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Disneyland Historically Speaking

The original Disneyland theme park opened its gates in Anaheim, California in 1955, introducing an entirely new approach to entertainment and marketing that had no true precedent. Since its opening day, the park has proved to be a strong tourist attraction for young and old alike. Designed as a new innovation in tourism travel, the theme park as it was created drew from several ideas already on the market, but offered visitors a combination of things to do that had not previously been packaged together in quite such a fashion or to quite such a high degree.

Through this unique packaging and detailed attention to the small elements of design, Disneyland literally remade the American ideals of urban Main Street and the small country village even as it presented its own conceptions of future ideals and means of expression. Since its inception more than 50 years ago, the park has proven to be more popular than Washington D.C. as a family destination center. Although often associated with the concepts of childhood thanks to its focus on the Disney cartoons geared toward children, the park continues to attract more adults than children to its concrete walkways and thrilling roller coaster rides.

This is in spite of numerous ‘copy-cat’ theme parks that have been erected throughout the country and around the world such as the Six Flags parks or Cedar Point. Although the park has been widely criticized for its inherent plasticity and its remaking of the American ideals, Disneyland has stood as a cultural icon and popular pilgrimage stop for any and all who wish to feel they have ‘experienced’ America. While many may consider Disneyland to be too full of post-modernistic pop art meaninglessness, others taking a closer look at the amusement park have found an authentic response to the ideals Disneyland presents to the average visitor as compared with other amusement parks of its type. The purpose of this paper is to explore the origins of the theme park including the postmodern artistic philosophy that helped form the backbone of its design as well as the park’s influence on American culture since its creation.


The dissertation will utilize several primary and secondary sources to determine whether Disneyland is different from other entertainment theme parks and what contributes to forming this difference.

Chapter 2 will attempt to define the concept of ‘postmodernism’ and illustrate how this concept formed the backbone of Walt Disney’s conception of the park. As part of this process, the ideas of postmodernism will be applied to Disneyland, completely the creation of Walt Disney, as compared to elements of Disney World in Orlando, Florida, specifically the EPCOT center designed by Disney’s successors, as a means of demonstrating the difference between the Modern and the Postmodern. This aspect of the discussion will conclude with a look at the values Disneyland as a final product attempts to instill.

Chapter 3 will examine some of the responses to Disneyland as a means of measuring its success in delivering a unique experience to its visitors. This is accomplished first by examining the design conception and comparing this with the founding concepts of those parks on which Disneyland itself was built. With this in mind, the park is then examined for evidence of the desires it works to fulfill for its visitors. This investigation deepens understanding of how Disneyland conveys specific values to the public by building on the inner desires of the individual, which are themselves defined by the values of the culture reinforced by the messages of the park and thus conveyed to the foreign visitor. These affects are more appropriately measured through the use of sampling [Insert questionnaire here]

Chapter 4 compares the functions of the park with those of other holiday destinations to illustrate its fresh and unique design approach to the tourist trade. As this portion of the discussion will show, Disneyland went a step beyond anything that was offered before and, in many ways since, regarding a total visitor experience in every element of the design without forcing visitors to detach from their comfort zone.

Disney had a unique understanding of human nature and provided a means for the individual to escape the normal without abandoning the familiar. At the same time, Disney managed to incorporate essential queues regarding American traditions and American culture that infuse American visitors with a sense of refreshment and revitalized spirit. This atmosphere transmits to the foreign visitor through the pleasure of the shared experience.

There is valid concern that these effects may not be duplicated elsewhere by a simple transplant of the park to other locations, such as Eurodisney. While both parks are recognized as being inauthentic, only Disneyland is considered non-exploitive. Can this difference be explained by the simple positioning of Disneyland following World War II as a location where hopes and dreams have not yet died? This question will be addressed as conclusion to this chapter.

The study concludes with a summary chapter that restates the major conclusions discovered as a result of the research. From conception to design to public response, the park is illustrated to be a success because of a uniquely postmodern approach that has yet to be fully duplicated.

The Conception

When discussing art practices, it is important to understand the main ideas associated with the “politics of representation.” This collective term makes a distinction between the content of an image and the form of the image, or the sublime versus the visual. However, the idea goes even further by suggesting that the content or the sublime cannot have its own form or visual nature, but that the visual nature, by simply existing, can be, and is indeed indivisible from, the content whether the creator intended this connection or not.

The reason for this phenomenon being that art is not static, but rather interactive with its audience and the political and social ideas of the audience’s present as well as the symbols inherent in the particular forms used. The postmodern movement, with its emphasis on illuminating the sublime, brings these ideas to the forefront. “The political and the aesthetic are inseparable, simultaneously present, faces of the postmodern problematic.”1

While ideas of Imagism predominated in the early 1900s, an approach to the humanities that rejected the sentimentalism and lengthy descriptives of the Romantic era that preceded it, the postmodern movement growing out of the middle 1900s began to take on new explorations of the various levels and complexities of meaning inherent within any attempt at communication. Walt Disney, the founder of the Disneyland Parks and creator of the cartoons on which they’re based, had an inherent understanding of these concepts and proved his mastery of them through the park’s design.

As a breakdown of the term might seem to indicate, Postmodernism is an artistic movement that followed the Modern art movement of the first half of the 20th century. This movement is characterized by an increased awareness of the constant interaction that occurs between the art, the artist and the audience. These were ideas that were considered in the past to some degree or another, but the postmodern movement focused on these ideas as a part of the ongoing discussion regarding what is art.

