Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What is Disneyland's theme?

Islands of Adventure is one of the most popular theme parks in the world. It has lands devoted to Dr. Seuss, high fantasy, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, cartoons produced by Jay Ward, and Marvel Comics. What do these themes have in common?

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.”

Nothing says "extraordinary" like mass-marketed franchises!

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?

Uh oh.

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.

How dispiriting!

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.

A mouse made the company, but he isn't its logo.

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.

What's a "yourland?"

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?

"To all who come to this happy place, welcome!"

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!

The Lands.

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.

In the future, trees will be humiliated like poodles.

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.

Even though this would make a marvelous parade float.

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.

The architecture leads the eye ANYWHERE BUT

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.

Anaheim, 1967.

Anaheim, today.

Tokyo, today.

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.

Miscellaneous exceptions.

A few attractions--like the Enchanted Tiki Room, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the Eisnerian afterthought that is Toontown--have been excluded.

The most fun you can have in Toowntown: search for a ninety degree angle.

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.

Two crocs, a cat, and a Hindu place. Wokka, wokka!

Influences include...

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.

These guys also clean cottages with Snow White,
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.

For better or worse.

Influences include...

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.

Scariest. Day at the carnival. Ever.

Influences include...

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.

Be glad the park doesn't combine them into one.


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.

It was a tough time for man-cubs who founded empires
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.

Ohh, thank the Maker.

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.

One Ring Sword to rule them all...

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.


  1. I've always thought that a MK's "theme" was "idealized settings (being the fantasy/aspect of the Magic Kingdom) that one can experience the typical stories, adventures, and events one would expect in there".

    I mean, the motif is there… you go from different environments, and do fantastic things. Even "mundane" environs, like, say, Critter Country (just a backwoods glen, right?) have some aspect f magic to them.

    Agreed, however, that the base for this is escapism and prewar fiction. The genres are all antiquated, and wouldn't be built today, if that were the case…

    Also, IOA's theme is LITERATURE! :-) Each land there is based off a book. The lighthouse at the park's entrance is the Lighthouse of Alexandria… where there was a massive library!

    Great article! I should really get back to writing …things… and stop playing around on Twitter and just posting pictures. LOL.

  2. I love your interpretation of Islands of Adventure and TOTALLY missed that it's the Pharos!

    That said, Toon Lagoon makes me doubt that Islands' theme is "literature." Whatever reservations I have about the artistic abilities of Stan Lee and Michael Chrichton, they indisputably wrote books. There's just no twisting Dudley Do-Right into the Dewey Decimal System, I'm afraid.

    Furthermore, if Islands' theme is "literature," then could the park have a land based on As I Lay Dying, or the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, or Never Let Me Go? Maybe, but I doubt it.

    There's more specificity binding the lands than "literature" (and, thanks to Toon Lagoon, even "literature" is too specific). I submit Islands' theme, whatever it is, has less to do with a narrative subject than (1) pandering to demographics and (2) the availability of recognizable franchises.

    That's my best explanation for how the park assembled such a ragtag group of lands. And their taxonomy is so erratically specific, too.

    Port of Adventure (based on an ancient city that had a famous library).

    The Lost Continent (based on a sub-genre).

    Marvel Superhero Island (based on a publishing company).

    Seuss Landing (based on an author's children's books).

    The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (based on a series of movies).

    Jurassic Park (based on a single movie).

    Toon Lagoon (based on any cartoon it can lay its bulbous, gloved fingers on--including the Fleischers, Jay Ward, and friggin' Marmaduke).

    Don't get me wrong--it's all delightful, but I'd be very surprised to discover continuity on any meaningful level.

    All that said, I'm glad you enjoyed, and while I heartily encourage you to write "things," I wouldn't be heartbroken if you continued "just posting pictures."

    You're a Tumblr highlight, damn it!

  3. Yeah, there's actually a official info sheet out there, SOMEWHERE on it, that shows that the common thread is literature.

    I too, am dubious about Toon Lagoon fitting that continuity, but hey. UNI Creative said it. LOL.

    The info sheet is probably on DK, where I moderate, so I'll see if I can dig it up.

    And thanks! I'm glad my blurbs on art are appreciated. :-) Maybe I can finally get on that WS piece I wanted to do after my explanation of the Living Seas. There's been many a Twitter debate about that!

  4. Are you done debating the World Showcase piece? I wanna get in on that! I have both, the most admiration for, and the least understanding of EPCOT aesthetics.

    And you’ve got of both, which is why I spam your Tumblr with so many hearts.

    (“That’s why I spam your Tumblr with so many hearts,” is the sort of phrase that makes me glad we can’t time travel. What other generations would think of us...)

    I’d be quite keen to read that info sheet, if you can find it!

    That said, I worry that a clarification of authorial intent wouldn’t sway my opinion. While I share your affinity for park history, I’m partisan to the text of the park: why it is or isn’t affecting, how it was or wasn’t affecting in the past, and how it may or may not be affecting in the future.

    Ignoring Toon Lagoon, the lands fit under the “literature” theme, but it’s the wrong way around. Forgive the awkward metaphor--if we were shown a roll of toilet paper, a swimming pool, and a ceiling fan, and asked to describe what groups them together, we might say, “a house.” But if we were given a house, and asked to describe its contents, we probably wouldn’t say, “a roll of toilet paper, a swimming pool, and a ceiling fan.”

