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Disneyland Article
It Will Not Be Easy For Disneyland To Transcend The Rigid Hierarchies Of Its Founding
Washington Post
Eric Avila
Disney theme parks have made recent headlines because officials have moved to update the content and imagery of attractions, while relaxing restrictions on employees’ appearances. This is all part of the company’s broader push toward diversity and inclusion.

Right-wing fans of Disney entertainment have pushed back, saying that Disney theme parks are being politicized and are surrendering to “wokeness” and “political correctness.” But such complaints ignore the ideological — and politically charged — origins of Disneyland, which opened in Orange County, Calif. in 1955. While Orange County cradled a suburban backlash against the political protests and social upheavals of the 1960s, it provided an ideological setting for the three-dimensional expression of Walt Disney’s world view, which enshrined traditional hierarchies of race, class and gender that civil rights activists sought to dismantle in the 1960s.

Disneyland’s opening in 1955 showcased the politics of the New Right as it came to fruition in the following decade. The park’s nationalistic overtures took shape through spectacles such as “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” in which the robotic (“Audio-Animatronic”) likeness of Abraham Lincoln stood up to recite a patriotic speech without any direct mention of slavery or the Civil War. Park designers situated this exhibit within Main Street, USA, one of the five themes of Disneyland and the creator’s ode to his Midwestern origins. In its Southern California context, Main Street USA superseded the racial and ethnic mix of an urbanizing region with a nostalgic recreation of a lily-White small town.

Disneyland also embraced patriarchy. Walt Disney positioned the suburban White nuclear family at the center of the Disney brand and theme park experience. He took measures to promote Disneyland as “family entertainment,” a familiar term in the lexicon of 1950s American popular culture, which included a call to restore traditional patterns of gender relations. One exhibit, “The House of the Future,” featured a detached single-family home made of glass and plastic. But the actors modeling the family of the future actually embodied traditional gender patterns. The aproned wife was stationed in the kitchen as her husband relaxed in his “psychiatric chair.”

Walt Disney’s soft racism and his belief in racial hierarchy were also on display at his new theme park. Originally, Disneyland maintained a de facto policy of hiring only Whites for its public interface positions.

There were a few exceptions, however. For example, Black women were initially hired to play the role of mammy in “Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House,” which opened 62 years after the character debuted at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. “Relive the days of the Old South,” promised an advertisement from the Aunt Jemima Company for a presumably White audience. The restaurant modeled a Southern plantation kitchen, where a Black woman dressed “as Aunt Jemima did … on the plantation” and warmly welcomed visitors. Here, “Aunt Jemima will serve her famed pancakes every day and also will sing to entertain visitors.” The actor playing this mammy figure, embodying Black female servitude, remained one of the few Black employees of Disneyland throughout the 1960s.

Finally in 1968, after a four-year campaign by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to pressure Disneyland officials into hiring more Black employees, the theme park introduced its first Black “people contact” employee.

This racialized hiring pattern at Disneyland also included Native Americans. In Frontierland, “a land of hostile Indians and straight-shooting pioneers,” Indians and their ways of life were a main attraction. The Disneyland News, the park’s official trade journal, promised prospective visitors that “you can actually meet full-blooded American Indians and hear stories of the Old West.”

“Taken as though bodily from a camp on the American Plains of more than 100 years ago,” Indian families populated Frontierland’s “Indian village,” allegedly representing Apache, Winnebago, Shawnee, Hopi, Navajo, Maricopa, Choctaw, Comanche, Pima, Crow and Pawnee tribes. The tourist attraction also included copies of Plains Indians teepees, an Iroquois cedar plank house, Indigenous totem poles from the Pacific Northwest and what park officials touted as an authentic Indian burial ground. Photographs from the time document Indians dancing before White spectators.

Just as the Indian village offered a racialized caricature, so, too, did “Adventureland.” The attraction conjured Europe’s colonial forays into the “dark continent” of Africa, where “the sound of native chants and tom-toms” beckoned visitors to board the Jungle Cruise, a seven-minute fantasy boat trip down a fake waterway with fake jungle scenery. It included audio-animatronic ferocious animals and cannibalistic natives who rattled spears and “attack your craft as it cruises through their jungle privacy.”

These attractions continued the long-standing tradition of entertainment spectacles — including William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s turn of the century Wild West Show and ethnographic displays at world’s fairs that portrayed Africans as barbarians or cannibals — that powerfully affirmed White supremacy.

The hierarchies on display at Disneyland when it opened were reflective of both the times, with their gendered and racist norms, but also of the place where the park stood. Orange County in the 1960s provided a political base for the ascendancies of figures such as Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, men who led the counter-counterculture of the late 20th century, espousing a commitment to law and order, conjuring stereotypes of inner-city “welfare queens,” rehashing Cold War platitudes and aligning with the Christian Right.

But time has changed both Orange County and Disneyland. In 2016, a Democratic candidate captured Orange County in a presidential contest for the first time in 80 years. President Biden only built on this success, as have other Democrats.

In the last decade, Disneyland officials have also adjusted hiring policies to promote diversity and inclusion, as well as updating rides to reflect 21st century sensibilities. This spring, Disney Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro wrote in an official company blog, “We want our guest to see their own backgrounds and traditions reflected in the stories, experiences and products they encounter in their interactions with Disney.”

Long gone are Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House and the Indian Village. While the Jungle Cruise remains, gone are its grotesque depictions of Indigenous African peoples. Additionally, in 2017, park designers removed the bridal auction scene from its Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, and in 2020, the company pledged to remove from its Splash Mountain attraction references to the 1946 live action/animated film, “Song of the South,” which depicted Black characters who sacrificed their own agency for the satisfaction of Whites. Splash Mountain would be rethemed around Disney’s 2009 “The Princess and the Frog” and its lead character Tiana, a Black princess described as “modern, courageous, and empowered.” Again, Disney cited the need for inclusivity when explaining this update — one that a representative said was “of particular importance today.”

Walt Disney probably would support these changes as he dedicated his theme park to constant reinvention and an infinite capacity for change. “Disneyland will never be completed,” he remarked at the park’s opening in 1955, “it will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

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