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American Theme Parks and the Landscapes of Mass Culture

by Steve Mills

American Studies Today On-line

Disney World in Florida has become the yardstick by which theme parks throughout the world are judged, but its influence spreads far beyond the design of tourist attractions, and even impacts on the design of shopping malls and residential districts. However, with their emphasis on creating a tidy, idealised and self-contained world, do they run the danger of excluding the poor and the disadvantaged from a growing range of public facilities? In this wide-ranging article, Steve Mills investigates the pervasive influence of the Disney concept and philosophy.

Steve Mills teaches American Studies at Keele University where his two most popular courses explore the landscapes of popular culture and investigate the role of capital punishment in American society, or as one wag has already said: students pass from Main Street to Death Row.

"You know," the retired lawyer said. "I realise there’s those who say we should study the past, learn from our mistakes and all that. The doomed-to-repeat school of thinking. But it seems to be, with a history like this house has, it’d be better to forget it. Tear it down, build something cheerful here. People don’t come to Florida to hear about murder and mayhem. They come here to get away from all that stuff."

James Hall Hard Ground (Heinemann, London: 1993) p170


Parks and American Popular Culture The Origins of Disneyland
The Disney Theme Park Experience The Magic Kingdom and Beyond
Re-inventing the Theme Park Disney Parks and the Wider World
Shopping Malls as Theme Parks Theme Parks and American Influences

Parks and American Popular Culture

The theme park is increasingly part of the British experience of America. Though for many people the multiplex and television remain their most sustained contacts with American life Britons increasingly holiday in the USA, and when they do their most popular destination is Florida, where Disney World is their most popular resort. Though many Britons now find America more familiar than almost any other place on earth, this fascination with things American is, paradoxically, often combined with a fear that our world is becoming too American, a widely held prejudice that all too frequently fails to distinguish between those aspects of the modern world detractors abhor and those that are specifically American. So the common prejudice that theme parks are the most American feature of the modern world may need questioning rather than accepting at face value. But how did the American amusement park re-emerge as the Disney theme park, a major symbol culture of American culture at home and abroad? Back to top of article

The Origins of Disneyland

Amusement parks have a long history, being important landmarks and meeting places within the expanding cities of industrial America. Coney Island was New York’s Southend and Blackpool combined. It was brash, fun, exuberant, and a place where spectacular rides rubbed shoulder to shoulder with tawdry freak and burlesque shows, all the fun of the fair so disliked by educators, civic improvers and political radicals: bread and circuses, repeated to some degree in every city. Watch the Pleasure Island sequence in the film Pinocchio for Walt Disney’s dystopic vision of what happens to those who are led astray within such dens of iniquity. While diversifying his portfolio in response to the growing power of television Disney decided to exploit novel possibilities more evident within southern California than elsewhere, far from the cosmopolitan and liberal traditions of New York City. Just beyond the then edge of Los Angeles Disney laid out a new kind of private space that sought to harness the popular appeal of amusement parks even while avoiding their less attractive, downmarket aspects. And so successful was Disneyland that it had more than a local impact. Through television promotion Disneyland came to be considered the national and then international yardstick for large entertainment complexes. So successful was Disneyland at attracting visitors that the site was soon surrounded by rival theme parks and motels, seen as essentially parasitical by Disney.

"the theme park virus, its major symptoms being an impatience with anything not on the prepackaged itinerary… They wanted safety and predictability. They wanted to be assured in advance exactly what kind of fun they could expect, what clothes they’d need, who to tip and how much. They came in herds ... Their luggage was transferred automatically. They rode a bulletproof bus across the city… exactly on schedule. They were old and wanted a nearly organized program. They were young and wanted to get exactly their money’s worth… they moved in herds along preprogrammed routes. If any of them chanced to wonder off, encounter some unseemly reality, a grubby unwashed child playing in the ordinary dust, some tavern filled with genuine roughnecks, they would no doubt scurry back to the group with wild tales of poverty and danger. That’s another thing the theme park disease did. It trivialized everything evenly. The pleasure, the awe, the terror. Made the authentic into just one more carnival ride

…they would flow upstate to one of the plastic theme parks where the great white shark would lunge predictably, the rocket ship would plummet right on schedule, the ferocious beasts would charge their car on the hour every hour, and the black-hearted pirates would carry away shrieking damsels, all of it on steel tracks, a conveyor belt dragging them forward smoothly and dependably and safety above the shallow sea. This was Florida. This was his home, what it had become. Where the false and the true had become so interchangeable that hardly anyone could tell the difference. And those who still could were so worn down they barely cared."

