Um. They all have lands in Islands of Adventure...?
Universal claims that the park’s theme is “places to adventure.” At best, that means, “places to walk around and go on roller coasters." At worst, it means, “whatever Universal can get the rights to.”
Without a theme to unify its lands, Islands of Adventure is not a theme park, but a themes park--or, more pedantically, "an amusement park with themed lands." That’s no great loss, because it’s still a lotta fun, and it doesn’t have much integrity to lose. It’s not like we're talking about Disneyland, here.
Say, while we’re on the subject, what’s Disneyland’s theme?
Nothing’s coming to mind. Animal Kingdom's theme is “animals,” EPCOT is “a permanent World’s Fair,” Hollywood and Universal Studios are both “movies,” but Disneyland? I dunno.
Disneyland is definitive. When you hear the phrase “theme park,” you probably think of the castle. It’s so iconic, they’ve cloned it five times, on three different continents.
Surely the quintessential theme park is, indeed, a theme park, and not “an amusement park with themed lands!” Surely there’s a subject that unifies it!
The Dedication Speech.
We’ll begin our search for the theme at the front of the park. Maybe Walt spelled it out on the plaque, or at least left some clues.
Stirring, but unhelpful. Is the theme “happiness, nostalgia, futurism, idealism, patriotism, joy, inspiration, and multiculturalism?” That’s even more nebulous than Islands of Adventure’s “places to adventure!”
A theme that vague could be used to describe almost any park. It actually fits EPCOT a little better than Disneyland, considering the utopian Future World and the idealized World Showcase.
Sure, the dedication is also an apt description of Disneyland. But if you walked into a park whose theme was “happiness, nostalgia, futurism, idealism, patriotism, joy, inspiration, and multiculturalism,” would you expect a ride like Pirates of the Caribbean?
Y'know what? Forget the dedication speech. We don’t need it. We have all ninety-seven of my English degrees and Dissecting Disney’s Lands--a series by David Younger, the scrupulous author of Theme Park Theory, Disneyology, and the Neverland Files--at our disposal.
With the help of these resources, Disneyland, itself, will tell us what unifies it!
In Disneyland, we can visit exotic jungles, the Wild West, New Orleans, a forest full of redneck squirrels, a fairy tale kingdom, and the future. Obviously, these are disparate settings, but “disparate settings” probably isn’t the park’s theme.
If it were, there could be lands set in a junkyard, the Library of Congress, or someone’s nose. These settings wouldn’t fit in Disneyland, but without understanding the bond between the current lands, it’s hard to explain why.
There are similarities between the lands’ rides, but none are very helpful. For example, they all have water rides. Most have thrill rides. Some like to torture their landscape.
Let’s look at connections, instead of categories. For example, it’s important to note that the Jungle Cruise is a boat ride, and that Adventureland is set in a jungle--but it’s more telling to speculate why there’s a boat ride in the jungle, and specifically, where the Imagineers got the idea.
In the Jungle Cruise's case, we know the answer. It was largely influenced by the film, the African Queen, which was an adaptation of C.S. Forester’s novel of the same name. It takes a little research to learn that, but most attractions are upfront about their influences, like Tom Sawyer Island, the Swiss Family Treehouse, and Journey of the Little Mermaid Colon Ariel’s Undersea Adventure Under the Sea. What do they all have in common?
They’re based on stories.
That’s an appropriate theme for Disneyland! On the other hand, the Marquis de Sade’s erotic novel, Juliette, is a story, and it probably doesn't belong in the park.
Let’s analyze the influences of each lands’ attractions. Maybe we can find a more concise theme than “stories.”
Except...let’s wait to discuss Tomorrowland.
A smorgasbord of influences have been slathered onto and scraped off of it. As David observes, Tomorrowland explores ideas like “science,” “Pixar,” and “mountains.” Clearly, it doesn’t know what it wants to be, apart from a gleaming, angular affront on the rest of the park.
HERE PLEASE GOD WE'LL BEHAVE LET US OUT
The land’s identity crisis is more institutionalized than its buildings. It gets a facelift once every generation or so. Each refurbishment has been holistic, but ineffective.
Resultantly, 1967’s Tomorrowland is just as distinct as the Tomorrowland that’s currently in Tokyo.
