Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 1, 2012

Magical Unrealism

I claim some distinction for having posted more than three hundred blogs focused primarily on the southern California scene with only a single mention of Disneyland. That sole entry was more than two years ago, in the first weeks of the blog (CLICK HERE). Walt and Mickey, it’s your turn now.

Were I blogging about Paris, I probably wouldn’t write about the Eiffel Tower, nor were I were based in Florida would I cover the subject of humidity. These subjects are so closely associated with those locales and so familiar that there’s just not much that needs to be said. Say the word, “Paris” anywhere on the globe and a billion humans see a picture of the Tower in their minds; mention “Florida,” and everyone breaks out in a sweat, not just liberal politicians. Tell someone you’re going to southern California, and they’ll assume you’re going to Disneyland. It’s iconic to a degree that few other places on earth can rival. In a child’s illustrated map of the world, there would be an Eiffel Tower in France, the Colosseum in Italy (unless it’s an Italian map, and then it would be a photo of S. Berlusconi), a kangaroo on Australia, the Great Wall in China (unless it’s in China, and then there’d be a picture of bloody old Mao), and, in southern California, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

Yes, all roads for tourists in SoCal lead to Disneyland. You don’t have to live here long ’til someone will come visit you, and the trip will include a stop at Disney’s kingdom. That was certainly the case for my good friends, the Portland Powellians, who came to celebrate a Significant Birthday with SIX DAYS’ worth of passes to the Magic Kingdom, to be divided between the original — Disneyland Park (as it’s now called) — and its newer companion park, Disney’s California Adventure. Obviously, if I was going to spend time with them, I would have to go to the mountain … Space Mountain, that is (The Matterhorn was covered with scaffolding and closed for repair. Imagine the hardships of the workers high up there on the sides of the Matterhorn, enduring the icy winter blasts!).

Now, the inevitable, unavoidable circumstance: writing about the southern California scene, one must tackle the Disney juggernaut.

All of us, by now, have a lifelong acquaintance with things Disney. Mickey Mouse debuted the year my parents were born, and by the time I entered the scene, their movies and cartoons (and lunch boxes, toys, books and records) were ubiquitous. I’m not certain when we acquired our first TV, but “The Mickey Mouse Club” was ready for us, every day at 5 p.m. How influential was THAT program on young Brad? I’ll tell you: I can still sing the theme songs from Monday, Tuesday and Friday: “Fun With Music Day” “Guest Star Day” and “Talent Round-Up Day,” respectively; THAT’s how much. At about the same time, “The Wonderful World of Color” began airing on Sunday nights, the irony being that for most members of my generation, we were watching on black and white TVs and had no idea what color TV looked like. AND at the same time, Disneyland opened. You know all this somewhere in the back of your mind. To say, “Disney” is to encapsulate in a word the manufactured popular culture of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Disney is the model, the template for “branding” everything that now suffuses a world driven by the always-on, always-new intensification of media. They started with moving pictures, and cannily adopted and came to own a big piece of every medium that’s followed (including, interestingly enough, an entry into radio late in the 20th Century, reversing the model of many mainstays of the broadcast media who debuted on radio and moved into images).

In addition to watching the TV shows and, occasionally, seeing a Disney cartoon before a movie (they did that in those olden times) or a movie itself (no DVDs, no VHS; had to go to a theater or wait for it on TV), my family and I made the pilgrimage to Disneyland in 1966 as part of our momentous trip across the U.S. that included the Grand Canyon and other never-to-be-forgotten sites. Disneyland had been operating for about 10 years at that point, and its unrelenting media machine — far-advanced even in that era — had already fixed the amusement park carved out of the orange groves of Anaheim as a totemic place that MUST be seen. What did we find?

It was wonderful. We loved it! We stayed ’til midnight. I don’t know that our family had ever done ANYTHING until midnight before, unless it involved a drive-in movie, in which case us kids would be sleeping in the back in our pajamas (wearing your pajamas to a MOVIE!). All our tickets were used up, the park was closing, but we begged to STAY. The park we visited then was significantly different than it is today in a number of ways (I won’t detail all the futuristical marvels we witnessed that now are historical dead-ends), but, essentially, the Disney experience was the same as it is now. Lots of beautifully executed, cleverly designed things you just can’t see anywhere else, wrapped in a vibrant, jolly ambiance that convinces you that this is, indeed, the happiest place on earth.

And, you know, it’s still like that. I’ve been there at least half a dozen times since moving to SoCal, and the MAGIC is always there. This time, at the urging of The Powellians, I spent the day with them at California Adventure, which I’d never visited as various waves of siblings and nieces and nephews passed through this left coast scene. If anything, it’s better to visit a Disney attraction as an adult, because you get all the clever little gags and references that the Disney imagineers build into the fabric of the place. They are relentlessly creative and funny, whimsical and utterly brilliant. Every building, sign, sidewalk, lighting fixture and doorknob is both a functional object as well as an evocation of a theme. It would be possible to spend many hours, if not days, wandering the place just looking at all the details and never getting on a state-of-the-art thrill ride or watching a pretty-darned-good live performance, or eating — I’m sorry to say — fairly mundane (but okay and not insanely expensive) food.

