing that much of the original park getting chopped (about a third of the Rivers of America and the north end of Tom Sawyer’s Island) along with the railroad getting its first major reroute since 1965 made me a little queasy. But I’m not one of those “Walt would never allow this” kind of Disneyland fan. I get it has to evolve and stay relevant. I just wish it could evolve and be relevant over Toontown or something (which I still think of as new even though it’s old enough to drink now).

But this isn’t about Star Wars land. What I want to talk about is the giant hairy question mark this hangs over aimless Tomorrowland.

When I was a kid, Tomorrowland was my favorite land (with New Orleans Square a close second). It was all white and shiny and clean and still held a fair amount of Walt’s bountiful optimism about the future. Fantasyland was about things that never happened but we wished they had and the rest of the lands were about an idealized past but Tomorrowland was about the way things could be. An idealized future. Today it’s not about that. Instead of a rocket to Mars and an adventure through inner-space we have Buzz Lightyear and Star Tours. The Carousel of Progress building is an elepant of a thing with a constant hodgepodge of vertically integrated entertainment experiences going in and out. There’s nothing at all futuristic about Autopia (maybe if Tesla sponsored it and all the cars were electric, but I digress) and the submarines have lost their exploratory zeal with a Finding Nemo overlay. I mean, really. What the hell is Tomorrowland about in the 21st Century? It’s an iconic area of the world’s most famous theme park with a highly descriptive name but no real theme of its own. A mess.

And whatever it’s supposed to be about, isn’t Star Wars land going to make it look even worse? Why will there be a Star Tours ride on the opposite side of the park? As I said, Tomorrowland wasn’t originally about science fiction. It was supposed to showcase the promise of tomorrow. The promise of human ingenuity. The Peoplemover is maybe the perfect example of that. The “ride” was basically a scale-built model demonstration of a mass-transit system suitable for dense city centers. That’s it. You got on and you got off and nothing much happened in between at about six miles per hour. But it was great. How can Disney get back to that ideal? Where a ride in which nothing happens in slow motion seemed like a good way to spend ten or fifteen minutes?

The problem with the future is it keeps coming faster and faster every year. Plus, there’s a distinct wariness in the public about the idea that technology will make our lives better. We don’t trust it thanks to things like Chernobyl and GMO hysteria and global climate change and corporations too focused on profits over human beings. The great big beautiful tomorrow Walt envisioned wasn’t just a dream away, it was a dream. Maybe we’re too cynical for a place called Tomorrowland in the 21st Century. Or maybe we just need someone to show some optimism again.

If I were King of Disneyland (and don’t think I haven’t daydreamed about that), I’d go all-in on Tomorrowland. Set it in the distant future. At least 100 years. Focus on how technology will be harnessed to solve the problems we face today and didn’t know were going to exist in 1955. Lean into the cleverness of real men and women on this planet, not the swashbuckling exploits of fictional characters (fish, droid, toy or otherwise). More than anything, I think that’s what Walt was trying to capture with Tomorrowland. We can do amazing things. We can be our own heroes. We can make the world better.

Tomorrowland should throw out all the fictional characters and licensed merchandise. Tear down yesterday’s tomorrow and build a new one for today.

But keep Space Mountain. Space Mountain is cool.

Originally published on Medium


With “The Incredibles,” Brad Bird advocated the notion that when all people are considered special, no one is. When those with certain abilities and gifts are not allowed to use them, everyone suffers. That’s the super-condensed version, of course. “Tomorrowland” has, at its core, the same message. The special ones, if given a chance, can make a great big beautiful tomorrow. Except this time, they need to allow themselves to do so.

When did we stop thinking about tomorrow with optimism and excitement? When did we become obsessed with an inevitable decline and start expending so much energy looking for signs of it everywhere? When did we start to act as though a lesser tomorrow was inevitable? When did we lose our confidence that we can always be better than we have been? And why do we find those who reject those notions of doom to be hopelessly naive? In Bird’s “Tomorrowland,” there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. In the real world, though, it’s so much more complicated. 

If I were to make a stab at it, I’d say Bird wants viewers of his new film to do two things. One, snap out of it. Remember when we saw great things ahead and start moving forward again. Two, just like “The Incredibles,” we need to let our special ones be special. Stop being so cynical and allow those with gifts and abilities do what they do best and build the future. Or, in the case of where we sometimes appear to be heading recently, save it. 

