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While the history of amusement parks and expositions in the United States stretches back into the late nineteenth century, the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, on 17 July 1955, marks the beginning of a distinctive era of parks designed around fantasy "themes." All "theme parks" opened since Disneyland's debut owe their conceptualization to this initial park founded by entertainment entrepreneur Walter ("Walt") E. Disney (1901–1966), his business partner and brother, Roy Disney, and the armies of Disney employees.

World's Fairs and Amusement Parks

The world's fairs and amusement parks in the United States doubtless contributed to Disney's conception of an amusement park for both children and adults. World's fairs, in particular, combined instruction with pleasure, while the amusement parks both small and large (for example, Coney Island) satisfied the public's interest in exotic fun. The great 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for example, combined the highest intellectual and artistic instruction with the base pleasures of the carnival-like midway. The Great Depression–era fairs—notably Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, the New York World's Fair in 1939 to 1940, and the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) in 1939—introduced other new elements later embraced by Disney. Following the rise of large, powerful corporations in the prosperous 1920s, the 1930s fairs saw the increasing presence of corporate pavilions promising a utopian future based on science and technology. Disney embraced this corporate, technology-based futurism. Walt attended the GGIE in San Francisco in 1939, where he would have seen the small-scale railroad, the Thorne Room miniatures (which later found a home in the Chicago Art Institute), the Amusement Zone, and a number of exhibits on the exposition's themes of progress in transportation and communication. Disney doubtless would have noted the fact that Treasure Island, the site of the exposition, was a completely new space created for the fair, connected to the newly completed Oakland–San Francisco Bay Bridge. In all, the GGIE provided a model for a complete, controlled space for all of the instruction and pleasure a fair could offer, along with the optimistic futurism Disney embraced.

The Disney Empire

Walt Disney's business empire began with his cartoon enterprise, founded in the late 1920s. His signature cartoon character—Mickey Mouse—appeared first in a few silent cartoons and, finally, in the landmark cartoon film with sound, Steamboat Willie (1928). From there, Disney's business grew in cycles, boosted by the financial success of his first feature-length animated film, Snow White (1937), which won a special Oscar. Subsequent feature-length animated films—such as Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953)—provided the characters and storylines that Disney would use later in his theme park. In addition, Disney's parallel development of wildlife documentary films—such as Seal Island (1948), The Living Desert (1953), and The Vanishing Prairie (1954)—and big-budget fully live action films—including Treasure Island (1950) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)—provided other characters and plots for the initial thematic design of the park.

Long before Disneyland opened, Walt Disney had learned the value of merchandising his characters, from simple plastic figures and dolls to board games and toys. Soon, copyright ownership to these characters and images became at least as valuable as Disney's rights to the films and cartoons themselves.

In the 1940s, Disney talked often about building an amusement park that would be clean and safe, a fun place for both adults and children. Initially he thought this might be a park for his employees at the newly built Disney studios, but gradually he began talking about a grander park for the public; the planning became earnest in 1952. After considering several sites, Disney settled on a 160-acre site of orange groves in Orange County, just to the south of Los Angeles.

Unlike some other producers in the film industry, Disney recognized that television could be a new important venue for his creative productions, so in 1954 he entered into a contract with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) to produce a weekly hour-long television show Disneyland. The name of the show came from the park that Disney envisioned. The newly formed WED Enterprises formed a creative staff of "Imagineers" (imagination + engineers) for the park planning. For Disney, the ABC television show created a national audience of potential customers ("guests") for his new park. The television show premiered in the fall of 1954, a mere nine months or so before the park opened. ABC televised live the opening-day ceremonies at Disneyland, and both the park and television show (later picked up by NBC and renamed The Wonderful World of Color to reflect the television broadcasting innovation) became famously successful. In October 1955, Disney entered the after-school television market with the premiere of the Mickey Mouse Club, which often featured the park. Over a million people visited the park in the last half of 1955, and in 1956 the annual attendance was 3 million people.

