It Fakes a Village: How Disneyland and California Adventure Came to Be

If the Happiest Place on Earth was once our great escape, California Adventure is an unsettling reminder of home

We all live in Disneyland and we know it. The question is, What does it mean? On one hand, Southern California is a palm-studded paradise where any dream can come true. On the other, our cities are vast deserts of parking lots and strip malls, cluttered with power lines and billboards pimping glossy consumer fantasies, arid streetscapes through which we creep alone in our cars, smog addled, simmering with road rage, deprived of social interaction. For better or for worse, we might owe it all to Uncle Walt. While it may seem farcical, his miniature fantasyland for children, since it opened in 1955, has been arguably the single largest influence on the shaping of American space. To academic urbanists like Harvard University’s Margaret Crawford, it represents the loss of real cities to rampant commercialism: “Disney’s most profound innovation was to transform public space and the built environment into a commodity.” To European theorists like Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco, the Magic Kingdom, and by extension Los Angeles, was the birthplace of the “hyperreal,” an insidious new kind of space where crass simulation drowned the true and authentic.

To others, Disney had it all right. In 1963 the high-profile developer James Rouse, chairing a planning conference at Harvard, proclaimed Disneyland the “greatest piece of urban design in the United States today.” He, and many others, made it their life’s work to spread the gospel far and wide.

Walt was indeed a visionary urbanist. He intended his park as a critique of what he saw as the dirty, crowded, altogether unmagical industrial cities of the East—and their amusement parks like New York City’s Coney Island, with their “tawdry rides and hostile employees.” Disneyland, by contrast, would be safe, clean, bright, polite, and reassuringly small—carefully scaled down to children’s size. Science fiction writer and futurist Ray Bradbury wrote approvingly: “The first function of architecture is to make men over. Disneyland liberates men to their better selves.” Walt agreed. His would be a miraculous city, with no cares, no work, no anxiety: “Clocks and watches will lose all meaning, for there is no present. There are only yesterday, tomorrow, and the timeless land of fantasy.” A place where grown-ups could “drop their defenses” and “become more like themselves.” Where it would be safe to let adults dressed as large furry animals dandle the kiddies on their knees. In short, Utopia.

At first, the Happiest Place on Earth was associated positively with Los Angeles and Southern California. Both were young, optimistic, prosperous, can-do, with boundless “faith in the future,” in Wales words. The match was natural. As an outgrowth of the movie business, Disney’s plan echoed the real Hollywood’s impossible juxtapositions of movie, set theme houses and buildings—here Spanish baroque, there Norman mansard, there ye olde English cottage, complete with fake cracks and “thatch” roofing. Though its designers claimed it was meant to resemble no specific place or time, Disneyland’s architectural innovations were audience-tested products of L.A.’s unique built culture, what the pioneering critic Reyner Banham called “instant architecture in an instant townscape.” Walt did Hollywood one better—he stole the show. One park visitor in 1965 summed up: “To our children Los Angeles is merely a suburb of Disneyland.”

But as early as 1958, Disneyland was being seen more as critique of Southern California than celebration of it, an expression of the smalltown Midwestern values of Main Street versus the increasingly sprawling, smoggy mess of Los Angeles. It became Disneyfication versus Californication, and Disney had the better PR. Before long, L.A. was seen as phony, Disneyland as real. To sober architects and planners, the tightly controlled Magic Kingdom appealed as planning, period, right in the middle of the unplanned anticity. It was compact, rational, and pedestrian. The rabble could be quietly kept out—as could the commies: Walt denied entry to an enraged Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet premier and secret Mickey fan, in 1959. It offered, in Banham’s phrase, “illicit pleasures of mobility. Ensconced in a sea of giant parking lots in a city devoted to the automobile, it provides transportation that doesn’t exist outside—steam trains, monorails, people-movers, tram-trains, travelators, ropeways, not to mention pure transport fantasies such as simulated space-trips and submarine rides.” Never mind that the sole way to get to Disney’s Shangri-la was in a car, as he had carefully sited it far from anywhere anybody lived, on a soon-to-be-bulldozed patch of orange groves alongside the shiny, new Santa Ana Freeway. And he had planned for that, too: Richfield Oil’s Autopia ride in Tomorrowland would train the kiddies for the freeway way of life, and there was plenty of parking.

