Modern American culture is a broad, ever-changing beast, its fur of many colors, its tendons just barely holding the patchwork creature together. And through it all flows the pixie blood that was brewed, bottled, and broadcast by Walt Disney.
Professor Jason Lantzer teaches history at Butler University. In addition to the usual topics, he teaches a very unique kind of history: Dis-History. It's how he describes the influence of Walt Disney, and later the Disney company, on modern American culture, and in particular how Walt shaped that culture with nostalgia, myth, and historical fact packaged as animated cartoons, feature films and television shows, and theme parks.
Lantzer's Walt Disney is more than an animator, more than a businessman, more than the friendly presence on Sunday night television. Walt took the tenets of his time, an essentially rural, isolationist America, and brought them to the big screen, and later to his hermetic Disneyland, imbuing each successive generation with the cultural icons that Walt hand-picked as essential to the kind of America he wanted to create, and to the kind of American he wanted to live there.
Today, it's the Disney theme parks that truly power Walt's vision. In the theme parks there is no escape from Disney culture, and like the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion, some of it always follows you home. Professor Lantzer uses these theme parks as the subject of his engaging, insightful, and sometimes slightly disturbing study of the Dis-History that circulates throughout our culture.
A Preface of Acknowledgements
Introduction: Once Upon a Time
Chapter 1: Mickey Mouse and the Creation of Dis-History
Chapter 2: A Whole New World: The Creation of the Walt Disney Mythos
Chapter 3: Main Street, U.S.A.
Chapter 4: A Small World of Fantasy(land)
Chapter 5: Give Me Liberty (Square)!
Chapter 6: Dis-History’s Mythic Frontier Adventure
Chapter 7: A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow(land)
Chapter 8: A Dis-Historic Showcase at Home and Abroad
Happily Ever After: A Dis-Historic Conclusion
As guests enter Disneyland, Walt Disney’s first theme park, and stroll down Main Street, they literally walk in the footsteps of both a man and a mouse. They will see them both, soon enough, as standing before Sleeping Beauty Castle is a statue of Walt and Mickey Mouse. However, if they pause and turn their gaze toward one of Main Street’s buildings, they will find the Disneyland Fire Department. In a second-story window, there is a light turned on. If guests could see past the curtains, their view would be of Walt Disney’s private apartment, built so he could spend nights in the park (especially to oversee its construction). The light was turned on to let people know Walt was there. It is left on today to remind guests that though Walt is dead, his spirit remains.
Since Steamboat Willie debuted in movie theaters in 1928, a mouse named Mickey, as well as the man and the company that brought him to life, has captivated the world: Walt Disney. Over the next few decades, Disney became both a representation and a molder of American culture. This was largely by design, as Walt hoped to forge a broad culture for all Americans. Doing so entailed not only standardizing folk and fairy tales, but also drawing inspiration from literature and history. While this process is seen in their movies, Disney brought the concept of Dis-History (shorthand for Disney’s version of history) alive in its parks.
Dis-History is a manufactured version of the past, but it is also something much more than just tapping into nostalgia. It is a theoretical praxis and an organizing principle for the parks, which gives them a narrative thread and helps guests to navigate the parks, while also serving as a means to talk of the past and future. And, perhaps just as important, Dis-History is an accurate (so far as Disney is concerned) version of history that helps form a common, popular, cultural narrative for guests, allowing them to “create” personal history, or memories, for themselves and their families that binds them to others and events much more momentous than a mere vacation. In short, it is an interpretative framework, working on multiple levels, which helps the past “sell” Disney’s version of American culture.
To Disney, the concept works because the public likes it and has an interest in it, even if historical knowledge is not as deep as academic historians might like. Thus, it is a “hook” to get people to come and enjoy the Disney parks. However, it is more than that. Walt Disney was explicit (as has the company in the years since) that he was drawing from history (and fantasy) as he built his park. As Michael Wallace noted, Walt was “a passionate historian” and his parks influence how people “perceive … the past” in very real ways.
The relationship between history and culture in the mind of both Walt and his company is both real and important. Culture is often discussed in terms of high (what the elite and wealthy enjoy) and low (what most people enjoy, and what might be considered as popular culture). Because Walt hoped to forge a common American culture based in Dis-History, this meant finding ways to bridge the divide between the two subsets. Perhaps the best example of this in films came with Fantasia, where Disney married classical music to animation—whether or not it fit the theme of the composer. Walt hoped that the film would both expose to a popular audience the kinds of things high culture routinely regaled in. Broad cultural formation also had a practical business angle as well. Walt wanted as many people as possible to to see his films because that is how the company made a good deal of its money. His films were already popular with the public, so one might argue that Fantasia and such efforts were also about convincing members of high culture to better appreciate what he was doing, not from an industry or technological standpoint, but by coming to the theater to enjoy an animated film. However, Fantasia also showed the kind of backlash Disney could expect from this cultural merging. Many within high-cultural bastions saw Disney’s work (even more so once Disneyland was constructed) of broad cultural creation as anathema. Ultimately, Walt wanted to entertain people and believed he was “making pictures for the great public and not for a certain select few.” Disney artist Floyd Norman believed Walt never sought “adulation from the crowd” or “acceptance from the intellectuals and critics.” He just wanted to construct his vision of what culture might be.