James Hall Buzz Cut Heinemann, London 1996 pp291-292

Subsequent sites would be much larger and designed to provide enough accommodation on site with sufficient alternatives to the Magic Kingdom that visitors would never need to stray off site. This was more Butlins than any British holiday camp. Disney World, opened in the early 1970s on a vast estate in central Florida, soon became an essential yardstick for resort development across America and now across the world, outshining competitors such as Sea World or Busch Gardens which overseas tourists may never have even heard of, just as few Americans have ever heard of Alton Towers. None but Disney theme parks have became synonymous with America overseas. Back to top of article

The Disney Theme Park Experience

Theme parks differ from earlier amusement parks such as Coney Island in many crucial ways, not least of which is that besides their themed areas each involves massive campuses that are not merely contained and clearly delineated, but deliberately exclude involvement with the outside world. Unlike seaside resorts, such as the Atlantic City boardwalk, visitors cannot wander in and out at will, spending as little time and money as they choose. Payment is made up front, in exchange for unlimited access during a designated time span. Payment kiosks are only reached at the end of long access roads some miles from the nearest community. Having a vast site where payment is made deep within the park means that few parents are going to turn around and leave if they find the entrance fee excessive. And each park is already familiar even for new visitors. Already at least two generations have been brought up on Disney movies, products and television programmes, many of which refer to characters who are such a vital part of the park. Not only is product promotion aimed at moving vast amounts of merchandise but its very familiarity makes the huge site less threatening than it might otherwise appear, for Americans and foreign visitors alike. Many families feel they are returning to familiar territory, from which they can then branch out into more unfamiliar areas such as the various foreign exhibits around EPCOT. If California was often seen as America’s America so too Disneyland was seen as California’s own Dream, though few but Uncle Walt ever got rich in the parks. Unlike world fairs Disney theme parks are designed to be both permanent, and to be open all year around, making southern locations essential, and proving problematic in less subtropical Japan or northern France. Like world fairs Disney parks have delighted in providing a glimpse of the rest of the world. Without threat or further expense visitors can visit strange lands, and return home to America whenever they want: the ultimate in safe travel. A British pub is as accessible as a Norwegian church as a Chinese interior. In such synthetic surroundings the ultimate virtual reality helps create and then reinforce certain American images not just about the USA but about the wider world, and by inference America’s place within that world. Foreigners are at best exotic, at worst bizarre. America is not just the best, but contains the best from the whole wide world. Who needs to venture forth when Disney has distilled the essence of travel into a day’s outing? Back to top of article

The Magic Kingdom and Beyond

A Magic Kingdom lies at the core of all Disney theme parks. Main Street reflects Walt Disney’s attitudes towards the urban past as epitomised in folk memories of the Midwest at the end of the 19th century, including quite ambivalent attitudes towards both technology and commerce. The community being celebrated is that which was undermined by the arrival of modern technology, mass production, and mass consumption, ironic given that Disney theme parks are one of the most obvious promoters of mass culture. Disney is here following the footsteps of Henry Ford who celebrated the very small town life his cars were subverting. Yet Disney provides no deliberate parody of American preoccupations with small town life: this is no ironic post-modern experience, even though shopping on Main Street is reduced to trinkets and fast food, traffic is scarce and technology seems to exist only to provide rides. And despite small town pretensions nobody actually knows your name. Even the physical structures are inauthentic: the perspective of the upper floors is manipulated to make the view seem ‘more real’, or at least more cosy. Parades take place at least twice a day, not twice a year. To keep the site pristine rather than realistic there are no horse droppings or garbage on the street. Cleaning up is prompt and maintenance takes place after hours, or remains out of sight. The world of work has disappeared, which is strange given the value honest hard work is given within mainstream American culture. But work made too obvious would undermine the fantastic motif so crucial to a place dedicated to providing complete relief from the real world of everyday life. Disney campaigned for years to have a power line removed from public view in Disneyland. It was not that it was unusually intrusive, but as it might remind people of the everyday world of work it was seen as incompatible with the very nature of the park. Beyond Main Street are themed areas ("lands") such as Frontierland, focusing upon other places and other times, whether foreign or mythical (though these are usually confused). Rides are usually based around Disney movies, such as the Peter Pan, or are generic representations of places created by the movies, such as Pirates of the Caribbean. Though technology has long been a major theme within Tomorrowland the Florida site also has EPCOT where, within an eye-catching sphere, technology as harnessed by American corporations, is portrayed as the saviour of the planet. Back to top of article

