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Walt Disney (1901-1966)

The master of animated conversation through the language of caricature

Walt Disney Hunt Emerson

Walt Disney Hunt Emerson

Source: Hunt Emerson

One of the great scenes in movie history (beware!) is the cleaning scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It’s as brilliant an exposition on the possible uses of squirrel tails as you’ll find, and Walt Disney acted out all the scenes himself, a testament to his prodigious imagination. That this creativity was inseparable from entrepreneurship meant that when Uncle Walt died in 1966, he’d managed, while not an architect, through a lot of hard thinking (innovation) and bitter experience (bankruptcy) to script the next chapter of the human landscape: Disneyland. Revenues from  Disney landscapes were 70 per  cent of Disney revenue by 1981,  and they were visited by 134 million people in 2014 alone.

The backstory, of two poor brothers Walt and Roy and their (eventual) success, weaves seamlessly into a post story of the Walt Disney Company, where all images are as carefully manipulated as those on  the screen. Walt’s reputation basically depends on who you are, where you are, how old you are and perhaps who pays your bills. Even the fabled Disney archives are apparently asinine; waltwashed.

And why not? The story of a man who fought tirelessly to make people happier – become ‘more of themselves’ – a perfectionist, a risk taker, never photographed with a drink! John M Findlay’s excellent Magic Lands (1992) explains that Walt originally didn’t even want to charge entry to Disneyland, and that his intention to remove clocks and watches ‘of all meaning’ was charmingly deliberate. Marc Eliot’s excellent Hollywood’s Dark Prince (1994) would prefer him as a chain-smoking anti-Semitic FBI agent dunking his doughnuts in scotch for breakfast. Take your pick; he can be Cinderella or Donald Duck!

‘It’s certain Walt wasn’t goofy; he learnt from early mistakes with copyright and quickly realised  the value of merchandising’

But it’s certain Walt wasn’t goofy; he learnt from early mistakes with copyright and quickly realised  the value of merchandising.  Every creative decision was a risk backed by a keen business sense  and probably an argument with Roy. The full-length Snow White was  a way of ensuring better receipts than shorts, even though it was  far more expensive to make. Disneyland worked in reciprocity with television, the deal with ABC  a constant source of income, stabilising the hit-and-miss nature  of blockbusting.

So the business of building dreams was hard-nosed, and the layout deceptively simple: a 140-acre compound cut off and gated, Main  St USA to get you to the ‘weenie’, Snow White’s castle (all a bit Neuschwanstein) and then left  to Frontierland/Adventureland,  right to Tomorrowland, and  behind to Fantasyland. Once inside, you were submerged; not a thing  you saw, felt, heard or smelt was  left to chance. 

The past was presented as acceptably zany, but the future splits opinion right and left. There are those who remain loyal to a technological orientated utopia,  and those who view it as a mirage. Meanwhile ‘forward into the past’ was a simple enough idea, compensating the future’s tendency to date. The problem? While architecture needs utopian aspiration, it is far more contingent on events. Disneyland effectively suppressed the present; so this future looked like a kaleidoscope of dreams rather than an aspiration.

Conveniently, redemption through technology remains the capitalist’s mantra for tomorrow, whatever the practical observations of Karl Marx (or Paul Mason) that he is bound  to run out of puff. Whatever, Disneyland became the virtual world’s Jerusalem, the technology quickening events, or erasing them altogether in favour of pseudo events, thrill rides or ‘experiences’. 


