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!