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Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland

When looking to breathe some life back into Disneyland's Frontierland in the late 1970's, legendary Imagineer Tony Baxter spearheaded a project dubbed "Discovery Bay". Placed along the Rivers of America, this was meant to mirror a San Francisco harbourfront out of Jules Verne, including a Nautilus restaurant and a ride based on the upcoming film Island at the Top of the World. Unfortunately, Island at the Top of the World failed at the box office and Discovery Bay was shelved, but the essential ideas developed for it resurfaced decades later when Baxter was put in charge of designing the new EuroDisney. Discovery Bay formed the backbone of the new park's version of Tomorrowland, dubbed Discoveryland.

All photos by Cory Gross unless otherwise noted.

One of the consistent problems with Tomorrowland at Disneyland USA in Anaheim, Walt Disney World in Orlando, and Tokyo Disneyland is that the future keeps coming. Walt Disney's original plans were extraordinarily ambitious: a permanent, constantly changing World's Exposition in which American industry could show off the latest technological developments in an entertaining format. That's also expensive, and the rate of technological progress is so rapid that an attraction may already be out of date before it has debuted. The last time that Disneyland developed a proper science-based attraction was Adventure Thru Inner Space in 1967, themed to a microscopic voyage through the atomic realm. The ride, sponsored by Monsanto and featuring a Monsanto showroom at its exit, closed in 1985 when it was replaced by Star Tours, a Star Wars-based attraction. The creation of Star Tours marked a major philosophical change at Walt Disney Imagineering by simply replacing a classic attraction with a new one based on a commercial intellectual property. 

Baxter and his team were given the opportunity with the EuroDisney project in the late Eighties and early Nineties to reimagine the entire Disneyland concept from the ground up. Their radical "blue sky" phase even questioned whether it was actually necessary to have a castle at the centre of a Disneyland park. The Tomorrowland problem was high on their list of concerns. One of the initial suggestions was to essentially abolish Tomorrowland completely and replace it with an entire land licensed to Star Wars. No idea at Imagineering is truly forgotten, and a Star Wars land has finally surfaced at both American theme parks. That plan for Disneyland Paris was ultimately rejected in favour of one that could kill two proverbial birds with one stone.



A challenge Disney faced with building a Disneyland park outside of Paris was France's cultural gatekeepers who saw the prospect as a gauche, kitsch incursion of American consumer culture into the very heart of European civilization. Appeasing those gatekeepers became a serious concern for Baxter's team, resulting in numerous lines of connection between Disney's IP and French and European culture. The French origins of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were emphasized, for example. Their new version of Adventureland drew more definitely from European colonial exploits and adventure tales like Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island. Phantom Manor, the reworked version of Haunted Mansion set to the American Wild West, found some inspiration in Gaston Leroux's immortal creation. An exhibit along Main Street USA celebrates France's gift of the Statue of Liberty. 

Rather than try to keep pace with the future or simply consign Tomorrowland to franchise IP, Baxter's team developed the retro-futuristic "Discoveryland" of Jules Verne's imagination. This version of the land consciously looked to the aspirations of the past to commemorate its ambitions for the future which we were now realizing, as well as celebrated the work of France's pioneers of Science Fiction and Disney's connections to them.

"Tout ce qui est dans la limite du possible, doit être et sera accompli." - Jules Verne
("All that is within the limit of possible, must be and will be accomplished.")

An Island at the Top of the World ride was no longer on the books for this park, superseded as it was by Space Mountain, Star Tours and the like. But one of the most striking visual features from Discovery Bay's concept art was the Hyperion airship moored in its hangar. This element was retained and became the basis of the Cafè Hyperion eatery and Videopolis theatre.



Here, a life-sized model of the intrepid ship overhangs the entrance of the cafe. Inside are Retro-Futuristic travel posters showing exotic locales like Egypt reached by camel, zeppelin or flying car. The cashiers and fast food service counters are made to resemble the ticket counters of the Hyperion's travel agency. While a ride would be nice, at least the sense of an aeroport is conveyed nicely. The cafe's tables overlook the stage of Videopolis, with its program of live theatrical musicals and animated shorts.

Entrance to Cafè Hyperion. 

A closer view of the Hyperion's cabin.

Service counters of Cafè Hyperion.



Maps of the Hyperion's voyages above the service counters.

