The Future Began in 1955
Tomorrowland was created by Walt Disney as a section of Disneyland in 1955. It was a time when Americans imagined an optimistic future. Over the years since, the public’s view of the future grew dark. Comments the film’s director, Brad Bird, “Any time that there is an empty canvas, there are two ways to look at it; one is emptiness and the other one is wide open to possibility. And that’s how I like to look at the future—wide open to possibility. It is a view that has fallen out of favor in terms of looking at the future.”
This shift in thinking also intrigued writer/producer Damon Lindelof, so when he began to synthesize the story for “Tomorrowland, A World Beyond,” he looked for what Tomorrowland meant and how it could be represented in a storyline. “I really wanted to recapture that earlier optimism,” comments Lindelof.
The story of “Tomorrowland, A World Beyond” started with a box labeled “1952,” supposedly discovered by accident in the Disney Studios archive. The mystery box contained all sorts of fascinating models and blueprints, photographs and letters related to the inception of Tomorrowland and the 1964 World’s Fair. Lindelof was excited by the find and recalls, “I began to imagine that the contents of the box were a guide to a secret story that nobody knew. But if so, what would that story be? And the most obvious answer to me was that there really was a place called Tomorrowland that was not a theme park but existed somewhere in the real world.”
Lindelof began to develop the story by researching the history of Disney and its originator, which led to research on the company’s involvement in the 1964 World’s Fair. “Walt Disney was a futurist in that real mid-century modernist sense,” says Lindelof. “He was very optimistic. He believed that technology held the key to building a better world. He also believed in technology as a means of creating great entertainment. For the 1964 World’s Fair, the Walt Disney Company created three rides, the It’s a Small World ride being the one we remember most. Though quaint by today’s standards, back in 1964, Carousel of Progress and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln were revolutionary in how they used robotics and ride technology to create a thematically rich experience.”
Lindelof adds, “And there was also an underlying radical optimism. This was 1964, the world had just flirted with thermonuclear catastrophe as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the song ‘It’s a Small World’ was written in response to a world that had walked right up to the brink of nuclear war but had pulled back and was now pining to recognize that we don’t have to destroy ourselves. The lyrics—“It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears”—touched on that anxiety. Given how it just seems so cute and sentimental today, I found it fascinating that the ride was encoded with that real-world angst. There was a radical political message in there and a very idealistic one too.”
The success of the World’s Fair allowed Disney to raise funds for his next great project, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or Epcot. Disney’s vision was for a model city that would be an ongoing experiment in urban development and organization; it was to be a real Tomorrowland where technology wed urban planning to create an optimal living environment. Walt Disney died, however, before Epcot could be built, and the Disney Company decided it did not want to run a city without his input. The model community concept was modified to become a large “permanent World’s Fair” instead, with two small residential districts for employees and their immediate family members. The park still exists today in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
“Walt Disney was constantly innovating,” says director Brad Bird in admiration. “He was never afraid to be the first to do something. He was among the very first in animation to introduce sound and color. ‘Fantasia’ had stereophonic sound fifteen years before anyone else did. When he started working on Disneyland everyone thought he was insane. Disney was forever jumping out of planes and then improvising a parachute on the way down. He was excited about things like space travel; all you have to do is look at those specials he did with Ward Kimball in the late fifties to see that Walt was really excited about the idea of progress. He had a massive curiosity and Tomorrowland, the World’s Fair, Epcot, they all represent that.”
Bird adds, “One of Disney’s quotes was, ‘I don’t make movies to make money; I make money to make movies.’ Was he a perfect guy? No. But when you look at how much he accomplished in his lifetime it’s just staggering. So I view him as an innovator. He had a very proactive and positive view of the future. I like to think that this film is something that he would enjoy.”
When Lindelof’s research was complete, he approached Jeff Jensen to help further develop the story. “When I was doing ‘Lost,’” says Lindelof, “Jeff was working as a journalist for Entertainment Weekly. He had this amazingly imaginative brain. He would watch ‘Lost’ every week and come up with these crazy theories that were so inventive that I often found myself wishing that I had been smart enough to make the show about what Jeff thought the show was about. So he was exactly the guy I needed to help me cook up a fictional story that connected all the items I found in the box.”
“Tomorrowland, A World Beyond” is a quintessential Disney movie,” says executive producer Jeff Jensen, who is credited with story by with Bird & Lindelof. “ It is steeped in the values of Walt Disney: you’re going to see some amazing special effects and very innovative storytelling. And we’ve tried to remain true to the spirit embodied in places like Tomorrowland and Epcot—places Walt imagined would constantly develop new ideas for the future. Walt and his work was constantly changing, constantly evolving because in his mind the future was never fixed; the future is a project that is never done.”