    That’s Islands of Adventure: its theme is literature, and its lands are based on a city with a library, a sub-genre, a publishing company, the children’s work of one author, a book series, and a single book (and cartoons). The theme allows the lands, but the lands don’t support the theme.

    Whereas Disneyland fits my awkward house metaphor better: its theme is “Walt’s childhood adventures,” and its lands are based on his boyhood hometown and genres of pre-war escapist fiction. The latter subjects form the walls and roof of the former’s house.

    Which brings me to a soap box that’s relevant to my article on Disneyland’s theme: this is an analysis, not a chronicle.

    I believe Disneyland is a park that sees the world through Walt’s childhood eye, and that there’s sufficient evidence to support my point. Furthermore, I believe this theme is the secret of the park’s appeal.

    But I don’t think that was Walt’s intention when he built it.

    He proposed lands based on the circus, international cultures, and “true-life adventures,” and none of those are genres of pre-war escapist fiction. If he agreed with my thesis, I doubt any of these ideas would have been developed.

    Moreover, I don’t know if he even liked escapist fiction, or if he read it, or if he could read, to begin with. For all I know, he loathed Marceline, Missouri.

    But Disneyland--like all art--mutated through the years. Even if it was never updated, it would still change as a result of its audience and their worldviews. And since it’s a completed work, it belongs to the audience, not the author.

    In return, it’s our responsibility to observe, react to, and analyze the art. Authorial intent can help us, and it can be very interesting, but it’s extra-textual and thus, unnecessary.

    To me, the only necessary indication of authorial intent is the content of the art.

    To that end, I would argue that the text of Disneyland suggests the theme of “the worlds of Walt’s childhood,” and Islands of Adventure’s theme is “whatever franchises Universal could get the rights to, and it would be nice if they had something to do with literature, but don’t worry too much about it.”

  5. Wish I had longer to reply to this but its 1am, lol. My main comment though: 'Walt's childhood', 'animals', 'Hollywood', 'a permanent World's Fair' - those aren't *themes* (in the literary, narratological sense of the word), they're subjects (and I'd even disagree with 'Walt's childhood' for Disneyland, although the rest are inarguable). DAK's subject may be animals and nature, but as Joe Rohde says it's themes are the inherant VALUE of nature, the transformative power of adventure, and the love of life.

    I think it's a mistake to mix up the artistic definition of theme, shared by literature, theatre and cinema ('love conquers all', 'the great journey', 'the loss of innocence') which are the uncompromisable heart of a text, with decorative or 'tag' themes more appropriate a high school prom ('under the sea', 'musicals', 'Hollywood') that can be swapped out instantly.

    Nice over of the parks' subjects though =D.

    1. Almost every definition I can find of the word "theme" is "the central subject of a work of art." While I agree that this definition includes abstractions, it's absurd to say it can't also be encapsulated into a physical object.

      The theme of Arrested Development, to pick a random example, is "family." A family is an object--hell, it's even more physical than that--it's several objects!

      There are many ideas explored in Arrested Development--sibling rivalry, blood loyalty, and unrequited incest come to mind--but there's no question that these ideas are subservient to the very physical objects that are collectively known as "a family."

      For argument's sake, let's agree that narratology separates objects and ideas into subjects and themes, respectively.

      Surely no park is so trite that it only explores one theme, so we call a theme park, "a themes park?" Or, if I'm right, and a park is unified by its subject, then shouldn't it be called "a subject park?"

      “Theme” either means something different in parks than it does in other narrative media, or your definition is flawed. To me, the fact that you're willing to concede the word to lesser spectacles like high school proms suggests the latter.

      Furthermore--and this is a point I've already made above, in the section regarding Disneyland's Dedication Speech--if a theme is the central idea in a work of art, then I fail to see how, say, Expedition Everest is about "the love of life."

      Sure, we can say, "We’ve learned to love life after surviving the yeti and a tumble down the mountainside," or we can claim, "Oh, that theme only counts sometimes, but not right now, try one of the others" but these are rationalizations. Occam's razor wants 'em cut.

      That isn't to say that "the love of life" isn't prevalent throughout the park. But at best, it's a recurring theme, not a central one.

      The central theme is "animals," or if you want something more poetic, "biodiversity." The land is "Asia." The ride is about an Asian animal.

      Expedition Everest explores ideas which recur across the park--the indomitability of nature, adventure (and its transformative power, although I don't really know what that means)--but while these shape our experience with the Asian animal, they don't explain what the ride is, or why it fits in the land and park.

      There is a simple taxonomy at work. The theme supports the lands, which in turn support attractions, shops, food, and other environmental miscellanea. Each of these explore smaller ideas--sub-themes, if you will--which reinforce the main theme.

      I encourage you to dispute this system--and, for that matter, what you believe Disneyland's theme is--when it isn't one o'clock in the morning.

    2. David, you understand that the word "theme" in "theme park" is a modifier, right? It's the same usage as "theme party" or "theme restaurant." If you're looking for a "theme" like, "Dostoyevsky's theme is 'the problem of evil and the unknowability of God,'" I fear that your thinking on theme parks may have gone terribly (but fascinatingly) askew.

