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Disneyland review: the iconic theme park in the age of Star Wars and Marvel

Many of Disneyland’s fans fear the park is changing too fast, but maybe change is what the theme park needs

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Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

My wife and I are greeted at Disneyland by, of all things, a city hall. Not Iron Man. Not Chewbacca. Not Anna and Elsa and Olaf. We’re greeted by the cold stone exterior of a government facility only slightly more beloved than the DMV.

The squat building, looking like it’s been ever so slightly squished between the fingers of a giant, stands alongside the equally diminutive fire station, across the street from a functional but modest town square, and within earshot of the park’s little steam locomotive’s first stop. The train’s bell blends with a crash of cymbals announcing a dixieland medley, belting from an honest-to-goodness brass band. They’re accompanied by ragtime singers sporting crisply pressed vests and straw boater hats.

We’ve been warped to an America we’ve read about, but that we know never existed. I mean, come on — not like this.

The faux steam engine zips into the trees, out of our interdimensional time bubble, carrying guests toward a tour of more fantastical, larger-than-life locales. The smiling families wave goodbye.

Disneyland fans — the kind who go every year, maybe even hold an annual pass — tend to gripe that the iconic park of their childhood has been disappearing. They’re changing too much, too fast! Converting everything into a movie tie-in! I confess that I am one of those fans, mumbling similar complaints while gobbling down a Dole Whip.

The park entrance, Main Street, USA, stands as a defiant counterpoint to all this grumbling, its turn-of-the-century design loyal to the original vision of its creator. Walt Disney opened the Anaheim, California-based theme park in 1955, but Main Street retreats further back. It’s an image of the founder’s childhood in the early days of the 20th century, a time of jitneys and horse-drawn carriages.

Walt yearned to revisit the small Midwest towns of his youth, particularly those of rural Missouri, after achieving success as a filmmaker. He couldn’t travel through time, but, with his immense wealth, Disney could recreate his rose-tinted memory, and heck, with a few tweaks, he could make it cleaner, brighter, better, and yes, curiously smaller.

The two corridors of storefronts work like an outdoor set on a Hollywood studio lot. I say the buildings are quite squat, but it’s only noticeable if you stop to look closely. The facades are designed in forced perspective, like those on the classic movie lots. According to Disney’s own Imagineers, the “façades on Main Street are normal size at ground level, smaller at the second level, still smaller above that, and so on.”

Which is to say, the first thing my wife and I see when we walk into the park is a fantasy. Main Street, USA might look real, but like everything else in the park, it’s artificial. All part of the illusion.

A view of Main Street, USA with crowds
Main Street, USA

In fact, Main Street, USA isn’t a fantasy, it’s the fantasy. Disney designed his original theme park like a bicycle wheel, its various lands jutting from a central roundabout. Entire themed areas can be skipped by choosy guests, although everyone must enter and leave through Main Street, USA.

For all the concerns of change, we will likely always will have Main Street, a slice of America that feels bigger than it actually is, a space that has outlived Walt Disney himself and to some degree his vision, a fantasy built on the absence of progress: the “good old days.”

Through numerous shifts in leadership and creative strategy, the first thing I see when I enter Disneyland is more or less what I saw when my parents brought me to the park for the first time nearly 30 years ago, and what they saw so many years before that. It’s not Marvel, Star Wars, or Frozen. It’s a city hall.

A small one, at that.

In the grand timeline of The Walt Disney Co., 2019 will be an existential turning point for both the business and its centerpiece theme park.

In May, Disneyland opened the Star Wars-themed Galaxy’s Edge, an ambitious expansion that could portend how the company’s billion-dollar franchises can be converted into billion-dollar vacation experiences. A similar expansion will open in Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios in August. In November, The Walt Disney Co. will launch Disney Plus, a video streaming service that could rival Netflix, and will feature brand-new Star Wars television shows.

The Walt Disney Co. has never been bigger, and yet, it’s rapidly consolidating its focus into core franchises that spread across all media, including TV, movies, music, concerts, and comics, collecting fans wherever they can be found. At the center of the Walt Disney Co.’s vision, right in the middle of arguably the single most ambitious, expensive, and lucrative storytelling project in history, sits Disneyland.

The park transformed Walt Disney from a studio producer into a media mogul, and its experimentation with franchise remixing, along with improvements in accessibility and representation, may guide The Walt Disney Co. through the turbulent, bizarre media climate of today.

For that reason, I feel it’s an important time to ask, what is Disneyland in 2019? And how, after the 1984 strikes and the economic downturns of 2002 and 2008, did this small chunk of Southern California become so central to the company?

The Walt Disney Co. of 2019 is Main Street, USA, inverted.

Where the introductory land presents itself as bigger than it actually is, The Walt Disney Co. presents itself as smaller than its true size, almost neighborly. Most folks know Disney is big, but they don’t understand how all-encompassing and monolithic it has become. In 2019, Disney placed 53rd on the Fortune 500, an annual list of the largest U.S. corporations in terms of total revenue. For some perspective: Behind Disney stand Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, Lockheed Martin, and Facebook.

Disney’s holdings include Pixar, Marvel, ESPN, Lucasfilm, and ABC, along with other media properties, resorts, and a cruise line. In the second quarter of 2019, Disney merged with 20th Century Fox, gaining a war chest of properties like The Simpsons, and cable companies like FX, that will buoy Disney Plus and live alongside Disney’s other streaming platform, Hulu. Fellow media titan Comcast will sell its stake in Hulu over the next half-decade, but Disney has already taken full operational control.

For half a century, Disneyland could be consumed like an unrelated treat, disconnected from all the intangible business stuff. Where Disney, the business, connoted corporate power plays and content acquisitions, the park felt like something simple: a real-life depository specifically targeting Walt Disney fandom, a place to see characters and enjoy rides imagined by Walt himself or people he directly hired, divorced from all of Disney’s secondary ventures and business strategies.

Disneyland has changed in the past decade or so, veering closer to the mothership partly out of necessity, partly due to its own success, and partly as a reflection of modern culture. I know, because I’ve seen it for myself.

