The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Forty-odd years ago, Uncle Walt Imagineered a new kind of escapism. And now there's no way out of paradise.

In the beginning, Walt Disney created Disneyland and Disneyworld. And L.A. was without form and void; and the darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of Walt moved upon the face of the freeways.

And Walt said, Let there be Imagineering, and there was Imagineering. And Walt saw that it was good; and Walt divided the Imagineers from Walt Disney Studios and called it WED Enterprises.

And Walt said: Let there be a berm in the midst of Anaheim, and let it divide the ugly urban sprawl from the raw America which was inside it; and it was so. And Walt called that which was inside the berm Disneylandia. And the evening and the morning were 1955.

And Walt said, Let the past and the present be gathered together unto one place. And Walt called the past Main Street; and the future he called Tomorrowland; and Walt saw that it was good.

And the evening and the morning were the 257th day after breaking ground. And 30,000 guests came to the garden of Disneylandia, although Walt had only invited 20,000. And the asphalt was syrupy, and the rides would not move, and there were no water fountains, and the trains did not run on time. And Walt saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was not good.

Thus Disneylandia was unfinished, and all the host of them. And on the 258th day, Walt began his work anew, "plussing" the theme park into the shape of what he'd first imagined. And for the next six months he would not rest.

The genesis of Disneyland is the subject of a new exhibit at the Walker Art Center, and good Uncle Walt--despite his prodigious creative output--somehow remains a cipher at the center of the show: the first Imagineer, whose small world is now writ so large. Titled Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance, the show includes some 350-odd architectural drawings, sketches, models, and plans, all collected from the long-sealed vaults of Disney's vaunted Imagineering division. Here, Disney's brilliant scheme appears in its full chronology: from the miniature rail line that circled Walt's suburban backyard to the many variations on the castle that was to become the icon of the Magic Kingdom.

University of Minnesota professor Karal Ann Marling has curated the show and written an excellent essay--the centerpiece to the publication accompanying the exhibit--that spells out the definitive design and construction history of America's most real imaginary place (or are those two words reversed?). Professionally, Marling has tackled popular-culture projects ranging from WPA post-office murals to the origins of our mecca-in-Memphis, Graceland; in 1994, she wrote a meditation on the magic of Disney in As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s. On a personal level, though, Marling's mouse-ear connection goes back to a moment so serendipitous that it might only be called Disneyesque: As a 12-year-old girl growing up in Rochester, New York, Marling won a trip to Disneyland.

"I remember standing on the balcony at the Disneyland hotel," Marling recalls, "and watching the fireworks with my mother, after we had left the park at night. And the fireworks were lighting up this fairy-tale castle that had only existed for me in two-dimensional storybooks up until that point. And the possibility that your imaginative life could dominate your real life has always been the guiding force in my existence since then."

CITY PAGES: Walt said that he wanted Disneyland to be different from the "dirty, phony places run by tough-looking people." What do you think he meant by that?

KARAL ANN MARLING: Well, that comes from his own personal experience of trying to find a place where he could spend a day with his daughters in the late '30s and early '40s. Dirty is easy to understand if he's taking the kids to what was available in the so-called "family amusement" business in California. In the '40s, that would have been places where a sailor would probably be in danger of his life. In terms of phony, I think he meant kind of phony-baloney: You pay your money and you don't get what you bargained for. I think we need to use that term in its period context. I don't think he meant ersatz [laughs].

CP: Is there a lot of irony in Disney? Did he look at things with that kind of eye?

KAM: No. I don't think he had an ironic bone in his body [laughs]. Minnesotans should probably like him a lot.

CP: You say Main Street feels so intimate because it's a corner of Walt Disney's psyche that he shared with his guests. What part of his psyche do you think it is that wants to escape a place where there are a lot of tough-looking carnies?

KAM: I don't think you can get too Freudian about this, frankly. But there's a wonderful passage in Pinocchio, which is a movie he really took a hand in, in which Pinocchio goes to a place called Pleasure Island, and it's a classical American or Californian amusement park at the turn of the century. And there are giant cigars and the kids get into terrible trouble and they deface works of art.

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