Forty Years of Overstatement: Criticism and the Disney Theme Parks (1998)


Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts which have created America.
– Walt Disney, dedication plaque, Disneyland, 19S3

“Oh my God,” said [seven-year-old] Mitchell, holding my hand as we strolled down one of the simulated Main Streets. “We’re trapped in a production of The Music Man, directed by Leni Riefenstahl.”
– Libby Gebnan-Waxner, “If You Ask Me: Mondo Disney,” Premiere, February 1996

I am a very strong supporter of both States’ rights and the local elected government, and believe the U.S. Senate really has no business refereeing—pardon the pun—every Mickey Mouse dispute around the country.
– Senator Ben Nightborse Campbell of Colorado, Hearing before Subcommittee on Public Lands, National Parks and Forests on Proposed Location of Disney’s America Project and Its Potential Impact on the Manassas National Battlefield Park and Other Significant Historic Sights in Northern Virginia, June 21, 1994

Any critical discourse takes place within a milieu of certain shared referents, common definitions, readily comprehensible metaphors, a lingua franca. The criticism of Disney theme parks as it has taken shape over the pastforty years is no different, and the quotations above, from Walt Disney himself to fictional seven-­year-old to real-life senator, seem to me to outline the borders of the critical theme park in which Disney criticism conducts its rides and spins its occasionally revelatory, more often creepy, wonders and illusions. These are borders of touching naïveté—within which Disney’s dedication plaque is always paid promise or looming threat, and never anything so plain as a come-on, a cannily patriotic 1950s version of a carny’s shill—and they are borders of steely-eyed suspicion, a rolling chorus down the decades of “You can’t fool me,” You can’t fool me,” “YOU CAN’T FOOL ME!”

Before looking into what professional critics have made of Disney land-work, it’s worth pausing over this lingua franca—ordinary Disney language as caught in comments collected at random from the every­day media in the course of the last year. Here, one can perhaps get a sense of what people say and mean when they talk Disney, of how much or how little they do talk about. Such talk raises a key question of Disney theme-park criticism: that of whether the critical discourse of books and scholarly journals, pop culture critics such as Tom Carson and political critics such as Michael Harrington, semiologists such as Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard, architects such as Charles Moore and Reyner Banham, journalist Richard Schickel or social theorist Susan Willis, actually goes beyond the ordinary conversation.

Literate America heaved a collective groan last week: huge ads in several national newspapers promoted the upcoming film Jefferson in Paris by displaying part of the American Constitution. But Thomas Jefferson had as much to do with drafting the Constitution as he did with writing the recipe for American cheese. Says a spokeswoman for Walt Disney Co., which releases the film March 31: “We all walked in Monday morning and said, ‘Oh, f—! It should have been the Declaration of Indepen­dence.'” This from the company that wanted to build a theme park celebrating American history.
Newsweek, 1995

Is it just a coincidence that Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, and Martin Scorsese’s Casino, three would-be down-­and-dirty tributes to lost Vegas, all went into production at more or less the moment when, led by the refurbished MGM Grand Hotel, America’s fastest-growing metropolis began promoting itself as the new Orlando? Lost Vegas became Vegasland, a wholesome middle-American theme park resort. “Today it looks like Disneyland,” whines Casino‘s old-time casino boss. And vice-versa: the ten-story sphinx guarding the thirty-story disco Egyptian glass pyramid that is the Luxor Las Vegas is a dead ringer for Disney’s Hollywood Pictures logo.
– J. Hoberman, “American Myths: Stardust Memories,” Artforum, January 1996

The ABC anchors and reporters were jittery when they learned that Disney had gobbled their network. They were thinking deeply, I’m sure, about journalistic integrity. Interviewing Thomas Murphy and Michael Eisner on Good Morning America, an edgy Charlie Gibson blurted: “I never thought I’d work for a guy named Mickey.” … What will happen when ABC and Disney begin plugging each other’s shows and promoting each other’s events? Will Brit Hume do his White House stand-up on a toadstool? Will Pocahontas be the hot forensic babe in Jimmy Smits’ precinct on NYPD Blue? Will Ted Koppel explain to the nation the precise scientific meaning of flubber? Will Cokie Roberts be mistaken for Cruella DeVil? Will Grumpy turn up with a Prozac overdose on General Hospital? What will George Will look like animated?… For Republicans who cherish nos­talgic visions of returning America to the 1950s, this is not a merger, this is a miracle. They are delighted with Mr. Eisner’s promise to make the giant news conglomerate reflect “what this country stands for.” (Davy Crockett, C.E.O.).
– Maureen Dowd, “Mickey Mouse News,” New York Times, August 3, 1995