Greatest Coke machines in the world.

According to the displays associated with the Cafè Hyperion, this ship has a slightly different history than that of the one in Island at the Top of the World. No doubt they recognized that a movie as poorly received as Island in its 1970's theatrical release wouldn't be as readily known to Parisians in the 1990's. It reads:
Here is moored the Dirigible HYPERION.

Adventure-seeker, brave explorer, her exploits were the stuff of wonder and mystery...

For each of her 49 known expeditions, she had but one captain. Yet this bold and gallant man vanished without a trace on the morning of her 50th scheduled flight.

The HYPERION remains as she was on that fateful day, cargo stowed, instruments ready, patiently awaiting the return of the Captain who once more shall cast off her lines and take to the sky.

According to the same display, the Hyperion is 34m long, has a capacity of four passengers, a ceiling of 3000m, reservoir capacity of 350l, and a payload of 800 kilos. She was constructed in Holland in 1892 by Van Der Poole & Sons, while her 8-cylinder, 100 C.T. engine was built by R.U. Revved, Ltd. The Hyperion's speed record was from Paris to Cairo in 35 hours and 57 minutes.

Another visual feature from Discovery Bay that was retained for Discoveryland was the Nautilus floating in a lagoon. The restaurant idea was scrapped and the associated attraction became a walkthrough of Captain Nemo's famed ship. Les Mystères du Nautilus was prefigured a long time past by the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit at the original Disneyland, which showed from park opening in 1955 to the redevelopment of Tomorrowland in 1966. Needing something to fill the empty spaces spotting his own world of tomorrow, Walt Disney pulled the set pieces for 20,000 Leagues out of storage, lined them up in the building that presently houses Star Tours, and introduced visitors to the bowels of Captain Nemo's fantastic submarine vessel. The exhibit gained in posterity what it lost in exact theming, preserving and displaying the authentic objects from the film. At least, it had until it was removed and the organ shipped over to the Haunted Mansion's ballroom. 

Though any astute fan of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would be able to tell how the Nautilus floating in Discoveryland differs from the film, it is still stunning in its verisimilitude. Descending a staircase in the neighbouring lighthouse, one walks through wooden tunnels with anticipation until they reach a hole cut in the side of the ship. Then the wonders of the Nautilus, slightly different from celluloid but nonetheless meticulous, reveal themselves, culminating in a squid attacked viewed through the portals of the grand salon.



Ballast tanks. Nothing to see here.






A "thesis statement" attraction for Discoveryland was developed with Le Visionarium: Un Voyage a Travers le Temps. Debuting with Disneyland Paris in 1992, Le Visionarium was an innovation on the historic Disney Circlevision technology. Whereas previous Circlevision features in Disneyland USA and Walt Disney World utilized “theatre-in-the-round” technology to provide scenic wonders and thrilling footage, Le Visionarium was the first to use the format to tell a story.  


In keeping with the Retro-Futuristic theme of Paris' Discoveryland, Le Visionarium featured a time-travelling robot named 9-Eyes who was sent to record history by another robot named The Timekeeper. Guests were ushered into the theatre through a lobby that included models of the Nautilus and Albatross, as well as Da Vinci flying machines and vintage-style posters. Following the pre-show video that introduces The Timekeeper and 9-Eyes, the mission begins. After visiting the age of dinosaurs, the Ice Age, and the Renaissance, 9-Eyes ends up at the 1900 Exposition Universelle immediately prior to a debate between Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (portrayed by Jeremy Irons). After mocking the impossibility of time machine, Verne (played by French actor Michel Piccoli) sees 9-Eyes and accidentally hitches a ride. The Timekeeper decides to let Verne catch a vision of the future he dreamed of, including high-speed rail, race cars, undersea exploration, an incident in Charles de Gaulle Airport (with a cameo by Gérard Depardieu), a helicopter flight over Mont Saint-Michel and Neuschwanstein Castle, and a spacewalk in Earth orbit before being returned to 1900. In the end, 9-Eyes takes us into the future – 2189 – where we see flying cars and a final glimpse of Verne and Wells together in the latter's time machine.

Le Visionarium was exported to both Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland, but every incarnation has sadly been lost to "Yesterland." In Disneyland Paris it was replaced by a Buzz Lightyear ride in 2004 after corporate sponsor Renault pulled out due to flagging attendance. Le Visionarium remains on YouTube, however, and its final showing can be watched in its entirety in the video below.

