In some ways, nothing has changed. There’s still grandiose and emotionally charged music. Cultural and natural landmarks beckon and shimmer. Excited passengers gasp and whoop when surprised with a bird’s eye view of the world that they very rarely get to see from such an angle. But in other ways, everything has changed: Soarin’ is no longer flying over California, but is now flying around the world. The scope of the attraction has changed, altering the thematic landscape of EPCOT. In so doing, Soarin’s change is less of a transformation, but a transition from a narrow and specialized approach to an experience that is now broad and sweeping. These changes are both harmful and helpful to how Soarin’ now operates and how it makes a thematic statement that fits into EPCOT. I will not (consciously) focus on which version of the attraction is better, but rather, attempt to describe and analyze each, and showcase their strengths and weaknesses. That being said, I predict that it will be very easy to parse out what version of the attraction I prefer, if I don’t outright say so.
Soarin’ Over California began operations in 2001 in Disney’s California Adventure. Here, the park’s connection to the attraction’s source material was obvious and logical, despite undergoing a fairly radical aesthetic shift near the end of Soarin’ Over California’s tenure. Both Condor Flats and Grizzly Peak Airfield represented environments in California and honored the state’s rich history of aviation and environmentalism. Grizzly Peak Airfield, which premiered in 2015, aligned more closely with the content actually seen on screen on Soarin’ – the scenes of the High Sierras and Yosemite National Park jived well with the aesthetic profile of the area and complimented the land’s references to famed naturalist John Muir.
Meanwhile, EPCOT’s Soarin’ over California attraction had a tenuous and tangential connection to the park’s thesis statement. Although its connection to EPCOT was never really explained by Imagineering to the general public, I always viewed Soarin’s thematic connection to EPCOT as subtle, but not needing exhaustive mental gymnastics to justify its inclusion. In EPCOT, Soarin’ functioned as a celebration of people using, preserving, and interacting with the land and the environment. Nature played a starring role. Yes, there were cityscapes and man-made wonders on display, too, but The Land pavilion’s main ideas center on symbiosis and humanity’s appropriate use of natural resources. With this in mind, Soarin’ was a fairly natural fit for EPCOT.
Perhaps the greatest connection that Soarin’ enjoyed with EPCOT’s thematic material was its nature as a travelogue film. Just like the films of World Showcase, Soarin’ over California was dedicated to distilling the essence of a destination into a relatable and coherent ‘summary experience’ of the destination at hand. However, despite being akin to a World Showcase travelogue, Soarin’ did not feature a foreign land, but instead was centered on a domestic scenery, altering the context by which it was viewed in. For Californians, it was a source of pride and an overview of their home state. For visitors, it was a glimpse of what else a vacation in California could offer. In EPCOT, Soarin’ over California was a chance to see a destination that was far away from Florida and exotic, but still reachable and relatable.
Thematic connections aside, Soarin’ over California’s “relatability” is really what defined the attraction and gave it a sense of warmth that made it such a standout attraction. It really didn’t matter if you were intimately familiar with the Californian sites shown off or if you were just taking in the splendor and spectacle- Outside of the few major landmarks in the California film, (San Francisco, Yosemite, and Disneyland) most of the destinations shown off weren’t obviously “labeled”. Flying through the redwoods or the Pacific coast or a sweetly smelling orange grove wasn’t about checking off a list of recognizable places, it was about the visceral experience of doing so. California be damned, these sights and sounds and smells were captivating because the ride system made them as incredible as possible. However, if you were intimately familiar with these Californian landmarks, both big and small, the ride experience was infinitely heightened and made all the more memorable.
Speaking personally, I enjoyed Soarin’ Over California well before I ever made it out to the Golden State for the reasons I have described above. Before I went to California, Soarin’ was a tantalizing reminder of a goal that I wanted so very desperately to meet. The ride functioned almost as a preview of an amazing vacation yet to come. When I finally made it out to California, I had a new appreciation for Soarin’– I finally understood the scale and majesty of Half Dome and El Capitan. I remembered the way there is a certain quality of light and mist that hangs over the rolling mountains surrounding Napa Valley. I picked out a bench in Disneyland that I had sat on and soaked in the atmosphere of Main Street, USA on my last glorious afternoon there. Soarin’, for me, was a personal reminder of an objective I had met and a look back at a destination that was captivating and exciting. For others, I can only imagine that similar feelings proved true.
In many ways, Soarin’ Around the World operates as the inverse as Soarin’ over California. Where Soarin’ over California was focused and finely tuned to illustrating the diverse environments that were connected by their inclusion in the same state, Soarin’ Around The World follows no discernable logic in what landmarks we are shown. Instead, Soarin’ Around The World is ambitious and broad, and covers the entire globe. In so doing, the intimate charm and relatability that Soarin’ had with California is weakened, but something else is gained: Grandeur.
