top of page
  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

It's All an Illusion

The illusory nature of reality, or maya is an aspect of the Cosmic Game that reigns supreme at Disneyland.  Disneyland is one big illusion, and one that we heartily embrace.  Sorkin (1992) says that “for millions of visitors, Disneyland is just like the world only better” (p. 216).  Disneyland is a simulacra, a “collection of virtual images”  (Isozaki, 1993, p. 175), which has in turn led to simulations of itself in Florida, Tokyo, France and now Hong Kong.  Disneyland is “someplace that is ‘like’ someplace else.  The simulation’s referent is ever elsewhere; the ‘authenticity’ of the substitution always depends on the knowledge, however faded, of some absent genuine” (Sorkin, p. 216).  As we will see later on, in the mini excursion into transitional space, this absence of presence makes play possible, because this is how symbols function.

For Disney, the illusion was everything.  Walt once severely reprimanded a publicity man who had parked his car near the Frontierland station, admonishing him: “your car destroys the whole illusion”(Thomas, 1976, p. 289).  At Disneyland, we have concrete illusions of imaginal figures.  In Disney’s animated films, he reinterpreted stories of literary fantasy figures, such as Alice, Peter Pan, Snow White, and Pinocchio.  These fantasy figures then reappear at Disneyland, as images, three-dimensional models, and are sometimes actually portrayed by real people who represent the cartoon representations.  It's fictions all the way down, baby, illusions, based on illusions, based on illusions! 

We can enthusiastically participate in these illusions because we are so safely distanced from reality, thus we experience the excitement with no real danger—none of the danger, all of the fun! Marin (1984), in speaking of Fantasyland points out that:

This district is constituted by images; of particular significance is the fact that these images are realized, are made living by their transformation into real materials, wood, stone plaster, etc., and through their animation by men and women disguised as movie or storybook characters.  Image is duplicated by reality in two opposite senses: on the one hand, it becomes real, but on the other hand, reality is changed into image.  (p. 245)

Fantasy has become reality in this way, and this is one of the main attractions and fascinations of the Disney theme parks.  Wakefield (1990) explains: “In both producing and confessing to its illusionism, the Disney world epitomizes a new relationship to experience that goes beyond leisure and entertainment” (p. 109).  To paraphrase Mary Poppins: "Very postmodern to Wakefield’s way of thinking."

Illusions Within Illusions 

At Disneyland, everything is also an illusion and is made more believable through the use of illusions—especially filmmaking tricks of scale and forced perspective.  Disney wanted Disneyland to be “intimate and friendly and, at the same time, to be a special world where one could suspend disbelief” (Bright, 1987, p. 93).  For example, Disney scaled down the size of Main Street, making it slightly smaller than life-sized to create an air of “nostalgic fantasy,” making it is impressive but not intimidating.  Forced perspective is used to makes things appear taller than they are in actuality.  This is accomplished by having them proportionately larger on the bottom than at the top:  “by making the ground floor 90%, second floor 80% and third floor 60% in scale.  The result was a charming illusion” (Thomas, 1976, p. 252). 

Waiting in line is made easier through the use of illusion as well.  The different waiting lines for the attractions are divided into smaller ones by mazes which give the illusion of progress and movement, instead of a long single slow moving line, the maze arrangement provides several faster moving lines where people constantly snake back and forth.  Not only does this help alleviate the usual tension and irritation, but the maze configuration promotes interaction between guests as they see each other coming and going along the way. 

Audience Participation in the Illusion

The familiar “life as theater” metaphor, prevalent from Shiva to Shakespeare, is one of the main features of Disneyland for the guests.  At Disneyland, we, the audience, become participants and not merely spectators, as we cross over into realized fantasy.  This was a natural progression for Disney, who brought his filmmaking experience to bear at Disneyland: “He thought in movie terms: transporting his audience from one scene to the next with smooth transitions, combining controlled elements for a total experience” (Thomas, 1976, p. 17).

At Disneyland, we are invited to enter into the experience.  The attractions and adventures actually involve us physically in the show, and we have many opportunities to participate, although sometimes very passively in the stories that the rides portray.  According to Waldrep (1993), this ability to participate provides the primary enjoyment of the park.  Bukatman (1991) remarks that “the combination of simulation and transportation” puts the body “in motion in Disneyland” (p. 75), as real movement of our physical body occurs as we participate in the various attractions. 

Bukatman (1991) further points out that in many attractions such as "Star Tours," the film is no longer separated from the auditorium.  "Hale’s Tours," at the turn of the century were a prototype for this phenomenon, where the onscreen action is augmented by the theater itself actually moving.  By providing a safe and reassuring context for the “enjoyable anxiety the audience felt before the illusion of motion.”  Bukatman, in part quoting Lynne Kirby's discussion of the "Hale’s Tours" argues that they were:

“a symptomatic response to an urban-induced ‘hysteria’, and that the simulated transport served to equip its audience with an illusion of mastery over, or at least accommodation to, the mighty technological forces which were being increasingly deployed.” Kirby refers to Walter Benjamin on the role of cinema in a dramatically technologized world: “the film is the art form that is in keeping with the increase threat to his life which modern man has to face.  Man’s need to expose himself to shock effects is his adjustment to the dangers threatening him.  The film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus.”  (p. 76)

Once again we see a key requirement for play and one of play’s key functions together: the provision a safe space, so that one can master an anxiety-producing situation.

