Walt Disney’s boundless optimism

I’ve been mentally debriefing myself in the 36 hours since my return from a fairly intense Disney vacation and wanted to share some of those thoughts with you.

I’ve always loved Disneyland. When I was young, I was taken in by the apparent magic. I didn’t notice the motors and wires and paint. To me, it was all real and it was wonderful. Now that I’m older, I’m equally fascinated by the real magic, which is the way in which Disney so efficiently manages the theme parks. They are immaculate and run with few hitches. Government could learn something from Disney.

On my last few visits to both Disneyland and Disney World, I’ve also been struck by one other thing: the clear difference between the sites and rides that Walt Disney himself planned and those that Disney corporation created without his input. The former have an intangible charm and coherence that is completely lacking in the latter — and I find this to be true no matter how high the quality of the new additions. They may be good, but they lack the magic. It’s no surprise to me, therefore, that my favorite Disney World parks are the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, both of which realize Disney’s vision, and that Disney/MGM and Disney’s Adventure Park fell into a fairly distant second. The latter were imaginative and well-maintained, but they lacked that unique Walt Disney . . . something. Disney was a true visionary.

Thinking about it, part of that indefinable Disney something is the man’s boundless optimism and patriotism. When the corporation is planning a ride, it’s thinking about demographics and focus groups and usability. Sometimes, this works wonderfully, as in Soarin’, which is a technical wonder, and sometimes it’s an awful failure, as in the dark, disco travesty at Disney World that was once the charming Enchanted Tiki Room. Walt Disney’s ideas seemed to spring from a creative well that was unique to the man and had little to do with suits sitting around a table brainstorming as to what will compete against Universal Studios.

In a funny way, Disney’s genius can be defined by the fact that my father hated the man and his products. My Dad, as you know, was raised a Communist and, despite eventually voting for Reagan, never recovered from the anger that Communism seems to bring to its adherents. What he hated about Disney was the man’s absolute faith in the American future — his sense that America’s beginnings were good and that her future was only going to get better. My father, a Zinn-ite before Zinn existed, rejected the rosy respect Disney had for America’s past and couldn’t see the way to a brighter future.

My Dad’s pessimistic outlook about America’s past, present and future, an outlook shaped by a Communist childhood in Weimar Germany, was the antithesis of the optimism so perfectly expressed in Disney’s favorite show, the Carousel of Progress (which I last saw and loved in California in 1970, and that my children were able to see and love in Florida in 2008.) If you’re unfamiliar with the Carousel, it’s a circular theater where the the stage is fixed, but the audience revolves around. This revolution takes the audience to vignettes of an American family at the turn of the last century, the 1920s, the post-War 1940s and the early 1990s. (When I first saw it, the last scene was from 1967.) Each scene opens and closes with the song “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow” and, in each scene, the father of the household expounds on the wonders of the era — whether it’s gas lighting, a refrigerator, electricity, dishwashers, or computer games. It is a lovely homage to the good in America’s past, present and future. The whole show reflects one man’s delight in his country, and I don’t see any corporation, no matter how well run, ever matching this joyous optimism and patriotism.