The Disney Reader
Nicholas Sammond / University of Toronto


Walt Disney Riding the Teacups at Disneyland

This is the last of three essays on the creation, design, and implementation of a graduate class. In the first essay I outlined ideas for a course that would explore the relationship between textuality and space. In the previous outing I discussed its realization in a syllabus. In this essay, I review its execution as a course. Each essay approaches the topic through one of three successive lenses: the first started from Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, the last one took up Lefebvre’s systematic analysis of social space, and this last essay will feature student essays that touch lightly on the troubling tension between the reading subject and the commodity object that is produced between the park and its media paratexts.

Well, what do the exchanges of commodities, the prayers and rituals in church, and the submissive acts (including speech acts) toward the Great Party Leader have in common? However little noticed, is it not a certain iterative behavior? Are not the mindless repetitions—repetitions that escape, that do not require “consciousness,” as it were—precisely what make the realities of interpersonal monetary transactions, God, and the Great Party Leader materialize, even as they then become misrecognized as the originating “causes”?
Rey Chow, “The Elusive Material, What the Dog Doesn’t Understand.” [ ((Chow, Rey. “The Elusive Material, What the Dog Doesn’t Understand.” In Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham: Duke, 2010), 227.))]

This is a story about realization.

In 1974, Henri Lefebvre inveighed against what he perceived to be a spatial turn in the study of literature, the study of texts as spaces. For Lefebvre, the more urgent project for critics and scholars was the production, regulation and contestation of real social spaces. Demanding a rigorous and equally scientific response to an emerging “science of space,” he argued for the systematic analysis of the relationship between space and social subjects. Yet for some time, experiments in producing the obverse condition—the organization of social spaces as narrative texts—had been going on around the world. Disneyland, which opened on July 17, 1955, was one such experiment. It was not the first, but it was a new development in a long line of organized public/private spaces such as art and science museums (the dioramas of which Donna Haraway has called “meaning machines”), imperial expositions, and world’s fairs. [ ((Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989), 54.))] A heteroglossic agglomeration of paratexts, Disneyland offered a “theme,” a master narrative—Walt Disney’s vision of the world as an informative amusement—that drew upon and ostensibly corrected the nature documentary, the white hunter film, the fairy tale, the western, and science fiction in order to conform to and further Walt’s story. [ ((For a discussion of heteroglossia, see Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Michael Holmquist, ed. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holmquist. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). For a discussion of text and paratext, see Genette, Gérard. “Introduction to the Paratext.” New Literary History 22:2 (Spring 1991), 261-271. See also Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: New York University Press, 2010).))]

To what degree is it possible to impose a narrative on any given situation, especially when one is already imposed on us? When it opened in 1955, Disneyland had a narrative within which it wished to locate its visitors. It was the story of Walt Disney’s vision of the relationship between nature and culture, the past and the future…a vision of anything but the present. Indeed, that narrative, into which visitors were meant to insert themselves as subjects of and to the story that Walt was telling, was what differentiated the park from a normal amusement park. Disneyland offered a grand narrative through which to travel, and each of its paratexts, its subordinate lands, contributed to that account. The company rearticulated that narrative on its television show, via its spokesman, Walt, every week. But the space of the park itself, its organization in the larger metropolitan space of Anaheim, California and the greater Los Angeles area, as well as its place in a larger history of amusement parks, both attempted to further and resisted that story.


Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse on Disneyland

Each of the lands that made up Disneyland was meant to recapitulate the tidy narrative of its counterpart on the Disneyland television program, and each failed to do so in very productive ways. Far from offering the instruction in natural behavior that Disney’s True-Life Adventures delivered in theatres and on the small screen, Adventureland largely relocated the film The African Queen into a transnational landscape populated by audio-animatronic animals and people. Frontierland, far from providing instruction on the proper masculinization of an American culture feminized by WWII and Cold-War regimes of social control, was a passive and relatively inert version of its livelier ancestor, the nineteenth-century Wild West Show. Fantasyland, perhaps at the greatest distance from its promise of moral instruction for children, was little more than a traditional amusement park, the very thing that in histories of the park both the company and Walt are reported to have abjured. And Tomorrowland, unable to reproduce on the ground a fantastic narrative of scientific evolution from a prehistoric past to a futuristic tomorrow, the logic of which organized features such as Mars and Beyond (1957) or Magic Highway U.S.A. (1958), created in the park a corporatized futurespace not unlike that which organized the New York World’s Fair of 1939.

Yet even this narrative of failure is just that: a narrative. To claim that Disney failed in its goals is to accept that it actually intended to reproduce the narratives it crafted on its television program on the ground in the park. This presumes a causal relationship between Disneyland the television program and Disneyland the park that is singular, uni-directional, and coherent. To assume that the park was merely meant to be a translation of the television program overlooks a number of contingent paratexts and circumstances. There is no doubt that Disneyland was meant to advertise the park; its annual reports stated as much and its critics complained bitterly about it in terms that framed it as one of the earliest versions of the infomercial. But many of the component parts of the television show predated the park, except in its earliest conception. Disney began making the nature films in 1948, and by 1955 had already produced ten. By 1955, Disney had also produced ten animated features, its most recent being Peter Pan (1953) (Lady and the Tramp opened in 1955). [ ((Whether one should count Disney’s revue cartoons, such as Fantasia (1940), Saludos Amigos (1942), or Melody Time (1948) as features is beyond the scope of this project. They are not counted here.))] Disney’s venture into the western genre had begun in 1948, with its western shorts in Melody Time, and it explored the U.S.’s southern frontier in Song of the South in 1946 (as much as it would like to forget that moment). Its Davy Crockett shorts, which it would compile into feature films in 1955 and 1956, were also a mainstay of the program and the park almost simultaneously. Only in Tomorrowland would the show lag behind the park, and even there, not really. Although it was the part of the park least prepared to operate on the park’s opening day in July of 1955, and although the “science-factual” featurette Man in Space (1955) predated the park by a few months, other short features such as Mars and Beyond (1957) or Eyes in Outer Space (1959) would not appear for several years, like many animation companies, Disney had long been in the business of scientific explanation. During World War II it had produced training films for the United States Armed Forces, propaganda films such as Education for Death (1943) and Victory Through Air Power (1943), as well as public information films such as Malaria Mosquito, the Winged Scourge (1943). And, in 1946, in a precursor to its corporate partnerships in Tomorrowland, the company teamed up with Kimberly-Clark, maker of Kotex, to produce the educational short The Story of Menstruation. As it had with its True-Life Adventures, the company worked and reworked its avuncular voice of authority, one that combined gentle, self-deprecating humor aimed at the perceived follies of past humankind and a respectful and knowledgeable surety about the future, as it detailed the wonders of a science rooted in technologies supported by capitalist enterprise.

