It is mind boggling to think it has been 50 years ago that Disney World first opened.
Fifty years ago, Disney World’s celebrated opening promised joy and inspiration to all; today the theme park is reckoning with its white middle-class past.
It’s 1971 in America. Both the Cold War and the Vietnam War drag on. Richard Nixon is in the White House. In March, Frank Kameny becomes the first openly gay candidate for U.S. Congress. In May, anti-war and pro-peace activists effectively shut down Washington, D.C., and the Chicano Moratorium Movement begins an 800-mile march from the U.S-Mexico border to Sacramento, protesting racial discrimination and advocating for political reform. In August, the first official Women’s Equality Day is recognized. And in September, the Attica Prison Riot casts a spotlight on the rights of the incarcerated, particularly for persons of color.
But for those with time and money, October 1 marks the opening of a new vacation resort in central Florida, a place for escape.
When Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom opened its gates 50 years ago this month on 11-square miles near Orlando in Lake Buena Vista, the much-anticipated amusement park was an enticing prospect, promising a whole new “way of life,” where guests could “leave the world of today behind.”
Opening day was a low-key affair. Newspapers made predictions of first-day crowds that ranged from 30,000 to 200,000; but about 10,000 showed up, giving the new theme park’s employees time to work out the kinks.
Press coverage was somewhat mixed. One local official announced to the readers of the Orlando Sentinel that the opening was the “greatest thing since Florida sunshine,” while the Pensacola News expressed concern for overtaxed highways and an end to the “peaceful existence [Orlando citizens] once enjoyed.”
Life Magazine dedicated the cover of its October 15, 1971 issue to the “carefully crafted vision of the American past,” which it called an “intricate, hokey, hugely expensive assemblage of lives and places that never were,” even as its glamorous cover shot was designed to showcase the park. Look magazine reported that the theme park was “thousands of acres of computerized fun.”
Whether they were lovers or critics of Disney World, planning a trip, or promising never to visit, few in America were unaware of its opening.
The President of the United States can be heard on the infamous White House tapes discussing with his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman the day’s festivities. Haldeman updated Nixon on the park’s coverage in Time, Newsweek and Life. “They all tried to knock ‘em, but even the cynics can’t,” he said. “And the only reason these people are knocking them is that the streets are all clean and the kids are wholesome and have short hair and everybody smiles.”
Nixon was invited to the dedication ceremonies, but he sent Haldeman and press secretary Ron Ziegler (who had once worked at its West Coast counterpart, Disneyland, as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride) as his representatives. They presented Roy Disney with a flag that had flown over the White House. In a letter, accompanying the banner, the President emphasized “our faith in the American dream which is so much in evidence at Walt Disney World.”
First day visitors themselves had nothing but praise for the theme park. One woman told TIME magazine: “Oh, it just makes you want to cry…it’s all so happy here.” A Florida local told the New York Times: “We need a place like this because of the world situation… a place where we can come and relax and forget about all the bad things.”
And a place to forget bad things is exactly what visitors found. Both Walt Disney World and Disneyland were purposefully crafted to offer a sense of reassurance. “At every point in the design of Disney’s theme parks you feel safe, secure—you feel as though you know where you are in space,” wrote curator Karal Ann Marling, who organized the 1997 exhibition, “The Architecture of Reassurance,” for the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. The show explored how the built environment of the Disney theme parks translates directly into feelings of comfort for the visitor.
From scholars, to visitors, to the engineers who built the Disney theme parks and who Disney dubbed “Imagineers” the default for describing the parks was to talk about its orderliness, safety and cleanliness—a 1971 article exclaimed “spotlessness is next to Disneyness.”
Even in recent years, during the coronavirus pandemic, the sense of physical and emotional safety offered by the theme parks has continued to draw visitors, who might be reluctant to travel elsewhere. Walt Disney World closed in 2020 from March to July, and reopened with strict Covid precautions in place—including temperature checks at security gates, decreased capacity, mask-wearing, social distancing and stricter than usual cleaning schedules. In May 2021, an internal Disney study found that intent to visit Walt Disney World was similar to 2019 pre-pandemic levels. Many Disney fans who have ventured to the parks since their reopening report feelings similar to those of theme park journalist Tarah Chieffi, who visited in September 2020 and reported: “Disney’s safety measures made me feel comfortable enough to book future vacations there.”
Reassurance transcends Disney hospitality and permeates the theme parks’ stories and values. Disney’s narratives resound with the motif of a nation overcoming tough times and emerging triumphant, whether it is new locomotive technology bringing prosperity and injecting new life into a small town on Main Street U.S.A., or pioneers taming the frontier in Frontierland, or explorers discovering new successes in Tomorrowland.
In 1955 when Disneyland first opened in Anaheim, California, these narratives comforted white, middle-class Americans facing an uncertain future during the Cold War era. In Orlando in 1971, Disney’s army of “Imagineers” crafted similar themes as they updated attractions and expanded them on the far larger piece of property.
Disneyland’s creators were working from their lived white middle-class experience. But they left out the stories of many others. Even before it was officially opened, reporters at the Miami Herald leveled criticism at the park for being too “representative of the Middle American upbringing of Disney himself.”