Just a bit more:

#13. Pocahontas: Early settlers sang, danced, cut down trees, and exploited fuzzy animals for profit. Sounds like they founded the first Disneyland.
– Jim Mullen, “The Year That Was Hotsheet,” Entertainment Weekly, December 29, 1995

Is America so hypnotized by deregulation that it no longer cares about antitrust or monopoly control? Or have media companies been moved to some Magic Kingdom where these hard-won protections do not apply?
– James Ledbetter, “Merge Overkill,” – Village Voice, January 16, 1996

Great America is so soul-destroying. Really, if you take Disneyland as a tiny, small-scale model of a perfect fascist regime, Great America is a mere third-world tin-pot dictatorship, slipshod and un­comfy. In fact, rather than the country it purports to celebrate, Great America resembles Uruguay, or Bulgaria, in that it’s full of long lines, poor and expensive food, and very bad plumbing.
– Gina Arnold, “Fools Rush In: Yesterday’s Back,” Express (Berkeley), September 1, 1995

Two different visions compete for the soul of the blues. One defines them as a folk art, a collective expression of black American culture and a record of oppression. The other sees the blues as a modern­ist art of individual genius melding tradition and innovation with technology and commerce, one whose influence pervades all of pop music today.
Nowhere is the conflict more sharply drawn than in the House of Blues. To some, it is the last best chance to keep the form vital; to others, it reduces one of the most profound forms of Ameri­can music to a Disney cartoon.
– Phil Patton, ‘Who Owns the Blues?” New York Times, November 26, 1995

News item—the Walt Disney Co. expects to make only modest changes at its future subsidiary, ABC, henceforth known as Anaheim Broadcasting Co.
To wit:
Disney respects the integrity of ABC World News Tonight and won’t overhaul it except for a minor personnel change. Peter Jennings has been reassigned and replaced by Pocahontas to reflect the company’s strong belief that news anchors should mate for life… on the drama front, ABC plans to revive the old TV series The Millionaire. Each week, the mysterious John Beresford Tipton will present unsuspecting recipients with a cashier’s check for a million dollars—just enough to cover air fare, the hotel bill, gate admission and concession costs for a family of four to visit Disney World in Orlando.
– John Carman, “Why? Because We Own You,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 2, 1995

Now, some of this is funny—I think Carman’s Millionaire riff is a scream—some of it is flat, some of it is cheap, a bit of it is slick, and a lot of it is glib. But I think all of it is telling. Who hasn’t talked like this or thought like this? Disneyland, Walt Disney World—Disneyism as most fully embodied in its theme parks—rises out of these cuttings like a Godzilla of entrepreneurial, mass-psychologized Ameri­canism, and just about all any of the writers cited can do in defense is condescend.

Condescension is not thinking, but it can be politics. Gina Arnold proves that all too well with a throw-away line (a “small-scale model of a perfect fascist regime”) in an argument about something else, not because what she says necessarily sums up Disneyland, but because it does sum up virtually everything the academic authors of the weirdly, militaristically named The Project on Disney’s Inside the Mouse—a book published in 1995 by Duke University Press—have to say about Walt Disney World.

