Photos and thoughts after visiting Disneyland last Winter. I hadn’t been in two decades and this was my sons’ first visit.
I love carnival midways. As a child they always felt slightly dangerous—something about the grittiness, rigged games, fried foods, and the way that it only truly comes alive at night—to the point where part of the entire point of spending an evening at the county fair was to “pretend” to be more grown up than I really felt. As a grown-up, I still enjoy midways both for how they remind me of my youth and for how little they’ve changed from then. The rides and games stay pretty consistent from year to year and place to place.
They even still feel slightly dangerous in very much the same way. While I no longer feel like I’m pretending to be a grown up, there’s an honesty about the Midway in how it’s very clearly trying to grift you.
This stands in stark contrast to amusement parks. I may still enjoy the rides, but that’s about it. Amusement parks tend to be sanitized hyperreality where everything is false fronts and artificiality. There’s no sense of adventure in a safe, family-friendly experience where the only danger is spending too much money on overly-branded souvenirs and over-priced cafeteria food.
By all reasoning, I should loathe Disneyland.
In addition to the way I use “Disneyfication” to describe how real places have a tendency to try and become family-friendly by appealing to the lowest-common-denominator tourist,* Disneyland peddles some of the worst myths about American history. Frontierland glorifies colonialism and genocide in the American West. Adventureland glorifies the exact same thing in a conflated Africa, Asia, and South America. New Orleans Square glorifies the Antebellum South. Main Street glorifies small town White America.
*I’m looking at you Assisi. And Hawai‘i. And god knows all the other parts of the world which have filed off all their hard edges and embraced the tourist myth in favor of the actual local history.
The family-friendliness of these myths is a problem. The way that they appeal to nostalgia as a way of keeping these myths alive is a problem. The way this appeal radiates out of Disneyland and becomes the expectation of what the real-world equivalents of the Disney lands should be is a problem.
By all reasoning, I should loathe Disneyland.
I really love Disneyland.
A large part of this because I see Disneyland as having its own history now. All the imagineering and retro-nostalgic 1960s worldview, despite the constant renewal and upgrades that the park has undergone,* is an unshakeable part of the experience. To be in Disneyland is to travel back in time to when things were more innocent—whether it’s the innocence of a child, the innocence of having a utopian future, or the innocence of being able to romanticize the past.
*It bothers me that attractions like the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House no longer exist. Because of the nostalgia factor, I can’t help but miss things that are gone. At the same time, I love how you can still see remnants of former rides like the Cave Train still hidden in the existing park features.
The problems in the Disney lands are still there but I no longer see them as sanitizing the existing world. Instead they’re preserving a worldview which no longer exists. The attractions are no longer cutting edge and we take part in them because of this. That the animatronics are silly and goofy is the appeal. That the songs are annoying and dated is the entire point. No one would build a new version of It’s a Small World or the Enchanted Tiki Room or the Jungle Cruise. We ride them because of the hokeyness—and yes, awfulness—of it all.
The nostalgia of Disneyland is how it’s unabashedly fake and artificial. It’s in how dated it is. And it’s in how it’s a time capsule for a specific moment in all of our childhoods.
Which is why Fantasyland* as the land of Golden Age Disney is still very much the heart of the experience. Disney’s Golden Age movies are unique in how universal they are. They’re not necessarily my sons’ favorites but they both are familiar with the movies and can sense how everyone else knows them—the stories, the characters, the music, everything—too. Being in Fantasyland means being surrounded by the imagery and seeing all kinds of people sharing in the enjoyment. And the Fantasyland rides—which superficially should be pretty boring because of how they’re basically just riding a cart through dioramas—involve a willingness to “be a kid again” which means that we like them because of how simple they are.
*I actually prefer Main Street because of the history exhibits and film showings but with two wide-eyed little boys in tow I did not get to revisit those.
That the Disney Renaissance and the newer movies which have come after the Pixar merger are barely present seems like it should be a problem* with the newer generation of parkgoers. But it’s not. Only the newer generation experienced those movies as children. Everyone else encountered them as adults so the “everyone is a kid again” sense of wonder isn’t possible.
*While I’m intrigued by DisneyWorld’s New Fantasyland and how it incorporates the Disney Renaissance films, I’m more appalled at how small the DisneyWorld’s old Fantasyland is.
Attractions based on the newer movies would result in a dynamic very much like what Tomorrowland has turned into. While still very much retro-futuristic, Tomorrowland is full of Star Wars and Pixar rides now. This is weird to me but my sons loved it. Judging by how Tomorrowland was also by far the most crowded land, many of, if not most of, the other guests also share the same feeling.
At the same time, it’s a very different kind of enjoyment. Where Fantasyland is about being a kid again, Tomorrowland has kind of been taken over by grown-ups. The way Lucasfilm has become part of the Disneyverse is both a wonderful fit and very much a bad fit.
The wonderful part is that Lucasfilm caters in exactly the same kind of nostalgia as Disneyland does. Star Wars and Indiana Jones are both completely about being throwbacks to mid-century more-innocent American pop culture. They have both compatible values and and compatible problems to the rest of Disneyland. There’s no question about them fitting in this way.
The bad fit is in how Disney is still making Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies while the fanbases of those movies have tended to be unable to share them with other generations. Star Wars fans in particular do not share the culture the way the rest of Disney culture gets shared. Instead of being a communal thing like Fantasyland, there’s a lot of aggressive posturing involving the right way to be a Star Wars fan, which movies are ok to like, which characters you’re supposed to hate, and what kinds of things should happen in the upcoming movies.
This makes Tomorrowland and the way it’s overrun with Star Wars stuff a much less friendly and enjoyable atmosphere than Fantasyland is.
Pixar fits in a lot better. This is partly because Pixar fandom isn’t as toxic, but it’s mainly because Disney has used Pixar as a way to update old rides like the submarines. Instead of a tear-down like they did with turning the Swiss Family Robinson tree house into Tarzan’s tree house, the Pixar upgrades keep a lot of the character of the old ride.
That a lot of Pixar is similarly centered on mid-century nostalgia also helps here too but the way that the rides bridge the past and the present results in the same kinds of intergenerational bridges that occur in Fantasyland and the same kind of layered park history that makes me love Disneyland.