To a large degree, postmodernism is engaged in a continuous examination of reality versus unreality as it is experienced by the artist during creation, the artwork as it is finally formed including any elements of breakdown or deterioration and the art audience as they interact with the art to whatever degree possible, bringing in their own concepts, viewpoints, experiences and knowledge into the interpretation. As a result of this process, it has often been discovered that there are more blurred areas between reality and unreality than there are clear distinctions and that these various concepts tend to pull apart at the same time that they are connecting. It is the role of the arts to explore this paradox of division and connection in the postmodernist period.

The typical approach was to challenge conventions to “allude to something which does not allow itself to be made present,”2 which is, Lyotard insisted, central to a definition of postmodernism itself. Lyotard argued that a “postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work.

The rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for.”3 This is an idealistic conception of artistic production. It implies that an ‘innocent text’ can be produced, detached, by the conscious effort of the individual artist, from the categories established by preceding works. Kant’s theory of the sublime, on the other hand, states that “the aesthetic of the sublime is where modern art (including literature) finds its impetus, and where the logic of the avant-garde finds its axioms.”4 For Kant, the feeling of the sublime is a feeling of both pleasure and pain, the pleasure one feels at the pain inherent in the conflict between the subject’s capacity to conceive something and to represent it.

For example, we have the idea of the totality of what is, but we can make no representation of it. Modern art devotes itself “to presenting the existence of something unpresentable”; “it will make one see only by prohibiting one from seeing”5 while postmodern art attempts to provide essential clues or hints as a means of evoking a more physical connection with the experience. Understanding Disneyland is thus based partly on an understanding of Disney’s approach, whether it is designed more in the spirit of Modernism or that of Postmodernism.

Is Disneyland better thought of as modern or post-modern?

In many ways, Disneyland is better thought of as a postmodern self-contained city of sorts rather than a modern day construction. This is because of the multiple ways in which the theme park struggles against the imposed corporate persona in favor of presenting a multi-dimensional self-contained environment such as the shopping, eating and village-like environment that might be encountered around any corner (see fig. 2).

New Orleans Square.
Figure 1 – New Orleans Square.

While modernism has a tendency to approach humanity as a collective group, mechanizing human behavior into a series of repetitive tasks and elemental parts, postmodernism approaches humanity from a more individualistic perspective, taking into account the concepts of multi-nationalism and presenting an idealized image of a quintessential American dream that straddles the line between complete authenticity and total fabrication.

This is reflected in everything from the large park maps and signs that are pictorial rather than purely alphabetical in nature to the innovative crowd control devices that somehow manage to avoid giving the sense that one is being controlled even while ‘naturally’ falling into line (see fig. 3). “Disney’s desire for efficient and humane handling of large numbers of people … to be treated with courtesy and made to feel relaxed, led the Disney research staff into a whole new field of ‘public engineering’.”6

Pictorial Park map.
Figure 2 – Pictorial Park map.

From its opening day, Disneyland has observed various concepts of operation and customer service from a more aesthetic and individualized perspective that are only now being considered on a broader scale. Examples of the forward-thinking represented include the design focused on a pedestrian scale in all elements and the creation of non-polluting machinery to assist in long-distance transport.

At the same time that the park strives to rigidly control the activities of the consumer while attending the park, the emphasis in all concepts remains focused on the enjoyment and comfort of the individual visitor. While it may not often be specifically considered, the routes of the ‘people-mover’ technology employed to transfer people from one place to another are deliberately plotted to provide the visitor with a pleasant view and a comfortable, relaxing ride regardless of the distance.

The design of the entire park takes into consideration the multi-generational character of the probable visitors, understanding that while some may be full of so much energy they cannot stay still, others will be required to take frequent breaks and thus have a desire for quiet places to sit for a moment or two. As a result of keeping this concept in mind, Disneyland is designed to have food and shopping venues placed in convenient proximity to rides and simple rest areas. Rest areas are equipped with park benches surrounded by green-space giving a restful park-like impression that encourages loitering as can be seen in the approach to one of the park’s more exciting rides, the Matterhorn, found in Fig. 4.

These details provide visitors with the overall effect of the ideal well-designed town. According to King,7 a great deal of the attraction this type of design provides is that it is reminiscent of the quaint old world villages of Italy, France and England in which it is popularly believed people were friendlier and more willing to share a seat with a weary walker of an evening.

The Matterhorn.
Figure 3 – The Matterhorn.

This focus on the interactive nature of the art of the park comprises a post-modern approach as a direct reaction against the dehumanizing and privatized spaces of the modern city which are designed more for the smooth operation and dependence upon machines. “Disney’s interest in urban planning stemmed from his direct experience of – and despair with – Los Angeles urban sprawl and the attendant problems of transportation, pollution, overcrowding and the transience and alienation of city dwellers in a huge metropolis formed mainly of suburbs without cohesive community atmosphere.”8

Describing the layout of Disney World in Orlando, Moore9 illustrates how the visitor standing in Town Square on Main Street will find themselves making their choice of direction based upon directions taken from a large sundial. Again, rather than using alphabetical language to indicate direction, which may only communicate to those who speak English, or even in the abbreviations that typify many maps and indicate cardinal direction, this sundial illustrates through images how the different theme lands have been placed in deliberate logical opposition.

In presenting his world in this way, Disney stays in keeping with his nostalgic viewpoint in that he is recalling the ancient forms of navigation and time-telling as well as revealing a tendency to avoid making judgments on the available options. “Walt’s original ability to abstract the desires of the powerless from the vernacular of Main Street and the Midway, and project them as a landscape for mass visual consumption, mapped a new vernacular image of a postmodern society.”10 Through his theme park presentation, Disney is able to synthesize the collected memories of an imagined America and distill them into a visual playground equally accessible by all, regardless of their particular approach or background.

What values does it appeal to?