So, there are two narratives to read out of the adaptation of “The Textual Object” from its original focus on a single cinematic text to analyzing and commenting on the collation of a broader set of paratexts within and around Disneyland. The most significant is the narrative produced in the Reader assembled by the Textual Object class. Yet before that is the narrative of the class itself coming to terms with the amended project of looking at a place rather than at a film.


Plaque Dedicated in Town Square, Disneyland

Asking students with very different intellectual and affective relations to Disney in general, and to its parks in particular, to produce a Reader made of paratexts to Disneyland is an imposition of narrativity on those “readers” of the park and its own paratexts. Most of the eleven graduate students enrolled in “The Textual Object” had never been to Disneyland, few had an interest in the park, and most were hard-bitten traditional film scholars whose interests lay primarily in engaging with individual film texts. So, their initial reaction to the course was one of suspicion at best, and for most active resistance. There was a brief moment of revolt in the course, when the students banded together and went on strike, refusing to engage with course readings and assignments until they had received assurance that the skills and experience that they had accrued in traditional cinema studies courses would find some outlet in the course. Of particular concern was the first of the two major assignments, an annotated paratext that analyzed the organization, operation, and implicit or explicit narrative of one of the four “lands” of Disneyland: Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. Having never attempted to treat a place as a text, or to read that place against other texts across a range of media, quite rightly gave the students pause.

While an outright revision of the syllabus to address these concerns was out of the question, it was possible to more clearly define the parameters and expectations for this and other assignments in the course, and this led to the detailed rubrics found here. Critical reading practices do not develop ex nihilo, and the students, all of whom had been trained to read and to criticize film texts, reasonably expected more guidance in how to successfully intervene in the text of the land with which they had been asked to engage.

Once those rubrics were in place, though, the class proceeded relatively smoothly. Each week one or more students joined me in facilitating discussion on the week’s readings and film/media text, and one or more students workshopped their ideas for their particular entry in the reader. In those workshop sessions, students presented a set of paratexts and either an outline of the argument they hoped to make, or a broader set of concerns and a set of questions out of which they hoped an argument would form. After getting feedback from their peers, members of “The Textual Object” have produced Disneyland, the Reader, a complete version of which readers can access here. Below is a narrative that incorporates each of the entries produced by the members of “The Textual Object” in an overview of the park. Each link in the narrative will take readers to one of those entries.


Disneyland Opening Day Parade with Gov. Goodwin Knight and Walt Disney

Main Street U.S.A.
A prelude and frame to Disneyland’s four individual lands, Main Street U.S.A. orients visitors to the thematic conceit that governs Disneyland. Perhaps the street offers an echo of Marceline, Missouri, where Walt Disney spent some of his childhood years. Perhaps it intends a decorous and middle-class response to the rough-and-tumble urban amusement parks popular in Walt’s childhood, such as Coney Island. Or perhaps it resonates with the more genteel surroundings of the expositions and world’s fairs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This last interpretation of the thematic spine of Disneyland offers a bridge to the first of the lands that the reader/visitor can turn to, Adventureland. For one of the guiding notions of Adventureland was the celebration of a nature, and of primitive cultures, made accessible through imperial and colonial adventures.

Disney intended Adventureland to serve as the physical realization of its True-Life Adventure nature documentaries, which it began producing for theatrical release in 1948, long before the park’s opening in 1955. Along with its People and Places quasi-ethnographic documentaries, these nature films found in nature the logics that governed the suburban domestic imaginary of the early Cold-War United States, including a heteronormative order seemingly dictated by nature “herself.” Yet because Disney could not literally transpose the tidy narrative order of its nature and ethnographic films onto the ground, Adventureland also became a place in which visitors could inscribe new narratives. And, finally, this land looked backward to the expositions and world’s fairs of the previous century, which attempted through their own colonial narratives to produce a continuum that made conquered flora, fauna, and people roughly equivalent.

That narrative resonated with the ostensible logic behind Frontierland. A celebration of the westward and southerly colonial expansion of first the United Kingdom and then the United States (and much less so of the Spanish and Brazilians), Frontierland attempted to leaven the darker aspects of the Cold-War western genre, but not without a gentle nod to the violence naturalized in childhood games of “cowboys and Indians.” Frontierland also attempted to modulate the violence of the western, and to entertain adult family members no longer interested in playing cowboys and Indians, though, by staging a vaudevillian dance-hall revue at its Slue-Foot Sue’s Golden Horseshoe saloon, a show that revealed, and reveled in, the queer camp potential lurking in the masculinist genre.

