As my family and I entered Tomorrowland at Disney World, the sign at the entrance caught my attention: "Tomorrowland, The Future That Never Was Is Finally Here."
In 1955, when Walt Disney launched his first theme park, Tomorrowland was intended to be a temple to Walt's optimism. He said, "Tomorrowland is a vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying man's achievements…a step into the future, with predictions of constructive things to come…and the hope for a peaceful and united world."
Walt's vision was not unusual for his day. A New York Times editorial on January 1, 1901 said, "The 20th century will meet and overcome all perils and prove to be the best this steadily improving planet has ever seen." This utopian optimism fueled American imagination and culture through the mid-20th century. But today optimism is dead. People no longer believe in the promises of technology, and the term "future progress" has gone from 20th-century mantra to 21st-century oxymoron.
Fifty years after Tomorrowland opened it appears Walt's vision of the future would have better described Fantasyland. The promise of a more peaceful, prosperous, and united humanity through the power of science and technology has failed to materialize. As one Disney historian notes, "The sad reality was that technology was not a savior and that much of the advancement anticipated during the 1950s and 1960s had pushed people farther apart instead of bringing them together."
Disney, as a flagship of American culture, has been forced to respond to these changes in society. (They were forced also by the cost of continually updating the rides. Staying ahead of technology is expensive.)
By looking more carefully at the "new" Tomorrowland, the church may learn some important lessons—not simply how to win the favor of distrusting post-optimist thinkers, or how to repackage church in appealing new colors and texture; but rather, how to faithfully present a counter-cultural and hopeful gospel to a jaded and pessimistic society.
As cultural attitudes about the future have shifted, some began questioning Tomorrowland's place in Disney's world of fantasy and delight. After all, Disney World was designed to be an escape from the burdens of the real world. The future, no longer a source of hope and wonder as Walt envisioned, now awakens our worries and fears.
The Disney company's solution was ingenious. Rather than abandon Tomorrowland they simply abandoned tomorrow. Recognizing the future now held more fear than hope, more worry than wonder, Disney retreated from Walt's prophetic calling.
"The result," as Jeff Kurti observes, "is a comic-fantasy community of the future, a celebration of the machine age, with tongue firmly planted in cheek." Disney has successfully purged itself of Walt's original vision to join the cynical and jaded American cultural mainstream, but not everyone is applauding Disney's new maturity. There was something refreshing, if not a little naïve, about a vision of the future that was positive and hopeful.
In 1998, after touring Disneyland's refurbished Tomorrowland, Salon.com writer Janelle Brown said, "Walt's naïve 1950s optimism for our technological future—his grand 'predictions of things to come'—will not be replicated for the jaded generations of a 21st century Disneyland. Somewhere between then and now, Tomorrowland apparently lost the will to prophesy."
Facing the same cultural shifts as Disney, the church can choose to respond in three possible ways. (1) We may take the position held by Walt and his original Tomorrowland. We can offer people an over-realized optimism that promises more than it can possibly deliver. Such a church seeks to ease people's discomforts with grandiose expectation of blessing and abundance in our present world. While optimistic, this message is viewed as wildly naïve and draws suspicion from critical thinkers of today.