From 1947 to 1991, the Cold War between the US, its allies and the Soviet empire established a climate which had a significant influence on creativity on both sides of the iron curtain. While nuclear brinkmanship dominated public consciousness, the art and design of the Cold War era made radical leaps and bled into everything from Hollywood sci-fi movies to escapist theme parks. Here, Phoebe Dale examines the most culturally resonant example of the latter, Disneyland, and contextualises its significance for the USA in the shadow of potential Armageddon
I have always been interested in the ways that popular culture responds to and incorporates social and political upheaval. While the Cold War produced the 20th century’s most psychologically tumultuous decades of geopolitical chess playing, games of another, albeit related, kind were also being played out on the home front. One pervading force in US popular culture of the period, whose ‘brand’ sought to embody a reassuringly homespun yet unquestioningly patriotic American ethos, was the Walt Disney Company. Launched in 1923, Disney products are unavoidable in the 21st century, with films, TV channels, shops full of merchandise and theme parks bearing the Disney hallmark an inescapable presence on almost every continent (one day Antarctica… one day!), but it was the Cold War period that saw the first and most rapid expansion of the Disney empire.
The first Disney theme park, Disneyland, opened in July 1955, right in the midst of early Cold War tensions, among the orange groves of Anaheim, California. Disneyland might not leap to mind straight away when considering a cultural response to the Cold War, but closer inspection of the theme park’s concept and design reveals much that relates to the contemporary international political situation. Indeed, Disneyland can, in many ways, be seen as a sculptural installation dedicated to the ideals, dreams and political delusions of Cold War America.
The park was originally composed of five areas: Main Street USA; Frontierland; Fantasyland; Adventureland and Tomorrowland. Each one was intended to transport the visitor away from the present and into another world, be that from the past, the future or somewhere else entirely. One of the most interesting aspects of Disneyland’s design was how the notion of time, or timelessness, was used to control visitor experience and promote certain ideas about Disney, the American way of life and the nation’s place in the world. By dividing the park into these distinct areas, the company’s strategies and devices of manipulation became palpable. Disney calls its park designers and architects imagineers– a title some may find rather ironic given that their job is to completely limit and prescribe visitors’ imaginations.
Main Street USA is where the visitor to Disneyland enters, and it is also the route through which you access all the other areas. Nostalgia is the key word at play in this section; the architecture and the visual themes employed here were an attempt to recreate a typical small-town street from a romanticised past. Along this stretch, a collection of shopping emporia, including a cinema, a tobacco shop and a china and glass store, were laid out, based loosely on the town Walt Disney grew up in: Marceline, Missouri. In reality, the street was a tainted facsimile; historical inaccuracies were rife, with modern electric street lighting and sponsor logos from contemporary companies. The street ‘worked’ only because it didn’t have to function as a genuine commercial thoroughfare. Every shop was an outlet of the same company, Disney, so (ironically, as in the Soviet Union) there was no commercial competition. At night, the entire street would be closed down to enable damage to be repaired immediately and the sheen of Main Street perfection restored.
The look, although ostensibly reflecting the Midwest, maintained a distinctly East Coast feel – a manicured Victorian New England quality. So this isn’t the past as it was, this is the improved past; a perfected past. It makes insular sense, given the perilous geopolitical situation in the mid-1950s, to envisage this kind of escapism – to be transported away to a simpler time of homely, picture-book certainty.
The other area of Disneyland that was very clearly trying to recreate an idealised past was Frontierland, a recreation of an American town from the pioneer days of the West. Blithely ignoring less positive aspects of the nation’s past (massacres of Native American tribes, dust bowl poverty, etc.), Frontierland is predicated on the idea of the West as a place of expansion and promise, and the search for riches. The myth of ‘manifest destiny’ is popular and pervasive in the well-worn narrative of the founding and growth of the United States so, in choosing to feature the frontier theme so prominently, it is clear that Disney was trying to buy into this mythic notion.
Disneyland can, in many ways, be seen as a sculptural installation dedicated to the ideals, dreams and political delusions of Cold War America.
In Frontierland you could visit a Native American encampment and dress up like Davy Crockett – coonskin cap and all – and pose for photographs. Crockett is another allegorical component of the narrative of the great American expansion into the West. By using visuals that suggest these narratives, Disney aimed to bring visitors together into a kind of collective consciousness retelling of American history that tied in with the popularity and resonances of the Hollywood Western lm and the kind of emblematic, all- American heroes so regularly portrayed by John Wayne. In 1971, just as mass audience appetites for Westerns began to, well, wane, some aspects of Frontierland were axed, the Indian Village for example, which was replaced by something called Critter County.
The next zone in Disneyland was Adventureland, a somewhat eclectic area with no real sense of location in time. Indeed, there was no apparent rhyme or reason for its amalgamation of South Pacic, Middle-Eastern, African and unspecied jungle environments. The imagineers had their reasons, nonetheless. Adventureland was all about allowing guests to visit places they would probably never actually see. But, like everything in Disneyland, the displays were merely sterilised versions of these colourful places. By sanitising the exotic and the distant, the Disney strategists made these locales both palatable and manageable for the fragile sensibilities of the suburbanite. This was achieved by creating an environment that made the guests feel like they would be capable of international travel – something that very few 1950s Americans, other than those who had served in the military during WWII, or in the later Korean conflict, would ever have experienced.
