Walt Disney and the Disney World. Life and work of an American Dreamer

Seminararbeit, 2000

11 Seiten

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Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Walt Disney
2.1 Biography
2.2 American Dreamer
2.3 Ethics

3. Walt Disney's World
3.1 Cultural imperialism
3.2 Giving up intolerance
3.3 Disney films and videos
3.4 Disney theme parks

4. Epilogue

1. What isn’t Disney nowadays?

Any human of a Western civilisation born in the 20th century has come across the name of Disney in one of its various forms at least once in their lifetime.

But what is Disney actually? Disney is the leading producer of animated feature movies, of classical or modern issues. This includes all-known fairy-tales like "Snow White and the seven dwarfs” or "The little Mermaid” as well as somehow historical stories like "Pocahontas”[2], novels like "The hunchback of Notre-Dame”, or handsome stories about love or friendship ("Lady and the Tramp”).

Furthermore, in the realm of theme parks and holiday venture resorts, Disney has become inventor and leader at the same time.[3]

Also, the Disney Corporation holds some of the biggest Hollywood studios[4] [5] and is the owner of an own TV channel that sells its program world-wide. More than that, the "Disney Club” has become part of many nations broadcast program.

And as all possession of the Disney empire carries the signature of (Walt) Disney[4], we - who we had contact with any of Disney’s products - feel connected to this one man who is the originator of all this: Walt Disney. Somehow, Walter Elias Disney has become a myth[6]. For his achievements, you could call him founding father of (post-) modern America. He founded an industry of fantasy, which enriched Western culture. That is why I dedicate the first part of my analysis to him, although I don’t want to glorify neither the person nor his company. I want to show which aims the Disney Corporation reaches for and how they proceed.

This analysis is based on a leftist criticism that includes criticism of the Disney text and context (concerning the man himself, the films and the corporation). In talking about Walt Disney, I do not respond to the political circumstances of his time and his reactions on them. On the other hand, it is necessary to judge these issues in talking about the Disney Company after the death of Disney and especially in the late 20th century.

2. Walt Disney

2.1 Biography:

Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois on December 5, 1901. His parents were of Irish-Canadian, respectively German-American decent. A short time after his birth his family moved to Marceline, Missouri where he was raised on a farm. Already at the age of seven, he became interested in drawing. In high school, he concentrated on drawing and photography and attended the Academy of Fine Arts[7]. In 1918, he attempted to enlist for military service, but he was rejected because of his age. Nevertheless, Disney went overseas as a member of the Red Cross. Having returned from war, he started his career as an advertising cartoonist in Kansas City in 1920. There he created and marketed his first animated cartoons and started working on methods to perfect the combination of live action and animation. At the age of 22, he left for Hollywood. Together with his brother, they set up their own shop. There, they first success was the release of the first "Alice in Cartoonland” featurette. In 1925, Disney married Lillian Bounds[8]. In 1928, he created the concept of Mickey Mouse. The first sound cartoon, created by Disney, premiered in New York City in 1928. In 1932, Disney received the first of 47 Academy Awards. In 1940, the construction of the first Disney studio (The Burbank Studio) was completed. At this time, Disney’s staff already counted more than 1000 people. In 1954, Disney began its television production[9]. In 1955, Disneyland opened its doors in California. From this time until his death in 1966, Disney worked on the problem of "improving the quality of urban life in America”, resulting with him directing personally the design of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow[10].

2.2 American dream:

Walt Disney was a man with a dream: a man with an American dream. In fact, several of his dreams came true: he founded a functioning company that over all of the time (including the Depression and WW II) made big profits and already in the late 60’s belonged to the 500 biggest enterprises in the United States of America[11]. When he came to Hollywood he actually carried all his possessions with him[12] and his assets counted $40. Hard work and diplomacy brought him where he wanted to be. According to his biographer Richard Schickel, Walt Disney’s biggest satisfaction was the fact that he succeeded in building such an organisation and to keep it going. Another point that fits into the scheme of an American Dream[13] is the intention for the first Disney theme park (Disneyland, Anaheim, CA). The original idea was to build a park where his daughters could play in a fantastical world. Furthermore, in this project, he found a way to combine all his passions: his fondness for his children, his interests in future city designs and his adoration for provincial life.