Soarin’ Around The World’s grandeur is seen in how the attraction is no longer limited to just one state, or just one nation. Now, the ride’s new scope encourages incredible diversity in what landscapes are shown. Cultural landmarks and natural wonders from all corners of the globe are united under Soarin’s thematic goal of showmanship. Far and away from Soarin’ over California’s old goal of illustrating the high points and exemplary features of California, now the entire scope of the globe is at the ride’s fingertips. What this greater scope accomplishes is something that than Soarin’ over California ever attempted to do. Where ‘Over California’ had moments of subtlety, ‘Around The World’s” scale is constantly impressive. In ‘California’, quiet moments over the waves of Big Sur or slipping over Redwood Creek weren’t grounded in constantly wowing its audience but coaxing different emotions out of them. Although EPCOT (and California Adventure, to an extent) treats Soarin’ as a thrill ride, I often heard Soarin’ Over California described as one of the more relaxing and calm rides in the park. I was apt to agree with that sentiment. Soarin’ Around The World is also by no means a thrill ride, either, but has much more gusto in presenting its content.
Next, the new destinations in Soarin’ Around The World can usually be quantified as the largest or biggest or best of their kind- Iguazu Falls is quickly chased with the Eiffel Tower. The Matterhorn quickly gives way to the unending ice fields of the Ilulissat Fjord. There are very quiet moments or peaceful moments of reflection, as before; all of Soarin’ Around The World is a highpoint and meant to excite and enthrall. This is not to say that Soarin’ Over California didn’t aim to accomplish similar emotions, but it just went about it in a much subtler way. If there are some lower key moments in Soarin’ Around The World, I would place them in Fiji, Africa, (before the CGI elephant interrupts your vista of Mount Kilimanjaro. More on that in a moment.) and the beginning of your flight over the Great Wall of China. These moments are still reasonably fast paced but the music in these sections is calmer, ethereal, and graceful. They’re well placed downbeats in a very up-tempo attraction.
Soarin’ Around the World’s high energy also comes from the way it handles transitions. Where ‘Over California’ just utilized hard cuts to the film and didn’t bother with thematically explaining why viewers would jump from location to location, ‘Around The World’ attempts to draw the rider’s attention to a “transition event” that obscures the view of the destination with something meant to be exciting: A plane flies right for your hang glider. A CGI elephant flings dust into your eyes. A whale just happens to time his jump perfectly so the splash takes you from Ilulissat to Sydney Harbor. I can understand why the filmmakers wanted to insert these moments into the film, but I think the execution is overtly flawed because of its conspicuousness. Where hard cuts can initially be jarring, by the end of the experience, they become expected and part of the deeper visual language that Soarin’ Over California employed. With every transition being a attention grabbing event that’s usually accompanied by a exciting or humorous gag, the overall pace and mood of Soarin’ Around the World is decidedly shifted into high gear. The addition of CGI animation also lends a generic feel for some of the scenes as it clashes with the natural or man-made wonders on screen. Most of the CGI is rendered and animated fairly well, but it can still stand out as something that was obviously added in and not part of the naturally filmed landscape, which is more than enough to enchant the rider.
I would be remiss if I did not mention two CGI “transition events” that are absolutely spectacular and far surpassed my expectations for the new ride. First, he new opening and takeoff sequence far surpasses the introduction to the old film. Where ‘Over California’ simply lifted guests into the omnimax dome to meet a dark screen that would suddenly become filled with clouds, ‘Around The World’ already has the clouds projected when the ride system first begins to move giving the illusion that you’re actually flying up and through the atmosphere. The music that accompanies this is also transcendent: Instead of having the familiar Soarin’ theme begin the attraction, Chords from a piano and a harp begin a progression up the musical scale that mirrors the climbing motion of the ride vehicle. This musical and physical synchronization is a sublime and awe-inspiring moment to experience and sets the tone in a much more effective way than ‘Over California’s’ fairly sudden opening moments.
Second, The Great Wall of China’s scene has a great few final moments as the traditionally orchestrated music climbs the pentatonic scale and speeds up the tempo. Both the hang glider and the film compensate their speed to match and the illusion of speed is one of the more successful moments in the new film. Also, although Soarin’ Around The World’s new international thematic content is felt throughout the entire film, it feels much more potent and genuine in this scene. The high timbre of the Chinese pipas and the lutes used to orchestrate this part of the film’s score jive incredibly well with the overall mood of the scene- serene and relaxing as we glide over the Great Wall in the opening seconds of the encounter, and high energy and frenetic as we begin to speed up over the luscious Asian landscape and quickly transition into Egypt’s Great Pyramids.
