Happy 58th Birthday, Disneyland!

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After a press preview on July 16, 1955, Disneyland opened to the public on July 17 – complete with insane traffic on the roads to the park, crowds that overwhelmed the park’s infrastructure, and marks from guests’ high heels in the still-soft asphalt. You can watch TV news coverage of the opening here.

I have only visited Disneyland once, in 1994, at the tender age of 9. I don’t remember much from the visit, but I know I was in awe of the facade for “it’s a small world” and I loved the queue for Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin

In lieu of a more detailed personal remembrance, allow me to share my favorite bit of current Disneyland trivia: feral cats! The park is home to a large population of feral cats who help keep the rodent population down at night, and spend most of the day out of sight. Of course, sometimes they still make an appearance, such as this little guy completely ruining the scale of Storybook Land Canal Boats.

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(Photo from Listverse)

So, happy birthday, Disneyland! Someday, I hope to get back out to the west coast to visit.

An Evening at the [Little] Orchestra: Disney’s Fantasia

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Over the weekend, we went up to Lincoln Center to see the Little Orchestra Society performance of selections from Disney’s Fantasia with live orchestral accompaniment. My nephew (who alerted me to the upcoming show a few weeks ago) and his friend came into town on Friday and we headed uptown to Avery Fisher Hall.

I hadn’t heard of the Little Orchestra Society before this performance, but was impressed by their mission: “to build future audiences by presenting innovative concerts that incorporate multiple art forms to foster a deeper understanding and enjoyment of music.” They do a series of kid-friendly orchestra performances every year, and this New York City premiere of Fantasia was part of their 65-year legacy.

They played 6 pieces in total, with selections from both the 1940 animated film and the 2000 attempt. The orchestra was seated onstage with a large projection screen above them with the film spots playing. The conductor, Philip Mann, introduced each selection and gave some structure to the event, drawing comparisons between the composer’s and animator’s creative acts. It was wonderful to see the familiar scenes of centaurs, sorcerers, and firebirds combined with the force of a live orchestra backing them.

There was one technical hiccup: during “Pastoral Symphony”, the video reached a certain moment about 3 minutes in and restarted from the beginning. Twice. The orchestra, of course, kept playing, so we got to see the first three minutes of the animation 3 times with different music each time. It was annoying, yes, but also accidentally cool to see how the animation could work (sometimes really well!) with a different score. (As an aside, if you’d like to read about a character Disney has purposely excluded from recent releases of Fantasia, click here: Sunflower, the Centaur Disney Wants to Forget)

From what I can tell, this weekend’s performances were the Little Orchestra Society’s only planned Fantasia performances, but check out their 2013-2014 season for other interesting upcoming events.

An Evolution of Form: Origins of Disney Theme Parks

Jumping back into the world of my thesis, I wanted to explore some of the sites that eventually inspired elements of Disney theme parks. People have been going to specialized locations to spend their leisure time since the concept of work and leisure time as discrete, specialized things was created. In that regard, visitors to Disney theme parks are participants in a long tradition of having fun in designed space.

Pleasure Gardens

The great gardens designed and built in Europe were attempts to create a specialized recreational space, “a hubristic attempt to build paradise on earth, a Garden of Eden.” Featuring exuberant fountains, perfectly manicured gardens, and landscapes that were torn up and replanted based on trends and whims, the gardens were attempts to demonstrate human control over nature and provide a retreat from both the chaos of city life and the disarray of nature.

Tivoli Gardens, in Copenhagen, was one of the world’s early amusement parks.  While it featured rides and restaurants, the main attraction is the extensive landscaping throughout the park. Disney visited the gardens in 1958, and incorporated some of what he saw there into his future plans for Disneyland.