      Moreover, if you think that Walter Elias Disney, a man whose idea of comedy was to not have pants be on things that pants should be on, thought he was opening a park built around the exploration of universal truths of the human condition-- again, this is an wonderful thing to think, but mistaken. By theme, Walt meant "the Old West" or "the future." And according to my dictionary, he wasn't off-base:

      "Theme [as modify.] a setting given to a leisure pursuit or activity, intended to provoke a particular country, historical period, culture, etc. 'a family fun park with a western theme'"

  6. As I said above I certainly agree there are *two* definitions of theme of course, the literary theme and the 'tag' theme (for which I used a high school prom as the example); I agree that there's very little chance at all that the Rainforest Cafe has any more of a theme than the 'rainforest' tag, and I certainly agree that the term 'theme park' refers to tag themes too, at least colloquially.

    But look, the term 'theme park' didn't come about until the 1960s, and it wasn't meant as a summation of an artform for its designers (at which it is horrible) it was meant as dumbed down marketing copy so the public would have some clue what made Disneyland different - that being the obvious, wonderfully designed, decoration. What makes Disneyland the best and what the public thinks makes Disneyland the best is equivalent to a movie punter thinking it was just the battle scenes and special effects in Lord of the Rings that made them good movies because they lack an understanding of the language of narrative, cinematography, performance, editing etc.

    Disneyland when it opened was a far different theme park to what we have now, and I would argue that the modern conscitheme park only grew out of that in the decades after its opening, when at the start it was simply a collection of a decorated living museum, a decorated zoo (in intention), a decorated amusement park, and a decorated mini World's Fair. Of course Walt was never conciously trying to evoke the universal truths of the human condition, but I would say he knew how he wanted Disneyland to make you feel, and that feeling is Disneyland's theme.

    When we need to have articles subtly, historically, culturally picking apart Disneyland to figure out its tag theme, it's obvious it doesn't have one - in that sense. The tag theme is either obvious or it hasn't worked. There's no chance at all we'd get an article like this trying to decipher Planet Hollywood's theme, or that Tomorrowland is about the future, or that DisneySea is about the sea. These things are obvious or they're not there.

    At present, theme park design has its own seperate definition from all of the rest of art, which I think is a historical mistake we should correct as we push for a field of theme park criticism (of which Ian's is fantastic). The rest of art criticism uses Theme for struggle, discovery, hope etc. and Subject for undersea, Tiki and cowboy etc. and, while the public will never (and doesn't need to) change, if we're attempting an academic understanding of theme parks equivalent to the rest of art criticism's, we need to share its vocabulary.

    I haven't seen Arrested Development, but I'm sure its depiction of Family is going to either be 'the strength of the family' or contrarily 'the struggles of the family' or some other variation. The Brady Bunch and The Simpsons are both about 'family', but their approach is very different. I don't think its absurb at all to say the theme isn't a material object - it might be REPRESENTED by a material object, but its never the object in itself.

    Now I'm not just arguing this irrespective of reality. Many of the designers I've spoken to figured this out decades ago, and use the terms as I'm outlining.

    Watch this, particularly from 3:30 onwards,
    [ah, it won't let me post a link, but Youtube search 'Joe Rohde- Animal Kingdom Part 2 of 5'], where Joe explains: "Theme is a noun, it is not a verb. You cannot theme something. A theme is the underlying value system upon which a story is built. It is not the fake wood detailing on the outside of a box". I'm sure Joe would dispute your view that his themes are rationalisations.

    1. I’m sorry to dwell on semantics, David, but that’s where the core of our disagreement comes in. You warn against segregating the vocabulary of theme park design from other media, but then go on to coin an arbitrary distinction between “tag theme” and “theme theme.”

      You speculated that either “the strength of family” or “the struggles of family” are intrinsic to Arrested Development, and you’re right. Unfortunately, you’re too right--they’re BOTH intrinsic. And both of those theme themes are also intrinsic to the Simpsons and the Brady Bunch. So now what?

      Do you search for an abstraction that encompasses both, “the strength of family” and “the struggles of family?”

      Maybe you say, “Well, whatever, the show has TWO uncompromisable hearts, and if I think of any others, like ‘competitions within a family,’ I’ll add ‘em to the chest. That’s not so odd. Some Australian lizards have seven uncompromisable hearts!”

      Or do you acknowledge that their common denominator is “family,” and that maybe the tag theme encompasses every theme theme you could ever think of?

      The simplest answer is the latter.

      It wouldn’t be hard to take my tag theme--“Walt’s childhood, wherein we enter into his earliest memories, and proceed through the worlds he dreamed of exploring”--and boil it down into theme themes. Let’s say, “childhood imagination,” “seeing the world through innocent eyes,” and, “pre-war American values.” Those three theme themes can be fused down into “naivete.”

      Now we’re debating whether the theme is “reassurance” or “naivete.”

      But we can also describe the worldview of Walt’s childhood as “optimistic,” “fair-minded,” and “idealizing strange cultures.” Those three can be fused down into “reassurance.”

      So now we agree that the theme theme is “reassurance.” But is it also still naivete?

      Maybe it’s both. If so, is it “reassuring and naive,” “reassuringly naive,” or “naively reassuring?”

      At what point does this break down into bloodless semantics that fail to describe how Disneyland affects us?

      In this essay, I’ve presented verifiable claims that the lands are based upon pre-war escapist fiction, and that Main Street is based upon Walt’s boyhood town. From there, I speculated on the connection between the two.