Bradbury nominated Walt for mayor in 1960, saying: “Disney is a city builder. He has already solved, in small compass, most of the problems that beset Los Angeles.”

Walt never ran for mayor. Instead, he soon ran away from what he had helped create. The people took his formula to heart: All around the little Magic Kingdom the orange groves were leveled, Autopia crawled, and private magic castles, individually themed, sprawled to the horizon in ranks of tens of thousands. Inside the dirt berm built to keep reality out, the park became so crowded that Walt complained, “I’ve got to build down now, and up.” The Pirates of the Carribean went underground; Space Mountain went above. Too much of a good thing. By 1984 the company line was that Main Street had originally been built to counter “the rootless society and ugliness” of L.A. Walt the city builder lit out for the virgin territory of central Florida, where he could amass a huge, swampy fiefdom far from government interference to build his next utopia, Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—EPCOT.

This spring marked the return of the prodigal corporation to ground zero, Anaheim. Driving south on I-5, past the point where L.A.’s three decrepit, pitted lanes open out to seven clean, expensive ones in the new, “post-suburban” Orange County, a visitor will see signs for Disneyland Drive and California Adventure—as though it were just another street, perhaps an obstacle course for SUVs. CEO Michael Eisner’s decidedly unidealistic Disney Corp. built its newest park on the old 55-acre Disneyland parking lot, which it replaced with a truly impressive multilevel parking structure served by trams. Here is the first reflection of the new shape of California: To accommodate the phenomenal growth, everything has to get more dense—building up and down.

Next is the main event: the entire state, cleanly packed into 55 acres, a kind of 3-D star map of tourist highlights presented in walkable diorama form. While it might seem strange and ironic to make a model of California in the middle of California, this is in fact the sober essence of the theme-park business: People prefer the manageable simulation to the complicated real just as children like dolls and dollhouses. Millions of us prefer it, even if we have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles. As critic Michael Sorkin has written about trips to Disneyland, “One has gone nowhere in spite of the equivalent ease of going somewhere.”

Where Disneyland is studiously “placeless,” California Adventure is a fetish of places, though some are more specific than others. As you walk inside, under a mini Golden Gate Bridge, a doll crossing the threshold of your very own dollhouse, Bing Crosby sings from hidden speakers, “I’m gonna … make the San Fernando Valley my homey The Bay Area is further represented by a Palace of Fine Arts and a few gold rush-themed storefronts, Monterey by a clutch of food concessions a la Cannery Row. The states agricultural valleys are compressed into Bountiful Valley Farm, while the entire Sierra Nevada range has been ingeniously squeezed into Grizzly Peak, a fake-rock summit that includes a river-rafting ride and is constructed in the shape of a growling grizzly bear that looms over the center of the park just as the “snow”-dusted Matterhorn does across the way in Disneyland.

Across a placid body of water is Paradise Pier, an amalgamation of traditional amusement parks like Balboa’s Fun Zone, Long Beach’s Pike, and Santa Cruz’s Beach Boardwalk. It is Walls hated Coney Island, with all the sleazy concessions now just cheesy and the old carny thrill rides freshened up with California names: California Screamin’ roller coaster (the park does not set a good grammatical example for pupils), the Maliboomer, Mulholland Madness, and so on. Of course, on the opposite side of the old parking lot is Hollywood Pictures Backlot, a small knockoff of Universal Studios and the Disney-MGM attraction in Florida, centered on a brisk pastiche of Hollywood Boulevard lined with squeezed-down facades of famous buildings, some on the actual boulevard, some not: the El Capitan and Crest theaters, the Roosevelt Hotel, and a dwarf Fairfax (modeled on Farmers) Market. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis-Brown residence stylishly houses the rest rooms.

