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“Disneyland will never be completed as long as there’s imagination left in the world.” Founder Walt Disney made this promise as a challenge to the architects and designers his company employed to keep this site flexible and adaptable for any future period. While the park was originally planned for the city of Burbank near the Disney Studio, local city officials feared the amusement park would quickly degenerate into another Venice boardwalk. So Disney moved his vision to Anaheim, along the planned route for I-5, well into orchards quickly transforming into Orange County’s suburban landscape. In the years since Disneyland opened, it has continued to grow and to thrive. Now just next door, visitors can also find a second theme park, California Adventure, and a shopping and entertainment center, Downtown Disney (both 2001). Business is booming and plans to keep improving the eclectic landmark or “plussing” it, to use a favored phrase among “imagineers,” are always in the pipeline.
When it opened on Sunday, July 17, 1955, critics had little reason to expect Disneyland’s 160-acre designed landscape would develop into such an icon. Copying the World’s Fair model that Disney’s own father had helped bring into being as a laborer at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, Disneyland differed in that it was permanent and open year round. The first day’s 28,000 visitors, including many who had scalped tickets, found dry drinking fountains and few functioning attractions. More promising were the park’s several modes of transportation, arranged by Director of Special Vehicle Design Bob Gurr, which evoked nostalgic memories of traditional urbanisms predating modernist Los Angeles’s sprawl. Visitors, most of whom had come by automobile, would park their cars and choose whether to board a train circling the park or approach the park’s central “magic castle” as a pedestrian, sharing the road with old-fashioned “horseless carriages” and a streetcar. By 1959, more futuristic options became available when a monorail opened in Tomorrowland. With time, it would expand to allow riders to glide out to a stop at Disney’s nearby cluster of hotels. Visitors could also arrive at Disneyland straight from Los Angeles International Airport via commercial helicopter, a service that ceased after fatal crashes in 1968.
Family-friendly entertainment for all ages is a prominent theme in the design of this monument to leisurely recreation and frenetic consumption. In 1958, Walt Disney Productions released Walt Disney’s Guide to Disneyland. The brochure’s first lines, welcoming remarks from Disney himself, addressed the park’s visitors as “you and your family.” Disney assured customers that the “Magic Kingdom” promised “every variety of recreation and fun designed to appeal to everyone...Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past...and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.” With the power to collapse past and future into an endless present, Disney pioneered architecture for “everyone” that encompassed the diverse age range of “your family.” Adults, both parents and grandparents, could find fanciful reminders of their youth in the country’s small towns from yesteryear. Disney wanted Main Street U.S.A. to evoke feelings from his childhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri, but the actual design was much closer to imagineer Harper Goff’s native Fort Collins, Colorado. Regardless, children found hopeful visions of the small town and suburban worlds into which so many were quickly growing up. Architecture was time travel, perhaps even time erasure, empowering Disney’s designers to tell visitors to be both nostalgic for the past and excited for the future at the same time.
The temporalities that Disney envisioned were built on a distinctly midcentury notion of modernity. While the Monsanto House of the Future was “ultra-modern in exterior design as well as interior furnishings,” the Ice Cream Parlor provided “tempting ‘modern’ treats...in an 1890 setting.” Self-conscious that these “lands” evoked entirely different periods in time, Disney designers still assumed that a unifying concept brought them together. Whether these places recalled the distant past or summoned a future, they were always altogether new, trendsetting, and cutting edge. Even Frontierland and Adventureland suggested moments of radical change: frontiersmen could get “the feeling of having ‘lived,’ even for a short while, during our country’s days of pioneer development,” while adventurers faced “‘wild’ animals and native ‘savages’ who often display their hostility to your invasion of their jungle privacy.” Embedded in Disney’s program, alongside invitations to participate, were subtle warnings against certain outsiders. Regarding the onsite hotel and restaurants, Disney suggested making them a setting for conventions, as long as such events were always “a family affair.” Tacitly, this brochure persuaded raucous potential conventioneers to take their revelries elsewhere. Also assumed was the citizenship status of “all of us” visitors, “whether 10th generation or naturalized Americans” who proudly share appreciation for “the pioneering spirit of our forefathers.”
The park was a racial project that articulated both nonwhite exclusion and a rhetorical affirmation of whiteness. Disneyland’s privatized open spaces resembled public space, but park rules dictated access to the park. Overwhelmingly, Disneyland employees were white (with a rare exception being the black woman who played Aunt Jemima), and the long drive by freeway from Los Angeles’s nonwhite ghettos to Orange County kept the number of nonwhite visitors to a minimum. White families, increasingly residents of Los Angeles and other metropolitan area’s fringes, discovered fantastic replicas evoking the suburbanizing world they were already getting to know. From a visit to a Monsanto-branded dream house made of plastics to driving Autopia’s miniature automobiles, Disney showcased artifacts from a lifestyle that was often exclusive to whites. Racially restrictive covenants and Federal Housing Authority’s redlining policies made nonwhite, especially black, ownership of suburban houses unlikely and stymied the development among people of color of a suburban perspective. Since the white gaze was radically normalized as a fair representation of America’s “everyone,” nonwhite groups were outsiders. Historian Eric Avila finds this process is indicative of a broader postwar trend: “the cultural focus of the United States gradually shifted away from the public venues of the city toward the private spaces of the home.” Public monuments had once belonged to and affirmed the identities of the diverse residents of American cities. Disneyland demonstrated how privatizing places of public gathering foretold another urbanism where racial others would find themselves excluded if they could not afford the price of admission.
Tremendous changes in Orange County and Los Angeles metropolitan demographics have proven that nonwhite suburbanization is not only possible but prominent. Asian American and Latino visitors flock to Disneyland, but the built environment they find is still one that teaches cultural assimilation into patriarchal, homogeneously white Americanism. The traces of Disney’s original intended audience are visible and powerful. Even at newer attractions, visitors young and old learn stories of imperialist adventure. Masculine white hero Indiana Jones fights his way into an exotic landscape of Oriental statues, hissing snakes, and spear-throwing skeletons (1995). People of color are absent from this narrative, but from these objects, visitors can easily imagine it would be Southeast Asian craftsmen and Buddhist priests who created them and cursed the temple visitors invading in large jeeps, reminiscent of a 1990s SUV or even a Gulf War Humvee.
Avila, Eric. Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.
Findlay, John M. Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture After 1940. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.
Montgomery, Charles. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.London: Penguin Books, 2015.
Walt Disney’s Guide to Disneyland, Walt Disney Productions, 1958, UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.
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