Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Disneyland IS a Museum: Historical Appreciation of both Form and Genre

By EPCOT Explorer

“The idea of Disneyland is a simple one. It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge. It will be a place for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company; a place for teachers and pupils to discover greater ways of understanding and education. Here the older generation can recapture the nostalgia of days gone by, and the younger generation can savor the challenge of the future. Here will be the wonders of Nature and Man for all to see and understand. Disneyland will be based upon and dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and hard facts that have created America. And it will be uniquely equipped to dramatize these dreams and facts and send them forth as a source of courage and inspiration to all the world. Disneyland will be sometimes a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic. It will be filled with accomplishments, the joys and hopes of the world we live in. And it will remind us and show us how to make these wonders part of our own lives.”   –Walt Disney

If you’ve spent any time as part of the Disney community, online or otherwise, debates and discussion about the nature of Disneyland or any of the parks practically define the terrain of popular thought. One of the most fundamental of these questions in the community is the role of history. Disney is a very historical company. Walt brought his enterprise to fame during the early decades of the 20th century, when Hollywood boomed and grew into the monolithic entity that it now is, not only for American culture, but the greater entertainment culture of the world. Disney’s early films, while not all ‘high art’ (I would place Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Fantasia into that category, however.) have come to be seen as the bedrock for Disney’s legacy in the entertainment world. Disneyland is no different. With this in mind, Disneyland deserves preservation. And Disneyland IS a museum that holds vital parts of this entertainment legacy. Continue after the page break for the rest of this story...

By now, I’ve probably raised some eyebrows. “Disneyland isn’t a museum” is one of the most oft debated tropes in the Disney fandom. Those that uphold the notion that Disneyland isn’t a museum usually seem to negatively portray museum settings as static and stoic, perhaps out of touch with the demands of its guests for entertainment and a vibrant and artful experience. But for me, at least, I disagree with that assessment. Disneyland is a museum in terms of what content it holds and the place it enjoys in not only Disney’s historical legacy, but also the greater arc of American entertainment history. Although Disneyland should and does change over time, it has endeavored to keep aspects of the place as constants and reminders of why it exists and how it came to be. With this in mind, the “form” of Disneyland is a collection of genres. These genres are vital parts of Disneyland’s status as what I like to think are the components of something akin to a ‘living museum’. Disneyland is a fluid place, yes, but its fluidity and its changes revolve around improvements and deepening the thematic coherency of the place. Wide scale changes, when they occur, can indeed damage the historical aspects of the park, but that is not always a definite. In any case, the genres of Disneyland provide it with content that tie it to the mid 1950s and the ethos that first brought it into being and has allowed it to flourish for almost 60 years now.

“I love the nostalgic, myself. I hope we never lose some of the things of the past.” –Walt Disney
If there is one common thread in most of Disneyland’s lands, nostalgia for a romanticizing the past provides the context for the tapestry of environments that is Disneyland. Most would say that fantasy also defines the borders of Disneyland, and that is true on a more narrative-focused level but the places presented in Disneyland itself are grounded by perceptions of history and the of past. Much like the Walt Disney Company over the past 20 years, I am ignoring Tomorrowland for the sake of discussing that Disneyland is a museum.
Disneyland employs nostalgia in a way that replicates the past that allows it to resonate and romanticize. Adventureland is the exotic flair of the unknown and the positive parts of colonialism, without the peril and politics of the actual events that pushed European explorers into the African wilderness and the Polynesian isles. The Enchanted Tiki Room is an outgrowth of the Tiki culture craze that swept through the United States following World War II and the admission of Hawaii into the Union.  These are not the bread and butter moments of historical truths, but they are cultural moments in how the entertainment industry viewed history. They are, in no small terms, part of “public history” and help make sense of the looking glass by which entertainers viewed the changing world around them. Some might say that Disneyland sanitizes history, which I suppose is true, for the purposes of very narrow academic history, but I take a different perspective. Disneyland’s brand of history and thus, Disneyland culture, is the means by which Disneyland is a historical artifact of sorts, and, therefore, akin to a museum. Disneyland holds all of these pieces of perspective and history, making it a vital bastion of how history is seen in a certain light.

This museum quality of Disneyland is not to say that change cannot come to the place. The Enchanted Tiki Room has been shortened over the years and its effects reworked. So have other classics, like The Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Although I won’t get into the debate of tampering with the inherent and delicate art of each attraction in this article, I will say that small changes to improve the overall thematic technology at hand and illusion is perfectly acceptable and almost expected. I would not want to see the ‘museum of Disneyland’ become static and outdated. Rather, I would like to see it bettered, remade, and refined, but in a manner consistent with the ideals that have allowed it to flourish since its inception.

