Walt Disney, the architect of dreams, in full Walter Elias Disney, American motion-picture and television producer and showman best known as a pioneer of animated cartoon films and the creator of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. He also designed and built Disneyland, a massive amusement park near Los Angeles that opened in 1955, and before his death, he had begun construction on a second such park, Walt Disney World, near Orlando, Florida. He founded the Disney Company, which has grown to become one of the world’s largest entertainment conglomerates.
Walt began his education by showing an interest in and aptitude for drawing and painting with crayons and watercolors. Disney’s career progressed from creating an animation and television studio in Hollywood to creating world-class theme parks. Disney, according to his confidantes, never believed in doing the same thing twice. That seemed like a recipe for disaster to him.
He transformed architecture into magic. Theme park architecture is typically thematic, as the name implies. Theme park structures are designed to tell a story by borrowing popular motifs from history and fairy tales. For example, it is well known that Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle in Southern California was inspired by the romantic Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.
The cleaning scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of the greatest scenes in film history. It’s a brilliant exposition of the various uses for squirrel tails, and Walt Disney acted out all the scenes himself, demonstrating his prodigious imagination. Because this creativity was inextricably linked to entrepreneurship, when Uncle Walt died in 1966, he’d managed, despite not being an architect, to script the next chapter of the human landscape: Disneyland, through a lot of hard thinking (innovation) and bitter experience (bankruptcy). Disney landscapes accounted for 70% of Disney revenue by 1981 and were visited by 134 million people in 2014.
The backstory of two poor brothers, Walt and Roy, and their success blends seamlessly into a post-story of the Walt Disney Company, in which all images are as meticulously manipulated as those on the screen. Walt’s reputation is determined by who you are, where you live, how old you are, and possibly who pays your bills. Even the fabled Disney archives appear to have been whitewashed.
So why not? The story of a man who worked tirelessly to make people happier – to help them become “more of themselves” – a perfectionist, a risk taker who was never photographed with a drink! According to John M. Findlay’s excellent Magic Lands (1992), Walt did not want to charge admission to Disneyland, and his intention to strip clocks and watches “of all meaning” was charmingly deliberate. Dark Prince (1994), Marc Eliot’s excellent film, would have preferred him as a chain-smoking anti-Semitic FBI agent dunking his doughnuts in scotch for breakfast. Choose between Cinderella and Donald Duck!
But Walt wasn’t stupid; he learned from his early mistakes with copyright and quickly realized the value of the merchandise. Every creative decision was a calculated risk backed up by sound business judgment and, more than likely, an argument with Roy. Even though it was far more expensive to produce, the full-length Snow White ensured better receipts than shorts. Disneyland worked in tandem with television, with the deal with ABC providing a steady source of revenue and stabilizing the hit-or-miss nature of blockbusting.
So the dream-building business was tough, and the layout was deceptively simple: a 140-acre compound cut off and gated. Once inside, you were completely submerged; nothing you saw, felt, heard, or smelled was left to chance.
The past was presented as acceptable zaniness, but the future divides opinion into both sides. Some believe in a technologically oriented utopia, and some believe it is a mirage. Meanwhile, “forward into the past” was a straightforward concept that compensated for the future’s proclivity to date. What is the issue? While architecture requires utopian aspiration, it is far more event-driven. Because Disneyland effectively suppressed the present, this future appeared to be a kaleidoscope of fantasies rather than an aspiration.
Conveniently, redemption through technology remains the capitalist’s mantra for tomorrow, despite Karl Marx’s (or Paul Mason’s) practical observation that he is bound to run out of puff. Whatever the case, Disneyland became the virtual world’s Jerusalem, with technology hastening or erasing events in favor of phony events, thrill rides, or “experiences.”
Yet, as newly divorced Disney Dads drove you down the new Santa Ana Freeway in the Chevy, Walt had a keen understanding of the realities of the day. Once inside, Disney has provided everything: it’s back to school with a Mickey lunchbox and a Mickey comfort blanket in hand. You learned to drive on Autopia tracks sponsored by General Motors, but you revved the real gasoline engine yourself. What you touched was real in the first meaningful re-encapsulation of space since the Renaissance, but what you saw wasn’t. It could all be clever scenography, but we can’t pretend it’s unimportant.
