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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Disneyland and Television—The TV Show That Was Also a Themepark

Popular culture entered a new phase in the post-war years with the introduction of television.  Within a decade of its introduction, almost all households had one and television had a dramatic effect on people’s lifestyles, especially on their entertainment and leisure pursuits.  Television was seen by the film industry as a threat and they thought, or more likely, hoped against hope, that television was a passing fad.  Walt Disney saw television differently, as a marketing medium and also as a way to directly communicate his ideas about entertainment to his audience.  Disney told a reporter prior to 1950 that television “is here to stay and here now.  What is more, it will go further than any of us can dream at this moment”  (Watts, 1997, p. 363).  Disney was the first major film producer to exploit the medium of television, and he became a cheerleader for the new medium, clearly recognizing its commercial potential:

In a 1951 interview, he had described it as the “greatest sales medium of the age” and marveled that, because of its ability to reach millions of viewers instantaneously, “it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether you are selling toothpaste, cereals or motion pictures . . . . I am a great believer in the TV medium to sell pictures and what we are doing here with ALICE is sort of proving it.  Gallup found that our Christmas show sent the [audience] penetration way up.  We plan to use TV for point of sale.”  (Watts, 1997, p. 367)

Christmas Special

Television was hot for Disney’s films, especially after the 1950 Christmas special, which showcased Alice In Wonderland(Geronimi & Jackson, 1951), currently in production at the studio.  In that special, Disney entertained a group of children, and showed a scene of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  The special, sponsored by Coca-Cola, was a huge success for ABC: “it attracted a huge audience, impressing Walt with the value of television as a signboard for the studio’s theatrical product” (Thomas, 1976, p. 223).  Walt, too, was a big hit, since he hosted the show.

Disney refused to sell his films to television and instead capitalized on the new medium as a way to obtain financing for his new pet project—Disneyland. Disney filmed all of the Disneyland shows and retained ownership of the product, both practices were rare at the time.  And thus in television, as he was in many other areas, Disney was a pioneering figure in this “window to the future,” as television was described in its early years (Kosareff, 2005, p. 7).

The Deal of the Century

Walt needed financing for the new park, since his ideas were vastly outpacing the available funds.  In April of 1954, he agreed to enter into television by producing a one-hour show every week called Disneyland to help finance the park. Disneyland Park was truly “the playground television built” (Findlay, 1993, p. 61) and Walt told writer Pete Martin that “TV was the start of Disneyland” (Marling, 1997, p. 73). ABC television bought 34% of Disneyland and guaranteed to back the park financially, and Walt agreed to produce two one-hour shows a week, Disneylandand The Mickey Mouse Club.  According to Watts (1997):

the announcement hit the motion picture industry like a bomb.  The New York Times described the alliance as “the most important development to date in relations between the old and the new mass entertainment form.  The Motion Picture Heraldsaw it as a “historic agreement,” while Film Bulletin, reflecting opinion among moviemakers spoke somberly of “the Disney revolution.”

Like many relationships, this one did not last, and later in the decade, Walt Disney Productions bought out ABC’s interest in the park, and switched networks to NBC.  Ironically, everything has come full circle, and Disney now owns ABC.

Disneyland’s opening day was also fittingly “an historic moment for television.   The network assigned ‘the greatest concentration of television equipment and operating personnel ever assembled in one place’ to the show . . . . The park was given an hour and a half of live, prime time coverage” (Findlay, 1993, p. 61).

Interplay Between Television and Disneyland—the TV Series and the Park

William Irwin Thompson (1972), echoing McLuhan, maintains that Disneyland embodied television consciousness more than linear book consciousness, reflecting the ability for individuals to more easily change identities than in the past:

No longer need a person carry the burden of a single identity from the cradle to the grave.  He is free to change lives and wives as often as he has the energy.  I imagine that the way McLuhan would describe this pattern is that the individual is no longer a novel, but a television set: at the flip of a channel, he changes his program.  Disneyland itself is a kind of television set, for one flips from medieval castles to submarines and rockets as easily as one can move, in down-town Los Angeles, from the plaza of the Mexican Olivera Street, to Little Tokyo, to the modern Civic Center with its new pavilion for the performing arts. (p. 18)

Thompson (1972) contends that “these discontinuities of history” are not unique to Southern California and Disneyland, but are what is happening to us all.  The ease of travel has caused cultures to become scrambled, instead of having their integrity preserved by wide geographic separation: “the violent juxtaposition of aerospace technology and neo-tribal politics contains the thesis and antithesis of the new planetary culture; hopefully, the synthesis will be contained in the coming Twenty-First Century”  (p. 19).  Well, this synthesis has not happened so far, but there is always hope.

