What is Disneyland’s theme?

There are many out there who believe Disneyland is nothing more than a bunch of randomly put together lands and attractions with no theme or cohesion. When put up against any other Disney park, this is a strange concept as every other Disney park, whether it be Disney California Adventure, Tokyo DisneySEA, or Epcot, they all have a theme. So why wouldn’t Disneyland, the one that started it all have a cohesive theme to the park? Well, it does. Besides just being a collection of Walt’s interests, Disneyland is also a celebration of Americana which can be best viewed through its eight lands.

When entering Disneyland, guests are greeted with the most blatant of all the Americana in the park and that’s with Main Street USA. Besides just being called Main Street USA, the entire land is a romanticized life in the turn of the century MidWest. Whether looking at the City Hall, the fire station, or the family owned stores, Main Street USA perfectly depicts a time in American history where everything was a lot simpler. It celebrates this idea of America’s past right here to greet you and let you know just to expect with the rest of the park.

At the end of Main Street USA sits, of course, Sleeping Beauty Castle. While a European castle, and Fantasyland as a whole, may not seem very Americana at first glance, it most certainly is. With the exception of “it’s a small world” and the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Fantasyland consists of only attractions based off classic Disney fairy tales and it is those Disney fairy tales that brings the Americana into Fantasyland.

To really explain what I mean, I need to go into a bit of depth on Disney films themselves. Starting with Walt Disney himself, he moved from the MidWest to Hollywood with his wife and started a family and an animation studio. From the very beginning, Walt Disney is a representation of the American dream, and this bled into his movies. Disney pictures in the 1940’s and 50’s often were credited for upholding American values through their adaptations of classic fairy tales.

While not done in the Golden Age of Disney, I find the best representation of this in The Little Mermaid. In the original novel by Hans Christian Andersen, the Little Mermaid makes a deal with the sea witch to give her voice for legs so she can be a human and live with the prince. However, is she fails at making the prince marry her, the first dawn after the prince marries someone else, the Little Mermaid will turn to sea foam upon the waves. Spoiler alert, that’s what happens. This ending is, of course, very different from the Disney film where Ariel ends up with Eric and they all live happily ever after. Changing the ending of The Little Mermaid from a sad to happy ending demonstrates the optimism of Americans.

These sort of changes can be seen throughout just about any other Disney film as well. Whether it be Pinocchio, Cinderella, or Hunchback of Notre Dame, these European stories are always redesigned for American audiences. Because of the changes made, Disney films appealed to American audiences and becoming part of Americana themselves. Now that these Disney movies are part of American culture, Fantasyland, being full of these Disney films, celebrates America and fits back into the overall theme of the park.

This same rule applies to Mickey’s Toon Town. While Toon Town is inspired by Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1989), the land still does focus mainly on Mickey and the rest of the classic Disney characters. Much like the feature length films, Mickey Mouse is a staple of Americana. He is the embodiment of the American people and their struggles. By having Mickey the center of Toon Town rather than Roger Rabbit, it allows for the celebration of these classic Disney characters, and thus Americana, just like with Fantasyland.

Although not as reliant on film, Frontierland does take a lot of its Americana from the Western genre with even the Golden Horseshoe being a replica of the Golden Garter from Calamity Jane (1953). More so than its inspiration from the popularity of the Western, Frontierland is far more about the real frontier itself. Much like Main Street USA, Frontierland pays homage to a piece of American history that’s all but forgotten. When looking at the early, and current, attractions in Frontierland, they reflect this. Unlike Fantasyland, neither the Mark Twain Riverboat or Rainbow Caverns Mine Train, and now Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, focus on a pre-existing film, but rather on the real world. These attractions, and the land itself, celebrate a part of America.

This theme of celebrating parts of America extends with both Critter Country and New Orleans Square. Critter Country represents the Deep South and New Orleans Square represents, of course, New Orleans. These two lands continue with Frontierland and Main Street USA’s celebration of physical locations in America.

Not celebrating a physical location in America, however, is Adventureland. Many, just like Fantasyland, will look at Adventureland and see the tropical jungles of Africa and India or the deserts of Morocco and see no connection to Americana whatsoever. Yet, even though it’s not set in America, just like Fantasyland, it’s there. Although the colonization of Africa and India was much more of a British thing, Americans found their fascination with the adventures through the adventure serials of the 1930’s as well as other American made films, such as The African Queen (1951) which inspired the Jungle Cruise. These sort of stories being told to American audiences fed their already strong desire for expansion but now into the Jungles of the East.

Also represented in Adventureland is tiki culture in the Enchanted Tiki Room. Before even being a state, Hawaiian culture has been of American culture since the 1930’s. This love for tiki culture increased after World War II with the ability to travel, especially to Hawaii, becoming a lot easier. Both tiki culture and these adventure serials are pieces of Americana and they’re both depicted in Adventureland.

Tomorrowland, the final of the eight lands in Disneyland, is one of the most interesting when it comes to its Americana. Unlike the rest of the lands, Tomorrowland doesn’t focus on a real place that once existed or pop culture elements, but rather America’s innovation through science and technology. Although not as clear when the park opened, when Tomorrowland got its renovation in 1967, the theme clearly focused on scientific wonders in America.

With Tomorrowland 1967, every attraction focused on science and technological advancements in some sort of way. Whether it be the Carousel of Progress, Submarine Voyage, Adventures Thru Inner Space, the People Mover, or the Monorail, they all have the idea of moving forward in them. And what’s really more American than pushing barriers that have yet to be broken? Especially back in the 1960’s, breaking down barriers was all the rage, and one of these barriers being broken was the atmosphere.

The Space Race was on between the United States and the Soviet Union, and science benefited greatly from it. It offered all the advancements in technology that a war would but without any of the casualties. Of course, naturally, with this rapid progression of technology, the people became intertwined with science and space travel which can be seen in the much stronger focus on these themes in Tomorrowland ‘67. The Space Race and Tomorrowland are linked hand in hand, even down to Rocket to the Moon.

As you can see, every land in Disneyland connects back to American culture. Even with Star Wars land on the way, speaking thematically, it will make sense in the park as Star Wars is the biggest franchise in America and has been part of our culture since 1977. So no, Disneyland is not a collection of random themes and attractions thrown together, but a celebration of America. As Walt Disney said in his opening day speech, “Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America.”

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