Speaking of the music and its orchestration for Soarin’ Around The World, the traditional and cultural orchestrations are easily the strongest part of the new attraction and the thematic aspect of the experience that undergirds it to EPCOT’s themes and ideas. The use of traditionally scored music resonates in a theme park setting like EPCOT because of the other uses of similar music in the park- upon walking into the China pavilion in World Showcase, similar sounds can be heard. Germany and France also have scenes in Soarin’ Around The World, but their musical accompaniments do not mesh in the same obvious way. However, their thematic content easily does: The architecture of Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle can easily be related to the German Platz of the World Showcase Pavilion. Similarly, the penultimate scene in Soarin’ features the glittering façade of the Eiffel Tower, a landmark that also anchors World Showcase and the French pavilion. These sorts of references bring a sort of metaphysical synergy to EPCOT that really hasn’t been in the park in a very long time. By including the images and sights and sounds of some of the real destinations featured in World Showcase, Soarin’ Around The World offers a tacit acknowledgement that EPCOT is a showplace for the exploration of these foreign cultures and new ideas. Otherwise, how could we justify seeing the real Eiffel Tower on screen when its facsimile appears just within range of The Land pavilion? In so placing the Eiffel Tower on screen and in World Showcase, EPCOT’s thematic cultural content is deepened and unifies the park. I will not attempt to make a case for why international and cultural landmarks are showing up in this section of Future World, but still, they do appeal to World Showcase and EPCOT’s ethos as a whole. One can experience the majesty of France or Germany or Egypt or Australia or any of the other nations exhibited in many ways in both Future World and World Showcase, now.
In closing, both Soarin’ Over Californiaand Soarin’ Around The World offer distinct and unique thematic experiences for EPCOT. Where ‘California’ could have been seen as more personal and organic, ‘Around The World’ is much more grand and imposing, but much more in tune with EPCOT’s core purpose. Both films, however, utilize a thematic alchemy that espouses the thrill of travel and the wonders of the natural and man-made world. The ways in which they differ are not as important as the ways in which they are similar. In that, they both inspire and entertain, and in so doing, both Soarin’ attractions have their rightful place in EPCOT’s roster of attractions.
This essay is vastly different from any other essay I have posted online. The intended audience for this piece was never meant to have a deep or working knowledge of Disney’s theme parks, nor was the audience even expected to LIKE Disney’s theme parks. Instead of being crafted to satisfy my own curiosity or to (hopefully) entertain and educate fellow devotees to thematic history, this essay was crafted for an audience of academics, and academics that were adjudicating not the factual content of the piece, but the way in which is was argued, researched, and created. Essentially, I wrote this piece to fulfill a requirement and to graduate with my Master’s Degree. While this might sound that the piece was written dispassionately, I was lucky enough to be studying under a professor that indulged my interests and allowed me free reign to tackle Disneyland as a cultural entity and what that meant for the United States and pop culture. This essay was written for a ‘Politics and Culture’ seminar in which we were to find a subject and discuss the historiography surrounding it with an argumentative bent. In so doing, I engaged with texts and concepts that were familiar to what we had discussed and deconstructed during the course of the seminar. These are the ways in which this essay is written differently and might not jive with accepted norms and philosophies that I would have had in mind if writing for this, a “theme park” audience. As you will soon see, I argued for Disneyland’s importance as a museum piece by placing that idea within the context of other historical monographs and texts. If you are a longtime reader of my blog, I’ve previously argued for Disneyland to be considered a museum, though that essay was written more based on personal experience and feelings. This more academic piece could be considered a companion to it. I hope you enjoy this, despite its length and esoteric approach.
Museumland: A Historiography of Disneyland and its Place in American Culture
When Disneyland opened its gates, 60 years ago, its foremost purpose was to be an economic boon to Walt Disney and his studio in Southern California. In spite of that singular economic focus, there is much more nuance to what Disneyland was to American society when it opened and what it has become in the six decades to follow. Designed to be more elaborate and more artful than a typical amusement park, Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom was America’s first true theme park, and its content was rooted in the subtleties and mechanics of the American mindset in the 1950s and 60s. Despite various changes and alterations, most parts of Disneyland and Walt Disney World (built in 1971, but with a similar thematic intent and results) have survived. With this longevity in mind, Disneyland (and its sister park) has become a museum piece of sorts for American values and cultural practices. That the park fundamentally survived over the decades and withstood the whims of taste and popularity illustrates Disneyland’s importance as a landmark where today’s guests and customers can view American culture, as it was when Disneyland opened.
