Psyche, Nature and the Magic Kingdom

There is nothing natural about Disneyland. In fact, I would say that it is one of the most unnatural places in the United States. From the second one drives onto the Resort or steps off the tram, one is inundated with images, music, and a highly controlled environment designed for the purpose of eliciting a good time. Granted, it can be observed that several people, especially parents and their children, look unhappy, but this is more due to exhaustion and sensory overload than actual unhappiness, which is not allowed by design. Disneyland is not simply a popular place for family vacations, but it is the one place, a kind of Mecca, for people to engage with the imaginal worlds of their childhood. In short, it is the hot spot for the projections of the American imagination. Of the five Disney parks, I will concentrate on only the park in Anaheim, California, because it is the one with which I am most familiar. What it is about the park that tickles our collective imagination is a vast topic, but I will explore it with concentration on a few key aspects of the park – those that relate to nature and the ecology of the psyche. In being such an unnatural environment, it becomes the most natural for psyche’s playground.

Tamara Andrews suggests a new perspective of  nature mythology that is especially apropos to a discussion of psyche and nature as they play out at Disneyland: “Most people are familiar with the phenomenon of the mirage, an illusion that appears where images are displaced or distorted under specific atmospheric conditions. The mind’s eye takes over. Perhaps such vision is what is necessary to understand nature mythology from a modern perspective” (xiii). The Disney park is not itself an illusion, but that design of the park at play with the senses is. Through the efforts of the Imagineers, Disney’s design engineers, it sometimes appears as though magic really does happen, that birds can talk and sing, or that a little fairy dust can make one fly to Never Land. It is, thus, necessary to read Disneyland as a fairy tale, with all of its psychological implications, not just as an abomination of nature, as critics are wont to proclaim. Disneyland may embody capitalism, but the park is a playground for the imagination. It allows people to interact with the stories and characters they love, and thus embody the closest thing to a mythological canon American has to offer, á la fairy tales and the Western frontier.

Walt Disney envisioned Disneyland while taking his young children to the park. The legendary story is that he wanted to create a place where the adults could share the activity with the children and have just as much fun. His thoughts on the subject “meandered along many paths before arriving at a park with the types of activities families could share in the location that we know today. His plans started out relatively small, but like all of Walt’s ideas, they grew and grew and grew…” (Imagineers 16). He set out to create an experience; one that he believed would never be finished as long as “there is imagination left in the world” (qtd. in Imagineers 20).

Perhaps one of the most essential aspects of Disneyland is that it allows a person to fully embody and be submerged into fantasy fairy tale such that the stories not only become a three-dimensional reality, but the Guest actually becomes a part of the story. This experience of embodiment is what David Abram claims as a missing element in modern American society (8-10). We have culturally become so removed from nature that our behaviors do not readily support any degree of return. We recognize the body as a well-oiled machine and technology as a means of enhancing that machine. As we become more and more reliant upon technology in the modern era, we value nature less and less. Similarly, fairy tale has been likewise distanced from us. As J.R.R. Tolkien describes it, fairy tale has been “relegated to the ‘nursery’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room … adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused” (34). In a similar vein, depth psychologists, such as Marie-Louise von Franz, recognize that fairy tale is essential to connect with the collective unconscious, because it is the most fundamental manifestation of unconscious material, even over mythology. While the face of fairy tale has changed since von Franz began lecturing on it, bridging the gap between anonymous short story and epic-proportioned mythology, it nonetheless continues to bear the essential element Tolkien describes as the Faërie, a magical “other world” where animals talk, magicians roam, and the laws of natural science are ignored, which is precisely what Disneyland tries to achieve. If fairy tale is fundamental to the unconscious and nature is an essential part of the human experience, it stands to reason that by revisioning the natural experience, Disneyland is essentially feeding a myth-hungry unconscious.

Each land is designed to accomplish a specific atmosphere that conveys the stories in an environment closely related to their themes. Disney’s vision was that each Guest could step into another time or place during their visit to the park. He charged the Imagineers with creating each of these lands to each be an imaginal microcosm. Guests are supposed to be unaware of the other lands while being fully focused on the one they are in, while also not feeling too cramped, crowded, and, ideally, overwhelmed by the experience. Looking at each of the lands, we can place them into three categories:

  • Imaginary Ecosystem: Adventureland
  • American Mythos: Main Street USA, Frontierland, and New Orleans Square
  • Imaginary Times: Fantasyland and Tomorrowland

I am overlooking two lands, Critter Country and Mickey’s Toon Town, because they are designed more as merchandising tie-ins to Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse, and hold little genuine psychological connection with Guests beyond getting to meet one’s favorite character.

