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John Mark Reynolds- Contributor

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University.

Mr. Disney’s Park
Or Why No Winner of a Major Event Will Ever Say, “I am Going to California Adventure!”
[John Mark Reynolds] 9/11/03

Growing up in the seventies, the worst thing about going to church on Sunday night was missing the Wonderful World of Disney. I enjoyed church, but it sometimes seemed like there was a conspiracy on the part of the television networks to put my favorite show at a time when I could not watch it. As a result, it took on a special allure.

Sometimes Disney ran boring nature shows only a step up from PBS, but it also ran vintage cartoons and clips from the classic movies. Children raised in the age of the Disney Channel and the DVD player cannot imagine the excitement of being able to see cartoons at a time other than Saturday morning. And there were always the shots of Disneyland. . . and the castle. . . and fireworks. . . Upstate New York was a long, long way from Southern California, so there was no chance I was going to get to say with the winners of the Super Bowl, “I am going to Disneyland.”

Some things just are not as good as you imagine they will be -- like a stage kiss that looks cool, but in reality turns out to be a big let down, especially if the leading lady is a smoker and the lights are too hot on a community theater costume laundered too few times. So when I finally got to Disneyland as a thirty-something arriving in California to teach philosophy, I expected very little. After all, I was not a kid anymore, so it seemed best to just take my little ones and make the best of my missed chance. I would get my stage kiss from the park and go home.

I was wrong. Disneyland was special. Walt Disney, the man and not the marketing slogan, was one the most influential men of the twentieth century. Like Reagan, he was always underestimated by academics who viewed commercial failure as the surest sign of genius. Disneyland turned out to be a three dimensional walk through his fascinating mind. It was his toy and he devoted great energy to it. Disneyland has a worldview, something not very many parks can claim. Sometimes it is contradictory, like that of the man who built it, but it is always fascinating.

Disneyland likes the kind of people who have kids in the United States and want to spend a great deal of money taking them to theme parks. It does not talk down to them. The original park loved: free markets, families, progress, our glorious history, patriotism, and good clean fun. It was sometimes over the top, but always sincere.

I was lucky to first arrive in the early nineteen-nineties, before Michael Eisner and his pencil pushers had a chance to do too much damage to the park. The Walt-less seventies had managed to muck up Tomorrow Land, but the rest of the park was still Walt’s. The fact that many of the key elements of the park were built in the nineteen-fifties should still amaze. Disneyland is built in a bowl, so that the outside world is nearly invisible. That still is a rare feature in modern parks, but does much to add to the Disney experience. Disneyland is designed to pull the visitor into each land with large onuments that attract attention. Each land is not visible from the other, and there's very little bleeding of noise.

It is no accident that Ronald Reagan helped open Disneyland. The park is essentially an optimistic, conservative place. Disneyland is compassionate conservatism. There is a Tomorrow Land, celebrating business and the future, but it is tied to the values of the past. It can only be reached by an early nineteenth century Main Street. The layout is like an icon with a simple message. It says, "the past is the best pathway to an appropriate and exciting future." There is an Adventure Land, but it is a place one reaches from home.

When Walt died, the park fell into the hands of people who imitated Walt, but did not seem to love what they were doing -- or the people they were doing it for. They began to talk down to their audience. Michael Eisner with his giant case of Walt envy exploited Disney credibility with families, but continued the reduction of Disneyland to “children’s entertainment.”

Now, somehow one gets the impression that Eisner wishes he had a hipper and more progressive audience. All those stroller-people with their traditional values seem to irritate the new Disney management. They would build a new park without all the clutter of outdated sentiment. Sadly, they did not much like the past of California or the United States and had a view of the future that most of their core audience would reject.

Eisner and company did not know how to tell a story, just pitch a product. But in the end, Clinton liberalism simply cannot produce a good story. It exploits genuine motion in order to make a buck. The Eisner era has made some great films, most clearly "Beauty and the Beast." However, what is good about these films is essentially where they imitate Walt’s formulas and innovate within his medium. The stories themselves have grown increasingly weak in the Eisner era as the imitators plunder Western civilization for something new.

Walt was often accused of “sanitizing” his stories, but at least he sincerely believed in the films. He liked his own movies. In contrast, many of the productions of the Eisner era seem to be attempting nothing more elevated than just reaching a demographic group for commercial purposes. Does anyone really imagine that the current Disney suits would choose to go to see Peter Pan II, or the bizarre and cold Treasure Planet? Classic tales are retold with a twist that only the DLC could love. As a result, they become dated, not timeless.

The soulless story telling has now been done in three dimensions at Disney’s California Adventure (DCA). There is nothing Disney about it and a stroll through its mall-like space is a walk through no one's mind. At least one hopes not. Surely, there is more soul to Mr. Eisner and upper Disney management than California Adventure demonstrates.

One need only compare the two films I saw in Disneyland’s Circlevision Theater with the Whoopi Goldberg narrated film in DCA’s Golden Dreams Theater. The Disneyland films were sometimes dated, having been allowed to stick around too long in the malaise after Walt’s death, but they were sincere and patriotic. The sentiment is shared by the film makers and the audience. America is a great place to live. You might get mad at patriotism, but no one could question that Walt meant it.

On the other hand, the "California Dreams" film comes across like something put together by people who dislike the nation, but have been told to make a feel good film about it anyway. They dutifully push patriotic buttons, but they don’t really mean it. The best parts of the film are the “balancing” nasty news about the state. Original versions of the film showed Chinese laborers dying and Japanese being tormented by white bigots. Real inspiring stuff. The bottom line? Evidently, California is about dreams, any dreams. The fantasies of drugged out hippies are placed on an equal plane with those of men of real achievement like Bill Mulholland.

Another fascinating comparison are the rides in Bug’s Land of DCA and the
“children’s” rides such as Storybook Canal ride in Disneyland. The Disneyland ride is full of real miniaturized plants and small buildings. My daughter, who is eleven, says it is full of “scope for the imagination.” The plants are beautiful, real, and the ride can be ridden again and again. It is just a small, delightful jewel. Adults can enjoy it at one level, children at another.

On the other hand, Bug’s Land is full of rides from the county fairs of my youth, cheap and unimaginative. The rides are pitched to very small children with undiscriminating taste. My kids never beg to go there, not even my six year old. There is little or nothing to hold the attention of adults. Where Disneyland feels like it delights in the themes of each of its lands, Bug’s Land feels like it was themed by folk just back from a seminar on the importance of having a theme. It speaks down to kids and I think this cynical attitude is eventually picked up by youngsters.

Walt Disney liked his own rides; he wanted to ride Pirates of the Caribbean himself. Do the creators of the painfully slow bumper cars in Bug’s Land want to go on their own ride? I hope not.

Last week there was a death at Disneyland. One death made national news, because Disneyland is part of the imagination of so many people. Investigations will determine whether cuts at the park helped cause the accident, but one thing is certain: Disney’s California Adventure will never develop the same sort of passionate interest.

If Disney's California Adventure is ever to succeed, someone at Disney needs to throw out the people who do not like their own core constituency and bring back someone who would hire a Ronald Reagan to open his park.

copyright 2003 John Mark Reynolds



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