From Robin Allan, author of the landmark study Walt Disney and Europe: European Influences on the Animated Feature Films of Walt Disney, responding to my somewhat skeptical review of John Hench's Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show: I think you are a bit hard on Disneyland. I went to it in 1985 for the first time and, indeed, wasn't all that keen to go, preferring my Disney in two dimensions on the big screen (I had no video then). I hated seeing photographs of the grotesque giant-size animals walking around. Full of trepidation, I went only because I felt that, being in California, I should.
I found it all quite different from the early films but with its own extraordinary atmosphere, which was quite odd and intoxicating. I went through the gates and was entranced, but I have noticed on subsequent visits that there are more and more shops, and fewer interesting educational events. I hate the thrill rides that have crept in. You are right about Walt seeing it as a greatly enlarged model railway, and your account is an interesting bridge between the critics who are repulsed and the fans who go back again and again.
[Allan's book, published in the U.S. in 1999 by Indiana University Press, devotes seven and a half pages to some of the most acute published commentary on Disneyland. I refer you particularly to page 231, where Allan reproduces an entry from his diary for the day he first visited Disneyland, saying in part: "The secret of the place, which no film or slide or photograph or even 3D picture can give, is the total three-dimensional element of the fantasy. The tat and kitschy quality which comes across in flat pictures dissolves when you go through those turnstiles." MB]
[Posted November 2003]
From Eddie Fitzgerald: Regarding your Commentary on John Hench's book: I was amazed to learn that you didn't like Disneyland, even in its earlier incarnation. As for me, I couldn't get enough of the place. The old Tom Sawyer's Island (before it was reconfigured for the water show) was magnificent. The cave and hollow tree, the rope bridge, the log fort and the canoe ride were all surefire kid pleasers, but my favorite feature was the landscaping and topology of the island itself. It's as if the designers wandered through real-life wilderness parks looking for enclaves and grottos that were especially pleasing and thought-provoking and then reproduced them at Disneyland. Some of the scenarios were a bit stagey and catered to people with cameras, but others were amazingly subtle and evocative. Half the island had the appearance of dense primeval forest, which, together with the surrounding water, made for a fascinating accoustic and olfactory separation from the mainland.
Did you like the Swiss Family Treehouse? Isn't it every kid's dream to live in a house like that? I even loved the jungle ride with its waterfalls, ruins, skulls, and shields. If only I could have ridden the stagecoach when that ride was active. I rode a stagecoach in another park, and I can tell you that one of the purest pleasures that transport has to offer is the experience of sitting on top of a tall stage pulled by powerful horses (no sexual inferences, please). If you didn't like "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" it's probably because you failed to use the steering wheel on the front seat. You have to allow yourself the illusion of control in order to appreciate the chaos. It has nothing to do with the notion of letting yourself go and being a kid again; it has everything to do with the need to participate in an experience to milk the fun out of it. How about the thick wood and the delightful carvings and toys in Geppetto's workshop in the Pinocchio ride?
The best recent addition to the park is Toon Town. Some of it is off-putting and cloying, I admit, but other parts are as imaginative as anything Disney's ever done. The two walk-throughs of homes are exhilarating and the cartoony cars are more a glimpse into the future of car design than its past. Next time you're at the park make sure you push the rugrats aside and sit in one of these. It's not enough to watch someone else do it, you have to sit in it yourself, hands on the wheel. Be aware of the open space on your sides, the low windshield and the fun design of the body. When electronics make high-speed auto collisions improbable and small wheels are made more practical then designers will revisit designs like this, I promise you. Then there's the magic store, the sillouette cutter, the "Pirates" and "Haunted Mansion" rides, the water show that is very nearly a gigantic aerial holographic projection of the Pink Elephants part of Dumbo...what's not to like?
OK, the Country Bears suck.
[Posted February 2004]