I want to be clear that this shining, refined place is not an unalloyed metal. I have, in fact, said and thought harsh things about the Kingdom Walt Built. The land of Diz is not just a highly engineered, artificial environment — it’s a fake. The world is never as beneficent and clean as the one you inhabit inside those park walls. All the “cast members” are young, smiling, enthusiastic kids dressed in carefully tailored little costumes. Everything — and I mean EVERYTHING — is clean and in perfect condition. There are no broken streetlights or cracked sidewalks in die Welt von Disney. There is no litter. There are no poor people or smelly factories or war. And, why would there be? One doesn’t pay $80 for a one-day ticket to visit a simulacrum of the world we already inhabit. We already pay rent and taxes and utilities to inhabit THAT world. There are no utility bills in Disneyland; there is only The Ticket. The Disney ethos is that this is the OTHER world of imagination and FUN. The Disney machine is a murderously efficient one, and every single solitary experience you have there references one of two things: a Disney cartoon, movie or character from those media, or a well-understood cultural reference like a famous world location of which Disney has built an artificial version that’s better than the original.  Better? Better than Cannery Row in Monterey? Yes! Because Disney’s version still looks like Old Monterey, and not the 21st Century yuppified version up on the Monterey Peninsula.

Disney Old Monterey Brad Nixon 8327 (640x469)

California Adventure Old Monterey

Better than the amusement park on the Santa Monica Pier? Yes! Because the Disney rides are a thousand times more entertaining and the joint is not nearly as crowded and claustrophobic as the grungy old pier can be on a hot summer day.

Disney Paradise Pier Brad Nixon 8332 (640x473)

Paradise Pier

Where else can you watch The Muppets in 3-D? Where else can you fly at treetop level over a California so stunningly beautiful that you hate the thought of driving 5 hours and enduring crushing throngs and long hikes to see Yosemite? And always, ALWAYS, just a few steps from great restrooms and acceptable if undistinguished food.

It’s a phoney-baloney world so extremely stylized and hyperbolic that we are swept up into it with utter abandon. We walk for miles along the thoroughfares of Fantasyland and Main Street USA and Toontown, completely at home in a world that — for once in our lives — is EVERYTHING we imagined, and may exceed our imagination. There’s a lot of walking, there can be long, long lines to enter the rides and attractions, but even that experience is exquisitely engineered to be entertaining, as in this shot of the “props” that line the queue outside the Muppets 3-D adventure.

Disney props Brad Nixon 8385 (640x475)

No 6 year-old is going to get all those gags, any more than I understood the Euripides/Eumenides joke 45 years ago, and that’s what I think is really the core attraction of the place: its sheer creativity. The Disney people are relentlessly, stunningly imaginative.

In the California Adventure version of a street in Los Angeles, there’s one building of practically every type of architectural style you can see throughout the metropolis, from Beaux-Arts to Streamline Moderne. Here, for example, is a clever evocation of the Mayan block style of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic L.A. houses, combined with a bit of his Prairie Style architecture:

Disneyland F. L. Wright style Brad Nixon 8388 (640x472)

It’s a restroom!

For once, even though it’s an expensive day, someone has made certain that we just have fun. It doesn’t solve the world’s problems, but no wonder the Kingdom has ruled so long. Can’t we stay a little longer?

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017

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Responses

  1. I’ve lived in So. Cal. since 1974; but I’ve never been to the California Adventure. Crazy? Yet, I have been to Disney World in Florida. And, I’ve been to Disneyland many times, even before I moved here (circa 1959!).

    That said, I probably still won’t go to the California Adventure. And I may not go back to Disneyland. I think I’m pretty much “amusement parked out” at this advanced stage of my life (AARP eligible many years ago — they keep sending me membership cards, hoping I’ll join).

    But, after reading your article, who knows? Maybe I’ll change my mind (if I still have enoungh of it left when I think about this again). Even when I went to Disneyland, I never went on the Jungle Cruise. Maybe I should go on that one, too, before it’s too late to know where I am or what I am doing. 🙂

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  2. Great one, B! I gotta go there again.

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  3. Really enjoyed this! I have visited the “east coast Disney” several times but have not yet had the true California Disney experience. On my list for sure. Btw, I now have “Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me….” in my head!

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    • Peggy, wow, someone much older than you must’ve sung you that song. Or maybe you saw reruns. Come out any time and we’ll spin the teacups.

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  4. ladies and gentlemen, i assure you brad had laugh out loud fun during his first visit to california adventure ™. oh, and he’s right about the restrooms, the only thing that makes the parks better than venice (though, i think the crowds were lower than his last trip to venice too).

    thanks for running us around to so many non-uncle walt things, old buddy, we had a grand time.

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  5. Brad, over the last two years, you’ve taken us all on quite a fascinating and informative journey around So. Cal. I am sure that few Californians know as much, and have seen as much, of So. Cal. as you have! You’re the Huell Howser of the California blogosphere. Now, gotta go find my mouse ears.

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  6. Wow, “Today is Tuesday, you know what that means. We’re gonna have a special guest……” You got me on the other days of the week. Thanks!

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