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Disneyland and Europe: Walt Disney's First Magic Kingdom

Robin Allan examines how Disneyland, the progenitor of today's theme parks, came into being and the role animation had in it.

Sleeping Beauty Castle, the enterance to Fantasyland. © Disneyland.

In the late 1990s, with a proliferation of theme parks all over the Western world, as well as in Africa and the Far East, it is difficult to recall that just over 40 years ago there were none--until Walt Disney opened Disneyland in 1955. There were national exhibitions and world fairs on one hand, and pleasure parks on the other. And that was that. Disney combined the two forms and added a new ingredient--fantasy, adapted from his animated films. Disneyland extended animation, using the heritage of Europe and a nostalgia for an American past, wrapped up as a three-dimensional package and consumed by visitors, very much in the way Disney had seen patrons making use of his films as products. It was a creative dream by the man who had seen the story of Snow White (1937) grow in his mind until it could be realized dramatically through the animation skills of his staff. The financial risk taken by Disney in his new venture had its parallels in the one he took nearly 20 years previously when he was pouring his energy and resources into the making of Snow White.

Rest, Recreation & Nostalgia

At first, Disney searched unsuccessfully for a park that possessed the ingredients that he was looking for; the American parks depressed him with their squalor, their lack of organization, haphazard and tiring acres of concrete, their surly personnel. In Denmark, he was impressed by Tivoli Garden. "It was spotless and brightly colored and priced within the reach of everyone," he said. "The gaiety of the music, the excellence of the food and drink, the warm courtesy of the employees--everything combined for a pleasurable experience."

He had begun thinking about a park for employees and friends as early as 1948 on vacant land near the studio, and in an internal memo he wrote:

The Main Village, which includes the Railroad Station, is built around a village green or informal park. In the park will be benches, a bandstand, drinking fountain, trees and shrubs. It will be a place for people to sit and rest; mothers and grandmothers can watch over small children at play. I want it to be very relaxing, cool and inviting.

The text is clearly Disney's own. The emphasis on comfort and safety, with concern for the users is part of the Disney ethos. His insistence on placing his audience in the forefront of all his discussions is characteristic; Disneyland is still, today, a place of rest and recreation and, for the adult, nostalgia. The visitor is reminded of the past at every turn, from the moment one steps out into Main Street to the end of the visit, where everyone has to leave by the same entrance/exit. Disney did not want the public to be disorientated by too many exits. Like a film inside a cinema, the park is hidden from view and only the vast parking lot, a horizontal equivalent to the expressionless exterior of a movie theater, is a clue to the numbers of people that the park absorbs. Once through the tunnel that lies under the bank built to screen the Magic Kingdom from the outside world, one is inside a film, taking part in a Western or adventure story, or experiencing the vicarious thrill of a night flight over Never Land.

The Enchanted Tiki Room, Adventureland (interior). © Disneyland.

Cartoons Made Real

Disney could now make real the two-dimensional world of his cartoons, which he had been trying to make more lifelike through technical devices such as the multiplane camera and through ever more exact copying from live-action film. His new imaginary world was made concrete by the same artists who had created his cartoon films. So there was a continuity in collective thinking and in practical ability. By utilizing their skills, Disney combined a nostalgia for the past of America (a past colored itself by its own popularizing through the cinema) and the imaginary fantasy of Europe, symbolized by the sight of Sleeping Beauty's castle pointing its pinnacles into the Californian sky beyond the confines of Main Street. This was a world of the miniature where geography and history could be eliminated literally in the twinkling of an eye, a dreamscape made manifest. As in a dream, the visitor glided as if by magic by means of boat or train or cable car monorail or "people mover"; as in a dream, there was a smooth transference from one world to another; there was no need to walk, and the exhaustion caused by other parks and museums, a reminder of reality and of bodily limitations all too linked to the actual world, was at once removed.

Water featured as an element in many of the animated films; so with Disneyland. Water flowed everywhere, a companion to the stroller or as a means of conveyance on a number of rides, or as an adventurous accompaniment. It is difficult to remember that all the water in the Disney park is, though real in element, false in direction and flow, false in place. It has been diverted, pumped and projected over artificial rocks and into artificial lagoons and lakes and rivers. Reality has been made into fantasy. Water has almost been turned into wine. In fact, the whole park is a controlled environment, with color coded buildings, scaled down vistas and perspectives, so that the visitor, the "guest," sees only what the designer has planned him or her to see.

Disney with the plans for Disneyland © Disneyland.

John Hench, who was one of Disney's closest collaborators on the development of Disneyland told me that, "We had total control, a visual literacy. Live action filming has to count on a lot of accidents, but in a cartoon we could gradually eliminate the things that contradicted what we were trying to say. With the background we had, this was a very easy thing to apply to the third dimension."