      You, on the other hand, have offered an interpretation. It’s a valid interpretation, and it’s backed by Imagineers, AND I agree with it--“reassurance” is a lovely way to express it!--but it’s based entirely upon a reaction, and not the text.

      Andrew already said it more succinctly than I ever could, (the fiend, how I envy his brain) but I’ll apply his terms--“an idea to be explored” and “a goal to be achieved”--to our debate. My hypothesis describes what the park might be, whereas your hypothesis limits what our reaction to the park might be.

      It bears repeating that your hypothesis is a limitation. “Reassurance” is one of many responses that we may have to Disneyland. We could claim that the park’s theme is “ardor,” or “loyalty,” or “the effect that the color blue has upon my sister when used decoratively in a planned environment,” and we’d be just as correct.

      While “reassurance” is perfectly respectable, and was articulated by a credible source, I’m inclined to doubt it, since it isn’t mentioned in the Dedication--which is nothing, if not an oodle of theme themes, including:

      This land is your land, this land is my land.

      Age reliving fond memories of the past.

      Youth savoring the challenge and promise of the future.

      The ideals, dreams, and hard facts that have created America.

      Being a source of joy and inspiration to all the World.

      With all due respect to Mr. Hench, if we’re arguing from history, then I think there’s more weight in the words that Walt spoke and engraved on the front of the park.

    2. I’m honestly a little confused to see you debating aesthetics from the perspective of a creator, instead of the audience. That’s a historical approach, not a narratological one.

      Make no mistake, authorial intent is vital. But art is a means of personal expression, so the best way to measure authorial intent is through the audience’s reaction to the art.

      Joe Rohde may have designed Expedition Everest to communicate “the love of life,” but if we don’t understand that from riding the attraction--and I don’t--and Joe Rohde isn’t standing there to explain it to us--and he usually isn’t--then quite simply, he has failed to communicate “the love of life” in Expedition Everest.

      Would we then consider the ride a failure? Hardly. We never had the expectation that it would be about “the love of life.” Once the artist shows the work to the audience, the audience gets to interpret it.

      When creating narratives, I don’t advocate starting with tag themes over theme themes, or vice versa. I’ve done both, but always with the knowledge that, whichever comes first, the second must immediately follow.

      Here’s an example of a tag theme becoming a theme theme:

      “I say, I’d quite like to tell a story about a yeti. What does a yeti make me feel, and how can I develop it into an idea? Well, it lives on a mountain, so it’s remote...isolated. Isolation frightens me, so maybe this’ll be scary...”

      Here’s an example of a theme theme becoming a tag theme.

      “I say, life is precious! I love it! How can I express that in less abstract terms, so that someone else will understand what I’m feeling? Well, maybe a bunch of species could put on a talent show, exhibiting their specialties. Maybe the cast a poorly regarded set of species, like bugs. That would emphasize that life is incredible, even when we’re creeped out by it...”

      It would take minor rhetoric to reverse either of these examples. It’s impossible to tell which narratives came from objects, and which came from ideas. And it’s even more impossible to compare a narrative that resulted from an object with its alternate reality doppleganger, which resulted from an idea.

      This suggests that the creative process is only relevant to the creator. It can inform the biographer or historian, and it can inform the creative process of his peers, but in narratological terms, it’s extra-textual.

      That’s why it’s important for us, as analysts, to approach art from the perspective of the audience. Our goal is to discover why a work--not its author--is affective or ineffective.

      I therefore welcome Joe Rohde to insist that Animal Kingdom’s themes are “the love of life,” “the infallibility of ice cream,” and “demonization of female sexuality in third world Muslim countries,” but I respectfully disagree.

    3. I’m also confused by your dismissing this article because it “subtly, historically, and culturally picks apart Disneyland to find its tag theme.”

      First and foremost, it doesn’t subtly, historically, and culturally pick apart Disneyland any more than your (again, it cannot be overstated, EXCELLENT) Dissecting Disney’s Lands series. I imagine their goal was the explain the lands’ tag themes.

      In the Frontierland article, you clarify that it isn’t just “cowboy land,” but rather, “a representation of American history and geography from its earliest discovery to the turn of the twentieth century.” But in your own words regarding my essay, “The tag theme is either obvious or it hasn’t worked.”

      It would take some fancy wordplay to disprove that Frontierland is a representation of American history and geography from its earliest discovery to the turn of the twentieth century. That was as keenly observed as it was, argued. I am very grateful that you took the time to subtly, historically, and culturally pick it apart.

      But by your own admission, it isn’t the common interpretation of Frontierland, and therefore, it hasn’t worked as a tag theme. And it’s too physical to fit into your definition of a theme theme.

      So do we discard the notion that Frontierland is a representation of American history and geography from its earliest discovery to the turn of the twentieth century?

      No. It’s a theme. Pure and simple.

      But let’s return to this strange delineation, and how it applies to my essay. I don’t understand how “Walt’s childhood, wherein we enter into his earliest memories, and proceed through the worlds he dreamed of exploring” is a tag theme.

      Okay, I get it, when we’re discussing Animal Kingdom, you don’t like “animals” because it’s reductive, and you don’t like “biodiversity” because it’s not an impressive phrase, or maybe because Joe Rohde forgot to mention it.