What is the fantasy behind Fantasyland? In Disney films, that fantasy has been one of personal realization through overcoming hardship, and growth through separation and reunion. From its earliest days, Disney has presented its animated fairy tales as “timeless,” folk expressions of eternal verities. They are anything but. Each story has a very concrete history in art, in culture, and in publishing. Pinocchio, for instance, was a story by Collodi before it was a Disney film, and that earlier version itself may trace back to medieval practices of carnival and misrule. Yet a moral message that is easy to regulate in the most controlled of cinematic forms, animation, holds the potential for anarchy, or at least resistance, when mapped into a social space such as a theme park. A tightly conceived story such as Snow White, for instance, when made into a dark ride, struggles to maintain its own narrative coherence. Fantasyland, oddly the part of Disneyland most like that which it most abjured, the amusement park, inadvertently reveals the cost of such efforts at control. Disney’s development of audio-animatronics as a version of live animation, a means of controlling unruly animals and humans by automating them, demonstrates the uncanny cost of trying to regulate the lives, or the amusement, of others.



The regulation of life through science and technology, ostensibly for the benefit of all, is the central theme of Tomorrowland. That fantasy of better living through control was given substance in the Monsanto House of the Future, which opened with the park in 1955 and closed only in 1967. Epitomizing the slogan “better living through chemistry,” the house was engineered largely from plastics, and carefully regulated its inhabitants’ relationships to each other and to the outside world. [ ((To be fair, the slogan is Dupont’s, not Monsanto’s, but no doubt both subscribe to the sentiment.))] Walt Disney died in 1966, while overseeing the renovations to a newer Tomorrowland he would never see. Disney (either the man or the company) would also never fully confront changes taking place in the American landscape, not of tomorrow, but of the current day. The escalation of a covert war in Southeast Asia and its resistance at home would find no place in the utopian fantasy of Tomorrowland. Nor would there be any reference to white flight, “urban renewal,” and the urban rebellions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed, in the House of the Future and its descendent attractions, the city as the central hub of social life disappeared, replaced by a fantasy of a monadic existence lived between interconnected nodes of work, home, and leisure that were indifferent to state and national borders. Yet if Disney’s commitment to being the happiest place on earth kept it firmly in the past and future, but never in the present, other utopias, such as the short-lived Star Trek series (1966-1968) attempted to address the social issues of the day through allegory. Whether Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision was any less implicated in the systems of control and of imperial conquest that Tomorrowland celebrated is an ongoing matter for debate. Yet just as Roddenberry imagined what an ideal colonialism would look like in the 23rd century, Disney produced in the circuit of lands that made up Disneyland, paratexts to the text that it meant to be, a fantastic mid-century reinscription of better living through Cold-War hegemony.

In the iterations between being an (imperfect) subject in a story on the ground, to the passive object of the narrative’s intention—locked into a car trundling along on tracks that admit no digression, no variation—the reader/visitor to Disney’s lands is meant to, perhaps does experience that special joy in repetition so vital to the late capitalist experience, the tension between failure and success, between pleasing and failing the Great Leader, that is a visit to the happiest place on earth, Disneyland.

Image Credits

1. Theme Park Tourist
2. Mickey Mouse Schoolhouse
3. Disney Parks Blog
4. Disney Parks Blog
5. Theme Park Tourist

Please feel free to comment.

Textual Object
Nicholas Sammond / University of Toronto

mickey minnie disneyland

Walt Disney poses with a map of Disneyland

This is the second of three essays on the creation, design, and implementation of a graduate class. In the previous outing I outlined ideas for a course that would explore the relationship between textuality and space. In this essay I will discuss its realization in a syllabus. In the final essay, I will review its execution as a course. Each essay approaches the topic through one of three successive lenses: the first started from Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, this one takes up Lefebvre’s systematic analysis of social space, and the last will consider new materialism’s troubling of the category of the reading subject.

“…the Text achieves, if not the transparence of social relations, that at least of language relations: the Text is that space where no language has a hold over any other, where languages circulate (keeping the circular sense of the term).”
Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text” (( Translated by Stephen Heath, 1977. ))

“We are forever hearing about the space of this and/or the space of that: about literary space, ideological spaces, the space of the dream, psychoanalytic topologies, and so on and so forth. Conspicuous by its absence from supposedly fundamental epistemological studies is not only the idea ‘man,’ but also that of space—the fact that ‘space’ is mentioned on every page notwithstanding.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (( Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Blackwell, 1974), 3. ))

This is a story about implementation.

To call a place like Disneyland a text is a conceit. It offers the possibility of reading in the designed landscape of the theme park a narrative, or even a collation of narratives that then form a master narrative. The term “master” is appropriate: one reading of the larger narrative of Disneyland is that it reproduces the ideal fantasy of Walt Disney’s life. From the early 1930s on, Disney’s public relations described Walt as the guiding spirit behind everything the company made, and it suggested that his formation as the ideal Middle American was transmuted in its products and transmitted to the children who consumed them. Main Street U.S.A. reproduced Walt’s small-town childhood in the Midwest; Adventureland featured his deep connection with animals, his sense of their primal importance; Frontierland celebrated the settler spirit of Middle America; Fantasyland manifested Walt’s childlike love of fairy tales; and Tomorrowland celebrated him as an inventor invested in technology’s promise of a better future. Each land was a text unto itself; together they formed the larger text of Disney-land, the place that manifested the life story of the man.

Yet the conceit of Disneyland as text runs the risk of occluding the very real spatial relations it imagines and attempts to create. A book, movie, or television program is a self-contained entity, populated by characters who perform a free will they don’t actually have. In Disneyland, however well managed it may be, people do unpredictable things, take away unexpected messages. This is exactly the complaint and the concern of the sociologist Henri Lefebvre. Imagining a spatiality in mediated texts, or ascribing textuality to actual places, runs the risk of obscuring the complex ways in which actual spaces themselves attempt to organize, regulate, and understand complex social practices and relations. This is the central tension and core idea of the graduate course “The Textual Object: Disneyland”: that the ideals produced in the television program Disneyland—and in its subsidiary segments Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland—were nearly impossible to translate into the actual spaces meant to represent them in Anaheim, California. And it is that ongoing tension, that contradiction, which makes Disneyland such a useful text to read, such a valuable space to analyze.

