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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn


Disneyland’s Design—A Rose-Colored Backwards Glance Into Childhood

Nostalgia comes from the Greek word nostos, meaning a return home, paired with algia meaning pain and nostalgia can be defined as “a bittersweet longing for things, persons or situations of the past…  the condition of being homesick; homesickness” (AHD, 2000c, p. 1202). Ward Kimball, animator and friend of Disney, said that Walt “loved nostalgia before it became fashionable.  That’s why so many of his pictures were set in the harmless period of American history, the Gay Nineties or the early 1900’s—because that was when he was a kid” (K. M. Jackson, 1993, p. 149).  Disneyland was based on nostalgia, and nostalgia was part of Disney's original vision for the park.  Bryman (1995) notes that memos from Disneyland’s planning stages envisioned it to be an “extremely sentimental and nostalgic place where children can experience the material culture of past generations and where adults can relive their or their parent’s childhood,” and “a place where older generation could reminisce about nostalgia of earlier years” (p. 137).  King (1981a) says that “the return to childhood is the basic appeal of the Disney parks, in fact all of his productions” (p. 130).  [The return to childhood is an important move that we will return to shortly, and which can also be explored in the "Cherishing of Childhood" excursion, located at the hub.]

Although Disney was routinely criticized for this nostalgic view—that the imagined past of nostalgia is not the actual past, but one filtered through “rose colored” glasses—Disney openly declared this to be his intention; written in bronze, on the 1955 dedication plaque: “Here age relives fond memories of the past….”  And, it is not just any past, it is a happy place to relive the fond memories of the past, and on this Disneyland delivers.

Let us pause for a bit and see why nostalgia is so appealing, as we take a mini-excursion into the history of nostalgia, which interestingly enough used to be a medical condition. Then we will learn why "you can’t go home again" and look at how nostalgia plays with the past. We will then consider some of nostalgia's possible virtues, and then contemplate nostalgia's connection with utopia.

Mini-Excursion—History of Nostalgia

In the classical world, Bryan Turner (1987) tells us, nostalgia was associated with melancholy, black bile, characterized by excessive anxiety and depression, and the planet Saturn.  Thus, it is appropriate, that the most nostalgic part of the park, Main Street USA, is also associated with the separation phase of rites of passage (Marling, 1997). Frontierland, another nostalgic place, which looks back on the country’s childhood, can also be associated with Saturn archetypally, as we see in the main "Disneyland" Chapter.  Saturn is also responsible for structure, and Main Street USA acts to structure the whole Disneyland experience, giving us those rose-colored nostalgic glasses.

Melancholics, as these people were known, suffered from an extreme instability of moods.  The Stoics regarded melancholy as an “occupational condition of the intellectual class . . . . The nostalgic and melancholic person didn’t feel comfortable in their world because they experienced social realty as mere illusion which could not be grasped . . . . For the nostalgic, the world is alien” (B. Turner, 1987, pp. 148-149).  These people experienced a heightened sensitivity to reality, saw alienation of self-conscious individuals as the human problem and thus had melancholy “precisely because they were painfully aware of our finite existence” (B. Turner, p. 149).

B. Turner relates that nostalgia was once considered a disease and in the Seventeenth Century was defined medically as “homesickness.”  Nostalgia was first found in analyzing the physical symptoms of Swiss mercenaries who were fighting far from their homelands.  Chase and Shaw (1989) relate that nostalgia:

was a disease with physical symptoms . . . ‘to leave home for long was to risk death’.  Our present usage of the word is therefore distinctly modern and metaphorical.  The home we miss is no longer a geographically defined place but rather a state of mind. (p. 1)

In the late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, as western society experienced upheavals of industrialization and urbanization, “nostalgia transformed from a medical to social complaint” because it became so pervasive.  Displaced persons expressed nostalgia “not only for antiquity, but also for more recent pasts and for earlier stages of their own lives; lost childhood was mourned along with lost childhood scenes” (Lowenthal, 1989, p. 20).