Historians of twentieth century popular culture in the United States have placed Disneyland into a conversation that discusses its niche and importance in revealing how Americans were entertained, the effects of popular art, Disney’s attempt at producing urban landscapes, Disney’s political populism, and how Americans interacted with growing consumerism. The books and monographs discussed here bolster the idea that Disneyland is a museum by illustrating different aspects of Disneyland’s design process, its economic modus operandi, and the philosophy of Walt Disney, himself.
Stephen Watts’ The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life seems an apt place to begin a historiographical study of Disneyland and Disney’s theme parks as it provides a lens by which to view Walt Disney and his influence on his park. Watts’ aim with The Magic Kingdom is to dissect the character and culture surrounding Mr. Disney, so as to explicate how Disneyland and Disney’s other enterprises in media functioned in relation to American values and institutions. In short, the cultural practices and representations of Walt Disney and Disneyland are typical of the underlying themes that are self evident in this branch of historiography. The story of Walt Disney and what he put into Disneyland undergird what American values represented in the 1950s and 60s. The greatest examples of these values are Disneyland’s representations of individualism, post-war family life, and consumerism. [i]
Watts’ explication of Walt Disney’s populist character seems to set the tone for Disneyland’s own culture and the values that run concurrent throughout the enterprise. Watts describes Mr. Disney’s political leanings to be infused with a libertarian populism and that his vision for history was one of progress, where the characters in his films and the guests in his theme park were either actors or witnesses to the “betterment” of society, in a profoundly technologic or moral way. Watts, of course, typifies these values as being inherently tied to Walt Disney’s ideas of patriotism and his and the studio’s creations were imbued with messages that propped up American values and what he personally wanted to see in the character of the nation. Watts specifically mentions “individual achievement, consumer prosperity, family togetherness, celebratory nationalism” were the tent poles of Disney’s brand of morality and informed the content of Disneyland.[ii] Watts considers this by illustrating how Disneyland was a reflection of American pop culture in the 1950s and 60s, when Mr. Disney dictated what attractions went into Disneyland and he personally oversaw the park.
Disneyland, as it opened on July 17th 1955, was a reaffirmation of postwar American culture. Watts argues that Disneyland was a stronghold for the values and spending habits of middle class families, and in so doing, set the tone for a fantasized, yet accurate reflection of American commitments and patterns of life. [iii] The opening ceremony for Disneyland encapsulates this commitment to Americana, almost perfectly. With patriotic sentiment and pomp and circumstance self evident throughout the proceedings, Disneyland was dedicated, in Mr. Disney’s words to the “ideals, dreams, and hard facts that have created America”. This ethos was reflected in the attractions on Main Street USA, a representation of a turn of the century Middle American town, complete with gilded emporium, penny arcade, and, added later, a sentimental and emotional show about Abraham Lincoln. Further markers of Americana in Disneyland included Frontierland’s bevy of attractions involving the heroics of the pioneers and Adventureland’s Jungle Cruise, where park-goers were immersed in the imperialistic world of exploration and “native culture”.[iv] Besides thematic fantasy, all of these Disneyland attractions shared an underlying commitment to guests (consumers) enjoying these experiences together. The spirit of togetherness that Disneyland espoused usually manifested in it being advertised as a family destination. Watts highlights that Disneyland’s appeal and charm came in the fact that its attractions were accessible and appealed to all age groups.
Walt Disney’s and Disneyland’s populism was further defined by how Mr. Disney funded the park. Corporate capitalism was very much part of the “Disneyland show” as sponsorships for most headlining rides and eateries were well organized and visible to customers. Although Mr. Disney wanted Disneyland to be totally his venture, to fund the first few years of operation, Coca Cola, Bank of America, Eastman Kodak, and other such ventures populated Disneyland’s shops and provided a patchwork quilt of logos and slogans across the park.[v] Watts affirms that the inclusion of brands and companies made Disneyland into an mélange of organized competition and a consumer’s paradise. While fantasy and illusion provided the excitement to Disneyland the products and, more importantly, product placement, supported and shrewdly provided a financial backbone to Mr. Disney’s operation of Disneyland. Furthermore, Watts argues that popular brands and products provided guests with almost a sense of comfort and familiarity in the park.
Although Watts book is focused on Walt Disney himself, the insight that he has on the philosophy that drove Disney’s other enterprises provides context for Disneyland and other Disney parks. Considering that Watts links Walt Disney to Disneyland and unpacks the values and modus opeandi of the man to similar manifestations of populism and consumerism in the theme park, this book sets the stage for how other historians see Disneyland and a lens to view the culture of entertainment in the 1950s and 60s. Patriotism, populism, and consumerism all set the stage for evaluating Disneyland as a collection of cultural institutions and meanings.