This review is based on two trips to Disneyland over the past six months: the first one with my wife in December 2018, the second visit for the opening of Galaxy’s Edge. We’ll begin in December, when the soft glow of Christmas lights and fake snow fill the park.

Polaroid photo of the Sleeping beauty castle held in front of the newly painted castle
Sleeping Beauty Castle 2019: Previously painted a rose gold/silver mish-mash the castle has a fresh new pink and blue color scheme

I’m going to Disneyland!

It’s early morning in December when my wife and I enter the park, so we grab coffee from a Starbucks that’s semi-hidden inside one of the Main Street storefronts.

Despite the small-town aesthetic on the outside, everything for sale in the stores has been rigorously branded by big corporations. Chips are Lay’s, sodas are Coca-Cola, and the pair of mandarin oranges I have for breakfast aren’t just any mandarin oranges; they’re Cuties.

Main Street isn’t too crowded yet, so my wife takes some photos while I book our first batch of MaxPass FastPasses for Space Mountain. These digital tickets allow us to skip a ride’s line during an allocated window of time.

Normal FastPass tickets must be picked up outside each ride hours before the actual ride time. But today I use the relatively new MaxPass, which allows us to book FastPass tickets on our smartphones, saving us from zigzagging across the park. The MaxPass service costs an extra $15 per day, per person, but it’s practically mandatory if we want to experience most of the rides.

Where to even start with the metagame that is the Pass system? Each ride only has so many FastPass tickets, and when lots of other guests use MaxPass, those tickets get gobbled up in no time. Paradoxically, the best way to make the most of Disneyland isn’t to sprint to my favorite ride, but to step off to the side, open an app, and make reservations.

FastPass (and MaxPass) can be used on a new ride every couple hours or so. There’s a formula for precisely how often I can use the FastPass, depending on the ride I select and when I’m scheduled for said ride, but I’ll spare you any more specifics. Needless to say, making the most of FastPass is akin to min-maxing in role-playing, which is to say it’s immensely satisfying, frustratingly time-consuming, and utterly tedious when described to co-workers during happy hour after I get back from vacation.

If it appears we’ve taken an extended detour away from the fun of the park itself, believe me, I feel that. This is the give and take of Disneyland’s modern amenities, like the Pass system: I spend more time than I would like living inside my phone, under the belief that the work will cumulatively allow for more time enjoying the park.

The Disneyland app (one of the few free things of the day) tells me that the lines for most rides are still relatively short, so we opt to finish our coffees while taking a leisurely stroll toward the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle at the end of Main Street. I slide my phone into my pocket and take in the intense fragrance of churros and popcorn. Yep, this is nice.

We dawdle around the roundabout between Main Street and the castle. This is the center of the theme park, a flower-sewn courtyard that serves as resting area, Instagram backdrop, meeting point, and viewing zone for the park’s various parades. At the center of the courtyard — the center of the center of the park — stands a statue of Walt Disney. And beside him, Mickey Mouse.

The duo face the entrance, greeting each guest with a gentle wave and smile that the park’s thousands of cast members have learned to replicate. The statue is, in a word, hagiographic. How could it not be? Disneyland is Disney’s land; the guy named the company after himself.

Of course, the placement of Walt’s statue would suggest that he and his most famous creation are the sun around which the rest of his park orbits.

Pirates of the Caribbean is still here, as is the Haunted Mansion. Jungle Cruise, one of the park’s opening-day attractions on July 17, 1955, has somehow become more popular thanks to its human tour guides, who now feel like relics of a lost time, before rides were narrated by looping audio tracks and lifelike robots. The human guides, dressed in safari costumes, steer guests through a cartoonish rainforest, while also poking fun at the aging animatronics with a monologue that would fit comfortably on the dinner theater stage of a Catskills resort.

Adventureland, Frontierland, New Orleans Square, Critter Country, and Tom Sawyer Island feel, collectively, like an extension of Main Street, USA. They’ve all been updated or wholly added since the park’s opening, but they share a vibe that’s distinctly early-20th-century white middle-class Americana.

Their designers didn’t recreate real places so much as they captured how their target demographic from the 1960s to 1990s imagined those places to be, how those places and the people in them appeared in dime-store novels and matinee movies — polishing away anything challenging about the source material, resulting in moments that are paradoxically anodyne and offensive.

Photo of the entrance to the Jungle Cruise in Disneyland, CA
The design of Jungle Cruise was partly inspired by Disney’s True-Life Adventures short films.

Jungle Cruise culminates with a bare-chested “tribal” salesman peddling shrunken heads. Splash Mountain, in its entirety, is based on the notorious Song of the South, Disney’s racist adaptation of Uncle Remus stories. Disney Parks opened the ride in 1989 — three years after Walt Disney Studios locked the film in the Disney Vault, never releasing it on home video in the U.S. again, avoiding the obvious, inevitable, and justifiable backlash.

A threshold undoubtedly exists for what the park overseers deem too problematic, too harmful to the greater Disney brand, that it must be changed, retconned, or erased. That said, I wish future sociologists luck deciphering any kind of consistent, predictable logic to the park’s past century of revisions — and the lack thereof.

On Pirates of the Caribbean, some of the animatronic women chase the male pirates on an infinite loop, rather than how it appeared in the past: Pirates nipping at the women’s heels, doing their best horndog Benny Hill impressions. And last year, the park used a scheduled refurbishment to tweak the ride’s “wench” auction to a “loot” auction, the redheaded woman being sold into sex slavery now playing the role of pirate-slash-auctioneer. But the animatronic birds in the Enchanted Tiki Room sing with exaggerated accents from across the globe, supported by tiki statues that do a made-up guttural chant, just a short walk away.

This archipelago (Adventureland, New Orleans Square, Critter Country) strikes a tone I’d call Tintin-esque, presenting the “exotic” as a means for adventure. It sort of sheepishly grins and shrugs, as if to say, “Hey, it was a different time! The problem isn’t the park; it’s history!”

And like Tintin (and so many problematic faves), this tone neither absolves Disneyland of its sin nor warrants a total boycott.