The ideals that have allowed for Disneyland’s success are vital parts of the perspectives and brand of history that I discussed in the paragraph before last. The ideals and concepts that, yes, can change, must at least relate back to the past in some way. Disneyland’s museum, or collection, of  “history” speaks to greater ideas and genres embedded in culture. Archetypes and icons define Disneyland’s spaces: Pirates, haunted houses, quaint Bavarian and Medieval villages nestled in the shadow of the Alps are all cultural tropes that define how we view the world.  All of these are schemas of very large ideals or cultural amalgams that have resonated with the public during the course of the past 60 years. Frontierland itself is easily representative of this idea, as it is a mishmash of western and cowboy pulp fiction. Main Street USA, and Liberty Square in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom also ring true in this light. All of these environments are worthy of attention and some degree of preservation for the place they inhabit in both the collective unconscious of our current mindset and of the past 50 years. That the bicentennial of American independence in no small way dictated that the designers of Walt Disney World build Liberty Square is crucial to its importance and inclusion in The Magic Kingdom. Had Liberty Street been built in Disneyland, something similar could be said to Walt Disney’s patriotism in the 1950s and 60s pushing him to construct that similar version of those plans. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln certainly illustrates Walt’s attachment to a patriotic brand of history that was prominent in the 1960s. Disneyland, and by extension, The Magic Kingdom, are museums of patterns of thought that permeated the entertainment and public world during the 20th century.  The only true difference between ‘The Museum of Disneyland’ and a real ‘academic’ museum is that Disneyland’s ‘exhibits’ move and react and interact with their audience and their impact is perhaps more subtle by nature of the fact that they are obvious forms of entertainment in an immersive environment.

“Disneyland is like a piece of clay, if there’s something I don’t like, I’m not stuck with it. I can reshape and revamp.” – Walt Disney

I realize that the first part of this essay is hugely metaphysical and abstract, and thus, will attempt to make ‘The Museum of Disneyland’ a twofold and simpler conception: Disneyland is old. Disneyland is turning 60 in a few months and during the course of six decades has made history about itself, while being fundamentally linked to exhibiting and creating historical environments. When Disneyland opened in 1955 it is safe to say that while there were other theme parks, nothing in the United States was akin to what Disneyland was doing. And since its midcentury debut, Disneyland has deftly defined the industry of theme parks. In that, the oldest parts of Disneyland are also to be cherished and their inclusion in the themed environment deepen Disneyland’s role as a museum of sorts.

Although I made a case for technological improvements earlier in this essay, I do not mean to say that only the new and the flashy must stand out as Disneyland’s headlining attractions. Disneyland thrives on the personal nostalgia of permanence, too. The heart of Disneyland is that it endures: a wonderful experience had there in 1963 can easily be found and replicated in 2015. Further, there are attractions that are instrumental to putting Disneyland on the map and deserve a place in history and a place of preservation within the storied berm of Walt’s original Magic Kingdom. While these landmark attractions might be considered technologically outdated now, artistically, and historically, they are period pieces that allow us to see how the art of themed design has flourished, evolved, and grown. 
Watching the first real Audio Animatronics in the Enchanted Tiki Room bring the entire venue to life in 2015 honors the fact and the space age artistry on display sparked a paradigm shift for animated entertainment in 1963. Trundling along a bus bar ride in Fantasyland beside blacklit animated figures speak to the truth of what it was to spend a day in 1955 Disneyland. By retaining parts of its history, Disneyland is a museum, or even a monument to all of the progress and change that has been wrought because of it. Yes, there are probably a million different and perhaps more spectacular ways to convey the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by now. But that should never mean that Disneyland relinquish the mode of storytelling that first made itself so popular. There is a wonderful feeling of understanding and a way to personally connect with history through interaction with the old and ‘The Museum of Disneyland’ has thrived on this all through its history. Where Walt Disney World has shamefully and unfortunately pruned away some of its older and more antiquated period pieces, they live on at Disneyland. Disneyland still allows you to canoe around the Rivers of America and to be damned to Hell with Mr. Toad. Main Street’s vehicles still make their way along the main entrance to the park and add a layer of realism to the place but also retain the historical and simple pleasure of riding in a vehicle that’s been there since when your grandparents had their first visit to Disneyland.