American audiences have long been familiar with great works of literature and art, even when they have not read them or seen them for themselves, and these works have been enjoyed by both popular and elite audiences. Walt came of age at precisely the time when artists like Shakespeare were being transformed from something that Americans, regardless of class, might enjoy together, to that which only certain audiences were exposed. The Bard went from someone whose works were shown across the nation during the nineteenth century to one that cultural critics believed could only be truly appreciated by audiences of a certain societal status. Elites decided, according to Lawrence Levine, that certain arts and types of artists belonged to them, not to the masses. Popular forms of art had to be regulated to second-class status. Walt sought to rectify this development.
Culture is a product of the past interacting with the present. At the time that Walt was starting to forge a broad culture, there was a prevailing notion that America had yet to create a culture of its own—a process made more difficult by migration and immigration. Highbrow culture was less about setting a standard that others might reach for and increasingly about preserving from the “unwashed masses” that which only the social betters could appreciate. Only in the second half of the twentieth century did the lines again begin to blur. While there are many reasons for this, it is hard to miss that the shift began about the same time that Disneyland opened.
Walt understood that American culture was shaped differently than culture had been in the past. In our democratic-republic, the rich and poor alike have access to a wealth of information, artistic representations, and education unprecedented in world history. What he believed was needed was a standardized, easy-to-digest narrative that gave Americans a common starting point. The result was Dis-History. In creating this standard American culture, Walt was wedding both Disney itself and the concept of Dis-History to the forces of Americanization, which swept over the globe as the twentieth century advanced. These forces, some said, were led by Mickey Mouse himself.
Indeed, Walt became “a spokesman for the American way of life” and the culture he constructed via Dis-History was heavily influenced by his own “taste and morality,” which Richard Schickel labeled as being “comfortably reflected … of those of the middle-class American majority.” We should not be surprised that the times in which he lived, indeed, that contemporary concerns, influenced Walt’s use of Dis-History. In the 1950s, Disney was able to present a problem-free history, which reflected Dwight Eisenhower being in the White House and the United States as an ascendant super power. Power and post-war prosperity had their own issues, however. Abroad, America faced a rival in the form of the Soviet Union, which seemed to be its antithesis. Its Cold War struggle, many feared, would end in a nuclear war. At home, suburban dislocation and emerging societal challenges to the consensus domestic order called into question the stability and tranquility Americans had already started to take for granted. In an uncertain world, it is nice to have something to hold on to, and Disney offered that to America, defining the nation’s “Cold War self-image” by offering itself as “a community of memory” for Americans to draw strength from.
Much of this cultural creation was a reaction to changes caused by modernism and had earlier precedents. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were full of technological, philosophical, artistic, scientific, and political changes that not only helped shape the modern world, but also fashion modernism, a school of thought that challenged traditional norms, beliefs, and assumptions. While that led to innovations and ideas, modernism had a disdain for tradition and had produced destructive and disruptive conflicts. Some, like Henry Ford (and eventually Walt as well), came to believe that the only way to combat these trends was by embracing the past.
In Ford’s case, the industrialist grew frustrated with changes that were occurring in the United States, and waged (in the words of Steven Watts) “a larger cultural campaign to reclaim and defend American values and practices from an earlier day,” To do so, he attempted to outsource production of his cars to village-based factories, that could allow his workers to also work as farmers. In places like Iron Mountain, Michigan, or his “Emersonian arcadia” Fordlandia (located in the jungles of Brazil), Ford attempted to bring the past and present literally into coexistence with each other. His war on modernism also extended to the employment of history itself. Near Detroit, Ford built Greenfield Village, a museum that was an ode to both the past and the advances that science and industry had made over time.
Walt wanted to do more than just display the past, however. While he drew inspiration from both Ford and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (who spent millions of dollars saving and restoring Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia), he had little interest in some sort of living history park. Likewise, Walt did not want to use the past, as his fellow park owner and fellow Californian Walter Knott did, as mere window dressing. Dis-History is an attempt to create a usable, coherent, broad or middlebrow culture for all Americans. It was not an attempt to “make America great again,” but rather to demonstrate what made America great already. While critics might find in this echoes of Cold War conformity and solace for 1950s era “white-flight” suburbanites, Walt always intended more from both the concept and from his company.
The parks, then, are full of “populist political emblems that further reinforced an American way of life” in an “unproblematic” way. Indeed, Dis-History shapes guest interactions virtually from the moment they enter the parks. Here, Disney created a space for visitors to reconnect with, even rediscover, the past, and experience it (even if vicariously) for themselves. Being exposed to Dis-History helped Americans “define who they were by depicting where they had been and where they were going,” and to do so collectively as a people. As such, Disney became one of the chief arbiters of American culture and an “overwhelming presence” when it comes to American cultural formation and its diffusion throughout the world. Its animated films and their wholesome image, both of which are amplified by the parks, drive much of this. Disney has not only helped define America culture, but has come to see that culture as a commodity and is in the business of designing, packaging, and selling it.
