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Friday, January 8, 2016

January 8, 2016: DisneyStudying: Small Worlds

[In November, I finally visited DisneyWorld for the first time, accompanying my 9 and 8 year old sons. We hit the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios in a whirlwind three days—and as you might expect, this AmericanStudier found a great deal of interest in all three places. So this week I’ll DisneyStudy five such details, leading up to a special weekend post on themes parks in America!]
On three sides to globalization captured by Disney’s parks.
On Wednesday’s post I mentioned that the attraction It’s a Small World, likely best known for its insanely catchy “It’s a Small World After All” song, was created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The attraction itself is pretty simple—animatronic figures representing peoples from around the world, far less realistic than those in many other Disney attractions but with a quaint charm to be sure, located in settings meant to loosely capture their different cultures, all singing that darn song in their own languages, leading up to a climax where all the cultures are brought together to sing as one—which is perhaps why it became the phenomenon it did. And as someone who both appreciates multiculturalism and strives for an ideal of cross-cultural transformation, I certainly liked the ride’s two-part process, the recognition of distinct world cultures and yet the movement toward a unifying final scene. A simple but compelling vision of globalization, and one created just at the outset of that worldwide trend.
Disney didn’t just reflect globalization, of course—it also served as one of the trend’s principal catalysts and vehicles. That’s true not only in the company’s spread around the world (and the creation of Disneylands in other countries), but also in the many ways that Disney has worked to welcome the world into its American parks. None of those efforts has been more visible, nor more influential, than Epcot’s World Showcase; I didn’t quite realize this until I was there in person, but more or less a full half of Epcot is dedicated to this space that seeks to recreate the architecture, environments, and (most of all) the food and drink of eleven nations. Visiting with two young boys, and during an annual food & wine festival to boot, meant I didn’t venture into any of the showcase’s restaurants or establishments. But even walking around the showcase briefly, I was struck in two distinct ways by the space’s jarring shifts in tone from spot to spot: partly these shifts emphasized the area’s artificial and superficial quality, the ways in which none of its focal nations could be captured with any true depth; but at the same time they felt like possible starting points, initial glimpses of other cultures that could ideally be complemented with travel, research, even conversation with other visitors. It’s not impossible that global community could come from such origin points.
On the other hand, global community requires a consistent recognition of cultures other than our own, and I have to admit that in most other places and ways Disney’s parks felt far more American-centric. A case in point would be The Great Movie Ride, an attraction at Hollywood Studios that takes visitors through the last century of filmmaking with a combination of live actors and animatronic scenes. Of course no one attraction can capture all of film history, and this one is part of a park dedicated explicitly to the Hollywood film industry; yet nonetheless, it seems to me that a ride purporting to reflect some of the key moments and genres in film could work to include at least a moment or two focused on films or figures from other cultures. After all, none other than the record-shattering film property recently acquired by Disney (and focus of a future theme park that unfortunately the boys and I were too early to check out) began with a film (A New Hope) that echoed in some significant ways a Japanese classic film (Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress). Too often, America’s role in globalization has entailed eliding the rest of the world in favor of our own perspective, and that side of the trend too is unquestionably present on the complex, contradictory, compelling grounds of Disneyworld.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of Disney or theme parks you’d AmericanStudy?


  1. Ben--I haven't been to your blog in a while, and it's great that you happen to be looking at Disney right now, because I just went to Disney on Ice in Boston last weekend, and I have been thinking about it quite a bit, too.

    As entertaining as the show was, I could not help but be struck by the audience's deep sense of shared familiarity and warmth toward each of the characters depicted therein. There was something strongly cultural about it. I made me think of a traditional folk dance or gathering in another part of the world, or a play performed during the Golden Age of Athens--sort of a perverse cultural tradition, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck characters in an American mythology.

    The reason I say "perverse" is that it arose out of an expressly economic pursuit. There is art involved, no question, and many noteworthy achievements. But Disney, ultimately, is as corporate as it gets, and the places its stories hold in the American psyche transcend what we think of as 'commerce.' I willingly paid $36 for two lemonades and a bag of popcorn--this does not jive with your average, everyday market-force logic.

    I often wonder about some of the religion-like undertones of American capitalism. And I honestly can't say that I like it more or less because of these thoughts, but I do find it fascinating.

    Just my brief two cents. I hope all is well with you.


  2. Hi Ian,

    Thanks so much for the comment, and good to hear from you!

    I don't have a lot to add to those great thoughts, but definitely would say that the combination of frank commercialism with communal warmth is a particularly American blend (even when it defies reason, like all the folks seeking out PT Barnum's shows year after year knowing he was out to fleece them), and one Disney definitely embodies as you nicely note here.

    Thanks again,