Le Visionarium complete show.


A classic Tomorrowland attraction was given a working over for Discoveryland, in the form of Orbitron – Machines Volantes. Originally the Astro Jets and then the Rocket Jets at Disneyland USA, this spinner was redesigned as a Victorian celestial orrery. Star Tours, Autopia, and the Michael Jackson 3D spectacular Captain EO were also opening day attractions in Discoveryland imported from Disneyland USA.


The Oribitron, with Space Mountain in the background.

A delayed attraction was Space Mountain. Concepts for this attraction varied wildly and imaginatively over time. Originally dubbed "Discovery Mountain," the attraction would have housed a roller coaster, the Nautilus walkthrough, a drop ride themed to the climax of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a version of EPCOT's Horizons attraction, and shopping and dining opportunities.


Exterior (top) and interior (bottom) of Discovery Mountain.

Ultimately too ambitious, plans were scaled back to the version that eventually came to pass. Some echoes of "Discovery Mountain" can still be found in the iconography around the attraction, as the change in name to the already well-known Space Mountain came only a few days before it opened in 1995.



Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon reworked the classic Space Mountain format into an adventure into the fantasy space of Jules Verne and Georges Méliès. The antiseptic white exterior of Space Mountain in Walt Disney World and Disneyland USA was exchanged for a rich motif of brass and copper matching the world's fair aesthetic of the remainder of Discoveryland. The standard roller coaster lift hill was replaced with a launch tunnel themed to the Columbiad cannon from Verne's De la terre à la lune, as filtered through the lens of Disney imagination, complete with smoke and an explosive sound. Inside, the coaster tracks inverted and corkscrewed through scenes of stars and asteroid miners. Finally the ride climaxed with a glimpse of a Mélièsian moon winking at guests before they plumet back to Earth, all to an original on-board soundtrack by Steve Bramson. Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon was the first roller coaster to feature a synchronized on-board soundtrack.

Mid-1990's quality video of Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon.

More footage from the queue of Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon.


Sadly, "From the Earth to the Moon" fell victim to a park-wide revitalization project in 2005 (the same that claimed the life of Le Visionarium). After a decade of test runs to the moon, the Columbiad was ready for "Mission 2". Internal projection effects were altered and the Man in the Moon was replaced by an exploding supernova. Rather than improve an ailing attraction, Disneyland Paris chose to target the park's most popular ride, hoping to double down on its appeal. While still the most exciting Space Mountain, the loss of the Vernian, Mélièsian theme reduced Space Mountain: Mission 2 to an essential copy of every other version. Mission 2 went down for refurbishment in 2017, with high hopes of restoration to the "From the Earth to the Moon" theme. Instead it reopened as "Hyperspace Mountain", with the same Star Wars overlay that has also occupied Space Mountain in Stateside parks.       





The Columbiad.

Detail of the Columbiad's decoration.


Space Mountain's queue.

The high-test soundtrack for Space Mountain: Mission 2 was by Michael Giacchino, famous for his scores for Pixar and J.J. Abrams films. Music is a critically important component of Disney parks... In fact, a critically important part of Disney as a whole. It was synchronizing sound with animation that catapulted Mickey Mouse to fame, and a Disney film without its memorable music is inimaginable (and those without Oscar-winning songs are usually forgotten). Background music sets the mood for attractions and entire lands. Rather than recycling well-known musical pieces and movie soundtracks (as for the queue of Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon), the soaring, synth-heavy background music loop for Discoveryland was commissioned in 1992 from Canadian percussionist David Tolley. It captures a light, joyful feeling that isn't expressly Victorian but successfully sounds like how Discoveryland looks.

For more strictly Victorian sounds and aesthetics, one would have to go to Main Street USA. To compensate for the more temperate and seasonal weather of Northern France, the Imagineers behind Disneyland Paris deliberately developed a pair of arcades to usher visitors through Main Street USA on snowy and crowded days, mirroring the actual arcades that one can find throughout the streets of Paris. Whereas Main Street in Disneyland USA uses an ad hoc system of doors between shops (which have increasingly little distinction between them or relation to the actual storefronts), these covered arcades are attractions in their own rights.

A Parisian shopping arcade.

