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Disneyland: A Utopian Urban Space

M. Gottdiener To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the pastand here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Dedication plaque, July 17, 1955 Disney land as a specific place and as a theme park has received attention recently as a prototypical postmodern environment. Baudrillard, for example, sees no difference between Disneyland and the city of Los Angeles that surrounds it, because the built environment in the United States is a simulation pure and simple, as he suggests: It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality, but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, no longer existsDisneyland is presented as an imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact, all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of hyperreal and simulation. Other observers, while not subscribing to the extreme reductionism of Baudrillard, nevertheless claim a certain postmodern specificity for Disneyland. They know it was constructed in the 1950s, but they suggest that it is exemplary of a fantasy-based, postmodern image-driven culture; hence its popularity. Such a mode of analysis does not deal with Disneyland as a material cultural form, but with the ideology of postmodernism. That is, the subject of analysis is not Disneyland but postmodernism, and the goal of this kind of interpretation is not the illumination of the Disneyland experience but the desire to impute features of postmodernism to this constructed space. In short, this type of writing is a kind of ideology that privileges the cognitive categories of the analyst and ignores both the material substance of the built environment and its articulation with the everyday experience of users. What postmodern interpreters ignore, in contrast, sociosemiotics takes as its object of analysis. Social Control In Disneyland social control is refined to an art, the art of moving crowds by their own motivation instead of coercion. D-land represents the ideal in this regard. It is the perfection of subordination: people digging their own fantasy graves. Los Angeles, in contrast, is the site of the coercive mechanisms of wage labor, ideology, and state power. This space also controls by the separation and isolation of people. As Debord states, Urbanism is the modern accomplishment of the uninterrupted task which safeguards class power: the preservation of the atomization of workers whom urban conditions of production had dangerously brought together. The constant struggle which had to be fought against all aspects of the possibility of encounter finds its privileged field in urbanism. Economics Disneyland presents the illusion of cornucopia. After paying a lump sum at the entrance to the park, participants enjoy an abundance of opportunity for amusement. Prior to the 1980s rides were portioned out by varied individual prices, some of which were relatively expensive. Since July 1981 the lump sum payment, which is over $20 a person, now allows visitors to unlimited access to all rides--a true cornucopia, if you can afford the entrance fee. In the theme park space, class distinctions are minimized and ignored, because the poor have been screened out of the park by the price of admission. In this world, corporate control is benevolent and even paternal. A ride is brought to you by, with the compliments of, and presented by. These epithets are

unobtrusive and subliminal. They are extended in the manner of a gift, therefore they invoke the traditional economy of a tribal society. The insidious implication here is that such courtesies are reciprocal. In Los Angeles, by contrast, we have late capitalism with its increasing class divisions, uneven development, production for profit, and periodic crises of accumulation. We also have symbolic exchange and an image-driven culture where the gift is only subliminal or the dead sign of signification. Everything in the Los Angeles milieu has a price, and due to stagflation the price keeps rising. There are no bargains outside the park, only the tyranny of the budget. Here corporate control is predatory, not paternal. Architecture In Disneyland, the built environment is entertaining. Every edifice has symbolic value, much as was the case for ancient and medieval cities. Disneyland, as the most successful theme park, helped inaugurate the entertainment culture of postmodernism. It is the ludic town par excellence. By contrast, the built environment in Los Angeles possesses limited meaning. It is what Francoise Choay calls hyposignifiant--that is, atrophied in meaning and restricted for the most part to the signifying of instrumental function. Los Angeles housing is a sign vehicle for equity or social status, and is built for a profit. Housing design is conformist and regulated through zoning and building codes. Business and commercial establishments are located in functionally designed centers that have only one semiotic value (i.e., monosemis): namely, the signification of the mundane activities of production and consumption themselves. Politics Disneyland is also an exercise in group decision making. The goal of social control is ambulation. With crowds moving all the time, it matters little that individuals are allowed to make their own choices about what to do there. In addition, people are ushered out of amusements so fast that they never get to consider whether they should change the ride or make it more to their liking. This participation without social change is like an audience with a powerful religious or political leader, such as the president, and it invokes the childs version of the adult treat. You are given the honor of a special occasion; whether or not it is satisfying is irrelevant, because the treat is its own reward. Fittingly, Disneyland even includes a special visit to the greatest American president of them all, Abraham Lincoln, cloned into action by the hydraulic, plastic technique of audio animatronics to look real. Finally, Disneyland inverts the structure of family authority. While most families, regardless of class, are adult-directed even if they are child-centered, a visit to D-land is ostensibly for children (or tourist visitors who then are ascribed the status of children). Here the child gets to direct the adults. Invariably they choose the rides, the food, and the schedule. Parents become chaperones or vicarious thrill seekers through the eyes of their own offspring. Once outside the park and back in the quotidian world of Los Angeles, the father returns to his role as the master, with both parents reassuming their familial division of labor in bringing up the children. In sum, the urban environment of Disneyland offers a world free from the crisis of the quotidian; free of pathological urban experiences produced by an inequitable and class society such as slums, ghettos, and crime. It is a safe place in all its dimensions, in contrast to the security precautions taken by average citizens even in the privacy of their own homes. Disneyland embraces people in the bosom of a paternal corporate order. It entertains them and stimulates the externalization of their private fantasy lives. Visitors assume the status of a pedestrian wanderer and participate in a festival of self-directed entertainment. This

