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Discoveryland U.S.A. -- Part 1

Discoveryland U.S.A. -- Part 1

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Beth from Elmira, NY writes:

Jim -

I just wanted to drop you a quick note to welcome you back to the Web. I also wanted to mention how much I enjoyed the first installment of your "Tower Tales" series over at Tower-of-Terror.com. I find it just fascinating that WDI once planned to recreate Nemo's secret lair inside on EDL's Discovery Mountain. But - when I read about stuff like this - I also get sort of sad.

Why? Well, Jim, I can't help but think: Why is it that the Imagineers never try to build something as wildly imaginative as Nemo's Secret Lair - or Discoveryland, for that matter - back here in the United States?

Ah, but they did try, Beth. They really did.

Don't believe me? Then take a gander at these pictures (kindly provided by the Jeff Lange photo archives). These are shots of a model of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom that used to be on display in the post-show area of "The Walt Disney Story" during the resort's 20th anniversary.

The area that we're going to zero in on today reveals what the Imagineers were thinking of doing with WDW's Tomorrowland circa October 1991. Which - as you'll see - is quite different than "The Future That Never Was" that we ended up with in 1994. How so? Well, for starters, let's take a look at the new name that WDI had hoped to hang on this side of the park: Discoveryland.

Discoveryland USA

That's right. Discoveryland. NOT Tomorrowland, but Discoveryland.

You see, even though it was a full six months before Euro Disneyland would open its gates to the world, the Imagineers already knew that they had a winner with EDL's Discoveryland. Which is why the WDI was anxious to bring some of this land's core concepts & design ideas back to the states.

The only problem was, given that design work was already well underway on Disneyland's "Tomorrowland 2055" project, the Anaheim theme park wasn't really in a position to benefit from any of EDL's Discoveryland's snazzy designs & ideas. But Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom - and its extremely tired Tomorrowland - was. Which is why the Imagineers set to work. Trying to find ways to take their very best concepts from the company's soon-to-be-opening theme park in France and make them work over here in Orlando.

Of course, given that this was supposed to be just a revamping of WDW's Tomorrowland area (rather than a brand new, built-from-the-ground-up section of the park), this proposed Magic Kingdom redo had its own unique set of problems. Disney Company management expected the Imagineers to work within the parameters of their somewhat generous budget to retheme the entire area as well as address some of the decades-old flaws in the original Tomorrowland's design.

What sorts of flaws? Well, let's start with the obvious: Which is finding a way to gracefully ease WDW guests into this bold new take on Tomorrowland. For years now, WDI veterans had been bothered by the abrupt transition that Magic Kingdom visitors had been expecting to make as they moved from Main Street U.S.A. to the original Tomorrowland. Which is why they wanted to use this proposed Discoveryland redo to finally address that problem.

But how do you go about easing someone from turn-of-the-century America to the far off future? To the Imagineers' way of thinking, the easiest way to do this was to ditch Tomorrowland's bland Plaza Pavilion fast food joint and replace it with ... The Astronomer's Club.

Astronomer's Club building

And what exactly was the Astronomer's Club? Well, do you know the Adventurer's Club over at WDW's Pleasure Island? Well, picture an environment just like that ... only you get to eat inside of this place. The funky-but-fun décor of this restaurant was supposed to have been dominated by this enormous antique telescope which was aimed at the heavens. There was also supposed to have been this tiny stage just below the eyepiece of the telescope. And - every half hour or so - a streetmosphere performer dressed as Galileo or Leonardo DaVinci was to have entered the restaurant and entertained the crowds there by telling these wild tales of science and discovery.

"But, Jim ... How did Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci end up as entertainers inside a Disney theme park restaurant?" Well, please remember that the Plaza Pavilion / proposed Astronomers Club restaurant location actually backs up against WDW's old Circlevision theater location. Where an Americanized version of EDL's "From Time to Time" attraction was soon supposed to have opened.

From Time to Time building

Well, the proposed back story for the Astronomer's Club was that the Timekeeper and Nine Eyes - in addition to giving Jules Verne a glimpse of the future as part of the storyline of their "From Time to Time" show - would occasionally grab some other great minds of the past and bring them back to Walt Disney World to get a brief look at today's world.