Stephen Fjellman’s Vinyl Leaves further defines the context of Disneyland by explicating how culture and consumerism in Disney’s theme parks are symbolic of underlying American cultural practices and values. Although Fjellman focuses on Walt Disney World in Orlando, and not the original Disneyland in California, Fjellman’s argumentation and thesis frequently references both parks and similar characteristics and operations that they share. At the heart of Fjellman’s argument is that Walt Disney World’s brand of artful capitalism is anachronistic, but done so with an express purpose; Fjellman sees that Disney’s parks are comprised of history, or “distory”, that speaks to underlying American values, despite factual discrepancies. [vi]
Fjellman places Disney’s attractions into a cultural context so as to argue for they ways in which they fit a paradigm of American values and practices. Fjellman says that culture in Disneyland or Walt Disney World is bound by public symbols and “legitimations that justify the world”. [vii] With this in mind, an exhibit like “The Hall of Presidents”, where all 44 presidents are impossibly on stage and speaking to each other at the same time, while historically unsound, is more of an example of Disney’s commitment to underscoring ideas of American exceptionalism and patriotism than it is to accurately portray American history. The purpose of Disney’s ventures in culture isn’t to proliferate academically supported history; it is to sell a product that makes a customer react in a positive and often, emotional way. Fjellman argues that this use of manipulated history in a capitalist venture reveals Disney’s place in American pop culture itself as it obliquely implicates that Disney’s products are, yes, bound to making the company money, but also to reflecting values and cultural concepts that are part of American culture. Fjellman asserts that this is a symbiotic relationship.
With this symbiotic and cultural relationship in mind, Disneyland and Walt Disney World are representations of culture, as it was construed at a certain point in time. Fjellman says that “distory”, or Disney’s conceptions of history, are marked by the ‘Eisenhower 50s’ and is designed to “soothe park visitors by leaping back across two world wars and a depression to more distant and hazy times”.[viii] Disney’s brand of consumer-friendly history plays upon nostalgia and memory. Falsified history, however, still relies on the aesthetics and events of the past to resonate with customers. Fjellman is careful to relate that Disney’s history, though counterfactual, is based in a degree of believability. The culture of Disneyland is one that is based in a veneer of truth, despite fantasy and entertainment subverting it. Disney visitors spend money to take part in experiencing this brand of fantastical history because it is steeped in realism. [ix]
Fjellman does not paint Disney’s brand of history and culture as a negative, but instead defines it as a marker of the unique culture that Disney represents and uses. When considering Disneyland or Disney World’s Magic Kingdom as a museum, they are not museums in the sense that they display the facts and artifacts of actual historic events, but instead that they are the artifacts themselves. Considering that Fjellman writes that these parks were created and imbued with postwar sentiment and nostalgia, Disneyland itself is a museum piece of how Americans saw themselves and the world in the latter half of the 20th century. Where Watts argues that Disneyland’s content was bolstered by the prevailing American values at the time of its inception, Fjellman furthers this notion and builds upon it by writing that Disney’s parks dwell in history and that history is portrayed in a very pointed way. In conjunction, these scholarly viewpoints make Disneyland and its attractions vital markers of American culture and values. Where Watts links these cultural attributes to Walt Disney himself, Fjellman goes a bit further and explicates that Disney’s business model is tied to their interpretation of history. Both, however, provide salient examples of how Disneyland and Walt Disney World can be viewed as artifacts or cultural sites that reflect the times and challenges in which they were built.