      But saying that Disneyland’s theme is “Walt’s childhood, wherein we enter into his earliest memories, and proceed through the worlds he dreamed of exploring” is descriptive, abstract, and ambitiously (I won’t say “impressively”) phrased.

      The sentiment immediately leads to reactions: reassuring, vulnerable, innocent, optimistic. It implies a tone, settings, and a unified authorial voice. If you disagree with the speculation, I’d love to her why, but first I’d like to understand what disqualifies it from being a theme theme.

  7. I'm not saying all designers do this, but I don't think its an accident that many of the best designers do. Just listen to the designers when they discuss their process: their first steps aren't 'how can we make this wall look like its medieval fairytaleland', it's 'what feelings do we want the guest to experience in this attraction'; it's how to connect them with the text, not make something that has pretty decoration. The key to good movie based rides aren't the ones that duplicate the imagery the best, its the ones that duplicate the feel (as well as good production value of course).

    Disneyland has a certain way it makes you feel when you enter its gates, and that's not an accident - it's a carefully orchestrated emotional journey that Walt and the Imagineers wanted to manipulate each guest into taking, because that was the (conscious or not) central theme (and to put my cards on the table, I would say that the words 'this will be Disneyland's theme' were almost certainly uttered from Walt's mouth, but a knowledge of how it should make you feel surely was there). That said, I think Disneyland's theme was already revealed by John Hench decades ago, and that's 'reassurance' - that feeling that people are alright, and things will come out good in the end. That's why we're reverted to childhood imagery and architecture as Disney mollycoddles us and holds our hand; thats why every Cast Member is required to smile at you; its why every adventure turns out right in the end, and it's why the tag themes chosen for Disneyland are ones that reaffirm the core American mythology, particularly through what at the time were hero figures (the Davy Crockett figure, the astronaut, the prince). That's what links everying in Disneyland together (or at least it used to, I certainly wouldn't disagree its being watered down in favour of the tag, self-referential theme, of 'Disney' which I think is its major problem at the moment).

    If you're about to start designing a theme park, what's the most important decision you need to make? It's not 'what disposable conceptual framework can we use to link a bunch of lands together?' - it's 'how do we want this park to make people feel'.

    Tag themes for lands are fantastically important; tag 'meta-themes' for parks aren't so much - they're nice and harmonious as in the case of DAK or TDS, but Disneyland can throw together the future, cowboys, fairytales and Victoriana and it still works, so they're not needed. What IS needed though, and I think all of the best parks have them, is a literary theme; something that subconciously links together every emotion to build a feeling that you take home with you which is far more powerful.

  8. In summary - the view that Disneyland has or needs a common thread like 'it's all based on movies/the sea/ancient myths/world culture etc.' is, I think, wrong.

    Fairy tales, spacemen, cowboys, and Dapper Dans cannot be ringed together like that, without gross oversimplification or ambiguity. I think it's flawed to say it's 'Walt's childhood' just because a lot of its content comes from the century and a half preceding its opening; of course it does, those were the hot properties of the day. And of course it was stuff Walt liked - it was his park!

    It needs to be recognised that decoration (and I use decoration to mean the physical manifestion of tag themes, as well as their selection) wasn't new to Disneyland. Yes it was grouped much better than before into lands without visual intrusion, but some of the design work in Coney Island and numerous other amusement parks and World's Fairs is absolutely outstanding. What took Disneyland to the next level was the psychological charging that film makers were able to put into it, so that the emotions brought out were more than 'eek, I'm scared', 'ah that looks pretty' and 'woo, this makes my tummy feel funny'.

    What ties Disneyland together is a feeling, and *that's* its theme; a view I think supported by the words of John Hench, and the design approaches taken by contemporary theme park designers.

    Oh, and Ian - I think the highlighting of World War II is certainly appropriate; but I would say it was because of that event that guests needed Disneyland's reassurance, and a reason why it was so successful.

  9. David,

    First: what an informative, interesting, and educated comment. I think it's insanely insightful to pick out "reassurance" as the objective of the park (though, if we're having a semantic conversation, I'm not sure you can call it a "theme," which, in its literary application, means "an idea to be illustrated or explored" and not "a goal to be achieved").

    I also think the Joe Rhode comment is telling, although, of course, he's wrong ("theme" is very much a verb in addition to being a noun, and it is entirely correct to say that you're "theming" something).

    Ultimately, I think our differences might be slight. I can agree that thematics are important to the park. Curiously, though, I think you've mislabeled and/or misidentified those thematics.

    I'll explain:

    In designing a space or attraction, of *course* the Imagineers start from the question of, "How is this environment/ride supposed to make its audience feel?" Every designer working in every medium does that. Even corporate logo designers. Even designers of the Rainforest Cafe.

    But I don't see what that has to do with "theme," as you define it (an "uncompromisable heart of a text"). Again-- a theme is an area of exploration, not a "goal." Yes, the *goal* of a ride / interior design / corporate mascot is to produce an emotional/behavioral response. And dissecting those goals might have tremendous value. But...

    I really don't think we should argue that said goals are what make Disneyland special. They're fundamental to all design. As in, the guys who make Budweiser ads are doing precisely the same thing, albeit to a very different effect.

    Rather, I think that what makes Disneyland feel weightier than, say, the Rainforest Cafe, is the *ideology* (you'd call it the theme) that governs the park. "Dreams matter"; "imagination is important"; "wonder has value." These ideas inform every E-ticket attraction, and every half-baked parade.

