Now that Disneyland is well over 50 years old and worthy of being a landmark, and the same can be said of me, I finally saw it recently. “The happiest place on earth” was indeed a fantastic piece of experience engineering, and architecture was a significant element of that engineering, or one should say “Imagineering.”
I always began my Interpretation classes with a 1996 quote from the then-new Jersey boardwalk attraction at Disney World, wherein a couple visited the attraction and reported that they loved it: “It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew.” I was always shocked and appalled by that sentiment because it smacked of implanted memories, but I was also impressed by it because the ability to engender a nostalgic reaction to something essentially new and different is a pretty amazing skill.
Mostly what you do at Disneyland is wait in lines, and they are very skilled at making that experience as pleasant as possible. We even waited in line half an hour at a Starbucks that was covered with posters and press clippings and other memorabilia about a 1940s style singing trio like the Andrews Sisters that was of course not from the 1940s but created for the park.
We all “read” our environments and we are used to seeing antiques or news clippings or other historical objects as ornaments in restaurants, so we play along with the “reading” of the faux singing trios history and memorabilia and we enjoy it because by reading it and “getting” it we are role-playing and thus participating ourselves in the immersive experience that has been imagineered for us.
We read architecture too, and of course the first reading at Disneyland is the Main Street, which is full-on Second Empire Victorian, an 1870s fantasy with that slight but very perceivable diminution of scale that makes the buildings more like characters, like a stage set, and we want it to be more like a stage set because then we are players too because what is even better than paying to see a show is to get to be in the show.
But what Victorian means here is not 1870, nor even the c. 1915 Victoriana that was the backdrop for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, which appeared the year before Disneyland opened. On the one hand, Victorian in 1955 meant old and outdated, and Main Streets were already going under the knife at the time, but Disney appropriated it for its nostalgic value, and as we all know nostalgia is a distilled, intoxicating version of history whose reality and downside has been denatured.
I used to say that as if it were a bad thing, but let’s please cast aside the morality of it and marvel at its engineering prowess. The Main Street means the comfort of an old time town, in Walt’s own life the Marcelline of 1915 versus the anxiety-laden modernity of the Kansas City or Chicago of 1917. And perhaps the Disney Main Street ended up inspiring the National Trust’s Main Street preservation program a generation later.
I was most excited to see Tomorrowland, part of the trilogy of past, future and fantasy that was the organizing principle of the original Disneyland. It was also the biggest disappointment, because outside of a wonderfully 1950s spaceship, the whole series of attractions had been redone many times. I wanted to see the 1955 vision of tomorrow! Perhaps most telling was the House of Tomorrow – no longer was it a push-button, meal-in-a-pill, Murphy Bed-meets-Rube Goldberg streamlined Jetsons-style imaginary, but a comfy, woody, earth-toned Prairie House with some fancy screens and Kinects. It was not the 1955 vision of the House of Tomorrow, but our actual house, with the big screen Wii and the full-on 1910 Arts and Crafts design. Fascinating.
And then reality intrudes. There is a REAL plaque on the Disney monorail, which is now the oldest daily operating monorail anywhere and an actual engineering landmark. Does this reality affect my imagined experience?
The Disney California Adventure, on the other side of the park, was meant to be a miniature California, with a logging community that included what appeared to be an actual lumber mill with a a plaque to prove it. But plaques are misleading, and the Cars attraction has plaques that describe the landscape you are looking at, which again is fairly easy to read but an entirely imaginary landscape appropriate to the cartoonish anthropomorphic Cars. We read the landscape and we read the plaques.
Have I turned my back on the authenticity so prized by preservation? I don’t think so. Authenticity is always something to be wrestled with. Authenticity is dynamic and mutable too, as my recent blog in the Huffington Post noted. Disneyland is an authentic historic theme park that has stood the test of time. It is like a vaudeville movie palace, a type of architecture considered inauthentic by preservationists in the 1960s because it was designed to entertain. The “real” artifacts of Disneyland add more complexity to the mix, although adding a level of confusion that makes you doubt their “reality” or authenticity. And of course I lamented the loss of the “authentic” house of tomorrow for a comfy Arts and Crafts home with a now inexplicable circular turntable.
Other bits of Disney’s California are related largely by architecture, such as the San Francisco section with its bite-sized Italianates that are icons of the city, and of course the great Maybeck pavilion, a miniaturized version of the rebuilt icon. The original pavilion from the 1915 World’s Fair does not exist, but its replica is now a beloved icon and repeated here in small form at Disney.
Architecture reveals its iconography and ability to instill experience in the Hollywood section, where a street of darling Deco buildings and movie theaters ends in a clearly visible staged backdrop of diminishing perspective, letting you in on the illusion but perhaps confirming the illusionary that is always part and parcel of architecture.
As many tourists do, we combined our trip with a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood, where a real movie and TV production set has become a tourist attraction replete with rides like Disneyland, and more architecture. You drive through sets that emulate New York and Mexico and Europe and even the outside streets of Desperate Housewives and the jungles of King Kong and Jurassic Park. You see the Bates Motel and house from Psycho and the fishing village from Jaws. It is a behind the scenes look where we marvel at our ability to enjoy being fooled.
The latest and greatest ride is Transformers 3D, a stunning adventure into a battle between robots based on children’s toys and all I could do as I was hurtled back and forth and up and down was try to identify the Chicago locations the battle is set in. Despite some specialized knowledge, the basic use of architecture at both of these places is to suggest a wrapping for experiences and emotions, whether it is suburbia or New Orleans or the Wild West.
Architecture is key to the illusion and to the story because it immerses us and makes the experience real by defining the horizons of experience both visually and bodily. Its miniaturization and its distillation into a few essential elements makes it approachable and apprehendable, distilled and clarified more than the real place could ever be. I think we know, and are comforted to know, that it is not authentic.
It was fascinating to see place distilled, and even replaced into a better, imaginary world. It brought me to a time and place I knew because it was so easy to know, because the buildings and faux places gave me an entertaining and anxiety-free feeling of being part of a story. It is manipulated, but in a sense all architecture, all artifice is manipulation. Usually it has the function of housing our lives, but here it uses some of the same imagery to take us away from our lives.