How Walt Disney Made America Into a Magic Kingdom
Sixty years after it opened, Disneyland—and its subsequent iterations—shows how one man rebranded America into Happy Land
Slow-starters, take heart! If Walt Disney had defined Disneyland by its opening day performance 60 years ago on July 17, 1955, he would have been Dis-heartened and Dis-missed his $17 million theme park as a Dis-aster.
In what he later called “Black Sunday,” 28,000 visitors mobbed the park; as many as 17,000 had counterfeit tickets. Traffic backed up for 7 miles approaching the 160-acre plot of land near Anaheim that just 365 days earlier had been orange groves. Kids relieved themselves in the parking lot. Ladies struggled to extricate their high heels from the asphalt that melted in the 100-degree heat. With a plumbers’ strike having forced Disney to choose between finishing the bathrooms or the water fountains, “Uncle Walt” had calculated, only partially correctly, that “People can buy Pepsi-Cola, but they can’t pee in the street.”
Undeterred, the indomitable Disney proclaimed: “To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land.” And with his magical touch, the “cast members” welcomed the million plus “guests” who arrived in the first seven weeks warmly and craftily. Clumps of weeds had signs designating them by their fancy-sounding Latin names. The two-story mound of dirt generated by digging out the moat around the soon-to-be-iconic Fantasyland castle became “Lookout Mountain.”
This commitment to making Disneyland—and all its subsequent satellites—“the happiest place on earth”—reflected a broader post-Great Depression, post-World War II attempt to make America into Happy Camp. Before, American culture was traditionally Puritanical, thrifty, hardworking, and sober, more Horatio Alger than Mickey Mouse. With the country prospering and with entertainment technologies becoming ever more omnipresent, Disney and especially Disneyland helped make our popular culture more indulgent, spendthrift, distracted, and—dare we say it—goofy.
The Mouseketeers—who also debuted that day—captured the open yet exclusive democratic-capitalist genius of Disney and his land by singing: “Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me…” (Television’s Mickey Mouse Club began that October). With more free time and more disposable income in a growing leisure culture, Americans loved Disneyland’s old-fashioned, accessible populism, and the validation they felt when they actually arrived, then survived interminable lines to experience super-popular rides. Spending an average $5 a day—today admission alone can be $100 a person, err, guest—Americans could feel like kings and queens while celebrating the Main Street values they feared America was losing, even in Eisenhower’s 1950s.
Then, as now, Disney peddled the fantasy of America’s eternal innocence. New York was the cultural capital of an America enjoying its post-World War II high, defined by men in their gray flannel suits and happy homemakers in their white gloves, even at amusement parks. Yet the Baby Boomers’ cultural revolution was stirring. Jack Kerouac, the Beats, and Mad magazine’s zany satirists were already writing. Bill Haley and the Comets’ breakthrough Rock Around the Clock had just hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts July 9 and would remain there for eight weeks, throughout the summer of ’55. By 1956, Elvis would be rocking ’n’ rolling.
As America’s gravitas started fading, its center of gravity was shifting south and west: Disney’s California home was becoming America’s Fantasyland. In 1957 the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers would even abandon the Big Apple for the Golden State.
In a delicious touch, Ronald Reagan was one of the movie stars working with Walt Disney and 22 ABC-TV cameras to introduce Disneyland to a record-breaking 90 million viewers that day. Although not yet a politician, Reagan shared Disney’s sensibility. Both were Midwest provincials who celebrated the region each had escaped. Both mentally inhabited a world where the jungle was about animals chased by natives chanting “ooga-booga”—Adventureland! Space travel was about the “gee whiz” thrill of it all—Tomorrowland! Main Street was sanitized and commoditized, and all Americans dreamed of living in a gadget-filled home version of the Carousel of Progress, just like the one General Electric built for the Reagans in the 1950s. The Carousel became a Disneyland hit in 1967.
In Disney’s world, American history was a triumphal march of progress to uphold the Framers’ ideals. As Frontierland opened, with the “cast” dancing around in a Disneyfied square dance style, Fess Parker as Davy Crockett rhapsodized about “my one and only Besty,” his rifle. Now-politically offensive lines included: “40 arrows hit a tree and I knew the Sioux were out for me. Now-politically naïve lines included: “I use it for defendin’ me, I shoot for life and liberty.”
This enduring faith in America explains how Disneyland and its empire expanded. Rather than going the way of black-and-white TVs, phonographs, Ozzie and Harriet, rotary telephones, hi-fis, Studebakers, the $1 minimum wage, and the Cold War, Disney mass-marketed his optimistic faith that “when you wish upon a star your dreams come true.”
Cultural historian Warren Susman believed that Mickey Mouse’s escapism better explained why there was no revolution during the Great Depression than Franklin Roosevelt’s reforms, and so Disneyland became one of postwar America’s defining institutions. It was immersive—anticipating today’s 24/7 virtual entertainment barrage wherein popular culture is everywhere and forever. It was a synergistic, mass shopping experience, monetizing our childhoods and our dreams with movies boosting theme parks boosting characters boosting merchandise and on and on in a perpetual consumerist spin cycle. And in eternally recycling the past, blending yesterday, today, and tomorrow into one happy romp, Disneyland mass-produced memories and commodified our identities—for a hefty, but just affordable, price tag. All this was a natural consequence of Walt Disney’s first magic trick in the 1920s and 1930s: taming Europe’s grim Grimm Fairy Tales, giving them upbeat, life-affirming, all-American happy endings, in Technicolor.
Sixty revolutionary years later, despite all our postmodern cynicism and Internet-era sophistication, Disneyland’s first five regions still reflect five enduring pillars of the American dream. We want our lives to be as magical and exciting as Mickey’s and Minnie’s in Fantasyland and as the boldest hunters in Adventureland. We still venerate Davy Crockett’s pioneering values in Frontierland. And we still want to come home again, reassured by the tranquility of Main Street USA, even as we forge bigger and better Tomorrowlands.
Ultimately, despite many faults, America remains a Magic Kingdom, a remarkable experiment in creating the world’s first mass middle-class civilization, seeking to make as many people as possible as rich and free as possible. Disneyland—and now the entire Disney world—for all its marketing manipulations and capitalist exploitations—reminds us that, compared to where we once were as a country, and where most people still are worldwide, when you wish upon the stars—and stripes—many of your dreams really can and do come true.