‘The Museum of Disneyland’ is better for preserving and innovating all in the same breath. Having The Jungle Cruise and the Enchanted Tiki Room play on next to the spectacular Indiana Jones Adventure doesn’t create a disparity in the types of rides and presentations in Disneyland, but rather, deepens the illusion. With differentiated experiences of new and old, the thematic environment, or museum, in this very odd and specialized case, all the more nuanced and unique. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City has the Hayden Planetarium, a technological behemoth sitting next to dioramas that were inspired by Teddy Roosevelt. Although a bit removed from our theme park subject, the museum connection shines through:  Museums can have both the old and new and be better for it.
Of course, this idea goes beyond rides and entertainment. The park’s fixtures and operations are a large part of Disneyland’s delicate status as a museum. 2014 witnessed a controversial change to Disneyland in how New Orleans Square was reconfigured for the use of Club 33. In all honesty, I wasn’t bothered by many of the changes until the Court of Angels, a lovely alcove in the very heart of New Orleans Square was walled off and made private. This is a very small aspect to complain about of course, but it is damaging to Disneyland on both a historical level and a thematic one. Thematically, the illusion on New Orleans was cheapened and a vital and wonderful piece of it was taken away. From a historical standpoint, ‘the Disneyland Museum’ lost a lovely exhibit of something that had ties to Walt Disney’s plans for his park and what his artists and engineers created. The Court of Angels wasn’t a heavily thematic attraction, but it was part of the overall allure and attractiveness of the place. Without a quiet little alcove to rest and relax and marvel at the themed environment of New Orleans Square in, historical realism and detail was lost. Disneyland cannot just survive on illusion alone. While Pirates of the Caribbean is a technical colossus just up the street, the Court of Angels is the calmer and subtler answer to that. The balance between them must be preserved. You can’t have a museum exhibit without any benches for reflection, and the Court of Angels was a gem of a bench.

Similarly, in Walt Disney World, the Polynesian Village drastically changed its lobby, this year, demolishing the waterfall grotto that had graced the Vacation Kingdom since 1971. This fountain has no connections to Walt Disney. This fountain wasn’t meant to be an overtly convincing thematic illusion of Polynesia. But it was something that had been a part of Disney World’s history since its inception and spoke to the greater artistic values of the place. That alone warranted its inclusion in the changes that were inevitable for the Great Ceremonial House. Yes, those changes were inevitable. The Polynesian did need an aesthetic refresh, much in the same way that I have called for rides to gain new technology in this essay. But never did a change require that history be lost and disrespected and totally ignored. I accept that the waterfalls might not have been able to survive in their current state of upkeep, but that does not mean that reconstructing them should have ever been out of the question. The ‘relic’ sitting in a museum only matters a little bit in comparison to the meaning and the experience of seeing it. Disney’s parks are a museum for the experiences that endure and have endured there for a better part of the last century.
In closing, I only hope that I have at least offered a new perspective on an argument that sits at the very core of what I think it is to appreciate Disney. The idea of ‘Disneyland not being a museum’ might be true only when we take those words at face value, but becomes resoundingly false when studying the intricacies of how these parks work and how they have worked in the past. Given that Disneyland is a collection of styles and attractions, entertainments and ideas, I think the comparison to a museum is beyond apt; it is a subtle and indelible truth for the place. And I think it should be embraced. Disneyland is a living, changing, fluctuating museum of thoughts and Disney, for a company that markets themselves on nostalgia and personal memories must honor their own memory as well. They must accept that they are a museum of their own creation: of culture, of perspectives, of landmarks, of history, and of art. 
EPCOT Explorer has been visiting the Walt Disney World Resort since he was 2 years old and has recently just made his first visit to Disneyland. EPCOT Explorer's first ‘Disney’ interest is the history of EPCOT Center of his youth and the brand of optimism, futurism, and culture that was originally found in the park. Other interests include the thematic interplay of design elements in Disneyland and the Magic Kingdoms that make these theme parks repositories of culture and Americana. EPCOT Explorer is also interested in the World’s Fairs for their connections to EPCOT and tiki culture, since the return of the Enchanted Tiki Room to Walt Disney World in 2011. EE’s writings often focus on the minutia of Disney’s enterprises and attempt to uncover how and why the parks function in the manner that they do. EPCOT Explorer is currently a graduate student and Teaching Assistant in History at Florida International University. EPCOTEXPLORER.TUMBLR.COM

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