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For UC Irvine art history class, Disneyland becomes the research-happiest place on earth

For UC Irvine art history class, Disneyland becomes the research-happiest place on earth
UC Irvine associate professor of art history Roland Betancourt, far right, poses for a photo in front of Disneyland’s Matterhorn attraction with students from his Disneyland: Art, Architecture and Operation class, which piloted this spring. (Courtesy of Roland Betancourt)

Disneyland may be a small world after all, but it still took Roland Betancourt 130 visits over a year and a half to prepare for his new art history class at UC Irvine.

Well, those trips were mostly about research, he joked in an interview Monday.

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His seminar class, unofficially titled Disneyland: Art, Architecture and Operation, was piloted this spring. It focuses on the history of theme parks and the design that goes into developing them.

The class had almost 20 students last quarter and will expand into a full lecture course in spring 2020. Brooke Denny, an art history senior at UCI, said the class was so popular that she had to email the department to get in.

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Betancourt, a Miami native and UCI associate professor of art history, said he approaches Disneyland the same way he studies medieval art — a field he’s trained in.

“So, I’m looking at an image of Christ or even a pitcher of water,” Betancourt said. “My interests are: ‘Well, how did this object function? How did it fit into rituals?’ And, if it’s even an image of Christ, what did people do to it? Did they kiss it? Did they use incense? How did they pray around it — sing to it, read to it? What did they do?”

He asked his class to examine the Anaheim amusement park through a similar lens: How do the rides work? What does it take to operate them? How do workers stay in theme or in character while doing these things?

“The goal of the class is not to just look at the design end or to just look at the operational end, but to really think about how these things have to inherently come together,” Betancourt said.

The idea for the class spun out of a graduate course he taught several years ago on themed, artificial spaces throughout history, such as medieval churches and Las Vegas.

“[The structures] try to unsettle location to make it seem, perhaps, like a heavenly place or a faraway land,” he said.

One of those class meetings focused on Disneyland. The park was a fitting choice for its own course, he said, because it is located nearby and “the perfect archive to study and think about these questions that interest me.”

Betancourt, far right, takes a photo with some of his students in the Haunted Mansion.
Betancourt, far right, takes a photo with some of his students in the Haunted Mansion. (Courtesy of Roland Betancourt)

Another reason, he added, is that the theme park is “an intimate part of the fabric of Southern California.”

“Many of our students have worked as cast members, will work as cast members or are doing it right now,” Betancourt said.

Lauryn Moles, a graduate student studying costume design, said she became so intimately familiar with the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride that she counted aloud with Betancourt every time they arrived at a brake zone.

“Being so close to the park, it’s easy to accept it as an institution of entertainment, but the class made me get to dissect the reasoning behind why Disneyland is such a successful institution,” Moles said. “It’s fascinating to see what Disney focuses its time upon to grow or confirm its brand.”

Students pore over literature written about the park — digging through safety and security materials and supplemental publications such as the “E” Ticket, a fan-produced magazine.

Betancourt said one of the fun things to do in class is to get students to sort through different information to figure out what to trust as fact.

“That level of criticality with sources, I think, is so important today,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to teach that about Disneyland because it’s the perfect storm.”

Though the class syllabus includes an optional trip to the theme park, the assignments don’t require students to go. Students had the option of instead visiting the Irvine Spectrum Center and observing the Ferris wheel or merry-go-round rides in place of Disneyland attractions such as Space Mountain or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

“The class was a deep dive into how the Disneyland park works,” Denny said. “I can’t go to the park without wanting to analyze everything to see how it functions or to observe park protocols.”

Disneyland Resort officials could not be reached for comment about the class.

Although the recent opening of the park’s newest area, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, means more Disneyland trips for Betancourt but he said it will work well for the course.

“In many ways, it’s a nice capstone to the class because it deploys a lot of what we expect in the park, but amplified,” he said.

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