Next, Disneyland and all of Disney’s theme parks can be considered museums and museum pieces for the place they currently occupy in pop culture and not just for the content that they have. In Power and Paradise In Walt Disney’s World, by Cher Krause Knight, Knight argues that Disney World and Disneyland have grown into a type of pilgrimage site for Americans and the act of visiting these theme parks have come to define American culture. Knight attributes this outgrowth of ritualistic practice due to their content and the ways in which Disneyland presents its aforementioned patriotic and consumer driven content. [x]
Knight states that visiting Disneyland has become an American ritual much in the same way pilgrims visited holy religious sites because both share similar aesthetic and architectural characteristics. To make this very large claim, Knight compares Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom to the Santiago de Compostela. [xi] Santiago de Compostela, Knight argues, is a site of Spanish national identity where mystical meaning, cultural associations, and civic identity are reaffirmed, much how The Magic Kingdom aims to fulfill these same emotions through its entertainment venues and attractions. Knight relates the role of Santiago de Compostela as a pilgrimage site in that Christians travel to the church to pray, find spiritual sanctity, and to honor Saint James. She also links Disney’s Cinderella Castle (the icon and center of Walt Disney World) with Santiago de Compostela by illustrating that both make large visual statements, with towers soaring towards the heavens, speaking to their spiritual and otherworldly status. [xii]
Additionally, Knight sees Walt Disney World as a shrine to the similar American values that both Watts and Fjellman have discussed. Knight’s appraisal of American culture involves being a good consumer, buying into the Disney brand, and engaging in the family activities and attractions that Disney is famous for. By partaking in the ritual of travel and placing value on the overtly patriotic and populist sentiments of Disney, Knight asserts that Disney’s culture and place in culture is akin to the religious practices of pilgrimage. Where walking to the church completes a Christian pilgrimage and praying, the American religion of Disney is fulfilled by spending money on a “family brand” and walking down Main Street USA.[xiii]
Knight’s thesis on Disney as a pilgrimage site has further cultural implications in the ways in which Disney World has become a rite of passage for the American family. While The Magic Kingdom already boasts attractions and venues that are aimed at the family unit, Knight qualifies her claim by placing a trip to Walt Disney World in the context of how vacationing is integral to status and family psychology. Knight says that pilgrims travel through a terrain of culturally constructed symbols, where cultural obligations are met and experience changes the traveler. Under the paradigm of traveling to Disney World or Disneyland, the cultural obligation is the middle class family vacation, where familial togetherness is the objective and it is the general expectation that the trip will foster warm memories.[xiv] The elevation of status vis-à-vis interaction with Disney’s theme park culture comes when the traveler returns home with new experiences and stories of the overtly fantastical and technological wonders they have seen. Knight says that for children, having just returned from a trek to Disney World and getting to tell their peers about it is something of a status symbol and a marker of envy. For the parents that have taken their child to Disney World, the status symbol is tied to the achievement of being able to afford middle class escape to a theme park resort and meeting the expectation of their children. Undergirding all of this, Knight argues, is that athletes and Olympians proudly proclaim that they’re “going to Disney World!” after a victory. Family dynamics and economic aspirations aside, the whole affair of visiting Disney World is tinged with the support and adulation of the media in the United States, firmly cementing a trip to Disney World as part of the American psyche and in American culture.
Knight’s appraisal of Walt Disney World as a pilgrimage site places her scholarship apart from Fjellman and Watts. Where Watts and Fjellman wrote about the operations and thematic content of Disney’s parks vis-à-vis how American culture set the tone for Disneyland and Walt’s own personal tastes in the parks, Knight looks at Disney as more of a cultural observer than a historian who is trying to discern the mechanics of the parks. Knight identities herself as an explorer of traditional art, but readily admits that sociology and cultural anthropology have defined her study of Walt Disney World. In so doing, she argues that Disney’s role as a pilgrimage site is because it is part of a “shared culture” rather than a landmark of “pop culture” inspired attractions. Knight focuses on what Disney serves to the present population of the United States while building off of the history and cultural trends that have defined it, as Fjellman and Watts previously explored.
With Knight’s study of the current cultural role of Disney in mind, Anthony Guest’s work in The Paradise Program is an apt example of Disney’s consumerist and capitalistic tendencies, not to mention Disney’s efforts into defining urban spaces. This avenue of study reveals the underlying and functioning ethos of the company, beyond Walt Disney’s often artful and warm brands of patriotic and populist sentiment. Instead, Guest focuses on Disney’s ventures with EPCOT (Disney’s original plans in 1966 for an Experimental Prototype Community/City of Tomorrow, not the theme park that was eventually built under the same name in 1982.) and how Disney aimed to employ American culture and ideas of utopian futures so as to gain a foothold in real estate. While not implicitly related to Disneyland and its museum qualities as an example of American culture frozen in time, Guest’s study of Disney’s plans for a ‘community of tomorrow’, explicates the corporate vision of the company that serves as an engine to propagating American consumerist values. In short, Guest argues that EPCOT and Disney’s interest in urbanism serve as a means to an end in continuing running Disneyland in California and The Magic Kingdom in Florida. [xv]
Although Guest begins his exploration of EPCOT by highlighting that the ideas for a fully planned “city of tomorrow” were based in Walt Disney’s interest in technology and industry and part of his populist worldview, much like Watts covered in The Magic Kingdom, he soon departs from this rosy example and provides his own analysis for EPCOT’s origins, based in Walt Disney’s desire to stratify and control spaces. Where Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom are the epitome of controlled and highly manicured spaces meant for entertainment, Guest postulates that Disney’s EPCOT City was a Disney’s answer to problems in commerce and urban living. With Disney in control of urban development, the crowding and unclean aspects of the cities of yesterday could be sponged away with a common set of rules and guidelines for everyday work, play and trade. [xvi] Simultaneously, Guest argues that Disney’s involvement in running an industrial city would bolster the company’s success and that EPCOT would have made running Disneyland and Disney World would be all the more easy.