Because condescension isn’t thinking, it disarms the critic, who whatever her form or style must, to succeed, engage the reader and lead him to think along with her. It’s fascinating that a Disney park so completely defeated the previously invulnerable Libby Gelman-Waxner (the nom de film crit of playwright Paul Rudnick). This is a critic so fearsome she once explained to her “adorable seven-year-old daughter, Jennifer,” who had begun to ask about death, “that hell is basically like the smoking section of a restaurant—a place where everyone’s clothes smell bad and the utensils and glassware have water spots. I said that most people and all animals except pit bulls go to heaven, and that the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California” (des­cribed by many Disney critics as Disneyland’s chief local competition, and by some as Disneyland’s doppelganger) “is spoken of as the entrance to the underworld in the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

What does this have to do with the criticism of the Disney theme parks? Well, plenty. This is the sort of writing the places need—outrage and humor and wonder all mixed up together. Something in the Disney parks, if not Disneyism as such, brings out not necessarily the best or the worst but so often the most in people—it strips them bare, reduces them to babble or prompts curses and slurs. Examples tend to the awful, as with actor Robert Duvall’s comment—in his role as gentleman farmer of (savor the name) Upperville, Virginia—on the plan to construct Disney’s America near the Manassas battle-field. “It’s like building at Auschwitz,” Duvall told the acute Forbes reporter Lisa Gubernick. “But then [Disney Chairman Michael] Eisner’s ancestors only came over in the last hundred years. The Civil War isn’t part of his history.” These disgusting words might be countered by an argument such as, “Even though my ancestors came to the United States after the American Revolution, I’ve always considered the Declaration of Independence part of my history”—but what they really need is a response on the level that comedian Dennis Miller, on his HBO show, offered as part of his weekly news summary just before the 1994 congressional elections.


flashed a headline; “You really have to wonder,” Miller said, “about people who fear Mickey Mouse more than Oliver North.”

Most Disney critics forget this kind of language—swift and tough—as soon as they begin, if they ever knew it. What they mostly produce instead is polemical, ideological, or merely self-congratulatory, smug: treatises so fixed on decoding Disney’s own Rosetta Stone of a dedication plaque they can hardly be bothered to investigate which rides are fun and which aren’t, let alone why.

That, one might think, is where any criticism of Disney theme parks ought to begin. Instead it may well begin with novelist and screenwriter Julian Halevy’s notorious “Disney­land and Las Vegas,” published in the Nation in 1958—which is to say, again, that it begins with the Disney plaque.

In 1958, the United States was still poisoned by McCarthyism; in Hollywood the blacklist was still in effect. In the pages of the left-wing Nation, any product labeled “American” was to be treated as suspect, but Halevy went in armed. He began by informing his readers that though a U.S. citizen, he was a resident of Mexico; having “just returned” from an anthropological foray into the United States, he was “now once more enjoying the taste of unfrozen orange juice and fresh fish, conversations lasting four or five hours in which all sorts of cabbages and kings are discussed, meetings with friends where no one asks if I watched TV last night to see Mickey Rooney do Oedipus Rex…” Today it is very hard to read such stuff: not only to be reminded, as critic Tom Carson would write in 1992 in his wildly ambitious “To Disneyland,” that “Any­where this side of utopia, the opposite of ‘commodity culture’ isn’t nature but privilege,” but to realize that against the capitalist democracy of the United States, in 1958 profoundly inegalitarian but in the first stages of an equally profound self-renewal, Halevy was promoting Mexico, with its economy a mix of feudalism and racketeering and its politics those of a tin-pot dictatorship, as morally superior. And yet this too—in language that, over the decades, modernizes but does not really change—is utterly typical of Disney criticism. There’s a way in which the whole main stream of the discourse is a search for a way to say “The horror, the horror,” without sounding too corny.

“As in the Disney movies,” Halevy writes,

the whole world, the universe, and all man’s striving for dominion over self and nature, have been reduced to a sickening blend of cheap formulas packaged to sell. Romance, Adventure, Fantasy, Science are ballyhooed and marketed: life is bright colored, clean, cute, titivating, safe, mediocre, inoffensive to the lowest common denominator, and somehow repugnantly inhuman. The mythology glorified in TV and Hollywood’s B movies has been given too solid flesh… Give ’em mumbo-jumbo. One feels our whole mass culture heading up the dark river to the source—that heart of darkness where Mr. Disney traffics in pastel-­trinketed evil for gold and ivory.