Carnivals and Boardwalks

A disappointing visit to Coney Island was supposedly one of Walt Disney’s inspirations for his eventual family vacation kingdom.  At the time he visited, likely in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Coney Island was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.  Subway expansion in 1920 brought large numbers of people with little spending money to the amusement area, driving prices lower and changing the atmosphere at Coney Island.  Around the turn of the century, developers had supplanted the brothels, saloons, and gambling dens that had been the economic mainstay of the Coney Island area with attractions inspired by the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase were all amusement parks that premiered in this period, and which featured themed villages, grand ballrooms and elaborate architecture in addition to carnival rides. The parks, particularly Luna Park, attempted to maintain a level of decency and decorum within their gates, and Luna Park owner Frederick A. Thompson required that employees be courteous to visitors at all times – a policy Walt Disney would later implement in his own parks. From the area’s revitalization at the end of the nineteenth century, the amusement area appealed to New York’s middle classes as well as its less well-off populations.  By the 1930s and 1940s, though, changed economic conditions, several devastating fires, and changes in public perception and use had brought the return of the brothels, saloons and freak shows that had been held at bay through the first decades of the twentieth century.  Still, the success and format of the parks at Coney Island led to the creation of amusement parks featuring midway attractions – in contrast to the trolley parks and pleasure gardens that had previously been in vogue – across the country.

Living History Museums

The first house museums in the United States were created to preserve the past for the edification of the public, especially those immigrant groups who had yet to be Americanized. In 1926, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his partners began buying land and restoring structures in Williamsburg, Virginia, with the intention of preserving the roots of American democracy.  The result, Colonial Williamsburg, is a living history museum that encompasses an entire historic district, features costumed interpreters living life as though it were the late eighteenth century, and interacting with a paying public to this day.  Interestingly, Colonial Williamsburg’s mission is to educate visitors about the creation of the “idea of America,” and not the reality of America.  They traffic in ideology and heritage, rather than historical facts.

Colonial Williamsburg is only one of many living history museums to appear on the scene in the 1900s.  In this period, members of the upper class began to appropriate history and use it in attempts to Americanize new immigrants and others who did not fit their prescribed qualifications.  These early history museums’ other goal was:

… rescuing isolated bits of the old order from the juggernaut of progress.  The museums became preserves where the past, an endangered species, might be kept alive for visitors to see. . . . The museums did nothing to help visitors understand that a critical awareness of history, although not a sufficient guide to effective action in the present, was an indispensable precondition for it, and a potentially powerful tool for liberation” [of the proletariat].

While many history museums today have adopted a more critical stance towards history and historical knowledge production, the museum as an institution has generally maintained its authority over history.  In contrast, however, historical presentations at Disney theme parks do not invite visitors to engage in any critical historical thinking, and they also fail to acknowledge history’s relationship to the present.  The parks present themselves first and foremost as an amusement, and therefore absolve themselves of any responsibility to the professional discipline of history.

World’s Fairs

The International Expositions and World’s Fairs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were vehicles for disseminating information, popularizing technological, mechanical, and scientific advancements, and providing entertainment for the throngs of people who visited them. Progress was a major theme of public display throughout the twentieth century. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century World’s Fairs focused on advancements in science and technology and ideas of a tech-centric future, to spur individualism and consumer culture while also supporting nationalist ideals. The International Exposition in 1933-34 in Chicago, for example, marked the city’s centennial, and was known as the Century of Progress Exposition. American fairs also celebrated nationalism, and many celebrated historical landmarks such as the anniversary of Columbus’ landing in North America (Chicago, 1893) or the Louisiana Purchase (St. Louis, 1904).  These ideas are also at work in Disney theme parks.

In addition to their contributions to popular paradigms of the time, the fairs often also featured midway areas with games, amusements, adult entertainment and carnival-style rides. Often staying open until late at night, these entertainment zones were sources for financial gain, but often attracted crime and other unsavory endeavors.  Their popularity, though, ensured their continued use at most fairs throughout the century.  Many of the amusements popularized on the midways of World’s Fairs would eventually be used at permanent parks around the world.

Twentieth century New York World’s Fairs.

