Theme Park Musing #8 – Disneyland’s Theme

People tend to analyze Disneyland as a thematic treatment of America and American mythology – which is definitely an accurate reading – and the optimistic point of view is often characterized more as like a tone or even a flaw. But sitting here this morning listening to Put on your Sunday clothes (a song that plays on Main Street and about relentless aspiration) it’s occurring to me that perhaps even more than American mythology optimism itself IS the theme of Disneyland. It runs through every land and every attraction and is reflected back at us through various lenses (namely American, white, upper middle class lenses). In fact I think the general critique so often heard might be exactly backward: that the theme of Disneyland isn’t about America with an overly optimistic lens it’s about optimism with an overly American lens. And that its flaws (if they are to be considered flaws) come from that.

Each land in the park reflects a distinct period of either history or culture where optimism and hope for a better tomorrow are at its zenith, at least from that lens. That IS the common thread. We enter Main Street USA right at the turn of the century – a period before the depression and before the World Wars where the marvels of technology are making life better on what seems a daily basis. Where steam trains carry us off onto exciting destinies, where everything is colorful and rosy, architecture is over the top, and people wear their Sunday best every day. People in this sleepy town coming into its own dream of the people they’ll be one day, the things they will achieve, the wondrous things that await them, and whadaya know at the far end of the street a shimmering castle beckons them forward towards their dreams – a symbol of things to come.

At the hub a series of adventures await us – each a microcosm of the same story. In Adventureland a “untamed” jungle is awaiting man to conquer it, unveil it’s riches and/or unveil itself as the tropical paradise it was always meant to be. A similar story awaits in Frontierland where the promise of manifest destiny is new, gold awaits, and the horizon is limitless. In New Orleans Square it’s a party all the time and a reflection of the promise of the west, both a realization and one of the last stepping off points before the frontier. In Walt Disney World this theme is even better reflected as Liberty Square and revolutionary America is swapped in – another era in which fears and darkness are cast off in favor of a new vision of what a better tomorrow could look like. On the other side of the hub, a literal vision of tomorrow, Tomorrowland reflects what Main Street might look like in hundreds of years: technology has fulfilled it’s promise, no one wants for anything, the world and universe are at peace, convenience and leisure are everywhere, and all sorts of transportation are waiting to whisk you off to literally anywhere you please. And finally Fantasyland, usually the hardest land to fit into the “americana” interpretation, fits perhaps most with the optimistic and hopeful theme and is fittingly at the heart of the park. Here we see a land inhabited by characters with often terrible pasts, overcome them and achieve their dreams. Snow White and Dumbo overcome abuse and trauma. Peter Pan teaches children to fly, an archetypal metaphor, and hold onto their childhood.  Mr. Toad has crazy fun with friends, Pinocchio and Geppetto get their wish and overcome heartache and fear and loneliness. Alice escapes the doldrums of victorian life, etc, etc. And off in the back corner of the park, which I’m sure if it had been designed from day one, would have laid straight back from the castle: the end of the yellow brick road as it were,  lies a monument towards optimism, cooperation, and a better tomorrow again in the form of “it’s a small world.” It’s telling us that to achieve the dreams of the future it will take all of us uniting together.

Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom therefore are really embodiments  of the Disney ethos of their time: a strong conviction that the world is an exciting amazing place and no matter how bad things might have been or look to you now, a great big beautiful tomorrow lies just a dream away. And notably, that it’s up to us as a whole to take us there. The lands not only celebrate optimism but human achievements in realizing that optimism  – whether it’s man conquering the jungle or frontier, the creation of a modern democracy, or characters escaping their haunting pasts. The park even tells us that death isn’t to be feared but enjoyed! (The haunted mansion). Perhaps it’s no surprise that these parks are more popular than ever before, given the world we find ourselves living in at the moment. 