While Adventureland has no specific historical reference points, its content and the manner of its display connected tacitly with the Cold War and the reality of contemporary American life. In the mid 1950s, American ideals were being promoted on a global scale, both in terms of covert action by CIA-backed, counter-communist insurgencies and, more brazenly, by the US military-industrial complex and companies like Disney. All the while, these same agencies were trading on the most ubiquitous of American myths: the enshrining of personal liberty and the apparent independence of the individual. So, as much as Adventureland was a heavily mediated portrayal of the wider world, it was also designed as an implicit demonstration of a culture running counter to the perceived centralisation and domineering nature of Soviet communism.
Fantasyland would take far- flung timelessness a step further. The majority of the attractions here were based on pre- existing fairytales or sentimental narratives, often ones already prominent in the Disney canon, Dumbo or Alice in Wonderland, for example. The Storybook Canal Boat ride would take guests on a preplanned journey, always the same trip, to see tiny recreations of sets from the storylines of their youths, or cinema trips of their present. The overall architectural aesthetic of this supposedly imaginary, non-specific locale actually appeared to be very much of a time and place: medieval Europe. The feature building (and an enduring icon of the Disney brand) was Sleeping Beauty’s castle, which was clearly inspired by a grand European schloss, specifically Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, Germany – itself a nineteenth century fantasy folly commissioned by King Ludwig II in homage to the epic operas of Richard Wagner. The ‘mountain’, built from a mound of earth in 1959 and located behind the castle, is even named after a real Swiss mountain, the Matterhorn.
Filling an area with European visual cues in a park that is clearly trying to promote Americanism is a very clever strategy. The contrast between misty European folklore and the surrounding Californian orange groves makes it seem doubly fantastical. But the familiarity that the guests were likely to have with this semi-invented milieu equated to a vision of a Europe rendered safe and innocuous, not one clouded by war or nuclear threat – something underscored by the explicit links to childhood escapism.
Fantasyland’s it’s a small world ride was originally built for the Coca-Cola stall at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, but in 1966 it was added to the park. It was, on the face of it, a little out of place in Fantasyland. The outside of the building, decorated with an abstract pattern of geometric shapes, offered a stark contrast to the medieval European fantasia seen elsewhere. The ride took guests on a short trip ‘around the world’ with models of children from various different countries dressed in (supposedly) local costume, dancing (supposedly) traditional dances and singing in the appropriate languages. The song they are delivering is that tune of the same name, which has unfortunately been burned onto the brain of every sentient being from here to Timbuktu. It’s a Small World is played continually throughout the ride, sung in English, naturally.
The final section of the ride, after all the countries have been visited, is an imagined world, in an unspecied time, where all national dierence has been erased and humanity is unied. In some ways it seems to be set in the present, certainly a dewy-eyed, naive present, or perhaps an imagined near-future. is could be read as a kind of joke, a suggestion that this is a future that could never be – it has been placed in Fantasyland after all. More likely, it was a response to the relief a orded by the abatement of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Cold War brinkmanship came close to producing monumental global catastrophe in 1963. Even if not, the motif of a unified and harmonious world is, for obvious reasons, always a crowd pleaser. It is also a motif that very much adheres to the Disney party line. Honouring world cultures is, perhaps less obviously Disney-like, given the park’s overriding engagement with and promotion of core American values. The ride in general seems to be about re-packaging and domesticating internationalism, bringing it into the anodyne Disney sphere. By showing a uni ed humanity at the ride’s conclusion, it is also an implicit symbol of American superpower status, but in the least overtly triumphalist, most easy-to-swallow form imaginable. What could alleviate anxiety about your country’s place in the world more successfully than glimpsing a future in which the whole world is unified behind Disney’s, and thus American, ideals?
The Disney brochure reminds visitors that Tomorrowland, the next area of the park, is “the darling land of dreams and hope upon which the future rests… [You’ll] participate in American industries and imaginative and exciting exhibits – all demonstrating what the future holds for everyone.” Looking at Tomorrowland, it is clear what they mean when they say “the future: space and extraterrestrial exploration”. The title Tomorrowland seems to be somewhat problematic. Tomorrow, of course, isn’t really that far way. But the word ‘land’ suggests something much more abstract, fantastical and far reaching. The name never seems to match its intention. Futureland might have been more appropriate, although that perhaps does not convey the tangibility of the dreams being represented. Another issue is that while Main Street, USA is a representation, however distorted, of what will always be America’s past, Tomorrowland’s flaw is that, one day, tomorrow will be today. For these reasons, Tomorrowland was one of the most complicated sections of the parks for the imagineers because, by definition, it needed to keep changing. Given that Disney was so intent on controlling every aspect of their guests’ experience, reality becomes the greatest enemy to the completion of the company’s vision. Indeed, however hard the imagineers try, they cannot escape the fact that they and their visitors are firmly rooted to the present. The Cold War atmosphere tainted the very concept of American-ness at best and suggested the end of times at worst. It informed both the design and the viewers’ interpretation of the park.