Two World’s Fairs, both in New York, were bookends to the opening of Disneyland.

The 1939-40 and 1964-65 fairs heavily featured the concept of progress. The rhetoric of the fairs asserted that, as time passed, humans were developing greater and greater technologies that would continue to simplify life.  Humans would mine resources more effectively,cure diseases, travel with great efficiency, colonize outer space, and understand the world around them intimately.  Futurama, General Motors’ attraction at the 1939-40 World’s Fair, took riders through complex, incredibly detailed models of the future, in which automated highways snaked through rural areas and into carefully planned urban centers.  At a time when most fairgoers did not own cars and had not heard of superhighways, this attraction revolutionized the way people imagined the future.  Many of the predictions made and gadgets demonstrated within Futurama, such as cars controlled by radio signals to keep a proper distance between vehicles, have yet to be realized.  However, at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, General Motors again sponsored a pavilion, and the ride within it was called Futurama II.  It also featured a look ahead, this time to the mid-21st century, and visitors to the Fair again flocked to see it.  People were still consuming optimism for the future.  The 1964-65 World’s Fair also featured several attractions developed by WED Enterprises, now known as Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney’s theme park design firm. The main idea of these and other attractions was, as the theme song for the Disney-developed Carousel of Progress attraction for the General Electric Pavilion at the 64-65 World’s Fair asserted, “there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.” These narratives of progress were also a part of Disney’s attractions in its theme parks.

Disney Parks

Walt Disney’s experiences with his own daughters, his desire to popularize the history he was passionate about and the opportunity he saw to capitalize on the new technology of television to market his characters and films, led to the creation of Disneyland in 1955.  After the success of Disney’s “it’s a small world,” The Magic Skyway, and The Carousel of Progress at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, the company felt confident that East Coast audiences would patronize a Disney theme park in the vicinity.  Locations were scouted in St. Louis, upstate New York, and other areas, but central Florida was ultimately chosen due to its year-round warm climate and the ability to purchase large tracts of undeveloped land.  In total, the Disney Company purchased 27,258 acres of land in secret, at a total cost of just over five million dollars, or about 185 dollars per acre.  The swampland required heavy development in order to be suitable for construction.

Today, the resort consists of four theme parks, two water parks, 23 themed hotels, and one shopping and entertainment complex. Disney-run buses, trams, monorails and boats shuttle guests through the vast network of roads, tracks and waterways that connect sites. In partnership with the Florida government, Disney has also created the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which provides emergency services, water control, public utilities, land use, and building codes, and fulfills other responsibilities for the whole of Disney’s Florida property.

What Disney built in Florida, and previously in California, revolutionized the themed entertainment industry, but it was not without precedent. The sites mentioned here are only a few of the entertainment forms that preceded the Disney theme parks, and the company owes much to them. Disney is not the end-all, be-all of leisure, either. Though it is an entertainment megalith, there are countless other ways for people to spend their vacations. Some of the places mentioned here continue on, too — I had my engagement photos taken at Coney Island last year — in forms that have evolved in differing degrees since their inception.


In 2011, I wrote a masters thesis in museum anthropology on the presentation of history in Disney’s Magic Kingdom-style theme parks around the world, focusing on its Florida incarnation. After a year of my thesis sitting on a shelf gathering dust, I decided to post parts of it here. You can find these posts under the My Thesis category. A list of the resources used to write my thesis can be found on here.

An introduction to the wonderful world of my thesis

The other day, I mentioned my MA thesis to a coworker while we rode the elevator to the lobby at the end of the day, and I realized I didn’t have a coherent, cogent way to talk about a piece of work that was not only substantial, but which I find endlessly interesting. I finished my thesis almost a year ago, but I still think about the themes and issues I explored therein nearly daily. My academic experiences are a major part of what informs my career direction, and I’ve been lucky to study subjects that I find fascinating on a personal and professional level.