The flaws in the park’s treatment then, aren’t the optimism itself, but rather the somewhat outdated, very white, very American, very classed stories it chooses to tell – particularly on the western side of the park (and perhaps with its historic coziness with monopolistic corporations as well) that were only optimistic and pleasant for the people who wrote the history. For the time they might have been appropriate given the audience they were designed for, but today some of the implications can make you a bit uneasy. I’d still hold that the bones are good, that those settings can still reflect themes of optimism while becoming more aware and inclusive, and indeed over time we’ve seen very slow changes to that effect. For example, Thunder Mountain – while initially perhaps a glorification of gold mining has over time with various story changes become more and more of a morality play about what happens to those who are reckless in their pursuit of profit – something a certain company might take a lesson from. I for one, as perhaps one of the more obvious examples,  would love to see what a Disneyland would look like with stories of the immigrant experience of the same time period paralleling those on Main Street. At any rate, like America, Disneyland is flawed, but it’s themes are solid. Optimism, hope for the future, and the responsibility to foster that future, are the themes that lie at the heart of the stories it tells and why people keep coming back.

P.S. This again reinforces the idea that I think Joe Rohde first articulated: that theme parks NEED themes in the literary sense to achieve their full potential and be effective: that that is what separates the good from the bad park executions, and Disneyland in particularly is a great example of what occurs when nearly every element of the experience serves to reinforce and drive home a particular message.

On theme and the future

Before today’s Presentation gets underway I just want to throw out some thoughts about Epcot.

Future World was never about the future or technology or science fiction but about Humanity, our interactions with each other and the world, and the history and future history of ourselves.

World showcase was never just about being a world tour of architecture and food. It was about Humanity and our cultures – a giant expansion of the premise in It’s a Small World, outlining a hope for respect, celebration, and curiosity regarding our differences.

The reason the combination of what had been designed as two separate parks worked so well is that together the two halves functioned as a singular thesis detailing the history of ourselves and where we hoped to go.

Joe Rohde has a quote about theme parks fundamentally needing to have a theme in the literary sense – a moral or idea to explore that’s at the center of all the experiences. And I think much of what we’ve seen in the theme park world in recent years, specifically Disney has been a loss or modification of that principle – whether it’s because Disney has lost sight of it or because we’re in a huge period of transition remains to be seen. I honestly think this is what made most Disney parks unique from other parks even if the company didn’t realize they were doing it.

The magic kingdom/Disneyland is about childhood and the shared myths of a country that has influenced much of the dreams of the world. Epcot was about Humanity and our interactions with each other and place in it. Animal Kingdom is about Nature and Humans relationship with it. These deep themes give the parks resonance. It’s revealing that the one park in Florida that only had a subject (movies) but no real theme, is the park that has suffered the most over the years.

The parks in Florida by all accounts have been and are heading into one of the biggest periods of change in the resort’s history, and the parks worldwide and industry have been seeing large shifts in the business model, what attractions consist of, etc. I’m not inherently opposed to change. Change is often difficult, especially when it involves the destruction of something you have fond memories of, but it can also be exciting and an opportunity. There is a trend amongst Disney fans on the internet that become aghast at almost any change and that’s not what this essay is about. As long as theme parks are viewed primarily as entertainment and not art by the public, and as long as their business model relies on people coming back, parks will always have to keep themselves fresh, deliver new experiences, and change to accommodate culture. And frankly the most interesting parks are the ones that have been around the longest and seen these changes mold their landscape over time – a completely artificial reality somehow becoming just as rich of a place as any other.

My only concern is that in this particular period of change there does seem to be the potential for that guiding principle of theme in that literary sense to be forgotten. Change in theme would be hard but forgivable and maybe even beneficial in the long term but a loss of theme results in a fundamentally different experience – a day long experience where all experiences inform each other becomes a day long hodge-podge of corporate branding and it is literally only the presence of that underlying theme, story, whatever you want to call it, that prevents that from happening.

I really am excited about the upcoming announcements and am largely confident about the future of the parks around the world. The beauty of time and history is that even when a pendulum swings too far it tends to swing back. But nevertheless these worries do run in my mind. I worry about the public perception of the company and how that ripples across generations. I worry about how certain trends in themed entertainment design create dogma that excludes other types of experiences from being created – experiences or styles that used to be central to the medium and still have utility. And I worry about the park naive enough to theme itself to all of Humanity and by so doing became a park with the most potential to do something meaningful with the tools of themed entertainment besides just entertain – that it might decide to abandon that potential in favor of an easier end.

The movies we enjoy most are those that tell us something about ourselves – that do more than than just offer fuzzy, funny characters and action sequences. If you can deliver the fuzzy, funny, the frenetic AND the deep meaning, or theme, then you have the worldwide hit. And Disney gets this. They churn out movies with that formula all the time. Here’s hoping they use it again.