Disneyland’s horizons, whether past or future, became so important to American identity that Nikita Khrushchev was denied entry on safety grounds, but suspect the authorities were afraid the Soviet premier would recognize the game. It was one of planet Earth’s soundstages for the event when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Ray Bradbury wondered if WED Enterprises could one day run the entire city of Los Angeles. But it’s also a cipher for everything phony, corny, conventional, and even sinister; a place where the fun isn’t fun.
Before Disneyland, amusement parks, such as Coney Island and Tivoli Gardens, were either tawdry or twee. It was an Imagineering masterstroke to inhabit a fantasy that was suddenly safe and non-deviant, where large threatening things (trains) became diminutive fun and small comforting things (rabbits) became inflated and huggable. And the entire place was self-policed (or at least invisibly so); there were no hoodlums on dodgems and no beer to ruin everything. Instead, Disney University graduates were unbearably polite while suffocating in their bear suits.
It is now commonplace, and when American capitalism began to falter, Disney tactics became ubiquitous, from Las Vegas casinos to local shopping malls. Anything from “entertainment architecture” to “placemaking” could be used to describe it. Under Michael Eisner’s leadership, the company is in a very bullish period. Real architects—Robert Stern, Venturi Scott Brown, Michael Graves, Arata Isozaki, Charles Gwathmey, Cesar Pelli, and Philip Johnson—all participated in the dream’s construction. If you want to call it infantilism, it screamed Disney dollars.
But, as Will Self has pointed out, aren’t we more aware of the spectacle now that we’re pressed up against it? For a more informed audience, the black crows in Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland, persistent ethnicity issues, the image of princesses, and even the evil Siamese cats come to mind as challenging or humorous problems in Disney’s heritage. Meanwhile, Epcot featured a world devoid of retirees, and admission required haircuts.
So to say Walt Disney has been misrepresented is an understatement; he has been roundly criticized by the Hollywood establishment, by workers, by enraged academics, and by those who value social purpose over the pursuit of happiness in its crudest and most nostalgic forms. However, he is adored by children, sci-fi writers, corporations, the American state, and, on occasion, by moms and dads who are temporarily relieved of their excruciating burdens. From an annual goth pilgrimage to heckle Snow White in Anaheim to “Dismaland” in Weston-super-Mare, “The Mouse” has inspired parody (upon which, progressively, the once famously litigious corporation has so far declined to comment).
Disney’s struggle to “make it real” parallels that of “true communism.” Epcot became a fascinating utopian experiment that never took off (though it was less far-fetched than Jacque Fresco’s Venus Project). Meanwhile, the “forward into the past” concept extended as far as Celebration, a new town that is half radical (progressive schooling and health care) and half Truman Show, and which, being so far from Stevenage, is a little too obvious to be a true con. Perhaps, just as Walt fervently believed in the American dream, he perfectly demonstrated it.
Walt Disney: 1901-1966
Occupation: Entrepreneur, cartoonist, animator, voice actor, film producer, co-founder of the Walt Disney Company
Awards: 22 Academy Awards, 4 honorary Academy Awards, 59 nominations for Academy Awards, 7 Emmy Awards, Cecil B DeMille Award, Légion d’Honneur, 1935
Cartoon creations: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto
Films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinnochio, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Dumbo, Cinderella, Wind in the Willows, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book
Theme parks: Disneyland, Anaheim, California, Disney World, Orlando, Florida
Quote: ‘I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse’
- Craven, J., (2003). Disney Architects Who Design Fun [online]. ThoughtCo. [Viewed 30 December 2022]. Available from: https://www.thoughtco.com/who-are-the-disney-architects-175972
- Walt Disney (1901-1966) – Architectural Review [online], (no date). Architectural Review. [Viewed 30 December 2022]. Available from: https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/reputations/walt-disney-1901-1966?tkn=1
- Disney: The Architecture of Staged Realities [online], (no date-a). Drawing Matter – Exploring the role of drawing in architectural thought and practice. [Viewed 30 December 2022]. Available from: https://drawingmatter.org/disney-the-architecture-of-staged-realities/