Much of Walt Disney’s vision of a perfect American past rested on his own ideas of middle-class Midwestern values. The park clearly encourages the traditional Protestant values of the original settlers in prizing a strong work ethic, highlighting strong pragmatism and focusing on efficiency. At the same time, the park epitomizes strongly American values such as an enthusiasm for exploration, having faith in the progress of the nation and encouraging technological inventiveness as a means of furthering industrial expansion.

King11 provides an entire list of the values the park addresses including: “the mechanistic, deterministic view of the doctrine of progress; pragmatism, applied science, the Protestant Ethic, materialism; collectivism; the Social Ethic, specialization and centralization. In an American Studies sense, the parks are perfect museums for the study of each of these features of the system of American popular beliefs, as well as American beliefs about other cultures.”12 However, moving into the more modern context of the EPCOT Center constructed as an adjunct to the Disney Park in Orlando, Florida brings out more of the modern elements of the park design.

Through this application, the intent becomes more focused upon lulling visitors into a sense of such comfort that they feel comfortable in relinquishing all attempts at individual control and come to believe the corporations will take care of everything. As Moore points out, “The progression goes like this: history was made by inventors and businessmen; the corporations are the legatees of such a past; this pedigree entitles them to run Tomorrow. Citizens can sit back and consume.”13 This presentation represents classic modernization theory at the 1950s-1960s stage, before maximization of wealth overpowered other ideals.

Responses to Disneyland

Having come to an understanding of the approach of the artist in developing the theme park, it is helpful also to have an idea of the responses to Disneyland as a means of estimating its success in communicating its ideals and defining whether this response is due to its postmodern approach. This again forces a return to the park’s origins in Disney’s dreams and ideas as a means of understanding how these animated conceptions were brought to life in real-world usable forms.

It is acknowledged that several of these forms were already in existence in other types of amusement parks scattered throughout the United States, from which Disney took some of his inspiration. It is therefore important in making the argument that Disney’s park is successful because of its postmodern approach to illustrate how the park is different from these predecessors as well as how it develops and improves upon these ideas to create something entirely new and open to multiple interpretations.

Origins and popularity

Disneyland had its origins in Walt Disney’s desires to create a world of his own, in which people could enjoy the good life and live, if only for a day, in a world of fantasy. Disney, a consummate entertainer, wanted to find a way to make his filmic creations come to life for his audiences, giving them a chance to live in the world of fairy tale. At the same time, he wanted to provide families with a vacation destination that was cleaner and safer than the types of amusement parks that were available elsewhere.14

Disney’s dream was to create a park that reinforced and validated middle class values and a connection to the nostalgic past through the properties of play. This concept has been proven in sociological research. “Implicit in Bateson’s work … is the notion that culture is built upon the playful capacity, since playing is the first step toward learning that a sign is only a sign.”15 Disney largely succeeded. Mike Wallace16 proclaims that the park saw 33 million visitors in 1983, with visitor numbers climbing every year. Although it is designed ostensibly as a children’s amusement park, King points out that there are as many as four adults visiting the park for every child.

This fact illustrates that there is something more at work than the simple cartoon characters on the imaginations of America. A study of the demographics of the Disney parks reveals that most of the people who visit are professionals or managers making a median income of $35,700 annually. Speaking particularly of the EPCOT center, Moore indicates “this is not a working-class attraction. Nor do Blacks (3 percent) or Hispanics (2 percent) come in large numbers … A process of class self-affirmation seems to be at work.”17 Through this type of analysis, it might be determined that Disney’s attractions are purposely geared toward the more affluent members of society.

This assumption is furthered through an examination of the attractions that helped him formulate his ideas and in the direction in which they were developed. In putting together his own amusement park, it can be determined that Disney built off of the concepts of other parks but struggled to eliminate those elements that were already considered undesirable or questionable as a means of appealing more to the middle class. Thus, it must be considered that Disney’s postmodern approach to his amusement park may have been driven entirely by economic concerns rather than the artistic concerns argued here.


To a large extent, Disneyland, the original park, is derived from its primary forerunners, Coney Island (Fig. 5) and Riverside parks.

Coney Island as Disney Inspiration.
Figure 4 – Coney Island as Disney Inspiration.

Both of these locations were designed to provide thrills and excitement to visitors through the medium of fast rides, exotic attractions and games of chance and challenge. These were themselves based upon the success of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago and the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. One of Disney’s goals in creating Disneyland was to “replace the risk-taking, sense of danger, commercialism, salaciousness and morbidity associated with the amusement parks’ standard ‘thrill rides,’ barkers, concession stands, games of chance played for prizes and sex and freak shows, with safety, wholesomeness, patriotic and educational values.”18

In other words, he wanted to provide all the positive elements of the amusement park atmosphere without any of the dangers, degradations or criminal activity more commonly associated with these earlier parks. A great deal of the attraction of these types of parks was the opportunity it provided the visitors to escape the daily routine of their lives and loosen the strict bounds of social correctness for a little while. With no entrance fees and the ability to enjoy the attraction with little investment, the World Fairs were open to wealthy and poor alike, an attribute that Coney Island and Riverside both retained in their development. This opened up the possibility for unsavory elements to enter the amusement business as sideshow attractions that preyed on the gullibility of the less educated.

However, the earlier world’s fairs had contained ingredients that Coney Island and Riverside missed. These fairs included four types of attractions that were synchronized to provide a total package presentation. These included amusement parks and rides, stage representations of appropriate architecture for the theme, the use of the most updated high technology and the presentation of an ideal urban community.19 In the transfer from World Fair to local amusement venue, neither Coney Island nor Riverside managed to key in on this concept of the theme approach. Instead, they focused more upon providing the greatest variety of attractions possible in the available space.