Perhaps on some meta-level, this implies that, in the future, we’ll think of eras as foreign cities. It’d be poetic if it weren’t so sad.
Since we can’t even find Tomorrowland’s theme in Tomorrowland, it’d be futile to search it for Disneyland’s theme.
Don’t worry, though: we’ll come back. Once we learn the park’s theme, it’ll provide guidelines for its lands and attractions. With that information in hand, we can solve the Tomorrowland Problem once and for all.
A few attractions--like the Enchanted Tiki Room, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the Eisnerian afterthought that is Toontown--have been excluded.
Otherwise, this list is fairly representative.
Beyond the gift shops, there’s a jungle. We’re not the first to enter it, but we are alone. All that’s left of our predecessors are wrecks and ruins. It won’t be long before the jungle reclaims our gift shops, too.
Hence, Adventureland is based on stories that pit man against nature.
The African Queen, an adaptation of C.S. Forester’s the African Queen, published in 1935.
Aladdin, an adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights, compiled sometime between 750 and 1258.
Doc Savage, a pulp character created by Henry W. Ralston and John L. Nanovic in 1933.
James Hilton's Lost Horizon, published in 1933.
Swiss Family Robinson, an adaptation of Johann David Wyss’ the Swiss Family Robinson, published in 1812.
Tarzan, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, published in 1914.
While Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is no slouch, and both the Mark Twain Riverboat and the Golden Horseshoe Saloon are institutions, Frontierland is otherwise pretty sparse. It's basically a well-themed place to stand while watching Fantasmic.
It’s part of a bothersome stretch of lands--including New Orleans Square, Critter Country, and Tom Sawyer Island--that only have one or two attractions apiece.
Adventureland has relatively few attractions, but its setting is so distinct that it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with ride metropolises like Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.
Meanwhile, Critter Country is a forest for cartoon animals.
dance with Briar Rose, and provide comic relief for Pocahontas.
That’s more or less within Fantasyland’s jurisdiction. It doesn’t demand to be recognized as much as the Indian wilderness of Adventureland does.
David brings order to this hodgepodge by speculating that Critter Country, New Orleans Square, Tom Sawyer Island, and the Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square are not individual lands, but suburbs of Frontierland. Each explores the grandeur of America’s geographic regions, and the embarrassing accents therein.
Frontierland draws from stories about individuals--be they courageous, charming, or clever--who are the products of their environments.
Columbia Rediviva, a ship famous for circumnavigating the globe in 1790.
Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, published in 1938.
Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry and short stories, published between 1827 and 1849.
Folk tales, including characters like Davy Crockett, Pecos Bill, and Mike Fink, popularized throughout the late 1800’s.
Mark Twain’s the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876.
Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, published in 1922.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, published in 1883.
Song of the South, an adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories, published in 1879.
Zorro, a character from Johnston McCulley’s "the Curse of Capistrano," published in 1919.
Almost all of its attractions are adaptations. It’s easy to dismiss it as Disney Cartoon Land, but a third of the canon--including standards like Lady and the Tramp, Lilo and Stitch, and One Hundred and One Dalmatians--wouldn’t suit the land.
There’s an organizing consciousness behind Fantasyland, and it isn’t Shareholdeering--it’s stories about the magical worlds that exist within, beside, and beyond our own.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s the Wind in the Willows, published in 1908.
Alice in Wonderland, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865.
Cinderella, an adaptation of Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, published in 1697.
The Little Mermaid, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s "the Little Mermaid," published in 1836.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, an adaptation of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, published in 1926, and the House at Pooh Corner, published in 1928.
Peter Pan, an adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, published in 1911.
Pinocchio, an adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s the Adventures of Pinocchio, published between 1881 and 1883.
Rapunzel, an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm’s "Rapunzel," published in 1812.
Sleeping Beauty, an adaptation of Charles Perrault’s "Sleeping Beauty," published in 1696.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm’s "Snow White," published in 1812.
The Sword in the Stone, an adaptation of T.H. White’s the Sword in the Stone, published in 1939.
Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough’s operetta, Babes in Toyland, which premiered in 1903.
Disneyland is influenced by escapist fiction. Its attractions are grouped together in lands which correspond with genres: Adventure, Western, and Fantasy.