2.3 Ethics:

In this short biography, I showed Walt Disney to be a loving father, a patriot and philanthropist, a man with a dream and a hand for business. But more than this, he was a man of many contradictions. He was a man who loved nature and adored technology and innovation. In his works, it becomes visible, that he was dreaming of the good - old times and on the other hand of a better (modern and technological) world. He was very conservative and idealistic, including a strong sense for justice as presented in most of his movies (e.g.: the battle between Good and Bad ^ the victory of the Good). But also, he understood best how to be the leader of a functioning company and how to amass money. He was a loner and a family man. He himself was not very creative, but he could organise creativity best and always had a lot of ideas for perfecting existing plans. He was highly moral and extravagant[14], strike breaker, propagandist (during WW II) and candidate for the peace Nobel price[15].

According to Richard Schickel, Disney thought life to be very harmonic and easy. He couldn’t get along with people who seized life and art to be less sunny as it was for him. Thus, in the last decade of his life, he ignored contemporary artists, whose view on life was too critical. That’s why he kept uninfluenced by their work and relied on his recipe.

Since the death of Disney a lot has changed in the ideology of the Disney Corporation. Walter’s Disney was non-critical concerning values of religion or family, his way of economic marketing was less offensive as it is today and the later explained cultural imperialism has also started when Walt Disney was already dead. That is why today, the Disney Corporation is frequently attacked on the religio- politico-socio-economic values they represent. But on the other hand, these attacks "enable the Corporation to construct and defend its ideological machinery”[16].

3. Disney’s World:

"Disney has become synonymous with a certain conservative, patriarchal, heterosexual ideology which is loosely associated with American cultural imperialism” (Byrne, McQuillan)

3.1 Cultural imperialism:

"If European imperialism incorporated North America into the category of the West then Disney’s cultural imperialism is an attempt to incorporate Europe categorically as the most easterly state of North America.”

(Byrne, McQuillan, p.21)

First of all, it is necessary to start with a definition of this term. The quote above gives the comparison between European and cultural imperialism. The first one refers to the time when the newly discovered continent of America had been taken over by European settlers. The native inhabitants of the new land had been fought to make place for Western expansion of Europe. This expansion process took several centuries, so that the global Zeitgeist appearance of imperialism had vanished a long time before America, then as an own deliberate state itself, could have started to develop an imperialistic behaviour of its own.

As a matter of fact, the United States of America have been trying to compensate this missing imperialism in later times[17]. Especially in the 20th century, American imperialism becomes obvious because there has nearly been no war the U.S.A didn’t participate or interfere in[18]. But as in the times of European imperialism, today the struggle is all about hegemony. But nowadays, especially after the fall of the Socialist East, the powers are well balanced. The chances for spatial expansions have become nearly impossible. This is the point where the necessity of a modification of imperialism becomes obvious. That is why the United States seem to claim the title for being the most powerful nation, which is the only one to protect peace on earth. America itself likes to be seen as the most civilised form of liberal democracy and is, in its whole, the pure symbol of modernity.

By now, cultural imperialism is the main issue concerning competition for hegemony. This cultural imperialism is not only carried out by the Disney Corporation alone, but in the case of Disney, it becomes apparent quite perfectly. This special form of cultural imperialism by Disney has been named Disneyfication[19], but nevertheless this term to some extent can also be read as a synonym for Americanisation.

3.2 Breaking down barriers

During the 20th century, societies have changed. More than that, thinking and of course prejudices have changed. But wanting to disneyfy the world, prejudices can get in the way of a peaceful cultural imperialism. Therefore, tolerance or quasi­tolerance is absolutely necessary. For example, in the late 60’s, men with longer hair were not allowed to visit Disneyland (Anaheim, CA), because it was against the dress code[20]. Today, such behaviour would not be accepted and would be against law. Another thing that needs to be mentioned here is GayDay at Disney World. Disney’s old-fashioned heterosexual ideology was in need to be modified and this festival for gay and lesbian people, first held in 1991, shall be a demonstration that Disney speaks for equal rights movement of the homosexuals. But actually, Disney pretends

this certain openness to profit from the Pink Dollar. Furthermore, Disney recently opened a theme park in China. And this is a remarkable deed for a conservative democratic corporation. In this case, Disney has taken on a missionary function: The Disneyfication/Americanisation of Red China. But it has got to be mentioned that the behaviour of the Disney Corporation has only changed because they could not keep their old ideology.