Nostalgia is the longing for an imagined unified past.  Uprooted from community and tradition, we feel fragmented, and thus long for a more unified time, a time when life was more immediate, personal, and wholehearted; and consciousness was more integrated, instead of the impersonal and bureaucratic world where our consciousness is fragmented. We also long for the more “primitive pleasures” like those of carnival, that we have lost as we got more “civilized,” as B. Turner (1987) explains:

The primitive emotions which were once celebrated in peasant festivals have been subdued first by the culture of the court and finally by the restraint of bourgeois society.  The festivals and ceremonials of peasant culture were once a collective celebration of primitive pleasures… the primitive gluttony, spontaneity and orgiastic abandonment of the pre-modern table have collapsed with the spread of refined manners and personal restraint through the new gastronomy of taste.  Herbert Marcuse, a Freudian critical theorist  “claimed that civilization was also bought at the cost of personal freedom and sexual spontaneity; contemporary civilization was a political system of surplus repression.” (B. Turner, 1987, pp. 150-151)

Chase and Shaw (1989) posit that “perhaps as a species we are given to nostalgia, for each adult carries the memory of an age when the experience of time was different” (p. 4).  They suggest that children experience an undivided consciousness and thus a different sense of time, and that for children “the natural world had a sharpness and intensity that was lost, or at least rare, in the adult.  Sometimes one could be jolted into recollection” (p. 5).  Chase and Shaw argue that the capacity for nostalgia is linked with the comprehension of the biological finality of death.

Nostalgia has three preconditions—a sense of linear time, a sense that the present is deficient and the presence of artifacts from the past.  Bryman (1995) points out that all of these are present at Disneyland.  The sense of linear time comes from the historical progression from the past to the future, from the misty pasts of Main Street USA, Adventureland, and Frontierland to the misty future of Tomorrowland.  The present as deficient is less easily seen, because the present is not very present in the park, and deliberately so, because, for many, the present is tinged with fears about the future: “thus the present, in its interstitial relationship with the future, represents for many people a time of uncertainty which results in the celebration of the certainties of the past”  (p. 139). 

The presence of artifacts from the past is definitely present at Disneyland, and is part of the magic and immense appeal.  Many actual artifacts of the past, as well as pain-stakingly detailed reproductions can be found throughout the park as props and “set decoration” in the attractions and scattered throughout the different lands themselves.  The architecture and costumes worn by castmembers is appropriate to each themed land and has been historically researched, down to the doorknobs.  Disney does take some license however, making the artifacts of the past seem even better than some of them actually were—an example of this would be the fact that the costumes for Main Street USA are much more colorful than their actual historical originals.

Although popular culture since World War II has made nostalgia an even more widespread trend (possibly due to the finality of death for the whole planet being now just the push of a button away), nostalgia has been with us for ages. Even Virgil longed for and thus immortalized the heroic and the pastoral past, Lowenthal (1985) tells us.  Chase and Shaw (1989) relate that Hofstadter, attributes the “sentimental appreciation of the past… to grave insecurity about the future” (p, 2), noting that each epoch experiences nostalgia, and at present

Berman characterizes the project of contemporary culture as the wish to ‘make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom.’ When the only certainty is uncertainty, nostalgia is the attempt to cling to the alleged certainties of the past, ignoring the fact, that like it or not, the only constant in our lives is change. (p. 8)

The yearning for a “simple and stable past as a refuge from the turbulent and chaotic present” (Lowenthal, 1989, p. 21) is a constant nostalgic theme, expressing the desire for stability and to feel at home.

Although Dorothy said, "There’s no place like home," and then magically went back there (after all she was a fictional character in a movie, so she could do it), well maybe Dorothy was right, there is “no place” like home, and even if there was…

You Can’t Go Home Again

As changes accelerate, King (1981a) notes that it becomes “more and more difficult to return to places as they were or even to recognize them in their altered state”  (pp. 130-131).  Actually returning home is fraught with difficulty: "you can’t go home again."  It is not the same; people and things have changed in the meantime.  Unhappy as well as happy experiences and relationships reemerge.  Disneyland however, poses no such problems, and allows us to return in our imaginations “so that the ‘return’ is even better at Disneyland than it could ever be in reality”  (King, p. 130).  In our memories, the place is different than the reality we see before our eyes if we do return home.  We have changed, even if the place has not, and so we are likely to be disappointed.  Disneyland is different as King notes: “at Disneyland, no such disappointment is possible; the perfect symbolism of Main Street evokes the pleasure of memory without the pain and disillusionment of actual return” (p. 130).  King points out, that what we really want to experience is another time, not another place

We want to recapture childhood (Freud would say we want to escape “maternal deprivation”).  So nostalgia, with the modern loss of roots becomes a yearning for the protection and security of the family rather than a yearning for place; the family replaces the village in our affections.  By the association of ideas, the geographical setting of growing up and the process of growing up are confused: longing for place is an unconscious cryptogram for a desire to return to a simpler way of life (childhood) . . . . So the Disney parks touch on two sources of the modern desire to return through time to an earlier state of mind; the childhood of the individual (Main Street; Fantasyland, based on children’s literary classics; and the play-orientation of the park’s activities) and the childhood of the nation (early Twentieth Century settings and back through the frontier and colonial periods). (King, 1981a, p. 131)

Regardless of whether we can or can’t go home again, what is essential about nostalgia is that nostalgia points to the desire to return to childhood.