Umberto Eco, in his book Travels in Hyper-Reality, has also drawn attention to the American passion for collection, the appetite for adding a detritus of the past even vicariously through a variety of sources, in particular from Europe. His comments on the Hearst/Kane-San Simeon/Xanadu kaleidoscope can also be applied to Disneyland and its "voracity of selection ... the fear of being caught up in this jungle of venerable beauties which unquestionably has its own wild flavour, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur and sensual perversity." Eco continues by saying that, "the ideology of this America wants to establish reassurance through imitation."

Total Control

Disney, however, went further, with the satisfaction of total control over an environment which could not be defiled by life, that was perfect, brighter, cleaner, prettier, its dolls and puppets able to perform always at command; making art more perfect than life. The "lifelong rage to order, control and keep clean any environment he inhabited" that Richard Schickel stresses in his book The Disney Version, led also to the creation of the figures which populated his dream world. As ringmaster to a circus, his animals and clowns and performers had to obey his commands implicitly. Here lay the seeds not only for the scale of Disneyland, but also for the audio-animatronic figures with which he would populate the individual rides.

The little articulated model man which he brought back from an early visit to Europe was the inspiration for one of the first of the theme lands that he planned for his Disneyland ideas, a Lilliputian land that never actually materialized. However, based on the mechanical bird that he also brought back from Europe, the first audio-animatronic figures were birds for the Tiki Room, a Polynesian show at Disneyland which for crassness beggars description, but which was an immediate and long-lasting success; it was a particular favorite of Disney's and is the one presentation which bears his personal stamp.

Another link with the animated film, on which the Magic Kingdom is so carefully based, is the appearance of living performers as cartoon characters. These are members of the Disney "cast" wearing three-dimensional plastic heads. They emerge from secret entrances from time to time as if by magic, their heads frozen into inanimate grotesques of their cartoon originals which could squash or stretch themselves into any conceivable shape. These caricatured animal and comic figures with their giant masks, though monstrous to the adult, seem to attract children, who cluster round the performers-as-Disney characters. The power once again of the mask as icon is seen as protective, assuring.

Disney standing on Main St. under his apartment. © Disneyland.

On the other hand, the nearly human all-electronic figure of Abraham Lincoln is the more alarming or threatening because of its similarity to and yet differencs from its model, the real. Artifice here becomes morbid and polite to the nightmare of a future where films like Westworld (1973) and Blade Runner (1982) can and surely will become reality.

Disney as puppet master had no vision beyond the recreation of reality through his figures, and could not see how easily his benignity could become malignity. The horror of the Lincoln exhibit is bound up with the American ideal, with the desire to start afresh, to recreate, to encompass, to package, to package humanity.

Disneyland has been likened to the great private parks of Europe, the enclosures for an elite like the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. The icons are different, the few have become the ordinary people who can afford the entrance fee, the public with whom Disney instinctively identified. Although separated culturally, "each in its own way celebrates similar pleasures and pieties," as Christopher Finch put it in his Walt Disney's America, "Each reflects the culture that produced it, removed from everyday realities of life."

A New Toy

Disney was continually changing Disneyland, tinkering, improving, altering. For him it was never static or complete and there are many stories about him; he would stay overnight--he had an apartment over the fire station on Main Street USA--and wandered around the park looking for ways to improve or enlarge his dreamscape. So he had wandered around the studio at night or at the weekend looking at his artists' work, surveying their scribbles and even the discarded material in their wastebaskets. He would talk to people in the park, ask questions, invite comments. It was his new toy.

Ray Bradbury, himself a teller of tales, was a close friend of Disney and told me about the European origin of the mythological center of Disneyland. Bradbury is also an American from the Midwest living on the West Coast.

Disney was only out to do one thing, to please himself. He saw a hunger, a need in himself and the world ... What happened with Walt is the same thing that happened to a lot of us later in our lives, that he went to Europe and he looked around the castles and the chateaux and the parks, the architecture, the artistic influences and he came home and he said, "God darn it! I'm gonna give this as a gift to my people."

Soon after the park was opened, the head gardener came to Walt and said, "Look Walt, I've got a little problem I want to show you," and he took him over to a spot facing the castle, and said, "Look. I've got to have a sign here which says 'Keep off the grass,' because look at the way everyone's trampling down these pansies trying to get a shot of the castle with their cameras. So can I have a little barrier here, a little fence?'

Walt says, "No. Wait a minute. Tell you what we'll do. We'll put a little rock walk right through there and we'll put up a sign that says, 'Best vantage point for filming the castle.'"


Robin Allan is a writer and art historian based in Derbyshire, England. He has lectured on Disney in Britain,Germany and the United States, and his book Walt Disney and Europe will be published by John Libbey in 1997.