Picking this apart—noticing that Halevy compares “Mr. Disney” to slave traders as smoothly as he covers his bets with the A-movie producers he’s presumably pitching his scripts to—is much less interesting than following the path, or river, Halevy opened up. Disney fan Ray Bradbury responded in a mocking letter to the Nation and, later, in a piece that tried to turn Halevy’s Disney-Las Vegas opposition (“The satisfactions sold in Las Vegas are subtler and more profound,” Halevy said: “they touch on the real lives, the real anxieties”) on its head. “Vegas’s real people are brute robots, machine-tooled bums,” Bradbury wrote. “Disneyland’s robots are, on the other hand, people, loving, caring and eternally good.” Science-fiction novelist Bradbury was not speaking ironically, and in a way it’s too bad no one has ever tried to figure out what what he said means—stacks of Postmodernist Disney exegesis could have been preempted. But though Halevy said what many, many people thought—and think—he was too brazen; to retain credibility, critics had to turn the volume down. Thus a few years later the Nation published “Disney’s Fantasy Empire” by John Bright, another novelist-screenwriter, who attacked Halevy as a snob out of touch with “the new masses.” “All escape is not neurotic,” Bright wrote. “What’s sick about a vacation?” And yet, as he proceeded through several pages of attempting to like Disneyland (while at the same time trying to throw up a roadblock against Disney’s then-planned Mineral King resort near Yosemite National Park), Bright wasn’t very convincing, and neither was Richard Schickel, attacking Halevy in his groundbreaking 1968 study The Disney Version. To Halevy’s complaints about a “papier-mâché crocodile” and a “muddy ditch” on Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, Schickel correctly stated that “the alligator is technologically far advanced over papier-mâché” and that the water was “sparkling clean.” “Nor can one blame Disney for the impoverishment of our national mental life,” Schickel went on—oddly, since to a good degree his book tried to make just such a case.
The Disney Version, the first book to combine biography, business history, and cultural critique in an attempt to make sense of the Disney phenomenon, began with a hard, blunt assertion—“As capitalism, it is a work of genius; as culture, it is mostly a horror”—and then spent the rest of nearly three hundred pages avoiding its burden. There is the prissy assertion, regarding the Disney Studio’s appropriation and revision of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in Fantasia, that “had Disney actually possessed the soul of an artist… he could not have treated Stravinsky as he did,” as if all those possessed of the soul of an artist are fine fellows, but this is not horror. That comes only at the very end of the book, when Schickel attempts to present the original Disneyland Abraham Lincoln robot as a Frankenstein’s monster, about to despoil the countryside, as it were, from within the breast of each villager. “Are we really supposed to revere this ridiculous contraption,” Schickel wrote, “this weird agglomeration of wires and plastic”—which in 1969 Schickel’s description made me desperate to see—“transferring to it, in the process, whatever genuine emotions we may have toward Lincoln in particular, toward mankind in general?”

Actually, one is not supposed to revere this contraption, but Schickel is not to be stopped: “If so, we are being asked to abjure the Biblical injunction against graven images and, quite literally, we are worshipping a machine.” So Schickel tries to nail his argument:

At this point the Magic Kingdom becomes a dark land, the innocent dream becomes a nightmare, and the amusement park itself becomes a demon­stration not of the wondrous possibilities of techno­logical progress, as its founder hoped, but of its possibilities of horror.

For the reader of Schickel’s book, this can be very confusing—for not ten pages earlier, Schickel can be found quite accurately disparaging Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise as “nothing deeper intellectually or emotionally” than jungle cruises “in a hundred movies and television shows,” and then, paddling up Halevy’s river, insisting that “to go beyond that Disney and his ‘imagineers’ would have had to create, in three dimensions, an objective correlative to the mood of terror Conrad invokes, through means that are in the last analysis inexplicable and therefore inimitable, in Heart of Darkness.” So, instead of the “dark land” the Magic Kingdom becomes with the Lincoln robot, Schickel wants a new subsection of the park, Darkland?