Nostalgia Plays With the Past

Lowenthal (1989) tells us that “Nostalgia tells it like it wasn’t” (p. 18).  Nostalgia has been criticized for being commercialized and inauthentic; for its pervasiveness in the media; and for its reactionary slant, which is seen as “glossing over the past’s iniquities and indignities” (pp. 21-22).  Disneyland, since it is also nostalgic, has been criticized for the same things.  We have seen how nostalgia plays with the past, and now we can see how Disneyland plays with the past, too.

Nostalgia takes memory and removes the pain.  The past was not really as we often imagine it, and most of us know this.  Nostalgia is deceptive, putting on rose-colored glasses and then selecting certain things and eliminating them, while exaggerating others, making them more vivid.  This is precisely what Disneyland does.  Lowenthal (1985) says that we alter the past to reflect our present needs:

We reshape our heritage to make it attractive to modern terms; we seek to make it part of ourselves, and ourselves part of it; we conform it to our self-images and aspirations.  Rendered grand or homely, magnified or tarnished, history is continually altered in our private interests or on behalf of our community or country. (p. 348)

Sometimes, like in Frontierland, we desire to reexperience these times, precisely because we know that we cannot, and in a way we are reassured by this, because we really would not want to experience that time again the way it was—in the Wild West, they did not even have toilets or electricity, let alone the Internet, Tivo or cell phones!

Nostalgia is not about the past itself as much as about what was once thought possible.  Lowenthal (1985) remarks that life seemed brighter back in “those days,” not because things were actually better, but “because we lived more vividly when we were young” (p. 8).  He tells us that this imagined past is false, not simply because the imagined past exaggerates the virtues of the past and paints with a broad, rose-colored brush, but because no one could ever experience the past in that way at the time:

We have to interpret the ongoing present as we live through it, whereas we stand outside the past to view its more finished forms, including its now known consequences for what was thenthe unknown future.  For all its strangeness, the past thus looks more definitive and magisterial than the present.  Hence history reveals and nostalgia celebrates an ordered clarity contrasting with the chaos or imprecision of our own times. (Lowenthal, 1989, p. 30)

When the past itself was being experienced, the past was the present and therefore did not feel integrated or complete.  When the past was actually happening, it was not as coherent as when we look back at the past with the benefit of hindsight.  We long for this unified, comprehensible imagined past, which is unlike the incoherent, fragmented present. 

Fred Beckstein, Sr. VP of Euro Disneyland Imagineering, in discussing the nostalgic in relation to Euro Disneyland, said:

The whole idea is an escape from reality into a place where you can simply have fun.  Life is full of problems, but it is our job to stop harsh reality intruding on the fantasy.  Nostalgia, too, is a big part of the magic . . . . We’re not trying to design what really existed in 1900, we’re trying to design what people think they remember about what existed.  (Bryman, 1995, p. 137)

This is one of the benefits of nostalgia: the ability to escape from the problems of the real world for a short time—call it “the pause that refreshes” to borrow a slogan from Disney’s 1950 Christmas Special sponsor, Coca-Cola. 

While our nostalgic desire to seek refuge in the past may perhaps be a symptom of our refusal to face the predicaments of the present and our fear of the future, nostalgia may have some “compensating virtues,” which Lowenthal (1985) and others point out: “Nostalgia can also shore up self-esteem, reminding us that however sad our present lot we were once happy and worthwhile” (p. 8), “attachment to familiar places may buffer social upheaval, attachment to familiar faces may be necessary for enduring association.  Nostalgia reaffirms identities bruised by recent turmoil” (p. 13), and Tester (1993) points out that “nostalgia may be a way of coming to terms with my present position and of giving myself the confidence and the certainty to carry on living there” (p. 66).

Chase and Shaw (1989) contend that the sense of nostalgia is profoundly connected with utopian futurity: “Nostalgia becomes possible at the same time as utopia.  The counterpart of the imagined future is the imagined past” (p. 9). They see the past as one kind of response to the cultural conflict of modernity as “it simultaneously provides fertile ground for certainty and deconstruction.” (Tester 1993, p. 64)  Tester summarizes: “nostalgia emerges in cultural circumstances in which society is seen as a milieu on the move from somewhere which is defining to somewhere else which is to be defined” (p. 64).  In other words, nostalgia, perhaps, gives us a ground in a groundless world, and since we can imagine our pasts, why not imagine the future?


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