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November 26th, 2008

The Way Tomorrow Used To Be

I was only five minutes out of Disney World and moving down the Interstate when I decided to tune in OutQ on the car’s Sirius radio, and happened to get the hourly news, and hearing about the ongoing fight over Proposition H8 was all it took to make me angry, livid even, all over again.

You know…there was more to growing up with Walt Disney’s Wonderful World on the TV then the cartoons and the Disney-esq storylines. There was a sense to much of what Disney did, that, yes, it’s a small world after all, that the future was bright with promise, that technological progress was a thing to be embraced and that the study of science was good for us, part of a well balanced education.

I spent most of my time in Epcot, but a little also in Magic Kingdom, in Tomorrowland. There was a cute little Tomorrowland poster at the Main Street U.S.A. entrance to the Magic Kingdom, that read The Future That Never Was Is Finally Here. Tomorrowland is one great big nod to the retro-future of the 1950s and 60s. But at its core is this almost childlike sense of progress, grounded in knowledge, leading to a wonderful tomorrow. It was the sense of the future I grew up with. And I’m here to tell you, after eight years of George Bush and the religious right and their Republican enabler’s cultural war on reason, knowledge and science, it was exhilarating to have it served up to me again, unselfconsciously and unapologetically….like it was just everyday common sense.

I rode the Spaceship Earth exhibit at the entrance to Epcot. You get on a set of moving carts that work pretty much like other Disney “people mover” technologies. The step-on station is a platform that moves along with the carts. The carts never stop, but the access platform moves along with them so it’s a simple matter to get onto one. Once in the cart you sit in front of a touch screen video display which asks you for your language and place of origin, which it uses to tailor the narrative guide specifically to you. Each seat in the carts has its own set of speakers, and you only hear your own guide. The ride chronicles the progress of human communication, and the sharing of knowledge, from the stone age to modern times. The most soul-satisfying moments of my stay at Disney World, where those moments spent seeing the grand arc of the human story laid out before me as a great adventure, without concession to fundamentalist demands for biblical correctness. Time and again I walked through Disney World stunned, absolutely stunned, that here in the United States of America in the 21st century, kids are more likely to see in an amusement park then in their own schools, archeological and scientific facts not only told truthfully, but the pursuit of those truths seen as a great and wonderful adventure. I don’t think it’s just Disney’s gay friendliness that has the fundamentalists pissed off.

Sniff at all the staff (excuse me…Cast Members…) walking around the park in character costumes if you like. But that It’s A Small World After All mentality pervades everything in Disney World and after so many years of relentless scorched earth republican party assaults on tolerance and diversity, it was wonderful to stay for a while in a place where those things were just taken as a given. There was no preaching of diversity, it was just always there in the background, especially in Epcot. But even in Downtown Disney, which is more like a shopping plaza then a park, there was a holiday display that showcased all the different ways different cultures celebrated at this time of year. Yes, there was also “Christmas” everywhere. I went to “Micky’s Christmas Party” in Magic Kingdom Thursday night, a special event with a Santa parade and a spectacular fireworks display over Cinderella’s Castle (see below). But it was more a celebration of the holiday spirit, and believing in your own dreams, then any particular religion. There were in fact, no references to religion at all. Anywhere. Except to acknowledge, respectfully, even cheerfully, that different people have different beliefs. It’s A Small World After All. James Dobson would have hated it. He’d have joined hands with Maleficent onstage to try and tear it all down so that people won’t believe in their dreams anymore.

Walt Disney was a man of his times, and his magic kingdom was born after the second world war and at the beginning of the first American space age, when we were just learning how to launch humans into space and bring them back alive. There was so much we were going to do, and that we still haven’t. So much Walt Disney wanted to do too. Epcot wasn’t originally planned as a theme park. It was Walt’s Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. Having finally had my first hand look at what he accomplished with his theme park, I find it tragic he didn’t get a chance to realize his original dream for EPCOT. Cigarettes killed him before he could. But I think he would have done it had he lived.

And…thing of it is…had he accomplished EPCOT…so many many years ahead of its time…it would be a city today, perfectly, absolutely perfectly positioned to withstand the impact of rising energy costs. Here (in three parts) is a film that Walt produced to get investors to buy into his planned city of tomorrow. The quality on this copy is not wonderful, but it gets it across. These days you hear a lot about making cities and communities “walkable” and investing in more and better public transport. In EPCOT as originally planned, the pedestrian was going to be king. Various Disney developed “people mover” technologies were to be employed to get you from one place to another. The only reason you’d need a car in EPCOT, would be if you wanted to go visit someplace else.

“…their schools will welcome new ideas, so that everyone who grows up in EPCOT will have skills in pace with today’s world.”

I haven’t heard anyone seriously talk about schools and ideas and living in today’s world like that since Reagan began putting the knife into the New Deal. I was fortunate to enter school sometime just after Sputnik scared the hell out of the U.S. and suddenly giving kids a good science education was a vital national security thing and to hell with the fundamentalist vote. I grew up in a world where science and rationality and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding had respected and valued places in school and in society and in our dreams of tomorrow. It was either that, or let the Soviets plant their flag on the moon, and in effect, declare their ownership of space. You know…that place where all the missiles fly on their way to our cities.

Maybe it wasn’t all do-able exactly the way it was envisioned back then, but the spirit of the times is what matters more then its vision of what tomorrow would look like. Tomorrow is always different then you imagined it. But once upon a time we were all allowed to dream about making tomorrow better then today. We could envision a better world someday. The fundamentalists hate that dream. They want to take it away from us. All of us…not just gay people. We can’t be allowed to dream that dream. Because their dream is about the world coming to an end.

So I spent a while in Disney World. I saw Cinderella’s Castle and Micky and Donald and the Genie and I rode Spaceship Earth. I saw planet Earth float over the world showcase lagoon while its continents told in pictures the story of life, and the human journey from African savannas to the seas…and then the skys…

We can see a new horizon
built on all that we have done
and our dreams begin another
thousand circles ’round the sun

And I rode The Carousel of Progress…

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of ev’ryday
There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow’s just a dream away

…and I was able to remember the old dream once again. Sniff at the Disney-esq sentimentality all you want…I used to…but I swear I won’t anymore. I have lived through decades of this culture war and it is precisely this sentiment that the fundamentalists want to make us all forget, kill in our hearts forever, so they can get back down to the business of bringing a world they have always hated to an end.

I am so glad I went. And not just because I got to see a certain someone I haven’t seen face to face in decades. Got to see him smile too…

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