In fact, they’re not the adventures, Westerns, and fantasies we’re used to. Escapist fiction changed radically throughout the mid-twentieth century, but these changes weren’t reflected in Disneyland when it opened in 1955.
The snub is too large to be a coincidence. To understand why, let’s look at the genre-defining works that the park ignores.
By 1955, it didn’t exist. The genre had collapsed. Europe was decolonizing its empires, every jungle was explored, and for some reason, the trend of wolves raising a baby had lost its charm.
that conquered jungles.
America was acupuncturing the globe with flagpoles, but oppressing the third world with capitalism isn’t as literary as oppressing it with bayonets.
Swashbuckles were unfastened, rapiers were sheathed, and chandeliers were used for lighting, instead of dropping upon your enemies.
Adventure shrank into a sub-genre. It added chase scenes to spy novels. In war stories, it sent soldiers sneaking through enemy territory. In science fiction, it economized women’s wardrobes.
And yet it thrived in Adventureland--as resilient as nature, its cliches forgotten, beckoning a new generation of explorers.
The Golden Age of Westerns began in 1939, with the premiere of the movie, Stagecoach. Gunslingers murdered their way through the mainstream in Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Shane, and they were so righteous that it was years before anyone noticed they were murderers.
Here are two Oscar-nominated performances from 1969.
Here's the Oscar-winning performance from 1969.
That's how popular Westerns were.
Yet Frontierland is subtly short of cowboys. There are no animatronic banditos along the tracks of the Disneyland Railroad. The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have a prison, and the Saloon doesn’t have a horse trough.
Instead, Frontierland celebrates Manifest Destiny...America’s ability to build a hamburger restaurant, regardless of terrain, climate, or people who’ve lived there for generations.
J.R.R. Tolkien published the Hobbit in 1938, and its sequel, the Lord of the Rings, between 1954 and 1955.
These books fused the folklore of ancient mythologies with the sweep of Homer’s epics. Their influence is so pervasive that the fantasy genre hasn’t bothered to tell another story in seventy years.
Yet there’s never been an elf in Fantasyland. Instead of an evil volcano, it has a yodelsome Alp. The Village Haus doesn’t even serve breakfast, nevermind second breakfast or elevenses!
These works were just as pivotal as the ones that influenced Disneyland, but if we check the chronology, we’ll see a specific cut-off point.
At the risk of exaggerating, World War II upset some people.
Audiences sought distractions, so escapism gussied itself up. It swept the imperialism of Adventure under the rug, and it emphasized the jingoism of the Western, and it replaced Fantasy with a Tolkien Mad Lib.
And Disneyland avoided the subject altogether.
“Pre-war escapist fiction” would be a great subject for a graduate class, but as a theme for a park, it’s a bit antiseptic. Especially in a park that feels personal, even to people who’ve never lived in a castle. It's not a place we visit--it's a place we share.
The link between this sentimentality and “pre-war escapist fiction” lies in the park’s most underrated land.
Main Street, USA.
We don’t spend much time here. Sure, we’ve had some great moments with Mr. Lincoln, and scoured the Emporium on our way out, because we’re not gonna schlep souvenir bags around all day.
Beyond that, there’s not much impetus to stay. The land has no boats or thrill rides, and its trees aren’t even tortured...just isolated. Main Street is a set of gables between us and the castle.
Furthermore, it’s not a genre of escapist fiction. Personally, I’m grateful--I’ve read some truly tedious literature while researching this article, and shudder to imagine books set in a mid-western suburb during the 1900’s--but in relation to its neighboring lands, it’s a black sheep.
But it’s not just any mid-western suburb during the 1900’s.
It’s Marceline, Missouri--the boyhood home of Walt Disney. It’s set during 1908--when he was seven years old. It leads to lands that explore pre-war escapist fiction--the sorta stories a seven-year-old would read.
Disneyland’s theme is “Walt’s childhood.”
We enter into his earliest memories--the land of grown-ups, where he had his first adventures, in shops and the opera house and the ice cream parlor. From there, we proceed into the worlds he dreamed of exploring--the indomitable jungles, the conquered wilderness, and a village that has magic mixed into its very mortar.
We share Disneyland, because Walt shares it with us.