So, this conversation prompted me to think about my thesis, and the fact that, since I filed it with my department, I haven’t really done anything with it. A few people have asked to read it, but otherwise? It’s been sitting on my laptop, being of use to no one. So I posted a 140-character blurb about it on Twitter, with the idea of revamping it and posting it in sections here on my blog. The response was overwhelmingly positive, which is what I’ve experienced in face-to-face conversations about it as well. I think many Americans have been interested in and thinking about some of these ideas since they were small, whether they were conscious of it or not.

What ideas? Well, this is where we get back to that lack of an (in this case, quite literal) elevator speech I mentioned above. I wrote, broadly, about Disney theme parks, and the way that historical narratives are presented within them. People the world over visit and love (and hate) Disney theme parks, and they’ve become important sites for cultural experience and knowledge creation. Theme parks are special because, since Disneyland’s opening in 1955 in particular, they are built spaces specifically intended to evoke a certain place, space, time or atmosphere, and their designers have total control over the story being told there. In recent years, theming has broken out of the constraints of the amusement park; we are all bombarded by themed restaurants, retail environments, and towns all the time. But I am interested in places where people spend their leisure time in a capitalist society, and so I am drawn back to theme parks again and again.

I have written before about how much I love visiting Disney theme parks. But, as an anthropologist and well-trained critical thinker, I have my own criticisms of the company, the fans, and the products. I have always loved history, but from some of my earliest visits to the parks, I called into question the narratives woven into the attractions. This research is an extension of that wondering.

In my thesis, I examined the way Disney constructs historical knowledge in its theme parks, with particular emphasis on the ways in which the Walt Disney Company exploits historical narratives in its Magic Kingdom parks around the world to reinforce its paternalistic role in its consumers’ lives.  I analyzed the built space and attractions for their extensive, though not always explicit, support of historical narratives of progress and corporate innovation. The Magic Kingdom parks, as descendents of earlier forms of amusement parks, pleasure gardens and World’s Fairs, also bear similarities to modern museums.  As visitors to museums, casinos, and other leisure institutions are more and more frequently immersed in themed environments, the role of theming in creating memories and historical knowledge – and the way visitors understand learning in themed environments – becomes increasingly important.  By unbounding visitors from time and space in the Magic Kingdom, Disney is able to successfully market its brand of history, as long as its audience sees the experience as entertainment and not education.

Posting my thesis is not exactly on-mission for what has always been a rather light “lifestyle” blog. But these are the things that my mind wanders to when I’m hanging out on the subway, watching strangers interact in public, or when I’m visiting a museum, or when I’m waiting for a table at a restaurant. So, my hope is just that I can put my work out there, and that someone else will find it interesting. We’ll see!

Jury Duty

Friday, I was called in for jury duty, for the first time ever. Not only that, I was actually assigned to the first jury I interviewed for. I thought for a brief, shining moment that, “Oh, your husband is a law student, eh?” would get me out of having to serve, but alas, I guess I come across as a reasonable adult who is able to string several thoughts together (unlike some of the folks being interviewed alongside me). Lucky for me, we ended up just having to report Monday and wait around for 6 hours (which, for me, meant reading books about Disney World history on my Kindle) before being called into the court room to be told that the parties had reached a settlement and we could go home. Huzzah!

See you in 4 years, Queens county court system! Assuming, of course, that we’re still in the area then…

 

Back in the US…A

Around 11:30 on Saturday evening, our plane roared into LaGuardia and we were, more or less, home. Our trips to Disney World and to Mexico had been fun, but we were both nursing colds, tired of eating out, and missing our cat. When we got back to our apartment, Tessie practically leapt into our arms, and we both puttered around for a bit, letting all the pent-up energy from a day spent in various modes of transportation disperse.

We learned some important things on this vacation. It was our first major trip together, with the exception of another trip to Disney World a couple of years ago, and a short trip to visit E’s grandmother last winter. Those don’t really count, though, because I can do a Disney vacation in my sleep, and visiting family is basically like being at home in a different climate.

