February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
When I was ten years old, my parents entrusted me to TWA for a rumbling eternity in a prop-driven plane that pulled me across the continent to California. I was going to visit my aunt and uncle, but they were merely the agents of my real goal: Disneyland. The park had opened two years before, in 1955, and its effect on me was every bit as magical as the publicists had promised.
I was enchanted by all the rides, but the thing that made the strongest impression on me was Main Street, Walt Disney’s evocation of the small-town America of his youth. I remember standing there in the dusk while the lights came on. I watched them outlining the busy cornices while a horsecar clopped quietly past, and suddenly I wanted to stay in this place forever.
I came home from California fascinated by turn-of-the-century America, and my interest never waned. Instead, it expanded to include other aspects of the national past, and it has put bread on my table all my working life.
I did not stay grateful to Walt Disney for this bequest. By the time I was fifteen I was embarrassed and irritated by him, and in my twenties he represented to me in its purest form a sort of institutionalized self-congratulatory blandness. But people keep outgrowing their outgrowing, and recently, when the presence of a three-year-old in my life forced me back to Disney’s cartoons, I realized that his was a far more imaginative, less sentimental vision than I had believed.
So it was with the greatest interest that, thirty years after my first visit, I made my way back to Anaheim to revisit Disney’s historical reconstruction.
Disneyland is the extension of the powerful personality of one man. It is not, like many perfectly good modern theme parks, a group consensus on what might make a nice place. It is a nice place, of course—so much so that the standard criticism claims it is altogether too sanitized, too cut off from real experience. This doesn’t bother me much; the world provides plenty of real experience whether you want it or not, and I don’t mind somebody trying to trick me into thinking otherwise for a day or two. But I was interested to see whether Disney’s American past was simply the pap some historians have called it.
Disneyland’s reconstructed past begins at the gate. The first building you see as you enter is the depot, and chances are pretty good one of the trains that serves it will be pulling in. These are the McCoy: three-foot-gauge livesteam locomotives ravishingly polished and painted. And for all the fantasy that lies ahead, there’s nothing on earth more real than the lush, brassy noise of their whistles.
Beyond the depot lies Disneyland’s main drag. You get to Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and all the other lands by walking past a couple of blocks of turn-of-the-century storefronts. The models for them can be found in any small Midwestern city, but they have been embellished. They seethe with elaborate wrought-iron decoration; half the windows are topped with bright awnings; Queen Anne exuberance is brought to its final ebullient absurdity. But the overall effect is not absurd. It is amusing and comforting—amusing because it is so cannily done, comforting because the set designers whom Disney had build his street employed the old stage trick of forced perspective. On the street floor the buildings are seven-eighths full size, the second stories are five-eighths, the third one-half. The result is that your eye tells you are looking at full-size buildings, but you feel about them as you do about every revisited place of your youth: it is all so much smaller.
Walter Elias Disney’s first Main Street was Kansas Avenue in Marceline, Missouri. His father bought a farm near there in 1906, but before long he had to put his property up for auction, and with the proceeds he bought a paper route in Kansas City. At the age of nine Walt was climbing out of bed every morning at three-thirty to go to work. “In the winters there’d be as much as three feet of snow,” he recalled toward the end of his life. “I was a little guy and I’d be up to my nose in snow. I still have nightmares about it. What I really liked on those cold mornings was getting to the apartment buildings. I’d drop off the papers and then lie down in the warm apartment corridor and snooze a little and try to get warm.” Summers were more fun. Disney’s father didn’t believe in toys for children, but “on nice mornings I used to come to houses with those big old porches and the kids would have left some of their toys out. I would find them and play with them there on the porch at four in the morning when it was just barely getting light. Then I’d have to tear back to the route again.”
It seems to me that something of that experience—the grueling work, the stolen scraps of rest and pleasure—charges the best of Disney’s cartoons and imparts the underlying toughness that separates them from even their most successful rivals. It’s what makes kids fascinated by them too. There is real menace, real peril along with the humor.
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.
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.