Seattle’s Space Needle turned 50 over the last weekend – a fitting moment, while standing on the cusp of “space tourism,” to cast our glance backward to historical visions of the future at tourist destinations. As NPR’s All Things Considered reported, its flying saucer-like, rotating observation deck retains its futuristic appeal desire the tower’s antiqueness (indeed, it is now eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places).

Tourist attractions have long provided showcases for visions of the future. Nowhere has this forward-looking utopian sensibility been more carefully packaged than in the spate of world’s fairs between the 1890s and 1960s. Most of the visions simply expanded on emergent technologies such as electricity, but some were truly out of this world. The Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901 featured a popular ride called “A Trip to the Moon” in which tourists experienced a simulated blastoff, journey, and moon landing (complete with “Selenites,” moon maidens, and the Man in the Moon), wonderfully recreated in Susan J. Eck’s Doing the Pan web exhibit. “A Trip to the Moon” proved such a success that its designer Frederic Thompson made it a permanent fixture at Luna Park in Coney Island two years later.

A half century later, in 1955, Walt Disney embedded a powerful glimpse of the space age in his Anaheim theme park’s Tomorrowland in the 1950s. The Trans World Airways (TWA) Moonliner offered “Rocket to the Moon,” an updated reiteration of Thompson’s turn-of-the-century simulation. Rocket to the Moon loomed over other fast-forward fantasies like Space Station X-1 and, later, others like the Monsanto House of the Future and Carousel of Progress (itself originally a fixture sponsored by General Electric at the 1964 New York World’s Fair) seemed tailor-made for The Jetsons.

Then, in the 1960s, Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, meant to memorialize St. Louis, Missouri’s historic role as the “Gateway to the West,”  joined the Seattle Space Needle as two sky-scraping expressions of space-age design that became instant tourist icons in their respective cities, not mention the inspiration for many, often less inspired copycat towers. Have you visited other futuristic attractions? Tell us about it!

Space Needle at night

The Space Needle, Seattle, Washington. Photo by Bernie McCann on Flickr