Disneyland in Crisis

Endorsed by the BHC and the Western History Association

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Popular Culture; Public History and Memory


Disneyland is a powerful force in the American historical imagination. The world’s first theme park was designed to reify and commoditize historical myths to soothe a weary public. Ironically, its claim to be a microcosm of the American experience made it a hotbed for culture wars. Facing rising threats of environmental and political collapse while many Americans grow disenchanted with myths Disneyland promotes, can the theme park form endure? This panel unites academic and public historians of race, popular culture, and memory to study Disneyland’s past, present, and future—and their broader implications for America’s capacity to address heightening crises.

Papers Presented

Now, Then and Forever? – Disneyland and the Legacies of the Cold War

When Disneyland opened in 1955, it quickly became a massive success. A pop cultural endeavor perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist, it showcased people’s love for the Western genre (and its inherent Frontier ideology), the thrive to travel to “exotic” places, a wish for escapism into fantasy, and lofty dreams of a tomorrow of luxurious domestic living and space travel. It encompassed the early Cold War years’ dichotomies of reassurance vs adventure, of conformity vs rugged individualism, of nostalgia for the past vs longing for the future perfectly – but such an imagery also necessarily only ever tried to appeal to a specific core audience, an ever-growing white, heteronormative middle class and their baby-boom children. Despite such niche targeting, Disneyland has prevailed, for over 60 years, and expanded not only to the US East Coast, but also Japan, Western Europe, Hong Kong and Mainland China. Yet as the Cold War has now long ended, and ideas of middle class have vastly changed, how is this possible? The answer lies in Disneyland’s ability to adapt, in its ever-mutable state of becoming; but it is also an answer that may soon no longer be enough. In 2022, perhaps more so than ever before, Disneyland is thrown into crisis by not only a global pandemic torpedoing tourism, a growing rift in US society, as well as a vast change of global media landscape; one that the Walt Disney Company, now a multi-media conglomerate, operates in.

Presented By
Sabrina Mittermeier, University of Kassel, Germany

A ‘Cartoon City Upon a Hill’?: Disney theme parks and social change

Disneyland and Walt Disney World have always functioned as places of refuge and reassurance in times of crisis. The Covid-19 crisis limited travel and recreation globally, yet as soon as the Disney Parks were able to open, the demand for reservations continued to be as strong as ever, often filling the parks to their self-imposed limits. However, the demographics and desires of those flocking to Disney for comfort have changed significantly since Disneyland opened in 1955. How has Disney adapted to provide the same reassurance to a people vastly different? And what does that adaptation mean for the country itself? This paper will discuss how physical change at Disney over time has tracked with larger social shifts to suggest that Disney’s continued function as a bastion of reassurance for Americans shows not a desire to take refuge in a past that does not reflect the present, rather but illustrates how the engagement of the public with that sanitized past has pushed Disney to redefine what a “reassuring” past (and present) truly looks like. Journalist Jenni Avins called Disneyland a “hotbed of political subversion” during the Trump administration for its representation of multicultural America. Avins labeled it “our cartoon city upon a hill.” Can the theme park truly function as both a city upon a hill for the America of the 1950s and the America of 2022? It very possibly might.

Presented By
Bethanee Bemis, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History

Re-Skinning Race: Disneyland & Racial Liberalism

In response to protests following the police murder of George Floyd, Disneyland announced it would re-theme its ride Splash Mountain from the 1946 movie Song of the South to the 2009 feature The Princess and the Frog. Since Song of the South’s premiere, Black Americans objected to the film’s racist representations of freedmen in the postemancipation South borrowed from Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories. In contrast, The Princess and the Frog has been celebrated for featuring Disney’s first Black princess. The rebranding of the attraction would not raze the existing ride nor its track but rather redecorate its audioanimatronics and sets. Nevertheless, Americans met Disneyland’s gestures towards inclusion with both admiration and vitriol in ways that mirrored other attempts to reckon with racism in America’s built environment. This paper suggests that both responses were overblown, symbolic of larger misunderstandings of the history of racism in the U.S. For all its advances, The Princess and the Frog depicts a 1920s New Orleans without Jim Crow where Black villainy undercuts white benevolence. Assessing how progressive the shift is from 1940s stock characters of Reconstruction-era Black Georgians to 2000s portrayals of Jim Crow Louisianans, this paper examines what this attraction’s retheming and its broader cultural significance means in historical context. I argue that literally reskinning one racist intellectual property to a superficially less problematic one physically embodies how the public misunderstands antiracism under the framework of racial liberalism: change the characters and dressings, but leave the underlying structures in place.

Presented By
Alex Hofmann, The University of Chicago

Session Participants

Chair: Rhae Lynn Barnes
Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Princeton University and the leading expert on the history of amateur blackface minstrelsy and its role in the history and legacy of racism. She is a historian, public speaker, writer, editor, documentarian, and onscreen commenter specializing in the globalization of American popular culture. Her research and teaching focus on the histories of racism, the history of white supremacy, racial formation, gender, sexuality, book history, and cultural representation, especially in the American West. She is co-founder and editor of U.S. History Scene, which provides open-access teaching resources to thousands of public schools in the United States through partnerships with documentary filmmakers, university libraries, and special collections.

Presenter: Bethanee Bemis, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History
Bethanee Bemis is a museum specialist in the Division of Political and Military History at the National Museum of American History, where she works to ensure the physical and intellectual care of the museum’s collections. Bethanee holds a master’s degree in historical studies from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her current research area regards Disney theme parks as locations for collective memory of the national narrative.

Presenter: Alex Hofmann, The University of Chicago
Alex Hofmann is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Chicago, where he earned his doctorate in 2021. He is a cultural historian of the American South following the Civil War, exploring how “The South” is the nation hyper-realized: in its extremes, the region provides a framework for a fuller understanding of the myths and contradictions of U.S. history. Alex is currently preparing his book manuscript titled Southern Sublime: Legacies of Civil War Violence in the New South for publication. This project explores how spectacles ranging from the trivial to horrific both processed and restaged the violence of the Civil War as white Southerners made new meaning from the world around them in its aftermath. His work has appeared in Southern Cultures.

Presenter: Sabrina Mittermeier, University of Kassel, Germany
Dr. Sabrina Mittermeier is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in British and North American History at the University of Kassel, Germany. She is the author of A Cultural History of the Disneyland Theme Parks – Middle-Class Kingdoms (Intellect/U Chicago P 2021), the (co-)editor of Time and Temporalities in Theme Parks (Wehrhahn 2017), Fighting for the Future – Essays on Star Trek: Discovery (Liverpool UP 2020), The Routledge Handbook of Star Trek (2022), and Fan Phenomena: Disney (Intellect/ U Chicago P 2022). Her research on theme parks, fan tourism, film and television has also been published in several volumes and journals, such as the Journal of Popular Culture, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and Science Fiction Film and Television. She’s currently working on a second book on “Unmade Queer Television in the US and Western Germany” and plans on hosting a podcast on the television series Ted Lasso later in 2022.

Commentator: Eric Rauchway, University of California, Davis

Rauchway is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California,
Davis, and the author of seven books on U.S. history in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth century. A Distinguished Member of the OAH, he has co-chaired
the program committee for the annual meeting and is now beginning service on
the academic freedom committee of the organization. He has written on tiki
drinks and rum cocktail culture, with reference to Disneyland’s particular role
in that development.