There’s still so much to love in this partition of the park. The Haunted Mansion recently got a new animatronic, the Hatbox Ghost, inspired by an animatronic of the same name that was cut from the ride just ahead of its opening. The Winnie the Pooh ride borders on the psychedelic. My wife and I love this one spot between New Orleans and Critter Country, where we can watch riders on Splash Mountain crest its big hill and see how their expressions change as they rapidly realize their log is about to take a big wet plunge.

But I feel silly — guilty, even — telling you how much I love Disney’s theme park rides, right after mentioning the park’s nods at racism, sexism, and colonialism. Is that OK?

To quote Wesley Morris’ essay on parsing pleasure and the problematic: “It can be hard to tell when we’re consuming art and when we’re conducting H.R.” That’s never felt more true to me than while strolling Disneyland’s western flank, a surreal stretch of land where I might canoe to Tom Sawyer’s Island; meet The Princess and the Frog’s villain, the Shadowman; or hear the tales of Uncle Remus turned into song.

Splash mountain 2019: The polaroid was taken during the holidays 2018, but the view has hardly been changed since the ride opened in 1989.

How to perform the Disneyland magic trick in 13,427 simple steps

After Pirates of the Caribbean, my wife and I shotgun the rest of the park’s western hemisphere: Indiana Jones, Pooh, and Splash Mountain.

The order here is crucial. For starters, this side of the park tends to have shorter lines early in the morning, allowing for guests to quickly run a fun gauntlet (if they don’t stop for a restroom break).

What’s most important, if you choose to borrow this strategy, is the position of Splash Mountain in the schedule. If you put the water ride earlier in the day, you’ll wind up soaking wet on the air-conditioned dark rides, shivering beneath the leering eyes of Heffalumps and Woozles.

We time Splash Mountain perfectly on this visit, however, and the early afternoon California sun bakes up from the theme park pavement to produce the exact temperature required to dry our clothes as we cut toward Tomorrowland.

The sun reminds us that we’re close to missing our FastPass window for Space Mountain. We should hurry. But the smell of churros! It compels us to stop in the roundabout at the center of the park and have a nosh alongside the Disney statue.

Photo: Chris Plante/Polygon

The statue is perfectly fine from an artistic point of view, the sort of thing you might see in any park. Despite being right in the heart of the action, its humdrumess helps the artwork disappear in plain sight. It’s ordinary, surrounded by the extraordinary. Which makes it a great spot from which to watch the park in action.

You can spot the seams in how the park operates from the statue’s location. The painted windows where glass should be. The less-than-perfect transition points where turn-of-the-century America becomes midcentury futurism. The doors big enough for costumed castmates to disappear into when they wrap their meet-and-greets.

Creating and maintaining the illusions in a fashion that seems, to the average guest, effortless if not outright invisible, is astonishingly difficult. It requires intricate, repeatable collaboration from hundreds of people, performed with the precision, timing, and grace of a ballet. Everybody has a job to do, and there are precise times at which those jobs must be done.

Disney Parks must consider and reconsider every detail, from the engineering of the bathrooms to the intensity of cast performances, to keep the rough edges of the park and its people just out of sight and ensure that we always see things from the most flattering angles.

At its most base level, Disneyland is a collection of human-scale sleight-of-hand tricks, each piece and automated performance meant to be seen from particular angles. The illusion would dissolve should you walk through the door marked Cast Members Only or get stuck on a ride, watching the animatronic performers repeat their lines into oblivion.

I’m not really standing on a crowded New Orleans street corner or a space shuttle pavilion or a Main Street courtyard, but so long as I don’t look for the seams, my mind will convince me that all of this is real. Or, real enough.

As with all great sleight-of-hands, the trick is directing the eye line of your mark. Bright lights and splashes of color attract guests to the big rides and gift shops. Large swaths of the park’s mundane, but necessary, walls, beams, and doors are painted in a drab, muted green.

Here’s how Mental Floss describes the color in a piece on the Magic Kingdom:

The less-than-magical parts of the park, such as fences, garbage bins, and administrative buildings, are all coated in a color known as “Go Away Green” — a shade that’s meant to help things blend in with the landscaping.

Disney’s designers understand that the eye line can’t be perfectly controlled. They fill each scene with tiny details that most folks won’t consciously notice, but which subconsciously sink them deeper into the fictional world. The steel Victorian spikes meant to keep birds off the buildings of Main Street, USA can be seen in silhouette from Frontierland, where the same spikes are meant to look vaguely “tribal.” Each detail can’t just evoke one mood; the design has to convey different things depending on the angle from which it’s being seen.

Disney Parks are better than their contemporaries not just at maintaining the illusion, but at creating one so believable that it penetrates the shell of the most hardened imagination, transporting the guest, if only briefly, away from their actual spot in Southern California into fiction. Literally. Unlike with a movie, a book, or even a video game, the guest is physically there — or, as there as the real world feels as we speed through it.

I know the squat city hall at the entrance isn’t real, but it feels no less real to me as any city hall I pass on a drive through a small city in America, not stopping to look inside and confirm that it contains an actual mayor, a city council, and a bunch of locals waiting to share their concerns about a new shopping center development or the placement of a park bench.

To be in a great theme park is to be in a fictional world that convinces all of the senses it’s real enough.

It’s telling that the park’s designers present Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse as full-bodied statues, rather than in relief. The art stands apart from so much of the park’s meticulous but two-dimensional facades. Three-dimensional, viewable from all sides, it seemingly has nothing to hide, no trick to pull.

The entrance to Tomorrowland in Disneyland, CA
The Astro Orbiter and the entrance to Tomorrowland

A theme park I can keep in my pocket and call my own

Churros consumed, my wife and I sprint through Tomorrowland, past Star Tours and its humongous gift shop, the crowds at Pizza Planet, and the very, very, very long line for Space Mountain itself. Our FastPass lets us skip the queue, now nearly a 90-minute wait. Even with FastPass, there’s a small wait, just enough time to book another FastPass for later in the day.

It’s only the early afternoon, and we’ve already enjoyed most of the rides known for having the park’s longest lines. We feel productive, so we reward ourselves with ice cream, crediting our success to a powerful mix of arriving early, picking the right FastPass, and curating the right rides in the right order.