In developing his own park, Disney made this concept of the theme the central element of his park, adding other elements to the central idea rather than throwing together the elements and hoping they’d entertain. Another idea Disney ‘borrowed’ from these predecessors was the concept of presenting small shows or theaters that depicted other cultures or ways of life depicted on stages that were in keeping with the national ‘vernacular’ architecture. The World Fairs also offered exhibits of the newest available or shortly to be available technologies (see Fig. 6), which Disney incorporated both directly in the form of exhibitions and indirectly as elements of his rides and other attractions. Finally, the overriding theme of the park was designed around the World Fair attempt to provide an idea of the ideal urban community.

Seattle World Fair Technology Exhibit.
Figure 5 – Seattle World Fair Technology Exhibit.

With these basic foundations in place, Disney then began making customizations to his approach. Taking the fun elements of the carnival atmosphere and the multiple forms of attractions exemplified in the world’s fairs, Disney added the elements of historic forms of entertainment such as the tableaux and the holiday camp as a means of more appropriately reflecting his vision of America at its best.

For example, the astounding President’s show in Frontierland is said to be largely inspired by presentations that had been a tradition in ages past. “They descend, in part, from the patriotic dioramas, tableaux vivants, and waxworks of the nineteenth century. Disney upgraded the technology … but the red-white-and-blue spirit remained much the same.”20 While Disney had generally stayed clear of covering historical subjects individually, there is a clear, deliberate and unmistakable effort to ensure history was included at Disneyland, which was later transplanted to Disney World. Wallace21 suggests this is a result of amusement parks that were already in existence when Disney began building his first park. Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village (see Fig. 7) were both already in existence as parks dedicated to preserving a particular period in American history. While they were heavy on historical fact and re-enactment, they are both short on thrill rides and other forms of entertainment.

Period actors at Greenfield Village posing with visitors.
Figure 6 – Period actors at Greenfield Village posing with visitors.

Another popular form of amusement park, the holiday camp, to be discussed, provided an atmosphere of family vacation location offering many of the same comforts of home without any of the same responsibilities. The basic premise was to provide a home atmosphere while allowing the mother, the one most responsible for the care and upkeep of the family on a daily basis, a chance for an equally relaxing vacation.

The primary draw to these types of camps was the intimate familiarity the guests felt with the staff. From the moment of their arrival, guests were at once directed through the provided activities while feeling in complete control of the situation because of the degree of personal service. Again, it can be seen that Disney took the fun elements of these parks, the historical reference, nostalgic atmosphere and sense of participation and worked to overcome the more negative elements.

Desires it works on

Disneyland works on the desire of the modern consumer to escape the uglier realities of life today and escape back into a more perfect and innocent past. One of the most important desires Disneyland works on is the desire for nostalgia, or a return to childhood as a time we think of as innocent and carefree. “As Kant, in his Anthropologia, suggested, it is really another time, not another place, that we want to re-experience; we want to recapture childhood.”22 To accomplish this effect, Disney presented an idea of the past recreated and improved to reflect the type of happy past the dominant culture would like to envision for itself. “Disneyland skips over those portions of portrayed history that have a tendency to cause controversy or stress among people of that period or in times since.”23

Neglecting any suggestion of racism, slavery, war or other unpleasant memories, Disney provides his visitors with entrance into the park only through the main avenue of Main Street USA. This street presents Disney’s impression of the idealistic quintessential small Midwestern town, distorted just enough to bring the visitor, regardless of age, into a child’s perspective while remaining fully functional as shops and other attractions (see Fig. 8). The way in which he does this is immediately evident for one who seeks to find the answer as it becomes realized that the upper stories of the buildings are built to a different scale than the fully functional ground floors, but remains elusive for those who wish to live the fantasy.

Disneyland Main Street.
Figure 7 – Disneyland Main Street.

Another one of the ways that Disney attempted to ‘clean up’ the amusement park image was by reducing the visibility of the capitalist system. Rather than exchanging cash for rides or games at the point of service, Disney sold a single ticket as entrance into the park and allowed visitors to jump on rides or attend different shows as they wished. By doing this, he was able to invoke a sense of happier times when money wasn’t the base of all pleasant activity.

The only cash required within the gates is confined almost exclusively to the gift shops and food vendors, which would be difficult to manage in any other way. In addition to the reduction of modern-day commercialism within the park, “the playful, romanticized tone of false-front buildings and props create an atmosphere of total theater ‘which exceeds the wildest dreams of avant-garde dramatists.’”24 Visitors to the park are able to experience a number of differing themes and environments with themselves playing a central role in the action. Through this process, they are able to do just what was desired, escape from the cares and worries of today into a world of fantasy, history and future technology.

Contemporary Response

To discover the contemporary response to the Disneyland parks, it was necessary to conduct primary research in the form of a survey.25 Questions in the survey were designed first to identify the respondent’s general demographic and experience of Disneyland or other theme parks. More targeted questions strive to determine whether Disneyland remains unique in its ability to respond to individual desires and dreams thus indicating a more postmodern approach. If Disneyland continues to provide a unique experience to visitors today, particularly first-time visitors, as compared with other parks, particularly themed amusement parks, this difference in response might be attributable to the postmodern design approach as compared to the more modern approach taken by a majority of parks today.

Disneyland and other holiday destinations

As illustrated in its comparison with the modern amusement parks that both preceded and succeeded Disneyland’s completion, Walt Disney was able to take his park to a level beyond what had been imagined largely because of his postmodern approach to design and art. By carefully analyzing the various types of family tourist destinations and the elements that visitors tended to respond to, Disney was able to replicate much of the benefit and eliminate much of the negative aspects of park features.

