Disney’s State of Mind


Even the happiest place on earth needs an occasional dose of urban reality.

That’s the idea, at least, behind the new $1.4-billion expansion of the Disneyland resort in Anaheim. Packed onto 55 acres, the expansion, which opens Thursday, includes a 750-room Arts and Crafts-inspired hotel, a themed retail pedestrian promenade and the new California Adventure theme park, conceived as a collage of the state’s grandest tourist attractions.

But the development also symbolizes a subtle departure from the suburban ideals that shaped the original Magic Kingdom. Designed by Walt Disney Imagineering, both California Adventure and the retail promenade take their cues from the more gritty, urban settings of Hollywood Boulevard and turn-of-the-century amusement parks, and then clean them up for public consumption. As such, they reflect a larger cultural trend: the fusion of urban and suburban values that is rapidly redefining the Southern California landscape.

To enter the theme park, you first pass through a series of nearly 12-foot-high letters that spell out “California.” A scaled-down version of the Golden Gate Bridge rises from behind, framed by two large murals depicting a collage of well-worn images ranging from the Redwood Forest to a school of frolicking dolphins.


The idea is that--like Alice and the looking glass--we are tumbling through a two-dimensional threshold into another world, this one a giant picture postcard of California attractions. But once inside, the boundary between fact and fiction is subtly blurred. Standing in the central plaza, visitors can choose to stroll down a mock Hollywood Boulevard or past a 110-foot-tall synthetic foam material mountain shaped like a grizzly bear’s head to get to Condor Flats, an introduction to California’s aerospace industry, vaguely modeled on Edwards Air Force Base.

The real world, meanwhile, is not far away. In the near distance, visitors can catch glimpses of the Anaheim Convention Center and a more conventional 14-story hotel.

There’s more. The Hollywood Pictures Backlot section of the park, for instance, is lined with reproductions of Los Angeles landmarks, including Art Deco theaters, the Max Factor Building and--for the highbrow architect--restrooms inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile block houses.

A giant billboard depicting wispy clouds on a perfect baby-blue sky punctuates the faux boulevard. Behind it, the real sky--gray and overcast when I was there--pales in comparison. Such touches are a witty response to those critics who regularly lament the “Disneyfication of America,” a term coined by the architecture critic Michael Sorkin. Disney’s answer is to expose the theme park’s artificiality, like a magician suddenly showing his hand, before whisking you away on the next ride.

Not that the park is free of moral posturing. In tracing the history of immigration to California, for instance, the Whoopi Goldberg-narrated film “Golden Dreams” offers a patronizing nod to the sacrifices immigrants made for their piece of the California dream. (Apparently, the experience of laying railroad tracks under a desert sun could not be translated into a ride.)

But in general, the park unfolds as a stunning lesson in how accurately reality can be replicated. In the ride Soarin’ Over California, for example, visitors are fastened into a comfy seat and suspended in front of a semicircular Imax screen. Dangling in the air, you feel the world sweep by, a breeze brushes over your face, waves lap at your feet.


Once you reach Paradise Pier, similar visions of California’s past take on architectural form. The pier is a re-creation of one of the dozen or so amusement parks that lined Southern California’s oceanfront nearly a century ago. A huge, winding roller coaster weaves its way around the pier, its image reflected in a shallow lagoon. Vendors hawk stuffed toys. A carousel slowly spins. Look closer, however, and the park has been carefully sanitized of unwanted elements. There are no seedy misfits hovering in the shadows, no sheepishly grinning drunks, no homeless couples picking through trash cans for discarded cotton candy.

Which is the point, of course. Opened in 1955, Disneyland was a puritanical answer to turn-of-the-century parks like New York’s Coney Island and Abbot Kinney’s Venice piers. Filled with illicit pleasures, such parks were the places where the dark side of our collective unconscious spilled out into the open. Their function was to provide an escape from both the grinding exhaustion of working life and the suffocating order of petit bourgeois conventions. At California Adventure, those conventions are firmly back in place. The reek of sex and sin is gone, swept away by a blushing Mickey Mouse.

And then there is Downtown Disney. Disneyland’s new pedestrian “shopping experience,” Downtown Disney was conceived as nothing less than a new civic core for Anaheim. Disney’s marketing experts claim that more than half of its visitors will arrive from within a 20-minute driving radius. What they’ll find is a winding street of shops and restaurants decorated in a pastiche of architectural styles--in short, a theme park for shopping. It is as if Disneyland had sprung a leak, and the sanitized, make-believe world had oozed out into the realm of everyday life.

This is not a first. Universal CityWalk is another corporate-owned, retail pedestrian street with pretenses of urban complexity. Both are anchored by theme parks and cineplexes instead of real neighborhoods. Both feed off the growing hunger of Los Angeles’ suburban middle class for the casual contact of urban life. And the growing willingness of municipal governments to turn over large portions of the public realm to corporate America will only make such developments more prevalent.

And that, of course, is what makes some critics queasy. Pleasure and fantasy have always been critical ingredients in the urban mix. But the forms they take also disguise deeper social values. At the new Disneyland resort, those values can be summed up this way: a longing to escape suburban isolation, a moderate tolerance for diversity and an unwavering conviction that a corporation has a right to make a profit.