Imaginary Ecosystem

“Adventureland re-creates the eras and locales of great adventure stories. To Walt, it was a ‘wonder land of nature’s own design.’ Here you’ll navigate the tropical rivers of the world, explore Indian temple ruins, and climb into the tree canopy in the deepest jungles of Africa. Adventureland is for the young at heart and brave of spirit.” (Imagineers 33)

The rides in Adventureland were inspired by a series of adventure-themed films produced by Disney during the 1950s, and they represent a conscious opposition to what Theodore Roszak calls “urban-industrialism,” or “the willful withdrawal of our species from the natural habitat in which it evolved” (307). Assuming that archaeological theories are true, and humans evolved in the African savannah, then Adventureland takes us back to that environment, protected by a large landscaping budget from the horrors of global warming. The major point of criticism on this point is that hardly anything in Adventureland is, in fact, real. All of the animals are audio-animatronic, or computer-controlled robots that can mimic actions and mannerisms of humans and animals, because that would ensure the same performance for every Guest. Many of the plants are imported, but are balanced with domestic Southern California foliage, rooting the experience into familiarity, some of which are completely artificial and designed to look real. None of the stone is real, and can never erode. To fully embrace Adventureland, and this is also true of the entire park, one has to look at it through an aesthetic eye: look “at the whole appreciatively, historically, synthetically … as a spectator watches a drama” (Royce qtd. in Roszak 133). Overlooking the unnaturalness, we see in Adventureland a jungle microcosm not found elsewhere in the United States, at the heart of which stands a Disneydendron semperflorens grandis,[1]an anima mundi, one of several throughout the park that connect the park’s environment with the “soul of the sky” (Cobb 124).

American Mythos

“Civilized man … is in danger of losing all contact with the world of instinct – a danger that is still further increased by his living an urban existence in what seems to be a purely manmade environment. This loss of instinct is largely responsible for the pathological condition of contemporary culture.” (Jung qtd. in Sabini 15)

This is precisely what the three lands of the American mythos attempt to remedy. By recreating the frontiers of the American psyche, these three lands remove us from our urban existence and transport us into the psyche. That all three lands are manmade is a testament to how far American culture has evolved from the environments at the foundation of the culture’s collective unconscious in that we have to consciously reconstruct them because the environment no longer exists.

  • Main Street USA – “Main Street, U.S.A., takes you back to a turn-of-the-century small town modeled on Walt’s own memories from his boyhood. It’s a world at the dawn of the age of electricity, but still firmly rooted in a simpler time. Anything can be accomplished, and soon will be. It’s a time and place of boundless possibilities.” (Imagineers 23)

This land is designed to reflect an idealized image of Small Town, USA, modeled on Disney’s childhood home in Marceline, Missouri. This area is forever locked in that transition between a pioneer town and a more industrialized city, and is the first all Guests pass through upon entering the park.

Main Street USA is Walt’s equivalent to Jung’s Bollengen Tower. He built it to reflect something he remembered fondly from his childhood, much like Jung and his building blocks. That he had to build an entire street, excluding the rest of the park, reflects Walt’s and America’s drive for grandiosity that emerged after World War II and has become the mythic stereotype of the 1950s, one that entitles all families to own a house, have at least one car, abundant toys at Christmas, and everyone could get an education. At least, that was the projected ideal, and far from the actuality. This degree of grandiosity emerges as the unconscious works to offset the conscious prospective realities. As the world was recovering from the war and the Great Depression, it became more important for the collective unconscious to compensate for all of the hardships experienced during those events. Disneyland was built during this collective compensation, opening in the summer of 1955.