This chapter examines the way this was accomplished as Disneyland and some of the ways in which it has failed to translate to other locations. It is hypothesized that the reason these other locations are not as successful as the original park is due to a lack of this type of careful attention to the purpose, location and unique nature of the cultures in which they’re placed as well as their ability to help define the culture in a time of individual change.

Disneyland as something new

A general summary of Disneyland’s attractions will cause the park to sound like many other parks that were built around this same time period. There are also elements in it of the Hollywood phenomena that was beginning to boom at this time, with its promise of ‘alternate realities’ that could be entered simply by stepping through the screen, at least in one’s imagination. Because of Disney’s close attention to detail to every level of development in his park and his insistence upon very close thematic development, the park truly differs from anything else available today. In his design, Disney created what can only be considered an entirely new venue in the form of an atmospheric theme park.

“That Disneyland significantly departed from the dominant fantasy landscape of the time was dramatized when Disney failed to arouse enthusiasm in a convention of amusement park owners that previewed plans for the park in 1953.”26 Potential investors were familiar with other amusement parks that had been constructed around the country and criticized the paltry number of rides Disney would offer potential visitors by comparison.

They argued that Disney was wasting a great deal of his valuable real estate in useless prosaic parkland while the types of rides and attractions offered would require significant extensive and expensive maintenance staff and materials just to keep the park up and running. In each case, the investors failed to understand the tremendous degree to which Disney would incorporate entertainment in every element of the park. “Visitors to Disneyland paid for a variety of entertainment experiences linked by the narrative of the different themes. These in turn provided a narrative for different program segments on the Disney Studio’s weekly television series. Combining narrative with serial expectations, each visual product of the Disney Company fed into the others. Although commercial spin-offs were not a new creation, this commercialization was the most extensive to take place under a single corporate sponsor.”27

Even in this early design phase, Disney demonstrated another area in which his park would differ from others planned or already in existence. This innovation was in his planned use of robotics and other cutting edge technology as a means of providing the park with a sense of magical unreality while keeping it necessarily couched in actual reality. “This ‘animation in the rough,’ ‘the grand combination of all the arts – using sculpture, painting, drama, theatre and film, combined with advanced electrical and engineering skills – made possible lifelike replicas of humans and animals capable of complex programmed motion and sound.”28

This discovery of new uses for available technology in keeping with the overall themed area became one of the major challenges tackled by Disney and his design team. In order to give the technology a sense of unreality, futurism or even a concept of realism, it was necessary to incorporate it in entirely new ways that hadn’t been considered before. Without this innovation, Disney was certain his park would not present itself as something new and different to the public. “The originality of these custom-made rides has given the parks a reputation for technical expertise and progressiveness as much as for entertainment.”29

Ideas that emerged from this innovation approach include the swivel cars (see Fig. 9) and Circle Vision used as integral elements within several of the rides as well as the monorail and skyrides used to transport guests around the park easily, noiselessly, pleasurably and without damaging the park environment (see Fig. 10).

Swivel cars adapted for use as the primary element of entertainment on the Teacup Ride.
Figure 8 – Swivel cars adapted for use as the primary element of entertainment on the Teacup Ride.
Disneyland Monorail.
Figure 9 – Disneyland Monorail.

Eurodisney (or other locations) less authentic than Disneyland

In making the transition from Anaheim to other locations around the world, it has been argued that the Disney concept will not achieve the same high degree of success or public identification. When transplanted outside of the culture it is designed to reinforce and emulate, Disneyland loses a great deal of its inherent meaning to a significant number of its visitors, reducing the cumulative effect experienced by Americans and foreign visitors alike.

Without this larger identification and incorporation into the ‘American’ community presented by Disney, largely dependent on the responses of other visitors, the park loses much of its authenticity and thus is exposed as particularly exploitive in its efforts to beguile visitors. “The internationalization of commodity forms in leisure (and other) industries means that tourists recognize the theme park formula as familiar whatever country they are in. When travel is structured around the search for an experience of cultural difference, the theme park is rejected as just more of the same and hence as international rather than national culture.”30

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the problems associated with simply transplanting the ideas of Disneyland into a new location without significant amendments being made can be discovered through an examination of Australia’s Wonderworld. This park utilizes themed areas that are near duplicates of themes originally developed through Disneyland, specifically the Frontierland theme, a process already put into practice in Canada without significant success.

Wild West in Canada featured some modifications in the form of a name change and slightly different design elements to the Canadian park while the same superficial-type elements were changed to create Goldrush, the western-themed land of Wonderland Australia poorly disguised. In taking this approach, the parks fail to offer something new and unique to the visitor, making it unlikely that they will travel great distances to see the parks, preferring instead to spend their valuable time visiting attractions that provide more authentic impressions of the visited country.

The failure of Wonderland Australia to accurately and intrinsically communicate the uniqueness and excitement of what is quintessentially Australia in the same way that Disneyland captures a spirit of an idealized American golden period emphasizes rather than detracts from its obvious capitalist intentions.31

Because this effort to commoditize history and children’s imaginations is so obvious, visitors become resentful of the obvious ploy to play on their emotions, reducing the park’s effectiveness and erasing any of the cumulative emotion experienced by visitors to the original Disneyland. Rather than finding the kind of small touches that help Disneyland explore the major themes and beliefs of America, visitors to Wonderland Australia find little or no indication of the values and beliefs of the Australian culture and are greeted with the emptiness of a culture transplanted without context, understanding, finesse or attempts to connect to the new.

