PRINT December 1991


Theme Parks

“IT'S BEEN SAID that this is an adult Disneyland,” the American manager of a bar outside our soon-to-be-abandoned Philippine naval station at Subic Bay wistfully told the New York Times. “Adult Disneyland” may be an oxymoron, but everybody knows what he meant: to call Subic Bay a “Disneyland” is merely to call it a paradise for Americans.

Disneyland is the grand national metaphor—the concept that distills and compresses the past forty years of TV, suburbs, industrialized leisure, the rise of the Southern Rim, and the reign of Ronald Reagan. (Indeed, Disneyland was first a television show and only then a place, built in a Southern Rim suburb and consecrated by, among others, Ronald Reagan, later to be enshrined as an Audio-Animatronic figure in the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World.) “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Disney” is how Time headlined a piece on theme parks, published in the spring of 1986 at the height of the Reagan euphoria. Perhaps the most pathetic incident in the 1989 documentary Roger & Me was the Rust Belt city of Flint’s hapless attempt to reinvent itself as a tourist attraction—squandering $100 million on a theme park whose attractions include a miniaturized reconstruction of the old, abandoned downtown and a mechanical autoworker singing a love song to the robot that has replaced him on the assembly line.

One can hardly blame the Flint city fathers. The old dream machines have corroded, their plants have shut down. In nearby Detroit, the Institute of Arts is reportedly close to collapse; meanwhile, down in Orlando, Walt Disney World, which hosted the 1988 meeting of the Museum Trustee Committee for Research and Development, offers a model for “creating museum magic.” It seems appropriate that last year’s “High/Low” blockbuster at New York’s Museum of Modern Art resembled a theme park not only in its promotion and crowd control but also in its topography, with visitors touring the realms of Comics, Caricature, Advertising, and Graffiti (the latter the only one that would never appear in Disney).

Museums are for scribble-scrabble; theme parks are America’s real culture. An $80 million Elvis Presley park is planned for Tokyo—its centerpiece will be the recreation of a 1950s American street. Matsushita’s Universal subsidiary recently acquired rights to the Rocky and Bullwinkle characters, presumably for use in another projected Japanese theme park. The $4.4 billion Euro Disneyland, just outside Paris, will greet the abolition of European Community borders in 1992. Buoyed by the success of their Warner Bros. Movie World park in Australia, Time Warner is developing a second one in Rome.

Born at the same moment, the movies and the amusement park have merged—and not just in the mind of Steven Spielberg. “Walt Disney was the messiah,” the designer of the Universal Studios Tour told Time for its recent cover story on Orlando, “Disney saw the future, and it was the themed environment.” As a show biz laboratory, Southern California gives way to Central Florida. (Though MGM, imploding into its themed environment, has already announced a plan to build a billion-dollar hotel-casino-theme-park complex designed to project Las Vegas as the “next Orlando.”) The Disney chief executive who opened the Disney-MGM theme park in Orlando announced “a Hollywood that never was, and will always be.” Time’s report on America’s greatest tourist attraction simulates Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco: “Orlando, the boomtown of the South, is growing on the model of Disney World: a community that imitates an imitation of a community.”

But that imitation is itself something. A Disney engineer describes “Disney Realism” as a “utopian” construct “where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements.” Thus, as Time observed, “Disney World is predominantly white and middle class—and so is Orlando. The city, like Disney World, offers relief not just from the pressures of geography (it is flat and still undeveloped) and of history (more than half the area’s population arrived during the past 20 years) but, most of all, from contending ethnicity. In that sense, Orlando is a new psychological frontier, a jumping-off place for a society that revels in the surface of things, even if deeper problems remain unaddressed.”

Comfortably unicultural, this liberating new psychological frontier is a virtual reality that has rationalized and homogenized all human history. Disney World’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) is a permanent world’s fair: in addition to various exhibits that extol democracy’s manifest destiny (kinda like Subic Base for kids) and demonstrate our techno-mastery over the cosmos, it offers 11 national pavilions made all the more pleasant by the absence of actual natives. As presaged by the 1973 movie Westworld, a high-tech version of City Slickers set in a dysfunctional Cowboyland, and suggested by the grand climax of the Back to the Future trilogy (now a new $40 million attraction at the Universal Studios Tour), the theme park is successor to the Hollywood western as the repository of American order, morals, history, and civilization.

Thus, after taking tourists through the Great Depression and into an eternal ’50s, EPCOT’s American Adventure—an Audio-Animatronic extravaganza sponsored by American Express and CocaCola—dissolves into iconic personality as it approaches Vietnam. The only era of the postwar world as “heroic” as the ’20s, the ’30s, or the ’40s, the ’60s come to Orlando as pure spirit. As Hollywood prepares to represent the ’60s with the new cycle of personality-driven films—JFK, Ruby, Hoffa, Malcolm X—so here are images of Marilyn and Elvis, JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali and John Wayne, projected on high like so many angels.

Truly, Orlando is the new mecca. Steven Spielberg has purchased a pied-à-terre. The Campus Crusade for Christ is relocating from San Bernardino; the Mormons are building a city nearby. A billion-dollar 450-acre theme park is under development by guru-mogul Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and magician Doug Henning—all rides to be based on Hindu sacred texts. (“Those who visit the park will leave in a state of perfect physical and mental balance known as enlightenment,” reports Variety.) Exiled from her Heritage USA theme park, Tammy Faye Bakker plots her comeback from a warehouse on Orlando’s outskirts, paraphrasing the U.S. Constitution when she tells Time that “the spiritual person and the person who wants to have fun, it’s the same thing.”

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum and writes film criticism for The Village Voice, New York. His writings from the ’80s were recently published under the title Vulgar Modernism by Temple University Press.