Walt Disney World: A Commercial Gesamtkunstwerk / by Travis American

Photo courtesy of    Time Magazine   .

Photo courtesy of Time Magazine.

I was one of those kids who went through “phases,” where one particular interest tended to elbow out its competitors and become an abiding obsession for a few years, at which point another one arrived to overtake it. The first one I remember was a hardcore environmentalist phase in early elementary school, which mostly entailed watching a lot of Captain Planet and annoying adults who drank out of Styrofoam cups. There was the slightly embarrassing Beat Generation obsession of my high school years—think denim jackets and a summer at the Duke Young Writers Program. You could make an argument that this pattern has continued into adulthood. The radical social theory era segued into the literary magazine era, and after a post-PhD existential crisis, I seem to have slid into a period centered on film & photography.  

For the most part, these different interests form a somewhat coherent constellation. Art, counterculture, leftist politics… it’s like I’ve always been destined to be a tattooed adjunct professor living in Bushwick. But for a few years around middle school, I went through an obsession whose fit is less obvious: I was really, really into Disney stuff. I checked out books on animation history and technique from the Gwinnett County Public Library, and kept them for literally years past their due dates. I inked and painted my own cels of Donald Duck and Dopey, not realizing that the process had been computerized since the 1980s. I wore out the VHS tape of Frank and Ollie, a documentary about two of Disney’s original animators.

But even more than the films, I was interested in the theme parks and the people who design them—a profession known in Disney parlance as “Imagineering.” Where the animators’ vision was restricted to a screen, the work of the Imagineers extended out into the physical world. It seemed like an altogether grander form of storytelling. Every park and every ride was a meticulously designed work of art, one that the audience was invited to explore for themselves. Whatever your feelings about them, the Disney parks are incredible technical achievement. They’re popular Gesamtkunstwerks, all-encompassing works of art that synthesize other media to achieve a coherent aesthetic end—visuals, music, even touch and smell were integrated to create a haunted mansion, or a pirate town, or even, for some reason, an exoticized version of Canada.

As I navigated the transition from childhood to adolescence, Walt Disney World seemed like a womb. The conspicuous wholesomeness and simplicity of the Disney offered a retreat from the more tumultuous feelings that were emerging within me. And by framing my interest as intellectual curiosity or even professional aspiration, I didn’t have to own up to its fundamental childishness . After all, in a really direct way, it was a fixation on the childhood that I could feel fast slipping through my fingers. This is what Disney sells everyone, I guess—a break from life’s complexities and an illusion of innocence. The parks are a hyperconcentrated form of mainstream American culture’s ideas about family and happiness. If you can pay—tickets to the Magic Kingdom are now over $100 per day per person!—then you can mainline a distilled, stylized form of joy inaccessible elsewhere. Or that’s the pitch, anyway.

This sense of scale—the aspiration of an artwork that you could live inside—has strange echoes in the Situationist International, a group of avant-garde artists & revolutionaries active in Europe from the 1950s to 1970s and most famous for helping to foment the May 1968 insurrections in France. One of the group’s bulletins describes their concept of unitarian urbanism like this:

Whatever prestige the bourgeoisie may today be willing to grant to fragmentary or deliberately retrograde artistic tendencies, creation can now be nothing less than a synthesis aiming at the construction of entire atmospheres and styles of life. [...] A unitary urbanism—the synthesis we call for, incorporating arts and technologies—must be created in accordance with new values of life, values which we now need to distinguish and disseminate.

The Disney Corporation tends to cater to the bourgeoisie rather than rail against it, but it shares the goal of constructing “entire atmospheres” with the Situationists. So, too, does it share a recognition of the power of these atmospheres. Disney understands that families will save for years to enter a carefully crafted atmosphere for just a few days, and Situationists believed that reimagining the physical space of the city could revolutionize the social order and the experience of everyday life. 

And herein lies the major difference (or, at least, a major difference). Disney World is a fully realized aesthetic environment, but it’s one that affirms a very narrow conception of how to be in the world. This way of living is profoundly commodified, where visitors dig deep into their wallets for the (very real) pleasure of being soothed. The joy that Disney offers is a sense of security that everything is fundamentally okay, at least as long as you’re within the park’s gates. It’s also strictly ordered—though you can choose to ride this ride and skip that one, you’ll inevitably wait in line to experience a few minutes of action.

 Situationist also sought a merger of art and life, where whole unitary urban environments are transformed into intentionally aestheticized spaces. But unlike Disney Imagineers, they sought neither to reassure nor to design from the top down. The Situationist ideal is something much closer to the Occupy Wall Street camp—a collaborative experiment where the space itself lends itself to new styles of living. I spent a lot of time at New York’s Occupy camp (I even wrote a little book about it), and one of its most striking features was the way it broadened one’s sense of possibility. An urban park was suddenly a place to sleep, plan, march, resist, converse, learn, and revolt. We didn’t wait in line for something to happen—we made things happen.

At this point, it’s been 19 years since I’ve been to a Disney park. While I’m sure I wouldn’t mind the hot bath of nostalgia, I’ve got no imminent plans to return. But in an upside-down way, Disney World was an early glimmer of a fascination that has endured to the present day. The parks offer a space of heightened aesthetics, more compelling than the everyday world that surrounds them. They’ve got this in common with OWS, with Burning Man, and with theories of Situationist urbanism and anarchist temporary autonomous zones, even if the ideologies behind them are profoundly different. For me, at least, I think an obsession the former led to—or at least presaged—an interest in the latter. Disney World’s business model is based on a dissatisfaction with regular life—if that life was fulfilling, why shell out for a few days in Fantasyland? Those other experiments that I’d come to later are also reactions to the hollowness of the workday world. But where Disney replicates the commodification and top-down structure of that world, these others, flawed as they may be, sought to configure the world differently.