Through the Disney lens

Atlanta got about five inches of snow last night, and in a city with very little equipment for clearing the roads and a populace that doesn't often drive in snow, it means the entire city pretty much took a snow day. The free day allowed me time to finish up some projects around the apartment, and to read a few chapters ahead in one of the few books I already have for the semester (others are delayed with the UPS trucks).

Disney World as a part of popular culture and the most visited tourist destination on the planet is an interesting place to me, and has been for its classic characters long before I had interest in its history or in the way it subsequently tells history. (There was a brief period in high school when I really wanted to go into the animation film industry, as a writer. Then I realized I did not like to draw at all and art school was far too expensive.) But the farther I delve into history and its relationship to the public, the more significant a case study it becomes, as a place where people encounter historical interpretation that they consume as a commodity, and as a form of entertainment. While history should not be boring, it should also be handled with care whenever it nears the entertainment minefield, and that treacherous area where regular citizen meets interpretive history meets patriotic sentiments ends up defining much of the field. Wrap all this up inside a theme park, and it only gets juicier.

Mike Wallace's Mickey Mouse History: And Other Essays on American Memory earns its title from the chapter on Walt Disney's and, later, Disney Enterprises, Inc.'s interpretation and execution of the historical narrative, in "Mickey Mouse History: Portraying the Past at Disney World." Walt Disney's approach to the history that appears in the Magic Kingdom echoed the historical interpretations of the consensus-inspired 1950s, but translated into a theme park, took an extreme step further for the sake it tidying up the past for visitors. Says Wallace, his "approach to the past was... not to reproduce it, but to improve it." The excuse, that it's only a theme park, not a museum, hides below the fact that many may never know the difference. People who take in the past via a Disney presentation file this away in their brain as part of history and as a bit of knowledge to recall later, promulgating  misinformation, and making it harder for people to accept more accurate histories when they are confronted with them.

The park presents pseudo-menaces, like the "natives" you encounter on your ride along the Congo River, and then reassuringly reminds visitors of Main Street's triumph over things that challenge it. ("Main Street" literally being that core street at the front of the Magic Kingdom park, and figuratively representing civilized and clean America.) Each part of the park--Frontierland, Adventureland, Liberty Square, and others--also contribute to the eraser of "depressions, strikes on the railroads, warfare in the minefields, squalor in the immigrant communities, lynching, imperial wars, and the emergence of mass protests by populists and socialists" in the same era that Main Street and the surrounding parks aim to represent.

EPCOT has an array of complications all its own in terms of historic interpretation, being--as it has long been--backed by corporate sponsors who at their best explore the challenges and triumphs of a world that is ever marching forward and improving technologically, and at its worst, ignoring the fact that man's technology has not always had positive impacts on the progression of mankind. (And it would, of course, never be the corporation's fault; they would instead be the ones seeking to find solutions to problems). Each pavilion stands as a tribute to technology and the future, as a permanent World's Fair. Then across the waters lies the World Showcase, where countries' marketable goods are for sale and each destination has been designed to demonstrate the distinct features of its culture.

As Wallace points out, "all historical interpretations [done by Disney Enterprises] are necessarily selective in their facts, but [in EPCOT] the silences are more profoundly distorting. Consider, for example, that in all EPCOT's depictions of the past as a continuous expansion of man's possibilities through technology, there is not a word about war. Nothing about the critical impetus it provided through ages to scientific development, nor about the phenomenal destruction such "development" wrought."

Two other things struck me about the interpretation of the past that we find all around us in a Disney park. First, it presents history as unidirectional, that in fact there was no point that the trajectory could have taken another path. "There were never any forks on the path of Progress," he writes, "never any sharp political struggles over which way to go." The other fault in the clean, unoffensive, and vacation-ready historic package is that it makes the past into a "pleasantly nostalgic memory, now so completely transcended by the modern corporate order as to be irrelevant to contemporary life." We can consume the stories so long as they entertain us, and move on to the next thing. "This diminishes our capacity to make sense of our world through understanding how it came to be," says Wallace.

When the only versions of history people encounter are commodities--theme parks, but also docudramas, Hollywood movies, and even historic fiction--I fear it becomes the norm for them, deepening the chasm between people and their pasts and their understanding of the world. This seems to be OK for people when they can draw intelligent conclusions and have a grounded base of knowledge, but it can by no means be ignored as an insignificant influence on a people's vision of their history, in the midst of a thousand museums that don't draw nearly as many visitors.

For me it is something to ponder on a personal level as well, because, while I can dig through the cleanliness and disregard the stereotypes in the narratives, I highly doubt that is the mental lens that everyone else brings with them to Disney World. And on the other hand, I love the magic of Disney World. Far beyond the history that entrenches it, there is the imagination, the dazzling effects and the ability it has to transport you into another world--not to mention, back a little bit into your childhood. It is a place I will surely take my children someday, although what I do with the historic interpretations and how I explain them might be a little different than the approach others take.