The Disneyfication of Disneyland

I admit it, I’m a Disneyland junkie.  I’ve been going there as long as I can remember, at least as far back as the early 70’s.  There was even a period of several years where I had an annual pass, despite living several hundred miles away from the place.  So I should be excited about the debut of the renovated California Adventure.  But I’m not, though it’s not for the reason many might think.  In fact, it’s for the opposite reason.

California Adventure wasn’t particularly popular, because people thought it was not exciting enough, not sufficiently “Disney.”  That’s why I liked it.  It was low-key, a place to just walk around and enjoy the environment.  That’s what I always liked about Disneyland as well, and that’s been steadily eroding for years.  The result is that Disneyland has become less and less like the place Walt Disney envisioned.

For Walt, the idea was to go to a place, and be completely swept up.  That’s why the admission fee was nominal, and attractions themselves accessed by individual tickets (thus adding “e-ticket ride” to the lexicon), but the change to an all-in-one admission, while a great idea on the surface, actually made Disneyland less a place to go and enjoy the experience, and more a place to do as many thrill rides as possible.

Walt wanted to recreate the past, present and future.  That those concepts were highly idealized has been derided by some by the term “Disneyfication,” meaning a sanitized, romanticized version of the past or present with no relationship to reality.  But that was exactly the point.  Frontierland was never intended to be a recreation of the Old West; it was what we wanted the Old West to have been like.  The same is true of Adventureland, Tomorrowland, all of it.  It wasn’t supposed to be reality; it was supposed to be something better, something to inspire us.

But things have changed.  In the past few decades, the philosophy of Disneyland has eroded.  Rather than a fun Old West, or a “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” somewhere along the way the vision became corrupted by all of the other theme parks that sprung up in the wake of Disneyland’s success.  Now, it’s all about familiarity, branding, and thrills.

The park shops and attractions (never “rides”) were intended to be original experiences.  But now it seems the only theme is the familiar licensed characters.  Originally, Main Street contained actual specialty shops; it was possible to buy a piano at the piano store.  Now, the entire area is one long interconnected stretch of shops all selling sweatshirts, plush toys and princess collectables.  The same is true of the shops in Adventureland and Frontierland, which are only fractionally distinct from their counterparts at the Disney Stores found in every shopping mall..

Even worse, the attractions have been retooled to integrate characters from the films, where originally this would only be found in Fantasyland, their rightful home.  The rollicking “Pirates of the Caribbean” has been changed to accommodate the popular films based on the attraction (thank heavens the “Haunted Mansion” movie was a bomb).  The venerable Tahitian Terrace with its Polynesian shows long ago fell victim to this mindset, becoming a never-open Aladdin theater.

Perhaps the saddest casualty is Tomorrowland.  What was once the most exciting section of the park has now become a veritable annex of Fantasyland, and at this point may as well be renamed “Pixarland.”  Really, what does “Finding Nemo” have to do with the world of tomorrow?  The fact that the attraction consists of nothing but animated fish saying, “Where’s Nemo?” makes it that much worse, and shows how utterly uncreative the imagineers have become and how they totally missed the actual plot of the movie.

And where attractions haven’t been turned into film promotions, their wonders have been replaced by fast screams.  The delightful “Mine Train” long ago was supplanted by the mediocre “Big Thunder” roller coaster.  The surrealistic “Inner Space” became “Star Tours.”  The amusing Peoplemover became the ill-fated “Rocket Rods”, and since then has simply sat as a huge, unused eyesore in the middle of Tomorrowland.  Another casualty of “Rocket Rods” was the Circlevision theater, which showed the inspiring, brilliant “America the Beautiful,” and which was resurrected as “Buzz Lightyear,” a fun attraction that nevertheless belongs in Fantasyland, not Tomorrowland.  Walt wanted people to take their time and say “Wow!”  His successors want them to keep moving through and buy stuff.  That’s why every attraction now empties into a gift shop, and most last no longer than three minutes.

This is not to say I want the park to remain unchanged from when I was a child, although, that said, there is something to having the opportunity to share a favorite childhood experience with your own children, an opportunity lost when every such experience is being retrofitted into a movie tie-in.  What I do want is for the park to remain true to Walt’s original concept.  If anything, Disneyland itself has been “Disneyfied.”  Unique experiences have been turned into one collective homogenous commercial for the company.  That’s the last thing Walt wanted.

Yet if Disney’s goal is to make as much money as possible, and the hell with Walt’s vision of an overall experience, then the solution can be found in the problem.  I have no doubt that, the company being what it is, there exist film records of every attraction the park has ever had.  We heard the soundtracks of many long-lost favorites as part of the massive “Musical History of Disneyland” CD set released in conjunction with the park’s 50th anniversary.  Surely there are entire attraction experiences recorded in both audio and video.  If Disney were to release these on DVD (or, I guess, Blu-ray), I am confident there would be a substantial market, among both those with fond memories, and those who never had these legendary experiences.  Such a release would, I am certain, be very successful.  Then, Disney could continue to market their films in an uncreative amusement park, and those of us who long for a better, more magical Disneyland of long ago would at least have something to hold onto besides fading memories.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Disneyfication of Disneyland

  1. “It wasn’t supposed to be reality; it was supposed to be something better, something to inspire us.”

    YES! That is exactly why I love Disneyland. I don’t feel like it’s lost the magic for me, though I admit my memories don’t go back as far, so I have less to compare it to. Fantasyland has always been my favorite world besides, and that’s probably the least changed in recent years. You do make a good case for the virtues of a simpler version of Disneyland–and Tomorrowland does seem to have rather lost sight of its focus. As to New Orleans Square–I have to admit that I LOVE that Captain Jack is in the ride now. Because…he’s Captain Jack!

    Which maybe brings me to the new virtues of the new style of Disneyland. There’s a lot I agree is not a positive–the focus on thrills, the goal of hitting as many rides as quickly as possible, the homogenous nature of the stores…but I do love the introduction of characters in more places. It’s a land where characters come to life–and that’s thoroughly magical. 🙂

    • Thanks for your response. I certainly don’t want people to think I’m totally down on Disneyland. Walt was an unrelenting optimist, and that’s something I find somewhat lacking in today’s culture. If a place like Disneyland maintains just a tiny bit of Walt’s light, even if colored by commercialism, then in the end it’s worth it. And, while I haven’t yet made it down to check out the revised CA Adventure, I do intend to at some point. There’s still plenty that would make Walt proud: I’m certain he would have loved “Soarin,” for instance.

      • I hope so! “Soarin'” is my favorite attraction in CA Adventure. And it’s the one exception to the rule that all the best things were created during Walt’s lifetime.

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