Disney: Coast To Coast


When Disney came to build his world, he included the occasional show of fangs—Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Fantasyland, for instance, sends cute turn-ofthe-century motorcars careering along a course that ends with Mister Toad dead and in hell—but he chose to make his small town a place of absolute safety, to make permanent the feel of those fleeting moments on the morning porches. Disney’s interest in the American past didn’t end with his street. He had a steam-powered stern-wheeler built from the keel up; he launched a scrupulous reproduction of a 1787 three-masted merchant vessel to share the river with it; and as soon as the technology permitted him to develop what he called AudioAnimatronics, he made a life-size Abraham Lincoln that speaks with eerie, waxen conviction.

There is a good deal more American history to be found in Disney World, the Eastern empire Disney summoned from the sawgrass and swampland of central Florida just before he died. Its Main Street is longer, the buildings even more extravagant, but the same attention to detail is there. However much you crane your neck to see what is behind the sham second-story windows, you’ll discover the appropriate wallpaper or the corner of a dresser—never the blankness of the back of a stage set. At noontime, however, it is deeply disorienting to see all those mansard roofs, designed to shoulder their way through Midwestern winters, shimmering in Florida’s blatant, thundery tropical light.

In Disney World the Audio-Animatronic Lincoln is joined by his colleagues in the “Hall of Presidents.” After an introduction about the Constitution, the curtain rises to show its defenders; every President from Washington to Reagan is marshaled on the stage. Each greets the audience with a nod as his name is called, and then Lincoln rises to give the same address he delivers at Disneyland—an inoffensive amalgam of several of his speeches. While he talks, the other Presidents fidget a bit, and there is a loony pleasure in seeing Andrew Jackson bend with dignified boredom to whisper a remark to John Tyler.

Disney World, of course, also includes Epcot. The unlovely acronym is drawn from Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, but here, too, there is much of the past. Epcot is, in essence, an industrial fair, with big companies like Kodak and Exxon offering rides past elaborate tableaux. AT&T’s ride glides through Spaceship Earth, the immense aluminum globe that presides over the park, and is a history of communications. It’s not astonishing—we are told that the Romans built roads, that movable type changed things, and that today we have computers—but it is all good to look at, and there is a superb bottle green brass-cylindered steam engine powering a rotary press that, if it is not the real thing, is certainly the most effective illusion in the park.

Disneyland is full of a reconstructed past, and it begins at the main gate.

Most of these shows are slanted toward the future rather than the past, but even that part of them has the smell of history to it. Perhaps it is because we have not yet escaped the long shadow of the 1939 World’s Fair, but the fact is that whenever anyone makes a model of the City of the Future, it looks as dated as an Art Deco toaster. This curious instant aging is evident even in the monorail system that serves both Disneyland and Disney World. When you hear the recorded guide confidently referring to the track as the “beamway,” you almost feel that monorail technology has indeed come to dominate transportation, just as people have been predicting for a century now. But of course, it hasn’t, and somehow the sleek, efficient things suggest the cover painting of a 1938 issue of Amazing Stories.

Epcot’s most rigorous exercise in history is the American Adventure, a show mounted by Coca-Cola and American Express. The Audio-Animatronic figures here—of a truly startling verisimilitude—include a couple of woebegone soldiers wintering at Valley Forge, Franklin and Jefferson discussing the Declaration, and two women welding a battle-damaged submarine during the Second World War. The show’s vision of the past is more sophisticated than Disney’s—Frederick Douglass, for instance, points out that the Founders didn’t think he was created all that equal—but somehow it was still Main Street that left the strongest impression on me.

I believe that street is a triumph of historical imagination. It is, of course, not true to the physical reality of the past that Disney knew: Kansas Avenue in Marceline was rutted, raw, naked of trees. But however crude and unformed those streets look to us today, they revealed something else to the people who lived along them. The architectural styles on which Disney artfully elaborated were exuberant enough in their original form to suggest the era’s very real confidence in human and material progress. The fact that it is only part of the story does not make it a lie. Sinclair Lewis found his Main Street foul with hypocrisy, cant, and blighted aspirations. He wasn’t wrong. But neither was Walt Disney.

—Richard F. Snow