is especially true for children, who get to taste this freedom perhaps for the first time. In contrast to Los Angeles, Disneyland is a ludic, utopian built environment, despite the negative features of its own instrumental purposes and control of the population for profit. It possesses the illuminating potentiality of a space occupied by the symbolic and the imaginary, in which something fantastic can and usually is always happening. The signifiers Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, New Orleans Square, and Main Street can be linked to the signifiers of the faces of capitalism as follows: Frontierland--predatory capitalism Adventureland--colonialism/ imperialism Tomorrowland--state capitalism Main Street--family and competitive capitalism While Bear Country (now defunct) seems a signifier for the country or the idiocy of rural life, Fantasyland signifies bourgeois ideology in mythical form. In the above associative reading, Disneyland becomes the fantasy world of bourgeois ideology, a kind of capitalist family album documenting the development of its different personality manifestations in the United States and providing the themes for the fantasies of the Disney Corporation. The space of Disneyland has thus been produced by the formal representation of this ideology articulating with the processes of urban construction and real estate development. Such an analysis, however, leaves us with a puzzle. Disneyland was at one time the most popular attraction in the United States (surpassed now by Disneyworld in Florida, which is ten times its size and the most popular attraction in the world), receiving more visitors each year than even the monuments of the nations capital. There are, however, many other presentations of bourgeois ideology as entertainment, and there are even other amusement parks offering fantastic rides on the same scale. In fact, two of the largest in the United States--Knotts Berry Farm and Magic Mountain, which both surpass Disneyland in size--are located nearby in the Los Angeles area. We must, therefore, ask the question why Disneyland, in particular, is so much more popular than all these other public amusement places, which might also be analyzed as representations of bourgeois ideology. It is my contention that Disneyland is more than just a showplace of capitalist images. Taking a socio-semiotic perspective in the particular sense, we need to tie this space to the personal context (i.e., the background and intentions) of its creator, Walt Disney. As a corporation brochure states, Disneyland, the dream, was born long before 1955, in the creative mind of Walt Disney. As a pioneer in the motion picture industry, Walt developed an intuitive ability to know what was universally entertaining. When his daughters were very young, Walt would take them of what he later called very unsatisfying visits to the local amusement parks. He felt there should be something built where parents and children could have fun together. He wanted Disneyland to be a place where people can experience some of the wonders of life, of adventure and feel better because of it. The above sentiments are obviously promotional statements, but they constitute a part of the discourse surrounding the codification of a personalized valorization of the parks signifiers. This discursive study, which might begin with the promotional literature on the context of Disneys life and the production of this space from his perspective, can continue with an examination of more detailed accounts of Disneys ideas. In this way we avoid the highly personalized and, often, thoroughly impressionistic reading of the park by independent analysts. Familiarity with Disneys personal background supports a second interpretation of underlying code from which the signifiers of the park were derived, in addition to capitalist ideology. The literature of

Disneys personal experience suggests that Disneyland can also be read as a fantastic representation of Walt Disneys lost youth. This connection to a simplified and nurturing small town environment conceived of by Disney may partly explain the popularity of the park. D-land, therefore, stands at the intersection of two overlapping and somewhat contradictory semantic fields, one of which is the ideological representation of the faces of capitalism, as seen above, and the other, the personalized self-expression of its creator. The park is a creation of a corporation that is linked to other corporations, but it is also the artistic production of an exceptional talent that seems capable of entertaining millions of people on an ongoing basis because of the ability to strike some chord of desire within the audience by playing on personalized themes. Considering the map of Disneyland above, it is my contention that each of its areas corresponds to compartmentalized aspects of the world of a young boy growing up in a midwestern town. These metaphors are as follows: Adventureland--childhood games, comic-strip superheroes, backyard play Frontierland--summer vacation, Boy Scouts Tomorrowland-spectacular careers in science and technology Fantasyland--dreams/ fables, bedtime stories Conclusion Disneyland has been called variously as illusionary, ideological, capitalist, fantastic, and even utopian by cultural analysts. In some of the more trenchant discussions much has been made of its invocation of the middle-class virtues of small-town, mid-American life, and of the morals and value system of Walt Disney himself. In what ways then, have we improved upon these observations by subjecting Disneyland (and the reader) to an arcane semiotic analysis? It seems that further insight has been derived by demonstrating that this produced space is the juncture of two separate semantic fields, one personal and the other specific to the social formation of late capitalism, which play themselves out in the constructed space of the park. This articulation is a mythical construct or hypostatization because space defined by capitalism is articulated by space as interpreted from the personalized referent of an idealized youth. The associational axis is many-layered. That is, Disneyland is overdetermined with meaning and mythical in form. No single interpretation can capture the symbolic experience of the park. Disneyland is the myth of small-town America if advanced industrial society would have articulated with this settlement space without changing it, except by leveling its class and racial distinctions. It is not only a spatial representation of capitalist ideology, as believed by previous observers, but also the fantasy of a Walt Disney who yearned as much for an idealized youth as he did fetishize the benevolence of the system itself. That is, there is both a social and a personal context to this space. In the larger society, especially Los Angeles, the massive regional suburban environment has evolved from the small town. But there, aerospace industries, mass media, multinational global involvement, and technology have obliterated this form and its social order. Los Angeles is the real future that has unfolded for small-town America. Confronted by this vista, we must pause and wonder why Disneyland has drawn criticism when the area around it represents this acknowledged failure of urban planning. Disneyland is the wish of its creator and it is as much a reflection of his personalized code as it is of corporate signifiers. In this sense, therefore, it is a consummate, three-dimensional work of populist art entertainment for the masses. It invokes the structure of small-town life, where the only price for participating in the benevolent, moral order of America was the loss of individuality and the adherence to strict social conformity. It is the happiest place on earth, because many of its visitors, especially those from California, subscribe to the very same values as Disney and come from similar backgrounds. These

attitudes have been ignored more by advanced capitalism and its specific urban growth patterns than they have been appropriated by the system for its ideological productions. The park indicates as much about the victimization of small-town life just as it also extols the same system that perpetuates that victimization. This is the contradiction shared by Disney and the larger society in which he lived.