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Power and Paradise in Walt Disney's World$

Cher Krause Knight

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780813049120

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813049120.001.0001

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Smart Business and Simulations

Smart Business and Simulations

Walt Disney and His World

(p.9) one Smart Business and Simulations
Power and Paradise in Walt Disney's World

Cher Krause Knight

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 1 reflects on the impetus for Walt to build Disney World. It also reflects on Walt Disney’s carefully crafted dual persona as a savvy businessman and dedicated visionary. A discussion of the Disney Company’s synergistic business model is provided so that its successes and failures are better comprehended. The chapter also briefly examines the postmodern ideas that remain key to Disney World’s physical and conceptual operations, particularly its use of simulations. This first chapter is intended as a foundational one, offering information on the history and evolution of the Disney Company and its parks, preparing the reader for the following chapters that combine contextual research and critical analysis with a more internal dialectic, and creating experiential accounts of Disney’s parks.

Keywords:   Disney World, Walt Disney, Disney Company, simulation(s)

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 hard facts that have created America—with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.

—Disneyland dedication plaque inscription, 17 July 1955

To me, [Disneyland’s] a piece of clay. I can knock it down and reshape it to keep it fresh and attractive. That place is my baby, and I would prostitute myself for it.

—Walt Disney, Look magazine, 11 February 1964

Walt Disney (5 December 1901–15 December 1966) had fantasized about building a theme park of his own since the 1930s. Having taken his two daughters to many amusements parks on “daddy’s days” over the years, he appreciated their spectacles and technology. Yet he was dismayed at the filthy and congested facilities, haphazard organization, dishonest showmen, and salacious, unimaginative entertainment he encountered all too often.1 Walt’s wife, Lillian, a former “ink and paint girl” at the Disney Studio, asked him, “Why do you want to build an amusement park? They’re so dirty.” He later recalled his answer: “I told her that was just the point—mine wouldn’t be.”2

By 1948 Walt considered opening a park for his employees and friends on a vacant lot in Burbank, near the studio. His memo envisioning this unrealized “Mickey Mouse Park” described what would become primary features at Disneyland, including a railroad, “Western Village,” and a “village green,” noting that the park would be very “inviting.”3 On 17 July 1955, Walt (p.10) finally opened his first park—like none that had existed before—Disneyland, in Anaheim, California. Here his enchanting stories and their beloved characters were freed from the boundaries of movie screens and comic books and translated into a three-dimensional immersive fantasy environment. Walt conceived Disneyland as a theatrical experience, merging the space of the park with the sensation of watching movies to forge a new kind of entertainment. A filmic sensibility pervades both Disneyland’s structure and content as visitors traverse through massive stage sets, taking in highly composed scenes leading from one to the next. Walt’s “Imagineers,” who designed the park, focused on the “art of the show,” ensuring all elements big and small enhanced the visual storytelling. Each attraction and themed “land” was mapped out as an edited progression of long shots and close-ups leading to “peak moments,” as if glimpsed through a lens. The effect was intended to transform visitors into “actors in a dramatic experience … being affected by and simultaneously affecting the plot and the sequence of the narrative.”4 Disney landscape artist Bill Evans remembered, “Walt kept emphasizing … that he wanted the public to participate. He wanted them onstage.”5 As biographer Neal Gabler describes it, “Disney reconceptualized the amusement park as a full imaginative experience, a theme park, rather than a series of diversions.”6 Indeed, Disneyland was the first park to be fully themed; all of the characters, costumes, food, architecture, landscaping, transit, music, and merchandise were interrelated to create a fantastic atmosphere where everything was cleaner and friendlier than in daily life. And not only would this new place entertain visitors—it was intended to educate and enlighten them as well.

Today, many cultural analysts suggest that our society functions as an “experience economy” in which events and encounters, not just goods and services, are profitable products. Consumers willingly pay to have memorable, fulfilling experiences staged for them. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore trace the roots of this economy to Walt Disney, citing how the experiential effects of his movies evolved into the immersive worlds of his theme parks. They argue that Disney experiences are among the most effective and richest because these encompass all four aspects of experience: entertaining, educational, escapist, and aesthetic.7 Stellar customer service and pristine environs would not be enough to keep crowds coming: Disney must provide experiences that foster a sense of community, intensify lived existence, and enrich daily life. In an experience economy, an individual’s consumption practices can help define one’s identity, making the physically and emotionally immersive experiences Disney offers particularly (p.11) desirable.8 Not surprisingly, Disneyland was the first theme park to be marketed nationally.