Intermixing Illusion and Reality

Disneyland is not the only place where reality and illusion are mixed.  Babies mix fantasy and reality everyday, as we will shortly see in the mini-excursion into transitional space below.  We mix the two when we play, create art, and when we dream.  We are constantly going between these two worlds.  If we stay in one to the exclusion of the other, that is when trouble occurs: If we stay exclusively in the real world and do not let ourselves dream, all the fun goes out of life, and life becomes hard and dry.  If we only “live in a fantasy world” we are not able to deal with life, and if our illusions are ours alone, and no one else shares them, that is the definition of madness.  What is so wonderful about Disneyland and other cultural creations, such as movies, is that they are shared illusions.  We enjoy them because they enable us to escape from ourselves and to commune with others.  Disney is so good at creating these shared illusions, that the Disney version has outshown the original stories in many cases.  People sometimes do not even realize that there are other versions.  This creates another one of those fleeting shadows that we keep seeing:

Disney materials can seem to serve as a common cultural denominator for many groups.  On a more personal level, members of the vast Disney film audience, along with visitors to the theme parks, are re-creating for themselves as powerful images the materials manipulated by Disney, and those re-created images are gradually taking the shape of the originals . . . . Disney’s version becomes the original version, which is actually more powerful than history since its form is concrete, containing “real people” and “lifelike” people with plenty of action and drama by both.  (D. M. Johnson, 1981, p. 164)

Disney’s version is so clear and convincing that the Disney version becomes “the” reality, and people do not bother making up their own ideas.  Personal imagination gives way to Disney imagination, and we can get lost in the Disney imagination, and lose an important part of ourselves in the process.   Wakefield (1990) notes that:

The technology of enactment can give us more reality than nature ever could. Umberto Eco has this in mind when he writes that the pleasure of imitation, as the ancients knew, is one of the most innate in the human spirit:  but here we not only enjoy a perfect imitation, we also enjoy the conviction that imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it. The “here” that he refers to, however, greatly exceeds the limited confines of hyperreality that we observe as a feature of Disneyland.  It is the here and now of the whole “real” America, based as it is on a new ecology of fantasy and leisure, that marks the ascent of the simulacrum, the reign of imitation, the twilight of the real. (p. 110)

On a recent trip to London, I caught myself looking at some historical building marveling to myself “It's just like Disneyland.”  In this way, Disneyland has become more real than the real thing, essentially switching places with the original, which has become the referent.  I had gotten things backwards and should have said, "Disneyland really captures the look of this building well,” but instead I compared the real building to its fantasy version. 

We play video games and watch television shows, DVDs and movies instead of creating our own games using our own imaginations.  The danger of having one version is that one version is limiting, for example, in one’s imagination, Cinderella can be any race at all, because this fairytale is common to many cultures, from India to France.  However, ever since Disney’s 1950 version, Cinderella has become only blond and blue-eyed.  Disney, to their credit in the television version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Iscove, 1997), cast African-American singer/actress Brandi as Cinderella.

Return of the Excluded Middle or Mini-Excursion into Transitional Space

Dutch anthropologist Johann Huizinga’s (1944/1955) landmark book, Homo Ludens asserts that all of culture comes from play.  Winnicott (1999), a psychiatrist from the Object Relations school agrees, although he gets there a different way.  Winnicott believes that “playing leads on naturally to cultural experience and indeed forms its foundation” (p 106).  Winnicott initially developed his theory in 1951, and according to him, play arises in the in-between space, between the infant and the mother.  This in-between space is neither wholly internal reality nor wholly external, but is located in a neither/nor realm of the imagination, and is at first created through illusion.  Winnicott called this in-between space transitional or potential space. Transitional space is the place of playing between mother and baby.

At first, the infant is "almost fully adapted to" by the mother, meaning, that she provides what is needed almost immediately.  This creates the illusion that the infant is magically in control and that merely to think of something causes that something to magically appear or happen.  By being a “good enough” mother, the baby learns to trust the mother and this confidence in the mother, which is later introjected or internalized, allows a safe space for illusion. This safe space is important because without such a safe space, play cannot take place.  Plaut in 1966 said “the capacity to form images and use them constructively by recombination into new patterns is—unlike dreams or fantasies—dependent on individual’s ability to trust,” and Winnicott (1999) notes that he understands trust in this context to mean “building up of confidence based on experience at the time of maximal dependence” (p. 102). 

The mother’s job is then to gradually disillusion the infant, by not providing exactly what the baby wants on cue.  In this way, the baby learns to substitute other things for the mother, in order to help hold the anxiety caused by not getting his needs satisfied instantly, in order to soothe himself. These other substituted things that represent the mother can be a thumb, a blanket, a stuffed animal, etcetera.  The infant knows that these are not the mother, but they take the place of the mother and are very special to the infant.  In this way, the child first uses symbols and later plays with the mother. 