Sammond Disneyland


View Section I of the Syllabus here.

The opening sections of the syllabus examine the putative origins of Disneyland: its precursors were the amusement parks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of them outgrowths of the world expositions that were organized during the same period. I say “putative” because Disney’s own history, produced by the company itself, as well as by the chroniclers of the company and its eponymous founder, have produced a story that is often very speculative and contradictory. In the case of Disneyland, there is a question as to whether the park is more indebted to Coney Island, Denmark’s Tivoli Gardens, or to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Rather than to try to settle that question of fact, it’s more productive to note the ways in which the company promoted Disneyland as like or unlike any of those places, which makes each of them antecedent, either as an exemplar or as a cautionary tale. Disney created Disneyland as much as an antidote to a raucous, slightly ribald, perhaps dangerous, and dirty place like Coney Island’s Luna Park in its heyday as it was an homage to the genteel pleasures of the Tivoli Gardens or the technological wonders of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Amusement parks owed a bit to the midways of those expositions, many of which featured thrill rides, freak shows, games of chance, exotic dancers, and drinking. As Lauren Rabinovitz points out, although they may have been inspired by expositions, many amusement parks grew out of public or semipublic gardens and swimming parks. ((Rabinovitz, Lauren. “Urban Wonderlands: the “Cracked Mirror” of Turn-of-the-Century Amusement Parks.” Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 25-64. )) In some cases, as urban railways began extending streetcar lines to the edges of cities, they sought to attract riders by putting amusement parks at their further reaches, then stocking them with paying attractions. For example, the founder of Steeplechase Park and Luna Park, George Tilyou, was inspired by the 1893 Chicago Exposition and saw in it a moneymaker. Although some amusement parks were genteel and moderate, appealing to a burgeoning industrial middle class, the general association, and certainly Disney’s sense of the amusement park, is that they were gritty, loud, extensions of rapidly mechanizing urban landscapes, celebrating (as Rabinovitz notes) the tension, danger, excitement, and titillation that the modern urban environment offered. It was for this reason, perhaps, that Disney welcomed visitors to its park via the decidedly small-town Main Street U.S.A.

Main Street

Town Square in Main Street, U.S.A., 1956

Main Street U.S.A., the entrance and spine of Disneyland, was presented as a faithful recreation of a “typical” small American town, circa 1900, and its shops as the precursors of the modern businesses—Kodak, Carnation, Upjohn—that ran them as concessions. (Even Main Street had conflicting origin stories. Some have claimed that it was modeled after Walt Disney’s childhood home of Marceline, Missouri; others have suggested that it resembles Fort Collins, Colorado, the home town of its principal designer; the company disavows both stories.) Performing a spectacular fantasy of ideal small town life—with marching bands, circus parades, and processions of “horseless carriages”—Main Street also was meant to be an accurate reproduction of that life, hence educational. Likewise, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland each, in varying degrees, also framed spectacle as an opportunity for edification.

The expositions on which Disneyland modeled itself as educational began with the rise of industrial capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century. Though the grandest and best remembered of these was the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, in Chicago, through the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and the 1915 San Francisco Pan Pacific Exposition each has its echoes in Anaheim. (( Rydell, Robert. “Forerunners of the Century-of-Progress Expositions.” World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 15-37. )) Each of these expositions celebrated the emergence of the United States as an imperial power, and they did so through an ingathering of commodities from newly acquired territories—commodities which included the “native” populations of those lands. Recreations of whole villages, with inhabitants, were very popular at the expositions, producing a sense of uplift and education, and counterposing life in the United States as civilized in comparison to the savagery of conquered peoples. These exhibits were distant relatives of the exhibits in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (strangely later recreated in Disneyland Paris), but they differed in that they seemed to eschew sensationalism in favor of a patina of scholarship and the potential to educate. (Authenticity was fungible in these exhibits. The great African American Broadway performers George Walker and Bert Williams reported that they got their start when a “Zulu show” scheduled to open in San Francisco was delayed an local men were recruited as stand-in natives.) (( Theatre Magazine Advertiser, n.d. [1902?], Robinson Locke Collection, folder 2461, Special Collections, Performing Arts Library, New York Public Library. ))

View Section II of the Syllabus here.

Disney conceived of Adventureland as the physical realization of its True-Life Adventures (1948-1960), nature films which it first created for theatrical release and later featured in rotation on the Disneyland television show. With titles such as Bear Country (1953), White Wilderness (1958), and Nature’s Half Acre (1951), most focused on specific biomes or regions, stitching together a series of vignettes about specific species or about relationships between species. The company advertised, and tried to hire, heterosexual couples to capture these scenes, a trope which expanded upon the popular “white hunter” genre of the 1930s-1950s—realized in films such as Chang (Cooper 1927), or the Frank Buck films such as Bring ‘Em Back Alive (Elliott 1932) or Tiger Fangs (Newfield 1943). (( See Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 195-246. See also Chris, Cynthia. Watching Wildlife (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). )) Disney’s choice to feature married couples as cinematographers updated that trope by creating a seeming symmetry between the observer and the observed: wherever possible, Disney mapped human gender relations (as it understood them) onto a wide range of species, purporting to offer a glimpse into the lives of natural “families.” In this, the company participated in and amplified the popular neo-Freudianism of the postwar years—espoused in popular literature by the likes of Benjamin Spock, Margaret Mead, Erik Erikson, and Erich Fromm, which (with variations) argued that the social discontents that had produced the extremes of WWII, embodied in fascism and state communism, and the social upheaval caused by the war itself (including the trauma to its male soldiers) could best be addressed through psychoanalytic means. This approach promised to address neurosis in veterans, sexual “perversion” (homosexuality, the social precariousness of which might make gay men and women vulnerable to communist blackmail and subversion), and “momism” (the problem of wartime wives and mothers having accumulated excess social and domestic power in the absence of male authority). (( See Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society (New York: W.W. Norton, 1950), 248-280. )) At the level of popular culture for children and families, this meant modeling “natural” gender relations in which the proper social roles for each (and there were only two) were clearly delineated. The True-Life Adventures, and Adventureland, provided examples of a natural order meant to mirror visiting happy families.

