The Passion of St. Walt
It’s easy to be cynical about Disney. After watching the excellent documentary about Walt Disney himself that aired last year on American Experience, I’m more conscious than ever of both the scope of his influence—he’s undoubtedly the single most important figure in the global popular culture of the last century—and the way in which he repeatedly, even perversely, fell short of his own stated ideals. Whenever I look into the eyes of the avuncular faker that he presented in his television appearances, or the guarded quotations from the founder that adorn the placards at all the theme parks, it’s painfully obvious how much of himself Disney refused to reveal. Few men who built an empire out of their own indomitable will have been as anxious to play the role of a genial uncle in public, or to wear that mask so relentlessly. Walking through Disney World itself creates much the same impression: it’s a machine that impersonates a fairyland. Yet when you enter the park at Main Street U.S.A., turn a corner, and are gifted with the unexpected sight of Cinderella’s castle at the end of the boulevard, the effect is undeniably magical, even moving, when you see it as it must have been conceived: as a portal into a wonderland opening up in the most ordinary surroundings, even if that vision of the everyday is a fantasy in itself. (As American Experience reminds us, Main Street U.S.A. was inspired by Disney’s memories of Marceline, Missouri, where he lived for only four years, and which he spent his life trying to recapture, as if Proust had been given the resources of a massive conglomerate to build a scale model of Combray.)
And none of this is accidental. Our first glimpse of the castle wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it weren’t preceded and framed by the nostalgic small town that we see when we enter the park, and the reveal is carefully managed for maximum impact: the buildings leading up to Main Street are exactly tall enough to conceal the castle’s spires, so it seems to appear out of nowhere when it finally comes into view. The parks are often seen as masterpieces of wayfinding, but having just returned from a week’s trip to Disney World, I was struck by how it conceals as much as it shows. Cinderella’s castle provides the obvious orientation point, and it’s hard not to think of Proust again: “It was always to the steeple that one must return, always it which dominated everything else, summing up the houses with an unexpected pinnacle, raised before me like the Finger of God.” But the castle also coyly hides itself from us: it can’t be seen from outside the park, of course, and it retreats yet again as you pass into Tomorrowland or Adventureland, preserving the illusion that you’ve entered a different world. (That initial prospect of the castle from Main Street is the only place where the park deliberately trades on that kind of juxtaposition.) Everything is designed to tell a coherent, unfolding story in space to thousands of visitors under some of the most challenging conditions imaginable, and even if it never quite lives up to its promise, it’s incredible that it comes even as close as it does.
The more I think about it, in fact, the more the parks seem like the center of Disney’s achievement: they’re the culmination of all that he ever accomplished or wanted to represent. Both Disney the man and the studio he founded were built around the idea of realizing the impossible in practical terms, and it’s hard to imagine a better example of this than the parks. These aren’t movie sets that can be disassembled at the end of a shoot or filmed from just one persuasive angle: they need to accommodate hordes of guests, day in and day out, while remaining convincing at every level of detail. They provide the services and infrastructure of a small city while also furnishing material for dreams. In the few moments when I could pause to drink it all in, it seemed inevitable to me that it would be the handiwork of a man who began in animation, which is all about using the most basic of tools to create infinite possibilities—but only if you can solve the hundreds of concrete technical problems that occur along the way. And a visitor to the parks is filled with a heightened version of the same ambivalence that any thinking viewer feels when watching the movies that Disney made: you’re aware of the commercialism that feeds the illusion, even as you’re suckered into the same emotions that you felt when you were three years old. (Going there with an actual three year old, as I did, makes you all the more aware of the fine line between the dream and the reality: you’re always one hairsbreadth away from a meltdown or temper tantrum.)
But there’s also something weirdly precious about the way in which the experience frustrates your hopes. Going to Disney World isn’t like stepping into one of the advertisements: the heat, the lines, the expense, and the challenges of keeping a small child under control all keep interfering with the image you’re trying to recreate. Yet the result is something better, because it’s a series of pictures from your life. Disney is masterful at manufacturing nostalgia for worlds that we’ve never experienced firsthand, and it’s an impulse that is essentially conservative, even reactionary, whether we’re being asked to feel longing for Edwardian England or for an America that never existed. Along the way, though, it gives us a setting for something more important and complicated. It harps so repeatedly on the idea of “making memories” that it starts to sound vaguely threatening, but it’s absolutely true—this trip will be one of the first things that my daughter will remember, and I want it to reflect the real experience we had, not a commercial. (One of my earliest memories is being kicked by one of the Three Little Pigs at Disneyland.) If Disney World ultimately comes across as a bundle of contradictions, with something calculated and impersonal fused to a urgent striving toward transcendence, that’s true of everything interesting in life, and in art. Seeing it blown up to a gargantuan scale exposes the fissures there, but it also reminds us of the potential of creative imagination when combined with the quixotic determination to make it all real. And it’s something that I’ll never forget.