Overhead the monorail, first opened in 1959 to confident pronouncements that it wood save us from our autodystopic selves, rumbles past. But it doesn’t stop. The illicit pleasures of mobility were not included in the 21st-century version. And this is not all bad. Disney’s Hollywood Boulevard has the crowded, Main Street feel that is the elusive grail of urban designers everywhere. People mill about, using odd spaces to sit and lean, eat, and take photos in the too—white, washed—out California light. This milling is no accident—California Adventure is less a theme park than a theme mall with a few rides—and the ratio of rides to retail is not good. Now classed as “attractions and adventures,” there are 24; ten are traditional rides that move—and eight of these are in Paradise Pier. Compare this with the number of stores (18) and food concessions (26) and Umberto Eco’s charge that Disneyland is a “disguised supermarket” gains new meaning.

This one block of streetscape spans six degrees of Disneyfication: a circular proof of Walt’s vast influence on our built environment. In the ’70s and ’80s, developers spread his recipe thickly over the land, resulting in the widely lamented “mailing of America.” Then, stung by criticism, the mall builders began copying the real street, with its frisson of mixing and crowds and spontaneity, trying to inject a safe dose of excitement back into their antiseptic domains. 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and CityWalk at Universal City are among the testaments to their success. Now, Disney returns the compliment. In addition, outside, between the two parks, is Downtown Disney, another new shopping “street” filled with the likes of House of Blues and an ESPN Zone sports bar. It has no admission charge, and the hot dogs cost $2.89, versus $4.99 inside the park.

These two “themed” streets show the promise and failure of Disney urbanism: They work; they can even feel revelatory. What they reveal, simply, is that the fabled, much lamented public space of yore is nothing more complex than shared space without cars. These places are filled with the unscripted, street-level dynamics that author Jane Jacobs celebrated in her epochal 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But here is where the Disney street and the real street part ways. In the real street, people can live and work without the total domination of cars. Here the streets anchor what used to be called neighborhoods. Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, a reinvestment in a traditional, dying downtown retail district, has people working and living in it, in upstairs apartments. Though it is thoroughly commercial, it forms part of the warp and weave of a neighborhood. CityWalk at Universal Studios, on private property with gates and security cameras and closing hours, does not. But CityWalk is a smash as a “shopping experience.” People are comfortable—and will happily spend money—if you build them the right urban-theme spectacle. Let them shuffle, lean, walk, and gawk. A stage set works great; the decor need not be “real.” This is Learning from Las Vegas—meaning the new, Disneyfied, family-fun Las Vegas where the casino zone, excluding the traffic lanes down the middle of the Strip, is pedestrian. Some of it is served by a monorail, no less.

In the end the Disney enterprise rests on the marketing of movies. Walt’s genius lay in generating a realm of inclusive, private fantasy for each customer. According to Banham, Disneyland was “the set for a film that was never ever going to be made except in the mind of the visitor.” California Adventure is not a set but an all-Disney multiplex, showing a handful of official propaganda reels in cramped rooms. No more animatronic bears, pirates, or creaking presidents. Now all the narrators are projections, like Whoopi Goldberg as the mythic spirit “Califia,” who guides us through “Golden Dream,” a celebration of California history as a saga of great visionaries and brave immigrants persevering against racism, presented in inexplicable, undigested pairings, such as William Mulholland and John Muir, or Cesar Chavez and Steve Jobs.

Besides the roller coaster, the best “ride” is Soarin’ over California, a movie at which the audience seems to fly. Once we’re strapped in, the ranks of seats swoop up and forward, thrusting us into the face of the wide screen. A series of aerial shots through and over emblematic landscapes, set to appropriately soarin’, swellin’ film music, constitutes the adventure. There is Monterey Bay, the Golden Gate, and the Russian River, full of kayakers. In Yosemite Valley a hang glider pilot swoops close for a moment, then veers away. There is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, San Diego, downtown Los Angeles at night, Palm Springs, and a bucolic orange grove near Camarillo—where orange blossom scent wells up into ones face on a breeze. The ride actually achieves a believable sense of motion. As the lights went up, an older couple, beaming, confessed to me that they had returned twice just for this.

