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Book Review: A Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks: Middle Class Kingdoms

A Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks: Middle Class Kingdoms. Mittermeier, Sabrina. Intellect, 2021. 288 pp. $30 USD pbk.

Reviewed by Peter Cullen Bryan, Clemson University

The first Disney theme park–Disneyland–opened in Anaheim, California in 1955, the brainchild of Walt Disney and a final jewel in the crown of what would become a multimedia empire. There are now six Disney parks worldwide, bridging America, Europe, and Asia, points of pilgrimage with Disney fans. Before COVID, the attendance topped 150 million worldwide, positioning them as the most popular theme parks worldwide, a massive piece of popular culture in terms of audience engagement, and a key fixture in conversations about a marking the return to normalcy. The Disney parks are a major piece of American cultural influence worldwide, one that is endlessly repackaged for audiences American and otherwise, evoking a certain feeling of connectedness.

Sabrina Mittermeier’s A Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks: Middle Class Kingdoms is a deep dive into the consumption of Disney’s theme parks. Starting from a brief history of the construction of the first Disneyland in California, Mittermeier explores the intentions of Walt Disney and his park builders but shifts focus to the subsequent generations of both creators and consumers. The framing explores each of the six existing parks in detail, from conception to construction, with a historical overview that grounds events within the broader history of the moment. This is a bird’s eye view of the parks, with only occasional focus on the individuals (Walt Disney appears in the early chapters, Michael Eisner later), with the millions of park visitors existing as a vast, statistical audience for the spectacle. While of most immediate concern to scholars of intercultural communication and audience studies, Mittermeier’s writing is accessible to a broad audience and could be easily incorporated into an undergrad classroom.

This book charts a future course for studying Disney by foregrounding the audience, approaching the company with fresh perspectives on the importance of class to their overall business model. By focusing on the parks–specifically the creation and opening of the six Disney Theme Parks–insight is offered as to who consumes those spaces and how Disney glocalizes a distinctly American product for potential audiences, outposts ranging geographically yet still distinctly Disney. These outposts are not colonies within the Disney empire (though they are ultimately designed to extract economic activity from local audiences) but function closer to embassies, hybrid spaces where cultures can more easily mix. This is not a towering mega-conglomerate slowly overwriting indigenous cultures but an opportunistic approach to gaining and expanding new markets through the theme parks. The Disney corporation here achieves success after a great deal of stumbles and costs sunk, with any insights learned often proving inapplicable to their following endeavors.

In this framing, the parks are not quite the harbingers of American cultural hegemony that many critics have decried nor are they simple theme parks to be enjoyed. The international parks in particular become sites of hybridity and negotiation, reflections of an idealized American past, but also reflections of how the host nations see America, changing as much with the political as economic winds. These spaces are inexorably linked to the performance of class, speaking first to the American ideal of the middle-class that the Disney Parks intentionally tap into, in a way that other Disney media does not (at least so specifically). Walt Disney’s well-documented intentions undergird the parks that follow, even as what he would have wanted increasingly becomes guesswork on the part of the Imagineers. From the start, Mittermeier offers an expansive examination of the choices made and the overall arc of the evolution of the parks, from the genesis in California to the moment before COVID marked a (possible) new era for the parks.

California’s Disneyland and Florida’s Walt Disney World have been well-researched elsewhere, but Mittemeier breaks new ground in locating their success in a burgeoning middle-class. The discussion around EPCOT (as it was initially envisioned) is especially illuminating, locating Disney at a crossroads after the death of Walt and becoming a fascinating study on what might have been, reflecting a larger undercurrent of American social shift in the 1970s. The more familiar (at least to American audiences) Disney parks form the foundation for what develops abroad, with the smaller Disneyland serving as a template for the future parks that never quite works as intended and the larger Disney World functioning as an example of what could be, even as those parks have continued to evolve in their own fashion in the years since. These chapters function as a proof of concept for the parks (and chapters) to come, and Mittermeier does excellent work in examining how they came to be and couching them within a larger frame of post-war American history.