Walt Disney: 1901-1966

Occupation: Entrepreneur, cartoonist, animator, voice actor, film producer, co-founder of the Walt Disney Company

Awards: 22 Academy Awards, 4 honorary Academy Awards, 59 nominations for Academy Awards, 7 Emmy Awards, Cecil B DeMille Award, Légion d’Honneur, 1935

Cartoon creations: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto

Films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinnochio, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Dumbo, Cinderella, Wind in the Willows, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book

Theme parks: Disneyland, Anaheim, California, Disney World, Orlando, Florida

Quote: ‘I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse’

Yet Walt had an acute grasp  of the realities of the day, as newly divorced Disney Dads rolled  you down the new Santa Ana Freeway in the Chevy. Once inside, Disney provided everything: so  it’s back to school with a Mickey lunchbox and clutching a Mickey comfort blanket. You learnt to drive in General Motors-sponsored Autopia on safely guided tracks, but revved the real petrol engine yourself. In the first meaningful re-encapsulation of space since  the Renaissance, what you touched was real, but what you saw wasn’t. This may all have been a canny scenography, but we can’t pretend it’s not important.

Disneyland’s horizons, past or future, became so essential to American identity that Nikita Khrushchev was forbidden entry  on grounds of safety, but I conjecture the authorities were afraid the Soviet premier would recognise the game. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, it was  one of planet earth’s soundstages for the event. Success was so  great that Ray Bradbury wondered if WED Enterprises might administrate the whole of Los Angeles. But it is also cipher  for all things fake, corny, and conventional and even sinister;  a place where the fun is no fun. 

Before Disneyland, amusement parks, be they Coney Island or Tivoli Gardens, were either tawdry or twee. Inhabiting a fantasy that was suddenly safe and non-deviant, where large threatening things (trains) became diminutive fun and small comforting things (rabbits) became inflated and huggable, was an Imagineering masterstroke. And the whole place was self (or at least invisibly) policed; no hoodlums riding dodgems and no beer to ruin everything. Instead employees graduating from Disney university were unbearably polite while they suffocated in their bear suits. 

This is all now everyday life, and when American capitalism began  to hit the buffers, Disney tactics became all-pervasive, from Las Vegas casinos to local shopping malls. You could call it anything from ‘entertainment architecture’ to ‘placemaking’. In a very bullish period under the stewardship of Michael Eisner. real architects – Robert Stern, Venturi Scott Brown, Michael Graves, Arata Isozaki, Charles Gwathmey,  Cesar Pelli and Philip Johnson – all got in on the act of building  the dream. Call it infantilism if you like, but it screamed Disney dollars.

‘There’s a challenging/amusing set of problems in Disney heritage: the black crows in Dumbo, Alice on pot, persistent ethnicity issues’

But as Will Self has pointed out, in so far as we are now rammed up against the spectacle, are we not more aware of it? For a more knowing audience, there’s a challenging/amusing set of problems in Disney heritage: the black crows in Dumbo, Alice on pot, persistent ethnicity issues, the general image of princesses and even evil Siamese cats come to mind. Meanwhile, Epcot featured a world without retirees and entry demanded haircuts.

So to say Walt Disney has been misrepresented would be unfair, he has been roundly criticised; by the Hollywood establishment, by workers, by infuriated academics; by those with a sense of social purpose above the pursuit of happiness in its crudest and  most nostalgic forms. But he is beloved of children, sci-fi writers, corporations, the American state and, periodically, by moms and pops momentarily relieved of their excruciating burdens. ‘The Mouse’ is so iconic as to inspire parody; from an annual goth pilgrimage to heckle Snow White in Anaheim to ‘Dismaland’ in Weston-super-Mare (upon which, progressively, the once famously litigious corporation has so far declined to comment). 

In fact Disney’s struggle  to ‘make it real’ is not unlike  that toward ‘true communism’. Epcot became a fascinating exercise in utopia that never  took off (just less far-fetched than Jacque Fresco’s Venus Project). Meanwhile the ‘forward into  the past’ concept extended as  far as Celebration, a new town half radical (progressive schooling and health provision) and half Truman Show, that, being so  far from Stevenage, is surely a  bit too obvious to be a true con. Perhaps just as Walt fervently believed in the American dream, he perfectly demonstrated it as precisely just that.


Illustration by Hunt Emerson