These scientists and explorers would then supposedly wander out of the "From Time to Time" theater building and interact with guests inside the Astronomer's Club. That is - of course - until Nine Eyes and/or the Timekeeper appeared (via an overhead television monitor, of course) and told Galielo, DaVinci or whomever that it was time for them to re-enter the theater and return to the past.

I know, I know. This sounds like a really odd place to dine, doesn't it? Well, while it wasn't exactly "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe," the Astronomer's Club was supposed to have had a sort of a loopy Douglas Adams feel to it. A place where the past and the future didn't exactly collide but - rather - peacefully co-existed side by side.

According to the Imagineers who designed it, The Astronomer's Club really had a threefold purpose. A) Its vaguely Victorian / Machine Age trappings were supposed to have served as a graceful transition from Main Street U.S.A. to Discoveryland. 2) The constant references to the "From Time to Time" characters and storyline would hopefully significantly up attendance levels for the new Circlevision 360 show next door. 3) By doing this elaborate retheming of WDW's Plaza Pavilion restaurant, Disney could now get away with charging a hell of a lot more for the cheeseburgers and fries that they'd be serving up at this revamped Tomorrowland dining facility. So, it sounds like a win / win / win situation all around, doesn't it?

Alright, enough with the Astronomer's Club. Now let's talk about what the rest of WDW's Discoveryland was supposed to have looked like. Well - if you've ever seen any pictures of Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland - you already have a pretty good idea of what the theming and the color scheme of the Disney World version of this land would have looked like. Picture a lot of burnished copper and rivets. A place that Captain Nemo and H.G. Wells would both supposedly have been happy to call home.

As for the proposed assortment of attractions for WDW's version of Discoveryland ... Well - as you can see by the picture below - even back then, "Alien Encounter" was supposed to have been part of the mix in this area ...

Alien Encounter building

As was the "Astro Orbiter." (Though - in this incarnation - the revamped Tomorrowland Star Jets ride did have a different name: The "Kinetic Jets.")

Kinetic Jets building

WDW's Autopia was (unfortunately) supposed to have remained pretty much as it was. Though there was reportedly some talk at WDI about redoing all the cars for the attraction so that they would then have a swoopy sci-fi-ish feel to them. (Think big fins and overly chromed grillwork. Just like the classic cars of the 1950s had.)

Autopia attraction

WDW's Skyway was also (in this proposed version of the Tomorrowland / Discoveryland redo, anyway) to have basically remained the same. Offering guests the same old scenic view of the Magic Kingdom from above.

This L-shaped building with the "Future Projects" label on it above represents the Discoveryland terminus for WDW's Skyway. (For those of you who haven't already figured that out.)

Future Projects building

Space Mountain was also to have remained pretty much the same. Oh, sure. The classic white spired roof would have probably gotten a new paint job. Something that reflected the new burnished copper look of the rest of Discoveryland. But the interior of this classic WDW thrill ride wasn't supposed to have been touched ...

Space Mountain building

Whereas the "Carousel of Progress" ... Well, sad as it is to say, this classic Disney theme park show would have disappeared forever if WDW's Discoveryland had actually gone forward. But - in its place - there would have been a revamped version of a long lost Disneyland attraction. A ride that Disneyana fans had thought was gone forever ... but secretly hoped that they'd get the chance to ride again someday.

The Flying Saucers.

Flying Saucers building

Yep, the Flying Saucers. The idea here was that the Imagineers were going to gut WDW's Carousel of Progress theater-go-round building and then redress its exterior to look like an enormous UFO. Guests - upon entering this extrarestrial craft - would learn that this show building was actually a training facility for would-be flying saucer pilots. The ceiling and walls of the interior would have been painted with stars, moons, comets. Far-flung galaxies. The very sorts of things that a guest would supposedly have encountered if they had actually been out tooling around the cosmos in their very own UFO.

Flying Saucers concept art

By building this new version of Disneyland's "Flying Saucers" indoors (Rather than outside, exposed to the elements, as the original Anaheim version of the ride had been), it was hoped that Walt Disney World's operations staff would be able to avoid many of the maintenance headaches that had bedeviled DL's technical crew back in the early 1960s. Plus this new set-up for this old Disneyland favorite meant that - even when it was raining cats and dogs at the Magic Kingdom - something that occurs with amazing frequency on hot summer afternoons in Central Florida - this Discoveryland attraction could still be up and running.

WDW's Discoveryland sounds like a pretty snazzy place to spend the day, doesn't it?

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