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Disneyland Steps Back to Get Ahead

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Disneyland officials headed back to the future Thursday, unveiling a retrofit of Tomorrowland, with the emphasis on “retro.”

Planned new attractions include an interactive technology pavilion, a high-speed rocket ride to replace the lumbering People Mover, a futuristic glockenspiel and a 3-D film featuring a moving floor under the audience.

But while the attractions will display cutting-edge wizardry, the facades and themes of the new Tomorrowland will be reworked into a timeless, stylized vision of the future straight out of the pages of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Scheduled for completion in 1998, the project is an attempt by Disneyland to refine the launch pad kitsch that has been the hallmark of the future-themed land since the park opened in 1955.

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It’s also a recognition of the fundamental contradiction of Tomorrowland--the future is unfolding too fast for even the vaunted Imagineers to represent it literally within the confines of a theme park.

“We wanted to capture that moment of inspiration, that imaginative vision of futurists from Leonardo Da Vinci to George Lucas . . . rather than create a specific time period in the future,” said Tony Baxter, senior vice president of creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering who headed up the Tomorrowland revamp.

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The unveiling of the new Tomorrowland is but the first of two major announcements that were anticipated out of Disneyland this quarter. Disney was expected to unveil long-awaited expansion plans for a new theme park, hotels and night-life district next to Disneyland by the end of March--a target established by Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner in January.

But Disneyland officials are backing off from that date, though not the project itself.

“We are waiting to get all the creative and financial elements in place,” said Disneyland spokesman Tom Brocato. “It is our intention to make an announcement about our decision to go forward with the expansion. All I can say at this point is that it will be sometime in 1996.”

The centerpiece of the new Tomorrowland will be a ride dubbed the Astro Orbitor, where guests can sail speeding star ships through a galaxy of whirling orbs, planets and astrolabes.

The design is heavily influenced by the astrological sketches of Da Vinci, but the economics are pure Disney. Although it will be given a new name, new look and new location at the entrance of Tomorrowland, the Astro Orbitor is really just a face lift of the existing Rocket Jets ride.

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“Economics are a consideration in everything we do,” Baxter said. “That’s part of the challenge.”

The old People Mover tracks will likewise be recycled into the new circuit for an as-yet-unnamed rocket-themed ride that will traverse the elevated tracks “at the fastest speed ever attained [by a ride] at Disneyland,” Baxter said. Closed to the public since last fall, the doddering but beloved People Mover now joins other defunct attractions such as the Flying Saucers and House of the Future on the Tomorrowland scrap heap.

In fact, by the time the latest renovation is complete, the only attraction remaining from the original opening of Tomorrowland will be Autopia, Walt Disney’s prophetic, miniaturized salute to freeway gridlock.

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Interior construction on the project has already begun, and major outdoor work is set to begin in September. Popular attractions such as Space Mountain and Star Tours will remain open during and after the renovation. In addition, Space Mountain will be upgraded with a new high-tech audio system and movie-style soundtrack featuring the music of surf guitar legend Dick Dale.

The first major overhaul of Tomorrowland since 1967 will also feature a couple of imports from Disney’s Florida parks. Innoventions, a hands-on technology expo now operating in Disney’s Epcot, will be replicated inside the old Carousel Theater--but with a distinctly Anaheim twist. The old rotating floor of the theater, which park veterans may recall from the old Carousel of Progress, will be retained and incorporated into the new exhibit, which will display gee-whiz gadgetry from a number of high-tech firms.

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“Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” is another Epcot adaptation. The 3-D comedy starring Rick Moranis will combine special effects with a moving floor inside the Magic Eye Theatre, which is to be renamed the Imagination Institute. The film replaces “Captain Eo,” the shopworn 1986 3-D extravaganza starring fallen pop star Michael Jackson.

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Taking attractions that proved popular in one theme park and replicating them in another is standard industry practice, according to Dick Lyon, a theme park consultant from Pacific Palisades.

“The guests get a proven attraction and the operators save on design and creative costs,” Lyon said. “It’s just good business sense.”

However, a few attractions unique to the Anaheim park will be scattered among the retreads and repeats. Among them is the Observatron, a futuristic glockenspiel that will perform every 15 minutes, utilizing music, lights, lasers and other special effects. Disney is also planning an interactive fountain in Tomorrowland where guests can frolic amid jets spraying water in synchronized patterns.

To placate “technophobes,” Disney Imagineers plan to landscape the new Tomorrowland with a host of plants and agricultural displays to remind guests that human beings will still eat on the new frontier. Coffee, orange and lemon trees are just a sampling of the lush flora designed to educate and soothe guests wary of a sterile, computerized future.

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“We want Tomorrowland to be familiar as well as innovative,” Baxter said. “If we make it too clinical, it will turn people off.”


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