This weekend, Disneyland celebrates its 60th anniversary with a 24-hour event in Anaheim alongside the release of "Tomorrowland," the new movie starring George Clooney with roots in Disneyland’s legacy. From the cross-marketing strategy to the focus on futurism, it's a fitting tribute to the mind that gave birth to it all, Walt Disney.
The future was very good to Walter Elias Disney. Disney was what we'd call a "disruptor" today — someone who saw past the paradigm of the moment, aiming for something better. Even after his name became the gold standard for movie animation, Disney's restless futurism kept seeking new worlds to conquer.
Eventually, he created a world of his own. Marty Sklar helped bring life to that vision as the former president and principal creative executive of Disney Imagineering. In 1955, Sklar was just a 21-year-old student journalist at UCLA who landed a job at Disneyland. He was ringside for the riskiest disruption of Walt Disney's professional life.
"I mean that was a huge leap," says Sklar. "No one knew whether the place was going to be successful. In fact there were a lot of predictions that this was Walt's folly."
The original Disneyland park was divided into four subsections. Tomorrowland, Disney's playground of the future, caused the most headaches.
"It became Yesterdayland almost immediately in a lot of cases," according to Sklar. "In the beginning it had a 'Bathroom of the Future.'"
Championing travel to outer space
Meanwhile, the "Disneyland" TV show launched a regular Tomorrowland segment, with an expensively mounted Disney passion project called "Man in Space."
In March of 1955, two-and-a-half years before the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite, an estimated 43 million people — over one quarter of the then-entire U.S. population — turned on their TV sets to find Walt Disney holding a model rocketship and stating the case for space.
"He brought in experts," says Sklar. "Willy Lay... Wernher von Braun was probably the most famous."
"Man in Space" was a smash. It instantly became required viewing both at the Pentagon and within the Eisenhower administration, which credited the show with preparing the American taxpayer for the massive commitment of a U.S. space program.
Disney followed up "Man in Space" with similarly well-produced Tomorrowland programs explaining satellite technology and atomic energy, and advocating for missions to the Moon and Mars. In the process, he became the emerging American tech sector's pitchman-in-chief.
"He became kind of a middleman between industry and the public," Sklar says. "He saw that role as something that was needed in the country, and that he could do because he was so popular with the public."
Walt Disney's last great vision: E.P.C.O.T.
There was also a green side to Disney's futurism, embodied in what turned out to be his last prophetic vision. Epcot is known today as one of the core theme parks comprising Walt Disney World in Florida, but it was initially conceived by Disney as a total reimagining of urban life.
By 1966, Disney was ready to pitch his ambitious urban planning concept. Sklar wrote a film detailing the immensity of the E.P.C.O.T. concept — "Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow."
In an era where "green space," "environmental impact" and "bike-friendly" have become buzzwords of urban renewal, the E.P.C.O.T. concept film seems shockingly topical. As proposed, it would have been a city of pedestrians and electric cars. But like many visionaries, Disney's eye was on a horizon he wouldn't live to reach.
"We didn't know how sick he was," Sklar says. "We he was going into the hospital. He thought it was an old polo injury — and it turned out to be lung cancer. [The E.P.C.O.T. presentation] was the very, very last thing he ever did on film."
Disney died less than two months after filming his scenes for E.P.C.O.T. Thanks to Sklar's script, Walt Disney left the public stage the way he'd lived on it: on a note of hopeful optimism.