Disney’s Tomorrowland movie may be coming out this weekend, but the desire for a utopian look at the future is something that dates back to before there was even a Disneyland theme park. It’s still what the future ought to look like.
Walt Disney, for all his faults, was an undisputed genius when it came to marketing and ideas. While classics now, many of Disney’s animated films in the 1940s were too expensive to make and didn’t garner much in the way of profit. But they were beloved, and Walt knew that. In the early 1950s, plans were begun for a massive land-buying endeavor in Anaheim, CA, which would eventually become Disneyland. Walt had the land purchased under different company names so that no one would know it was all Walt’s and it was all going to be one enormous attraction (they’d have charged a ton more if they’d known, surely). But buying the land wasn’t the only thing Disney had to do to make the park a reality.
In order to obtain the necessary funds to actually build Disneyland the park, Disney proposed a weekly television series, that he himself would host, that would both get people excited for the park and its four quadrants (Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland) and would also finance the building of the thing itself. It was brilliant! Both CBS and NBC turned him down, so he signed a deal with ABC and the series, called Disneyland, was born, running from 1954 until 1958 when it became Walt Disney Presents. It was a huge hit; the park was financed and opened on July 17th, 1955.
I tell you this history of the Disneyland TV series so you know how and why the following things were produced. Each week, that series would bring a different hour-long something to viewers. Sometimes it’d be a drama (like the serialized Davy Crockett adventures), sometimes it’d be some of Walt’s earlier animated shorts, and sometimes, when it would be a “Tomorrowland” segment, it would be gorgeous, intricate, and ultimately very speculative ideas of what the world would be like when we traveled in space.
Now, this was the mid-50s and man would not reach space until 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go into space and orbit the Earth. For the Tomorrowland segments of the show, of which there were but a few, Disney used a mixture of gorgeous, art-decoish animation and live action representations to give a, at that point, “accurate” representation of what space travel might be like. And truly, our dream of Tomorrow proved much grander than reality, as evidenced by my favorite of the episodes, “Mars and Beyond” which aired December 4, 1957, in which narrator Paul Frees and some of what I consider Disney’s finest and most breathtaking animated sequences to illustrate a possible trip to Mars, which of course, humanity has yet to accomplish, although many are trying now.
You can watch the episode in its entirety below.
This episode is full of fantasy more so than hard science, and not just because we never actually made it to Mars. It talks about strange creatures and alien species we could POSSIBLY see when we reached Mars. At this point, we had no idea what Mars even looked like beyond it being red, and people still thought there might be atmosphere like our own planet. Remember, everyone in the ’50s was afraid of Martian invasion and that lasted until, about, 2011 (give or take). We had no idea that Mars was impossibly cold compared to here, many assuming that it must be the exact opposite.
That said, there is a lot of basic science in this that would have given young viewers the building blocks of learning, and possessed enough wonderment and whimsy to probably make young, budding scientists out of many of the boys and girls watching at home. Hell, I’m 31 and live in 2015 and even I’m excited by all of this stuff. That’s really the wonder of both the Tomorrowland TV episodes and the entire ethos of that part of Disneyland; it’s about hoping and learning and believing that the future can and should be a better, brighter place. Yes, it’s a little hokey and very of its time, but it reminds us there was a time when the future seemed idyllic and magical, and not post-apocalyptic at all.
If you’d like to see all of Disneyland‘s “Tomorrowland” segments, I’ve got a handy dandy playlist for you below.