It was exhilarating, if short. I felt as though I had just seen a promo film, set to upbeat music, inside a model home for a planned ranchette subdivision somewhere in—sunny California. I wanted to buy an SUV and go kayaking through salmon-filled rivers or, better yet, buy a house in Palm Springs and spend my days driving a golf cart over a brimming, blue aqueduct for a three-iron shot from a green carved out of a mountain—just like in the movie.

Maybe it was the canned orange scent that gave it away. On this former orange grove, oranges are everywhere: a real mini grove in the model farm, flowering intoxicatingly in April; the Orange Stinger ride, a huge, half-peeled orange containing a spinning swing set; in paintings and on menus. It is a totemic image, displayed as if to give us hope of regaining the lost paradise, in the afterlife, or in a new subdivision, farther out on the fringes.

If Disneyland is the past and the future, with no present, California Adventure likewise shuns the present: of course no sign of the problems of the real state—traffic, smog, housing shortages, blackouts, crime, class and racial alienation, pollution, rifling education—which would depress adults and kiddies alike. And no Tomorrowland here: no high-tech economy, nowhere the states ominous demographic path—headed past 50 million by 2050. The only work in evidence is the decidedly low-tech variety going on in the Mission Tortilla Factory and Boudin Bakery “attractions.” The new park is pure nostalgia. Happiness having been cornered across the way, California Adventure had to find another product—the mythic image of California—and it sells it the time-honored booster way: Give the rubes a dollar train fare from Iowa and a glossy brochure about orange groves and get them to a land office.

The problem is, of course, the perennial hitch of the paradise land-lot salesman: the disappearance of the thing itself. In Pacific Wharf there are no fishermen, because the salmon have all been killed by dams. Bountiful Valley Farms is void of farmers; the farmers’ market has no vegetables, just sandwiches and painted info cards about vegetables. A big sign next to the Caterpillar irrigation pump, here used to water a fountain for kids, repeats the agribusiness mantra posted on I-5: FOOD GROWS WHERE WATER FLOWS. No mention of the vanishing family farm, or of the breakneck speed at which the Central Valley is being paved over for sun divisions and parking lots, 15,000 acres a year. On Grizzly Peak, John Muir’s wilderness has been conveniently reduced to leisure: a Redwood Creek Challenge Trail full of slides and rope-walks in addition to the rafting ride—bringing the theme park outdoors. The opposite transformation is by now old news. Yosemite itself has long since become Disneyland, replete with all the urban problems of smog, sewage, traffic, crime, garbage, and corrupted bears.

Walt solved L.A.’s problems by ignoring them and then moving away. But you can’t live at Disneyland—and you can’t live at California Adventure. (And if you try to run away to Florida, you’ll find the same issues there, plus humidity and snakes.) His preferred solution—ever more private suburbia—has in turn produced its own problems, substituting a horizontal nightmare for the vertical one he perceived in the old industrial East.

It eats itself, eats land and water and resources, and excludes, by abhorring density, those who can’t afford it. Southern California now contains 7 of the 10 most crowded cities in America—places like Santa Ana and Norwalk, just down and up the freeway from Anaheim, where poor immigrants live stacked up in garages and crumbling stucco apartments. When they can afford to “move up” into the middle class, the logic goes, they will in their turn move out to a singled-family, detached residence with two-car garage and lawn. Unless we learn to build up, and maybe down, too, to accommodate the growth we have invited or just ignored, built Southern California will march inexorably across the deserts to meet its imitators—Phoenix at the dry bed of the Colorado River and surging Las Vegas somewhere in an asphalted Mojave.

The writer Edward Abbey once observed that he had been unable, in spite of several tries, to bring himself to visit Los Angeles, “the fabulous city on the Pacific shore.” Sitting in the Utah desert, he mused darkly, “It may be however that Los Angeles will come to me. Will come to all of us, as it must (they say) to all men.” For many Americans, at least, he has been proved too right.