Sorkin (1992) sees the relationship between Disneyland and televison as not only temporally coincidental:

Television and Disneyland operate similarly.  By means of extraction, reduction, and recombination, to create an entirely new, antigeographical space.  On TV, the endlessly bizarre juxtapositions of the daily broadcast schedule continuously erode traditional strategies of coherence.  The quintessential experience of television, that continuous program-hopping zap from the remote control, creates path after unique path through the infinity of televisual space.  Likewise, Disneyland, with its channel-turning mingle of history and fantasy, reality and simulation, invents a way of encountering the physical world that increasingly characterizes daily life. (p. 208)

Walt saw in Disneyland “a living set for television” that fans and customers could visit, and in television he saw the means “to create a new motion-picture theater audience and to encourage the fullest box-office patronage for our forthcoming pictures.” (Findlay, 1993, p. 59).  Disney saw television as an amazing marketing medium and a way for him to be able to integrate and cross-promote the rest of his organization.  Disneyland, too, integrates and cross promotes other Disney products.  The "Disneyland" chapters of this dissertation do essentially the thing, as they constantly cross references other parts of themselves, seeking to integrate and interconnect the different parts, which reflects the Neptunian nature of Disneyland, while the use of hypertext reflects their Uranian nature.

The TV show Disneyland was accused of being and essentially was, one big advertisement for Disney—the first infomercial in a sense!  The show not only promoted Disneyland but provided progress reports on upcoming films as well.  Its “Operation Underseas” segment, was about the filming of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Although accused of being “a long, long trailer,” "Operation Underseas" won the Emmy Award that year for best show.  The behind the scenes segments invited the audience “to examine the very entertainment structure and operations that beguiled them to learn how they worked” (Watts, 1997, p. 366). 

For a long time, people had hungered to know what happened behind the scenes and Disney satisfied this desire, providing regular updates on the park.  Disney insisted, as part of his agreement to do the television show, that the park become a part of the show. The Disneyland television show also showcased Disney’s extensive film library, and whet people’s appetites for coming attractions.  After Disney’s success with the Christmas specials of 1950 and 1951, he agreed to host the new Disneylandshow himself.  The television show, like the future park for which the show was named, mirrored the structure of the park and was divided into themed lands. The Disneyland television show debuted on October 27, 1954, just three months after groundbreaking at the park.  Frontierland and Adventureland showcased the Disney "True Life Adventures" and also the wildly successful Davy Crockett series.  Fantasyland was the platform for Disney’s animation films, while Tomorrowland featured the “Man in Space,” Disney’s promotion for the space program. “The show was a mélange of original productions, segments from the film library of live-action nature films, animation shorts, and glimpses of upcoming movies” (Watts, 1997, p. 366). It was bricolage all the way down as we have Disney, the bricoleur, creating a television show, which was a bricolage, on a bricolagical medium, about a place that would also be a bricolage.

Windows Onto the World and the Future

That Disney’s first foray into television was the Christmas show of 1950 featured Alice In Wonderland is fitting, since Walt got his start with the Alice in Cartoonland series back in the 1920s.  Those early animated films mixed a live-action Alice with animated creatures. As in Lewis Carroll's classic books, the live-action Alice enters a new world, where things are different.  Hermes calls gently in the background that in hermeneutics the work opens up a world, and at Disneyland we can actually physically enter into this fantasy world ourselves. 

In December of 1950, at almost the same time as the Disney Christmas Special, Doug Englebart, inventor of the other mouse , the computer mouse, had a vision to augment human intelligence using computers that set a whole new age into motion.  Engelbart felt that people needed to have a different relationship with computers, one that was more “user friendly” and allowed interaction.  Having worked with radar in

World War II, Engelbart thought that there might be a way of using a display instead of punchcards and tape to be able to access information.  Having previously read an article by Vanever Bush “As We May Think” in Atlantic Monthly in 1945 about a desklike machine called a memex, Engelbart thought that he could assist people to make better decisions more quickly by being able to access information more easily.  Engelbart, his colleagues and other mavericks would later essentially develop the mouse, the graphic user interface, the display, and personal computer.  Engelbart’s famous 1968 demonstration affectionately referred to as “the mother of all demos” was essentially the beginning of what would later become the internet.  You can see this revolutionary demonstration on the internet, by clicking here with Doug's invention, your mouse [link to mousesite].

That same year, 1950, Jung had just finished carving his Bollingen stone, for his 75th birthday and was working on Aion, "Answer to Job" and "Synchronicity".  In Aion, Jung (1951/1979) explored Christianity as it related to the Piscean Age archetypally, and his paper on sychronicity discussed the significance of outer world activities mirroring internal psychic events, what he called “acausal orderedness.”  Speaking of synchronicity, also archetypally interesting at this time was the coincidence of three different feminine classical figures, all of which occurred in 1950:  Cinderella made her Disney film debut and rose from the ashes, Alice in Wonderland’s trip down the rabbit hole into a surrealistic topsy-turvy world was showcased on the first Disney television special, and the Catholic Church announced the Assumption of Mary. 

Without these three visionaries, Engelbart, Disney, and Jung, we would not be here today. Without Doug Engelbart, I would not have had the idea to do a website and I would never have googled “dragons and depression” and ended up with Grof’s cartography, not to mention the task of writing using Word and a computer instead of a typewriter, and you would not be able to read my dissertation from your moniter in your own home, or anywhere else that you happen to have Internet access. Without Jung, you and I would have no idea about archetypes and synchronicity, and without Disney, I would not have anything to write about, because all the cultural pieces which we are considering come from Disney's empire.  On the last stop of our excursion, we well explore the effects of the environment on Disneyland, to see the part sunny Southern California played. [You can learn more about Engelbart in the "Rebellious 60s Retrospective" in the "Mary Poppins" Chapter.]


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