We need to take Disney’s passion seriously, as we look at how Dis-History is used to build culture and memory. Doing so requires understanding not just American history (in both its academic and popular representations), but also a good dose of Disney history in all its forms as well. As Steven Watts notes, “both the man and his enterprise emerged [by the 1930s] as reassuring symbols of the American way of life.” That they continue to do so deserves scholarly attention. To do so we must understand two terms from the Disney lexicon. They are “synergy” and “experience.” While it can be amusing and useful to know that Disney corporate culture defines its employees as “cast members,” and all visitors to its parks as “guests,” it is important to appreciate these other two words if Dis-History is going to be truly appreciated.
When Disney speaks of “synergy” the company is talking about ways its stories and characters can be/are used in its parks, motion pictures, publishing, merchandising, licensing, and the like. Synergy has been part of the company nearly since the beginning and is necessitated by its diversified nature. To achieve synergy, then, is to have as seamless as possible use of, say, Donald Duck or Cinderella in all the company’s outputs. Indeed, Disney is perhaps the epitome of a corporation that understands and utilizes the concept. For an historian, what Disney calls synergy, we might call narrative flow, for what Disney is doing is constructing a story for its guests that is the same wherever and whenever it is encountered.
Our other watchword is “experience,” and here Disney is not just thinking about a particular guest’s visit to one of their parks (and it should be noted that “experience” seems to be a buzzword associated chiefly, if not exclusively, to the theme parks). Rather, that said visit contains at least some “Disney magic,” whether it is a sticker for being “honorary princess of the day” as the first guest for breakfast at Cinderella Castle is bestowed, an impromptu family picture as part of helping open one of a resort hotel’s stores, or a free drink upgrade to a collector’s cup. “Experiences” are those special little things that make for lasting memories. If synergy is about narrative, experience is about forging personal, historic bonds with and through Disney.
Corporate jargon aside, Dis-History actually employs the past in multiple ways. First, it directly pulls from the historic past for inspiration for aspects of its entertainment business—whether films or parks. The result is an “ideal vision of American history” that plays on the nostalgia of its guests and which drives the company’s vision. But we need to understand that Disney uses not only the history of the United States but also the (now Americanized) myths, folk tales, and history of other parts of Western civilization, and increasingly beyond it as well to make not just its stories but to form its theme parks. The second way Disney uses the past is by drawing on its own creations to reissue or inspire new adventures for its established characters. The third way Disney makes use of the past is by drawing upon the memories that guests and cast members make together via the experiences of being at the park. This latter usage is perhaps the most important forge in creating attachment, not just nostalgia, for Disney. Lastly, there is simply the history of the company itself, which is shaped by and helps to form these uses of history. All told, Dis-History is a complex historical undertaking, not just a narrative slogan.
Dis-History, then, is how Disney goes about its work as an entertainment company. The idea of corporate synergy perhaps makes more sense to readers than the idea of creating experiences; however, both are intrinsically important to the understanding of Dis-History. As anthropologist Alexander Moore noted, “to visit Walt Disney World is to enter a ritual threshold,” crossing it takes us to a different place than where we came from. The experiences one has at Disney’s parks are both real and mythic at the same time, made up of “fantasy and dreams” (to borrow from Henry Giroux) becoming “more powerful when played out against a broader American landscape in which cynicism has become a permanent fixture.” At Disney parks, as William Arnal pointed out, an “ideal world” is created by separating the “fantastic” from everyday life. Thus, it is only at Disney that magic happens, and once a guest leaves the parks, they return to a life bare of such experiences.
The assertions by Moore, Giroux, and Arnal speak to the power of history that Disney has harnessed. As David Snow has commented, the experiences its guests encounter are “a triumph of historical imagination.” Ultimately, Dis-History is about constructing culture by creating myths, for it is only “through historical myth,” Will Wright argues, “which establish an analogy between past and present” that people can make sense of both. As such, Dis-History is a mass-mediated culture that defines the United States in very real ways that are immediate, pervasive, and open to anyone and everyone. Thanks to the scope of the Disney undertaking, Dis-History is not confined to the United States alone. According to Michael R. Real, the company’s “specific values and ideology [have spread] internationally,” making Dis-History a force of Americanization as well as its product.
Central to Dis-History’s success is working off what people already know about the past, and even more importantly, what they “know.” The first, of course is actual facts about the past. The second has more to do with how people remember, interpret, and blend facts and memories into encounters with the past that meet their expectations. What Dis-History does, then, is display the tension between realities (historic facts) versus memories (historic recollection). Dis-History is also at odds with an interpretation that Disneyland was just a place where Walt brought cinematic themes to a park, where genres were brought to life for guests. Such an argument ignores both Walt’s personal interest in history as well as the realities that inspired the genres to begin with. Thus, Disney taps into both nostalgia and larger themes of American history, utilizing “social memory” more than “historical reconstruction,” creating experiences people both enjoy and return to repeatedly.