These are the perverse joys of being a Disneyland obsessive: habits that dig their hooks into the same zones of my brain that love video games, the parts that know every square inch of GoldenEye and Quake 3 multiplayer maps. I’ve internalized my own zigzagging habits through the park after so many visits to Disneyland, and have long since converted it into a mental map of locations and timing that is entirely my own.

People who have visited Disney World before visiting Disneyland tend to be struck by its smallness — how it exists inside of Anaheim rather than as its own little fiefdom. That’s fair. After all, Disney himself wished the park were bigger, and freed of its surroundings.

In John Jeremiah Sullivan’s brilliant pot-plumed tour of Disney World, “You Blow My Mind. Hey Mickey!” the essayist recalls Walt Disney’s frustration with Disneyland’s scope and surroundings:

... you have to know of Walt Disney’s disappointment over Disneyland, not with the park itself but with the built environment right around the park, which boomed, to accommodate the tourist trade, and sprouted seedy hotels, garish advertisements, vistas of the wrong sorts of people. Disney was heartsick over it — he, who was so visually meticulous that he used to lurk in the various animal centers and zoological gardens of Los Angeles, shooting footage of little creatures, trying to ensure his animators got the musculature and locomotion right. How was he supposed to fashion a flawless dream environment, with urban blight as the backdrop? How could he open, in the words of Bob Hope, “an escape from our aspirin existence into a land of sparkles and lights and rainbows”?

I think the truth of the park, today, is the opposite. Where Walt Disney World feels exhaustively sprawling, like a Los Angeles of its own, Disneyland (and its companion park, California Adventure) feels doable, knowable, an oasis. And like an oasis, it’s refreshing because, when standing within it, you can see the sunburnt Southern California waiting outside. The contrast is a feature, not a bug.

Disneyland absorbs guests without overwhelming them.

If you’ve never been to the park, you probably imagine Sleeping Beauty Castle to be large and intimidating. But that’s not the case; it’s small. “Jeez, it looks like something my daughters would want me to build in the backyard,” one friend told me when he saw it for the first time.

The castle matches the park, which Walt tucked into a tight parcel of land that used to be filled with orange groves. Walt loved trains, so he stuffed the entire original park within a custom train track he (and the guests, sure) could ride. A perfect little circuit.

Unlike Disney World, which has been spread across large parks, themselves separated by huge stretches of land, Disneyland is manageable.

And it’s memorable. It can be memorized, like a video game world. Mastered. Guests can learn the shortcuts between places and the location of the secret bar; they can memorize the rides’ average wait times, which fluctuate depending on the weather, time of day, and the time of year; they can differentiate the larger shops with the same old T-shirts from the smaller boutique stalls that often have the best, most idiosyncratic, merch.

The merch. The merch! What is it about spending over a hundred bucks to be in Disneyland that makes me want to spend another hundred bucks on stuff I would never consider buying from any other place at any other time?

Maybe it’s the contact high. I will never replicate the ecstatic original experience of riding Star Tours as a child, but I can be reminded of that precious moment with a T-shirt or a pin or a collector’s cup filled to the brim with the fountain drink of my choice.

Goodness, there exist entire subcultures around niches just within the merchandise, an ouroboros of fandom to which I find myself especially vulnerable. I love obscura, the trinkets that would appear to be meant for the smallest, niche-iest audience. A stuffed animal of the Hatbox Ghost, the character cut from, and more recently re-added to, the Haunted Mansion? Yes, please. A pin of Funmeister, the short-lived mascot for Disney World’s defunct adult nightlife entertainment district, Pleasure Island? I have only a vague memory of Funmeister, so of course it’s perfect! A dad hat embroidered with a Dole Whip swirl? It will match the official Dole Whip T-shirt, backpack, and ceramic tchotchke that I can purchase at the park — or on eBay, with a reseller’s markup.

A collection of trips through Splash Mountain and Space Mountain from 2009 to 2019.

Disney Parks target each consumer with the precision of those obsidian scalpels that can slice up a single cell. People like me, the people who like the stuff because it appears to be catering to nobody else? We are served, too.

When I buy a Dole Whip dad hat, I feel like I have a personal, unique interest and, at the same time, am part of a safe, warm hive mind. It’s a paradox! I can’t solve how and why this continues to work on me. Disney Parks creates a cultural impression so large that each niche becomes its own profitable group that must be marketed to; there must be something for you to buy no matter how obscure your particular joy. We are all seen by Disney’s marketing department.

It’s as if Disney has reverse-engineered the pleasure of a merch purchase into a knowable, repeatable mathematical formula. Every person, no matter how frugal and skeptical, has a product they can’t resist, and this formula can deduce it. I picture the formula written on a sticky pad, entombed in bulletproof glass, protected by an impenetrable vault, sitting hundreds of feet beneath the park’s surface.

I know the dopamine rush from spending an exorbitant amount of money on Disney ephemera will be short-lived. I’m not dense. I limit my urge for potentially limitless consumption. But to say I don’t enjoy this part too would be dishonest. I love my Chip ‘n’ Dale Chanukah pin, capitalistic and sacrilegious baggage and all.

The power of Disneyland and Disney in general is that I feel an intense ownership of intellectual properties that, with some distance, I know actually have ownership of me.

It’s a Small World 2019: The Polaroid features the author and his wife celebrating the holidays in front of the attraction

Disneyland spins at the center of the wheel

After Space Mountain, my wife and I flip through the clothing racks in the Star Wars-themed gift shop. It’s humongous, and invites guests to build custom droids and lightsabers.

These aren’t like the expensive, high-quality versions available in Galaxy’s Edge. The products here are cheap plastic trinkets that aren’t cheap to purchase. They’re cute, though. I build a multicolored R2-D2 wearing a Santa Claus hat, while my wife sifts through the holiday-themed pins.

We cut north through Tomorrowland, past the Matterhorn, to It’s a Small World, a ride about cultures and peoples from across the world coming together to sing the same song, but in their own languages. Disney sells a shirt that says “I Conquered It’s a Small World” in the ride’s gift shop. Dear reader, I’ll let you untangle that particular knot.