    Of course, none of those themes qualify as revelations. You could design infinite terrible parks around these "ideas," which are, essentially, fetishizations of childhood. But Disneyland, when it's working well, seems to really *mean* those things-- it seems to regard them not as creepy platitudes, but as principles, the promulgation of which are its raison d'ĂȘtre. You *feel* that-- its the combination of sincerity and superior craftsmanship that carries you away. I think we'd agree on that much.

    Indeed, we may disagree on the labels and on the terminology. But, as we're both writing too much on a Disneyland blog, I bet we'd agree on the effect.

  10. "An idea to be illustrated and explored" - why has it taken me so longer to find that definition! I definitely agree with it, but I still think it applies in my argument.

    I think the best way to identify Disneyland's theme is through the question "What is Disneyland *about*"? I don't think it's about Disney as the current company does (though it is becoming that), and I don't think it's about Walt's childhood (which as I said, I think mistakenly tries to force a grouping). I really think what Disneyland is about is that special subgenre of happiness concerning this in loco parentis handholding of "everything is alright". It's Walt's view that "people are alright", "things will turn out good in the end" and even "dreams can come true". And I would view the various manifestations and explorations of this in Disneyland as a valid theme just as you define it - "an idea to be illustrated and explored". It does illustrate the ideas of things turning alright in the end, of reinforcing American mythology, and of our romantic, idealistic and corny outlooks still being worth something. I'd agree though that it doesn't question them, but perhaps if it were to do that it would make Disneyland, as a text, oxymoronic - it needs to fully believe it for it to work. I do think the purpose of a text's theme is to *convince* you of something; and I think it's this difference that is made between the Rainforest Cafe making you *feel* happy, and Disneyland convincing you *there's a reason* to be happy (of course, it makes us feel happy too ;)).

    I think its important when examining a park that we look at both literary and tag themes (the internal and external) but never assume that a park has either. DAK's tag theme is animals and nature; DAK's literary themes are the value of nature, the transformative power of adventure. TDS's tag theme is the sea; it's literary themes are tied up with mystery, romance and adventure. Disneyland's tag theme doesn't exist; it's dramatic theme is everything is alright after all. Even DCA - it has a tag theme of California, but it doesn't have a literary theme, and I think that was one of its major failings.

  11. (I'll reply here so the timeline doesn't get confusing!).

    Ian - I'm not segregating vocabulary at all, I think I was just unclear. Like I said in my first post, Subject and Tag Theme are the same thing, I was just saying 'Tag Theme' because this industry uses theme to mean subject,

    I wasn't at all saying Arrested Development used either of those or both, I was just saying those are two possible themes they might use (which I wasn't sure of, not having seen the show). I actually looked the show up on Wikipedia and it fortunately had its own section on the show's themes: "The show focuses on the tension that developed among the members of the Bluth family, primarily from their diminished spending power. Each show pulls from a mix of sibling rivalries, unresolved oedipal conflicts, sexual incompatibilities, personal identity crises, adolescent trauma, aging, pride, miscommunication, lying, guilt, subterfuge, determination, immigration, manipulation, mutilation, social status anxiety, incest taboo, alcoholism, narcissism and a wide variety of other themes." But really, what this show seems to be saying about family and what the Brady Bunch says about family are two very different things. The Subjects are the same, but the themes are very different. And none of those themes above are tangible! They are ideas, they are issues, they are commentaries and explorations of the stages, trials and tribulations of human life, which may be represented through physical objects - a necklace representing greed, a bottle of beer (or many) representing addiction, any McGuffin at all to push the story forward - but they aren't tangible themself.

    Now I know you're going to say "that's a million themes! That's not a common denominator!" but, of course, it's a TV show, and each episode will explore its own theme, but they are all of the same thread - the unpleasant, difficult, dark parts life banging against the ideal of the family - and I would suspect this is the overall theme of the show. In the same way, I think the attractions of the theme park are like episodes of a TV show: they may explore their own individual themes (POTC and the morality play of the bad get whats coming to them) which then fits into the meta-theme of the park (reasons to be cheerful and all that). Every attraction obviously cannot explore the exact same theme, but together they work harmoniously to the same goal.

    1. Now I understand your view that any interpretation can be taken from the park by an individual, and any interpretation can become semantic - you're of course arguing the poststructuralist viewpoint. And while I find it impossible to argue with the post-structural view due to shear logic (nice one, Derrida), I think that approach becomes academic in the worst sense of the word as there is a practical, workable reading I have suggested. You see, I think the strength of this type of artistry comes from weighting the interpretation of a text to a desired reading - though not that this always works, and also certainly not that a good work of art always matches the artists intention. To keep it theme parky, I'd use Marc Davis and the POTC caverns as the example. He didn't like them, he thought they were too long, he was forced into including them. But they were a defining element in how the guests reacted to the attraction, and when they were removed from Florida's (yes he was forced to a lower budget, but he chose the caverns to be cut rather than something else - I remember, but cannot currently source, a quote of his dismissive of them), it really detrimented the ride in the minds of its audience. So as for weighting interpretation: show a person an apple, and they might think of many things (apple pies, apple bobbing, apple computers), but show an apple and a princess, and they're quite likely to think of Snow White. Hey ho, weighted to what the artist desires! Multiply this by a thousand elements, and include emotional responses not just empirical ones, and this is how I think theme parks, and many faces of popular media, work.