The Jungle Cruise Ride in Adventureland

This kind of gender mapping was easy to do in its nature films, which Disney circulated in theaters and on the Disneyland television show. On the ground in the park, however, the fine grained relations that closeups, music, narration, and editing could create were nearly impossible to reproduce. Although animatronic versions of large animals such as hippos, giraffes, and elephants could be arranged in heteronormative familial groupings, recreating the suburban home in the “jungle,” scaling that fantasy up and down the chain of being was impossible. Instead, Adventureland in the park hearkened back to adventure rides in amusement parks, and gestured toward the world of the white hunter/naturalist more than to the scientific researcher. When the park opened in 1955, Adventureland featured the Jungle Cruise ride, a nod to the True-Life Adventures’ The African Lion (1955), with a little of The African Queen (1951) and Trader Mickey (1932) thrown in. Visitors to the park rode in riverboats reminiscent of the African Queen and a pilot in a pith helmet and khakis provided the narrative as they meandered through a quasi-African landscape, menaced by animatronic crocodiles and hippos (one of which the guide shoots). In 1962, Disney added the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse to Adventureland and in 1963 opened the Enchanted Tiki Room. So, the tidy gendering of nature that True-Life Adventures performed were replaced on the ground by the gendered performances of the families themselves.

View Section III of the Syllabus here.

Sammond frontierland


One other feature of the Jungle Cruise ride was that menacing animatronic natives peered out of the underbrush, and a pile of human bones in a native village hinted at the dangers of cannibalism, which had been so prominently displayed in Trader Mickey. The colonial fantasy hinted at in Adventureland was the organizing principle in Frontierland, shifted from the Dark Continent to the American West of the 19th century. Ostensibly organized around the changing modes of transportation used to traverse the continent—from Conestoga wagons, to paddle-wheel steamers, to stage coaches, to a railroad that took visitors there from Main Street—Frontierland celebrated conquest. Whether riding pack mules or in Mike Fink’s keel boats, visitors relived the “taming” of the wilderness (and its peoples) by European settlers moving westward. Again, regulating the narrative proved challenging, with the traditional oater battle between cowboys and Indians modulated by an Indian village in which Native American performers presented arts, culture, and dance to curious visitors. (Frontierland also featured a native village viewed from several rides, in which one lone human performer shared a fire circle with fellow animatronic natives.) Visitors to Frontierland could also board the Mark Twain Riverboat and travel to Tom Sawyer Island. In 1966 Disney added New Orleans Square, and in 1967 the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and with that expanded the representation of the colonial experience southward, and if the “red man” of the western frontier was represented through gunfights, dances, and teepees, the colonial subject of Frontierland’s southern reaches was represented through piracy, voodoo, and more jungle-theming.

View Section IV of the Syllabus here.

Sammond Fantasyland


Fantasyland continued Disney’s negotiation of the contradictions between ideals it could realize in its animation and live-action film and the messy complications of unspooling a coherent narrative on the ground in the park. Walt’s dedication plaque for Fantasyland reads, in part, “In this timeless land of enchantment the age of chivalry, magic and make-believe are reborn and fairy tales come true.” The notion that the fairy tales that Disney animated represented eternal truths, rather than the work of authors like Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Carlo Collodi or J.M. Barrie, was important to the Disney mythos. But creating an environment of “timelessness” in Anaheim, California, circa 1955, proved a challenge. So, this part of the park, more than the other lands, most resembled the amusement parks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Disney’s animated feature films built narratives of very gendered self-realization around the affective push/pull of separation anxiety (experienced by parents and children alike). On the ground, those devices faded. After visitors entered through Snow White’s Castle (the “happily ever after” of that story), Fantasyland featured rides such as the Casey Jr. Circus Train (a nod to Dumbo) and appropriately, the aerial carousel Dumbo the Flying Elephant, as well as the King Arthur Carrousel, The Mad Tea Party saucer ride, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight and Snow White’s Scary Adventures. All of the rides related thematically to Disney movies, but all were for the most part standard amusement park rides. Of later additions, the most notable was It’s a Small World (1966), Disney’s nod to internationalism whose ominous overtones were hilariously sent up in an episode of The Simpsons set in Duff Gardens.

