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925 Silver Collection

Disneyland with Eyes Open Richard Speer

As a kid in south-central Florida in the 1970s and early 80s, I visited Disney World five or six times until last month, but I’d never been to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. We think of the Disney parks as destinations for wholesome family fun and togetherness, but I went alone, a 53-year-old childless, widowed white male art critic on an anthropological expedition into one of the iconic centers of American pop culture. I wanted to have fun and reconnect with my child self, mind you, but I had my eyes open. For the previous few weeks, and before that the entire month of April, I’d been in Southern California as a guest curator for LACMA [see link], leading tours of the exhibition “Sam Francis and Japan” and, in my off hours, making the rounds of museums, galleries, nonprofits, universities, and artist studios. As my trip’s end drew nigh, I decided it would be novel to spend my final day in greater Los Angeles far from the collectors, cognoscenti, and Gagosian denizens I’d been consorting with and plunge neck-deep into the mouse-eared hoi polloi. I don’t know why it surprised me, but my day at Disneyland was a kaleidoscopic mind-fuck. I found myself within a simulacrum of a simulacrum, a microcosm of our wider sociopolitical moment in which nostalgia for an imagined halcyon past rules the hearts of voters and the strategy sessions of those who want their votes.

Disneyland Main Street, USA, c. 1960. Photo courtesy of KCET and Tom Simpson.

In the decades since my childhood I’d forgotten how the Disney parks are organized around rose-colored recreations of American historical eras. You enter Disneyland through Main Street U.S.A. with its barbershop quartets and Victorian storefronts, an early 20th-Century pastiche of ragtime, soda fountains, and straw skimmer hats. A vision straight out of Norman Rockwell or Grant Wood, it could be Peoria, Omaha, or Knoxville in the Summer of 1915, as remembered from a certain whitewashed perspective where the picket fences are white, and so is the freshly baked bread, and so is, well, everything. From this promenade of milky dreams you hang a left into Frontierland, domain of Davy Crockett and Tom Sawyer, where the soundtrack shifts to winsome harmonicas and the fiddles and banjos of bluegrass, and the Mark Twain Riverboat and Sailing Ship Columbia ferry you on a voyage up beyond the mighty Mississippi into the Pacific Northwest. Aboard these fantastical, fantasist boats, the N-word is never breathed, the Civil War never happened, and the natives you see along the riverbank are all friendly and welcoming of the white men streaming into their territory. In nearby Adventureland you can take a jungle cruise straight out of Kipling or Defoe, pretending you’re Burton and Speke in pith helmet and jodhpurs, sailing up the Nile toward Lake Victoria. Heart of Darkness? Pshaw! 

Over on the east side of the park are Tomorrowland’s Jetsons-flavored retro-futurism and Fantasyland’s turreted, half-timbered evocations of Merrie Olde England. Fantasyland is a pretty good distillation of the Disney vision as a whole: a selectively edited, glass-half-full reimagining of the American trajectory, with slavery, indigenous genocide, xenophobia, and systemic racism conveniently left on the cutting-room floor. Sort of like a history curriculum designed by Ron DeSantis. 

Unattributed lllustration from the late 1950s of a self driving car, edited by Jaclyn Anglis. Courtesy of All That’s Interesting.

When Walt Disney opened Disneyland in 1955, he was gazing backward through reveries of a ludicrously sunny, uncomplicated past. “Do you remember when you were growing up, how simple life was, how easy it felt?” presidential candidate Nikki Haley tweeted this past June 24. “It was about faith, family, and country. We can have that again, but to do that, we must vote Joe Biden out.” (It’s worth noting that the slogan-like simplicity and alliterative “f” sounds of “faith, family, and country” disturbingly recall the Nazi’s “Führer, Volk, und Vaterland”.) Similarly, the very moniker “Make America Great Again” implies a dashed ideal that can and must be restored to prelapsarian splendor.

