Are we having fun yet?

Amusement parks, crowd control, and load-balancing

Group photo in front of the castle at Disneyland’s goth day, “Bat’s Day in the Fun Park,” August 2006.

Pay for play

The news that Disneyland Paris is now selling Fast Passes — a skip-the-line ticket — for about $10 per person per ride has theme park watchers debating whether this is the destiny of all Disney parks and, if so, what it means for the future of theme parks.

You may not care about this, but the creation, maintenance, and operation of immersive built environments is an old art form with enormous cultural significance and few practitioners. The curious pleasures of an immersive built environment go back at least as far as the Sun King’s palace at Versailles and the winding path of built environments from elite follies to mass entertainment runs in parallel to the changing currents in populism, commodification, and participation.

The urge to immerse yourself in a virtual world is as old as the first tale told before the first fire. Today it finds itself expressed in a myriad of ways, from LARPs (live-action role-plays) to escape rooms and virtual-reality worlds to multiplayer games, but the Disney theme parks (and their most ambitious competitors, including Holland’s Efteling Park and the global Universal Studios parks) are literally the most concrete expression of this deep human desire.

An escape from the fun factory

The usual Disney theme park origin story starts with Walt Disney sitting on the bench beside the Griffith Park merry-go-round, bored out of his mind while his young daughters went around and around. At that moment, Walt was struck by a bolt of inspiration: Why not create a public amusement place where kids and parents could share experiences?

This story is probably true, but it’s the wrong entry point to the tale, decades too late to understand the origins of Disneyland. For that, you need to understand Walt’s own journey from overnight success to abject failure, from redemption to brooding prisoner of his own success.

Walt Disney was a genuine animation pioneer. After messing around with live-action and animation hybrids, Walt had his first animated success in Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a Mickey-esque character whose popularity triggered a land grab by Disney’s distributor, who invoked a buried contractual clause to expropriate the young animator of his creation.

Walt went west to California, running away from his commercial humiliation. The experience convinced him to enter into a partnership with his brother Roy, a hard-nosed businessman, to ensure that his next venture would not fall prey to sharp operators.

Walt and Roy were famously at odds with one another with Walt running roughshod over Roy’s bean-counting and insisting on high-tech follies like color animation, multiplane cameras, and elaborate sound-reproduction technologies as well as commercial longshots like the first feature-length animation.

World War II changed the balance of power within the company as outside investors conspired with Roy to seize control from Walt, whose ambition, restlessness, and chaotic management had nearly driven the company into bankruptcy.

Walt’s bitter feud with Roy was exacerbated by an even more bitter animator’s strike, which shattered Walt’s self-image as a kind of heroic leader for the artists who he’d driven through long hours and grueling work. Walt lost the strike, thanks to solidarity between Disney animators and their notional rivals at studios like Warner Brothers, and fell into paranoid, far-right anti-labor circles whose vicious anti-communism was seasoned by more than a dash of antisemitism.

Isolated, brooding, paranoid, and clinically depressed, Walt seemed headed for a relapse of the “nervous breakdown” he’d suffered after the failure of his first animation studio.

Walt’s salvation came through distraction. One of his animators, the legendary Ward Kimball, had bought and refurbished a railroad steam engine in his backyard. Walt was captivated by Kimball’s railroad — transported to his boyhood and an uncle who’d been a railroad engineer — and began to build a series of ever-more-elaborate backyard train sets.

These are the true precursors to Disneyland. Walt’s first built environment plan wasn’t a theme park; it was an expanded version of his backyard train set where the public would be admitted for rides and walking tours that Walt himself would conduct. This would bring pleasure to the visitors, and, not coincidentally, it would free Walt from the unpleasantness of going to work, where he’d have to suffer the indignity of being overridden by his brother and the agony of facing the animators who’d “betrayed” him by demanding decent wages and working conditions.

The train plan went through several iterations before that fateful day at the Griffith Park carousel, most notably a plan to buy a full-sized railroad engine and a string of railcars that would be retrofitted as traveling Disney-themed exhibitions. Walt would be the train’s conductor, crisscrossing America and meeting crowds and never, ever talking to his brother or the employees he couldn’t stand to see any longer.