Most amusement parks were seasonal places for local residents that grew by accretion without comprehensive planning. Walt believed he could do better and briefly enlisted the help of Pereira and Luckman Architects. But Walt’s friend and neighbor Welton Becket, an architect, advised Walt to design Disneyland for himself, and so Disney Studio staffers took up the job. Consultants thought Walt’s venture was unwise—amusement parks throughout the United States were closing at the time—but he persisted.9 Even his brother and business partner, Roy, was skeptical and only allowed $10,000 of studio money to be invested in the $17 million Disneyland scheme. To raise the rest, Walt borrowed on his life insurance policy, sold his vacation home, and struck an agreement with the American Broadcasting Company to create a weekly television series, Disneyland (1954–58), in exchange for help financing the park.10 Subsequently, Walt and his inner circle designed Disneyland in secrecy in an abandoned Glendale warehouse. In its first seven weeks of operation the park received more than a million visitors; within a year it grossed $10 million; a decade later, nearly a quarter of all Americans had visited it. After six years Walt bought out ABC (and another partner, the Western Printing and Lithograph Company) and owned the park outright. Despite Disneyland’s commercial success, Walt had grown dissatisfied with it shortly after its opening. Encroaching urban sprawl threatened his pristine park, and Walt had secured just enough land for his theme park and parking lots. As Disneyland’s popularity swelled, so did the number of motels, restaurants, and souvenir stands, all eager to cater to its visitors. Anaheim was becoming a tourist jungle, and Walt could do little to stave off its impending overdevelopment. So he resolved to build another park, one that would be bigger—and better, he asserted—than his first attempt in California.

In many ways, Walt’s life story was built on visionary capitalism. He overcame setbacks such as the 1923 bankruptcy of his first company, Laugh-O-Gram. In the early years, neither he nor his brother Roy took a salary, plowing all profits back into their business. Roy claimed he often wanted to give up, but Walt patiently nurtured quality in their products rather than seeking quick financial returns.11 Although Walt never graduated from high school, his hometown of Marceline, Missouri, gave him a diploma, and he had numerous honorary degrees from the likes of Harvard and Yale Universities. Disney received more than seven hundred awards in his lifetime, including thirty-two Oscars, four Emmys, and the Presidential Medal of (p.12) Freedom in 1964 (the highest civilian award given by the American government). And then at 9:35 a.m. on 15 December 1966, Walt, a chain-smoker for most of his life, succumbed to cancer after having his left lung removed the month before. As he lay dying in St. Joseph’s Hospital, across the street from his Burbank studio, Walt remained consumed with Disney World. Though he did not live to see it completed, his Florida resort has welcomed nearly a billion people from around the globe since its 1971 opening.

The Disney Formula

To outsiders, the cheerful demeanor of [Disney’s] employees, the seemingly inexhaustible repeat business it generates from its customers, the immaculate conditions of park grounds, and more generally, the intricate physical and social order of the business itself appear wondrous.

—John Van Maanen, “The Smile Factory”

Reflecting on the scope and grandeur of his company, Walt remarked, “I hope we never lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse.”12 That mouse, which Walt wanted to name Mortimer until his wife suggested the friendlier-sounding Mickey, has become the company’s most recognizable icon. For many people Mickey instantly conjures up potent memories: childhood days spent watching The Mickey Mouse Club and Disney cartoons; trips to the theme parks; one’s first watch emblazoned with the Mouse. Mickey also symbolizes the Disney Company: embodying American notions of the self, bound by self-enforced moral codes, and oozing with plucky optimism. At first a spindly, angular rodent, Mickey gradually became a more rounded, anthropomorphic figure, decked out in shoes and gloves. He quickly enjoyed widespread appeal in his role as the goodnatured everyman, particularly in the United States, where his humor was a welcome antidote to the Great Depression’s bleakness.13 Although the Disney Studio made respected nature documentaries and live-action features, its animated works have remained the most admired and influential. It is also in the animations that the roots of the theme parks are most clearly discerned, particularly in their aesthetic exaggerations and quick transitions from one moment to the next. Likewise, the early Mickey Mouse shorts (1928’s Steamboat Willie being the first) and the Silly Symphony series (started 1929) conjured magical worlds beyond the constraints of time and reason, though never so disordered as to undermine conventional rules and widely shared values.14

(p.13) Ever since his early days as a filmmaker, Walt maintained tight control over his company. After completing his first series of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons in 1928, Walt tried to negotiate a better deal with distributor Charles Mintz. Instead he learned that their mutual contract had stripped Walt of copyright control, leaving Mintz free to hire Disney artists to produce Oswald himself. Determined this would never happen again, Walt proclaimed: “We’re going to start a new series … about a mouse. And this time we’ll own the mouse.”15 From that point on Walt acted as his own distributor, retained ownership of his films and the independence of his studio, held strict copyrights on his company’s creations (including patenting his characters), and had the last word on all projects. His democracy of “commercialized togetherness” had a clear chain of command: “Everybody gets his say. Then I decide which ideas we’ll use.”16 After a fight with Roy, Walt formed Retlaw (Walter spelled backwards) Enterprises in January 1953, a private company that held the sole lucrative rights to the “Walt Disney” name, which it then licensed to Walt Disney Productions (later to become the Walt Disney Company under Michael Eisner) for merchandising.17 Walt also formed WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering, again changed under Eisner) and called the people who worked there “Imagineers.”18 The term, coined in 1952, combined “imagination” and “engineer” to designate members of Walt’s creative think tank, as well as those possessed of the technical know-how to pull off Disney’s fantastical schemes. Today the Imagineers design and develop Disney’s parks, resorts, and attractions. Although these require vast collaborative efforts, the Imagineers’ work is still largely subsumed under the moniker of Walt Disney. Walt’s oft-told “bee story” reconciled any disparities between such collective endeavors and notions of fairness and credit:

You know, I was stumped one day when a little boy asked, “Do you draw Mickey Mouse?” I had to admit I do not draw anymore. “Then you think up all the jokes and ideas?” “No,” I said, “I don’t do that.” Finally he looked at me and said, “Mr. Disney, just what do you do?” “Well,” I said, “sometimes I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area of the studio to another and gather pollen and sort of stimulate everybody.” I guess that’s the job I do.19

But Walt’s contributions should not be minimalized or overlooked. Writing a year before Disney’s death, journalist Stephen Birmingham described Walt as a “catalyst,” noting that “everything his organization does is filtered through his eyes, his ears, his taste, his personality, he is the one who does create.”20

(p.14) Although Walt died more than forty years ago, the Disney Company continues his legacy of exercising seemingly unparalleled control over its interests. This has already been noted of the films, and it is also true of the company’s publishing ventures. Disney publishes a massive amount of literature (magazines, brochures, and training handbooks) for use by employees, stockholders, and a select public. It also publishes encyclopedias codifying Disney lore, books about its business practices, collections of Walt quotations, and travel guidebooks under its own imprints (Hyperion and Disney Editions). Unapologetically laudatory texts, written for and copyrighted by Disney, are frequently sold as souvenirs at the parks: although their authors enjoy access to vast archives, they must comply with the company’s terms of use, including approval of completed manuscripts.21 Of course, many sources are written without the assistance or endorsement of Disney, such as behind-the-scenes accounts of its business operations after Michael Eisner became chief executive officer in 1984.22 (Not coincidentally, Disney’s legal department simultaneously became “zealously litigious.”) There is also abundant information available on the Disney parks—guidebooks, trivia, detailed accounts of the attractions, employee memoirs—some published under Disney’s auspices and some not. These vary in credibility, quality, depth of knowledge, and sympathy for Disney. Kevin Yee’s fond memoir of working at the parks recounts employee pranks, romances, and mishaps to underscore how Disney’s magic prevails, even on 9/11. Meanwhile, Chris Mitchell’s tell-all offers tales of employee partying and drug use and the SOP (Sex On Property) Club.23 More decidedly critical analyses of Disney also range considerably. The exhibition catalog for Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance (curated by art historian Karal Ann Marling) helpfully contextualizes the first major showing of Disney concept drawings, photographs, models, and videos. But given the unprecedented access to the Imagineering collections, its essayists were inclined to cast favorable eyes on Disney.24 On the other hand, a predisposition to dislike the company clearly permeates Inside the Mouse, by The Project on Disney (a team of three academics and a photo-essayist).

In addition to films and books, Disney markets many other goods and experiences. The popularity and dissemination of any Disney product relies, of course, upon the indoctrination of willing consumers. The Mickey Mouse Club series (1955–59) nicely accomplished such by targeting postwar American youth, the first generation to grow up with television. The club’s audience was groomed for brand loyalty, trained to recognize its advertisers’ logos, and encouraged to perceive technology as fun. And it was easy (p.15) to become a club “member”: all one needed was a TV set, then becoming a common fixture in homes across the country. The Mickey Mouse Club cleverly intertwined adolescent desires to belong to a larger culture with messages promoting consumerism as a form of good citizenship.25 The club attracted a fairly homogeneous group: young, white, affluent suburbanites, an audience Walt also wanted to cultivate for his parks. But Disney had recognized the power of television even earlier, embracing it while most film producers still fearfully viewed it as unwelcome competition.26 The weekly Disneyland series, which premiered on 27 October 1954, featured his park as a “living set for the t.v.”27 The following year, Disneyland’s opening was telecast live coast-to-coast in a ninety-minute special hosted by Art Linkletter, Ronald Reagan, and Bob Cummings. Ironically, Disney employees called this “Black Sunday” due to several misfortunes, including a gas leak that temporarily shut down Fantasyland, and Walt cursing when he thought his microphone was off.28 But the Disneyland series left a lasting imprint on viewers. Its format “recapitulated the thematic structure of the park,” with sections devoted to cartoons, nature, science, and frontier tales.29 As Marling observes, “Disneyland was the first made-for-TV place, in which the fictive content of the programming dictated the honest-togosh activity of Americans in physical space.” Witnessing the construction of Disneyland as it progressed, viewers became acquainted with the park and had an “emotional stake in its success” even before it opened. Disney’s TV shows appealed to suburbanites aspiring to family unity and upward mobility. The theme parks made their American Dreams seem accessible, exemplifying the social harmony and visual tidiness they had sought in bridge clubs and manicured lawns.30