Much of Dis-History operates on nostalgia of the known. As Walt put it, “I love the nostalgic myself. I hope we never lose some of the things of the past.” Historian Gary Cross takes such sentiment and argues that nostalgia-based “personal experience” does not seek to challenge audiences, but calls upon (often childhood) memories of a comfortable past to feed our present understanding. Disney, Cross argues, has tapped into this stratum of nostalgia and helped transform Americans into a nation of “nostalgiacs.” However, Cross also acknowledges that Dis-History has its origins in the Victorian notion of “rational re-creation,” where re-creation was not just about fun or amusement but about learning or appreciating something. While intellectuals often do not appreciate this kind of nostalgia wedded to re-creation, the public does, despite the wishes of professional historians.
Though history is intrinsic to what Disney does, it is, however, a straw man to think that Walt Disney intended his parks to be history museums or living history sites. Nor do people expect them to be. Institutions such as Colonial Williamsburg have noted from surveys and focus groups that the public that goes to both theme parks and museums understands (perhaps better than professional historians care to admit) that there are different levels of historical interpretation and adjust their expectations accordingly. Disney is a company that seeks to make money. It uses the past to its own ends. Thus, the experiences at the parks might not be “authentic” in a professional, historical sense, but they are real to the people who have them on a personal, historical level. Moreover, the interplay between these types of history are at the heart of Dis-History. The parks need people in them; otherwise, their purpose is not served. Walt knew that to get people into the parks required a story. Dis-History was forged to provide that story.
Dis-History, though it is source material created by a corporation, does have intrinsic educational value to what is produced. As Alvin H. Rosenfeld noted, “The historian’s role is and will remain crucial to uncovering the past, yet historical memory broadly conceived may depend less on the record of events drawn up by scholars than on the projection of these events by writers, filmmakers, artists, and others.” Rosenfeld wrote those words about the Holocaust, a topic that seems the polar opposite of the happiest place on earth. Yet, if they are true of the greatest crime of the twentieth century, how much more are they true to other historical events and representations of the past? Furthermore, Douglas Greenberg has argued that Americans believe history to be public property, not just the preserve of experts. What Disney does is present a copy of reality, or a simulacrum, where the real world is placed into a synthetic universe. Thus, one can get “ethnic food” without having to deal with actual “ethnics,” or see “representations” of actual sites that allow for the “experience” of “being there,” with the only requirement being a journey to a Disney park rather than around the globe. While some critics might balk, such simulations and replicas have real value in enticing and enriching guests’ appreciation for the stories they encounter.
Walt Disney knew that his work, including Dis-History, would be studied and interpreted. He told Time magazine in 1937 that “we just try to make a good picture. And then the professors come along and tell us what we do.” It is my hope that this professor will be able to add to the discussion of where Disney—the man, the company, and the culture they helped forge—fits historically in twenty-first century America. My book is an attempt to do that by using Walt Disney World (though the company’s other parks will also be considered) in a “city as text” manner. In a place like Disney World, and perhaps only there, we see not the attempt to remake or re-create the past, but a merging of popular and academic historical trends to fashion a usable past in the midst of the present and the future. It is a laboratory of sorts for the real world beyond both the ivory tower and suburban hedges.
As historian Simon Schama noted, historians need to find “a sense of place” by “using the archive of the feet,” not just books, letters, and artifacts to fully appreciate the past. Being on the ground allows us to see the “past” being created before us. Visiting the parks are central to understanding Dis-History. To those ends, I (and my willing family) have traveled to Walt Disney World in 2012, twice in 2013, once in 2014, twice in 2015, twice in 2016, and once in 2017, along with trips to Disneyland in 2014, 2016, and 2017, as well as Disneyland Paris in 2015. I have intertwined observations made on those trips into my narrative, alongside archival and secondary sources.
Whether it is a guest’s first visit or their one hundredth, the parks, even as they change, remain constant. They are renewed (cleaned) every night, so that they are fresh each morning. It has to be that way—in order to make sure that every guest has a wonderful experience. It may not be a clean slate, exactly, but it is a renewed one, and so it allows a consistent venue for study. By being there, we can begin to appreciate not just the scope of the undertaking Disney has attempted and accomplished, but also how important memories are to the construction of the past. So, let us venture to a place where “dreams come true,” “experiences” happen, and Walt Disney created an American mythology. Let us go to Walt Disney World.
When he is not at a Disney theme park, Jason Lantzer is the assistant director of the Butler University Honors Program. He is an historian of American history and the author of several books. A native Hoosier, he lives outside of Indianapolis with his wife, two children, and two dogs.
Walt Disney's Main Street, U.S.A., his re-visualiation of small-town America, has a fire station, but not a police station and not a church, either. In Dis-History terms, that makes perfect sense.
Any notion that you are in a re-created downtown, however, is quickly dashed by several inescapable facts. First, despite the signage and the building façades, the moment you step inside you are no longer under the illusion of being in the late nineteenth century. You are, instead, very much in a twenty-first century shopping center. Except this one is full of only Disney merchandise, from clothing to food, to toys to jewelry, and of course, collectibles. Main Street has been called “an antique shop in reverse: the buildings are old-fashioned, the products modern.” It is a fully functional shopping mall, where guests are so taken in by the theming that buying things is both secondary and often happens with little thought to the eventual bill. This is the genius of Disney parks from a business standpoint.