Seen in this light, Disneyland isn’t just an ambitious built environment — it’s a tangible expression of the misery of an ambitious, sorrowing, restless, creative, and deeply flawed man’s desire to outrun the calcified structure of his life.

People start companies for many reasons, but among the most common is a temperament that chafes against stricture, the desire to be your own boss. The great, recurrent irony of commercial success is that once the company gets big enough, the founder becomes beholden to it and is required to balance the interests of shareholders, the needs of employees, and the demands of customers.

The traits needed to start a company — an unrealistic optimism and penchant for improvisation and creative longshots — is the opposite of the traits needed to operate the company once it succeeds.

Disneyland was Walt’s bid to create another, separate kingdom where he could once again rule with impunity. Roy, now running the company, refused to authorize the funds, so Walt licensed the studio catalog to ABC, which was desperate for color footage to air (the Federal Communications Commission had mandated a switch to color broadcasting, but the viewers all had black-and-white sets and wouldn’t switch until there was color programming, which couldn’t be profitably produced until there were color sets to justify the extra costs). Walt made up the shortfall with funding from outside investors and cashed in his life insurance policy to bridge the final $1 million gap.

As a final gesture of independence from Roy’s control over the studio and his “disloyal” animators ongoing presence in his life, Walt poached the animators he felt had remained loyal to him during the strike (including Kimball, his mentor in railway fandom), called them “Imagineers,” and invented the modern theme park.

Disneyland was born.

Here you leave today

On July 17, 1955, before a sellout crowd and the unblinking eye of the TV cameras, Walt Disney delivered the opening day dedication to Disneyland:

To all who come to this happy place, welcome.
Disneyland is your land.
Here age relives fond memories of the past.
And here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.
Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America.
With the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all world.

Walt’s inaugural address seems to be as much a description of his own relationship with the park as his hopes for ours. Walt had all but taken up residence in the park for the year prior to its opening, living in a small flat above the Main Street firehouse with his family. This spared him the grueling daily commute from the Disney studios in Burbank and the Disney Imagineering building in Glendale to Anaheim sure — but it also meant that he never had to see his brother or cope with the stress of the office he’d lost control over.

There are many photos of Walt from the mid-1950s, and they’re mostly posed shots in which Walt wears an avuncular mask while conversing with someone involved in the production or operation of Disneyland or perhaps a guest (away from the camera, Disney was a notorious shouter who cursed steadily and smoked furiously).

But there are two shots of Walt in which we see him realizing his ambition for Disneyland.

First, there is the famous picture of Walt passing through the gates of Sleeping Beauty Castle while the park itself is closed. He’s alone, hands in his pockets, casually dressed, supremely relaxed. He looks quite small and absolutely at home. This isn’t a man who struggles with crushing responsibility and bitter disappointment: It’s a man reveling in his accomplishments, at peace, proud.

The second image isn’t nearly so well known, but it’s my favorite of the two. It’s Walt at the throttle of one of Disneyland’s 5/8-scale steam engines, beaming with the sincere joy of a man who has been suddenly relieved of the burden of responsibility, who has been transported from his troubles and disappointments to a careless, kinetic, physical, immersive childhood fantasy.

A funny thing happened on the way to the theme park

In 1953, Walt Disney and animator (and proto-Imagineer) Herb Ryman hunkered down over a weekend to produce the original prospectus for Disneyland. Three copies were made and presented to New York financiers. A single copy exists today. In 2013, it changed hands at auction, selling to noted asshole Glenn Beck, who made it clear he didn’t intend to let anyone look at it.

I acquired and published a very high-resolution scan of the prospectus in 2014, depositing copies with both the Internet Archive and Walt Disney Imagineering’s archives.

The 1953 document presents a picture of an immersive environment designed to soothe as much as to thrill. Walt describes Disneyland as a place where you go to stroll, sit on a bench, and lose yourself every bit as much as a place where a ride vehicle transports you through an automated storybook. It’s the place where you meander through a castle gate, hands in your pockets, lost in fantasy, and it’s a place where you hang out of a fantastical railroad engine from an idealized past.

The anxiety over annual passes, Fast Passes, and pay-for-priority passes emerges directly from the tension between these two visions of what an immersive environment is for. I’ll dig into that next week, in “Part II: Boredom and Its Discontents.