The basis for most of Guest’s claims about Disney’s culture and involvement in urbanism is derived from his unpacking of Disney’s use of technology and its role in deepening Disney’s connections to being a vital part of consumerism culture in the United States. Guest’s assertion is two-fold. First, he explicates that Disney’s aims with the plans for the EPCOT City in Florida were designed to be almost totally industrial and support the aerospace sector, manufacturing firms, and other burgeoning technologically savvy industries in the 1960s. As Guest understands it, Disney’s EPCOT City would have been a totally self-sustaining urban entity where those that worked in the industries that populated the city’s landscape would have also been EPCOT City’s residents. Guest qualifies these statements and ties them to his ideas of consumerism by remarking that EPCOT’s insular economy is inherently tied to the success of both the Disney Company in brokering the management of the city and its citizens itself and the “third party” corporations that would have taken part in doing business in EPCOT City. [xvii] While none of this came to pass, however, it is worth noting how markedly similar Disney’s business plan for their parks and resorts mirrored the plans for EPCOT. Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World are veritable entertainment metropolises, filled to capacity with first, people living and working for the company, and second, with industries that support the operations of theme parks and their employees. All of these consumerist aspects of Disney contribute to Guest’s declaration that Disney is a part of the fabric of American consumerism, with their goals very much focused on capital gains and production. Considering that Disney achieved this consumer status through technology and the production of cultural entertainment, they serve as an exhibition of American business practices. In Disney’s specialized case, they also exhibit aspects of American pop culture, as Fjellman and Watts have discussed.
While Guest established the consumerist and corporate side of Disney’s use of technology, Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance focuses almost totally on the more artful side of Disney’s technological prowess. Karal Ann Marling and Erika Doss argue that thematic cues in Disneyland and Disney’s theme parks around the world follow American cultural cues and play into narrative archetypes that are part of the American subconscious. They argue that technology and traditional stagecraft make these expressions of American culture all the more convincing and make Disney culturally relevant today. [xviii]
Marling and Doss argue that Disneyland’s Fantasyland rides are reflections of the culture of the United States of the 1950s, as the narratives they exhibit and the values they prop up are linked to American consciousness at the time. In particular, they detail that rides like Snow White’s Scary Adventures or Peter Pan’s Flight represent an unconscious diversion into heroics, magic, and a worldview of the world based in what’s right and wrong.[xix] This argument is also bolstered by Marling and Doss’ assertion that the American consciousness, found the narratives expressed in Disneyland’s rides, to be almost “countercultural” for the sheer encouragement they provided for escapism and the fulfillment of personal fantasies. As Disneyland and the bulk of Fantasyland’s rides were built in the 1950s, they were an answer to the anxieties of the Cold War. “Fleeing” into the Technicolor and artful world of Disneyland, may have been couched in the populist and patriotic sentiments that Fjellman and Watts have described, but it was also mired in a countercultural escape into a fairytale devoid of politics and the threat of war.
Further, the ways in which these Fantasyland narratives are portrayed are notable as they were accomplished through technologically dazzling illusions, sets, murals, and feats of robotics. These modes of presentation, Marling and Doss argue, are the aspects of Disneyland and Walt Disney World that make the place uniquely modern and uniquely American.[xx] The melding of fairytale stories and values in an artistic and technological way is something of an American hallmark and exceptional contribution to the world of entertainment. Marling and Doss do acknowledge that the World’s Fairs and other amusement parks came close to offering what Disney began in Disneyland but they firmly assess that Disneyland and its brand of attractions was a watershed moment in encapsulating American popular culture in the 1950 and 1960s when the bulk of the park’s classic attractions were built. Using Marling and Doss’ assertion of Disneyland’s status as an entertainment landmark it becomes clear that the park is a museum piece for the American mindset during the Cold War. [xxi]
Overall, the portrayals of Disney in this essay have been rooted in a successful and positive light. Admittedly, they have only looked at Disney in the context of the United States and at Disney under the lenses of American culture and American institutions. That said, as of Disney’s entrance in Japan in 1983, and France in 1992, Disney is now an international company. As these historians and cultural anthropologists in this conversation have established, Disney’s success and practices are based in the American values of the mid 20th century. In Andrew Lainsbury’s Once Upon An American Dream: The Story of Euro Disneyland, we are made privy to the shortcomings of Disney and its brand of American culture, as Disneyland was transplanted to a European and foreign environment as Euro Disneyland was built outside of Paris.