  • Frontierland – “Frontierland celebrates the American pioneer spirit. It has always been the perfect embodiment of the wonder of – and quest to discover – the unknown, whether it be by land, water, or rail. It’s also a time of endless summers and lazy rivers. Stay awhile, and you’ll see why so many folks choose to call Frontierland ‘home.’” (Imagineers 45)

Frontierland harkens to a mythologized time in American history – the movement west. It glorifies mining towns and the Romantic view of an America only slightly touched by technology and unaffected by the Civil War and tensions with Native Americans and Mexico. The land is in response to the popular culture of the 1940s-1970s of Westerns on television, weekend games of Cowboys and Indians, and the idolization of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. The search for gold and other ores taint the otherwise unbroken expansiveness of the Western frontier. By projecting its ideal onto empty terrain, the American psyche sees possibility for development of itself through the development of the land, to the point of a “negative interiorization of nature” to the point that nature “becomes sublated in soul, the space of interiority opened up through the application of domination of itself” (Barreto 269). Furthermore, the mines are images of going into the depths of the Earth and extracting pieces of her soul for our own benefit. It is important to note that the human body possesses as “irrevocable kinship to nature” (Barreto 262), and it can be alluded that by mining the earth, we are desperately trying to mine ourselves, and this is more the reason why glorification in Disneyland of the frontier serves as a reminder of the buried treasure within the psyche.

  • New Orleans Square – “New Orleans Square is a captivating ode to the charms of the Crescent City. Here we set sail for parts unknown – on the open seas or in the hereafter. Sit for a spell and sip a sweet, minty cooler as you watch the world go by. The sights and sounds of this remarkable place leave an indelible impression.” (Imagineers 57)

New Orleans Square imagines a more gothic side of the American mythos – the collective shadow as projected onto the port city, New Orleans, Louisiana. Since nature encompasses all archetypes (Sabini 14), then it also encompasses negative archetypes, including the shadow. New Orleans is a good setting for this because the port city brought together traders from the Mississippi, the Caribbean, and Mexico. It has never had a reputation for being a “clean” city. The primary attractions of New Orleans Square feature pirates and Grim-Grinning Ghosts, Disneyfied so as to not frighten younger Guests. Nonetheless, these reflect America’s shadow. The greed and conquest of pirates are a driving force behind capitalism and globalization, and the ghosts represent the fear of death and quest for immortality. The fear of death reflects a psyche “trapped in the desolation of an infinity where it finds no consolation, no remorse, no response to its need for warmth, love, and acceptance” (Roszak 58). The attractions in New Orleans Square place the desolate, trapped psyche into a warmer context, especially when done in conjunction to Fantasyland, which, through its immersion into fairy tale, satisfies psyche’s need for pure imaginal experiences.

Imaginary Times

The Universe “has been reaching forward toward finer orders of complexity, toward realms so subtle and complex that they can be fabricated only out of the delicate dynamics of the human imagination. … It embodies the full potentiality of all that has gone before, realizing it, expressing it. It occupies the frontier of the cosmos.” (Roszak 185)

Fantasyland and Tomorrowland reflect time out of time. Fantasyland is not tied to any particular era, but the façades suggest imaginary pre-industrial European villages that have become the iconic settings for fairy tales: an imaginary past. Tomorrowland, conversely, imagines the technology of the future.

  • Fantasyland – “Fantasyland is a gateway to the world of make-believe. Faraway kingdoms and adventures in imaginary realms lie around every corner. You can live out your daydreams and look into the windows of your childhood. It’s a place where you can dream like a child no matter your age.” (Imagineers 78)

This land is most designed with children in mind and has more attractions than any other land. Visiting Fantasyland is about having an experience, rather than just a thrill. This experience helps people feel happiness and is identified with the essential experience that makes us human. The land offers a stronger flow experience, to use Csikezentmihaly’s phrase, creating an exceptional moment in life in which what Guests feel, wish and think are in harmony. One can do a literary analysis of each of the rides, breaking them down into their fundamental elements, but this would detract from the experience of the land. This experience is indicative of the life-world described by David Abram as “the world of our immediately lived experience, as we live it, prior to all our thoughts about it” (40). Guests do not necessarily pay detailed attention to the details of the rides – there is a lot to take in during a short period – but they all recognize that an experience nonetheless occurs. Because of the nature of Disneyland, Guests are permitted the inability to coherently describe the attraction. This is especially strong in the Fantasyland dark rides, which are gentle rides (i.e. not roller coasters) that transport the Guest in a ride-themed car through the story. There are five of these rides in Fantasyland: Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Peter Pan’s Flight, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Alice in Wonderland. All but Pinocchio have been open since the early days of the park.