Re-inventing the Theme Park

From a visitor base initially reliant upon young families Disney theme parks have widened their appeal to include all ages, from babes in arms to third-agers, with white-knuckle rides such as Space Mountain ranging through to gentle sightseeing cruises within a virtual Norway. There are parades and fireworks for all ages. Such elements have now become so standard that rivals have to have equivalent facilities on sites of an equivalent scale to be considered theme parks by the general public. The most obvious aspect of Disney expansion and diversification at Walt Disney World, which has long since taken the lead from the smaller and therefore more constrained California theme park, is that the corporation continues to develop new parks within the overall estate, such as Disney-MGM Studios, and the various water-based amusement parks such as Typhoon Lagoon or River Country. The Florida site is so large new sites can be brought on stream from time to time as Disney seeks to encourage repeat visits to those who have outgrown the Magic Kingdom, but are still prepared to pay for holidays at resorts with the Disney seal of approval, hassle free excitement and relaxation. It is not just Alton Towers that seeks a novel attraction to keep the visitors returning each year!

In southern California Disney sought to create his own profitable vision of a post-war America, one that, while having echoes of the staid small town, grew out of the massive wartime influx of young people from all over the US, people increasingly mobile who would use the family car to visit his facility throughout the year. Disney used the excitement of the amusement park to bring people in, but by focusing upon family groups avoided the problems of unchaperoned young people and immigrants. In Florida Disney would go beyond replicating his tamed amusement park by developing a permanent world fair, when he inaugurated an Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (EPCOT), though after his death this never progressed beyond being a showcase for American technology in a series of corporate displays. The Disney Corporation has however recently returned to Walt’s urban concerns with the inauguration of Celebration, a town built and run by the corporation. This new town, adjacent to the Disney compound, is supposed to distil the lessons of supposedly successful towns such as Charleston and Savannah to re-establish small town America, though cynics might suggest a new setting for The Truman Show, or at least a corporate attempt to broaden Disney’s Florida portfolio to include real estate development. But even initially unsympathetic journalists and critics have noted the high standard of facilities and the sophisticated ways of managing public expectations, aspects that influence other facilities that deal with the general public, even those that would otherwise be appalled to have anything to do with theme parks, such as art galleries museums and folk parks. Back to top of article