While the Disney characters used to entertain and beguile American visitors are well-loved characters imbued with a history of their own, the characters involved in the Wonderland parks seem introduced merely to entice visitors rather than having any cultural values of their own. Themes used within the park may or may not have any cultural significance, such as the Medieval Times park representing an idealized version of the European Middle Ages, a period never actually experienced in Australia. “Here, the Goldrush theme is the single area that makes a gesture towards Australian content.”32 As has been illustrated already, though, this is merely a gesture toward incorporating Australia’s history, providing a superficial copy of a superficial copy created first in Disneyland and poorer for the copy.

Does the inauthenticity at Disneyland lead to an obsession for authenticity elsewhere?

Strangely enough, the obvious artificiality of Disneyland has a tendency to provide visitors with a heightened sense of reality. Perhaps the best way of exploring this concept is through the ideas of the front room and back room. According to MacCannell,33 the idea of the front room is used to refer to areas that are open and available to the public in which staff and guests are able to mingle, one to entertain and the other to be entertained. The concept of the back room is thus used to refer to those areas in which the public is refused admittance, permitting only staff as they carry out the necessary duties to enable the park to run efficiently and seamlessly in the front room.

Therefore, the back room is where the actual work gets done while the front room is for ‘entertainment purposes only.’ Tourists began to question the authenticity of their experiences to greater degrees as they realized they were only receiving ‘front end’ impressions rather than gaining any real concept of the people or culture they had come to visit. As a result of this increasing awareness, the tendency among amusement parks and other venues has been to invite the tourist in a modified back room which attempts to illustrate the back room operations of the organization without actually bringing them into the actual working areas.

This is what is referred to as the false back. “The lie contained in the touristic experience … presents itself as a truthful revelation, as the vehicle that carries the onlooker behind false fronts into reality. The idea here is that a false back is more insidious and dangerous than a false front, or an inauthentic demystification of social life is not merely a lie but a superlie, the kind that drips with sincerity.”34 Because visitors are becoming more and more aware of the concept of the false back, they are also becoming more jaded to the authenticity of this presentation as well, continuing to develop a sense that something is hidden or unrevealed in the process.

Here, as elsewhere, Disney seems to have built upon previous examples. As he was developing his design for Disneyland, a strongly popular destination point for holiday travelers was the old ghost towns that scattered the western scrublands. “In the ghost town … since the theatricality is explicit, the hallucination operates in making the visitors take part in the scene and thus become participants in that commercial fair that is apparently an element of the fiction but in fact represents the substantial aim of the whole imitative machine.”35 Although everything is highly exaggerated in scope and form, the illusion is life-sized which allows visitors to take part in the action itself or merely stand by and watch as their desires warrant.

Within the realm of Disneyland, this same concept is employed in the entry plaza of Main Street. Ground floor areas are created at life-size scale, enabling them to be used as stores, restaurants, arcades and other attractions. This almost forces visitors to adopt their normal roles as consumers and citizens of the town, lulling them into a sense of homecoming that may or may not have any connection with their own experiences. However, in keeping with the fantasy element of the park, the upper floors of Main Street buildings are constructed at a smaller scale “so they give the impression of being inhabitable (and they are) but also of belonging to a fantastic past that we can grasp with our imagination.

The Main Street facades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but obsessively, believing that you are still playing.”36 This artificial reality found at Disneyland is what distinguishes it from the other parks in its admission at one and the same time of falsity and reality, bringing to mind questions of what makes something real, capturing the sense that sometimes the impossible might be possible and conveying something that exists beyond the scope of other parks of this type.

Everything is presented as it might appear in actuality even when it is something such as a robot hippopotamus or alligator. “A real crocodile can be found in the zoo, and as a rule it is dozing or hiding, but Disneyland tells us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands.”37 There is no real attempt to hide the artifice of Disneyland’s creations as it freely acknowledges its inauthenticity, but, as in this case, there is a sincere attempt to make a nostalgic connection with the sights and sounds of nature by ensuring such a connection is made regardless of when the visitor arrives at that area of the park. Artifice is thus the only means of ensuring the encounter takes place as a means of providing a sense of the reality.

Disneyland’s distinction after World War II?

In the years after World War II, people of all nations suddenly realized they’d been trapped in their home locations throughout the war years.38 As a means of forgetting, healing and moving on, many discovered an increased desire to travel and see the world. These travels were also a means by which families attempted to reconnect with each other as each had seen hardship and suffering whether serving overseas or sacrificing at home. With the end of the war, they were suddenly free to enjoy each other and found they had extra income available with which to satisfy new urges to discover. In this climate, the nation was hard-pressed to provide the tourist destinations and accommodations required to satisfy the travel bug.

This was due in some measure by the absence of appropriate building supplies largely devoted to reconstructing necessary housing as well as to the distractions of the country intent on healing. With the advent of paid vacation time within legislation and employee contracts, the demand for family vacation destinations grew even more pronounced, initially leading to rural or country idealized settings as the ultimate vacation away. “In 1948 the NSW Branch of the Australian Railways Union opened a camp at Sussex Inlet, with seven family cabins, a store, six fishing boats and later a tennis court.”39

In response to this need, many Australians for example made the best of their situation and opted for camp-outs on the beach. However, as typically happens, continuous flows of campers to popular beachside locations quickly led to the increased development of properties designed to wring cash out of tourists while doing little more than providing some of the nicer comforts of home life. Entertainment options were limited largely to swimming pools, permanent barbeque pits and tennis courts. The concept that tourists to natural sights and locations were still seeking some sense of the familiar is reinforced by reports by Davidson and Spearritt.40

According to their study, explorers reaching into Australia’s interior during the 1800s provided landmarks with names of things that were familiar to the explorers themselves from other lands. These appellations created a false sense of familiarity and history that became the backbone for future travel schemes that placed scenery at the top of the entertainment list, sometimes coupled with the sense of a health retreat.