The second debunking event as you stroll down Main Street is that your eyes and your feet are drawn toward Cinderella Castle. Not only is it the actual focal point of the park, but it is also completely out of place for a re-created nineteenth-century American cityscape. That contrast is stark and in turn makes Main Street, if you turn your gaze away from the castle, even more appealing. It is so very American. Not just in that nostalgic throwback to yesterday, but also as a democratic center for public life. A place for shopping, yes, but a place where people come together and that everyone can occupy and feel welcome. It is the true (if not geographic) center of the park, and unlike most modern cities, Main Street is designed with a sense of direction and purpose. Here everyone is equal.
Other things make this street not only different from the past but also from our present. Main Street is devoid of cars, as are the parks themselves (save for amusements and rides). Guests tend to get around on foot. Though the streets have no vehicles on them, most guests (unless crossing or taking a picture) tend to still use the sidewalks along Main Street, rather than walk in the street itself. “By forcing his guests to walk along Main Street, by banishing the automobile from the domain, Walt was suggesting that something was amiss in the car-mad culture outside the park.” That people walk the park with little complaint shows that Walt may have been on to something.
For all that you see in and along Main Street as you walk, it does not take very long before guests begin to notice that a few things, a few institutions, are missing from Main Street that were just as much a part of cityscapes as the city hall or barbershop once were. Any student of history, strolling down Walt’s street, will quickly notice the absence of the saloon, for example. From a historian’s perspective, this is quite odd, as saloons were a mainstay of American main streets (and side streets) during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Saloons served as small businesses (often linked to large breweries) and community centers (often for immigrant groups) and they could be found in rural and urban areas. However, their absence serves to remind us that Dis-History is not about re-creating the past as it was, but rather as it might have been.
Indeed, the very nature of drinking alcohol in America during the period Main Street depicts prompted one of the largest reform movements in the nation’s history. Temperance had begun as a reform during the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s. It had picked up again in the 1870s, first as the Women’s Crusade and then branching into powerful national organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Prohibition Party, and the Anti-Saloon League. By the time Mickey Mouse appeared, these groups had helped make America dry and were fighting to keep national Prohibition and their beloved Eighteenth Amendment intact and a part of the Constitution.
Therefore, the great “cancerous tumor on the body politic,” as reformers termed it, is missing, as are the reformers who made it so. Perhaps we can say that this Main Street town has gone dry, although not by reformers. Walt forbade, and the company for years after his death followed his edict, alcohol sales in the park (save for select occasions for special guests), though it was not because he was a “total abstainer.” The ban on alcohol had more to do with a business decision to try to cut down on disorderly conduct and promote an image of family-centered fun, in line with the utopian nature of the Disney parks.
In the minds of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century reformers, on the other hand, the saloon was a one-stop shopping mart for sin and crime. However, since there are no saloons along Main Street, it seems to show that at Disney parks, there is no crime—in theory, it does not exist. Perhaps we could have noticed that without thinking of the saloon. After all, while there is at least a building that says “fire department” as part of the town square, Main Street has no similar building for its town police department. In Disney’s reimagined Main Street, there simply is no need for such a force. Before you reach Main Street, a largely unseen security force is protecting you without the need to make its presence known. The collective sense is that Disney’s guests are law-abiding and orderly, without need of a reminder.
However, if a guest were thinking that crime had vanished thanks to divine intervention, they would soon notice that there is also no house of worship on Main Street either. Perhaps even more noticeably absent from Disney’s Main Street than the missing saloons are the lack of churches. There are no church steeples as part of the Main Street skyline. Guests looking for religion have to visit the Norway pavilion in Epcot. Here they can find a stave church. One might argue that this is proof that to Disney, religion is somehow “foreign” as a concept, and not part of the American way of life. Doing so, however, would miss the very complex relationship Disney has with religion, and what it means for Dis-History.
Unlike the saloon, which we can understand for the business reasons sketched out above, the absence of a church is more interesting because one was originally going to be included as part of Main Street as well as another as part of the proposed Haunted Mansion (which included a graveyard). Main Street’s church even had a name, “the Little Church around the Corner,” because it was set to occupy a small side street off Main Street. Neither proposed edifice was ever built.
The lack of faith institutions (at a time when the promotion of civil religion was high in the United States) is even more problematic when we consider Walt’s own history with organized religion. The Disneys were a “deeply religious” family when Walt was a child in Chicago. Their life “orbited” St. Paul Congregational Church, where Elias served as a deacon and Flora served as the congregation’s treasurer. Walt even was named for the minister and baptized there. There was little doubt that Elias was devout in matters of faith. He had a “stern Protestant morality,” having grown up in a strict Wesleyan Methodist home. Yet, when the family moved to Marceline, they rarely attended church, though Elias continued to demand moral rectitude from his children.