Lindelof and Jensen wrote a detailed story draft, then Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof went out for lunch and, according to Lindelof, “It turned out that Brad knew quite a bit about Walt Disney and the hook was in. Brad and I started writing together from that point on.”
It is true that writer/director Brad Bird is no stranger to the world of Disney and it isn’t just from working on his previous films. When he was 11, Bird developed an interest in animation and visited the Disney Studios. Over the course of three years he finished a 15-minute animated film that came to the attention of Disney Animation, who offered to assign a mentor—the famous Master Animator Milt Kahl—to the then 14 year old. Bird stayed with a family friend in Los Angeles to take advantage of the once-in-alifetime offer.
Commenting on the story for “Tomorrowland, A World Beyond,” Bird says, “It’s a very untraditional story and the protagonists are atypical. It’s a chance to do to work on a grand scale but do something that hopefully will be very surprising. It embodies both aspects of the future—the scary and the wondrous—both of which are somewhat unknowable, so it’s an interesting ride.”
The promise of tomorrowland
In the movie, the premise that the futuristic city of Tomorrowland could actually exist pays homage to Walt Disney’s vision for both Disneyland’s Tomorrowland and Disney World’s Epcot, where ever-evolving technologies are showcased along with ideas to make the world a better place for all. But many believe—although it is generally thought to be myth—that Walt Disney was part of a secret band of thinkers and optimists and that Tomorrowland might actually exist in another dimension as a direct result of the forward-thinking, futuristic ideas that the group developed.
As the story goes, genius French structural engineer Gustave Eiffel, who designed and built the famous Eiffel Tower, built himself a private apartment in it where he would later conduct meteorological observations and perform various scientific experiments. Legend has it that on one fateful autumn evening in 1889, Eiffel quietly gathered together three of his most illustrious peers—the American Thomas Edison, Frenchman Jules Verne and Serbian Nikola Tesla—in the apartment to discuss the future.
That night the four men are believed by many to have formed a highly secretive organization, code-named Plus Ultra, that would shape the next century and beyond. “These great thinkers hatched a plan to build a city of the future,” screenwriter Damon Lindelof suggests, “that couldn’t be controlled by government or corporate interests; it would be the world’s greatest ongoing utopian science fair. But two World Wars set them back, and it was only in the 1960s, after Walt Disney joined the organization, that this secret world of technological innovation was built but hidden from the ‘real world.’”
Called Tomorrowland in reference to the section of Disneyland that Walt Disney had built a decade earlier as a celebration of technology, this alternate Tomorrowland developed technologies that Plus Ultra slowly introduced into the world. “They had cell phones in the 1930s,” surmises Lindelof, “space travel twenty years before that, and advanced rocketry a full sixty years before we did. They built this amazing city in the 1960s and it’s been up and running ever since.”
Tomorrowland is indicative of the can-do, Right-Stuff spirit of the Space-Race fifties and sixties, when “there was this feeling that the future was something that could be built,” says executive producer Jeff Jensen, “that we could make things better, technologically, politically, and socially; we could make a better world. ‘Plus ultra’ is Latin for ‘further beyond’; it was the mantra of Spanish explorers. Eiffel and his colleagues thought of themselves as explorers, not of new lands but of human potential. Walt Disney was a perfect fit for the organization, and was recruited because he embodied this idea that the future is this thing that we’re constantly striving toward. But things changed and today the future is much more nebulous, more uncertain. We’re cynical about progress; we’re skeptical that things can get better. We think of the future as something that’s going to happen to us, not something that we are making. Of course, not everything about the past is great, it was all much more complex and political than we know, and not all of it should carry forward. But can we recover something of that idealistic midcentury futurism? Is any of it relevant to today’s world?”
“Something has been lost,” director Brad Bird believes. “Pessimism has become the only acceptable way to view the future, and I disagree with that. I think there’s something self-fulfilling about it. If that’s what everybody collectively believes then that’s what will come to be. It engenders passivity: if everybody feels like there’s no point then they don’t do the myriad of things that could bring us a great future. When I was a kid, even though there were many negative things going on, as there always is and will be, it was acceptable to view the future in a positive light, that life was going to be better, that racism would cease, inequality would be mitigated, and so on. Now there’s this sort of giant cosmic shrug and I hate that. I just don’t think that we’re on the planet to do that. We have the power to be responsible and go in the other direction.”
“Tomorrowland. That word is so evocative of all the themes that we’ve been talking about here,” concludes executive producer Jeff Jensen. “It’s evocative of the future. It’s evocative of the notion of progress. It is evocative of the idea of a culture working together collaboratively—not necessarily without disagreement, but creatively to build the future that we want. We’re putting that word out there and asking people to respond to it.”