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Disney Amusement Parks

The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Social History
Jeremiah B. C. AxelrodJeremiah B. C. Axelrod

Disney Amusement Parks 

Opened to the public in the summer of 1955 amid former orange groves in Anaheim, California, about twenty-five miles south of Los Angeles, Disneyland Park almost immediately became an icon of American Cold War culture. Inspired by urban amusement parks such as Brooklyn’s Coney Island, seasonal county fairs, and international expositions, this new venue marketed itself as a “theme park,” organizing its attractions in thematically consistent spaces arranged around mythical subjects.

Geared explicitly toward the normative white middle-class families that dominated the culture of the era, Disneyland substituted culturally hegemonic narratives and a controlled environment for the chaotic midway attractions, carnivalesque transgressions of decorum, and heterosocial sexual play that characterized previous amusement parks. Indeed, Disneyland’s enormous cultural appeal during the postwar period can be attributed to the extent to which its attractions mirrored dominant ideologies and reinforced conventional, even reactionary, visions of society. For instance, entering the park through Main Street USA, the visitor thus was immediately immersed in a nostalgic fantasy of small-town Americana that was sharply at odds even in 1955 with the increasingly diverse surrounding metropolis of Los Angeles. Adventureland concatenated an array of Western Orientalist impressions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, presenting familiar colonialist oppositions between “civilization” and darkly exciting “savagery” through such attractions as the Jungle Cruise boat ride. Frontierland did the same for the American West, inspired by Disney’s own fabulously successful and highly fictionalized “Davy Crockett” series that had aired nationally on Disneyland’s televisual counterpart, also originally called Disneyland.

The interconnection of fantasy narrative and physical space, simulation and real, inspired a generation of social theorists to take Disneyland as a prime example of what Umberto Eco termed the “hyperreal” aspects of mass-mediated American culture. Disneyland also impressed city planners and architects by the way in which the theme park embeds emotional cues and stories into the layout and design of its emblematic “lands,” all legibly arrayed around a central hub marked by a visually arresting central architectural icon, such as Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

Disneyland soon drew visitors from around the world, and by the early twenty-first century more than 600 million were estimated to have visited since its opening. Inspired by that success, Walt Disney World in central Florida opened for business in 1971; eventually it became the most visited vacation destination in the world. Disney theme parks in Tokyo (1983), Paris (1992), and Hong Kong (2005) followed, with a Shanghai venue scheduled to open in 2016. The ability of the Disney Corporation to translate and adapt quintessentially American ideologies and narratives into different cultural contexts distinguishes these theme parks as exemplary case studies in globalization, just as the parks themselves exemplify the interconnections in contemporary society between popular ideological narratives, corporate mass media, recreational tourism, mass-marketed commodity consumption, and the tightly controlled privatization of architectural space.

[See also Amusement Parks and Theme Parks; Consumption; Leisure; and Tourism and Travel.]


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    Kasson, John F. Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.Find this resource:

      Marling, Karal Ann. “Disneyland, 1955: Just Take the Santa Ana Freeway to the American Dream.” American Art 5, nos. 1–2 (Winter–Spring 1991): 169–207.Find this resource:

        Jeremiah B. C. Axelrod

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