Disney Parks and the Wider World

So the impact of Disney theme parks has not just been in terms of parks and their environs. Disney has been so successful in promoting a new type of resort that Disneyland and particularly Disney World have become not just product leaders but yardsticks against which an ever wider range of facilities dealing directly with the general public are measured, whether by developers of the public. These range from shopping malls to a new generation of world fairs and convention centres via galleries and museums. Even the new generation of British motorway service areas and superstores owes something to the ways in which Disney has set the standard for dealing with an affluent and increasingly demanding public. Detractors may abhor the ubiquity of Disney products but the importance of Disney is perhaps more widespread in terms of its influences on this ever wider range of venues. Every mall, not just every amusement park developer, has to recognise that Disney has set the standards for large integrated site developments, just as Henry Ford once set standards for factory-based manufacturing. And with this comes other values that are encoded into the very landscape. Mass access requires mass communications. Though in the USA this is the car, with all its associated freeways and ramp access points, in France and Japan this depends more upon public transport, but wherever mass access has to be provided, and where it does not exist, as was the case with Alton Towers, has to be provided. More importantly Disney theme parks ignore the previous landscapes, treating the site as if virgin wilderness. The old landscapes of Orange County, Orlando or Maine La Vallée are completely obliterated. Developers and local governments generally hope that the site will then attract other similar and complementary facilities, such as hotel and other rival tourist facilities, which in creating jobs stimulates growth in the local economy. Despite Walt Disney’s expectations both Disneyland and Disney World are surrounded with rival parks offering different themes, such as Sea World in Orlando, and have acted to stimulate the local economies beyond recognition. An expanding environmental impact becomes seen as normal, without reference to what may be a growing environmental impact that may not be ultimately sustainable. Disneyland has been partly responsible for massive suburban expansion on the edge of what is really a desert, and Disney World has spawned ever more expansion in an area that is using up fresh water faster than nature can replenish it, leading to untreated water becoming ever more brackish. No-wonder the Disney Corporation’s attempted to capitalise upon the growing tourist trade within the Washington DC area led to such a mixed response, the corporation eventually withdrawing from its Disney’s America project which was to have inaugurated a new generation of themed parks, one that would have brought Disney skills to public understanding of the American past. The fear that the reckless eclecticism of Disney’s theme park tradition would merely trash the past did nothing to recommend Disney’ America to the movers and shakers of Washington DC’s western suburbs across northern Virginia. Back to top of article

Shopping Malls as Theme Parks

One of the major distinguishing features of Disney theme parks is that they are massive, can process vast numbers of people, and are open all year long, come rain or shine. Walt Disney World closes only on Christmas Day, which is followed by its most busy day of the year. Located in Florida it has to deal with electrical storms and the occasional hurricane alert, but never the snows of New York or Chicago. Few other resorts can handle so many people in winter, except perhaps mountain ski centres in Colorado. It is hardly surprising that other developers, promoters and cities have increasingly sought to duplicate Disney’s profitability by providing all-weather, secure shopping, commercial and entertainment facilities. Huge stadiums in almost every major city mean that football can be played in the deepest winter or the hottest, most humid times of the year without regard to the weather outside. Shoppers too can be safely sheltered from inclement weather, as most cities now have all season, totally enclosed shopping malls, where old people jog and youngsters court, families visit the multiplex and artists exhibit. But though many members of the general public treat such enclosed spaces as public space they are most definitely private, and can exclude groups or individuals deemed likely to disrupt the ambience of painless shopping and recreation. Rappers and evangelists alike are rarely welcome, for this is not the public highway but a private space however much filled with normal main street facilities such as post boxes and fountains, police officers and pretzel vendors. Already the courts are being brought into deciding how far such facilities can go before they become quasi-public, and thus subject to the normal free-speech and open access requirements of the law. And just as important as this public-private confusion is the growing convergence of shopping malls and theme parks. The Mall of America in Minnesota already seems to have taken the shopping experience to levels that could have embarrassed even Walt Disney. Is this shopping with entertainment or a theme park with massive purchasing opportunities? But it is not only malls that have mixed different types of facilities on the one site. Las Vegas is no longer just a set of casinos and shows in the desert made possible by cheap power and cheaper water. To widen its appeal and thus its profitability the shows and reviews have been extended into purpose-built arenas where pirates plunder from full-rigged sailing boats and where visitors can avoid the hassles of going to Egypt to see the Pyramids and the treasures of the pharaohs. To ensure repeat business new themed areas are essential each year, just as amusement parks need ever more spectacular white-knuckle rides. To siphon off Las Vegas’s trade other resorts near big cities, such as Atlantic City, not only brought in the casinos, but developed whole resort portfolios, aping the success of Disney World. Cruise liners become floating theme parks that allow Americans to visit the Caribbean without having to go ashore if they don’t dare. Even downtown chambers of commerce entice developers with support for convention centres and redeveloped entertainment or heritage areas, as in Boston and Baltimore, all with CCTV and security patrols: such areas exclude as much as they welcome. A certain mobility is necessary to get into these otherwise often isolated facilities, and a certain affluence is necessary to make good use of the facilities. Downtown malls and convention centres are increasingly isolated from adjacent but decaying neighbourhoods, requiring access by car through controlled gateways, meaning only targeted consumers will seek entrance to places such as Detroit’s Renaissance Center. And of course people increasingly live within equally gated communities. In Manhattan apartment dwellers have long lived in locked and guarded buildings. In Los Angeles whole communities have been constructed behind walls, with electronic gate controls restricting access, like staff quarters on military bases. Even the poor have petitioned for cross streets to be closed off to reduce outsiders, particularly gangs, passing through. Back to top of article