Focusing on Peter Pan’s Flight, by way of example, the car is a pirate ship suspended from a track in the ceiling meant to stimulate flight. The ride starts when Peter Pan is taking Wendy Darling and her brothers to Never Land. The first couple rooms show London getting progressively smaller. Then, in Never Land, the ride takes us through Peter’s adventures: rescuing Tigerlilly from the cave and battling Captain Hook. The Guest is given a simulation of what the Darling children experienced in the story, and from this build their own phenomenological experience derived from the sensory stimulation of the entire ride – a total subjective experience that keeps Guests coming back to ride it again.

  • Tomorrowland – “Tomorrowland is your glimpse into the Future. Or at least the Future as we’d like to believe it will turn out to be. Catch a passing rocket ship to the next galaxy over or grab a bite to eat with your favorite alien friends. It’s your best chance to have tomorrow’s fun … today!” (Imagineers 109)

Tomorrowland has always showcased possible technologies of the future, and is constantly updated to reflect technological trends. One of the lasting trends is the possibilities of Outer Space, the new frontier now that the West has, essentially, been fully claimed. One possible future in store of us shows more reliance on machines than not. Carl Jung prophesied that modern, Western civilization will either destroy itself or be destroyed by its over-reliance on machines (Sabini 11). Indeed, Glen Slater supports this claim in his article, “Cyborgian Drift: Resistance is Not Futile,” in which he describes the growing (and problematic) trend of the West’s gradual overreliance on machines, and how this further and further removes us from nature. It would seem from both of these that there is little positive about machinery. Walt Disney, like Carl Jung, was a visionary, but one who embraced technology rather than feared it. He envisioned Tomorrowland to be at the top of attraction technology, including advances in three-dimensional video incorporated with ride-vehicles, the first indoor roller coaster, which stimulates flying through Outer Space, and the first fully-operational monorail. The park shows the positive use of technology for the purposes of having a powerful experience.

In his Disney-published series of young adult novels, Kingdom Keepers, Ridley Pearson describes what happens when one spends too much time in one aspect of the psyche qua magic: If one believes in something strong enough, then it can come to life through fantasy and fairy tale, and sometimes in reality. In those fairy tales Disney brings to life, what happens to the evil characters after the protagonists live happily ever after? Pearson speculates that they roman the park after hours, and calls them Overtakers. The Overtakers threaten to engulf the park in their dark magic. The shadow side of Disney’s magic. This demonstrates that for every positive thing, there must be some negative aspect, and the two must be kept in balance otherwise the outcome will not be good. In the situation of psyche and nature, the fear is that we, as a society, have already crossed a sort of tipping point that has severed us from nature. Global warming, cyborgs, urban communities. In Disneyland, one can escape from these issues and spend some time in psyche’s playground. In order to create this experience, Walt Disney fabricated an environment completely removed from pure nature, but one built to satisfy the needs of the entire country. If Jung built his Bollengen Tower to return to his conception of nature, then it can be argued that Walt built the Bollengen Tower of the entire American collective unconscious in Sleeping Beauty Castle and the park as a whole.

Works Cited

  • Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Print.
  • Andrews, Tamra. A Dictionary of Nature Myths. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1998. Print.
  • Barreto, Marco Heleno. "On the Death of Nature." Spring, A Journal of Archetype and Culture 75 (2006): 257-273. Print.
  • Birnbaum, Stephen, ed. Birnbaum’s Disneyland Resort: Expert Advice from the Inside Source. New York: Disney Editions, 2005. Print.
  • Cobb, Noel. "The Soul of the Sky." Spring, A Journal of Archetype and Culture 75 (2006): 121-138. Print.
  • Imagineers, The. The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland: An Imagineer’s-Eye Tour. New York: Disney Editions, 2008. Print.
  • Pearson, Ridley. The Kingdom Keepers. New York: Disney Editions, 2005. Print.
  • Roszak, Theodore. The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Phanes P, 2001. Print.
  • Sabini, Meredith, ed. The Earth Has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology, and Modern Life. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2002. Print.
  • Slater, Glen. "Cyborgian Drift: Resistance is Not Futile." Spring, A Journal of Archetype and Culture 75 (2006): 171-195. Print.
  • Strodder, Chris. The Disneyland Encyclopedia: The Unofficial, Unauthorized, and Unprecedented History of Every Land, Attraction, restaurant, Shop, and Event in the Original Magic Kingdom. Santa Monica: Santa Monica P, 2008. Print.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy-Stories." The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1996. 3-84. Print.
  • von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala, 1996. Print.

[1] A “large, ever-blooming Disney tree” (Birnbaum 65).


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