Little Land of Duff

The Little Land of Duff, a parody of It’s a Small World by The Simpsons

Missing in all of those rides was Disney’s heavy investment in, and contribution, the regulation of gender normativity in 1950s American culture. Parents raising children via the neo-Freudian counsel of Dr. Benjamin Spock or through the headier ideas of social critic/practitioners such as Erik Erikson were warned that the proper performance of gender roles by both mothers and fathers was key to restoring a social order badly warped by the privations of World War II. For men this meant providing a strong, steady, and regular manly presence in the home. Little boys needed a clear masculine role model to imitate, struggle with, and grow into; little girls needed a strong, supportive male love object to outgrow, preparing them for the well-adjusted boys and men they would eventually choose to reproduce an ideal American life. For women it meant conceding to their husbands the masculine control of the home that they had by necessity taken during WWII, acting as loving and supportive mothers, yet only as representatives of their husbands in their day to day absences, second to them in authority at all other times. Couples, finally, had to perform clearly what heterosexual love and desire looked like, the courtship of women by men and the yielding of women to men, as part of the natural order. Disney’s fairy tales, which often featured absent parents, served as cautionary tales in which the abandoned child had to overcome peril and challenge to become an integrated member of society, and as comforting stories about the resilience of children who evinced the inherent power of heteronormative behavior. That spinning mechanical teacups and carousels didn’t signal that clearly was a secondary problem; the visitors could accomplish that work by associating the ride with its animated antecedent.

View Section V of the Syllabus here.

Sammond Tomorrowland


One possible positive outcome for this careful gender modeling was Tomorrowland, a utopian future world in which technology laid to rest the problems of the midcentury United States. (Appropriately, a skyway tram system linked Fantasyland to Tomorrowland.) Perhaps appropriately, Tomorrowland was the least developed part of Disneyland when the park opened in July of 1955, and perhaps a harbinger of the future we now occupy, most of the rides were sponsored by outside corporations. TWA paid for the Ride to the Moon; Richland Oil sponsored the Autopia ride; the Dutch Boy Paint Gallery was self-explanatory; and American Motors sponsored the cinema-in-the-round Circarama. Monsanto sponsored a Hall of Chemistry, then expanded its offerings in 1957 with the Monsanto House of the Future. In 1959 Disney added its famous and long-anticipated Monorail (also mocked on The Simpsons), its Submarine ride, and The Matterhorn, which was eventually moved to Fantasyland since there was little futuristic about it.

Whether by design or by economic necessity, Tomorrowland boomeranged visitors from the pre-capitalist past of Fantasyland into an inherently corporatist future. Disney’s televised version of Tomorrowland, on Disneyland, while it still celebrated technology, eschewed the sponsorship angle. (Given the tensions around sponsorship, advertising and broadcasting in the late 1950s, this shouldn’t be surprising.) Disney’s “science factual” films, such as Man in Space (1955), Mars and Beyond (1957), Our Friend the Atom (1957), and Magic Highway U.S.A. (1958), were each about an hour long, and each presented an evolutionary model of science and technology, moving easily from human prehistory through the current day, toward an ideal future. After airing on Disneyland, they then had a second life in the educational rental market, alongside the Bell Laboratory Science Series. In the films’ narrative arc, the technotopias that Disney envisioned seemed predestined, determined by the necessary arc of human history as it passed into and through Euro-American science.

The translation of these utopic narratives into a technocapitalist playground in the park may seem heavy handed in its branded approach to living, but in the 1950s, when suspicions about corporate motives were muted and brand loyalty a less self-conscious form of belonging, a heavily sponsored future seemed more natural, less fraught than it might today. (Disney and Pixar even gently and vaguely spoofed branded living in the 2008 hit film WALL-E, which featured lives lived within the universe of the Buy and Large corporation.) At the dawn of the Cold War, though, the IBM and Ford’s connections to Nazi Germany, Dow’s role in producing napalm, or General Electric’s vast of array of weapons-related products were not yet widely known by the general public. And although Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders was published in 1957, its insights into brand consciousness and daily life were not quite as detailed, thoughtful, and damning of specific corporations and practices as, say, Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Authentic: the Politics of Ambivalence in Brand Culture (NYU 2012).

Because of this acceptance of corporate conservatorship, the dissonance between the televised versions of Tomorrowland and the rides and attractions on the ground at Disneyland was less pronounced than it was between the electronic and material versions of Disneyland’s other three lands, yet neither was it entirely absent. Each of Disneyland’s four lands plays out a tension that runs through Lefebvre’s model for analyzing social space and its associated practices. The Disneyland television program’s ideal and fantastic spaces of Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland follow the logic of what Lefebvre calls “representations of space,” which he describes as “conceptualized space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers…all of whom identify what is lived and what is perceived with what is conceived.” (( Lefebvre, 38. )) Certainly it was Disney’s goal to attempt that idealized control of space through its “imagineers,” Disney’s trademarked term for its park planners. Yet the distance between the ideal cinematic and televisual spaces of the four lands and their realization on the ground remained irreducible, an example of Lefebvre’s concept of “representational spaces,” which he termed “space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’…. This is the dominated—and hence passively experienced—space which the seeks to change and appropriate.” (( Lefebvre, 39. ))

Try as it might, Disney could not control relations on the ground, nor reproduce the meanings Disneyland viewers might have produced in consuming Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland on TV. Imagineering was the impossible practice of aligning the imagined narrative of Disneyland/Disneyland as the embodiment of Walt Disney’s weltanschauung with its instantiation in each of its four subsidiary lands, and thence with the lived experience of visitors as they moved through the social space of the park. Its success, then, perhaps has had less to do with the park’s design on the ground than with its visitors’ will to believe, to see the narrative even where it has not been evident.


Promotional still for Disney’sTomorrowland (2015)

That will to believe, to imagineer an ideal set of relations regardless of their dissonance with life as lived on the ground, continues to inform the Disney narrative. Its 2015 film Tomorrowland attempts to reconcile the utopianism of the original Disneyland with an increasing sense that a blind faith in technology is actually what has delivered the world to its increasingly catastrophic present and a potentially apocalyptic future. Oddly, though, the film resolves this contradiction by suggesting that cynicism about the future is the actual cause of technologically driven dystopic trends…suggesting perhaps that all the world needs do to set things right is return to a fantastically optimistic narrative such as that of Disneyland…to wish upon a star.