As these types of concepts became more developed throughout the more developed world, the sites of ‘camp-outs’ in all countries began to develop into what were termed holiday camps. Providing relatively permanent family housing accommodations in conjunction with communal eating and structured entertainment activities, the concept behind these camps was to give the family a vacation destination in which every member of the family, including the mother, would have a break from their normal routine. Visitors were not required to make any difficult decisions, being offered a full menu of potential activities to take part in and provided with a number of relaxing activities in which to partake individually, such as golf and tennis. Evening entertainment would be arranged by the staff and often included music, dancing or stage performances.

“The culture of the holiday camp is largely set and dominated by the young singles rather than the families, by staff rather than by campers, and by individual expectations rather than by the public roles.”41 Within this environment, in which campers typically stayed at least a week and frequently a month or two at a time, the visitor was given a sense of family and comfort as the boundaries between staff and camper broke down thanks to the give-and-take nature of the customized entertainment each camp attempted to provide. While the activities were essentially the same, the individual staff members were able to make individual connections with the campers and give them an impression that these activities were driven by the camper rather than the staff. “In the traditional models of total institutions, such as prisons and mental hospitals, there are certain dominant features.

The interacting population is divided into two categories, the staff and the inmates. The latter are administratively and coercively controlled by the former.”42 This same principle holds true for the holiday camp as well in that the staff always remains in control of events in a general way while the individual campers are able to make their choices among a few tightly controlled options. Because they are making a choice, they do not perceive themselves as being controlled while the limitation on choices ensures that they remain in control. Disney understood this basic conception regarding the holiday camp and incorporated it into his park in offering his guests a range of options to choose from while still ensuring that his staff maintains control.

The brilliance of Disney’s mastery of this concept can be traced through the intricate patterns of the lines that were created to corral people into their desired ride option. As customers move through the park, there is a logical, ordered sequence provided that tends to direct visitors to specific areas in a specific sequence. Moving through the lines, customers are kept turning often as they make their way through mazelike structures and happily discover that the line is divided into several very small segments just before getting on the ride.

This creates a false sense that the line really wasn’t that long or that slow in moving forward while providing a happy reward at the end in the surprise of suddenly being ready to climb in the ride’s car. In this scenario, each very short line corresponds directly to an available seat on the ride’s car and each ride is manned by several polite and helpful attendants that ensure you are placed on the ride with your friends, are seated safely and are able to exit safely as well. The importance of a feeling of developed relationship with the staff is further emphasized in the employee training program, “University of Disney” in which employees are trained to always treat the visitors as greatly respected guests.

“The cleanliness, courtesy and quality of the product on offer in Disneyland, combined with the well-heeled yet relaxed posture of the guests creates a universalizing particularity; a club-like atmosphere.”43 In a similar way, the rides themselves represent this blend of camper/staff interaction.

Describing the strictly scripted presentation of rides such as Haunted Mansion suggests the high degree in which the ride (as staff) manipulates the options of the rider (camper) just like a film, but that the ride offers a chance for the rider to glimpse beyond the scenes of the film to the ‘back room.’ “Unlike in a film, however, the visitor can … look round, which adds to the pleasure of submitting to deception, the joy of seeing partly how the illusion is created, which is denied to all but the most sophisticated moviegoers.”44 The visitor is encouraged to become and certainly feels a part of the action, but is able through it all to know that this is the real experience, rather than something hidden in the back room.


Disneyland has often been criticized as being too commercial, plastic and artificial in its total presentation and deliberate design elements. In some ways, this was exactly what Walt Disney had in mind – presenting the world with a playground of fantasy and nostalgia that could not be rivaled. This playground was completely false in that such a perfect world was not thought to be possible, but Disney brought it to life by making it life-sized, enabling children and adults to return to their childhood in ways they did not expect. This is primarily through his appeal to a widespread common value system that existed in the hearts and minds of the typical Midwest American Protestant.

In recreating the positive elements of the amusement parks and giant fairs of Coney Island and the World’s Fair, Disney improved the design by including more of the attractions that delighted visitors at the World’s Fairs and excluded some of the more disagreeable elements of Coney Island. He incorporated an approach to the concept of the whole theater, in which audience and actors worked together to create a unified experience of playtime pleasure.

By tracing through the various design elements that contributed to Disneyland’s development, it can be discerned that Disney employed a postmodern approach in building his amusement park that has largely escaped the developers of similar parks in other areas of the world. Because much of the appeal of the park is based upon the nostalgia of America, it seems reasonable that success of Disney parks in other nations should be re-equipped to focus on the unique experiences and themes of the nation in which the park is placed. A negative example of this can be found in parks such as Wonderworld Australia.

Because the park is similarly themed to parks located in the United States and Canada, very few tourists feel the need to visit the park as a unique part of the Australian experience. In its many paradoxes, Disneyland presents a unique experience unparalleled by others.

Appendix A – Questionnaire

  • What is your place of origin? (i.e. – America, France, Russia, China, Korea, etc.)
  • What is your socio-economic status?
  • What is your age group? (12 and under – child; 12-24 – youth; 24-65 – adult; 65+ senior)
  • Have you been to Disneyland?
  • Did you go as a child (12 and under), youth (12-24), adult (24-65) or senior (65 or older)?
  • Have you been more than once?
  • What age were you on your second visit?
  • (Please indicate in the following questions your impressions based upon your last visit or designate differences of opinion from one visit to the next)
  • Are you are regular visitor? (How often per year do you typically visit?)
  • Is Disneyland a part of your family’s tradition? (i.e. generations of families go; each generation takes their children as children; etc.)
  • What desires does Disney satisfy for you? (i.e. – return to childhood; desire for excitement; desire for community; etc.)
  • Do you feel the park caters to a particular socio-economic class?
  • If yes:
  • Which one?
  • Why?
  • Do you perceive Disneyland as a destination for children or adults?
  • What specific elements about the park make you feel this way?
  • Have you been to other theme parks?
  • Please list other theme parks attended.
  • How is Disneyland different from other theme parks?
  • Is this a positive or negative difference? Why?
  • What are the American ideals that you identify in Disneyland?
  • How do you feel this is accomplished? (i.e. – what elements of the park convey these ideals?)
  • Does Disneyland accurately reflect America?
  • In what way is it accurate or distorted?
  • Is Disneyland real or fake?
  • What specific elements about Disneyland make you feel this way?



