But What Is Disneyland For?
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I visited Disneyland on my first trip to Los Angeles, in June 1969.
Walt Disney had been dead only two and a half years, and the park
was still very much his, not just in its general conception but
in its details. I expected to like it, but as the day wore on I
was surprised to realize that I didn't much care for it. It was
only late in the day, at "Pirates of the Caribbean," that
I felt any enthusiasm for what I was seeing.
visits did not erase my skepticism. On my most recent visit, my
dismay with the submarine ride drove me out of the park in mid-afternoon.
I've always been disturbed by my reaction to Disneyland. Even in
the last and weakest of Walt Disney's animated features, I see traces
of the artistic innovator who made the great short cartoons and
the early features. It's harder to find such traces in the live-action
features, but that's not surprising, because Disney's involvement
in them was clearly limited. He was, after all, devoting most of
his time to other thingsDisneyland, in particular. It's his
intense involvement with the park that makes me uncomfortable with
my own coolness toward it. If he was so wrapped up in Disneyland,
why do I find so little of the essential Walt Disney in it?
There's abundant evidence of Disney's intense involvement in such
recent books as Designing
Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance and
Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic
Real. The most recent such book is Designing
Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show, a slender
but lavishly illustrated volume that owes its unique authority to
its principal author. John Hench is now well into his nineties,
but, after more than sixty years on the Disney payroll, he is still
actively involved in the activities suggested by his book's titlethe
design of attractions at what are now a half dozen Disney theme
The book comes equipped, too, with a preface by Frank Gehry, the
architect of the wildly acclaimed new Walt Disney Concert Hall in
Los Angeles, and a co-author, Peggy Van Pelt, with a Ph.D. As modest
as are the book's dimensions, it would be hard to imagine a more
imposing case for Disneyland's importance.
Hench does not shrink from making extraordinary claims for what
he calls "our greatest achievement," Disneyland. His language,
as applied to the Disney cartoons and theme parks in interviews,
has always been rather grand, sometimes masking the intensely practical
considerations that led to particular choices. His book is no different.
For example, he says this about Mickey Mouse, in an extended caption:
"As a graphic representation, Mickey is a symbol of life. He
is a series of round shapes that have a distinctive relationship
characterized by the flow of one curve into another, creating lines
that relate to each other in the musculature of a human being. Curves
typically indicate movement typical of the living human figure.
I see Mickey as a record of dynamic movement."
I felt here, as in much of the rest of the book, that Hench had
skipped a step. Mickey, like many another cartoon character in the
twenties, owed his curves to the limitations of his animators. As
I put it in Hollywood Cartoons: American
Animation in Its Golden Age: "Vertical forms tend to
stutter as they move across the screen, whereas curving forms tend
to flow." Those tendencies were exaggerated in the hands of
the early animators, most of whom were more limited in their skills
than the animators of later years. Mickey has outlasted many other
characters that were equally curved; his curves were only one small
element in his success.
Only rarely as I read the book did I feel that Hench was extending
his reach to all the considerationsgrubbily practical as well
as aestheticthat have governed the design of the Disney parks.
Sometimes the practical intrudes seemingly by accident, as when,
in the engagingly expert chapter on color, Hench writes of the "dark
ride" called "Pinocchio's Daring Journey." The ride,
he says, "flows seamlessly into Geppetto's Toys & Gifts
and the nearby Village Haus Restaurant, all unified, like a stage
set, by a color palette of rich wood browns and earth tones accented
with warm colors typical of Italian wooden toys and clocks. The
theatrical background extends the ride experience beyond the ride
itself, into the shopping and dining experiences." Those latter
"experiences" being, of course, additional opportunities
for the Walt Disney Company to extract money from "guests"
who have already paid handsomely to enter the park.
The "experience" of being parted painlesssly from one's
cash is not what brings people back to Disneyland, and I don't think
it has been uppermost in the minds of designers like Hench. But
I'm left wondering just what kind of experiences Hench and his colleaguesand,
especially, Walt Disney before themhave wanted and expected
their visitors to have. Disneyland and its successor Disney parks
have been planned and executed as carefully, as thoughtfully, as
any great cathedral or, for that matter, Gehry's Disney Hall. And
yet, there's no question what kind of response the builders of Europe's
great medieval cathedrals wanted to elicit. Chartres, Bourges, Salisbury,
Florenceall such cathedrals demand contemplation of the eternal
and the divine. Some may do so more successfully than others, but
there is rarely ambiguity about their purpose. Disney Hall is likewise
a temple, to music of the rarefied kind. When Essa-Pekka Salonen
chose the compositions for the inaugural concert, he picked not
"It's a Small World" but Le Sacre de Printemps.
It's tempting to say that the experience waiting at the heart of
Disneyland is nothing more than just another damn roller coaster.
But as Hench points out, Disneyland had no "thrill rides"
until 1959, four years after it opened. From its inception, Disneyland
was not a true amusement park. It lacked not just the old amusement
parks' seediness but their edge, the titillation of rides that seemed
to, and sometimes did, place the riders in physical peril. That
has changed somewhatunder the pressure of competition, Disneyland
has added a variety of thrill rides, and a few people have been
hurt or even killed on thembut most of the rides and shows
were, and are, very mild stuff.
