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Greg Maletic: The Meaning of Disneyland
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by Greg Maletic (archives)
October 14, 2005
Greg ponders the question "Have we all forgotten what Disneyland was originally about?"

The Meaning of Disneyland
Have we all forgotten what Disneyland was originally about?

I was wandering around Disneyland a few weeks ago, thinking about the fact that it's now fifty years old. There's still a lot to admire about the place. It's still clean, still fun, and still has a lot of the same enjoyments that attracted me as a kid. I always wonder whether it's something quirky about me that makes me love Disneyland so much, but when I take someone who hasn't visited in a long while, I know that it's not. Though they're unlikely to take it to my extremes--visiting at every opportunity, studying every nook and cranny--it's obvious that they feel the same excitement that I do when I think about the place, and it's reassuring.

Yet when I visit now, something is missing. It's possible that the "something" is my youth; as much as I enjoy Disneyland now, there's no way it can compare to what it felt like when I was ten. I think it's more than that, though: I'm missing the sense that Disneyland is trying to tell a story, that it's "about" something.

Hold onto this thought while I digress for a moment.

Is it possible to build a Disneyland outside of America? I know I'm twenty-five years too late in asking this question, but humor me. What I mean is, is it possible to build a Disneyland outside of the U.S. and not fundamentally change what it's about?

Take a close look at the text on Disneyland's dedication plaque:

To all who come to this happy place: welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.

Now read it again. If you're not shocked by it, you probably should be. "Disneyland," it says, "is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America." But isn't Disneyland dedicated to making children happy, to providing families with wholesome entertainment? Not really: "joy," mentioned not until the very end, is a hoped-for side effect, not the goal. According to its dedication, Disneyland is about teaching Walt Disney's vision of America, and it's indoctrinated multiple generations of fans--myself included--into its message of progress, enterprise, and freedom. As a propaganda tool, you really can't overstate how radical Disneyland is underneath its "Happiest Place on Earth� wrapping.

Of course, it would be an over-simplification--and just plain wrong--to say that Walt Disney didn't intend to make people happy with Disneyland. But a park that aspired only to be "The Happiest Place on Earth� would never have had a Carousel of Progress, a Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, or a Monsanto Plastics Home of the Future. (Are these the "happiest" attractions you could imagine building?)

In 1955, celebrating the story of America probably seemed so safe and obvious as to not be worth mention, but today it's a politically charged notion. Building a park with such a dedication now--even in the United States--would be a challenge. Yet Disney's not building Magic Kingdoms here in the U.S. anymore, they're building them overseas in environments arguably more hostile to the classic American story than even the U.S. itself. If you're guessing that the Disney Company assumed the Disneyland dedication wouldn't fly in foreign countries, you're right. But what is in its place? Here's Tokyo Disneyland's dedication:

To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Here you will discover enchanted lands of Fantasy and Adventure, Yesterday and Tomorrow. May Tokyo Disneyland be an eternal source of joy, laughter, inspiration, and imagination to the peoples of the world. And may this magical kingdom be an enduring symbol of the spirit of cooperation and friendship between the great nations of Japan and the United States of America.

And Disneyland Paris:

To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Once upon a time a master storyteller, Walt Disney, inspired by Europe's best loved tales, used his own special gifts to share them with the world. He envisioned a Magic Kingdom where these stories would come to life and called it Disneyland. Now his dream returns to the land that inspired it. Euro Disneyland is dedicated to the young and the young at heart, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration for all the world.

Neither of these resembles the Disneyland dedication. In Tokyo, the park is intended to be both a source of happiness and a sort of "ambassador� between our two countries. In France it's even simpler: the Paris park is a source of happiness, nothing more. Though all of these Magic Kingdoms around the world look superficially like each other, at their heart they're very different places. Their goals are different.

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