Disneyland: The Imagination’s Playground

Just a little background: I am a child of post-modern popular culture. I could identify Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald and similar animated, branded characters before I could recognize the religious and political iconic images of my family and country. I am one of many such youths. Corporations have received criticism for programming entire generations to “worship” their logos, but these same logos have molded and shaped how these generations look at the world and, similarly, defined their mythos. This is a large centralizing factor as to why I staunchly defend Disneyland as a sacred “Mecca of the Mouse.” In no other single place, except the other Disney theme parks, is Disney’s pop culture mythology collected into a single bundle of energetic surroundings.

Walking through Disneyland is like walking in an alternate reality, akin to the kind sought after through self-medication and mind-altering substances. Sure, plenty of people walk (or run) around the park looking tired, frazzled, possibly unhappy, if not angry. Sure, children cry and whine. Those are the people of a different mythos, who get lost in the actuality of the park and not the imaginative potentiality. The Disney experience can be overwhelming: all aspects of the park are meant to manipulate the senses.

The trek from the parking structure to the front gates is a type of pilgrimage, the call to adventure for each and every hero who is brought to a specific location to start their adventure. Among the first exposures to the park are the shops in Downtown Disney: the possible souvenirs one may take home, the smells of potential meals and treats, and the music roots a person into the Disney experience. From there, it is a foot walk to the ticket gates, through which one enters a liminal space. There is a large garden with flowers arranged in the head of Mickey Mouse, which is thematically decorated to coincide with the park theme of the season. For example, for the 2009 season Mickey is adorned in a flower birthday hat because of the “Celebrate Today” theme.

The threshold crossing, through which all attendees must pass, says “Here you leave the world of today and enter into the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and Fantasy.” Walt Disney envisioned the park to not only be a place for both children and adults, but also a place of magic, make-believe, and happiness. To accomplish this, he hired a team of Imagineers, “imaginative engineers” and masterminds responsible for all aspects of the design of the park, to outfit the park such that attendees were cut off from the outside world. All that happens within Disney walls are Disney-related and completely engineered to be Disney-only. Unhappiness really is not an option.

Disneyland does not have a hidden narrative per se, but it does have the agenda for exciting the imagination. Outwardly, Disneyland is all about commercialism, capitalism, and the bottom-line. Attendees are encouraged to interact with the products they are consuming in order to fully engage with the Disney magic despite already being totally immersed. This embodied experience has the power to incite a general awe among those who attend.

The Imagineers describe the park as “the physical embodiment of all that our company’s mythologies represent to kids of all ages” (6). The park is an embodied experience. Viewers’ imaginations are awakened by the “Disneyized” myths and fairytales, and the park allows them to participate and interact with those myths from getting the autograph of a beloved character to going on a ride through the story. Walt Disney capitalized on a collective need for fairy tales for children and adults. These tales are cited by Marie-Louise von Franz as those closest to the collective unconscious. Disney brings these tales to life by concretizing the stories in timeless and cultureless images. For example, Mickey Mouse is essentially an animated actor, but it is his animatedness that makes him otherworldly and mythic and able to transcend the boundaries of culture. He is an image of the imagination, and becomes idolized in the Mickey-related merchandise park visitors can bring home to continue the experience. In effect, these souvenirs are cognitively no different from religions icons and relics one can purchase inside any major church gift shop.

One criticism would be that there is a problem to the lack of mythologizing Disneyland allows. Being such a controlled environment, there is little flexibility for the imagination to supplement Disney canon. One reason for this limitation is that Walt Disney was an eternal puer and his childlike energies limit the psychic potential within his work. But it is erroneous to think of it negatively. “Prefabricated myths,” as I have come to describe them, give us the pieces and define the experience, placing the images in the mind’s eye, but these form a fundamental core of modern mythology. A prefabricated myth is better than no myth. Another perspective is to consider Walt Disney as the figurehead, the seer, and Disneyland is how one is able to understand his symbolic narrative. In some ways, Walt Disney has been fully mythologized and nearly deified. He is the magical father, the senex, who has defined our imaginations.

Studying myth and depth psychology enhances the magic behind Disneyland. It gives a language to the overwhelming connection one may feel when visiting the park and helps the attendee filter through the barrage of sensory exploits, and this invites repeat visits. Instead of being a “family vacation,” the visit is now an “embodied experience”; or, rather than a “consumerist capitol,” it is a “mythic pilgrimage site.” Critics are quick to point out that the park is either overwhelmingly linked to consumerism and devouring false idols, or to observe that attendees are not exactly happy to be there. In the case of the first, it is essential to observe that Disneyland draws upon all of the standard techniques of establishing a sacred space, so absolute, filed with the same images and icons necessary to “worship.” I doubt any visitor would consider Walt Disney the same as a god, but he was the storyteller linked to the collective unconscious fulfilling the hunger of the people so far removed from organic stories that satisfy their hunger. As to the second charge of everyone appearing unhappy, these are often the ones suffering more from poor planning than anything else. For many, especially young children, the park needs to be taken in small doses. Otherwise, they are overwhelmed by the awesomeness of its grandeur.

To best appreciate the power of Disneyland, it helps to recall that Joseph Campbell links the mythmakers with the artists and poets who are able to understand the symbolic language of myth and the psyche. They are the ones who take this subject matter and make it more palatable for the average person. Not everyone is able to appreciate myth on a deeper level than as passive observers. Prefabricated mythologies, such as Disneyland, give the average people an outlet into these mythic elements, something that Carl Jung cites as essential for overall psychic health. It is falsely idealistic to assume that everyone can be a poet, a shaman, or a mythmaker. Not only are the demands of everyday life too stringent, but those muscles may have long since atrophied. This is not a bad thing, especially not when outlets, such as Disneyland, are available for some release.

Perhaps the tragedy lies in the fact that recent generations, including and possibly beginning with my own, are subjected to a lifestyle curriculum that discourages any sort of imagination. For this reason, pop culture images carry the roles that the myths and stories once did. In most cases of these images, one can only engage or embody the experience at home, limited by the economics associated with acquiring the toys. Disneyland is not only one big toy – and one focused on bring within most family’s economic means – but it is also the dollhouse, play-place, and imaginal backyard all in one.

Works cited

  • Imagineers, The. The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland: An Imagineer’s-Eye Tour. New York: Disney Editions, 2008. Print.
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