Bandyopadhyay, Pradeep. (1973). “The Holiday Camp.” Leisure and Society in Britain. Michael A Smith et al. London.

Burgin, Victor. (1982). Thinking Photographically. New Jersey: Humanities Press Intl.

Davidson, Jim and Peter Spearritt. (2000). “Origins.” Holiday Business: Tourism in Australia since 1870. Carlton, Victoria: The Miegunyah Press.

Eco, Umberto. (1986). Travels in Hyperreality. London: Picador: 39-48.

Hunt, P. and R. Frankenberg. (1990). “It’s a Small World: Disneyland, the family and the multiple representations of American childhood.” Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary issues in the sociological study of childhood. A. James and A. Proust (Eds.). London: Falmer.

Kant, Immanuel. (2005). The Critique of Judgment. New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press.

MacCannell, Dean. (1999). “Staged Authenticity.” The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. Berkeley: University of California Press: 91-107.

Zukin, Sharon. (1991). Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World. Berkeley, CA.


Hawkins, Gay. (1990). “Too Much Fun: Producing and Pleasure at Australia’s Wonderland.” Sport and Leisure: Trends in Australian Popular Culture. David Rowe & Geoff Lawrence (Eds.). Sydney: Harcourt Brace: 209-231.

King, Margaret. (1981). “Disneyland and Walt Disney World: Traditional Values in Futuristic Form.” Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 15, N. 1: 116-140.

Moore, A. (1980). “Walt Disney World: Bound ritual space and the playful pilgrimage centre.” Anthropological Quarterly. Vol. 53, N. 4.

Wallace, Mike. (1985). “Mickey Mouse History: Portraying the Past at Disney World.” Radical History Review. Vol. 32: 33-57.

White, Richard; Sarah Jane Ballard, Ingrid Bown et al. (2005). “The Heyday of the Holiday, 1945-1975.” On Holidays: A history of getting away in Australia. North Melbourne: Pluto Press: 119-152.


  1. Burgin, Victor. (1982). Thinking Philosophically. New Jersey: Humanities Press Intl: 14.
  2. Lyotard, Jean-Francois. (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press: 80.
  3. Lyotard, 1979: 81.
  4. Kant, Immanuel. (2005). The Critique of Judgment. New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing: 10.
  5. Kant, 2005: 11.
  6. King, Margaret. (1981). “Disneyland and Walt Disney World: Traditional Values in Futuristic Form.” Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 15, N. 1: 122.
  7. 1981.
  8. King, 1981: 123.
  9. Moore, A. (1980). “Walt Disney World: Bound ritual space and the playful pilgrimage centre.” Anthropological Quarterly. Vol. 53, N. 4.
  10. Zukin, Sharon. (1991). Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World. Berkeley, CA: 230.
  11. 1981.
  12. King, 1981: 129.
  13. 1980: 47.
  14. King, 1981.
  15. Moore, 1980: 208.
  16. Wallace, Mike. (1985). “Mickey Mouse History: Portraying the Past at Disney World.” Radical History Review. Vol. 32.
  17. 1980: 53.
  18. King, 1981: 119.
  19. Zukin, 1991.
  20. Wallace, 1985: 39-40.
  21. Wallace, 1985.
  22. King, 1981: 131.
  23. Wallace, 1985: 36.
  24. King, 1981: 127.
  25. See Appendix A.
  26. Zukin, 1991: 222-223.
  27. Zukin, 1991: 223.
  28. King, 1981: 119-120.
  29. King, 1981: 120.
  30. Hawkins, Gay. (1990). “Too Much Fun: Producing and Pleasure at Australia’s Wonderland.” Sport and Leisure: Trends in Australian Popular Culture. David Rowe & Geoff Lawrence (Eds.). Sydney: Harcourt Brace: 224.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Hawkins, 1990: 223.
  33. MacCannell, Dean. (1999). “Staged Authenticity.” The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. Berkeley: University of California Press: 91-107.
  34. MacCannell, 1999: 102-103.
  35. Eco, Umberto. (1986). Travels in Hyperreality. London: Picador: 43.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid: 44.
  38. White, Richard; Sarah Jane Ballard, Ingrid Bown et al. (2005). “The Heyday of the Holiday, 1945-1975.” On Holidays: A history of getting away in Australia. North Melbourne: Pluto Press.
  39. Ibid: 124.
  40. Davidson, Jim and Peter Spearritt. (2000). “Origins.” Holiday Business: Tourism in Australia since 1870. Carlton, Victoria: The Miegunyah Press.
  41. Bandyopadhyay, Pradeep. (1973). “The Holiday Camp.” Leisure and Society in Britain. Michael A Smith et al. London: 248.
  42. Ibid: 251.
  43. Hunt, P. and R. Frankenberg. (1990). “It’s a Small World: Disneyland, the family and the multiple representations of American childhood.” Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary issues in the sociological study of childhood. A. James and A. Proust (Eds.). London: Falmer: 117.
  44. Hunt & Frankenberg, 1990: 112.
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