The question of how well Disney World’s narratives reflect the true diversity of America has continued to be asked at the park over its history.
Fifty years ago on October 25, the official dedication with all the pomp and circumstance of marching bands and celebrity appearances got underway. Roy O. Disney, brother of Walt and then C.E.O of the Walt Disney Company, stood elbow to elbow with Mickey Mouse to read from a bronze plaque, expressing the hope for Walt Disney World to “bring Joy and Inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place.”
This past weekend, as similarly celebratory festivities got underway, audio speakers across the park repeatedly broadcasted the words of Roy Disney’s dedication speech, read by current Disney cast members. As if to recommit, Jeff Vahle, Walt Disney World’s president, and vice president Melissa Valiquette, both gave voice to Roy Disney’s wish of “Joy and Inspiration and Knowledge to all.”
To achieve that today, Disney World must reckon with an American population more diverse than ever before, and predicted to become only more so. What was reassuring to a larger population of whites in 1971, serves only as a reminder of the many challenges we face today across the spectrum of racial and wealth inequality, social justice and global climate change.
What happens to a place built on stories of reassurance for a white middle class when today those stories can feel offensive and hardly reassuring at all? In the case of the Disney parks, the answer is: you change, or you risk becoming culturally and economically irrelevant as guests look elsewhere for reassurance.
Since its founding, Walt Disney World has been able to both change and add to its narratives. In the past, cultural changes at the Disney Parks were subtle, noticeable only by avid Disney goers: the “Indian War Canoes” attraction was renamed the “Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes,” smoking was confined to smaller and smaller areas until it was finally banned altogether in 2019, the Aunt Jemima Pancake House Restaurant became River Belle Terrace. Changes have come and gone to Tom Sawyer Island’s depiction of a settler cabin, and the policy on fake guns included in attractions has evolved.
Beginning in the late 2010s, updates went from a trickle to a flow, with Disney acknowledging implicitly and occasionally explicitly that they were changing because certain pieces of “reassurance” in the theme parks were not so any longer—or perhaps never were. The changes in the parks being announced were grand enough to attract the attention of even the most casual Disney-goer, and even non-Disney fans.
A 2017 update removed a controversial bride auction scene from the fan-favorite ride “Pirates of the Caribbean,” due to its potential connotations of sex trafficking. A much-anticipated change was announced in 2020: a retheming or “plussing” of the “Splash Mountain” attraction, which had debuted in 1989, and featured racist characters from the 1946 film Song of the South, based on Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus folk tales. The ride initially side-stepped some of the criticism by featuring only the animal characters of the tales, but still featured Harris’ white version of a Southern Black dialect. Calls have been issued by fans and critics alike for its removal.
“We continually evaluate opportunities to enhance and elevate experiences for our guests. It’s important that our guests be able to see themselves in the experiences we create,” said Carmen Smith, a creative development and inclusive strategies executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, according to the Disney Parks Blog, after announcing that the ride would be re-themed to feature Tiana, Disney’s first African American princess.
“The Jungle Cruise,” arguably one of the most racially problematic rides at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, received its overhaul earlier this year as Imagineers re-themed it to “reflect and value the diversity of the world around us.”
In April 2021, chairman Josh D’Amaro officially announced the addition of a new “Fifth Key” to Disney’s Four Keys—principles that guide Disney cast members in their work. The “Fifth Key” emphasized inclusion, representing a commitment to “work toward a world where we all belong–including a more diverse and inclusive Disney Parks, Experiences and Products.”
This was followed by announcements of more changes, including updates to the “Disney Look,” the code of appearance employees (known as cast members) abide by to allow for more gender-inclusive self-expression, and an update to park-announcement language that eliminated the phrase “boys and girls” in favor of the more inclusive “friends.”
Just ahead of the anniversary, decorative panels at the Main Street Confectionery debuted the story of the home-baking competitor Saul Fitz, who shares his baked goods with his partner Gary Henderson—the first-ever openly LGBTQ characters to appear in the Disney theme parks.
This doesn’t mean that Disney World doesn’t have more work to do. While new attractions are generally crafted with both an eye to diversity and an eye to technological adaptability that will make future changes easier, older attractions are often stuck in an outmoded narrative, appearing all the more out-of-date as Disney updates the rest of the park.
The “Carousel of Progress,” an audio-animatronic stage show that debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair and details one family’s increasing ease of life due to new technologies over several time periods, is today glaringly white and heteronormative, even in the scene that attempts to depict the future.
At Epcot, the “American Adventure” attraction still starts its story of American history with the arrival of the Pilgrims. It seems likely that as Disney continues evaluating what changes are needed to fully live up to their goal of inclusion, these attractions will by necessity receive updates.
Yet even in this state of in-between, Disney World is perhaps emblematic of what is most reassuring in America, at the moment, as we deal with the effects of the dual pandemics of coronavirus and racism.
Disney has proven willing to look at itself, recognize its own contributions to historical harms, and strive to do better, sometimes failing, but learning along the way. Perhaps that is, at the moment, the most reassuring thing they can do.