It happened today - July 17, 2015
It has been exactly 60 years since Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California. Only in America.
After a rocky start due partly to mass counterfeiting of opening day passes and sticky asphalt, the park itself became a huge success, today hosting over 14 million visitors a year. Who spend almost $3 billion. And its success inspired the even larger Disney World in Orlando in 1971, plus Disneyland Tokyo in 1983, Disneyland Paris (a.k.a. “EuroDisney”) in 1992 to the general horror of European intellectuals, and most recently Disneyland Hong Kong in 2005. Which might make you question my “only in America” premise. But in vain.
The whole Disney story is the kind of entrepreneurial triumph unique to America. Disney himself was born in humble circumstances, with a remarkable talent, unquenchable drive and fanatical devotion to quality, went from inventive success to inventive success, shrugged off failures, and created a global icon in Mickey Mouse. And the theme parks too are unmistakably American in their exuberance, their optimism (for all its nostalgia there is nothing conservative about Disney’s parks, stunningly progressive in their conception and animating spirit if you look and listen carefully), and their total immersion saved from vulgarity only by the perfectionism that extends to getting every knob and knickknack just right on the rides, in the hotels and throughout the enterprise.
When EuroDisney opened, some French commentators sniffed that it was a “cultural Chernobyl”. One journalist endorsed the metaphor and added that it “will contaminate millions of children (and their parents), castrate their imaginations, paw their dreams with greenish hands. Green, like the color of the dollar.” Dude. Calm down. It’s just a mouse and some rides.
Well no. It’s not. It’s a total vision, an imaginary world brought to life by drive, determinism and daring. If that upsets you, don’t blame Walt Disney.
One French journalist wrote in context of EuroDisney that “At the core, America gives us the same effect as ice cream. It makes us sick, but we keep asking for it.” The thing is, ice cream only makes you sick if you lack sufficient self-control to stop when you’ve had an appropriate amount.
Now it might seem, especially given the current obesity crisis, that Americans are the last people to know when to stop. Indeed, America strikes a certain type of intellectual as a land of excess, and Disney stands as a symbol of that excess. But when you start pressing them, they can’t quite explain what the excess is. As Mark Steyn wrote twelve years ago, “The fanatical Muslims despise America because it’s all lapdancing and gay porn; the secular Europeans despise America because it’s all born-again Christians hung up on abortion; the anti-Semites despise America because it’s controlled by Jews. Too Jewish, too Christian, too Godless, America is also too isolationist, except when it’s too imperialist.”
What America really is, and one of the things I love about it, is exuberant. Yes, of course there are excesses. Americans aren’t afraid to do things all out, from the Duct Tape Queen to radical chic. And when they get it wrong, the results can be grotesque. But when they get it right, as with Disney parks, it’s dazzling.
I say again, only in America.