Select Bibliography

Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Michael Holmquist, ed. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holmquist. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (NewYork: Vintage Books, 1971).
Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
Harvey, David. Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography (New York: Routledge, 2001).
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Blackwell, 1974).

Image Credits:
1. Disneyland Map
2. Disneyland
3. Main Street, U.S.A.
4. Frontierland
5. Fantasyland
6. Tomorrowland
7. The Simpsons
8. Tomorrowland

Please feel free to comment.

Textual Object
Nicholas Sammond / University of Toronto


Map of Disneyland, 1955

Columnist’s Note: Over the next three essays, I will trace the development of a pedagogical idea about exploring textuality, its realization in a syllabus, and its execution as a course. Each essay will approach the topic through one of three successive lenses: Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, Lefebvre’s systematic analysis of social space, and finally new materialism’s troubling of the category of the reading subject.

Every age re-accentuated in its own way the works of its most immediate past. The historical life of classic works is in fact the uninterrupted process of their social and ideological re-accentuation. Thanks to the intentional potential embedded in them, such works have proved capable of uncovering in each new era and against ever new dialogizing backgrounds ever newer aspects of meaning…. [ ((M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination. Michael Holmquist, ed. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holmquist. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 421.)) ]

This is a story about interpretation.

This academic year, in the rotation for graduate instruction I was slated to teach a class that I had eyed with interest for a long time: “The Textual Object.” It had first been designed as an elective for our MA program, but had eventually migrated into the graduate core. The colleague who first conceived of and designed the course had built it around a simple but elegant conceit: take a single film and spend an entire semester exploring as many aspects of it as time allowed. Her choice was Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), and the class approached it through the lenses of adaptation, criticism, auteur theory, genre studies, revision, stardom, apparatus theory, semiotics, remediation, and postcolonial theory. The students were divided into small groups, each of which was responsible for creating part of a website, The Touch of Evil Project, which would eventually collate their research.

Coming from a disciplinary formation not in cinema studies but in media studies, I was less interested in any single film text or in many of the questions/problems posed by postwar film theory. But I was intrigued by playing with the notion of the text, how the ascription of an overarching textuality to a set of perhaps disparate objects might (or might not) encourage a collective of students to reproduce those objects as a single, coherent text. The challenge in altering “The Textual Object” was at least twofold: on the one hand, the course had become storied among passing generations of MA students, and any deviation from its original organization might alienate them; on the other hand, following too closely a script of someone else’s design might lead to a wooden course—functional, creaking along, but not animated by my own interests. After considering a number of possibilities, I settled on a “text:” the amusement park Disneyland, which opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955. Deeply imbricated in the cinematic, but arising in the much broader landscape of the intermedial history of American amusements, the park had a coherence of its own, yet was also comprised of a whole range of intertexts, and it allowed for, even encouraged, a plethora of metatexts—everything from chronicles of family vacations to guerrilla interventions into its fastidiously regulated landscape.

The challenge of choosing the text was less daunting, though, than balancing the disciplinary requirements of an MA program against the inherently interdisciplinary approach that a multivalent intertext such as Disneyland suggested. Our MA program expects its students to develop an advanced competence in film theory, film history, and textual analysis. The last of these, of course, is the exact ambit of “The Textual Object,” and its underlying assumption has been that MA students, as scholars in training, would do best working intensively with a significant narrative film from a well-established canon, one surrounded by substantial critical and scholarly discourse. Hence Touch of Evil. Disneyland, needless to say, is not a film. Disneyland (1954-1959) was an anthology television series, in many ways little more than an elaborate advertisement for the park and for other Disney commodities, and as an object has failed to attract sustained, critical scholarly engagement—at least not enough around which to build a course.


The Band Concert (Wilfred Jackson, 1935)

Disneyland the park, on the other hand, is not only a complex matrix of intertexts, it is also a narrative text unto itself. [See Figure 1] Although visitors can diverge from its fundamental organization principles, the park has a logic, an order, a temporal continuity that is hard to ignore. Immediately after entering, visitors find themselves in the Town Square of Main Street U.S.A., which is loosely modeled on Walt Disney’s second home town of Marceline, Missouri. Disney’s first home town was Chicago, a city less easily rendered in the Rockwellian, turn-of-the-century tones of Main Street U.S.A. After Marceline, the Disney family moved to Kansas City, where Walt would begin his animation business, but that city was also a little too urban to serve as the model for Main Street. In that Disney claimed that his/its park was meant to transmute the decidedly more urban and working-class model of the Coney Island complex of amusement parks (Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland), and more elaborate but perhaps too European parks such as Denmark’s Tivoli Gardens, into a more family-friendly (i.e., white, middle-class, and heteronormative) and middle-American register, Chicago (hog butcher to the world) and Kansas City (the “Paris of the Plains,” a.k.a. Cowtown) pointed in the wrong direction. Marceline, like the quaint town in the 1935 Mickey Mouse short The Band Concert, evoked small-town living on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. Passing along Main Street U.S.A. the ideal visitor arrived at a central plaza from which, arranged like spokes on a wheel, were avenues to the different intertextual “lands” that comprised the greater Disneyland. Moving in a clockwise direction, forward in time from an ideal past toward an ideal future, these were Adventureland (the natural world), Frontierland (westward expansion); Fantasyland (fairy tales for the civilized bourgeoisie), and Tomorrowland (technological utopia). Having rounded the clock, one returned down Main Street U.S.A. (presumably a better American), exiting into parking lots that had replaced the orange groves of Anaheim, California. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the narrative of Disneyland the park reproduced the constituent parts of Walt Disney’s biography, the ur-American man: deeply in touch with nature, both human and animal (Adventureland); the quintessential white American, once described having “Irish, Canadian, German, and American blood in his veins” (Frontierland); imbued with a sensibility inherently good for children (Fantasyland); and a tinkerer with an eye toward a better future through technological innovation (Tomorrowland). Entering before the anthropocene, in the midst of nature primordial, one found one’s place in the proper order of things. Continuing onto the frontier one witnessed the uneasy encounter between European settler society and that unbridled nature, the taming of a landscape and its people (the two imagined as one) in the service of Manifest Destiny. Yet every colonist, even Dan’l Boone, never goes completely native, always carries the metropole within, so fairy tales must speak to and for the better angels in children, guiding them from nature into culture with a sure, gentle hand at their backs. And finally, as with all utopias, an ideal future erases any lingering failings and contradictions in the present, offering absolution tomorrow for today’s sins.