3.3 Disney Films

In Disney’s animated films we are confronted with a world where the Good always wins. And as I mentioned above, therefore any subject[21] is absolutely perfect. But especially in after Cold War Disney films, there is another way to read the plots. According to Byrne and McQuillan who deconstructed Disney in a (con-) textual way, these films refer to the political climate of their time. And this would explain the overwhelming success of these movies. "The little Mermaid”, for example, is a story about a young mermaid whose love gives her the strength to cross the boundary between two hostile countries (Sea and Land). This film coincides with the End of the Cold War and demonstrates the equality of both countries (East and West). "Aladdin” takes place in a desert land, where again the Evil (here in the shape of the Arab) must be fought. This film was released a short time after the end of the Gulf War and demonstrates once more the power of America (here in the shapes of Aladdin and the genie). "The Lion King” coincides with the crash of the Apartheid system in South Africa. And "The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a story about ethnic cleansing as it was the time of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Also, very interesting is the release of "Mulan”. This film coincides only with the opening of Disneyland Beijing and has therefore to be seen as public relation and propagandist act. Because "Mulan makes the promise that China’s borders will be in safe hands if aligned to the Wonderful World of Disney” (Byrne, McQuillan, page164).

3.4 Disney theme parks

For Disney, the infiltration of different cultures is most important to make use of the possibilities of their markets. The world-wide expansion of the Disney Empire is to be

seen as a “political and cultural homogenisation around the values of democracy”[22]. Again, the connection to U.S. foreign policy of international interferences becomes important. Actually, after the Gulf War, General Schwarzkopf held his victory party at Disney World, Orlando[23]. Thus, not only Disney is an American product, but also America is incorporated in the World of Disney. As to say, the policies of the U.S.A. and of the Disney Corporation are strongly connected.

As another example, the opening of EuroDisney (Paris) in 1989 in the heart of Europe, is a definite sign for the “Disneyfication of Europe” which is inevitable from the view of the corporation[24]. After all, the Americanisation of Europe has already started with the military presence since the end of WW II. Now, Disney has started its expansion to the East: the second step of the Americanisation, the Disneyfication. But as Disney has already opened theme parks in Tokyo and Beijing and is about to open such in Shanghai and Guanghov, a cultural imperialism to the West can although be diagnosed. There, at least in some parts of Asia, American military presence has been the primary step, too.

Especially concerning the two latter theme parks, the openings will “coincide with the introduction of market reforms and but precede democracy”[25] (sic). Thus, Disney is necessary for initialising economic wealth.

But nevertheless, Disney is not only a missionary and apostle of a better future, cause on the other hand, Disney works ike a drug and it’s hospitality is only on offer to those who are prepared to pay the price of Disneyfication. The tricky thing about it is that the world of Disney produces an addiction that we cannot resist because we want more entertaining films and theme parks to be part of this world of fantasy, This is the recipe of Disney popularity. We are all embedded in a disneyfied world. An entertaining world of theme park ventures and animated films. Already in our childhood we are caught by the Disney world of family, later in life we enjoy the same world through the excitement of our children. Some time ago, there was a commercial for EuroDisney on television. A little boy looks flabbergastedly meeting Mickey Mouse. He hands a leaf and a pencil for an autograph, but then the pencil breaks. Fortunately, the boy’s grandmother has a pen, so that Mickey can finish the autograph. But as Mickey wants to hand the paper back to the boy, the grandmother

grabs and keeps it for herself. She stands there staring radiantly into the camera. The message of this advert is that it is no question of age to visit Disneyland because it is a family world.

As a matter of fact, we are surrounded, embedded and wooed by Disney[26]. They try to catch us as early as possible and to keep us addicted, but as I mentioned above, they can also reach us at anytime in our life: as child, parent, grandparent, as film or as music fan. The wonderful world of Disney is waiting for us.

4. Epilogue

Disney has become an important power. Even Walt Disney arranged with contemporary politicians to reach his aims[27]. Disney has notified any change in the government of the U.S. and if necessary has taken steps to arrange towards the ideology of the new presidency. And if it really was the intention to produce films referring to contemporary political circumstances in order to promote and underline America’s claim of being top of the nations, then one could get nightmares about the future.

Disney has a good reputation, although (and because) it is often criticised. By now, it seems that Disney picks out important locations for settlement of entertainment ventures all over the world. Therefore, one next step will probably be the opening of a Disneyland somewhere in Africa. This will take place when Africa will be on the way out of being third world, so that Disney could scent prey there. And when the whole world is strategically covered with Disney theme parks, will then Walt Disney be revived? Together with the military whose presence, as I said, precedes the Disney presence, will he take over power to become president, first of America, and then of the whole world? And at last, will he start his expansion to outer space?