Theme Parks and American Influences

The theme park is increasingly part of the modern world for both Americans and Europeans, whether on holiday or at home. But though Alton Towers now at last calls itself a theme park it still retains its historic setting, its gardens and its castle, quite unlike any Disney theme park with its deliberate placelessness. In similar vein Legoland revels in providing a fine view of Windsor Castle under the flight path of Concorde, building in rather than excluding the wider world. And the British amusement park tradition is quite independent of Disney, going back at least to Vauxhall Gardens on the banks of the Thames, with detours through seaside piers, Blackpool illuminations and holiday camps. Danes are proud of their longstanding Tivolli Gardens, and their early wooden roller coasters. Dutch firms make many of the most modern theme park rides, and the French long since turned Mont St Michel into a shopping opportunity for the coach loads of visitors. Even Disneyland Paris is full of European folk tales and cartoon characters. Maybe Disney theme parks are merely the most promoted amusement parks, rather than something peculiarly American. The common prejudice that theme parks are the most American feature of the modern world does need careful scrutiny rather than being accepted immediately at face value. Is Blackpool Pleasure Beach really part of an American cultural invasion, or just Nottingham’s Goose Fair writ large? As almost every country now has its theme parks they may well be more usefully considered but part of the modern world, for good or ill, rather than something peculiarly American, whatever the Disney Corporation would have us believe.

But that still doesn’t quite explain why Disney has captured the high ground, demanding to be recognised not just as the front-runner, but as international yardstick against which all rivals are found wanting. Maybe Disney’s reputation is built not just upon the example of its theme parks, but upon Disney’s long established access to children’s television. And that is a very American position from which to take on world markets. Maybe Disney is more about market share and less about promoting American culture. Back to top of article

Further Reading

Alan Bryman Disney and his Worlds (Routledge, London: 1995)

S.M. Fjellman Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America (Westview, Boulder: 1992)

James Hall Hard Ground (Heinemann, London: 1993); Buzz Cut (Heinemann, London: 1996)

David Harvey Conditions of Postmodernity (Blackwell, London: 1989)

Journal of Popular Culture Volume 15, Number 1, 1981 (a special issue on Disney)

Stephen F. Mills The American Landscape (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh: 1997)

The Project on Disney Inside the Mouse (Duke University Press, Durham: 1995)

Chris Rojek Ways of Escape: Modern Transformations in Leisure and Travel (Macmillan, London: 1993)

Rob Shields (ed) Lifestyle Shopping: the Subject of Consumption (Routledge, London: 1992)

Pamela Shurmer-Smith and K. Hannam Worlds of Desire, Realms of Power: A Cultural Geography (Edward Arnold, London: 1994)

E. Smoodin (ed) Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom (Routledge, New York: 1994)

Edward Soja Postmodern Geographies (Verso, New York) 1989).

M. Sorkin (ed) Variations on a Theme Park: A New American City and the End of Public Space (Noonday, New York: 1992)

John Van Maanen "Displacing Disney" pp5-35 Qualitative Sociology vol.15, no.1, 1992

R.M.Weinstein "Disneyland & Coney Island: Reflections on the Evolution of the Modern Amusement Park" Journal of Popular Culture Vol.ume 26, No,1 Summer, pp131-164, 1992

Alexander Wilson The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez (Blackwell, Oxford:1992). Back to top of article

If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in reading this one in ASToday Online

American Theme Parks and the Landscapes of Mass Culture by Steve Mills Disney World in Florida has become the yardstick by which theme parks throughout the world are judged, but its influence spreads far beyond the design of tourist attractions, and even impacts on the design of shopping malls and residential districts. However, with their emphasis on creating a tidy, idealised and self-contained world, do they run the danger of excluding the poor and the disadvantaged from a growing range of public facilities? In this wide-ranging article, Steve Mills investigates the pervasive influence of the Disney concept and philosophy.

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