Winnicott (1999) refers to two different substituted things—transitional phenomena and transitional objects.  Transitional phenomena include non-material things such as babbling, tunes, songs, mannerisms, etcetera. and these represent early stages of the use of illusion. “Transitional objects and transitional phenomena belong to the realm of illusion” (p. 14). Transitional objects are then different physical things that the infant uses as a substitute for the mother, as a symbol of her, to represent her in her absence. Transitional objects are especially indispensable during times of loneliness, at bedtime, or when a depressed mood threatens.  Symbols then represent something absent and are the first way a baby plays.

Transitional objects are important not only because they are symbolic of or stand for the mother, but because they are real and are not the mother.  “When we see an infant use a transitional object, their “first not me possession, we are witnessing both the child’s first use of a symbol and the first experience of play” (Winnicott, 1999, p. 96).

Transitional objects are a neutral area that will not be challenged.  The baby has control over these objects, and can change or destroy them, but they need to be respected and not changed by anyone other than the baby.  In other words, do not wash the blanket or the filthy dirty stuffed animal—you are messing with a transitional object, and this will be very upsetting to the child.  Transitional objects are gradually decathected (a fancy way of saying that at some point we lose interest in them). 

As previously mentioned, transitional space is the space between the inner reality of the child and the outer reality of external life.   The intermediate area between subjectively perceived and objectively perceived, transitional space is the place of experiencing, a resting area that keeps inner and outer separate but interrelated.  Winnicott (1999) notes:

The area of playing is not inner psychic reality, but is outside the individual, but it is not the external world.  Into this play area, the child gathers objects from external reality and uses in service to some sample derived from inner or personal reality . . . the child puts out a sample of dream potential and lives with this sample in a chosen setting of fragments from external reality.  In playing, the child manipulates external phenomena in the service of the dream and invests chosen external phenomena with dream meaning and feeling. (p. 51)

Winnicott (1999) contends that the “use of an object symbolizes union of two now separate things, baby and mother, at the point in time and space of the initiation of their separateness” (pp. 96-97).  Babies use symbols of the mother in her absence, and are then gradually able to allow and benefit from separation, because the transitional object represents a “separation that is not separation but a form of union” (pp. 97-98). This dynamic then becomes the basis for inventiveness, the interplay between separation (originality) and acceptance of tradition (union).  Symbols, and their first expression, transitional objects, allow us to become able to accept difference and similiarity, to clearly distinguish between fantasy and fact, inner and external objects.  Winnicott believes that:

the task of reality acceptance is never completed, that no human being is is free from the strain of relating their inner world with outer reality, and that relief is provided by an intermediate area of experience (cf. Riviere, 1936) which is not challenged (arts, religion, etc.).  This intermediate area is in direct continuity with the play area of a small child who is “lost” in play. (p.13)

Winnicott (1999) also believes that we value play and cultural experience because they “link the past the present and the future; they take up time and space.  They demand and get our concentrated deliberate attention.”  Through developing confidence in the mother, the baby is able to be confident in other things and people as well, which enables a “separating-out of the me and not-me.  At the same time . . . that separation is avoided by filling in of the potential space with creative playing, with use of symbols and with all that eventually adds up to a cultural life” (p. 109). 

Cultural experience, like play, is located in the potential space between individual and environment, and begins with play.  Transitional phenomena leads to playing, and then gradually shared playing, which then becomes cultural experience.

Potential space only happens in relation to the feelings of confidence and safety on the part of the baby.  Winnicott (1999) believes that potential space is sacred to the individual, because potential space is where an individual experiences creative living.  If there is no safety, there can be no play.  This is true not only for the infant, but for everyone.  Potential space can only arise when there is experience that leads to trust. 

The sharing of this intermediate area through play and cultural experience gives a common experience between people, a common ground from which they can relate to each other.  Art, creative scientific work, philosophy, religion, and imaginative living all arise from and are an expression of this intermediate area.  Since we previously saw that it is not nice to fool around with another’s transitional objects, we might keep this in mind with regard to religion.  Perhaps we should have a “you go your way and I’ll go mine” attitude with religion, and not keep challenging each other’s religions.  Just as we should not be trying to mess around with each others transitional objects, or try to change someone else’s transitional object or force our transitional object on another person, we might consider religion in the same light.  As Winnicott (1999) suggests, religion is one of those in-between areas, and should perhaps be a neutral zone, off limits. 

This is possibly why entertainment is so successful, because entertainment is not trying to change anybody.  Entertainment is not serious, so we can just enjoy the shared experience together.  We do not go to war with each other over different movies, or because we really like the original version of a movie, and someone else prefers the remake.  One of the reasons why Disneyland is so successful is that Disney’s goal was to provide a shared experience that was not trying to change people, but to give them what they like.  In Disneyland, Disney perhaps created the ultimate transitional space, and many of the characters that live in this space have become major transitional objects.  Now let us see how Disney and his imagineers created this liminal place of illusion.


bottom of page