Walt reputedly disliked advertising, yet he was one of the first to fully apprehend the possibilities of “meshing … mass media content, merchandising, and promotion in his 1950s theme park.”31 About 25 million viewers saw The Mickey Mouse Club each week, while 50 million tuned in to Disneyland. Though critics labeled Disney a “sell-out,” Walt ignored them, relishing the opportunity to pitch his products “directly to the audience without any middleman.”32 By establishing an interconnected web of Disney goods and experiences (films, TV shows, music, memorabilia, toys, theme parks, etc.) the company encourages circuits of cooperative and diversified consumption. Such efforts have been intensified to the current day. For example, the Disney Channel and Radio Disney target a specific “tween” demographic, while Disney Cruises (launched in 1998) are aimed at the whole family. Disney even offers its own credit card via Chase. And though it had (p.16) sold the underperforming Disney Stores in 2003, it has since bought back the chain from Children’s Place. In 2009 Disney started D23 (the company was founded in 1923), an official fan community with an extensive website and members-only perks. The biennial D23 Expo, a multi-day convention with exhibits, screenings, celebrities, and field trips, was also inaugurated in 2009.

Disney’s theme parks are vital links in its chain of self-promotion. Most of their attractions, stage shows, parades, and souvenir merchandise cull imagery directly from Disney films and television. Thus the company cultivates an eager, ready-made audience that arrives at the parks with prior knowledge of Disney characters and tales. Eisner described this as the “inside/outside” strategy: private usage of Disney products at home is complemented by their consumption in public forums like movie theaters and theme parks. Personal experiences are subsequently channeled into collective social memories, uniting people via “core cultural ideas and stories.”33 Disney devotees often become lifelong customers not only because the company has a reputation for quality entertainment, wholesome values, and family fun but because it offers a nearly endless supply of experiences and goods to fuel its “magic.” The Disney Company has “given new meaning to the term synergy” in its “process of orchestrating entertainment production, distribution, and marketing into a lucrative whole.”34 Disney’s synergy relies heavily upon customers’ abiding emotional ties to its characters, as the company continually modifies, updates, and promotes them across media platforms.35 It also requires a compelling message to communicate: the invitation to join like-minded folks and immerse yourself in experiences that make you feel special.

Understanding the persuasive power of immersion, Walt decided to secure a captive audience at Disney World. In California, the inconsistencies of daily life kept trespassing on his park; in Florida he made certain to block out any external distractions. In a way, Disney World is placeless: despite its national and regional associations, its buffered insulation distinctly separates it from the outside world. In a related way, it is also timeless: there, present-day moments are layered with references to both the past and the future. Walt had lamented that completed films were unable to be reworked, and instead conceived his parks as in continuous states of change, available to tinker with and become ever more “perfect.”36 Unruly elements and routine worries were edited out of the parks, distilling Walt’s idealism to its most positive, purified essence (what John Findlay calls “Disney Realism”).37 The resulting sense of order can be constricting or anxiety-ridden for some people, but many visitors draw comfort from it.

(p.17) Shortly after Disneyland opened, Walt determined that outsiders who did not follow his way of doing things could ruin the theme park experience, so he developed his own employee-training program and accompanying terminology. To this day, Disney University (founded in 1955) indoctrinates workers with the company philosophy and values. The “Traditions” class provides orientation, and training on how to “create happiness” via “emotion management.” Trainees also learn Disney Speak: park employees are “Cast Members,” Disney customers are “Guests,” and an accident is an “incident.” Disney Speak also emphasizes the theatrical nature of the themed experience: a uniform is a “costume,” working is to be “on stage,” and a ride is an “Adventure.” Cast Members, handpicked and groomed for the “Disney look,” are predictably alike: clean-cut and pleasant.38 (As one Disney park official simply stated, “We require conformity.”)39 Applicants with less experience are actually preferred, as they can be trained from the start in the Disney way. For example, Cast Members are never to sit on the job, point with a single finger (they must use two or the entire hand), break character, or in any way compromise the Disney magic.40 The goal is to provide service-oriented entertainment via teamwork in an environment where the Guests are always right and their expectations are continually exceeded. By spoiling its customers, the company primes them “to reflexively buy Disney products.”41 Despite its restrictive requirements, the company remains a sought-after employer. Tammy Gutierrez, who has played Snow White and trains others to perform as Disney characters, attests that her work is fulfilling and feels special: “You have to bring energy and spirit to the role—make it real. We’re not people dressed up in costumes. Anyone can do that.”42