“Tomorrowland” is about optimism. It’s about rejecting fear and the notion of inevitable decline. It’s about embracing the potential of human imagination and running with it. In many ways, it channels Walt Disney himself. It’s not a perfect movie, but I think it is a good movie. 

Big Hero 6


So it’s 2014 and that means John Lassiter of Pixar leads Walt Disney Animation to make movies based on Marvel comic book series. You know, just like Walt did.

I’ll get to the movie in a minute, but it’s worth spending a moment reflecting on the synergistic juggernaut Bob Iger has wrought. They can dredge up second and third tier franchises from the Marvel story vat and convert them into money printing machines. See Guardians of the Galaxy and, of course, Big Hero 6 (not to take anything away from the $1.3 billion-generating Frozen — which is to say, Walt’s descendants can still tell a profitable story of their own). So we live in a world where Stan Less gets a sweet post-credit cameo in a Disney cartoon (and, you know, there’s a post-credit scene).

Anyway, the movie’s great. A real Marvel story for the younger set but funny enough and with ample action to entertain anyone who loved any of the previous Marvel movies (or comics or comic book movies in general). There are moments derived (sometimes, too obviously) from previous Marvel juggernauts, though. Sometimes it seems like they’ve snapped together elements from other winners into a new and slightly different shape like some kind of Lego construction, but in the end, there’s enough new and novel here to make for a swell time. It was fun, harmless, has some genuinely beautifully rendered moments, and, like any good Disney/Pixar endeavor, makes you laugh and then forces you to shed a tear at the end.

Verdict: Go see it.

Crazy ones

I’ve seen many, many comparisons of Steve Jobs to the likes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in the past few days, but only one so far to the guy I think he most closely resembles in American life: Walt Disney.

Surely, Ford was an innovator as was Jobs. Edison was an inventor as, in a different way perhaps, was Jobs. But neither of those men, with their impressive catalog of achievements, had the same kind of emotional connection that Jobs seems to have had with the world. Facebook on Wednesday night was like one big Steve Jobs tribute site. People I never would have expected to were posting their reminiscences about their first Apple products or how Steve’s aesthetic impacted their lives, both professionally and otherwise. You have to go back to 1966 to see a moment where the death of a business leader had the same kind of impact.

Both Walt and Steve (besides being known worldwide by their first names) were the embodiment of the companies they founded. They were equal parts celebrity, business leader, and inspirational innovators. Walt turned our perception of animated film on its head and advanced the art, both technically and artistically, more than any other person before or since (though John Lassiter is giving him a run for his money). He turned his enthusiasm and attention to detail to motions pictures, television, theme parks, and even urban planning and revolutionized them all. He would have fit perfectly into Apple’s “Think Different” campaign had his likeness not been locked in a steel vault under the Matterhorn. Steve of course “ignited the personal computer revolution” (as the Apple press releases always say), and radically impacted the entire entertainment business, from music to movies to gaming. His devices made possible the explosive rise of such diverse interests as social media, photography, and even filmmaking, from guys in their bedrooms to guys like Peter Jackson. His influence on design and manufacturing will be felt for a decade, at least. The mobile device industry is nothing at all like what is was only four years ago. All because of Steve’s vision.

Both Disney and Jobs pushed to create idealized realities. Steve’s very much in the present through a fanatic attention towards experience design, both virtual and physical, and Walt by representing both the past and the future as how he’d like them to be rather than how they were or would be. Their visions, based solely on their own internal ideals, were wholeheartedly embraced by millions. We not only loved what they created, we loved how they saw us in their creations.

They’re very different in what they left behind, however. When Disney died, he left a company that couldn’t replace him. Not only was there no heir, there was no interest in finding one. They went along for years thinking “what would Walt do?” and ended up nearly being consumed in the process until another leader came along and (for good or ill) started to create a new vision for Walt’s company. Steve, however, has done much to leave Apple in the best possible spot it could be. All the assets that make Apple great are still there. He even oversaw the creation of an internal Apple University to distill the qualities he led with and to ensure they’re passed on to others. Where the Walt Disney Company wandered and became diminished in the years following Walt’s death, Apple seems poised to continue its remarkable ascension specifically because of its founder’s vision and commitment.

Walt always acted like his company was there to enable him to follow his passions. In the case of Jobs, Apple was his passion. His single greatest creation. And that will make all the difference in the world.