Vault Disney: How The Magic Kingdom Showcased The Magnificent Future Of Transportation in 1958

A look back through our archives provides no shortage of historic photos, documents and other resources telling the story of transportation planning and operation in Southern California.

But sometimes, we come across something very special, though not necessarily related to the Southland.  Something so dated that it in fact becomes timeless.

Today is the anniversary of a remarkable television event:  On this date in 1958, the Disneyland episode “Magic Highway, U.S.A.” first aired.

Since Disney Studios began in Los Angeles and the footage is part of our YouTube channel, this video serves as a local example of “paleo-futurism”: futuristic predictions from the past.

Now rarely seen, this landmark television feature pitched not only the imminent transformation of everyday transportation, but how it would change life as we then knew it — all for the better — as well.

Informally titled “The Road Ahead,” the folks at the Magic Kingdom used animation to paint a picture of futuristic predictions for the coming years thanks to new technologies and more sophisticated roadways.

This was, after all, the year that Americans were first introduced to the Interstate Highway System (officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways).

Business conference in automated vehicle

Eisenhower admired the German Autobahn network as a necessary component of a national defense system.

His military background informed his recognition of the importance of key ground transport routes for troops and supplies in case of a national emergency of foreign invasion.

As the country grew in terms of population and confidence following World War II, Americans may have needed every bit of reassurance they could get following the unanticipated October, 1957 launch of Sputnik 1.

The Soviet satellite beat the U.S. to the punch and marked the unofficial start of the “Space Race” with the Soviets as well as various political, military, technological and scientific developments that all played a part in the Cold War.

In any case, the late 1950s were a bonanza in terms of showcasing what could soon be possible in personal mobility.

Multi-colored travel lanes, radiant heat to clear rain and snow, radar screen windshields, giant road builders, atomic-powered tunneling machines and highway escalators are just a few of the innovations outlined in the last 15 minutes of the program.

Relaxing en route to family vacation

While some of the concepts were just pie-in-the-sky ideas for future technology, others proposals would trigger double-takes today, such as criss-crossing our national parks with cantilevered superhighways.

Those watching the video clip above will enjoy seeing personal rapid transit to deliver different members of the family to their desired destinations: “On entering the city the family separates; father to his office, mother and son to the shopping center,” as the automated vehicle splits in two on the screen.

The film was written and produced by Ward Kimball, who was largely responsible for the program’s early Tomorrowland-themed episodes.

It was also a precursor for many of the ideas illustrated in a presentation that Walt Disney made in 1966 outlining plans for Disney World, and his vision for EPCOT in particular.

So how prescient or off-the-wall were these futuristic predictions of the past?

The ambulance of tomorrow

Automated traffic announcements are becoming rather prevalent today.

Satellite navigation and rear-view cameras are standard or optional on almost all automobiles these days.

Bus rapid transit, fairly common around the world 50 years later, look similar to Disney’s proposed freight ways.

But we will likely never see “air conditioned highways,” atomic-powered boring machinery or “sun-powered electro suspension cars.”

As for family vacations, the film proposes that “getting there will be simplified by a punch-card system, where the car is automatically operated and guided to pre-set destinations,” not anticipating radical developments in computing capability.

However, Google is today pushing driverless car technology research — so the automatic destination delivery or that business conference via television in the automated vehicle may yet come to pass.