Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof’s Tomorrowland finally opened this weekend, but unlike Disney’s typical summer blockbuster fare, the plot and characters of the film had been kept a secret. Instead of marketing the film in a wholly typical way (though, they did that too), Disney’s marketing department used real Disney artifacts, theme park and book tie-ins, and a treasure hunt that led people through significant locations in Walt Disney’s life to present the film in a unique way. And they did that for more than two years.
Here is a look back at Tomorrowland’s long and interesting journey to the big screen.
Assembling the Creators and Introducing The Mystery Box
June 9, 2011 – Damon Lindelof signed a deal with Disney to write a science-fiction film titled 1952. No details were disclosed at the time about the plot or characters, but there were rumors that the story would be told across “multiple platform[s].”
May 3, 2012 – Almost a year after Disney brought on Lindelof, Deadline announced that Brad Bird (Ratatouille, Iron Giant) had signed on to direct 1952, the movie that would become Tomorrowland.
January 23, 2013 – Bird sent out a tweet about a box of Walt Disney memorabilia which included photographs, a record, Technicolor film, letters, and assorted files and books related to the construction of Disney World and other related projects.
January 28, 2013 – Deadline announced that 1952 had been re-titled Tomorrowland.
July 14, 2013 – A portrait of Jules Verne is seen hanging on the wall in the building where Bird edits a Tomorrowland test, which Bird took as a good omen. Verne is later revealed to play a major role in the world of Tomorrowland.
‘The Optimist’ and The Mystery Box Reveal at D23
From July to August of 2013, Disney launched The Optimist, a real-world treasure hunt with clues that tied back to Walt Disney, the Imagineers, and the 1964-65 World’s Fair, where Disney’s Carousel of Progress made its debut.
The Optimist centered on Amelia, a young filmmaker. Her late grandfather, Carlos, had sold a short story to Walt Disney titled “Orbit’s Story,” and he was recruited for a special project tying into the World’s Fair. Game players were given clues through Carlos’ correspondence, pictures, and notes. Many players decided to collaborate on the game so they could solve it before D23 in August, which was the end point for the game. In addition to documenting The Optimist game, Inside the Magic offered a Google Doc that players could update with new clues or theories.
Soon, the clues pointed players to locations throughout Los Angeles, like the Tam O’Shanter restaurant where Walt Disney and some of the very first Imagineers met up to eat and brainstorm. The next clues were carved into the table itself, including the note, “Contact Carlos about ‘Tomorrow.’”
Around this time, a new character was introduced into the game named Wallace. Wallace revealed that he would have a booth at D23. Meanwhile, Amelia discovered some World’s Fair Disneyland records in her grandfather’s filing cabinets, which she sent out to game players. The record contained a secret message as well as an audio track that matched up with the Carousel of Progress. The alternate Carousel of Progress audio track talked about a “new world to come” with “flying contraptions” where people could “travel using [their] minds.” The narrator promised that the energy in this new world could power entire cities without using any natural resources, even hinting at the possibility of world peace, eternal life, and bringing the dead back to life (loved ones and dinosaurs alike). This is also one of the first places where a secret society was referenced — the society responsible for all these revolutionary innovations.
Other stops along the way in the treasure hunt included Club 33 in Disneyland where a live band played “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” the Griffith Park Carousel, Walt Disney’s private apartment in Disneyland, the Disneyland Opera House, and Walt Disney’s Carolwood railroad barn.
At D23, players stopped by Wallace’s booth, which was designed to look like a cozy office and which was full of more clues and references. Among the books on a desk were The Fabulous Orson Welles by Peter Noble, The £1,000,000 Bank-Note and Other New Stories by Mark Twain, Bigger Secrets by William Poundstone, Disney’s World by Leonard Mosley, and The Man Behind the Magic: The Story of Walt Disney by Katherine and Richard Greene. Here is a rundown of each book and why it is significant:
The Fabulous Orson Welles – There isn’t much information available about this book except that it is one of the first biographies of Orson Welles. The book was published when Welles was 40 years old, right around the time when he returned to Hollywood, and it examined his contributions to stage, film, and television.
The secret society referenced in The Optimist was comprised of brilliant forward-thinking individuals, and Orson Welles certainly fits that description. Also, inside the mysterious “1952” box, there is a silver disc with the animated short “A History of Tomorrow” on it, which is supposedly narrated by Orson Welles.
The £1,000,000 Bank-Note and Other New Stories – The title story from this collection is about a young man who goes from rags to riches in London with nothing in his favor except his “wits and a clean reputation.” He is caught in a wager between two gentlemen involving a million-pound note. One gentleman believes that a man could not survive in London for 30 days with only a million-pound note, because businesses would refuse to give change for it or they would call the police, believing the money stolen. The other gentleman believes that an enterprising man could survive for 30 days in London on a million-pound note and would not be arrested. They give the young man the money, and he is promised that should he survive and avoid arrest, the gentleman will give him a job:
It was just a deep, dark puzzle to me. I hadn’t the least idea what the game was, nor whether harm was meant me or a kindness. I went into a park, and sat down to try to think it out, and to consider what I had best do.
At the end of an hour my reasonings had crystallized into this verdict.
Maybe those men mean me well, maybe they mean me ill; no way to decide that — let it go. They’ve got a game, or a scheme, or an experiment, of some kind on hand; no way to determine what it is — let it go. There’s a bet on me; no way to find out what it is — let it go.