      So in the case of Disneyland I think that 1) the designers intended to weight a reading of reassurance in their work (John Hench etc.), and 2) they were successful: I really do think that the reason Disneyland dominates so many lives is not just because it makes us happy (almost every theme park does that yet they don't have the same impact), but because it provides a worldview that reinforces *why* we should be happy (and of course it has superior production values etc. to convey this). I am not limiting how any individual might read the parks, that is of course a personal matter (and many people come away not reassured by Disneyland but sickened by it!), but I think the majority and the intention was that variety of responses I am collating under the umbrella term 'Reassurance'.

      So yes, you can post-structurally break down reassurance into naivete into whatever ad infinitum, but this is a fault of language. I use 'reassurance' with the intention of meaning any (yes, subjective BUT) logically appropriate interpretation of it. Yes people can interpret reassurance differently, but I think practically we all know what we're talking about.

      You miss that the same could be done with 'Walt's childhood'. Well what ages does that cover? What if I think Walt relived his childhood in adulthood - can we include that? What do we mean by childhood? Heck, what do we mean by Walt? Poststructuralism isn't very useful in what we're trying to do...

    2. Of course, you might reject this with the post-structural arguments of course, but I think any humanities theory is a simplifaction of reality to a model which is of some use, and I think my method of doing this useful. Otherwise, we'd never be able to say a text means anything specific to an audience at all (Tower of Terror makes people scared? Nonsense the post-structuralist can argue! Scared? Frightened? Lonely? Isolated? Abandoned? Lost? Disorientated? The words have lost any point of reference! But in the real world, to the majority reading and from intention, it *does* result in scaredness). Expedition Everest doesn't convey "Love of life"* to you but is still a good ride? Of course I agree!

      *"Love of life" though is a mistake; rewatching the talk I think Joe only mentions "Inherent value of nature" and "transformative power of adventure" - I do think these are represented in the work as designed (not so much broken). We see the value (represented as power) of nature (represented as the Yeti), and the transformative process is something about man being cocky he can control the world, then the yeti gets the better of him, and he realises his place - I remember some talk about that but hey, its 4.25am that I'm writing this!

      Both Subjects (Tag Themes) and Literary Themes can variously be the first seed of a narrative? Totally agree.

      But as you hopefully see, I place importance on BOTH the majority reading AND the designers intention. Of course there's no 'correct' reading of any text. I think the 'successful' reading is the one of the majority, and so happily place this before authorial intent - I am not debating the aesthetics from the perspective of the creator. Just like yourself, I do see value in understanding both. It's just in the case of Disneyland's literary theme, I think the majority reading (however subconscious) and the intention were spot on, so in this case it's valid to include authorial intent. My research and viewpoint is looking at how to design theme parks, not just how we read theme parks, and so I look at both - I perfectly agree that solely a reading of the text has no need for the authorial intent.

      So that's my view on literary theme! It is not limiting at all; I think it's useful. The park, and the dedication plaque, of course cover many themes (like a TV show again) but they all share a particular shade of happiness which I think John Hench superbly pinpoints as 'reassurance' - and this is no mean feat, I genuinely think it is poetry that Hench has summed it up so perfectly.

    3. Now I think it's an entirely seperate debate as to whether 'Walt's childhood' is a/the theme (subject/tag theme in my view) of Disneyland, and while I understand and see great value in your post's argument, I don't fully agree with. My reasons are;

      1. I really think that for a subject to be successful, it needs to be pretty obvious. Like I said, there would never be an article like this finding the Rainforest Cafe's subject/theme/tag theme. Nowhere in the park is the subject of 'Walt's childhood' ever broached. Main Street has the closest link, but only when we know that it is based on Walt's childhood home, which is something we aren't told in the park itself. Walt never mentions that it's based on his childhood, nor did he want any depictions or inclusions of himself within the park. None of the other lands connect the lay audience to Walt's childhood at all.
      2. While many of your post's points are certainly influences on Disneyland (and why I view your post as valuable in cataloguing these), I think the concluding link is too tenuous, and that a number of similar linking ideas could be argued to fit just as well - "America" I've seen argued before for example, or "Walt's life", or just "Walt", or just "Disney". I don't particularly think Tomorrowland was about Walt's childhood for example - I think even you find difficulty drawing that theme out of the land, instead suggesting the reader read 'Walt's childhood' ONTO the land.
      3. I also don't think what the links you're making are verifiable like you say: yes, Captain Blood was around at a time that it could have influenced Walt, but whether it did can only be told by Walt himself (or, yes, can be reasonable inferred IF we have the data to show Walt did engage those texts, but I think that is what your article would need to show). It could just be a correlation does not equal causation thing.
      4. There are a practically infinite number of other things that could have influenced Walt's childhood that we don't know about; why then are they not then represented? We are only looking at the succesful links amongst a sea on non-links.
      5. As I said, I think it shows influences on the park, however intentional, peripheral or in some cases absent, any one may be, but these influences could just as much have been born into the park through the Imagineers as much as Walt.

      Again, I see your post as a superbly useful catalogue of influences, but I don't agree that you can draw out from then that 'Walt's childhood' is a Disneyland theme.

      In other news - Ian and Andrew, boy, this is a jolly good fun, and incredibly interesting, debate! And, my god, sorry for the length!