Tomorrowland contains an almost full-scale model space rocket, visually similar to a Saturn 5, alongside space-themed rides, restaurants and bars. Clearly inspired by the sociopolitical context of the USA versus USSR space race – which was becoming increasingly feverish in the latter half of the 1950s – with Tomorrowland, Disney created a picture of what the world could be like when, not if, America triumphs in space. There is, as the brochure suggests, and the motivation for which is obvious, a very special focus on the American future. An attraction called Circarama emphasises this. Circarama was a theatre that showed films using a technique called Circle-Vision 360, which used nine cameras and nine screens arranged in a circle. In this sort of proto-Imax theatre guests were treated to films, the most long-running of which was called America the Beautiful. The 20-minute lm combined scenic shots of American landscapes, cities and places of interest accompanied by a voice-over, that was part-US history lesson, part-propaganda lm. In it, America is described as the “strongest nation in the world today” and the quality of independence is de ned as a “uniquely American trait”. Military academies, Colonial Williamsburg and Hollywood film sets are all featured, the latter two being examples of other stage- managed facsimiles of America’s past, reinforcing Disney’s rose- tinted vision of an idealised past that never was.
Another of the attractions in Tomorrowland is Autopia, which gives guests the opportunity to drive model cars round a track. The question here is: what part of this represents the future? Autopia was there from Disneyland’s birth in 1955, at a point where cars were hardly scarce on American roads. The idea of America as the “land of the automobile” had been around since Henry Ford had released the Model T from the Ford assembly line in 1908. Cars were a large part of contemporary consumer culture; the pages of LIFE magazine were full of advertisements for ever-more ostentatiously be- finned Cadillacs and Pontiacs, locating them within a more general narrative of post-war American affluence. Looking at the car designs they chose in 1955 for Autopia, you can’t help but feel that the imagineers could have made the cars have a much stronger futuristic aesthetic. Instead they have chosen vehicles that would have been barely di erent from the automobiles lling the aspirational, but achievable, dreams of the average American.
Even though Disneyland set out to balance the past, the future and the fantastical, it often fell short. Instead of balancing each other, the various areas of the park often appear jarringly disparate, something underscored by the towers of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, located almost at the epicentre of the park, which loom over everything else, Tomorrowland included. Images of the castle dominate early Disneyland publicity material, and it would quickly become one of the company’s most instantly recognizable images, alongside Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney’s flourishing signature. The problem with having what so quickly became an iconic symbol commanding the skyline is that guests were never able to forget where they were. It was escapism compromised by artifice, the kind of ambiguity that Disney would never have allowed to taint one of its movies. The fact you can see Sleeping Beauty’s castle from Frontierland and Tomorrowland undermines any chance of visitors finding a truly engrossing experience without being reminded that they are on a day out to a corporate extravaganza.
Disneyland was designed to be calm and reassuring in what can be seen as an alternative to the contemporary, anxiety-laden, McCarthy witch-hunts environment of the USA in the mid-1950s. What is particularly jarring about the ever-hovering motif of the castle is that, although it is part of Fantasyland, it is a very specific fantasy designed by a faceless imagineer during the production of the film Sleeping Beauty. As with the Storyboat Canal Ride, one of the ways that Disneyland controls its visitors is by regimenting their imaginations. The park’s environments are so constructed, and overwhelming, that any attempt to pursue an individual, ‘freethinking’ path through the park is practically impossible. What also stifles the active participation of guests, are the endless queues. The act of having to wait so often, and – as is usually the case – for so long, pauses the Disneyland experience, interrupting any sense of immersion. As much as Disneyland wants to be a fantastical world full of nostalgia and future promise, it is chained to the reality that all human action is defined by its present environment.
There is a quote by author and YouTube favourite John Green in his book Looking For Alaska: “Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.” is feels ever-present in Disneyland. Nostalgia can be defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past”. Disneyland is clearly longing for a past, but arguably a better, more perfected past than America ever knew, as well as trying to create a picture of a utopian future than it is never going to get.
During the Cold War, the future was uncertain both in terms of quality and quantity. By glorifying the space race and promoting the idea of the future as a place of American technological supremacy, Disneyland and Tomorrowland in particular, seem to be creating an atmosphere dedicated to a sentimental longing for a future that America was not, in its heart, sure it would get. Using historical periods and ideologies that directly buy into contemporary concerns mean the infrastructure of Disneyland is designed to universalise the American experience. It also allowed visitors to forget about or perhaps reevaluate the troubles of the outside world from within a safe, familiar environment.
Disney and the imagineers realised that the principal strength and allure of their park was the ability to turn abstract ideas into a 3D, lived experience. Disneyland shows architecture being used to inspire myth, fable, history and promise and to create a place that both solidified American ideals and alleviated Cold War anxiety. And it did; in a way that is more enduring and culturally ubiquitous than any political speech or manifesto.