Tokyo Disneyland sets the frame for what follows, both as the first non-American park and as the template for how Disney developed these spaces. It presents a key lesson as to Disney’s global success: “while Imagineers had initially suggested incorporating attractions based on Japanese culture…[the Japanese investors] insisted that Tokyo Disneyland be a copy of the American Disneylands so that the Japanese could experience America in their own country” (84). The Disney brand is powerful, owing to the output of animated films and comics, and the global audiences of Disney seek to replicate the experiences of the American Disney parks, albeit with elements that reflect the local culture. Just as the Donald Duck comics of Carl Barks are beloved in Germany in large part due to the translations of Erika Fuchs, the non-American Disneylands are subtly tweaked to appeal to regional audiences, bending and shifting over time to better connect with their audiences. This process of negotiation occurs on both sides of the equation, and Mittermeier does well in foregrounding the agency of the Disneyland visitors as canny consumers in their own right who recognize the parks as constructed spaces that nevertheless possess a degree of entertainment. The lessons of Tokyo informed the development of the parks that followed, particularly Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland.

Mittermeier unpacks Disneyland Paris at length, with a focus on its particular reputation, weaving together Michael Eisner’s Francophile nature, late Cold War global political forces, worker’s rights, and French intellectual elites that culminated in massive losses for Disney (though the park eventually proved financially viable). This is indicative of Mittermeier’s larger approach; attention is paid to the various cultural crosscurrents that weave together into the middle-class identity that is the primary audience of the parks, even as the European middle-class differs from that of America or Japan. The conclusion that “Disney’s concept did not fail to translate to a European audience, it failed to translate to a European middle-class clientele” speaks to why Disney sometimes fails, albeit only temporarily, and the importance of the company tackling accusations of cultural imperialism (144). The media narrative of the failure of Disneyland Paris is explored at length here and is largely accurate, at least within the early years, but Mittermeier locates a key turning point for the park in a change in management (and thus the overall culture of the space) with the hiring of Frenchman Phillip Bourguignon and a recognition of how the European park-goers preferred a short stay at the park rather than the day-long visits preferred by Americans.

In some ways, Hong Kong Disneyland presents the most interesting case here. While the earlier parks all built upon a preexisting brand around the film, comics, and television, China proved a more challenging market for Disney to enter, owing to a historic distrust of Disney by the Communist authorities. Mittermeier’s case here hews closest to the accusations of cultural imperialism, albeit more that Hong Kong Disneyland (well into the planning stages when the island is returned to China) serves as a beachhead into the Chinese market: “Hong Kong Disneyland had paved the way for Disney’s future in all of China” (158). It becomes a more useful elucidation of how Disney works (particularly with the following chapter on Shanghai Disneyland), and the manifestation of its imperial ambitions, indicative of the larger movements of media companies into China.

Mittermeier’s work strands in conversation with work like Janet Wasko’s Disney Global Audiences Project (Dazzled by Disney and Understanding Disney), interrogating how Disney arrived at its present place of global popularity, but the focus on the parks sets it apart from much of the contemporary Disney scholarship. The book directly challenges the thesis of a work like Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock’s The Mouse That Roared, framing Disney as a diffuse and multifaceted enterprise that rarely operates a top-down, well-oiled machine, instead being at the mercy of local market forces and the whims of the various executives, appearing quite hapless at times. Mittermeier recognizes how ingrained the scholarly narratives around Disney have become, drawing upon the works of Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco, but challenges the prevailing wisdom because many other scholars failed to consider the audience.

A Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks is one of the strongest works of Disney scholarship in recent years, serving as a history of the parks themselves and an exploration of the consumers that visit those spaces. Mittermeier’s work represents the first scholarly history of the six parks, keenly observing the cultural adaptations and interplays that occur in the creation and eventual financial success of the parks. The emphasis on the consumers, those largely faceless crowds of tourists that appear at least demographically and economically similar despite the cultural and geographic shifts, is a masterstroke, evading the more internecine ivory tower debates around Disney and offering a sense of why the parks have proven successful in a wide array of circumstances. The Disney parks have survived all manner of economic downturns, culture wars, and even a pandemic of late, and this book makes a case that they are worth considering from a scholarly perspective. Even if you have never attended a single Disney park, you will find value in this, and this text speaks to a bright future for the study of Disney.

About the Author: 

Dr. Peter Cullen Bryan teaches English at Clemson University. He received his PhD in American Studies and Communication at the Pennsylvania State University in 2018. His areas of study include American Studies, Intercultural Communication, and 21st Century American culture, emphasizing comic art and fan communities. His first book, exploring the transcultural adaptations of Carl Barks’s Duck Comics, is out now. His research has appeared in the Journal of Fandom Studies, The Journal of American Culture, and Popular Culture Studies Journal, exploring the intersections of creative activism and fan identities in adaptational and transnational spaces. He often ponders which Disney park will be the first to make Scrooge’s Money Bin a proper attraction.

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