The Disneyland Effect
I know what you’re gonna say.
The trees are papier maché.
It’s done with mirrors, the magic there.
Each little bird’s full of springs;
you push a button, it sings.
Recorded music fills the air.
They’ve had the mountain refaced;
It’s only plywood and paste.
Go on, say it!
I’ll turn around and tell you: I don’t care!!!
I don’t care!!!
from the Broadway musical Smile
by Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashman
I’ve been going to Disneyland once or twice a year since its 50th anniversary celebration. When I mention to friends, acquaintances or co-workers that I’m going to Disneyland again, I’m sometimes asked why I keep returning. Why don’t I go somewhere else for vacation? Like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. Someplace that’s at least real. The answer isn’t easy to express, especially to someone who’s never been to Disneyland. It’s nearly impossible to express my feelings about it. The words escape me. They rebel. They refuse to say what I mean…
When I try to describe it,
I am rendered speechless.
When I try to write about it,
I break the pen, and the paper slips away…
Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī
I think the closest I can come to a description is borrowed from novelist James Joyce. In the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, main character Stephen Daedalus explains that a truly beautiful thing will cause a state of “aesthetic arrest”: Everything else in the mindstops to appreciate and enjoy the beautiful thing. For me, Disneyland is a place where this consistently happens, without fail. Author Eleonora Druvivier describes this well:
The first time I went to Disneyland I was at one with it. In such communion, identification with, you name it, I did not “think”. It did not even occur to me that buildings there were built to scale. Even though I had seen real castles in Europe more than once, (for someone who “thinks”, such direct vision would not even be necessary) I did not realize that Sleeping Beauty’s castle is also built to scale. And I was already a young woman. Call me crazy, I myself do when I come to think about it. However, if I go on thinking some more about it, I realize that Sleeping Beauty’s’s castle, being “the castle” for me, was incomparable, it was “it”. When you look at whatever is “it” for you, comparisons, size and quantity do not enter your mind. Whatever is not “it” is obliterated. Love or wonder is what elects something to be “it”. And neither love nor wonder is mathematical. Neither admits of comparing, relativizing. Love speaks of quality, not quantity. To love is to deem what you love unique, therefore absolute.
Author of the book From Mars To Marceline In Search of Disney
You can read her remarkable blog here:
I’ll repeat one line from that remarkable passage again: “I realize that Sleeping Beauty’s castle, being ‘the castle’ for me, was incomparable, it was ‘it’.” It’s interesting that a fabricated, artificial structure such as Sleeping Beauty Castle can become “the castle”, one that’s more “real” in her mind than the real castles in Europe that she had already seen.
Social theorist Jean Baudrillard famously used Disneyland as a good example of hyper-reality. Sleeping Beauty Castle is a whimsical suggestion of a “real” castle; Main Street U.S.A. is a simulation of a “real” early 20th century small Midwestern town; and these simulations are presented with such detail and conviction that they are more “real” to us than the real thing! They are hyper-real: even more real than reality.
Disneyland doesn’t even have to be realistic to be “more real than reality.” Main Street isn’t and couldn’t be a realistic representation. It just has to be convincing. …and it is. It’s utterly convincing.
It’s the amount of detail that makes Disneyland so convincing. The depth of stratification, where details are layered on top of one another, is so dense that I can’t help but be convinced of it’s reality.
For example, on The Haunted Mansion’s facade, I noticed that the shutters on each window were held back by an ornate iron clamp with an oak leaf motif. I wondered about who it was who thought to add that little detail. If it weren’t there, It’s unlikely that anyone would feel that somethings missing…
I once lived in a house once with decorative, non-working shutters that were simply nailed to the walls of the house. I also lived in a house with working shutters; and they were held back with simple hook-and-eyelet fasteners. So these fancy fixtures on the Mansion were entirely unnecessary, but they add to the profuse detail of the facade to instill a distinct sense of place in the mind of the guest.
Returning to James Joyce, he quotes St. Thomas Aquinas as saying that three things are necessary for beauty: Integitas, Consonantia, Claritas. That is, Integrity, Harmony, and Clarity.
- Integrity: For something to be truly beautiful, it has to be fully integrated. Every part of it must serve the whole. It must come together into a single, beautiful thing unlike any other.
- Harmony: All of its parts must come together in harmony. They cannot appear to contradict each other or struggle against each other. The separate notes must blend together into a single chord.
- Clarity: We should immediately see the thing clearly for what it is. If the object isn’t clear, we’re left puzzled, wandering just what it is we’re seeing. But if the object is presented with clarity, then we see the thing for what it is. To quote Eleonora Druvivier again “It was ‘it‘.”
In December 1978, New West Magazine ran an article about Imagineer John Hench. Hench clearly understood these principles: “There’s a harmony, a definite relation there, the buildings know each other. They were produced by the same spirit. The fire department wasn’t designed by some guy who hated the guy who did the opera house. These buildings agree on the rules of the game”
In this article by Charlie Haas, “Disneyland is Good for You“, John Hench compares the well planned environment of Disneyland against the chaos of a modern city. “A city is made up of all kinds of things that way, unrelated things, and it doesn’t add up to anything except chaos… we know it’s the next step before conflict… So cities are threatening.
“But the order here at Disneyland works on people, the sense of harmony. they feel more content here in a way they can’t explain. You find strangers talking to each other without any fear. You actually find people patting strange kids on the head, which of course they wouldn’t do anywhere else.”
Hench was well aware of the Disneyland Effect, and so was Walt Disney. “Walt sensed what you could do with entertainment. Entertainment is usually thought of as an escape from problems, an escape from responsibility, but as far as I know he had an original idea — and there are some practicing psychiatrists that happen to agree with us — that what we are selling here is not escapism, but reassurance.
“And we have a number of psychiatrists who support our work, there’s something, who’ve discovered that there is something beyond an amusement park here. Because it works on people. It obviously works on people. ”
According to John Hench, Walt understood the Disneyland effect intuitively. “He really believed that people are decent. It’s a matter of bringing that out, letting them know who they really are.”
One could say that this man knows not only the magic of all technological means,
but he also knows how to act on the most secret chords of thought, mental images and human feelings.
Sergei Eisenstein on Walt Disney
So what is the Disneyland effect on me? I feel energized, yet simultaneously serene and placid. My mind is completely absorbed in the enjoyment of the resort, not lost in a busy sea of disconnected, disparaging thoughts. It’s almost a kind of Zen.
For the past year or so, I’ve been trying to hold on to the Disneyland feeling; to bring it into daily life. I try to quiet my busy mind and focus on enjoying the good things in front of me everyday. When I’m at work, I try to re-capture that relaxed, open friendliness I experience at Disneyland and share it with strangers.
To keep the that feeling alive, I often think about Disneyland and planning my next trip there. I scour the internet looking for news items for Visions Fantastic. I listen to soundtracks of Disneyland attractions. The audio for Remember, Dreams Come True brings a tear to my eye every time.
Over the past few years since my rediscovery of Disneyland, my overall happiness and sense of inner peace has increased tremendously. That’s the Disneyland effect.
Here in Southern California a new land has come into being.
It’s purpose is Enlightenment.
It’s product, Happiness.
This place is Disneyland.
from the narration for the 1956 film
People and Places: Disneyland, U.S.A.
This article was originally written by Ezra David Haith in 2007. It has been re-issued twice before, and has been restored by request.