Disney’s homogenized Main Street U.S.A. is taken to grotesque extremes in the lyrics of country star Jason Aldean’s menacing song, “Try That in a Small Town,” whose music video juxtaposes footage (subsequently redacted) of Black Lives Matter protests with images of Aldean in front of a Tennessee courthouse where a black teenager was lynched in 1927. The singer intones how his grandfather once gave him a gun, then warns city folk, “See how far ya make it down the road” if their effete, bleeding-heart ways run afoul of “good ol’ boys raised up right.” This isn’t subtext, it’s text. In post-Trump (and possibly pre-Trump-redux) America, one needn’t dog-whistle; one can proudly, brazenly state the quiet part out loud. A few days ago, Aldean addressed fans who’d wondered whether he’d continue to perform his provincialist paean in concerts, given the widespread condemnation, at least on the left. He answered in the affirmative: “The people have spoken.” Vox populi indeed. I’m certainly not suggesting that Disney itself supports racism. In fact, their progressive, pro-LGBTQ stances have famously drawn the ire, and machinations, of DeSantis & Co. However, it’s incongruous that the Disney parks’ squeaky-clean historical revisionism dovetails so neatly with the whitewash so deeply rooted in the G.O.P. worldview.

Jason Aldean, still from “Try That in a Small Town” music video, You Tube, 2023. Courtesy of Nashville Scene.

One wonders why park-goers circa 2023 are still eating up this pabulum, given that most visitors are young and have no memory of Walt Disney’s midcentury cultural referents. How many among millennials and Gen Z-ers know the lyrics to “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”? Or the exploits of Andy Taylor, his son Opie and Aunt Bea, not to mention sidekick Barney Fife in the bosom of Mayberry, North Carolina? Whose conception of the Old West was shaped by The Lone Ranger, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, or even Little House on the Prairie? Those referents are as distant as Ancient Rome, and besides, Bonanza was a Baudrillardian simulacrum to begin with. Marshall McLuhan called it “Bonanza-land,” observing in “The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects” that we aspire to “live in Bonanza-land, one stage back” from the current era. “The Cartwright territory is much more comfortable to live in than modern suburbia,” McLuhan continues. “Emotionally, it is much more gratifying and secure ... It is the old environment. Every time a new environment forms — or the new medium — people go back and live in the old one.”

Peter Halley wrote about this spatial-cultural discontinuity in the 1980s: “We are in a world where space is dramatic but no longer makes sense. Here, like at Disneyworld, Las Vegas, or the shopping mall, everything is arranged to entice, seduce, and amaze” (“Frank Stella and the Simulacrum,” 1986). And: “In politics, nostalgia promises the return of a reality that was itself an abstract ideal. Politicians wrap themselves in the mantle of this nostalgia. Gary Hart runs as Kennedy, John Glenn runs as Ike, and Walter Mondale runs as Hubert Humphrey.  But Reagan wins because he runs as John Wayne” (“Notes on Nostalgia,” 1985). The posthumous mythologizing of J.F.K.’s “Camelot,” as well as Reagan’s oft-repeated stump-speech trope of a “shining city on a hill,” played to yearnings for places that never existed except in legends, fairy tales, and focus groups. The same holds true for Nikki Haley’s latter-day idyll of simpler times, which harkens to Currier and Ives prints and Works Progress Administration posters. Faux nostalgia is easier than ever to engender and exploit today, as “alternative facts,” deepfake, and flawlessly realistic AI-generated images have eroded, if not eradicated, our ability to distinguish fact from fiction.

Thomas Kinkade Studios, “Tangled,” limited edition canvas.