But let us leave the confusion of just what “The horror, the horror” might mean as a ride, and get back to what it means for Schickel. Disney’s Lincoln is supposed to demonstrate Disneyland’s possibilities for horror, for Disney culture as a horror, but what exactly does this horror consist of? “Disney labored over Mr. Lincoln as he had not labored to bring forth his Mouse,” Schickel writes, “and brought forth a monster of wretched taste.” Bad taste is not a horror—but one suspects that, here, Schickel has really said exactly what he means, and all he means. A careful reader is left altogether at sea. Disney’s “love for the Lincoln Legend knew few bounds,” the reader will have found Schickel saying: “he could quote long passages from his speeches.” If one knows anything of Lincoln, one will be intrigued—which speeches? Lincoln was no dispenser of bland homilies, tribune avant la lettre of Disneyfication—what of Lincoln’s philosophy, his terrors, his pain, his dark visions, his balanced, Shakespearean imagery, might Walt Disney have been responding to? This is the sort of question that does not get asked in Disney criticism, not because the specific answers might be out of reach, as here they probably are, but because the question raises others. If Walt Disney’s attachment to Lincoln was deep and profound, that might tell us more about Walt Disney or Lincoln than some of us want to know.

With the ground broken, Disneyland and later Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris were opened to Post-modernists and semiologists. For such Old World writers as Umberto Eco, in Travels in Hyperreality, Jean Baudrillard in America, Reyner Banham in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Disneyland was indeed a playground: Meaning floats free as signifiers dance attendance. Disneyland side by side with a Jack in the Box stand, the Watts Towers, the Brown Derby, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and the like makes sense in Banham’s book; his claim that Disneyland is orchestrated “with such consummate skill and such base cunning that one can only compare it to something completely outrageous, like the brothel in Genet’s Le Balton… an almost faultless organization for delivering, against cash, almost any type at all of environmental experience that human fancy, however inflamed, could ever devise…” translates as, “can I go now?”

As always, Eco gets you in the mood to think; he could care less if you agree with him. “The ‘completely real’ becomes identified with the ‘completely fake'” is his premise; as you puzzle that out through such examples as the reconstruction of the Oval Office at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, Eco leads you into “the most typical phenomenon of this universe,” his favorite Disneyland rides, the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. He has nothing particularly remarkable to say about these rides, other than to communicate over the course of two pages that they are absolutely incredible and that he can’t get them out of his mind—or, in another sense, into it. The critical faculty that works so well on the ambience of Disneyland (“Disneyland can permit itself to present its reconstructions as masterpieces of falsification, for what it sells is, indeed, goods, but genuine merchandise, not reproductions. What is falsified is our will to buy”) falls apart in the face of fun. As for Baudrillard, master of the slipknot school of criticism, he might not have stepped on a single ride at all. His major argument begins and ends at that old Disney sign: “Disneyland is there to conceal that it is the real country.” Here we are confronted with snobbery as deep as Robert Duvall’s, and based in similar old-soil values. As opposed to an organic nation like France, America is made up, no less a contraption, with all of its mechanical checks and balances, than Disney’s Lincoln. What the overwhelming symbology of Disneyland conceals is that America is all symbol; it does not exist. In other words: “Can I go now?”

From here it is a short step to a whole redoubt of American criticism—the basic question of which is, “How do I get out of here?,” a question raised with varying degrees of anxiety. By far the best work in this vein is political scientist Michael Harrington’s 1979 “To the Disney Station: Corporate Socialism in the Magic Kingdom.” Uninterested in Disney culture, he is riveted by Disney capitalism, and by the theme parks as a nation (“Disney World is not a company town; it is a company state”). Disney World “embod[ies] one of the most powerful desires of the late Seventies,” Harrington wrote: “that it is possible to reach apolitical, anti-intellectual, corporate, and technocratic solutions to the problems of society.” Though before too long his argument begins to tip toward Godzilla-fantasies of omnipresence and omnipotence, Harrington’s voice is clear and muscular throughout. The same cannot be said of Mike Wallace’s “Mickey Mouse History: Portraying the Past at Disney World” (Radical History Review, 1985), or Alexander Wilson’s “The Betrayal of the Future: Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center” (Socialist Review, 1985) or Michael Sorkin’s “See You in Disneyland” (from Sorkin’s 1992 anthology Variations on a Theme Park). All have their moments of interest and all devolve quickly into a kind of critical voice that can perhaps best be called spite.