The entire story is available online, courtesy of East of the Web.
Twain’s story celebrates ingenuity and thinking on one’s feet, themes that were also admired by Walt Disney and which tie into the themes of Tomorrowland. It also hints that maybe the hero of Tomorrowland is caught up in a game between two much more powerful people, a game that they don’t fully understand.
Bigger Secrets – William Poundstone’s Big Secrets originated the urban legend that Walt Disney’s body was frozen and is stored under the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland in California. Bigger Secrets claims to reveal secrets behind the beloved Haunted Mansion attraction. Poundstone’s myth about Disney’s body would tie in with the secret society’s ambitions for eternal life and raising people from the dead.
Disney’s World – Mosley’s unauthorized biography of Walt Disney is famously full of factual errors, and many Disney fans despised the book for being sensationalist and mean-spirited. The LA Times was particularly critical of the book’s tone and lack of research:
In virtually every chapter, Mosley reveals his ignorance of the history, aesthetics and techniques of animation and an apparent inability (or unwillingness) to grasp Disney’s enormous contributions to the art form and to American popular culture. Sloppily researched, inadequately documented and poorly written, “Disney’s World” is a waste of paper and the reader’s time.
The Man Behind the Magic: The Story of Walt Disney – Katherine and Richard Greene’s biography of Walt Disney is held in higher regard than Disney’s World. Unlike the rest of the books on Wallace’s desk, The Man Behind the Magic is aimed at younger readers.
All of these clues were meant to be noted or photographed for players to research and discuss later on together.
Players who stopped to chat with Wallace were given a map of the World Clock Model and a business card with a hand-written note on the back:
Go to the World Clock model at the top of the hour. Meet with new friends and align both halves of the symbol with the sign to reveal the next step. Good Luck! –W
Here is a look at the final leg of The Optimist at D23 and inside Disneyland, which ends with players receiving Tomorrowland pins:
August 10, 2013 – Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof reveal the artifacts inside the “1952” box at the D23 Expo during the Tomorrowland presentation, and they announce a Tomorrowland app that allowed people with smartphones to explore the clues.
A Tomorrowland exhibition is also unveiled with clues to the plot. Some of them have been seen before, like the doctored picture of Walt Disney with Amelia Earhart, the blueprints for “It’s a Small World,” and the sketches for the Jet-Man attraction which was never built. Others are new, like illustrated posters for Disney and General Electric’s Progressland and newspaper clippings about Disney World plans including a “Domed City.”
The Carousel of Progress, NASA, and New York Comic Con
October 3, 2013 – The government shut-down had surprising consequences for the production of Tomorrowland, which Brad Bird explained on Twitter.
November 15, 2013 – Brad Bird confirmed that Tomorrowland had filmed in the Carousel of Progress ride.
November 18, 2013 – Tomorrowland production took a break to watch NASA’s MAVEN launch. Apparently, there are different priorities when you make a movie that is described as Harry Potter for science.
February 5, 2014 – Tomorrowland‘s filming is wrapped up back at the Carousel of Progress.
October 9, 2014 – Disney introduced Tomorrowland to the New York Comic Con with a panel that included Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, and Raffey Cassidy. A never-before-seen teaser trailer and extended clip from the film were also screened for attendees, and gift bags at every seat included a Tomorrowland pin and a sneak-peek at the book Before Tomorrowland.
Unlike the film Tomorrowland, which ties into the 1952 World’s Fair, Before Tomorrowland is set in New York City during the weekend of the 1939 World’s Fair, Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, and the First World Science Fiction Convention. The excerpt focuses on Lee, a 17-year-old boy taking care of his ailing mother Clara, a villainous scientist Dr. Werner Rotwang (a reference to the scientist from Fritz Lang’s sci-fi classic Metropolis), and a cyborg named Henry Stevens. Henry Stevens’ name might be a reference to the bibliographer for the British Museum and founder of the Hercules Club, a literary association dedicated to “independent research into the materials of early Anglo-American history and literature.”
The story also features historical figures like Amelia Earhart (whose name showed up previously in the “1952” box), Albert Einstein, Orson Welles (making yet another appearance), Nikola Tesla, Howard Hughes, John Ford, and Leo Szilard.
April 24, 2015 – A short film titled “The Origins of Plus Ultra” is posted on YouTube. The animated film details the origins of Plus Ultra and its founding members Thomas Edison, Gustave Eiffel, Jules Verne, and Nikola Tesla. Over the years, some members of Plus Ultra created inventions that elevated mankind while others created more powerful means of destruction. The narration also mentions a new world developed by Plus Ultra’s members and “a tomorrow we need not fear but one we can aspire to.”
April 29, 2015 – A video of Walt Disney discussing the 1964 World’s Fair and the debut of the Carousel of Progress is posted on Twitter by Brad Bird.
May 9, 2015 – Tomorrowland has its world premiere at Disneyland in California. With the Carousel of Progress and all the Disneyland park tie-ins with The Optimist, hosting the premiere at Disneyland brings the film full-circle back to where it all started.
Has all of the run-up, the mystery, and the resources been worth it? Has this lush and engrossing way of marketing a mere film enhanced the audience’s experience? Now we finally get to see.
Special thanks to Inside the Magic for photos, videos, and other resources from The Optimist and D23.