Over the years, Disney pursued the same marketing strategy, based on the three legs of his operation—the theatrical films, the television show, and Disneyland. As new films debuted on the television program—for example, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier appeared first as three half-hour segments on television, then was released as a feature-length film in 1955—Disney incorporated those characters and storylines into rides at the park. Similarly, new animated feature-length films (such as 1959's Sleeping Beauty) and live-action films (such as 1960's Swiss Family Robinson) provided thematic materials for rides and costumed characters at Disneyland. Thus, visitors to the park encounter already-familiar characters, storylines, and themes.

Disneyland Design

From the outset, Disneyland was designed carefully to maximize control over the visitors' experiences. Key to this control was the raised berm of land surrounding the park, ostensibly to carry the Disneyland Railroad in its circumnavigation of the park, but just as importantly it made Disneyland seem like a self-contained world quite isolated from everyday life. Disney wanted to be sure visitors could not see surrounding Anaheim from inside the park.

After paying for admission, visitors pass through a tunnel under the railroad berm and enter Main Street U.S.A. Main Street displays the traditional, midwestern American values of family, morality, and patriotism that small-town life represented for Disney. The storefronts are "themed" to the 1890s Gilded Age United States, and the buildings are designed with "forced perspective" (7/8 scale at the ground floor, 5/8 scale for the upper floors), a set designer's trick to make the buildings seem taller. Mainstreet is, in effect, a large movie studio set.

At the end of Mainstreet is a large, circular Plaza, where the visitor can choose to begin a visit to one of the "lands." These four "lands" match the thematic programs in the original Disneyland television program. To the visitors' left lie Adventureland and Frontierland, which are representative of America's past. To the visitors' right lies Tomorrowland, a vision of America's future, based on American science, technology, and spirit of enterprise. Straight ahead, in a line with Main Street, is Fantasyland, the world of Disney's cartoon shorts and feature-length films come to life.

Each land continues the impression that the visitor has stepped onto a movie set. Disney's collaboration with moviemakers has continued throughout the history of the park, including the Star Tours ride, based on the George Lukas films, and the Indiana Jones Adventure ride (opened in 1995), based on the Steven Spielberg films. In 2003, the Disney people turned the film/park relationship around with two films—The Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion—based loosely on two of the park's most popular attractions.

Walt Disney announced on several occasions that Disneyland "would never be finished," and the tinkering has been constant. The park opened with twenty-six initial attractions, with another twelve completed by the end of 1955. New attractions often opened in connection with new Disney films. The Matterhorn bobsled ride opened in 1959, for example, to coincide with The Third Man on the Mountain (1959). New Orleans Square opened in 1963, and in 1993 the park opened its first "land" outside the railroad berm—Mickey's Toontown.

Meanwhile, Disney had learned the lesson of the depression-era fairs and sought to build mutually profitable relationships with corporations outside the film industry. Three prominent corporations—Pepsi-Cola, General Electric, and the Ford Motor Company—approached Disney to design their pavilions for the 1964 World's Fair in New York. When the fair closed, Disney brought these exhibits—notably Pepsi's Small World and General Electric's Carousel of Progress—back to California to incorporate into the park. The Disney parks continue developing new attractions based on corporate partnerships.

Subsequent versions of Disneyland appeared in the new parks Disney built or franchised in the 1970s and 1980s. The Magic Kingdom section of Disney World in Florida reproduces the Disneyland layout and rides, though in a larger space. Similarly, Tokyo Disneyland (opened in April 1983) and Euro Disneyland (opened in 1992 and "rebranded" Disneyland Paris in 1994) retained most of the original design of Disneyland.