This is not a good posture from which to practice criticism—an angry defensiveness, a fear that somehow one’s faculties or tools of analysis are not up to the job disguised as contempt for the job itself—and nothing makes this more clear than The Project on Disney’s Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World. Here, courtesy of three academics and one photographer-essayist who pretend to be working collectively (the various essays in this collection are unsigned, though the first use of the first person results in a footnote distinguishing Susan Willis from Karen Klugman, Klugman from Jane Kuenz, Kuenz from Shelton Waldrep), is the Anhedonic School of Disney criticism without doubt or restraint. “I always approach culture as a consumer,” Willis says; she wonders if “there is any pleasure in mass culture”; she alerts her readers that “As a critic of consumer culture, I don’t find shopping pleasurable”; that Walt Disney World is “the quintessential enactment of the hysterical bourgeois subject”; and that the costumes of the sales clerks at Walt Disney World “make them indistinguishable from the merchandise” they sell. To which one might reasonably reply, your notion of culture is vastly impoverished; your notion of pleasure must be inconceivably refined; you’re probably in the wrong business; speaking of hysterical… speak for yourself, sister.

The critics at work here are suspicious, afraid, envious, chilled. Often one begins an essay sharing their trepidation over the fundamental colossalness, the all-presentness, of Walt Disney World, but one cannot keep up with the nearly instant and then unvarying retreat to ideology, buzzwords (like the FBI in the 1950s, the Anhedonics see “subversion” everywhere; the difference is they’re all for it), distaste—to, finally, retreat from their putative subject itself. Rooted mindlessly in the notion of “resistance through rituals”—in which, in a sort of everyday-life inversion of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, people happen upon habits and hunches that allow them to maintain a semblance of subjectivity in a world defined by the overwhelming objectification of mass society—Inside the Mouse is meant as a field guide for the avoidance of complicity with the culture that is in fact one’s own. “Instead of feeling like an anonymous peasant with particular interests that are not recognized in the vast kingdom,” Karen Kingman writes, “you can think of yourself as the court jester.” And you can then think of everyone else as a peasant—or, as with Willis and the Walt Disney World sales clerks, as merchandise.

Here we have reached bottom: dedicated, smart people who have somehow managed to convince themselves that all the great social and political reforms in the United States over the past forty years have produced a society at least as unfree as the society in which Disney­land first appeared, and as if, somehow, one can read the hidden protocols of this unfreedom through the spectacle of Walt Disney World. “Shopping is a ride not unlike the other amusements,” Willis says—and perhaps it is, if you never really ride the rides.
While at least spiritually staying off the rides is a fundamental premise of Disney theme park criticism, if not the fundamental premise, there are at least two critics who understand that, as Karl Marx might have put it, criticism of Disney theme-park rides is the prerequisite of all Disney theme-park criticism. In the 1984 The City Observed: Los Angeles—A Guide to Its Architecture and Landscapes, architect Charles Moore jumps right on. Instantly, Disneyland begins to make sense: as a funfair where good ideas meet fantastic execution, where ideas stillborn nevertheless function adequately, where small-mindedness restricts but does not extinguish delight, where surprise lurks in apparent banality and banality in what at first glance looks like vision. An enthralling account of Pirates of the Carib­bean ends up right where a lot of people have found themselves when they got off, which is to say utterly, fabulously confused, half-humiliated, half-filled with wonder: “It’s astonishing how this pin-brained apotheosis of sloth and stupidity can be so fascinating.” With the Haunted Mansion, Moore has no such reservations; you’re not even sure his one cavil isn’t a joke, or a backhanded prophecy of an age when the word “handicapped” would be replaced by “physically challenged”:

The Haunted Mansion is a badly flawed ride, if only for the smug and supercilious treatment it bestows on ghosts, just because they are dead. Even so, it is surely one of the most skillful, sophisticated and engrossing spatial sequences on the planet. It is useful to see the ride as a progression from outside the event, where the observer and the observed are at some distance, to the inside, where the observer, mind and body, has entered into the observed, so that it finally envelops him and even at the end makes an attempt to enter him.

