Disney Takes Theming to a New Extreme

Back in 1949, Carey McWilliams first described Southern California as a region that constantly reinvented itself. This was a place, McWilliams wrote, where towns and neighborhoods were often transformed, seemingly overnight, according to the rules of someone's crazed imagination.

Thus, a replica of Venice rose out of the beach sand and Danish villages were built in the mountains. Cemeteries with dioramas of Calvary did more business as tourist attractions than as resting spots for the departed. The invented world, superimposed on our dusty hills and shore, seemed to find a home here.

When McWilliams wrote his history of Southern California, no one had dreamed of the theme park. But is anyone surprised that it was born in Anaheim? And likewise, does it now startle anyone to learn that the downtown of Long Beach, the fifth-largest city in California, may soon be "themed" and re-created by the Walt Disney Co.?

Nah, we take this stuff in stride. We have more theme parks here than any other region of the world. The very foundation of the huge tourism industry of Southern California, in fact, now rests on these parks. Few people actually come to Southern California to look at the real Hollywood. Rather, they come to look at "Hollywood" as portrayed at the theme parks.

Still and all, there's something fascinating about the Long Beach plan. Despite its official description as a second Disney park in Southern California, it is not that. Or not merely that. Disney's project in Long Beach represents a leap forward in the whole notion of theming.

Disney is proposing, in essence, to take control over the future of downtown Long Beach. The company is suggesting it can do better with its dream worlds than the city could ever manage on its own. Disney wants to reinvent Long Beach.

In case you missed the announcement, here's the basics of what the company calls Port Disney:

The centerpiece would be the huge theme park itself, about four times the size of Disneyland. Called DisneySea, it would be so located--out on the harbor peninsula where the Queen Mary now resides--as to consume the view from downtown. Artists conceptions show a landscape dominated by smoking volcanoes and glass-bubble structures that enclose the visitor and reveal the "mysteries" of the sea.

So far, of course, all we've got is a theme park, albeit a very large one. But Port Disney only starts there. Along the rest of the peninsula the company would build a cruise ship port, retail and entertainment enclaves, and two hotels with a total of 1,900 rooms. All this would require 250 acres of new land to be built on harbor fill.

Then we get to what the Disney people call the "city-side" part of the project. This is the downtown portion and it would occupy most of the land along Long Beach's waterfront. Three more hotels would be built around a series of lagoons. Strollways would link the hotels and also funnel visitors to retail/entertainment zones. A monorail might be built to haul the non-strollers between venues.

There's something crucial to keep in mind here. This plan is not being proposed to a city whose downtown is exactly hopping. Basically, Long Beach has been trying--and failing--to do CPR on its downtown for 20 years. What they've got for their trouble, so far, is a bunch of isolated skyscrapers, empty lots and the bombed-out look of a sunny Detroit.

So now come the Disney people, making an implicit promise. They are saying, "We can theme this city and bring it to life. We can succeed where the city has failed. Our unreal world is more powerful than any reality the city could produce."

The interesting and sad part is, Disney probably speaks the truth. The company estimates that 13 million people a year would visit their version of Long Beach. I believe them. Perhaps it's because a downtown-by-Disney provides the sense of safety that a real downtown could never offer. Disney's Long Beach will have strolling, shopping, volcanoes--and no risk.

Nor will it require, as do real cities, a willingness to search and explore for the good stuff. Port Disney's secrets will all be revealed in a brochure. You will have the "mysteries" of the sea offered to you inside a glass bubble while outside, just yards away, the real sea will glimmer quietly in the moonlight. And, somehow, the real thing will seem slightly diminished.

Nonetheless, we will love it. We will be fed, entertained, and finally monorailed to our hotel for the evening. A safe hotel. A place where we can fall asleep and dream that, truly, this is urban life without a downside. The way it should be.

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