On the left-hand side as one faces the castle, they may enter the Liberty Arcade that leads to Frontierland. Liberty Arcade was built in honour of the Statue of Liberty, France's gift to the United States. In the centre of it is a diorama replicating that grand unveiling of the great copper idol.

On the right-hand side, leading to Discoveryland, is the Discovery Arcade. This avenue looks at inventions real and imaginary, fanciful and practical, reinforcing Discoveryland's theme of Vernian science and technology. In addition to displays of models are a set of incredible illustrated posters  by Imagineer Eddie Soto showing retro-futuristic visions of American cities at the turn of the millennium.




Displays in Discovery Arcade.
















Just on the corner of Main Street USA is Walt's - An American Restaurant, Disneyland Paris' premier eatery. Crafted in homage to Walt Disney, the eponymous restaurant features five dining rooms each themed to a different area of the park. The Fantasyland room is resplendent with Gothic woodwork and the Adventureland room invites one to eat under the sultan's tent. Of course there is a Discoveryland room, paying its respects to Verne and Disney's vision of his work.

Walt welcomes you to his namesake restaurant.

Concept art for Discovery Bay, Tony Baxter's original Vernian concept
for Disneyland USA. The birdcage is one of the ubiquitous mechanical bird toys
said to have inspired Walt's development of audio-animatronics.

Within the room, walls are papered with an iridescent
wave motif in its wallpaper and Art Nouveau furnishings
and fixtures that recall both outer space and the marine element.



Poster for the Wells/Verne debate and
blueprints for 9-Eyes from Le Visionarium.

The centerpiece of this rather small room is a beautiful fireplace
adorned with a model of the Nautilus guided by Tom Scherman,
the fan and Imagineer who also guided development of the
Mysteries of the Nautilus attraction. I wanted for a picture of the
whole fireplace because there was a table of people behind me trying to eat.

The Fantasyland room resplendent in Gothic Revivalism.

An errant chair from the Discoveryland room
found in the Fantasyland room.

During that wild blue sky phase of EuroDisney planning, even the castle at the end of Main Street USA was up for debate. One strong alternative was an Art Nouveau, Retro-Futuristic tower complementing Discoveryland. It would have been a very original twist on a park that was already going to be very different in look and feel from existing Disneyland-style parks. But there is only so far that one can stray, one supposes. Eventually they did settle on a more abstracted, fanciful version of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, a change driven by the fact that real castles can be found just down the road from Disneyland Paris.    

Concept art for the tower that might have
been the "castle" at Disneyland Paris

Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant adorned for
the 15th anniversary of Disneyland Paris in 2008.

One last attraction, outside the park itself, is worth mentioning. Flying high above the Disneyland Paris Resort since 2005, the PanoraMagique balloon offers an otherwise rare firsthand aerial view of a Magic Kingdom. Though operated separately outside the parks in the Disney Village dinner and shopping district, this 35 metre high, 22.5 metre diameter, 6000 cubic metre aerostat is nevertheless a perfect fit with Disneyland Paris' Gallic flavouring. PanoraMagique echoes Imagineers' consideration of French culture by recalling the golden age of novelty flights aboard Montgolfiers, and more particularly Jules Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon and the cinematic Around the World in 80 Days. The kiosk on the shores of Lake Disney is even adorned in vintage French ballooning advertisements.




View to Disney Village below.

Space Mountain from PanoraMagique.




Discoveryland was considered so successful in the hallowed halls of Imagineering that it was used as the basis for a 1998 revitalization of Tomorrowland in Anaheim's Disneyland. Brass and copper tones were brought over the Atlantic for a deliberately Retro-Futuristic remodel. Unfortunately, what worked so well in France did not work so well in California for both cultural and economic reasons. The Retro-Futuristic tradition in Los Angeles is Mid-Century Modern, not "Steampunk". Furthermore, Disney accountants pulled back on several key attractions, underwhelming guests with what essentially became a cosmetic makeover. Tomorrowland '98 failed, resulting in a Tomorrowland cast even further adrift into random IP-based attractions. That, in turn, migrated back across the Atlantic to diminish Discoveryland. Le Visionarium was replaced by a Buzz Lightyear attraction, Space Mountain became a Star Wars ride, and Videopolis is currently home to a "Jedi Training Academy" interactive show. The original thematic coherence of Discoveryland has been sacrificed to the Walt Disney Company's transition into an IP management firm.


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