Lee Cockerell, former executive vice president of operations at Disney World for more than ten years, insists that the company’s success rests upon respectful treatment of its Cast Members (employee turnover is a third of the industry average), who are then motivated to care for Guests in kind. He maintains this is not feel-good propaganda but rather “a rational, muscular, no-nonsense business strategy” that yields customer and employee satisfaction via its “people-centered culture.”43 Business analyst Douglas Shuit concurs, describing the Disney formula as “a mix of common sense, strictly defined corporate values and nonstop attention to detail.” Disney’s blend of business strategies—particularly its “people-management ideas” and emphasis on customer satisfaction—have been so successful that other organizations, ranging from BMW to Arkansas Childrens Hospital, send their employees to study them. Off-site and on-property workshops and seminars are offered through Disney Institute, “a citadel of knowledge (p.18) about professional development,” where the company’s practices are yet another product for sale.44 (The original Disney Institute, 1996–2003, featured educational programs such as animation and cooking. Today it no longer has a main public campus.) Disney has built and sustained remarkable brand loyalty, both among its customers and employees, an achievement that other companies desperately hope to replicate. Yet while they can mimic management practices, it will be difficult for such enterprises to imitate Disney’s uncanny ability to be ahead of the curve in its business decisions, an admirable though elusive trait.

Disney’s purchase of the land in Florida is a prime example of its adeptness at recognizing opportunities others may overlook, and taking advantage of them. In the mid-twentieth century most developers considered central Florida nothing but a swampy real estate wasteland; instead, Disney envisioned unfettered possibilities. After studying various locations, Walt chose an area outside of Orlando, purchasing 27,443 acres (twice the size of Manhattan, or equivalent to the whole of San Francisco) in Orange and Osceola Counties for the bargain price of about $5.5 million (less than $200 an acre; he had paid $4,500 an acre in Anaheim).45 He intended to use most of the land as a buffer for his resort so that all of the chaos, visual disharmonies, and pressures of the outside world would not trespass upon his orderly microcosm. His company also established the Reedy Creek Improvement District (see Chapter 5 and the conclusion) to insulate Disney World from the jurisdiction of Florida’s state government. The initial cost of Disney World was $400 million ($275 million over the estimated cost), which was largely financed by the Disney Company itself. Though it did not open until five years after his passing, Walt had already conceived a master plan that he described in detail to Roy, pointing with his fingers at the hospital room’s ceiling to sketch the layout on the night before he died.46 Construction on the massive project began in May 1969, but after the first contractor claimed that a 1971 deadline for opening day simply could not be met, Disney formed its own construction company with crews working seven days a week. On 1 October 1971 the Magic Kingdom theme park debuted with much fanfare and immediately distinguished itself from its precursor. Disneyland was not even finished when it opened; Disney World was a more polished package from the start. And to maintain its veneer of well-organized composure, the televised dedication ceremony was filmed when the Magic Kingdom was closed.47

As previously noted, Walt viewed his parks as perpetually in progress, despite the high degree of detail he demanded for them. Disney World (p.19) initially offered only the Magic Kingdom theme park (1971; a variation on Disneyland) and several resort hotels (the Polynesian and the Contemporary).48 Today Disney World is the largest single-site employer in the United States (with sixty thousand Cast Members), and it operates every day of the year.49 In addition to the Magic Kingdom, there are now three other theme parks: Epcot (an acronym for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, 1982), largely inspired by the World’s Fairs; Hollywood Studios (1989; formerly Disney-MGM Studios, renamed in 2008), based on the film and television industries;50 and Animal Kingdom (1998), a hybrid of zoo and theme park attractions. There are also two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon (1989) and Blizzard Beach (1995). (River Country, themed as an “old-fashioned swimmin’ hole,” was the first water park but has since been closed.)51 Over time Disney World has evolved to include golf courses, spas, convention facilities, campsites, numerous luxury to budget-priced resorts, Disney Vacation Club time-share properties (with more than one hundred thousand member families who are greeted “Welcome Home” each visit), ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex (1997, formerly Disney’s Wide World of Sports), and a Wedding Pavilion (1995). Disney’s Boardwalk (1996) offers nightclubs, restaurants, and shopping. In Downtown Disney (1996) there is Marketplace, an extensive shopping village with eateries; and West Side, featuring themed restaurants and more shopping. Downtown’s Pleasure Island (1989) was once populated by nightclubs and then slated for renovation as Hyperion Wharf, an upscale dining and shopping enclave aimed at adults. The company recently announced a more ambitious plan, however, which includes the renovation and expansion of Downtown Disney into Disney Springs: a mixed-use shopping, dining, and entertainment sector with theming inspired by Floridian waterfront towns. Here Marketplace and West Side will be refurbished and joined by the new Town Center, while Pleasure Island becomes The Landing (phased construction is planned, commencing in 2013 and to be completed in 2016).52 These seemingly inexhaustible offerings and the availability of multi-day admission passes ensure that many visitors,53 having so much to see and do, never leave Disney property during their entire vacations and even stay for longer visits. The Walt Disney World resort is “an enveloping experience of destination tourism that the small California site could never be.”54 It is also the most popular site to visit in the world, welcoming approximately 46 million people annually.55 According to Stacy Ritz, “That Disney is a world unto itself is undisputed: At any waking moment, its 43 square miles contain more people, traffic, hotels and restaurants than most cities. But more than this, (p.20) Disney World is also a state of mind. In a single generation, Disney World placed its stamp on the American psyche, sharing the dreams of one man with an entire nation. For here, in 1971, Walt Disney offered the world its biggest playground. And the world accepted.”56