After about three hours of observant ambling through various fictive lands, I arrived at “It’s a Small World,” my Florida childhood favorite at Disney World, and damned if I didn’t shed a tear in spite of myself as my mini-boat embarked into that glitter-spangled, candy-colored wonderland, designed in 1963 by artist/animator Mary Blair (1911-1978), using colors, shapes, and textures that anticipated and influenced the graphic design and sartorial trends of London’s Carnaby Street and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. In Blair’s visually seductive but culturally essentialist conception, nations are reduced to their most picturesque folk traditions. Sombrero-hatted Mexicans twirl to mariachi bands; Russian Cossacks strum balalaikas by onion-domed basilicas; veiled Middle Eastern girls belly dance in harem-like courtyards. You sail into Hawaii to that earworm of a theme song as steel guitars slide woozily upwards and comely hula dancers wiggle their grass skirts. The Netherlands has its tulips, Ireland its shamrocks and leprechauns, France its can-can dancers, and Africa (represented as a continent rather than a country) its tribespeople in earth-toned costumes, beating bongo drums. It’s a shamelessly reductivist diorama of regional stereotypes cloaked in the guise of globalism: “There is just one moon and one golden sun/And a smile means friendship for everyone...” We may wear different costumes, but we all sing the same song — over and over and over. There is no ethnic cleansing in this utopia, nor international and intra-national strife, nor inequities between northern and southern hemispheres, and Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine is just a bad dream. Like the rest of Disneyland’s cleaned-up, blanched-out quadrants, the ride is a dated Pollyanna fantasia — Ugly-American cultural pigeonholing thinly disguised as cosmopolitanism, but really an exercise in Eurocentric patriarchal hegemony.

So why did my eyes well up on board that saccharine, condescending Love Boat? Because I’m as susceptible as anybody to a dumbed-down Technicolor Liebestraum, especially one hardwired to childhood. Memories speak. Simplifications stick. Nuances, by contrast, are slippery. The political right has mastered the dark art of the catchy axiom around which a cause may be rallied in lockstep, while the left too often hobbles itself with complexities that splinter its base. Just as Disney refines prickly, unpleasant, or downright brutal geohistorical milieux into wheat-cracked, corn-fed cliché, so too our politicians reduce the quandaries of realpolitik to Small-World shorthand. And while no political party is above pandering to its constituents’ hunger for abridged narratives and expedient stereotypes, the G.O.P. has an especial knack for deploying such avatars to monger fear, incubate prejudice, and incite division to nakedly consolidate power.

Peter Halley, “Glowing Cell with Conduits,” 1985, acrylic, florescent acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 63 x 63”.

Such were my thoughts as I waited under the baking sun in 45-minute lines for five-minute rides, the air sharp with children’s squeals and the burbling of myriad languages and accents, the crush of bodies of sundry shapes and sizes pressing closer as the day wore on and the park swelled to greater capacity. Around 2pm, to regulate crowd control, employees (Disney calls them “cast members”) cordoned off the walkways into one-lane chutes with specified off-ramps, and I began to feel like a herded sheep. There weren’t many places to pause and just take in the scene. The sit-down restaurants were on hours-long waits. You couldn’t dine at the Blue Bayou, say, or grab a drink at the Oga’s Star Wars Cantina without trying to schedule a reservation on an app, which I found cumbersome and prohibitive of spontaneity. As the lines grew longer and the sun hotter, I wondered whether a 53-year-old trudging through Disneyland alone was such a fabulous idea after all. I’d some nice moments (going down that waterfall in “Pirates of the Caribbean” was one), but overall I wasn’t feeling the pixie dust. 

Mary Blair, planning design for It’s a Small World. Courtesy of the Disney Corporation.

Maybe I was just too aware of the mass deceptions and delusions linking the phantasmagoria inside the park gates with the Debordian spectacle outside. I made an executive decision, left a few hours before the fireworks show, and headed back north toward my Airbnb in Hollywood. Close to home I stopped for an Italian dinner (no app required) at Miceli’s, itself a temple of clichés appointed with checkerboard tablecloths, intimate lighting, Chianti bottles in wicker baskets, and singing waiters belting out Neapolitan love songs. I had traded one simulacrum for another in a town financed by escapist fantasy. But the parmigiana was delectable, my martini ice-cold, the ramifications of Disney and MAGA momentarily less dire. At length I was able to get that goddamned song off the repeat loop in my head.

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