The easy answer is that Walt Disney rejected his religious roots, a rebellion against both his father and God, and left no place for either in his parks. Some might argue that Disney had embraced a secular/scientific view of the world, indeed that Walt was a “secular humanist” who “decided on the separation of Church and State in his magic kingdom.” Some might allege that this is because Disney has long been associated with the dark arts, of witches, warlocks, and wiccans. For further proof, one could note there is rarely a mention of God in any of the films Walt oversaw, or even of religion, save for the secular variety. Indeed, some commentators have speculated that Disney was replacing established religion with one of his own. Anthropologist Alexander Moore argued that at Walt Disney World, Disney had created a “bounded ritual space” akin to pilgrimage centers, with its own rituals and even (to a degree) its own liturgical calendar and that Disney is a religion unto itself.
Obviously, as a corporation, Disney cannot be in the business of encouraging people to go places, like to church, where they might spend their time and money as opposed to going to its parks. Yet, from an historic (if not Dis-Historic) standpoint, not including religion is equally problematic. If Main Street is about a re-created American past, how can God be so clearly written out of the story—considering the importance faith (both private and public) have played in American history? Perhaps the answer is found in digging a bit deeper into Walt’s complex personal and corporate relationship with religion.
According to Bob Thomas, “Walt considered himself religious,” even if “he rarely went to church.” Perhaps he had had enough “religiosity” growing up and had little time for “sanctimonious preachers.” He also “did not believe in mixing religion and entertainment,” and never made a “religious film.” As for his children, Walt wanted his daughters to find a church of their own. They attended various religious, private schools and he made sure that they went to Sunday school at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. Diane, eventually, became an Episcopalian and Sharon a Presbyterian. That being said, a Protestant clergyman gave a prayer of blessing at Disneyland’s opening, and one of Walt’s favorite things to attend at the park was the Christmas Candlelight Processional, a tradition that started in 1955, and that includes hymns and the Gospel reading of Jesus’ birth. When Walt died, the Episcopal minister from Diane’s church performed the service.
Thus, despite what some critics allege, Walt was hardly opposed to religion. He believed that religious freedom was important, indeed that it “was central to the American way of life.” What he forged for the company and its movies and parks was, according to Mark Pinsky, “a consistent set of moral and human values … largely based on Western, Judeo-Christian faith and principles, which together constitute a ‘Disney gospel,’” a reinterpretation of Christianity for “mass culture.” Walt was supportive of Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking. He talked about the importance of prayer in his life as well as believed that studying the Scripture was an important pursuit. Indeed, he attributed his success in creating a business that brought “clean, informative entertainment to people of all ages” in large part to his “Congregational upbringing.” Disney saw Church and State as institutions that “are guarantors of the rights of the poor, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed” and sought to uphold, not deter, those values. Walt believed his religious beliefs were expressed through what he did. He wanted to make sure “that in our movie work the highest moral and spiritual standards are upheld.” He sought to “live a good Christian life” and believed “firmly in the efficacy of religion.”
So, why is there no church on Main Street? Not including one seemingly removes moral struggle from the idyllic world Disney created. There is another reason. Walt worried about anyone being offended or feeling excluded. If this was true of his movies, it was even more so of his parks. Perhaps Walt steered Main Street away from displaying religion because he did not want to commodify it. While he did not place a church in his park (unlike what Walter Knott did at the nearby Knotts Berry Farm), he still wanted his stories to have some sort of moral lesson to them. He did not think that you did children any favors by discounting that there was evil in the world and wanted to show them that “good can always triumph over evil.”
Continued in "Dis-History"!
Walt had no problem shaping the past to suit his purposes, and those of Dis-History. But the future, existing always just a moment outside of history, slipped constantly from his otherwise sure grasp.
Walt could sense trouble with Tomorrowland. As he put it in an interview, “Now, when we opened Disneyland, outer space was Buck Rogers. I did put in a trip to the moon. And I got Wernher von Braun to help me plan the thing. And, of course, we were going up to the moon long before Sputnik. And since then has come Sputnik and then has come our great program in outer space. So I had to tear down my Tomorrowland that I built eleven years ago and rebuild it to keep pace.”
Beyond space, though, Disney was unsure about what else Tomorrowland might hold. Due to the time and monetary crunch of getting Disneyland opened, the area remained the least developed and the most open for the Imagineers once guests began visiting. The original concept was to give guests a glimpse at a possible future. The Imagineers decided to theme much of the rest of the area around the future thirty years hence, or the mid-1980s, coinciding with 1986 and the return of Halley’s Comet, which Walt witnessed as a boy. It was conceived at a time of optimism in the post-war period. Doing so required a good dose of Dis-History, and banking heavily on collective knowledge of the past and present. Because the future is unknown, the past acts to balance out that uncertainty with what is already know—right up to the present.
Nowhere was this attempted more systematically than the Monsanto House of the Future. A concept that dated back to the 1930s in home-building circles, Disney’s house was open from 1957–1967, was designed by MIT architecture professors, and had corporate sponsorship from General Electric and General Motors. A plastic-reinforced-by-fiberglass home, it was visited by some 20 million guests during its decade of existence. Redecorated twice, the house was a showcase for possibilities, not a blueprint for futuristic home construction. As an attraction, though, it continually lost its luster as the new devices that filled it rapidly became consumer goods and common place.