We debate visiting Mickey’s Toontown, a toddler-friendly land built around Mickey Mouse and friends, but it’s nearly evening, so instead we hurry back to Frontierland to grab an early dinner. Similar to plotting Splash Mountain in the schedule, it’s important to plan where you want to be at dusk, when the cast members begin to cordon off Main Street to prepare for the parade, making travel from one side of the park to the other a challenge.

Eating during the parade means restaurants usually aren’t too crowded, and we can avoid the throngs forming around the center of the park, creating a choke point. We opt for Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante, the most reliable restaurant in Disneyland. Yelp tells me it rates 4 out of 5 stars with 482 reviews and, as far as theme park food goes, that sounds about right. We people-watch as we inhale our Burrito Guadalajara.

I never appreciate the magnitude of Disney, as a business, like I do as I watch thousands of strangers walk through Disneyland, each wearing shirts, bags, hats, and pins referencing movies, TV shows, cartoons, songs, and other pop cultural ephemera from the last century.

The park can’t physically grow much bigger — there’s only so much land left in the Anaheim development — but that hasn’t limited its cultural and economic climb. In 2019, a reasonable case can be made that Disneyland is becoming (or maybe already has become) the center of the wheel for Disney as a corporation, the way that the statue of Walt is the center of the park: All spokes ultimately lead here, no matter where you begin.

Where areas of the park were once themed on ideas and general fantasies, they now double as cross-promotion of mega-properties. The Star Wars-themed expansion, Galaxy’s Edge, has attracted huge crowds and press, but Disney has been pushing the property for years, with a rehauled Star Tours that adds new sequences for each new Star Wars film released and a stage show in Tomorrowland’s outdoor cafeteria. Space Mountain occasionally features Star Wars ships; it has sometimes been dubbed Hyperspace Mountain.

Other classic rides have been repurposed around IP, with Pirates of the Caribbean getting a Johnny Depp-styled Jack Sparrow plopped into the boat ride, and Haunted Mansion bringing in Nightmare Before Christmas characters and scenery each holiday season.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg issue between the park and the company’s other aligning interests. Does Disney want its parks to promote its movies and TV shows, or its movies and TV shows to promote its parks? I suppose for Disney it doesn’t matter what instigates this cycle, so long as they all feed into each other in perpetuity.

To realign the parks around franchises is a massive undertaking, conceptually, philosophically, and in the messy terms of raw construction. It’s hard to imagine that anything — ride, TV show, film — is developed at Disney these days without some greater holistic vision. And yet there doesn’t seem to be a science to this, no repeatable method for creating new lands around intellectual property.

Across the way from Disneyland, California Adventure is undergoing massive construction for “Marvel land.” Marvel’s universe seems tangible, interconnected, all the things that make intellectual property ripe for a theme park land.

Last year, Disney Parks reopened California Adventure’s Paradise Pier, now dubbed Pixar Pier. It turned the boardwalk into a massive promotion for Incredibles, Toy Story, Inside Out, and whatever recent Pixar release has people excited.

Cars Land in California Adventure

When Disneyland opened, franchises were comparably quaint. They didn’t span dozens of films that reliably made over $1 billion. They couldn’t sustain entire lands. To reach a massive audience, Walt Disney had to build the park around familiar mythologies that had dominated fiction for a couple of centuries. Pirates. Space travel. Fairy tales. But now, Disney owns our modern mythologies of superheroes and intergalactic war in a much more specific, and pointed, way, and they all link together somehow. The parks create a sort of Disney Cinematic Universe, apart from each of the discrete series of worlds and characters that link together through sequel after sequel at the box office. It’s a process of brutal, and profitable, efficiency.

Disney is doing to genre fiction what Kleenex did to tissues and Coke did to soda. People who don’t care about sci-fi or superheroes still know (and might even love) Star Wars and Marvel.

The strategy has, in no uncertain terms, been a boon for the parks. The company made over $59 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2018. Over $20 billion of that revenue came from Disney’s theme parks and resorts. That’s double the revenue the company pulled from Studio Entertainment, its film and TV division.

But while the windfall has flooded the bank accounts of park executives and shareholders, critics have questioned how little of the fruit of this labor has trickled down to the folks actually performing said labor.

As they did during the infamous Disneyland strike of 1984, which lasted 22 days and required a federal mediator, money and benefits have once again become a central moral question for the park, particularly how they’re distributed among employees.

Occidental College and Economic Roundtable released a damning report in February 2018, “Working for the Mouse,” that collected data from 5,000 anonymous park employees. At the time, the study said more than 85 percent of Disneyland workers made less than $15 per hour.

In September, the New York Times reported on longtime Disneyland employees who could no longer afford rent, including Rebekah Pederson, a licensed cosmetologist who slept in her car. “To Bob Iger,” Pederson said from the front seat of her vehicle, “we love our jobs, just pay us right. We just want to survive.”

In November, Anaheim voters passed Measure L. It set a $15-per-hour minimum wage for certain employers in the area, beginning in 2019. By 2022, the minimum wage will increase to $18.

Anaheim’s city attorney has raised questions about whether the measure even applies to Disneyland. Nonetheless, early this year, The Walt Disney Co. raised the hourly minimum wage for some workers at the parks to $15. But as the New York Times noted in a video report, renting a basic apartment in Anaheim would require an hourly income of at least $24. Unsurprisingly, Disney’s wages continue to be criticized, even with the pay increase.

Documentarian, philanthropist, and Disney heiress Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Walt Disney Co. co-founder Roy Disney and grandniece of Uncle Walt, is an outspoken critic of income inequality, particularly within her family’s company. She has called Disney CEO Bob Iger’s paycheck “insane.” (According to a study from Equilar, Iger’s 2018 compensation package reached $66 million — 1,424 times the $46,127 median salary of Disney employees.)

A castmember dressed as Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog chats with a park guest.
A cast member dressed as Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog chats with a park guest.

In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, Abigail Disney addressed that massive income divide. “To put that gap in context, in 1978, the average CEO made about 30 times a typical worker’s salary. Since 1978, CEO pay has grown by 937 percent, while the pay of an average worker grew just 11.2 percent.”

