Friday, June 8, 2012

Disney Dreams

Walt Disney opened his California theme park in 1955 with these words: "To all who come to this happy place, welcome."

"This happy place" quickly morphed into the slogan of the park that persists to this day -- "The Happiest Place on Earth."  The recognizability of the phase as referring to Disneyland and now to other Disney parks certainly attests to its success as a marketing logo, but also to the fact that several generations of visitors have agreed with the sentiment it expresses.

Although Walt clearly wanted to make people happy, there was quite a bit more to it than that.  At the 1955 opening ceremony he went on to say,
 "Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past...and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America...with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world."
His own dream was embodied in his plans for Disney World in Florida,  a project that went way beyond anything he had accomplished at Disneyland.  As I mentioned in my last blog, Disney World was opened in 1971 but sadly Disney died of lung cancer before it was completed. The official motto of WDW became "Where Dreams Come True," perhaps a reference not only to the dreams of visitors but also to Walt's own. At the grand opening Walt's brother Roy alluded to this:
"Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney ... and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney's dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring joy and inspiration and new knowledge to all who come to this happy place ... a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn ... together."
And Julie Andrews, host of the televised ceremonies, made the connection very clear, referring to the park as "...a joyful land built by an inspired dreamer for other dreamers and dreams still to come."

It is hard to find fault with these sentiments.  They seem particularly uplifting in this time of economic, political, and social malaise.  After the deaths of Walt and Roy, it fell to the corporate structure they created to carry on the ideals they had espoused in these dedication speeches. For the most part I think the Disney brothers would approve of the changes in the parks and the numerous other new projects and developments that have taken place in their name over the years.

The many times I have visited the parks (almost always WDW) I have enjoyed myself thoroughly.  However, my last stay at WDW produced some nagging qualms that I have been struggling to deal with.  In my last blog I explored one of them, the presence of thousands of school-age children before the end of the school year who did not seem to be there to "...savor the challenge and promise of the future" nor to appreciate "new knowledge."  But they were certainly managing to "...laugh and play"  (well, when they weren't on their cell phones).

Another qualm has to do with the message that seems to underlie the current use of the slogans mentioned above.  It was about five years since I was at WDW, and I'm not sure whether it is me who has changed or whether it is the way the taglines are being used, but during my most recent visit I began to detect a shallowness to the constant emphasis on dreams, wishes, memories and magic -- a shallowness that certainly doesn't do justice to Walt and Roy.  The message, delivered in performances and attractions that were invariably entertaining and thoroughly effective at evoking warm and fuzzy visceral emotional responses, seemed to be that your dreams will always come true if you just wish with all your heart.  Just wish it and it will happen, no matter what you want.

This idea appeared in many venues and was especially evident in the spectacularly well-produced nightly fireworks show called, appropriately enough, Wishes. The show begins with some great fireworks and a few words from the Blue Fairy, who proclaims that when a star is born it has the power to grant a wish.  A song follows ending with the well-known refrain "When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will"  Jiminy Cricket then directly addresses those who might be skeptical:  "I'll bet a lot of you folks don’t believe that, about a wish coming true, do ya? We'll I didn’t either. Course, I’m just a cricket, but lemme tell you what made me change my mind. You see, the most fantastic, magical things can happen, and it all starts with a wish!"  The evidence is then presented in the form of the wishes-come-true of Tinkerbell, Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and Aladdin.  Jiminy concludes "You see, its just like I told ya. Wishes can come true, if you believe in them with all your heart."

Well, ok.  But I wonder if a more beneficial lesson might not be drawn from Disney's own life.  His dreams didn't come true just because he wished them to but rather because he worked hard, took great risks, and sacrificed much to overcome many difficulties and obstacles.  He was frequently on the brink of financial disaster;  his creative ideas and plans were often met with skepticism and derision;  a number of his projects were failures, or were abandoned before they were started.  Despite these challenges he persevered when many of us would have given up.  Wishing and dreaming were necessary to his success, but hardly sufficient. 

In my view that's the true legacy of Disney.


Anne in Seven Mile said...

Wow -- a strong message!Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

PaddleDoc said...

I'm more cynical than you. It looks like it is all about money. I've only been to DL, but the more I went, the less fun it was. I haven't been in a long time now, so it might be better again. I liked what I knew about Walt and I especially liked the travelogue movies as a kid.