Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Walt Disney's America, Part One

When coherent analysis of any subject is to be attempted – that is, a subject which has meanings and modes and concepts and authors i.e. any work which can be reasonably classified as “art” – one of the first characteristics which must be established is intent. A statement of intent can be concrete or oblique, inferred, expounded, suggested, or insinuated. Intent is one of the key concepts for artistic appraisal, for without understanding intent, one cannot hope to understand content – this is why most American schoolchildren are taught the rather poisonous concept of the five paragraph essay with required thesis statement.

Although such structures are indeed the antithesis (there’s that word again) of intelligent writing, the thesis is indeed a useful barometer for intent, as no words are minced and no ink spilled. It is then useful for this author and this subject that Disneyland comes with a sort of built in thesis statement. Its’ few words will be well known to any Disney fan, but they bear reprinting here so that the all-too-familiarized may reread them and really contemplate what they mean.

Here we go.

“To all who come to this happy place; welcome.” “Disneyland is your land.” “Here age relives fond memories of the past...and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.” “Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America... with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”

Here is a thesis statement, of sorts, one so famous it has been committed to bronze and placed at the foot of none other than the American flag itself. As a microcosm of what Disneyland is, the arrangement cannot be accused of being incorrect. But the statement itself can be troubling, after all, are there not, here, two real statements of intent?

“Here age relives fond memories of the past...and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.” “Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America... with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”

It is around these two poles that many of the Disney parks orbit: a wish to entertain and enlighten on one hand, and a wish to document on the other. The wish to entertain usually resolves itself into attractions, the urge to document usually becomes the architecture, planting, and otherwise general setting. But let’s not mince words here and, for the moment at least, we’ll take Walt on his word: Disneyland is America.

This is a dicey proposition.

On one hand it’s not hard to see the connections: Main Street, Frontierland, and Tomorowland – three of the original five – all reflect aspects of American history both dear to Disney himself as well as commercially lucrative at the time. If we are permitted to extend the essay metaphor out of Disney’s 1955 dedication and into the park itself, it can be said that each “land” is a supporting “paragraph” in the “essay” which is Disneyland. This works even if we extend the reach of our inquiry to the only other land Disney supervised, New Orleans Square. So, then, is Disneyland less Waltland and more Americaland? Did Disney really beat coattail-competition Freedomland to the punch so definitively?

Main Street, as the entrance to the park, is doubly significant as a signifier of America and as a signifier of Walt Disney. Although we can definitively say that the version ultimately built bears less of a resemblance to Disney’s turn of the century hometown and more resembles the set for a Disney produced comedy like Summer Magic, it is important in that it is a direct statement from Walt to the spectator: welcome home. In the first land of the new park, America has put its’ best foot forward and Main Street is less the crossroads of an era than the mainline to Walt Disney’s heart. It’s no wonder that he got away with letting his memory of the past lead directly to a fantasy castle.

Frontierland and Tomorrowland, as both the far past and far future of America, are correctly oriented east-west on either side of this castle, and here a larger pattern reveals itself.

In the Disneyland television show Disney referred to the four “lands” as being similar to the four Cardinal points on a compass, and if we look at Disneyland, we see that the claim holds. Frontierland and Tomorrowland are placed at East and West (West, of course, for Fronteirland), and their alignment along an even latitude betrays their continuity as a record of America’s cultural conquest, first of the Manifest Destity of the west, then science and on to space. Traveling in a easterly direction from the 1955 Riverboat landing to the Flight to the Moon, one witnesses Americans conquering nature, building civilizations, the civilizations flourishing, expanding, advancing, until finally Americans conquer space itself. This narrative was not accidental.

What, then, of North-South? Perhaps this longitude is of America’s idealism rather than its’ aggressive expansion. The park begins in the spiritual hometown of not only Walt Disney, but all Americans. There is even a shrine to Abraham Lincoln and it is not unusual to hear George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy” played over the public address system. Where does this idealism lead? Through a fairytale castle and to where all dreams come true. That these dreams are all Disney movies is perhaps a convenient but tacitly, partially true irony on the part of the design team.

Then, it can be said that these “four cardinal points” represent America’s physical expansion in a east-west direction and America’s cultural optimism in a north-south direction: in short, much of America that is idealized and valorized by itself. They cross in the center at the revolutionary hub design, and remember, as originally planned the lands did not flow into each other but were self contained dead-ends.

But even this design feature did not last long, and the only 1955 land not permitted a space on a cardinal access point was Adventureland, a true anormality for a park so perfectly emotionally and intellectually designed. But there it is and it is here, dear reader, that the author must admit that she is stumped because there’s no good way to chalk up Adventureland as anything but an exotic retreat.

It is, at least, grouped with Frontierland, as both embody a bold sense of adventure and conquest of an untamed wilderness, but outside of chalking the area up as an embodiment of American inquisitiveness it’s pretty hard to pass it off as relevant to Walt’s “thesis”. It was even forgotten on the Dateline: Disneyland opening television special, and Walt Disney and Art Linkletter had to appear to awkwardly improvise a “haven’t-we-forgotten-something?” act.

And so Adventureland is the physical embodiment of the flipside of the argument, where Disney’s claim, the park’s thesis-dedication, is an extension of his politics and that of the period. In a time when we were revising pledges to the flag and naming names and generally trying to be as Not-Russian-But-American as possible, Disney’s claim of Disneyland as somehow being a kind of permanent installment on the ingenuity and national character of America comes off as patently absurd opportunism. After all, he saw no need to stick to this thesis statement once it was out of his mouth, and for every attraction which is a genuine refection of American progress (The Submarine Voyage thru Liquid Space), we have half a dozen which are pretty inexplicable by the same criteria (Matterhorn Bobsleds).

And this is the trap which Disneyland’s dual thesis statement, and that of all Disney parks, represents: the earnest desire to entertain and the sometimes-desire to document and reflect. So even if we can infer, for example, that New Orleans Square - Disney’s version of “The Paris of the West” - was meant to represent with its’ high end eateries and shops all that is culturally advanced about home-grown Americana, it still doesn’t quite explain why Walt built a Swiss mountain right in the middle of his ode to American ingenuity, Tomorrowland.

So where, then, can we find the key to Walt Disney’s America in Disneyland?

The park itself, not in its’ components, but in it, itself.

“He [Walt Disney] was a happy accident, one of the happiest this century has experienced. And judging by the way it’s behaving, in spite of all Disney tried to tell it about laughter, love, children, puppies, and sunrises, the century hardly deserved him.” Eric Sevareid

The preshow to Walt Disney World’s reworked Carousel of Progress advances the claim that Walt Disney was about as American as anyone ever was, and the statement would be outrageous if it wasn’t pretty hard to refute. And Walt Disney’s America – Disneyland – is well organized, neat, freshly painted. It is clean, people are friendly, and there’s always a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.

More than Davy Crockett or flights to the moon or Abraham Lincoln or omnibuses that’s what Walt Disney was telling America about itself with Disneyland.


John said...



Tannerman said...

That's some interesting analysis. Got to spend some time to get my head around that, but good reading!

Josh said...

This is one of the better Disney blogs out there - thanks for all the cool insight!