Where Walt Disney World and Disneyland were hailed as successful juggernauts upon opening, and have been lauded as cultural intuitions in the years following, Euro Disneyland, or Disneyland Paris, as it is now called, did not enjoy such a glowing reception. Instead, Euro Disneyland was hailed as a ‘cultural Chernobyl’ for its less than stellar impact in France as it did not turn a profit for its first three years of operations.[xxii] Lainsbury contends that Disney’s choice to almost totally replicate an American theme park for a European audience was not a mistake, but it was misguided in that Disney did not approach the project with more nuance.
Euro Disneyland was not built as a carbon copy of Disneyland or Walt Disney World, but it inherently had much of the same thematic content as its sister parks, Lainsbury explains. Adventureland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and Fantasyland were ideologically recreated, but in Paris, with more detail, as Disney thought that a fabricated tourist attraction would have trouble in stealing attention away from actual historical sites in Europe that boasted more grit and real world charm.[xxiii] Lainsbury says that while this was perhaps a good marketing technique, adding more artistic embellishments to Disneyland would have no effect on the cultural void that existed between Parisian guests and Disney’s content. Where American guests in an American Disneyland have established a Disney vacation as a pilgrimage site as Knight argued, Europeans had not. Further, where Americans were culturally connected to the source material expressed in Fantasyland where escapism and morality were tied to American values and the anxieties of the Cold War, European visitors viewed the Cold War in a much different context. The holistically American portrayals of European fairy tales were regarded as narrow and not as the universally accepted versions of the stories told. In short, Lainsbury argues that Euro Disneyland aimed to bring American culture to Europeans, but did so without adjusting its content to match the cultural expectations of a new group of visitors. [xxiv]
By placing Disney into the context of another nation with its own cultural values and practices, seeing how some aspects of Disney’s fundamentally American ‘museum’ of culture endured in some ways and was changed in others is an exercise in observing the relativity of culture. While Lainsbury’s outlook on the park does acknowledge that the situation was bleak, there were some degrees of success. Euro Disneyland, rebranded at Disneyland Paris, sought to bridge the cultural gap. Lainsbury conveys that Tomorrowland’s Space Mountain attraction was reworked to honor the legacy of Jules Verne and his classic novel From the Earth to the Moon, which proved to be a rousing success.[xxv] Similarly, the It’s A Small World attraction was redone to have a more Euro-centric view of diversity and culture and its classic earworm of an anthem was re-scored in a classical mode in an effort to be more subtle and to appease French sensibilities. These changes, hurriedly pushed into place, illustrate Disney’s niche as a fundamentally American museum of popular thought and culture, and uniquely so. In an attempt to transplant American values, patterns of thought, and escapism onto European soil, Disney inadvertently proved that while they were popular and acceptable for one cultural context, these were not universal constructs. The culture of Disneyland and America inform one another; to encapsulate and built upon the culture of Europe, Disney would have to design and formulate a new type of museum for a different type of culture.
In closing, the historiography surrounding Disneyland and Disney’s theme parks illustrate its place as a “museum” or role as a “museum piece” for American culture during the middle of the twentieth century. Walt Disney’s own political leanings and values were imbued in the park’s thematic content, making it a lens by which to view populism, consumerism, and the general atmosphere of post-war America. Disneyland’s growth into a mainstay of the American vacation and its place in the minds of middle class Americans as pilgrimage site further illustrate Disney’s importance as a marker of American culture and spending habits. Finally, the ways in which Disney’s inherent American values do not translate to a foreign and European context allow us to see the uniqueness of Disney’s take on American culture and how that culture was adapted to meet a new audience. Although its thematic content is unconventional and ahistorical, Disneyland offers an artful look at the culture of entertainment and how it was defined by greater trends in American history.
Fjellman, Stephen M. Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America. Boulder: Westview Press, 1992.
Guest, Anthony. The Paradise Program; Travels through Muzak, Hilton, Coca-Cola, Texaco, Walt Disney, and Other World Empires. New York: W. Morrow, 1973.
Knight, Cher Krause. Power and Paradise in Walt Disney’s World. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2014.
Lainsbury, Andrew. Once Upon An American Dream: The Story of Euro Disneyland. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 2000
Marling, Karal Ann. Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance. Montréal: Centre Canadien D’architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1997.
Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
[i] Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Page 449
Sometimes, when writing and researching you come upon a group of interesting things and have no idea what do do with them, as they are just implicit pieces of a whole body of study. Although that sounds frightfully academic, this even happens in researching something fun, like EPCOT Center and Walt Disney Productions.
So… I proudly present: Minutia! From EPCOT Center’s formative years and construction! Hooray!