Hench doesn't dwell on the Disneyland rides so much as on things
like the "concept of 'themed' environmentsplaces designed
so that every element contributes to telling a story." But
themed environments have been with us for a long timethe first
real suburban shopping center, Country Club Plaza in Kansas City
(a place that Walt Disney surely visited after it was built in 1922),
is "themed" in its evocation of Spain. The great movie
palaces of the twenties were routinely "themed"; examples
have survived in cities as diverse as Atlanta and Santa Barbara.
Many great hotels have always been "themed." Whole organizations
like the Masons and the Shriners, with their mock-Islamic trappings,
are nothing if not "themed." Disney may have given "theming"
a new burst of life, as he "developed and popularized"
the idea, to use Hench's phrase, but it is all too easy to overstate
the importance of what he did.
So, is it, as Hench says, "the guests' sense of progressing
through a narrative, of living out a story told visually
[that links] together the great variety of attractions [Disney]
envisioned for his new kind of park"? Here judgment is inevitably
more subjective, but not everyone involved with the park has bought
into the "story" idea. Marc Davis, for one, in a 1973
interview with Bob Thomas, spoke of Disney's attitude during preliminary
work on the "Haunted Mansion" attraction: "By that
time, Walt knew that we were not telling stories.
very definitely, 'You can't tell a story in this medium.'"
(A transcript is at the Disney Archives.) At the very least, the
"stories" being told at Disneyland are impoverished compared
with the rich narratives of the best Disney animated features.
Hench is hardly alone in assigning more weight to Disneyland than
it can bear. Ray Bradbury, for one, said a few years after the park
opened that he found there "vast reserves of imagination before
untapped in our country." It seems to me, though, that imagination
has always been in short supply at Disneyland, and deliberately
so. The park's very blandness has been reassuring to many visitors,
especially the parents of small children. I think they come to Disneyland
not for imaginative stimulus, but to be soothed by a perfectly orderly,
predictable environment. I find such environments irritating and
oppressive, and I'm sure that's why I have never been able to warm
up to the park.
Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times, linked Arnold
Schwarzenegger's election as governor of California to Walt Disney's
vision of Disneyland, which Rich described as "an alternative
America that he could script and control down to the tiniest detail
of its idyllic Main Street U.S.A." It's not necessary to share
Rich's scornful view of Disney and Disneyland to acknowledge the
essential accuracy of what he wrote. Disney was both artist and
entrepreneur, two categories of human endeavor that blur into each
other. Very often, being in complete control is terribly important
to people of both kinds.
Disneyland has always been seenaccurately, I thinkas
an outgrowth of Disney's fascination with trains, as a sort of tabletop
model-train layout grown to enormous size. Unlike a tabletop, Disneyland
has always been filled with real peopleand had to be, if the
park was to pay for itself. The presence of all those people could
have worked against Disney's maintaining control: what if they didn't
behave the way he wanted them to? It was here, as Hench makes clear,
that Disney manifested true entrepreneurial savvy. He understood
that it is easier to maintain control over your customers if they're
doing what they think they want to do, as opposed to doing
what they think you want them to do. To preserve that illusion
of autonomy, Disney was more than willing to make countless small
"To design most effectively for our guests," Hench writes,
"we learned that we had to observe them up close, waiting in
lines with them, going on rides with them, eating with them. Walt
insisted on this.
This was new to us; as filmmakers, we were
used to sitting in our sweatboxes at the studio, passing judgment
on our work without knowing how the public might actually respond
to it. Going out into the park taught us how guests were being treated
and how they responded to patterns of movement and the ways in which
they expressed their emotions. We got an idea of what was going
on in their minds."
My thought when reading this was, how fortunate we are that such
instant feedback was not available when Walt Disney was making
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia. He always
showed a decent respect for his audience, but at critical points
he pulled back and made his films the way he wanted to make theman
exercise of control that was materially different from the kind
of control he exercised over Disneyland. A theme park makes no sense
if it is not pleasing hordes of customers; the rides are incomplete
if they are not filled with people. But a film can make sense, in
artistic terms, even if it is playing to almost-empty theaters,
as some of Disney's did.
Perhaps Disneyland would have undergone a transformation if Disney
had lived, and the wit and invention embodied in "Pirates of
the Caribbean" and then in "The Haunted Mansion"
would have become the rule at the park, rather than the exception.
Disney might have found in "Audio-Animatronics" a liberating
tool. The park might have become more than a precision-tuned refuge
for harried parents of small children. That seems unlikely, though.
By the time he died, Disney was less and less interested in attractions
of the kind that dominated his "Magic Kingdom." Ultimately,
he found the tabletop too confining; but a return to the kind of
creative freedom he had once enjoyed in film was no longer possible.
And so he turned his enormous energies toward much grander projects.
Many people like to think of Disney's career as a smooth continuum
(punctuated, to be sure, by financial reverses) in which the theme
parks succeeded the animated features as his greatest achievements.
John Hench's book is, at bottom, an attractive restatement of that
view. For me, though, there is a radical discontinuity between the
Walt Disney of the thirties and early fortiesthe maker of
animated filmsand the Walt Disney of the fifties and early
sixtiesthe theme-park proprietor. The discontinuity arises
not from a break between his roles as artist and entrepreneur, because
Disney was always both, but in the weight he chose to assign to
each role. Reading Hench's book has not altered my feelings about
which of the two Walt Disneys deserves my love and admiration.
[Posted October 2003]