Foxx at Passport to Dreams Old & New has written an interesting series of articles entitled “For Further Study”, the latest of which surveys Frontierland’s Rivers of America for references to the works of Mark Twain. The series aims to direct readers to the vast well of history, literature and culture that informed and inspired the original Imagineers who created the Disney parks, finding surprising linkages to fairly obscure works. Such analysis is especially fruitful in the original Magic Kingdoms, as they tend to be more filled with the type of detail and references drawn from our collective past rather than the latest marketing-friendly film franchises.
Ray Bradbury once called Imagineering a “renaissance organization”, and that’s far from hyperbole. While Disneyana has rarely been considered high culture, those who have studied the organization and its creations know the diversity of sources from which they draw. The creative team that Walt Disney assembled over the years, first in animation and later in Imagineering, were an eclectic and talented lot, with a vast range of expertise – many of them truly were renaissance men and women. Disney himself had no formal education, yet still seemed well-read in Americana and intensely curious about several fields of study. Ironically, while Disney seems to have been averse to academia and its trappings himself, his passion for finding good stories and new technology always seemed to involve him in research of some sort.
This diversity of inspiration can been seen in something as elementary as the layout of Walt’s own theme park – a conceit mirrored in the opening of the Disneyland television show:
The program, as well as the park it was designed to promote, was divided into different cardinal realms. Frontierland contained “tall tales and true from the legendary past.” Tomorrowland represented the “promise of things to come,” while Adventureland promised to whisk one away to “the wonder-world of nature’s own realm.” Note that only Fantasyland, “the happiest kingdom of them all”, represented a departure from reality – even Frontierland’s “tall tales” were based in historical truth.
Every week, the Disneyland program would feature a story from one of these lands, and when Disneyland park opened it gave guests the opportunity to experience the worlds that they had seen on television. For Walt, this represented an opportunity to share stories that, aside from being simply good yarns, he felt were important and informative of the American experience. It also allowed him to use the talents of his artists to spread ideas and information he thought important – something he had been doing since he personally financed 1943’s Victory Through Air Power in order to promote the ideas of Alexander de Seversky. The Disneyland show provided a mix of nature programming, futurism and fictionalized tales of historical heroes. Against this creative background, Disneyland and Walt Disney World were conceived.
The Magic Kingdom is peppered with these details, from the aforementioned Twain influences to name-drops of Texas John Slaughter and Johnny Tremain. The Tomorrowlands of 1955, 1959, 1967 and 1971 were designed from a real-world scientific standpoint. But while Disney often looked to mine American history and literature for inspiration, modern Disney management is far more focused on the current franchise du jour and subsequent marketing tie-ins. Without this eye towards the past, as well as the desire to incorporate ideas from diverse fields of study, I fear that the future Disney experience will inspire no further study than popping the latest animated release into the DVD player.
This might seem like an obscure and, to some, ridiculous concern, but it comes from some personal experience. I was fortunate enough to be indoctrinated to Disneyana at such an age that much of my exposure to many new ideas and concepts came through Disney. I was first exposed to everything from Dixieland jazz to linear induction motors through Disney films and parks. EPCOT Center provided an especially fruitful source of information, introducing me to solar cells, touch screens, fiber optics, Albert Robidia, DNA, and dozens of other things, including the cultures of eleven countries. Every time I see tilapia being served in a restaurant, I think of the Land.
This is not to say that Disney should even remotely be considered the beginning and end of any course of study; rather, than these introductions and allusions to concepts in such an entertaining and exciting setting helped ingrain them into my young mind and thus provided an excellent jumping-off point of any number of fields. Walt had it right – leaven the entertainment with enough actual information and you can spread ideas that otherwise would be dry or unapproachable. The melange of concepts and inspiration that combined to form those original Disney parks provided the seeds for a later love of aesthetics as diverse as Victorian futurism, steampunk, Tiki culture, art deco, and populuxe, as well as fields of study from urban planning to the Old West to space exploration.
When I rail against the creep of marketing tie-ins or the “toonification” of Tomorrowland, it’s this diversity of inspiration that I fear losing. Looking at the opening day roster of attractions at Florida’s Magic Kingdom, the only attraction based on a fictional film property outside of Fantasyland was the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. Frontierland had it’s Davy Crockett-based canoes and keel boats, but those at least had some historical basis. Everything else was based on some form of original property (Tropical Serenade, The Country Bear Jamboree), true-life adventure (the Jungle Cruise) or history itself (the Hall of Presidents). It was not until the latter day when cartoon fantasy began to make its way into Adventureland and Tomorrowland.
The slew of unsubstantiated rumors that have so far emerged for the as yet unannounced Shanghai Disneyland only point to a continuation of this trend. Every rumor brings a new twist – a Tomorrowland themed to WALL-E, a Frontierland centered on Toy Story characters, and the possible re-creation of California Adventure’s “Cars Land” have all been mentioned in various online sources. Disney fans have often lamented that the possibility of a new non-franchise based attraction like the original Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion is extremely unlikely these days, but until I started thinking about “For Further Study” I hadn’t really considered why the idea was so disturbing.
It’s hard to conceive of the modern Walt Disney Company building something as shockingly innovative and high-concept as Spaceship Earth or Horizons anymore. The aspiration to inform and inspire seems lost, save for possibly Joe Rhode’s work at Animal Kingdom. It seems equally unlikely that anyone at WDC is interested in mining the corpus of American history and literature for inspiration, making something as simple as Frontierland’s Twain references fairly unlikely. Compare California Adventure’s Golden Dreams to the American Adventure – as whitewashed as the EPCOT attraction might be, it’s far more complex that its descendants.
As the American Adventure itself says, the golden age was never the present. It’s human nature to look fondly at the past and to be, at least slightly, suspicious of change. Many Disney traditionalists are accused of such blinded conservatism. But the thematic change in the stateside Disney parks has been noticeable even in the last decade, and the creep of franchise-driven entertainment and “toonification” of formerly “true-life” lands has eroded the interest of those of us who find our actual history and the real world we live in as fascinating as the latest tent-pole blockbuster. If we allow our interests to get so narrow – so synergistic – eventually all Disney will inspire for further study is more Disney. It would become an insular world, drawing from nothing and leading to nothing. That would be a loss for everyone.