In the late 1930s, Walt Disney wanted to build a kiddieland park structured around his cartoon characters adjacent to his movie studio north of Los Angeles. The idea grew from unsatisfying visits to local amusement parks with his young daughters and especially from his intense dislike for Coney Island and its disorganized, garish, honky-tonk atmosphere. Disney envisioned a new kind of park—a clean, safe, friendly place where children and adults could have fun together. During World War II, when the studio moved to Burbank, he wanted to include an amusement area, but the heavy new investments coupled with the loss of overseas film markets ruled that out. In 1948, Disney’s longtime fascination for miniature trains provided some planning and direction as he wanted an actual railroad to define the perimeter of the park. That same year, he wrote down his initial ideas.

What Disney had in mind for his unnamed amusement park was an extremely sentimental and nostalgic place where children could experience the material culture of past generations and where adults could relive their own or their parents’ childhood. The park was to have a Main Village, a Western Village, an Indian Village, an Old Farm, and a Carnival section, and people would be able to travel from one theme area to another via a horsecar, stagecoach, surrey, or In 1951, Disney decided to call his park “Walt Disney’s America” and focus on highlights of American history. At the same time, he was working on another project for a traveling exhibit called “Disneylandia,” miniature stage sets with cartoon characters depicting American folklore. Later that year, Disney met with network executives in New York to discuss entering television. He had no visual material with him but discussed his ideas for a new kind of amusement park at length. No agreement for a television series was reached since none of the executives would commit themselves to help finance the park. Nevertheless, by 1952 a master plan for “Walt Disneyland” had evolved, and Disney formed WED Enterprises, a personal corporation with the initials of his own name, to design the park and keep its activities separate from the studio. In 1953, the park was called “Disneyland,” and an artist’s sketch and written materials reveal various theme areas encircled by a one-third scale railroad. Once again, Disney turned to television for financing and made a deal with ABC for cash, guaranteed loans, and a weekly series in which he would be free to promote the park. To meet the $11 million construction costs, Disney contracted with major corporations to finance exhibits at Disneyland and sold licenses to merchandising companies for products pertaining to the park’s themes or Disney films. Built on a 160-acre orange grove in Anaheim, California, the population center of southern California, the park opened on July 17, 1955.

Disneyland was the embodiment of one man’s prepossession toward America’s most important beliefs, values, ideals, and symbols. In the creation of a new type of amusement park, Disney essentially combined three different elements—his boyhood experiences in the rural Midwest, his famous cartoon and feature film characters, and his vision of the future. In the Main Street theme area he sought to re-create the look and sense of a small town in middle America at the turn of the century. Fantasyland brought to life children’s stories and cartoon characters from his animated movies. In Adventureland and Frontierland, entertainment was structured around favorite people, places, or motifs from Disney’s feature films. Futuristic rides and attractions presented in Tomorrowland, based on state-of-the-art technology, underscored Disney’s optimistic view of the world and Americans’ basic belief in progress, pragmatism, applied science, and materialism.

During Disneyland’s first fiscal year, 4 million people passed through its gates, and the park became a premier tourist attraction for both Americans and foreigners. One of the most important representations of America, its characters and attractions were recognized around the globe. In the wake of Disneyland’s impressive commercial success, a plethora of other corporate theme parks (Six Flags, Great Adventure, Great America) appeared all around the country. Kings Dominion near Richmond, with its cartoon characters from the Hanna-Barbera television shows, imitated Disney’s formula more directly. Virtually every theme park today has re-created some kind of “old time” American urban or rural scene, and numerous towns and cities have poured large sums of money into downtown areas to restore a nineteenth-century look to buildings and shops, to “Disney-fy” their own main streets.
The viability of these other theme parks, although none was as well-off financially as Disneyland, breathed new life into America’s outdoor amusement industry and actually increased the demand for Disney-built parks. In 1971, Walt Disney World opened in Florida, followed by Epcot Center in 1982, and Tokyo Disneyland a year later. The 5,000-acre Euro-Disneyland outside Paris, the first phase of which opened in 1992, was supposed to become the capstone to the Disney corporation’s commercial empire. Plans to build Disney’s America, an ambitious park committed to the 1951 concept, in rural Virginia were scrapped in the face of strong opposition by environmentalists, and corporate officials are now looking at a new site. Walt Disney’s view of America and techniques of entertainment—a unique blend of ideas, values, norms, symbols, and technology—can be termed “Americana Disneylandia” and may very well be the foundation of a cross-national culture of outdoor amusement in the twenty-first century


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