Before Disney World, Florida had “many more-or-less equal tourist attractions” throughout the state, but a lot of these quickly became outmoded and unpopular. As Bob Sehlinger queries in his “unofficial guide” to Disney World: “When was the last time you planned your vacation around a trip to Jungle Larry’s Safari Park?”57 The answer is probably “Never!” and due, at least in part, to Disney’s efforts to distinguish its parks from other attractions with brand-name cachet and a reputation for high quality. Disney Guests know what to expect: “a well-defined, prepackaged, indefinitely repeatable experience.”58 This formula has been emulated worldwide at other entertainment venues, which attempt to imitate Disney’s design principles, attention to detail, integrated merchandising, and coherent theming. Yet Disney World remains the gold standard: superior in its clarity of vision, obsessive cleanliness and maintenance, consistency and excellence of experiences provided, and commitment to employee training and customer service. Novel but never too avant-garde, Disney World is a conceptually lucid and ultimately reassuring place, one where fantasies are realized.59

Simulations, Anyone?

We live everywhere already in an “esthetic” hallucination of reality.

—Jean Baudrillard, “The Orders of Simulacra”

Disney World is about appearances. How things look matters a lot there—helping move stories along, defining spaces, immersing the senses. Disney utilizes simulations (simulacra; simulacrum is the singular) of famous venues and nostalgic settings to conjure up somewhat familiar but not always specific places. It is easy to dismiss this tactic as the amassing of a shallow collection of facades, but I believe this is not really the case. Visitors to Disney World are not duped by its simulations but are savvy consumers of these, as we will see in the coming chapters. Simulation remains a key concept in postmodern theory. Although there is continued debate about the meaning of “postmodernism,” we can broadly describe it as the synthesizing of eclectic and varied sources—past and present, indigenous and multicultural, “high” and “low.” Perhaps the most useful way to conceive (p.21) postmodernism is not as a summation of history but as a stopping point for reconsideration as we make our way through history’s unrelenting cycles. Disney World’s early years coincided directly with the postmodern aesthetics and theory that flourished in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s (especially after key French texts became available in English translations). The beliefs espoused and practices enacted at Disney World are in sympathy with postmodernism, particularly in the use of immersive simulations to transform and enhance daily existence. It should also be noted that the Disney Company is a conspicuous patron of decidedly postmodern places and spaces, having repeatedly commissioned venerated postmodern architects to design high-profile projects.

Numerous critics have analyzed the Disney parks’ innate postmodern qualities, citing the prevalence of “pastiche” and “controlled” planning of space and architecture.60 Unfortunately, it became common to write off the parks as neatly aggregated, sanitized simulations that offer sad replacements for true adventure. Fredric Jameson crankily complained that postmodernists randomly cannibalize “dead styles,” producing a culture of “depthlessness.”61 Meanwhile, Michael Sorkin singled out the Disney parks specifically, worried that visitors would be so seduced by simulation as to forfeit their interpretative faculties.62 Supposedly Jean Baudrillard is more forgiving of postmodernism than Jameson or Sorkin, repeatedly warning his readers not to dismiss simulations as “artificial” or “inauthentic.” But he also believes that simulations create hyperreality (“the meticulous reduplication of the real”), overriding history while simultaneously inducing nostalgia for such. Thus the simulacrum, “an identical copy for which no original ever existed,” allows us to “be there” without “being there” at all. Baudrillard sarcastically praises Americans as being liberated from Europe’s rigid intellectualism and oppressive ideals, claiming Disneyland is “real” for a country that lacks a long historical past.63 Roland Barthes, however, challenges the notion that a “copy” or simulation impairs judgment, limits meaning, or is inherently inferior. He acknowledges that a “text” (a book, film, theme park, etc.) may direct its “reader” (including a viewer or visitor) toward a specific meaning chosen in advance by its “author” (creator). But Barthes also asserts that even tightly controlled texts cannot suppress an individual’s prior knowledge and personal preferences.64 Thus despite Walt’s efforts to manage Guests’ interpretations (carried on in perpetuity by his company), our reactions to Disney World can be guided but never completely prescribed; ultimately, we discern and assign meaning to our own experiences.

