Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Small worlds

One of my colleagues, on hearing that I'd been to Disneyland and enjoyed it, suggested I read the chapter on Disneyland in John M. Findlay's Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture After 1940 (University of California, 1992). It's fascinating! Disneyland, now widely understood to be a Midwest-inspired response to the sprawl of Los Angeles, was originally intended as a Western response to urban malaise associated with Northeastern cities, the anti-Coney Island. (Anaheim was just orange orchards when Disneyland arrived in 1954.) It was indeed to be an uplifting experience, reconnecting weary cynical modern people with their better natures - not an escape from reality but a ticket to a truer reality, the realities of forms of human happiness obscured by the present. It was a great a success from the get-go:
How did they produce this "Disney Realism"? Findlay argues it could only have happened in Southern California, building on Hollywood. Originally conceived as a park for employees next to Disney films' studio in Burbank, Disneyland was a three-dimensional film experience, which guests moved through like a movie:

One technique they used was that of scaling down the size of the park and its various features. Disneyland seemed a cozy and friendly place, particularly to children, because it was somewhat less than life-size. The trains running around the park on narrow-gauge track, the horseless carriages on Main Street, and the Mark Twain paddle-wheel steamboat were all built at approximately five-eighths scale. Designers also used the technique of forced perspective… Stores and offices along Main Street U. S. A. were scaled at about 90 percent of full size on the first floor, 80 percent on the second floor, and 60 to 70 percent on the third floor. The overall effect of the built environment was impressive but not intimidating. (68-69; quote above, 90; pics, 90 and 72.)

I was struck, reading all this, by how close our experience even in 2010 was to the original hopes for the place - they do what they do so well, and part of the pleasure is noticing this! But it gave me a little thrill to learn that It's A Small World originated on the East Coast - developed by Disney, yes, but for Pepsi for the New York World's Fair in 1964-65 (109).

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