Crafting the Icon: Television Builds the Park

Walt Disney was constantly fascinated by the process of finding new and technologically progressive mediums to use in the promotion of his products. He often used these new technologies as springboards for new projects. Television is one of the mediums that Walt Disney plunged the company into whole-heartedly. It captured his fancy almost as utterly as animation and film. His long cherished dream of creating an interactive park where fans could interact with the myths of his studio seemed out of reach for him just decades before. That is until he moved into the realm of television. Suddenly it seemed possibly to reach into the homes of his fans and encourage them to try his newest products. It was the intimacy of television that struck Disney. Through it, he was able to fuse his love of education and entertainment with his charismatic personality and unaffected charm. At the project’s inception, he was reticent to be the face of this new forum, but once he committed to it, it became clear that he was the perfect choice to host the series.

Disney used the structure of the Disneyland series to creates an icon, while simultaneously placing viewers there. But, the Disneyland television show did much more than that. It created an axis mundi, a holy mountain, a temple.

Disney knew that the success of his park would hinge on memory. People might venture to the park out of curiosity, but they would return because of the memories they created while they were there. He knew that he had to find a way to affect the kind of memories one makes on trip a sacred spot, and, if he wanted to have a profitable first year, he needed to do this before the park opened. Television was the perfect medium for this project.

The Disneyland television series had the unique ability to relate the storytelling canon to their myths and tp create an airtight association between the stories and characters the audience had grown to love, and the place—Disneyland—where they would be found in the physical realm. Without television, the results may have eventually proved the same, but it would probably not have happened in time to turn a profit and save the fledgling, not to mention deeply in debt, Walter Elias Disney (WED) Enterprises…aka…Walt and the Imagineers.

In order to hype the audience up and make them yearn for what he was about to offer, he went to television. To whet America’s appetite for what was about to come, the show built its built its structure around the structure of the park like the “cardinal points of the compass” (Frontierland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland). The earliest shows combined tv movies, theatrically released films, animated shorts, full length animation, true-life adventures WITH tours/progress reports of Disneyland the place. The show’s key intention to create a single cohesive narrative for the park.

The Disneyland show suggests, somewhat subtly, that all of these stories belong at Disneyland, In fact, more than any other film studio/purveyer of popular culture, Disney truly embraces the re-visioning of mythology. In true storyteller fashion, the Disney studio never ceases to produce new and innovative versions of archetypal stories. In his seminal essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” poet T.S. Eliot reminds us that we do not create in a vacuum. We are heirs to the mythic tradition of humanity. Myths are grand stories that tell stories about identities and, as folklorist Alan Dundes suggests, myths tell, in narrative form, how things became the way they are. And, Like other mythic systems, Disney is in the buisness of crafting identity.
Disney wisely recognized that memory would be the vital ingredient necessary for the park’s success. Memory, identity and mythology are inextricably linked. We craft our identity through our ability to identify with stories, with each other, with the memories we share. The phrase, “do you remember where you were when…happened” is a consistent phrase in our society. We get, implicitly, how important it is that we remember where we were when Kennedy was shot, when the astronauts landed on the moon, when the Berlin Wall came crashing down, or where we were the fateful morning we witnessed the twin towers burn. The events themselves are archetypal and iconic. It is impossible not to mention inexhaustible, to explain how and why they are powerful. But, we know they are. Experiencing these kinds of powerful moments binds people together. It crafts myth and identity.

And, beginning in the age of television, events are brought directly into our homes. Suddenly, crafting myth is possible through a small box in the middle of the living room. Suddenly, mass culture is possible. Suddenly, it is not necessary to have actually been there for an event to have its all-important, identity making effect. And, its effective because television fuses photographic images and sound. Suddenly, just witnessing it from one’s living room creates the same kind of emotionally sealing experience as the actual act of being there.

THAT is how television built the park. Through the Disneyland television show, Disney continued working the long-standing Hollywood tradition of making illusion seem real. The show created a whole relationship between the audience and a place that didn’t even exist yet. And it did it so seamlessly that by the time the park was actually there, the psychological bonding was complete. The patron didn’t even question the temple’s iconic nature. It felt as though it had always been there…as temples always do. On some level, this is how all containers for ritualistic experience work. Disney’s use of television just cuts out the middleman.

And, truly, it is more than BRILLIANT…it’s magic!

The very first episode: The Disneyland Story

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Filed under Disneyland, Reflections on the Dissertation Process, Walt Disney

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