I went to Disneyland a few weeks ago with a handful of questions in mind for this article. The hope was to offer a unique perspective to an already rather famous establishment, and those questions were the key. While I did eventually get the answers, each lead to a more important question, eventually leading to the title. The simple answer is “yes, Disneyland is one of the world’s greatest museums”, but it’s not nearly that simple, nothing in “the happiest place on earth” is that simple.
Question 1: Is Disneyland horrendously outdated?
Disneyland opened in 1955 divided into several zones, each themed in a particular fashion. Some were built with an appreciation for America’s history, others built for the sake of mythic fantasy, and one built to consider the possible futures of humanity. Despite some opening day disasters, the park exploded into the public view and become a general phenomenon. I mention this mostly because despite whatever I say about Disneyland from here on, I deeply respect everything it represents. Walt Disney set out to create a place for people of all ages and backgrounds to momentarily set aside the present in exchange for an idealized past and wondrous future. Disneyland today still represents and holds Walt’s ideals in full resonance, remaining a true wonderland for almost all that visit it. That being said, this park after six decades hasn’t changed as much as you would think, and that’s not entirely optimal.
Last year, I visited Disneyland on a somewhat impromptu family weekend vacation. It was the first time I’d been there in about five to ten years, but my past experiences left me pretty hopeful. Somehow, it ended up being the overall least impressive visit I’d ever made to The Magic Kingdom. That’s not to say it was bad, but it disappointed in a big way compared to the vacuum of previous Disneyland vacations. There were two specific causes to this, the lesser of them being that I only reasonably fit on roughly 15-20% of the rides. Not a massive fault of the park: I highly doubt there was a surplus of people over 6’3” in 1955 unless they were wearing Goofy costumes. However, despite being the lesser of reasons, it did spark internal thinking—“Disney probably could use an update”. Giving the park a more critical eye, I found that the only thing that had changed in five years was a mild “Star Wars” overhaul of Tomorrowland, something that also soured the experience just a wee bit (I’d like to think there’s more to futuristic fantasy than “Star Wars”, and including a Tie Fighter and some sound effects did not actually improve Space Mountain). Fast forward to 2017 and I had the seed of this idea already planted. It begs inquiry: why ask a question if you’re pretty certain of the answer?
Well, sometimes you’re wrong. That’s when things get way more interesting.
The short answer is “yes, Disneyland is outdated”. I didn’t need to examine the park for long to reach that conclusion. However, what came with it was the realization that all that nostalgic packaging wasn’t a weakness, but a strength. So many elements of the park may be fairly outdated, but what they lack in entertainment value they compensate historically. I would cite Autopia, a ride where you drive (really slow and clunky) cars around a track, as a perfect example of a ride that offers very little entertainment value now, but acts as a time capsule for an early vision of the future. It’s actually one of the few attractions at the park that has remained practically untouched since the park’s opening, and once represented the idea of what “highway design and interaction” would look like in the future. That future may have already long come and gone, but there’s significant value in being able to see a visceral example of what was once a fantasy to an earlier generation, and that’s a value that largely acquiesces the shackles of age.
So I decided to shift focus. Initially, I was centered on the historical element of the park itself. For the next question, I started thinking about the overall appeal.
Question 2: Does Disneyland run on Magic or Nostalgia?
It’s said that art shared with the world belongs to no single person. Part of the draw to Disneyland is this intricate culture comprised of what Disney represents, present in both its construction and its performance. Once you think about the “outdated” aspect of it all, it begs a more important question: is there still magic here, or are we all just reveling in nostalgia?
For one, Disneyland is full of attractions, way more so than other similar places. Just by a factor of scale, Disneyland is akin to that of a small town, or the entire entertainment district of a major city. If you include the California Adventure Side Park, it’s nearly impossible to experience the whole package in one day. What’s more impressive is that for a place so enormous, it still holds a delicate candle for the craft. Every single part of the park is loaded with small, well-considered details, bringing the whole place to life. This is the only amusement park I’ve ever been to that never feels like one; I’d equate the overall appearance and feeling to a Broadway theater production. The whole place is just so massive and ambitious, it’s hard not to get lost in the majesty
For two, Disneyland is so much more than a park. Any issues I have with the rides and attractions here are all supremely overpowered by my appreciation for the aesthetic, the immersion, the entire culture that pervades this park. Disneyland looks like a theater set, but it also plays like one; in many ways, the whole park is a stage, one that heavily involves the audience. All around I see players of every age. There are little girls dressed up as princesses, and actresses who are also princesses completely reciprocating that fantasy and addressing them with respect (On that note, the number of kids dressed up either as Elsa or Anna from Frozen was disproportionately high). There are also parents here having outgrown the veil of imagination but very willing to retether the thread, and the employees are more than happy to help. It’s really hard not to have a good time.
So yes, for the children, this place is still definitely magical, and for the adults, it gets to be both. And I think that matches what Walt was originally trying to accomplish with this place.
So now I had an answer regarding the park itself, and another charting its appeal. Now it was time to consider the people, or rather the audience.
Question 3: Who is the intended audience for Disneyland?
I spent a lot of time observing the park and the visitors, and going purely on what I saw, my first answer to this question was “Family of multiple generations”. For every one of you that have been to Disneyland, I’m willing to bet you never went alone; your family was probably involved. That was the initial thought, but it turns out that tons of friend clusters were present here as well and of varying ages. At the very least, you’ll rarely find a soloist at Disneyland. I considered that gender might be a factor; after all, a majority of Disney films are centered around the classic “Princess” story, more likely to draw in a female crowd. I didn’t see any noticeable saturation of any particular group, so gender was out. Diversity is alive and well at Disneyland. Age operates similarly: there are definitely more young kids and middle age adults (families, especially) than young adults and seniors, but there’s still a nice, wide spread throughout the park.
