At EASA, I presented the research for one chapter of my dissertation. In short, my dissertation examines the intersection of popular culture, corporate culture, and the media in American culture (it’s a busy intersection…). Through two case studies for each of the three companies I am examining, I hope to illustrate how corporate culture, popular culture, and media can be discussed in the same forum, as well as how American studies theory and method is an excellent platform for investigating American business culture. It brings two academic worlds together that usually have little to do with one another.
In this chapter, I look at the success of Walt Disney’s parks, specifically Walt Disney World. Walt Disney transformed the amusement park from the carnival-esque atmosphere of Coney Island and other Midway parks into a well-run, clean theme park. Much has been written about how Disney domesticates the spaces in his parks, taming every detail that would be left to chance in another park. Trash is sucked into underground Utilidors, gum is not sold in the parks (to prevent gum from sticking to everything in the park), and the bug situation is very much under control (leave Disney property at your own risk). However, I contend that Disney stands apart for another reason as well. He taps into a long-standing American amusement tradition that attracts guests and places the Disney parks in a different echelon than other theme parks. Disney and his company incorporate rational amusement into the parks, bringing an aspect of education and discovery to the land of Winnie-the-Pooh character breakfasts and Dole Whips.
Rational amusement is not a new concept, but contemporary Americans probably don’t know it by any specific term. Modern pedagogy almost demands its use. Rational amusement (or rational entertainment) is the act of educating while entertaining. Born during the Enlightenment era out of the philosophies of Rousseau and Locke, it took hold in the U.S. during the American Revolution. Wartime (and its build up throughout the colonies) lead many leaders to ban “frivolous activities” in order to have its citizens engaged in only respectable activities and concentrating on the war effort. In order to skirt these regulations, amusements that could claim an educational angle opened. One of the most famous purveyors of rational amusement was Philadelphia’s Charles Willson Peale.
Side note: Charles Willson Peale has been trying to make his way into my research for years. My alma mater, La Salle University, is built on his estate, and his home is where the President’s offices are on campus. It’s also haunted.
Peale is best known as a portrait artist, as he painted many of the leaders of the early republic. He also had very talented sons with really cool artist names, like Rembrandt, Raphaelle, and Titian. After the Revolutionary War ended, he announced his “retirement” from painting, and he decided to open a museum. Peale was a Renaissance man who was very interested in the natural world, and he wanted a place to display his specimens and his portraits. He opened his museum, and before long, he moved it to the 2nd floor of Independence Hall, which is the location we best understand. He painted two works that show off his museum: The Artist in His Museum and The Long Room, which both were completed in the same year. The former is also used in many American studies classrooms to help illustrate the habits of mind necessary to analyze works in the discipline. His museum was largely a serious endeavor, as he hoped to educate the masses about natural science and the new republic. It was affordable to many and was even open later in the evening to accommodate farmers and other laborers who were unavailable during daylight hours. In short, it democratized education for many.
During the 19th century, the laws governing amusements were repealed, but many amusements still maintained an air of education in line with the Victorian ideals of the day. P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill Cody were certainly not considered great educators, but they still exposed people to new concepts and the natural world (albeit with a lot of showmanship and some bearded ladies). Coney Island signals the end of this first wave of rational amusement, as it was amusement for amusement’s sake. People of all sorts of classes, races, and ethnicities mingled together on the shores of Brooklyn, and they were even pushed together on many of the rides. There is no judgement to be passed on Coney Island, but it simply a sign of a cultural shift.
Simultaneously to the decline of rational amusement, the World’s Fairs started coming to America, which signaled that the infant nation was finally coming into its own. These fairs were showcases for scientific and engineering advancements. They also allowed Americans to experience other cultures in the national pavilions. 1876’s Centennial fair in Philadelphia is best known for the introduction of the telephone and the Edison lightbulb. the 1893 fair in Chicago, which celebrated the anniversary of Columbus “discovering” America, was split into a Midway (for amusements) and the White City (for science and information). Other fairs mimicked this set up.
Does this concept sound familiar to you? It might if you have visited Epcot at Walt Disney World. It too is split into a section for national pavilions (the World Showcase) and scientific education (Future World). Walt Disney was no stranger to rational amusement, as he used them in his educational films and television shows. After his death, his original concept for a utopian urban community (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT) was transformed into a sort of permanent World’s Fair. It should be noted that only two years after Epcot’s opening, the United States hosted its last World’s Fair in Kentucky. The fairs (like the Olympic games) tend to be financially draining on the host nation, and no matter how many people cross through the gates, it tends to be a financial loss. Epcot was as well, initially. 1984 found the Disney Company at a major crossroads. Corporate raiders were ready to buy up the company and sell it for parts. Epcot was not making the money they had hoped, and since Disney’s 1966 death, the animated movies had lost direction (and lost money). New leadership (and the return of Disney family members) saved the company and ushered in an era of growth. The old Disney spirit had returned.
The Disney Company understands where its strengths are, and one of those strengths in its parks is making knowledge (especially about science and history) consumable by the masses. Even though the stories are boiled-down and filled with the idea of American exceptionalism, I can’t help but love the shows at the American Adventure and the Hall of Presidents. The Universe of Energy at Epcot is still one of my favorite attractions, perhaps because of the combination of Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Nye (the Science Guy), and Alex Trebek. It is the unique combination of Disney’s parks and the way they present information that sets it apart from a Universal or Six Flags. It’s an all encompassing experience for the whole family.
This post is boiled down from a conference presentation, which was boiled down from a 28+ page dissertation chapter. For more information, ask me! Or wait and read my dissertation.
– The Lady Americanist.