    4. This thread has become (delightfully) unwieldy; let me see if I can distill it to its essence(s):

      I. The Role of Literary Thematics In Disneyland
      a. Does Disneyland have themes?
      1. Can themes "exist" in an objective, ontological way?

      David, while acknowledging the difficulty of refuting post-structuralist epistemology, believes that, for all practical purposes, meaning is a thing independent of interpretation, and that it can be faithfully transmitted and received by the "authors" and "readers" of theme park "texts," respectively. Ian believes that this is empirically untrue, citing his experience with Everest, his thematic reading of which differs markedly from David's.

      As for me, I'm quite certain that terrified toddlers are getting very different "readings" from Snow White's Scary Adventures than I am. Whether this proves some theory of semiotics or just speaks to a design flaw in the ride, I do not know.

      What is clear is that, in practice, different guests have different reactions to Disneyland rides (joy vs. terror vs. warmth vs. excitement)-- and surely that's due, in part, to the differing ways in which they've interpreted the rides' "arguments" or "themes."

      2. Do themes need to be "real" in an objective, ontological way in order for them to have value?

      Both of you seem to assume that if themes are purely subjective, they have no value in theme parks. I'm not sure I understand this position. Inarguably, themes in (much of) literature are open to debate, and no one believes that this minimizes their importance. Themes are there as much to provide *richness* as they are to make a *point*; just because we may disagree on the meaning of textual signifiers doesn't mean that those signifiers have different levels of value to us. Put another way, themes provide complexity of flavor, and even if we register *different* flavors, we'll still both register the same amount of layered-ness in the dish.

      My position is, theme parks *can* be arranged thematically, and while we may have differing interpretations of the theme, we will all nevertheless perceive the same *amount* of structural coherence.

      (I'd apply a not-dissimilar argument to David's assertion that any "tag theme" that requires critical exegesis is inherently worthless. Again-- I'm not sure that I see the warrant behind this claim. Indeed, more often than not, artists take pains to *obscure* their structural/organizational techniques; that doesn't mean those techniques didn't organize the art effectively. Let me give an example: entire books have been written dissecting the structure of "Star Wars," but no one (important) has claimed that that makes Lucas' structure bad. So why should the fact that it takes a blog post to discern the structure of Disneyland be proof that Disneyland has no structure, or that the structure isn't doing its job?)

    5. b. If "themes" are possible/important to Disneyland, what are those themes?

      I maintain my position that "reassurance" isn't a theme but an objective. But this is a quibble-- the closely-related "everything will be okay" certainly qualifies as a theme.

      My problem with "everything will be okay" is that it's a sucky theme. It's unfocused and over-broad, and I don't think Disneyland feels that woolly and imprecise. David seems to acknowledge as much, arguing that Disneyland's power comes from the fact that it makes an argument as to *why* everything will be okay (a terrific insight, by the way); that implies that the "argument" is the *actual* theme of the park.

      Here's the thing, though: I don't think Disneyland makes any one central argument in support of its happy conclusion (if you disagree, I'd love to know what you think that central argument is). To put it another way, I don't think there's any one theme that unifies the park.

      Certainly, the park is governed, in part, by the *objective* of reassurance; surely, it's partly governed by the *ideology* that "dreams matter." But if those were the only criteria for what makes something Disneyland-esque, we could have, say, a NewAgeCultLand-- which, I think we'd all agree, would be a smidgeon out-of-step with the park.

      So there's some other criterion that determines what fits in the park and what doesn't. It's some Grand Unifying Theory that we're missing. Ian has suggested that what unifies the park is that it consists of elements from-- and only from-- Walt's childhood. I think that argument has some merit. But I want to discuss it in its proper place in the outline:

      II. The Role of "Tag Themes" in Disneyland

      Ian is obviously onto something-- Disneyland draws on the following genres: adventure; sci-fi; westerns; fairytales; Americana. (There's NOS too, but let's set that aside for now.) All popular pulp topics from the era of Walt's childhood.

      Excepting "Americana," those are, of course, also popular pulp genres from the 30s, popular serial genres from the 40s and 50s, and popular television television genres from the 1960s. This fact does not, by itself, mean that "Walt's childhood" is inadmissible as a Grand Unifying Theory of Disneyland, but it does make the theory somewhat loose-fitting.

      David makes the argument that we don't know what did, as a matter of historical fact, influence Walt, and that argument is, of course, correct, as far as it goes.

      But I'm not 100% sure it matters. The goal, as I understand it, is to create a Grand Unifying Theory of Disneyland, a set of criteria that will predict, with total accuracy, whether an environment, land, or attraction would "fit" in the park. If "Walt's Childhood" gets us there, it's in; if it doesn't, it's out.

      Like any good theory, this one seems readily falsifiable. So what do you guys think? Does "Walt's Childhood" admit the inadmissible or reject the beloved?

      I want to see 5000 words by the time I wake up! (-:

  12. Well, I'm sad to say I broke my dominant hand's wrist over the weekend and can't use it for the next few weeks, so a lengthy response is a bit tricky for me, but I hope to return to this in a few weeks!

    Andrew, if you're on FB, please do add me as I'm sure there's many things theme park I'd love to discuss, and you and Ian are great debating partners! I'm at facebook.com/ThemeParkTheory

    On another note, ice-skating is evil.