There is a tension here, of course: the park as text was designed as a series of intertexts, its mode of ideological address hailing (via Mickey’s waving hand) Disney’s ideal subject, circa 1955. Yet the park has continued to change, its design updated and refined since that time, with layers accreting around the welcome given to subsequent historical subjects. And, as if that weren’t enough, the original intertexts themselves have continued to change, in and of themselves and in relation to each other. And, as if that weren’t enough, ideally the students in this course, as they read the textual object that is Disneyland, will enter into conversation not only with the text itself, but also with its various interlocutors. “Along with the internal contradictions inside the object itself,” Bakhtin reminds us, “the prose writer witnesses as well the unfolding of social heteroglossia surrounding the object, the Tower-of-Babel mixing of languages that goes on around any object; the dialectics of the object are interwoven with the social dialogue surrounding it.” [ ((Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Michael Holquist, ed. Trans. by Caryl Emerson and
Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981. 278. )) ] Flowing through and conversing with the park are longstanding discourses and practices such as the wild-west show, museum of natural history, children’s literature, and utopian science fiction, each of which with its own canon and its own criticism.

So, following this conceit of the park-as-narrative, the redesigned course traces the narrative line described above and, following Bakhtin’s notion that every text is heteroglossic, assembles within each of its five intertexts a further set of intertexts—critical essays and media texts—guides (or what Disney calls “cast members”) meant to stand between the textual object that is Disneyland and the students it seeks to interpellate. Drawing on the history of American amusements, of nature documentaries, of the extreme violence repressed in celebrating the colonial enterprise, of the fairy tale’s “uses of enchantment,” as Bettelheim put it, and of the gentle brutality of technological utopianism, the course will ask the students to (re)assemble Disneyland-as-text as a dialogic creation, speaking to and through fantasies of the sovereign individual whose apotheosis was Walt Disney himself. [ (( Bettleheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1976. )) ] An auteur in a register different than Orson Welles, but an auteur nonetheless, Disney was and is, as some have been wont to say, the Guiding Spirit of the land that bears his name.


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At the same time, however, the conceit that Disneyland is a text is just that: Disneyland is also a place, a set of spatial relations artfully organized to isolate thematic differences and contradictions, and to locate its visitors within particular secondary narratives at particular moments. So that the students in this course don’t become too comfortable with the metaphor of place-as-text—which might lead to seeing the text/place as having a unitary transparency—at key moments the course will shift registers and examine the spatial relations operating in the park. Rather than opting for critical geography such as that of Harvey or Giddens, however, the course (and the next essay in this series) will consider Henri Lefebvre’s approach to critical spatial analysis. Lefebvre developed his model in response to what he thought were overly fanciful applications of the concept of space by a range of mid-twentieth-century scholars, including Kristeva, Derrida, and Foucault. Whether his efforts were ultimately productive or useful, Lefebvre sought to create a systematic critical methodology for understanding the production, regulation, and disruption of space as a set of social phenomena. In that the conceit of “place-as-text” might well have begged Lefebvre’s scorn, it may prove a useful counterpoint for students who are disinclined to book an extended stay within the metaphor.

It is not for nothing that Disney calls Disneyland “the happiest place on earth.” Implicit in that claim is that all other spaces make (of) their occupants, their readers, less happy people—that existence in the space of the quotidian is not as happy as the life lived within a place carefully managed to limit or avoid contradiction. Disney’s devotees seem to share this sentiment. So, the title of the course, “The Textual Object,” suggests one last lens for understanding how Disneyland might serve as a text, as well as the limitations to that approach: a text as subject, as the deliverer of a narrative, makes of its reader an object, an other. Disneyland, fabled for its crowd management skills, performs an affective sleight of hand in which within the crowd, the aggregate that Disney manages, the individual feels addressed, happy. The course, then, may end by troubling the notion of a stable relationship between Disneyland-as-text and its readers. Rather than opting for a reader-response approach, such as that of Fish or Radway, or troubling the idea of authorship, as would Barthes or Foucault, the course may explore whether it is productive to erase the clear lines between the park’s lands and its visitors (the text and its readers) and see them all as actors in a network that produces… happiness.

This last approach will not replace a narrow critique of Disney’s politics, a la Dorfman or Zipes… as those have their value, nor will it supersede a textual reading of the park. Rather, it will pose a problem for the class by asking it/them to bring these contradictory approaches into conversation, to weigh textual, spatial, and affective approaches as means to critically engage with the park’s constituent and constitutive fantasy… a nostalgia for a past when the individual was indeed sovereign, when the landscape spoke clearly, when each and everyone could imagine a future in which all boats rose on the swelling tide and were carried gently along on the calm, sure current of History, a current that moved “straight on to tomorrow” and then to Tomorrowland.

To be continued in Flow 22.04: the spatial turn, and the media and readings through which the class will visit each land.

Image Credits:

1. Theme Park Investigator.
2. Author’s Collection.
3. Author’s Collection.

Please feel free to comment.