Abigail Disney suggested half the executive bonus pool be set aside for the bottom 10 percent of all Disney employees, so that the most vulnerable workers can have a better quality of life.

In a statement to Vanity Fair following the op-ed, a Walt Disney Co. spokesperson wrote: “Let’s look at the facts: Disney has made historic investments to expand the earning potential and upward mobility of our workers, implementing a starting hourly wage of $15 at Disneyland that’s double the federal minimum wage, and committing up to $150 million for a groundbreaking education initiative that gives our hourly employees the opportunity to obtain a college or vocational degree completely free of charge. Mr. Iger’s compensation is 90 percent performance-based and he has delivered exceptional value for shareholders: Disney’s market capitalization has grown exponentially over the last decade, rising $75 billion in the last month alone, and the stock price has increased to $132 a share from $24 a share when Mr. Iger became C.E.O. in 2005 — all of which directly benefits literally thousands of employees who hold our stock.”

I have no doubt that the CEO’s paycheck is the last thing Disney Parks’ leadership wants guests to think about during their visit to the happiest place on earth. In this case, the reality outside of the park has a serious impact on the magic within it.

In that regard, this is the most troubling sleight of hand: that the people who make the park so special have to worry over where they will sleep, and that most guests will never know that, because those same employees — cast members, in Disney lingo — arrive every day with a smile, ready to perform the illusion.

Sunset at Disneyland

I see that smile as a cast member politely collects our plate at the Mexican restaurant the second we finish the burrito. I’m perpetually impressed by the sincerity of Disneyland cast members. This isn’t the unsettling smile of a dental hygienist asking about your weekend plans while scraping plaque off your incisors; it’s something much more immediate and genuine.

I work from my computer at home. I’m lucky if my barista gives me a nod. I see a smile at sunset, and it’s enough to melt my heart. Because I am not accustomed to such genial treatment, I instinctively look at my phone.

The Disneyland app shows uncommonly short lines at Fantasyland, so I chart our course. Located right behind Sleeping Beauty Castle, Fantasyland celebrates Disney’s iconic animated films, like Peter Pan and Snow White. There’s also a ride for Mr. Toad that’s been open as long as the park. How? I do not know. At some point in the making of Disneyland, somebody at the company had to be like:

“Hey, you know the film we packaged with ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? Yeah, I want to make that into a ride. And it will end with the rider going to hell.”

And then Walt Disney himself, one of the pickiest creative producers of all time, must have been like:

“Sure. Yes. Excellent. And let’s put that right between Peter Pan’s Flight and Alice’s Tea Cups, because that idea deserves primo real estate.”

I love Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and I’m surprised it’s still standing after 60-plus years. For all its silliness, the ride’s continued existence speaks to the permanence of this land. To Disneyland purists, the people most averse to change, Fantasyland stands above all else. This is pure, golden-era Disney, preserved. Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Pinocchio. The boats of Storybook Land, which takes guests on a tour of miniature models of Disney’s most memorable animated kingdoms.

Usually, the lines reflect the obsession. You can’t FastPass or MaxPass these rides. Tonight, they’re short-ish. We wait 40 minutes for Peter Pan and another 15 or so for Mr. Toad. Our smartphone screens say it’s almost 8 p.m.

I ask my wife, “Should we stay for the fireworks?”

“We just did Mr. Toad,” she says. “It’s hard to imagine anything topping that!”

Plus, we’re tired. We decide to head home, cutting through the castle, back toward Main Street.

Now, not everybody knows this, but there’s a children’s salon in the castle itself. At Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, little boys and girls can get makeup and hair done to look like their favorite princess or prince. It might be the most magical place on earth in the most magical place on earth, and of course, the experience is attached to a substantial cost.

As we pass through the salon, my wife and I spot an absurdly adorable little boy who’s opted to be both. He leisurely swings around a toy sword while a hairstylist decorates his hair with a rainbow of glitter. His dads hover alongside the salon chair, snapping photos on their smartphones, holding back tears. The happy kind.

A new hope not so far, far away

Even though it’s late May when I travel back to Southern California to see Galaxy’s Edge, my in-laws who live in the area inform me they’re experiencing June Gloom. Each day starts a little cloudy and ends a tiny bit cool. “You need to bring a jacket,” they warn me over the phone.

Though they live a short drive away, I’m not staying with them. To limit crowds, Disney Parks created a reservation system for the first month following the opening of Galaxy’s Edge. General-admission guests could apply through an official Disney Parks website and potentially be assigned a slot, but there was no guarantee, and the system quickly ran out of appointments. However, staying at one of Disneyland’s three official resorts and purchasing Disneyland tickets guaranteed each guest one four-hour reservation at Galaxy’s Edge during their stay.

I couldn’t risk it, so back in March, I made reservations for two of my colleagues and myself.

June Gloom evaporates the moment I enter the hotel. It’s decorated with a variety of beach themes: old-fashioned ship wheels, Tiki fonts, ’50s-era beach party carpet patterns.

I wiggle my suitcase between Minnie Mouse and a man dressed in a Main Street, USA-style outfit, playing a mean clarinet solo. The hotel is a little overwhelming at first. As I pull out my credit card, the front desk associate asks me if I will be traveling off-planet. Distracted, I nod yes, even though I have absolutely no clue what she’s talking about.

It isn’t until I’m in the elevator that I realize the very polite — and deeply in character — cast member was referencing the fictional planet of Batuu, the setting of Disneyland’s new Star Wars-themed expansion land. I’m not in the park yet, but I might as well be!

Set in Batuu’s trading town, Black Spire Outpost, the expansion tells a canonical Star Wars story that fits between the events of The Last Jedi and the upcoming Rise of Skywalker. It ties into a collection of comic books, novels, and YA novels, and has its own star character: Vi Moradi, General Leia Organa’s top spy.