(p.22) Umberto Eco is critical of Disney’s parks, but he tries to embrace their escapism. In his legendary essay “Travels in Hyperreality” (1975), Eco describes time and space as compressed by simulations and designates the Disney parks as pinnacles of hyperreality. But his concept of the “absolute fake” (purported to be more “real” than the original) does not bear out at Disney World. The simulations found there clearly announce their function as such rather than being exact replicas; no one mistakes these for the Eiffel Tower in Paris or a castle in the German woods. Eco, too, knows this, acknowledging that Disney “not only produces illusion” but also confesses it.65 In fact, much of the pleasure to be had at Disney World comes from recognizing and negotiating its simulations. Architects and urban planners were among the first to celebrate Disney’s simulations for their substance instead of surface value. Early on, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger acknowledged Disney World’s profound potential to shape the built world, suggesting that its cleanliness, advanced technologies, effective crowd control, and efficient public transportation might establish it as “the most important city planning laboratory in the United States.” Visitors are not tricked by Disney simulations, he concluded, but knowingly play along with the “elaborate, intricately conceived hoax … and share in its irony.”66 I agree that Disney World can be quite ironic, but it is neither a “hoax” nor a stand-in for someplace else. It is a special place where wide-ranging references and rich associations are accumulated in thoughtfully designed spaces. Often its attractions do not have a single or specific antecedent, but engage more generalized sensibilities and sources (think of Space Mountain’s merging of science-fiction lore with aspects of actual space exploration). Disney’s simulations do not debase or replace history—they recontextualize it.

We now live in a post-postmodern age, in which “fakery, in large part, is a matter of context,” and “fakes, in the right context, can become real.” In this “re-mix” culture we are used to navigating the spatial and temporal junctures between the physical and virtual worlds, and readily acknowledge the importance of replication in our learning processes. Today’s “bricolagic orientation” is an active one in which we sample simulations “to create new art forms authentic to the ways” we now live.67 This orientation is well suited to Disney World, encouraging us to experience the place unencumbered by dismissive prejudgments. Disney World is a collage: it synthesizes passing references into novel juxtapositions, without the expectation of fixing meaning.68 It does not bastardize or compete with the sources from which it gleans inspiration; rather, it absorbs these into a (p.23) genuinely unique composite. Anthropologist Stephen Fjellman is wary of Disney World’s corporatism and potential for “cognitive overload,” but he still admits: “I love it! I could live there. … It gets me to think, to remember, and to make up new fantasies. I appreciate its civility and safety. I crave its contradictions. I like walking in its streets.”69 I do not want to live in Disney World, but like Fjellman, I appreciate how it gets me to think, most especially about its contradictions. It is, as Nicholas Sammond reminds us, a place “both symbolic and actual.”70


(2) . Disney qtd. in Thomas, Walt Disney, 1st ed., 349. Walt married Lillian Bounds in 1925. Diane, their first daughter, was born in 1933. They adopted a second child, Sharon, in 1936.

(3) . Allan, 226–27.

(p.172) (4) . Telotte; Hench with Van Pelt, 2, 67; Klingmann, 71–73. Storyboards, perspective drawings, and scale models are used to design the parks.

(5) . Evans qtd. in Green and Green, 155.

(6) . Gabler, xiii, 497.

(7) . Pine and Gilmore, 2–3, 12–13, 67–68.

(8) . A. Williams, 482–83, 485, 488.

(9) . Thomas, Walt Disney, 2nd ed., 243, 250–52; Zukin, 222–23.

(10) . Findlay, 60–61. ABC gave Walt $5 million in exchange for the series and a 35 percent interest in Disneyland. Ironically, on 31 July 1995 the Disney Company acquired the Capital Cities/ABC network for $18.9 billion.

(11) . R. Disney, 216–17.

(12) . Disney qtd. in Smith, Walt Disney: Famous Quotes, 68.

(13) . Apgar. Susman, 197, claims the era was as much of Mickey as it was of FDR.

(14) . Dorfman, 45; Susman, 197.

(15) . Disney qtd. in R. Disney, 215.

(16) . Disney qtd. in Wolters, 29.

(17) . Kurland, 13; Eliot, 214–15; J. Taylor, 10–11. Retlaw got 5 percent of every Walt Disney Productions merchandising deal, could invest up to 15 percent in all Disney projects, and could purchase up to 25 percent of Walt Disney Productions’ stock at any time.

(18) . A. M. Davis, 140n251, suggests that WED was founded to finance and oversee Disneyland when Walt could not get studio money for it.

(19) . Disney qtd. in Bennis and Biederman, 43.

(20) . Birmingham, 276.