A final legacy of the design of Disneyland is the creation of themed commercial spaces. Shopping centers arose in the United States in the 1950s in response to the suburbanization of the middle-class and the increasing importance of the automobile with that suburban spread. Open-space shopping centers gave way to enclosed shopping malls in the 1960s, and it is clear from the history of malls that the designers borrowed lessons from the design of theme parks like Disneyland. By the 1980s, shopping malls increasingly looked like theme parks, incorporating amusement rides and other attractions into the enclosed spaces. At the turn of the twenty-first century, this development of public commercial space inspired by Disneyland entered a new stage when cities began creating integrated, themed "downtown" shopping districts, such a those in Brea in southern California and Emoryville in northern California. At the same time, Disney created an artificial Downtown Disney as the open mall-like commercial space separating Disneyland from Disney's California Adventure, a new park opened in 2001 and modeled more closely on the traditional amusement ride parks (such as the Los Angeles area's Magic Mountain) that have challenged Disney's leadership in theme park attendance and revenues. Disney park designs and other commercial shopping space designs continue to influence each other, recognizing that shoppers tend to linger longer and spend more money when the consumption takes place in a pleasant, safe, and familiar themed environment.

Disneyland, Tourism, and Post-Tourism

Over the decades, culture critics of all sorts have been drawn to Disneyland as a distinctive icon of American culture. Among the critics are both detractors and fans, but even the detractors confess to taking guilty pleasure in a visit to the park. After all, Disneyland is the self-proclaimed "happiest place on earth."

A great deal of the meaning of the park lies in those values Walt quite explicitly wanted the park to represent, traditional values combining family, patriotism, a faith in science and technology, and a faith in capitalism as the guarantor of progress. The park enacts Walt's utopian hopes for cities with efficient, clean transportation systems, in stark contrast with America's cities.

The park attractions, even as they have changed over the years, enact in many ways the ideology that links commodity consumption with American democratic institutions. The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction condemns hoarding wealth and rewards consumption, according to Louis Marin's analysis, whereas the General Electric Carousel of Progress and similar attractions, usually sponsored by major corporations, reinforce the message that consumer-based, commodity capitalism is sure to deliver "the good life."

Much of this message surrounds the nuclear family (some would say the white, middle-class family) in the United States as the most important cultural institution. Disney's films celebrate the family, even though some of the films (such as Bambi, Dumbo, and the fairy-tale-based films) rely on an absent parent for part of their emotional appeal. Disneyland assumes that the family is the basic unit of visitors, and scholars' observations about the resemblance between religious pilgrimage and tourism helps make sense of the pilgrimage families make to Disneyland and Disney World.

Beyond these cultural themes in the park, Disneyland also attracts attention as an example of the emergence of a postmodern cultural logic or style. Despite the fact that Disneyland's faith in scientific and social progress has much in common with modernism, critics have noted that Disneyland opened in the era when modernism was giving way to postmodernism, a cultural logic or style of thinking comfortable with the blurring of the line between reality and artificiality. The postmodern sensibility enjoys the bringing together of very different design elements torn from their original contexts, for example, and enjoys the ironic reflexivity of a spectacle of images and symbols that seems to know how arbitrary are all meanings. The postmodern sensibility substitutes nostalgia for history. As a huge movie set, Disneyland seems to be the penultimate example of a postmodern tourist site.

This postmodern quality of Disneyland and of some other tourist sites has led scholars to formulate the ideas of "post-tourism" and the "post-tourist" to distinguish this newer sort of tourism from the older tourism of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. Whereas the older sort of tourist sought an "authenticity" missing in his or her everyday life, the new post-tourist is in search of diversion. The post-tourist knows that he or she is a tourist, that the play time and space of the tourist experience is completely artificial, and that this blurring of reality and artificiality is the source of the fun.

Disneyland makes a compelling touristic site and a rich, seemingly inexhaustible site for cultural criticism because it contains so many of the themes and contradictions Americans experience in their everyday lives in the last half of the twentieth century and in the opening decade of the twenty-first. People talk increasingly about "the Disneyfication" of American culture, a sure sign of the pervasive influence of this park.

See also: Park Movements; Theme and Amusement Parks; Walt Disney World


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Jay Mechling