David Hockney, who I suppose still classifies himself as English even though he’s lived in Los Angeles for years, once told me he considers Walt Disney the greatest American artist of the 20th-century. He may be right. Certainly Disneyland’s 50th anniversary this summer (the theme park kicks off an 18-month celebration today) is a reminder that at the very least, Uncle Walt was one of the great visionaries of our time.
American feature-length cartoons didn’t exist until Disney released Snow White, in 1938, followed two years later by another hit, Pinocchio, which Disney considered even better than his first masterpiece. But a crippling labor strike and the loss of European revenue during World War II nearly bankrupted the studio in the early ’40s. Those Donald-Duck-in-a-sombrero cartoons, Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros, were an attempt to create a new market during the war years in Latin America.
Yet almost as soon as Disney grew comfortable again, he risked it all by cashing in his family’s life-insurance policies to help finance Disneyland. Most people don’t realize what a very odd notion that was at the time, but apart from the Tivoli gardens in Denmark (which partly inspired Disneyland), amusement parks used to be sleazy places and decidedly unsuitable for families.
Disneyland was the Disney company’s first and perhaps most brilliant adventure in synergy. For years before it even opened in 1955, the Anaheim, Calif. park was promoted to a national television audience on Disneyland, the Sunday-evening show that ran for 29 seasons under various other names (Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, The Wonderful World of Disney.)
The timeslot was a soothing antidote to the back-to-school blues for a long generation of baby-boomers, and I sometimes wonder if the success of Desperate Housewives (on Disney-owned ABC) isn’t partly due to the nostalgic combination of Sunday evening escapist fantasy, theme-park perfect sets and animatronic-style characters.
I grew up ten minutes from Disneyland, in an unglamorous section of what was not yet called the O.C. But one benefit of living down there was we got to visit the park every year. My southern California childhood bona fides include still being able to sing all the words to long demolished rides like Carousel of Progress: “Man has a dream, and that’s the start; he follows his dream, with all his heart. And when it becomes a re-a-li-ty, it’s a better world for you and me.”
The term “E ticket” to me is not just an expression but a memory. Disneyland preparations for us local kids used to mean gathering up leftover tickets from the last visit–from the thrilling “E”s to the boring “A”s–and planning all the rides we’d go on next. (The ticket system was discontinued in 1982.)
Speaking of memory, my first trip to Disneyland, at age eight, was what first made me ponder the puzzling relationship between memory and reality. Is it better (I thought, as I lay awake in bed for hours that night after we got home) to be on the bobsleds, which only lasts a couple of minutes–or to remember having been on the bobsleds, which lasts forever? If you could go on the bobsleds 100 times, but your memory each time would vanish as soon as you were done, is that really more fun than to go on them only once but remember the experience always?
There’s something about Disneyland that inspires such existential questions. Anyway, I now live in Silver Lake, just a few minutes from the original Disney studios in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. The site now houses a supermarket. When my daughter was small, I used to take her to the carousel in nearby Griffith Park–the same carousel, as it happens, where Walt Disney first thought of Disneyland while watching his own small daughters ride on it.
I first took my daughter to Disneyland when she was four. We had fun, but as so often happens when you retain even vague notions that children will naturally want to experience your own particular happy memories, things didn’t go exactly as planned. On the way out, I said she could pick out any hat, with her name embroidered on it, as a souvenir from one of the Main Street giftshops–just like my sister and I always did. Naturally I assumed she’d want the classic Mickey Mouse ears–just like we always did.
For some reason, she was having none of it. “What about Goofy?” she said.
“Well, Goofy’s O.K… but have you noticed these cute Mickey Mouse ears? Or Minnie Mouse ears?”
She had. “How about Goofy?” she kept suggesting. Now I’ve always considered Goofy, that vaguely monstrous chimera of dog and man, the least appealing member of the Disney pantheon. Plus, let’s face it, he seems to be kind of brain-damaged. But the lesson here was clear: Your kids are not you. Sigh. I bought her the buck-toothed Goofy hat.
At least I got her in to see my favorite ride, the Pirates of the Caribbean, before they changed it ten years ago to appease delicate sensibilities. The pillaging pirates now chase buxom women around the looted Caribbean town not because the women are, uh, buxom–or because the pirates are pirates–but because the women carry plates of food. The pirates are just hungry, you see, not rapacious.
But Disney’s made many p.c. adjustments over the years. Once while visiting Disney headquarters in Burbank, I asked about the famous cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face. I knew I’d seen that 1943 Oscar winner, in which Donald Duck struts around mocking Hitler. But a publicist said it couldn’t have been on the Disney Channel.
“We’re not allowed to show that,” she informed me firmly. “Or some others from that era, like where Pluto wears blackface.”
Blackface is one thing, but who cares about offending Nazis? “The Germans are our friends now,” the publicist explained blandly. As it happens, Disney’s self-revision doesn’t stop at anti-Hitler animation. The Martins and the Coys sequence has been removed from the old animated feature Make Mine Music, presumably because of the scenes with drunken hillbillies.
It’s not always easy to follow the logic behind what’s been cut from Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse shorts. A scene showing rumcakes being eaten was snipped from the 1935 Cookie Carnival, for instance (presumably to appease teetotalers), but racially offensive black characters were left in. Goofy trying to shoot a rhino is gone from the 1945 African Diary, but not the African stereotypes.
In general, Disney censors seem more concerned with smoking, drinking, shooting, and spanking, so Donald no longer spanks his misbehaving penguin in the 1939 Donald and the Penguin. At Disneyland several years ago, Frontierland tour guides began telling visitors that a burning cabin was set on fire by the drunken moonshiner who lived in it, and not (as previous spiels had explained) by angry Indians. By 2003, the cabin no longer burned at all.
You have to wonder sometimes what Walt Disney would have thought of all this. There have been reports of his ghost appearing in the Disney Gallery above the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. If so, why is his spirit restless? Maybe he wants to bring angry Indians back to Frontierland, or at least a drunken moonshiner. Or maybe he’s just hungry, and looking for an animatronic woman carrying a plate of food.
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.