Moradi is a tough-as-nails leader who knows how to deliver a punch just as well as a punchline. She hustles through Black Spire all day, talking with guests, recruiting them to partake in the land’s missions in the official Disney Play app, fighting the First Order in her stage show set over the town’s run-down garage. She also happens to be a woman of color.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge - photo of Vi Moradi cast member
Cast member dressed as Vi Moradi

I know a little bit about Moradi’s backstory from the first few pages of Black Spire, an aptly named Star Wars novel that Disneyland’s publicists provided during the land’s press day, held shortly before the official opening.

At this point in my trip, I’ve already spent a few hours in Galaxy’s Edge, speaking with some of its designers, walking the marketplace, drinking Blue Milk, piloting the Millennium Falcon, chit-chatting in character with cast members, and building a lightsaber that depleted my checking account by $225. I’m prepped for my second visit with a pretty good idea of the land’s story and offerings.

“On-planet,” as my hotel clerk put it, a rumor spreads among the locals: The First Order could arrive at any moment to route a growing band of Resistance fighters led by Moradi. The story spans a 24-hour cycle. Each day in the park repeats the same adventure.

At least for now. I’ve been told that like everything in modern media, the story of Galaxy’s Edge could evolve.

The locale and its people have a history beyond the day the story takes place, thanks in large part to the tie-in fiction. Iconic characters have visited Batuu and, in some cases, they’ve left an impression. That runs the gamut from the small and touchable, like a blaster burn on the side of a building, to the large and invisible, like the personal connection that drives Moradi to protect this seemingly inconsequential outpost on the galaxy’s Outer Rim.

This is the rare case when “inconsequential” serves as a compliment. Most of the magic of Galaxy’s Edge stems from small talk with shopkeepers, door guards, and passersby. Most (if not all) of the cast members attend a workshop where they create their own character with their own past and present, and dreams for their future.

The citizens of Batuu comprise a diverse collection of human actors; both they and their characters have different backgrounds, ages, and genders. Previously, a small collection of Disney princesses, princes, and villains were the only characters of color that guests could engage with, and even then, those characters embodied financial, romantic, and cultural success. They weren’t everymen and everywomen.

Galaxy’s Edge is special because of its mundane veneer. The humongous roster of characters don’t resemble the mascots, superheroes, and royalty that populate a theme park. For decades, Disneyland has called all of its employees its “cast,” and it has felt a bit twee. But now, everybody — from the folks working the cash register to the women playing Vi Moradi — truly has a role.

And how often in the Star Wars canon do we get to learn about characters who are just scraping by, trying to give their kids a good life, to move from the small fishing town of Peka to the glitzy city of Galma?

The vibe was heightened during the press day, and the tone of the fiction was a little off. The Disney team had filled the park with special scaffolding atop which news channels could film the day’s festivities. The crowd seemed less interested in the locals of Batuu and more in the celebrities of Earth. In the evening, Bob Iger, George Lucas, Billy Dee Williams, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford made an appearance to celebrate the launch of the expansion. Ford christened the Falcon with a thwack of his palm as fireworks detonated just above Black Spire’s actual black spire. Everything was washed in colorful lights hung throughout the park.

The crowds at Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge Disneyland on opening day

When we arrive on Batuu on the morning of opening day, all of that real-world set dressing has been whisked away, allowing Batuu to feel kinda, sorta normal. Humdrum. The crowds are big, but no more than Disneyland on any other peak day.

The park management has a plan for everything. Before we can enter the land, we collect color-coded wristbands from what used to be the Carousel of Progress and now serves as a Star Wars-themed story-slash-pavilion. We wear green wristbands, communicating to Galaxy’s Edge cast members that we belong with the 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. group. At 10:45 a.m., we’re allowed to line up inside Critter Country, and our crowd rolls into Batuu through its forest at 11 on the dot, right through where Rise of the Resistance will eventually be.

Nobody rushes; this isn’t the running of the bulls. The land, even in this simple forest area, has so many details — from the full-size X-wing to the alien animal prints in the cement — that the thousands of guests naturally disperse in a dozen different directions. The group, determined to get to Smugglers Run, the park’s one current ride, gets steered by cast members away from the market at the center. The land works like a heart, its valves directing the flow through its arteries.

It’s otherworldly. As it should be! We’re on another planet. A colleague who has never before visited Disneyland notes how more detailed, more vibrant, more spectacular Black Spire feels when compared to the original park. “It makes me think Jungle Cruise belongs in a museum,” he says.

The land works so much better on opening day than it did on its press day. Its market benefits from a bit of a crowd, which gives it the feel of an actual market. While I wouldn’t want to wait in line forever, a short wait allows us to see the astonishing number of Easter eggs buried in the queue, and gives us a moment to fiddle with the land’s mobile game.

Part of the Disney Play app, the game lets us translate the fictional language of Aurebesh; intercept and decipher transmissions; hack droids, ships, and other pieces of the set, which react in real life; and help the First Order or the Resistance, or live as a solo smuggler through a variety of simple activities. It plays like fetch quests in an open-world game, which is to say that as a game, it’s fine. But using it as a tour guide, with the game directing us to odd corners of the land, slowly dishing out surprisingly playful lore, I haven’t really seen or played anything like it.

Galaxy’s Edge marks the most significant departure from the style of park that Walt had imagined. As Disney feels loyalty to the park of the past, expansions are a rare opportunity to make a more welcoming and inclusive vision from diverse perspectives.

We’ve seen efforts for greater inclusivity and representation in the past with extremely mixed results. Epcot has long faced criticism for reducing the world to mostly white European nations and featuring reductive portrayals of Asian cultures. When The Walt Disney Co. opened Animal Kingdom in 1998, it sought to portray a number of African and Asian nations in more nuanced ways. Both parks still have plenty of room to improve.

But Star Wars feels like a promising launching pad for a new type of Disneyland and Walt Disney Co. at large. On the one hand, I am, to say the least, squeamish about the prospect of The Walt Disney Co. controlling the mythology of this generation. On the other hand, I appreciate the increasing diversity that has come with its rapid expansion — diversity not just in its fiction, but in its decision-makers.

Walt Disney was a brilliant creator, but he was one person with one specific set of interests. The Disneyland of the past reflects his hopes and dreams and values, and ignores, almost certainly unintentionally, the people in conflict with those very hopes, dreams, and values.