Most probably this speculation on the future of Disney is absolutely ridiculous. But on the other hand, because especially this century came along with speculations on the future that came true, could it nevertheless be possible that the whole world becomes Walt Disney (‘s) World?

Literary references:


- Byrne Eleanor, McQuillan, Martin: Deconstructing Disney; London, UK, 1999
- Schickel, Richard: Disney’s Welt; Berlin, 1997 WWW:
- http://www.snopes.com/disney/parks/deaths.htm
- http://www.snopes.com/disney/parks/amersing.htm
- http://www.snopes.com/disney/parks/declare.htm
- http://www.snopes.com/disney/parks/deaths.htm
- http://www.snopes.com/disney/parks/longhair.htm
- http://www.snopes.com/disney/wdco/ellison.htm
- http://www.snopes.com/disney/wdco/daycare.htm
- http://themeparks.about.com/travel/themeparks/library/weekly/aa080597.htm?iam=mt
- http://www.mcs.net/~werner/wdstory.html
- http://www.tudlp.org/walt.html


[1] Pocahontas, in the Disney version, varies from the true story in some concerns, e.g. the ritual use of tobacco, or about Pocahontas actually converting to Christian religion

[2] e.g. Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Disneyland Europe, Disneyland Tokyo, Disneyland Beijing

[3] E.g. Miramax Films, Touchstone, Hollywood, Caravan, Henson, Merchant Ivory Productions, Buena Vista television, ABC network, which altogether hold a production facility of $4.7 billion. These companies work independently, but the Disney Corporation benefits from their turnovers.

[4] Actually, this signature is not the personal signature of the man Walt Disney, but was created by some of his animators as an impressive sign of his works and ethics. He learned to sign with this signature in order to demonstrate his patriarchal role ("Uncle Walt”) in the World of DISNEY.

[5] And like about any other myth, there exist urban legends, like for example that Disney lies cryogenically frozen in a vault under Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disneyland.

[6] Nevertheless, his biographer describes him as a man of a mediocre creativity

[7] They had two daughters who still are of a certain importance for the Disney Corporation because they and their families hold big parts of the Disney stocks.

[8] For example: "Wonderful World of Color” and "The Mickey Mouse Club”

[9] http://www.tudlp.org/walt.html

[10] Disney counted a yearly turnover of $116.543.000 in 1967

[11] Some drawing materials, one well-worn suit and a completed animated fairy tale subject.

^ http/www.tudlp.org/walt.html

[12] here: the parental idea that his children should have it better than he had it himself

[13] He had built a small railway around his house on which he used to ride. For him, the biggest fun was to produce accidents. Further, the biggest honour for his guest was to be allowed to join in the ride. Some of his guests (both businessman and private persons) even received a card that declared them vice-president of Disney’s railway.

[14] For him, the conservative ideology (e.g. family as pillar of community) was the only true attitude. Nevertheless, into this term of family, he counted his whole staff, even as it is known that he also was very concerned that his staff behaved according to his ideology and above all, that they treated the name Disney, in public, as what it was supposed to be: a symbol for pure and excellent products.

[15] Byrne,cQuillan, page 4-5

[16] E.g. in 1898, The United States of America declared war with Spain, to expel the Spanish from the Caribbean and to establish their own influence there.

[17] Short summary of American interference or participation: WW I., WW II., Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf War, Yugoslavia, plus several civil wars ( U.S. always has been sending troops according to U.N. policies)

[18] compare: Byrne, McQuillan

[19] http://www.snopes.com/disney/parks/longhair.htm

[20] no matter if historical story, novel or fairy tale

[21] Byrne, McQuillan, page 125

[22] Byrne, McQuillan, page 74

[23] Byrne, McQuillan, page 20

[24] Byrne, McQuillan, page 21

[25] including music, merchandising, books, theme parks and movies

[26] I have already mentioned the propagandise, Disney did during WW II, furthermore, he personally arranged with Ronald Reagan to get the permission to build a road through a national park, etc

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Walt Disney and the Disney World. Life and work of an American Dreamer
Landeskunde (Nordamerika)
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Disney, Landeskunde
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Steffen Buch (Autor), 2000, Walt Disney and the Disney World. Life and work of an American Dreamer, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/96972


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