Then there’s consideration of content. Disneyland is loaded to the brim with the Disney brand, which means it’s full of content from their mostly child-friendly films and shows, but the actual intent of these things is to reach as wide an audience. There’s no shortage of merchandise that seems tailored for all audiences, and while there’s a surplus of adventure, none of the attractions are made in bad taste for anyone. My frustration in considering content is realizing that the overall inclusivity makes it incredibly difficult to pinpoint an audience.
The last point I considered was the rides themselves since most amusement parks classify as either “Thrill Park” or “Theme Park”, and each draws different crowds. Disneyland operates bizarrely here given it has both. I mean, there are definitely more rides built around a theme (most of the rides just involve traveling through one of their movies at 3 miles per hour) but there is also a solid representation of thrill rides scattered throughout the park. Attractions like Space Mountain, Grizzly River Run, Thunder Mountain Railway, and Matterhorn (to name a few) definitely operate as thrill rides, but Disneyland is unique in that all of their thrill rides also function as elaborate theme rides as well. The whole purpose of Disneyland is to immerse you in its many realms of fantasy, regardless of intensity.
With all of these divisions, there was only one universal trait I was able to pick out. The audience for Disneyland is, quite simply, fans of Disney . . . which is basically everyone. It’s a brand that’s all about inclusion, immersion and an impressive range of imagination. Their films and shows are all over the park, deep in every crevasse.
That audience makes up almost 100% of the visitors, including myself. It might be easier to criticize aspects of Disneyland if you view the experience objectively, but I dare you to find a single objective person at this park. Find me someone who has never seen a Disney film or show, has never been exposed to any of their toys or products and has no friends or family that break the same conditions. On that note, find me someone that has never seen an animated film in their life. I dare you. And so does Disney.
This park, this company, it’s all so . . . much. There’s such an available banquet of fantasies and ideas in constant circulation, built by some of the best artists, craftsmen, and storytellers the world has ever known. And that’s just it: the world DOES know.
So how exactly did I wind up with such a bizarre question?
Final Question: Is Disneyland one of the world’s greatest museums?
At some point, I ended up on Main Street, USA (the front of the park) and asked a much smaller question: “What’s the point of Main Street?” It’s actually the only area of the park with no attractions outside of the occasional parade, and no focus on immersion. It’s designed lightly to look like a ’50s town, full of the normal workings and charm and operated mostly with stores and cafes. Compared to the rest of the park, Main Street offers so little . . . and yet it has so many people, all the time. And I don’t just mean people casually walking in and out of the park, there are solid clumps of people just hanging around and taking in the view. So I decided to expand that question: “Is Disneyland more than an amusement park?”
Most of the park is fairly outdated, but it manages to thrive within this old-fashioned content. There’s a much greater push here to sell a feeling rather than any particular attraction; there are no other amusement parks making nearly such an effort to push immersion. And that push even overpowers the standard focus of “thrill vs theme”. Disneyland seems unconcerned with trying to match other theme parks, it’s too busy setting a pace no one else can follow. This focus on performance got me thinking that maybe Disneyland was closer to theater than simple amusement, but there’s also a key focus on exploration throughout the park. I can only think of one type of institute that emphasizes that same combination of immersion with exploration: a museum.
A museum is defined as “a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored or exhibited”, and outside of scientific, I think Disneyland fits all those descriptions. I mentioned the historical and cultural significance of Autopia earlier, but those qualities are certainly not limited to just that one attraction; all throughout the park there are plentiful numbers of these “interactive time capsules”. It becomes very easy to picture Disneyland as a museum if you view each “land” as an exhibit hall, and just remind yourself that there’s no roof. Outside of that, it’s simply massive in comparison to your standard museum (sizably larger than the world’s largest museum, the Smithsonian).
Now, I recognize that might invite the argument that any theme park can be labeled a museum, but I actually reserve the label for Disneyland in particular. No other park offers such a blend of cultural and artistic exhibit, and so constantly refreshes it. I don’t get the same level of wonder when I go to most other theme parks, and none of them come remotely close when considering historical significance. There’s nothing strange about categorizing Disneyland as a landmark.
And truthfully, there’s still no place like it. Disney Parks have distinguished themselves so much more than any other theme park across history; they stand alone in a class of their own. The original Disneyland was in many ways a wonder of the world in 1955, and that monument holds true 62 years later. It can be hard to imagine any visionary leading the charge on culture for that many decades, but that seems to be a specialty of Disney. After all, they’ve now been the kings of the animation world for almost a century (take that in for a moment).
So now I ask the question: Is Disneyland one of the world’s greatest museums? Yes, Disneyland is one of the world’s greatest museums, but maybe only if you see it that way. The most unique thing about Disneyland is that everyone experiences it differently. Everyone walks into this park with a completely different opinion of what the park actually is, what it means, and why it’s important. Plenty of adults view it as a standard theme park that’s kid-friendly. Kids come here and view this place as a land of real and believable fantasy. I think, whatever you think of Disneyland, it probably holds value to you in some shape or form. This flexible fantasy, so welcoming and rich with life, is why regardless of how you interpret Disneyland, it largely remains “the happiest place on Earth.”
To me, Disneyland is the world’s greatest museum, and that’s why I’ll always enjoy visiting it.