Another area where Disney contemplated the future was in new ways that technology and mechanization might be employed. Tomorrowland “identifies with conventional industrial and scientific progress through its glorification of the machine.” One does not find “nature” here—and very little about “human welfare” either. That being said, appreciation for the “purely practical part of science” and of modernization has long been an American trait, with the parks being a testament to technology and innovation in and of themselves. In Tomorrowland, Walt wanted to show guests all the things machines could do and how new technology might be applied in an urban environment. One of the areas he hoped to showcase was the transformative nature of transportation brought about by new technology. Tomorrowland became a place where Disney was “predicting the future of transportation.” Walt had already largely removed the automobile from his parks, and by showing the PeopleMover, he hoped to convince people that this new form of public transportation was a real possibility for cities. When he learned of a Swiss company that was creating a transportation system based off of ropes and pulleys, he wanted what became the Skyway (essentially a cable-car system) as a showcase of this technology for Tomorrowland as well. Here, personal history (experiences) were to be forged based on a fantastical future, proving what Walt had once said, “Science and technology have already given us the tools we need to build the world of the future.”
Despite these innovations, the future has proven to be a very illusive muse and Tomorrowland has gone through numerous overhauls and re-Imagineerings. As Karal Ann Marling notes, “Tomorrow has a distressing habit of catching up with daydreams about it. Or the daydreams prove wildly wrong. Either way, building a simulated future is a risky business.” A bit more harshly, one critic labeled Tomorrowland a “pathetic” place where vehicular modes of transportation are worshiped and “yesterday’s version of the future” stands in all its “silliness.” Disney decided that the best way to deal with the future was to break with its mission statement. While the early Tomorrowland programs were steeped in aspiration and education as the parks continued, Disney took a much more “cinematic” or “fantasy future” approach to dealing with the land as it undertook several successive overhauls of the area as time passed.
In 1998, after over forty years of trying, the original Tomorrowland in Disneyland was almost completely reinvented. At last there was an acknowledgement that despite updates in the 1960s and 1970s, the future that Walt was trying to capture, where space was the next great American frontier, was finally gutted, reimagined, and transformed (when it was not outright replaced). Disney’s Imagineers brought in science-fiction-themed rides, inspired (as Lawrence Culver points out, in a very Dis-Historic way) by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and that pioneered at Disneyland Paris—where Tomorrowland’s very name was replaced. There the area is known as Discoveryland, and its Space Mountain was rethemed around Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. A retro-futuristic look, it was determined, was better than trying to keep pace with the future itself. Back in the United States, there was Disneyland’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine ride was reworked into a Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage (interestingly, Disneyland Paris kept a walk-through of the Nautilus), along with Star Tours, a refurbished Autopia, and Innoventions (which has been used as a rotating gallery for props from the Marvel and Star Wars franchises). The Imagineers had learned that keeping up with the future was too difficult a task.
The modern attractions have largely left the edutainment dictum of the original behind. Though flashes remain in the Carousel of Progress, the Astro-Orbiter, the People Mover (at the Magic Kingdom), and even Space Mountain, Dis-History has become marginalized, because the future is too difficult to organize around. Instead, rides like Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin, Stitch’s Great Escape, and Monster, Inc Laugh Floor all represent both corporate synergy and Disney’s attempt to get around the ever-unfolding future by utilizing its characters. This fit into Michael Eisner’s idea that what guests at the parks really wanted was to “ride the movies,” a business idea that was at odds with much of the Dis-Historic narrative crafted by Walt.
In many ways, the addition of Buzz Lightyear makes a good deal of sense. The Pixar character from Toy Story is a bridge between Tomorrowland’s past (space) with Disney’s new approach toward Tomorrowland. The laser-blaster game is housed in one of Tomorrowland’s areas which was once home to an attraction that simulated flight. Furthermore, in the original Toy Story, Buzz was seen as desirable by Andy because he was new and represented technology. While Buzz’s Toy Story counterpart, Woody (a cowboy who represents the past, both from an historic perspective and as Andy’s old favorite toy), can be found as a character meet-and-greet in Frontierland, Buzz has both an attraction and a character meeting spot in Tomorrowland. Again, we can see a sort of Dis-Historic synergy at work between the past and future. But their separation might also be seen as an example of the distance that by the 1990s was driving some of Disney’s best animators to Pixar, and Pixar further away from the Disney corporate fold (as we will see below).
Stitch’s Great Escape, which gives guests the chance to try and recapture Disney’s most famous alien, also conjures up an association with space, and thus Tomorrowland’s past. And like Buzz’s attraction, it also occupies historic Tomorrowland real estate. It is housed in a building that started life as home to a movie about flying to the moon. But it is also not the first replacement Disney attempted to craft here. After the United States actually accomplished the goal of reaching the moon, a new simulation was created about a space mission to Mars, again befitting Tomorrowland’s original plan. But with Epcot’s opening (complete with its Mission: SPACE attraction), Disney again retooled the building for ExtraTERRORestrial, an attraction similar to Stitch’s Great Escape in theming (and thus, easily converted), but more of a thrilling dark ride than Stitch, which ends with the escaped “Experiment 626” trying to get a kiss from Cinderella.