In 2019, Disneyland is not the product of one man, but of a massive multiheaded company, each section with different leaders and audiences. Kathleen Kennedy took over as president of Lucasfilm during its merger with The Walt Disney Co. in 2012, and she has already helped to improve representation across the Star Wars core canon in ways the original trilogy and prequels films hadn’t over decades. Outside her role overseeing Star Wars and other Lucasfilm properties, Kennedy has been outspoken about the systemic misogyny and sexual harassment in Hollywood. At a 2017 Elle Magazine event, she called for a commission “charged with the task of developing new, industry-wide protections against sexual harassment and abuse.”

The company has also slowly begun to eject toxic men, including one of the most powerful at the company: John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar. In November 2017, Lasseter took a “sabbatical” following a Variety report detailing his reputation for unwanted advances on women at the company, including rubbing their legs and kissing them on the lips. He departed Disney at the end of 2018.

Marvel is doing its own course correcting: The company has slowly begun to diversify its superhero canon on-screen. Last year, Black Panther featured Marvel’s first black lead hero. This year, after 20-plus other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel became the first Marvel movie to have a female lead and be co-directed by a female director.

Again, all of this might seem unrelated to Disney theme parks. It isn’t. Pixar Pier was last year’s big expansion. Star Wars is this year’s expansion. Next year, the “immersive experience” based on the Marvel franchises will be the latest addition. The Marvel experience will take over a large area formerly dedicated to A Bug’s Life, a Pixar film directed by John Lasseter.

The company and its park feed and serve each other at the same time. The future of The Walt Disney Co. is Disneyland, and Disneyland is the future of The Walt Disney Co.

Architectural model of Galaxy’s Edge on display in the former Carousel of Progress, which now serves as a Star Wars-themed pavilion

To build Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars expansion to Disneyland, the Imagineers had to re-route Walt Disney’s beloved train. The new land is actually located outside the train loop that contained Disney’s original vision, the fictional planet of Batuu dug into the Anaheim dirt so that the rest of Disneyland can’t be seen, just as the rest of Disneyland’s architecture tries to hide the realities of Southern California waiting just outside the gates.

Disneyland is a place to forget the troubles of the outside world, and Galaxy’s Edge is, at times, a place to forget the troubles of Disneyland. Of course, escape is never fully possible — consider the discomforting similarities between the lives of Batuu characters struggling to pay rent and the actual Disneyland employees with the same problem.

Disney historians and documentarians tend to paint the park’s construction as an almost therapeutic exercise for its creator: Walt Disney designing a patchwork of middle America that resembled the area where he grew up, not so much as it was but as he wished it to be.

Just, you know, squatter.

Walt knew he could never return to his hometown as it once was, or even fully recreate it, because time moves forward. So he created Main Street, USA to pump the brakes the one way he could: with mountains of creativity and money.

As a result, Disneyland doesn’t feel like stepping into the past; no, it’s like stepping away from time altogether. Or, in Marvel-speak: Stepping into Disneyland is like stepping into a different timeline in a different multiverse, one without all of the hard realities of, you know, reality.

The agony and the ecstasy of the park is its constant, gentle encouragement to ignore our problems. I can only imagine how Walt Disney cherished that opportunity: an escape from a Hollywood that failed for decades to take him seriously, from animators with whom he routinely locked horns, from his critics. Walt Disney could revisit the feeling of that special place, just a short drive from his Southern California studio. He even placed an office in the top of the firehouse, so that he could look upon his creation.

I wonder what Walt Disney would think if he looked out the window today. I don’t know if he would like it, but I suspect he’d appreciate it. There’s a quote often misattributed to Disney himself, that actually originates from WED Enterprises, the engineering group he tasked to design Disneyland:

“There’s really no secret about our approach. We keep moving forward — opening up new doors and doing new things — because we’re curious. And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. We’re always exploring and experimenting.”

It pairs nicely with an actual Walt Disney quote: “All our dreams can come true — if we have the courage to pursue them.”

Disneyland’s most die-hard fans fear change, but I don’t think they should worry. I don’t think Main Street, USA can change anymore than America can change its past. Nor do I expect The Walt Disney Co. to replace the one land more personal to its founder than anything else, not anytime soon.

But the new expansion considers a different use of nostalgia, not for glorifying the past of the real world, but celebrating a moment from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Disney Parks has created an aspirational world, where the locals fight against the forces of evil for tolerance, universal freedom, a better way of life.

That’s the story of Disneyland in 2019: The park was designed as an escape from reality, but it’s increasingly difficult for the park to keep reality at bay. And so it may be time for the park to turn to reality and at least some of the messiness of real life. Like video games, the interactive evolution of theme park that we see in Galaxy’s Edge allows us to engage with reality in safe spaces.

Mickey balloons float past “City Hall,” off “Main Street,” USA, Disneyland, CA

Passing City Hall on the way out

Of course the first thing we see when we enter Disneyland should be a city hall. What better symbol for The Walt Disney Co. in 2019? It’s an institution. Formal. Concrete. Historic. A place in which a few powerful people make decisions that could impact thousands, maybe millions.

Like a city hall, the company can perpetuate terrible abuses with its power, authority, and reach. It can limit wages. It can continue to foster a culture of racism, sexism, and classism in servitude of a nostalgia for a time that never existed, not for everybody, not even for Walt Disney himself.

And yet, also like a city hall, Disneyland has the power and tools to do great things, to advocate for progress, create jobs, foster a better quality of life. And like a city itself, Disneyland can develop entirely new infrastructure and technology, and study and improve upon the way massive groups of people engage with one another in real life — as more and more of our engagement moves online.

Here is an institution that works best not with one singular vision, with its own subconscious biases, but with the input of many voices from many backgrounds, with many anxieties and dreams, histories and futures.

Is it preposterous to believe a theme park could help change the world? I’m reminded of what Art Linkletter, the television host for Disneyland’s opening gala, said when Walt Disney first showed him the Disneyland grounds:

“I couldn’t believe my eyes. [...] We were driving through orange groves and dirt roads. I didn’t tell him what I really thought — that he was out of his mind.”


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