"The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks," Oct. 6, 1998-Jan. 10, 1999, at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street, New York, N.Y. 10128.
I grew up 15 miles from Walt Disney World and nearby Orlando, Florida. I visited Disney's Magic Kingdom no less than 50 times between its inaugural opening in 1971 and 1979, the year my puberty-induced disinterest hit me. I used to catch a ride to high school with a woman who played Mickey Mouse at the park (Donald Duck, the smallest character, is played by costumed midgets), and my high school graduation was held at the newly opened Epcot Center. My most extreme and persistent childhood fantasy was to ditch my parents and live permanently within the attractions, like a latter-day Oliver Twist.
When I went back to the Magic Kingdom a few years ago, I was struck by how worn down the place was. Tomorrowland always looked a little like yesterday, but on my visit its special futuristic gloss seemed particularly transparent. The Magic Kingdom revealed itself for what it has always been -- the sentimental product of suburban white engineers and architects who matured during the Great Depression.
The current show at the Cooper-Hewitt, "The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks," presents a behind-the-scenes look at the "imagineering" that makes up the mouse empire. Each gallery in the museum is dedicated to one of the individual, narrative-driven "lands" (Adventureland, Frontierland) and the development of those themes over time in all of the different parks (Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, EuroDisney). The show was organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, and has previously appeared at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Hammer Museum in L.A.
The exhibition features over 200 objects, most of them very interesting. The greatest revelation is the widening gap between Uncle Walt's vision and today's corporate enterprise. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Epcot, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Walt dreamed of a high-tech, corporate city of 20,000 people, constructed on a radial plan whose layout is not unlike that of a rose window. Cars would be left behind as people traveled about via Wedway People Movers. This was Walt Disney's last great dream before he died in 1966.
Epcot Center was eventually constructed in 1982 in the early years of the regime of Michael Eisner. It was marked by an overt use of corporate sponsorship (particularly in the section that is ominously dubbed Future World) and international tourist bureau patronage (in World Showcase). This bastardized Epcot pushes fakery devoid of fantasy to its outer limits.
Other highlights include the plans for Main Street USA, which for all its "Meet Me in St. Louis" charm was actually based on Walt's memories of his own hometown of Marceline, Missouri. Main Street has Walt's favored radial ground plan and the trademark Disney scale, downsized for pedestrians (and kids!). According to the exhibition, Disneyland has its roots in Walt's love for kiddy railroad trains and the parking-lot-size amusement parks of the past.
Fantasy with a capital "F" -- rather than thrills -- was always the key to Walt's vision. Disney World didn't even have a rollercoaster until Space Mountain was constructed in the late '70s. Ultimately, it was the innocence of the fantasy paradigm that lost the new generation of Nintendo-obsessed kids, who prefer bungie jumping to "It's A Small World."
Are the Disney theme parks "an escape, an escapade or a model for urban design?" the show's brochure asks, somewhat ingenuously. In the end, the Disney Corporation's conservative impulse (no one working in the parks is allowed to have a beard or mustache, unlike Walt himself) fosters a culture of reassurance, but also keeps imagination in check -- Tomorrowland, for example, was designed to be "forward looking but not too far-out." The plan to convert Walt's unwittingly acid-fantastic Mr. Toad's Wild Ride into a warm, fuzzy Winnie-the-Pooh moving marketing trap says it all.
Although the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition tries to maintain a critical pose, it ends up being largely promotional -- since it was assembled with Disney's cooperation, it was unlikely to be otherwise. And like museums do today, Disney cultivated corporate sponsorship and funds poured in from AT&T, Goodyear, Eastern, Delta Airlines and environmental polluters like Monsanto. (FYI, this exhibition is sponsored by Target.) One telling moment in the show is a poster hanging in the staircase, which reveals that the Country Bear Jamboree was originally called Casa de Fritos.
Absent from the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition is anything about Celebration, Disney's famous planned community in Florida, located just two exits down the interstate from Walt Disney World.
Celebration is a rationalized town, '90s style. It's clean and safe and orderly. It has a town hall for community meetings. It has alternative vehicles that look like a cross between a tricycle and a golf cart, ideal for shuttling between shopping centers and the country club. And during Christmas, holiday music is piped in non-stop from speakers hidden in the shrubbery. Celebration is thriving.
Ten years ago I came to New York City to escape the ahistorical theme-park mentality that permeates every aspect of life in Central Florida. When I walk through Times Square today I realize that, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there's no escape. Disney is destiny.
MICHAEL BRENNAN is a New York painter who writes on art.