While Stitch’s future is in doubt, the rumored replacement attraction (based around Wreck-It Ralph) also fits more with the direction Tomorrowland seems to be moving toward. Dis-History, it seemed, could only take the park so far into the future. Unlike the other two attractions, Monster, Inc Laugh Floor has virtually nothing to do with space or Tomorrowland’s past. Rather than screams, the monsters now need laughter to produce energy, and the crowd participation in the comedy routine is always a fun time (especially if you are “that guy”). But the building it occupies illustrates just how difficult a time Disney had with trying to capture the future in Tomorrowland. Long before monsters garnered human laughter there, it was home to patriotic films in CircleVision. America the Beautiful was shown at both parks, depicting various aspects of life in America, from landmarks, to natural wonders, to cities. Its closing statement included the line, “This, then, has been our American portrait, a glimpse of a nation’s splendor, infinite in its variety, rich in its tradition, and blessed in its heritage.” The film was changed in the mid-1970s to Magic Carpet Ride Around the World, similar in tone to its American cousin, and then changed again during the bicentennial to American Journeys, an updated and reworking of America the Beautiful, which itself was replaced in the mid-1990s by a time-travel adventure starring the Time Keeper, an attraction that debuted in Disneyland Paris. In some ways, all of these attractions were “fillers” for the space, having nothing to do with Tomorrowland as a concept. The Time Keeper was replaced by Laugh Floor in the 2000s.
Even with the changes (and change is a constant when contemplating the future), on Disney maps Tomorrowland continues to look sleek and modern, as opposed to the other lands that are part of the Magic Kingdom. And the changes have prompted something else as well, along with the new attractions: the old ones that remain in Tomorrowland have generated nostalgia of their own. Christopher Finch has called it “nostalgia for the future,” but not the actual future, rather “the future that never was” as depicted in Tomorrowland. Here even memories have become commodities, which in turn can be turned into retro merchandise. Or, in the minds of critics, all Disney is doing is delivering consumers directly to corporations, who are given a venue in the parks to showcase their work and not just advertise to consumers but also get them to purchase their products. Indeed, guests are shown consumerism the moment they walk down Main Street. In some ways, by walking through the past to get to the future while being awash in products for purchase, consumerism is argued to be the norm, with the past just one more product that can be bought.
The concept of the future was important to Walt, but it always vexed him. As he put it, “The only problem with anything of tomorrow is that at the pace we’re going right now, tomorrow would catch up with us before we got it built.” If anything, the changes to Tomorrowland are testament to the fact that while Disney remains “fascinated” by the future, it is virtually impossible for the parks to keep up with it. As Imagineer Dick Irvine put it, “Tomorrowland was the hardest land to get hold of and we always called it ‘The Land of Tomorrow.’ It was never called Tomorrowland in those days.”
Though Tomorrowland is billed as a place “on the move,” and its signage proclaims it to be “the future that never was is finally here,” the question of whether you can truly capture the future remains—as well as whether this new Tomorrowland is truly the future we want it to be. As noted above, Tomorrowland has proven “difficult to sustain.” The future may not be of one of progress; there are fears associated with change and uncertainty as to what can be achieved. Furthermore, what happens when the future catches up to Tomorrowland and predictions about it are wrong? Tomorrowland, when it was conceived in the 1950s, was set in the 1980s. It was believed that by then, people would regularly be traveling to the moon. But the modern future is not dominated by outer space. Rather, ours is a future that seemingly is defined by cyberspace. Other than the technology surrounding a guest, Tomorrowland has very little to say about that.
Others understood what Walt was attempting. One of Disney’s biggest supporters was science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury. The author of Fahrenheit 451 believed that Disney was giving mankind a “look at the world of the future.” Bradbury’s support is perhaps not that surprising, once one considers the author’s background. Like Walt, Bradbury was a product of the Midwest (in his case, Illinois) who had early in life “immersed himself in popular culture, from cinema to comic strips to traveling circuses.” And like Disney, he did not always find critical acclaim (because, he believed, he did not share in “the terrible creative negativism admired by New York critics”). Bradbury believed “science fiction is the fiction of ideas” and was a wonderful way to ponder present issues, while pretending to deal only in the future. In Walt, he found a kindred spirit.
Walt always had a spirit of optimism. He believed the future would be better than the past, even if we remembered fondly what once was. He told one interviewer, who asked him to comment on the Baby Boomers, that while that generation had been “maligned by the communications media, hunting for things and giving them a spotlight they don’t deserve,” he still had “great faith in them.” If he were offering them advice it would be “believe in the future, the world is getting better; there still is plenty of opportunity. Why, would you believe it, when I was a kid I thought it was already too late for me to make good at anything.”
Continued in "Dis-History"!