When Walt Disney welcomed visitors into Disneyland's Tomorrowland for the first time, he did so with a dedication. The land, he said, was to be a "vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying man's achievements." Park guests, he promised, would "step into the future, with predictions of constructive things to come."
While Disneyland has pivoted somewhat from that decree, come next week Tomorrowland will once again offer a bold new look into the very near future. In this vision, it's not modes of transportation or the wonders of spaceflight that are commemorated but a celebration of the soon-to-be-released "Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens."
The so-called Season of the Force launches Monday, a temporary makeover of Tomorrowland with no announced end date. While promotional in nature, Season of the Force brings with it some very real changes to classic Disney attractions, including Space Mountain, and also gives much of Tomorrowland a near-singular focus.
"It's basically as if 'Star Wars' took over Tomorrowland," says Disney Imagineering executive Scott Trowbridge at a media preview Thursday evening.
Space Mountain has a new look — say hello to Hyperspace Mountain — and the Innoventions building, recently a home for products of the future, has been remade into a museum of "Star Wars" paraphernalia and merchandise. Star Tours too has been updated to reflect "The Force Awakens," with a cameo appearance from the film's star, John Boyega.
It's no secret that "Star Wars" is coming to the Disney parks in a big way. Last summer, Disney's chairman and chief executive, Bob Iger, revealed that 14-acre "Star Wars"-themed lands are heading to Disneyland and to Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Fla.
But "you don't have to wait for them to finish before we get more 'Star Wars' here at Disneyland," says Trowbridge, who is overseeing the "Star Wars" expansions.
It's easy to see why Disney isn't wasting any time in upping its "Star Wars" offerings. The mere release of a trailer from "The Force Awakens" is treated as a media event, one that recently spiked ratings for ESPN's "Monday Night Football." When tickets went on sale for the film's Dec. 18 opening, the websites of theater chains across the country crashed because of a flood of demand.
It's the rare entertainment franchise that's able to transcend and shift with generational changes while maintaining a nostalgic appeal. Season of the Force offerings walk the line between teasing the new and reminiscing over the original "Star Wars" movies.
That's not the approach that Disney will take with the future "Star Wars"-inspired land, which will be situated at the end of the park, opposite Tomorrowland. In early January, Frontierland's Big Thunder Ranch will close to make way for construction.
"They're very different things," Trowbridge says. "Season of the Force is a celebration of all things 'Star Wars.' It's a celebration of all the movies we love, the characters we've met before, the stories that we remember, the stories we want to relive again and again.
"What we're going to try and do with the new land ... is not relive and remember so much as invite you in to brand-new stories and brand-new experiences and invite you to live your 'Star Wars' story versus remember somebody else's 'Star Wars' story."
For now, there is Season of the Force's Hyperspace Mountain, which is full of nods to the movies old and new. No doubt many Disneyland fans already associate Space Mountain with "Star Wars."
The ride, which originated at Orlando's Walt Disney World, opened in Anaheim in 1977 just weeks before the first film in the "Star Wars" saga. The attraction has boasted a long tunnel of dizzying lights to simulate the jump to light speed, one not drastically dissimilar from the journey made by the Millennium Falcon in "Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope."
Still, Space Mountain is a Disney original that has largely been free of character or film associations. The ride's beginnings actually date to before Walt Disney's death in 1966. In a recent interview, former Disney Imagineering chief Marty Sklar recalled that John Hench, a longtime Disney employee who helped plot Walt Disney World, began crafting the attraction about a decade before its 1975 debut in Florida.
"John had done this concept when Walt was still alive for Space Mountain, but at that time they couldn't do it," Sklar says. "The computer systems were not sophisticated enough to keep the cars separated in that environment. Now, in 1970, 1971, you could do it, so we developed what became Space Mountain with this long corridor going in."
Disney traditionalists, however, can likely breathe a sigh of relief. Hyperspace Mountain is not a grand re-envisioning of the ride, and it maintains much of Space Mountain's pitch-black nature, especially for the first three-fourths of the experience.
Gone, however, is the electronic-infused soundtrack. The ride now re-imagines Space Mountain as a reconnaissance mission to the planet of Jakku — a destination in "The Force Awakens" — to investigate the presence of an Imperial Star Destroyer. There is a model of a TIE Fighter added to the attraction, but the bulk of the new material relies on wall projections.
Throughout, riders get glimpses of X-Wings and TIE Fighters. At certain turns, there are views of the Star Destroyer, hovering ominously in the distance. Guests also hear familiar "Star Wars" voices, such as Admiral Akbar. The ride builds to a climactic battle with the rockets jettisoning past a rush or red and green blaster fire.
Space Mountain hasn't been immune to changes in its three-plus decades. In the lead-up to Halloween, for instance, the ride becomes known as Ghost Galaxy and features projections of a fire-orange ghoul haunting riders. In 2007, the ride briefly was re-christened Rockin' Space Mountain and boasted music from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
While Trowbridge says the classic Space Mountain is not going away, he couldn't hint at when it would return.
"We're always very, very mindful of the legacy that this all comes from," he says. "These are fan favorite experiences, and they're our favorites too, so we honor that. But just like we do with Ghost Galaxy, it's fun to have a special take on it for a little bit of time. … Then it will become Space Mountain again maybe, and who knows what else?"
Trowbridge stresses that an infusion of "Star Wars" isn't a drastic change for the Disney parks. Star Tours has existed at Disneyland since 1987. For Season of the Force, it's received a lengthy addition inspired by "The Force Awakens." Riders skim the surface of Jakku as the Millennium Falcon and a TIE Fighter whiz by. In addition to Boyega, the new droid BB-8, already a fan favorite, pops in to converse with C-3PO.
Over at Tomorrowland's Innoventions building, Star Wars Launch Bay has taken over and features re-creations of props and costumes from the films, including a new lightsaber from "Force Awakens" villain Rylo Ken and costumes similar to those worn by Daisy Ridley, who plays the new character Rey. There are also photo-ops with a mini replica of the cantina from "A New Hope," complete with lamps fashioned out of scarred droid faces.
And what would a Disney experience be without merch? In the market for a $9,000 life-size Stormtrooper statue for the family room? You're in luck. Collectors with smaller budgets can be directed to the $2,000 bust of Darth Vader, or the $600 Mark Hamill autograph, or an assortment of shirts, jewelry, nightwear, action figures and, of course, lightsabers, some in the form of umbrellas.
Disney's marketing prowess extends even into Tomorrowland's edible items. A "Dark Side" burger is topped with spicy-lime aioli and can be purchased with a plastic Han Solo carbonite box. There are also Vader-shaped popcorn buckets, Chewbacca-shaped fruit steins and BB-8 sippy cups.
"This has always been a place to come and get your 'Star Wars' fix," Trowbridge said, "but we're going to blow it out even more."
'Star Wars' Season of the Force
Where: Tomorrowland inside the Disneyland Resort
When: Begins Nov. 16
Price: $99 for an one-day ticket