Here we are all the way into a dream—a constructed dream unfolding on its own terms. Taking an attraction on its own terms—not on the mystifying terms of the Disneyland plaque or the self-protecting terms of fashionable shibboleths—is Moore’s great strength. Read­ing him, you might simultaneously feel pleasure in plain speech working hard and bafflement that such language applied to Disney theme parks is so rare. Moore can tell you why Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride can stay with a child for years. He can rail against It’s a Small World, and its accompanying theme song, without making them stand for the American soul or the Temptations of Mammon (“The trouble with this experience, aside from the fact that it so exaggerates the goody-goody aspects of Disneyism as to make them intolerable, is that the damn song stays in your head for months. Therefore, gentle reader, consider this heartfelt proposal that you not go near the place”). He can let someone who first visited Tomorrowland in the 1950s understand why it was disappointing even then (“A good case can be made on evidence collected from all over that the future came and went in about 1957”). Moore is so sharp, so thoughtful and engaging, that you want him to go farther, to expose himself as he exposes this ride or that—but here one must turn to Tom Carson.

Carson, a critic whose work has most often appeared in the Village Voice, began writing about music and television and moved on to writing about politics—politics as culture, sometimes as a theme park. Writing in 1992 in the LA Weekly, the Los Angeles version of the Village Voice, Carson entered Disneyland, as he had many times before, with a smile on his face and a flutter in his belly. “Nothing looks fake,” he marvels. “Fabricated, yes—fake, no. Disneyland isn’t the mimicry of a thing. It’s a thing.”

This is where Disney theme-park criticism opens up: with the acknowledgment that Disney’s idea and its execution, whether judged liberating or imprisoning, fun or a bore, was something new. It cannot be taken for granted; it was not always here. Where, though, is Disneyland’s here? Carson goes all over the map to find it. “‘A happy East Germany,'” he says to himself, trying out the notion. “Imagine East Germany happy. Imagine East Germany.” East Germany was gone as he wrote; Disney­land was still there. Another try:

Disneyland is unilateral, literally a control freak’s paradise. It can’t be experienced in any way, or yield any meanings, other than those Walt meant it to. If Walt had really wanted our imaginations to soar, He would have given us wings, not mouse ears.

Yet I know it’s precisely this imminent ab­negation of all independent will that thrills me each time I cross the parking lot to those heraldic ticket booths. The feeling’s akin to the blissful relin­quishing of responsibility I experience on airplanes, where I’m still happier than any place on Earth. I may die. But I won’t be asked to live up to anything.

Moving through the park, testing its rides and attractions against much of what’s been written about them, contrasting the smooth operation of the park with a long interview with a park worker—who not infrequently played Goofy while on LSD—Carson recreates the Disneyland environment in such a way that it is at once demystified, full of questions without answers, and mystified beyond all reason, to the point where it seems the place can turn a visitor’s unfocused unease into a ride everyone is on. Carson himself ends in a grand collapse of history into popular culture, as if all at once a wailing chorus of Los Angeles voices—those of Nathanael West, William Faulkner, the Beach Boys, the Eagles, Ed Sanders, Charles Manson, Aimee Semple McPherson, Theodor Adorno, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan, and on, and on—is speaking through him. He tours the park with Tom Joad, who it turns out survived the migrant camps and began working for Disneyland in 1955, and hasn’t voted for a Democrat “since I first ate in a sit-down restaurant. And that’s a long time ago.”

We had passed into Fantasyland. In the lengthening shadows—it was nearly sunset—the great carousel spun. Sleeping Beauty’s Castle’s violet turrets stood out against a violet sky. I saw tears in Tom Joad’s eyes.

“This was everything we ever dreamed of, back then,” he said. “We thought all Californy would be like this.”

This won’t work for everyone. The “Californy” is off, a pulling away from the story, a distancing, the self-protection that infects so much Disney criticism. But the pas­sage gets at something deep about Disneyland. Tom Joad is beside the point—the man in The Grapes of Wrath expected no castles in California—but also a way in. There’s a way in which all Californians believe all California should feel like Disney’s vision, and a way in which it does. There is a way in which Cali­fornia called Disneyland into being, and in which Disneyland only reflects back the light of its own place.

So far, this is as far as the criticism of Disney theme parks goes, and self-evidently it is not very far. The real literature remains to be written; the parks have a forty-year head start.

From Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance, edited by Karal Ann Marling, 1998

One thought on “Forty Years of Overstatement: Criticism and the Disney Theme Parks (1998)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s