(21) . See Bailey; Childs; Kurtti; and Finch, Walt Disney’s America, for examples of the type. Books are also “written” by Disney’s Imagineers, including a series of Imagineering Field Guides.

(22) . For example, see Flower; J. Taylor; and Grover, The Disney Touch.

(23) . Yee, Mouse Trap; C. Mitchell, especially 27–30.

(24) . The show traveled to the following venues between June 1997 and April 1999: Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Los Angeles; Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York; and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

(25) . B. J. Coleman, 297–306. The Mickey Mouse Club was later successfully exported to other countries, most notably Japan.

(26) . Allan, 205.

(27) . Findlay, 59. Walt Disney Presents eventually replaced Disneyland. Eisner later revived the TV series format with The Wonderful World of Disney.

(28) . Flower, 33–34; Eliot, 231–32. Other misfortunes occurred: Walt was accidentally locked in his Main Street apartment the previous night; some visitors used counterfeit tickets or hopped the fence; a plumbers’ strike left the park short on drinking fountains; women’s high heels stuck in wet concrete; and studio employees got sick repeatedly riding attractions for the cameras.

(29) . Sammond, 316–17, 320, 322.

(30) . Susman, 21–22; Marling, As Seen on TV, 88, 123, 286.

(p.173) (31) . S. G. Davis, 165.

(32) . Disney qtd. in “The Greatest Triple Play in Show Business,” 72.

(33) . S. G. Davis, 163–64, 166, 168.

(34) . Bennis and Biederman, 34, 46.

(35) . Brockus, 191, 199, 208–9, notes that grouping characters with similar traits, such as princesses or villains, cultivates their collectability.

(36) . Telotte, 118–21, 138; Trowbridge and Stapleton, 60.

(37) . Findlay, 54–55, 69–70, 88.

(38) . Findlay, 74, 77–78; Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society, 92; Shuit, 40. Female employees wear minimal jewelry and makeup, and most males are not permitted to grow facial hair. Exposed tattoos are only allowable as part of a costume.

(39) . Anonymous park official qtd. in “Tinker Bell, Mary Poppins, Cold Cash,” 75.

(40) . Cockerell, 2; Findlay, 74; Haden-Guest, 232; Raz, 211, 213–14, 219, 223. Students in the Disney World College Program work at the parks and take seminars in exchange for school credit. See W. Jones with Esola for an insider perspective on these internships.

(42) . Gutierrez qtd. in Stewart, 11. Stewart, 11–15, recounts the training required to play a character, which includes learning to produce its distinctive autograph signature.

(43) . Cockerell, 4–5, 11.

(44) . Shuit, 36, 38; Gross. See Bannon, B1, B5; and Ritzer, The McDonaldization Thesis, 154–55, on the original Disney Institute.

(45) . “Recreation: Disneyland East,” 82, discusses Walt’s disillusionment with Anaheim and plans for Disney World. Today the Disney Company owns about twenty-five thousand acres in Florida.

(46) . Barrier, 317; Derr, 378; Gabler, 630.

(47) . By 1970 Disney World was the largest private construction project in the United States, with more than eight thousand workers. Roy, who oversaw the project, died three months after its completion. The opening ceremony, on 23 October 1971, featured conductor Arthur Fiedler.

(48) . Asian-, Venetian-, and Persian-themed resorts were also planned but not built.

(49) . Disney Institute, Be Our Guest, 15, 17. Employee statistics as of May 2009.

(50) . Adams, 159–60, notes that the park opened ahead of schedule, upstaging Universal Studios’ Florida premiere in 1990.

(51) . River Country ceased operation in 2001 and was officially shuttered in 2005.

(52) . “Disney Unveils Vision for Disney Springs.”

(53) . Initially, visitors bought lettered tickets (basic rides were “A” tickets, the most thrilling were “E”). “World Passports” supplanted these and were since replaced by the current “Magic Your Way” tickets, which require extra fees to “park hop” or visit the water parks. Children under three get in for free.

(54) . Cross and Walton, 196.

(55) . “50 Things You Didn’t Know about Disney World.” This 2009 estimate includes all four theme parks and Downtown Disney.

(56) . Ritz, 1.

(57) . Sehlinger, 1992 ed., 3, 8.

(p.174) (58) . Flower, 21–22.

(60) . Jencks.

(61) . Jameson, 6, 17–19, 25.

(64) . See Barthes: The Pleasure of the Text; “Rhetoric of the Image”; “The Death of the Author”; and “From Work to Text.”

(65) . Eco, 4, 6–11, 18–19, 26, 30–31, 38–39, 43–44, 56–58.

(66) . Goldberger, 40–41, 92–99.

(67) . Congdon and Blandy, 268, 270–71, 273–74, 276.

(68) . Derrida, 285.

(69) . Fjellman, 16.

(70) . Sammond, 301.