top of page
  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

California Kid

Just as Disneyland was a child of the times, Disneyland was also a product of a specific place—Southern California, and more specifically Los Angeles.  Disneyland was not only compensatory to the 1950s present, and but to the city of Los Angeles itself, much as the pleasure parks of the previous century had compensated for urban life. In this section we will explore Disneyland’s relationship with Los Angeles. [The influence of Los Angeles's outdoor art and fanciful landscapes, can be explored in the "Amusing Ancestry" excursion located in Frontierland.] and [Hollywood’s influence can be explored in the "Art of the Show" excursion, located in Fantasyland.]

Answer to LA

In the early 1950s Jung (1952/1989) wrote "Answer to Job," and in 1955, Disneyland opened at least in part as an “answer to Los Angeles.”  Disneyland was planned specifically in opposition to different urban models, specifically Los Angeles, and compared to LA, Disneyland was indeed a utopia.  But as Sorkin (1992) and Thompson (1972) note, Disneyland was very much a product of Southern California.  Sorkin (1992) points out that Disneyland is also a model of Los Angeles: “Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland—these are the historic themes of the city’s own self description, its main cultural tropes” (p. 217).  Thompson (1972) points out “Disneyland is not an anomaly contained by Anaheim, but a gathering and concentration of the Southern California world view" (p.7).  Unlike on the East Coast, where fantasy had “little room in which to realize itself” due to the burdens of tradition, religion, and power, on the West Coast, the realization of fantasy,  Thompson relates, “ is one of our dominant cultural traits” and it is thus much more difficult to tell the difference between personal fantasy and social reality, because “the form of the realization of fantasy is not restricted to one sector of the Southern California way of life; it is all pervasive” (p. 5).

Disneyland’s technologies were inspired by LA’s problems: urban sprawl, pollution, transportation issues, overcrowding, alienation, transience, and lack of a cohesive community atmosphere, and city center, since Los Angeles was composed mostly of suburbs.  (King 1981a).  So Los Angeles was the problem and Disneyland was the answer—and a brilliant answer, at that. James Rouse a master planner and builder remarked at a 1963 conference on Urban Design at Harvard University:

The greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland.  If you think about Disneyland and think about its performance in relation to its purpose; its meaning to people—more than that, its meaning to the process of development—you will find it the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States.  It took an area of activity—the amusement park—and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, that it really has become a brand new thing.  It fulfills all the functions it set out to accomplish unself-consciously, usefully, and profitably to its owners and developers.  I find more to learn in the standards that have been set and in the goals that have been achieved in the development of Disneyland than in any other single piece of physical development in the country. (Bright, 1987, p. 29)

Disneyland was a more orderly, scaled down, and manageable version of urban life, combing a nostalgic small town atmosphere with space age technologies. The park embraced the city of the future with fun and futuristic transportation options, as well as the friendly, intimate feeling of the small town of the past (Findlay, 1993, p. 95).  Disney wanted Disneyland to be an “antidote to the perceived urban malaise of the day . . . visitors could escape their unnatural present day cares, 'drop their defenses' and 'become more like themselves' ” (Findlay, p. 67).  Disney imagineer John Hench, in discussing the danger and chaos of urban life, remarks:

In modern cities you have to defend yourself constantly and you go counter to everything we’ve learned from the past.  You tend to isolate yourself from other people . . . you tend to be less aware.  You tend to be more withdrawn.  This is counter-life . . . you really die a little . . . I think we need something to counteract what modern society—cities have done to us. (Findlay, p. 67)

Disney conceived of urban environments differently, with a sense of play.  He saw them “not as settings for serious and businesslike (humorless) attitudes but as a source of pleasure (even irony), wit, drama and fun.”  This alternative way of seeing envisioned “everyday life as an art form, with entertainment, fantasy, play-acting, role-playing and the reinstatement of some of the values which have been lost in the megalopolis” (King, 1981a, p. 127).  Disneyland was based on this vision, and it was a utopian vision.  Marin (1984) points out that “utopia is not only a different world and a world of difference, it is also the difference of the world, the ‘other of the world.’ (p. 244)  Disneyland indeed was…

A Different World

Disneyland was a unique place, based on Disney’s animated movies that allowed people to “step into the screen,” as Bright (1987) notes, Disneyland is the

first amusement park with a theme: an environmental entertainment experience in which architecture, landscaping, characters, food, merchandise and even the costumes the employees wear ands the roles they play would all blend together into a harmonious motif.  And that harmony would create a world of fantasy that could be found nowhere else.  "I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the Park."  Disney told his designers. “I want them to feel they are in another world." (p. 61)

Marling (1997) points out that “Disneyland was clearly a countercultural artifact—a work of art—despite the little emotions and the smiling willingness to please.”  (pp. 85-86).  Disneyland was an “other” to the world of Los Angeles in 1955:  

Cities didn’t smile.  Neither did architecture, serious architecture.  . . . the buildings of Disneyland were meant to be seen at close hand by pedestrians, whose cars had been consigned to a distant parking lot, forgotten for the day behind a tall earthen wall.  Disneyland was pretty.  Blatant competition between store and store was banished.  The scale of the place, unlike a corporate skyscraper and the hulking mall as could be imagined.  If the product being sold at aDisneyland is not really shoes or soap or civic betterment but contentment and pleasure, there might be a profit too, in unmasking the faults of urban America—its dullness, tawdriness, confusion, its overbearing swagger.  And substituting harmony, mild adventure, safety, and order—the order of art; the art of reassurance: the architecture of Disneyland. (pp. 85-86)

Disney did succeed, and on an impressive scale. Disneyland took over the television network that helped give Disneyland birth, and now Disney owns other networks, too, such as ESPN and has many different channels.  Much as the fantasy stuff of amusement parks spilled onto the streets of Los Angeles, Disneyland has overflowed from its Anaheim infancy in the 1950s to influence the world, because Disneyland has created replicas of itself in Orlando, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong.  Disneyland has been hailed by architects and planners the world over, and has influenced urban design from Times Square in New York to the Las Vegas strip, from urban restoration to themed restaurants.  And to think that it all began with a little “Mickey Mousing around.” Be sure to continue on to visit our final excursion, where you can see how it all began in the "Amusing Ancestry" excursion.


bottom of page