This vacation taught us that:

  1. Squishing two totally separate trips into one trip is really a pretty bad idea. Going to Disney World is a monster of a vacation under any circumstances. In this case, we were cramming 3 parks into 2 1/2 days, trying to contend with the half and full marathons snaking around and through those parks, negotiating the higher crowd levels that came with those marathons (and their runners and spectators), and trying to spend time with family who were also down there. Then, after those 2 1/2 days, we jumped on a plane and landed in a foreign country. Our time in Mexico was its own monster vacation, with sites to see, ruins to explore, and beaches to visit. Because the trips were so very different from each other, it was an entirely different beast than visiting, say, 2 European cities (even disparate ones!) in one vacation.  If we had been smart (and interested in preserving our sanity), we would have spent an extra day or two in Florida to take the pressure off to SEE ALL THE THINGS so quickly, and saved the Mexico trip for another week or month or whatever. Unfortunately, my frugality led me to scoff at the idea of spending the extra money on flights when we were so much closer to Mexico in Florida. Frugality? I shall scoff at you, next time.
  2. All-inclusives are, generally, not for us. We got a Groupon for an all-inclusive at a price we couldn’t turn down. Otherwise, I don’t think we ever would have ended up at one. Initially we planned to use the resort as a home base for the week and venture out a lot to other areas, including the possibility of staying at another hotel or two a couple of nights (the Groupon was seriously a steal). Due to the insanity of vacation planning, that didn’t happen. The first 24 hours or so, we were feeling very out of our element in that environment, where people really go above and beyond to take care of everything for you. I know how weird this sounds. “What, you didn’t like people WAITING ON YOU HAND AND FOOT?” No. And maybe it has something to do with the socio-economic forces at play when staying at an all-inclusive resort on the beach in an area where many of the locals were moved into towns on the other side of the highway when tourism began to grow in the region, but I think we’ll avoid all-inclusives in the future. I could see visiting with a group — intergenerational family group, or a group of couples, or of friends — but for me and E, we’ll stick to regular old hotels.
  3. We should be picky when trusting a guidebook. We were led both to the least fun part of our trip (a hyper-touristy area in one of the cities near our resort) and the most astounding part of our trip (a nearly deserted, pristine beach in a nature preserve) by the same guidebook. My gut told me to avoid the former and rush to do the latter, and I should have listened to it. But I trusted the guidebook. So it goes.
  4. We are really, really glad we didn’t have a “big” honeymoon right after our wedding. The amount of work that went into planning this vacation was immense, and the last minute lead-up was, for all our planning and forethought, still pretty frantic. And that was without a giant life event standing between us and the plane ride! The further I get from our wedding, the happier I am with our decision to stay local, invest in the hotel room, and keep things blissfully quiet on our honeymoon.
  5. You really can’t have a second honeymoon. On our actual honeymoon, we were seriously in la la land the entire time. I don’t think we’ve ever been nicer to each other than we were on that trip (and that’s not to say we are terrible to each other in daily life, but rather to say that not a single temper flared, snarky comment was made, or moment of sulking happened the entirety of the trip). This vacation, which my mother kept referring to as our honeymoon, was a regular old vacation. We had a great time and it was a lot of fun, but there wasn’t the glowing buffer to keep regular life out that there was on our honeymoon.

All those lessons learned, I can’t wait to go on our next adventure! I’m already scheming over some small trips over the next couple of months, and dreaming up our next big trip. We’re thinking something more urban, since this vacation was all about hanging out in gorgeous beachfront locales (tough life, eh?).

In any case, I’ll have some more posts on the things we saw (including our super weird, half-abandoned hotel [see: cheap Groupon]) and fun stuff we did in the days to come. I have to keep remembering that there are places with beautiful weather and sunshine when it’s 19 degrees here in New York.

Hmmm, maybe that doesn’t actually make me feel better, per se.