‘Star Tours’ and Screen-Based Publics

Informational Signage in ‘Star Tours – The Adventures Continue’ attraction | Disneyland Park (Anaheim, CA) | 2011

When asked to describe a trip to a Disney theme park, few vacationers would speak positively of waiting in line. Even fewer would recall passing that time looking out a simulated window or, god forbid, reading. Fewer still would register such a memory in reference to an attraction like Star Tours – The Adventures Continue (2011). Insignificant as it may seem, this in-queue gazing may actually do more to sell the experience than the attraction it precedes.

Perhaps this last point deserves some explanation.

To call Star Tours a screen-heavy attraction is something of an understatement. This description applies most overtly to the ride system itself: a motion simulator offering sightseeing tours to various locations from the Star Wars film franchise. Upon closer inspection, however, one finds that the attraction is riddled with screen images from the beginning of its queue to the obligatory gift shop that transitions riders from the attraction’s exit back into the park. And it is these seemingly mundane acts of looking at, and specifically reading from, a screen that inflect the experience so profoundly for visitors.

The basic premise of this attraction (that riders have made reservations with the eponymous touring company to explore parts of the Star Wars universe) is compelling even for casual viewers, and much of its appeal comes from the detailed portrayal of environments only briefly seen, or sometimes just hinted at, in the films. This implanted desire to expand upon the visual experience of the films is blended with an eerie sense of optimism, as the destinations offered by the company (advertised throughout) are united under the banner of commerce regardless of their role in the plot. Here, the logics that structure the universe are those of technology and business, and textual design supports this approach.

Overall, the attraction’s aesthetic is that of an airport or other commercial transportation facility. Riders enter the queue under the direction of illuminated signage displaying English text paired with the same messages in an invented alphabet. Pieces direct visitors to various locations within the attraction and provide procedural information such as pick-up and drop-off locations for 3-D glasses. Large screens overlook riders on their way through a terminal area, offering arrival and departure information interspersed with advertisements for the company’s tour destinations (see above). Posters bearing similar advertisements line the walkways at the conclusion of the attraction, and the silhouettes of an assortment of passengers (representing several of the franchise’s more recognizable species) can be seen through simulated doors and windows.

Standardization of the textual design – with elements such as font and color kept constant throughout – suggests the fictional company’s efficiency and broad influence. This lends the attraction a sense of officiality and uniformity, while the use of multiple written languages and the portrayal of a heterogeneous clientele foregrounds exactly the type of diversity desired by a massive commercial enterprise spanning an entire galaxy (the adventurous reader might draw a parallel between this and the real-life company in whose park the attraction resides).

This diversity comes, unsurprisingly, with many strings attached. While featured, it is really only valued insofar as it can be effectively administered by the company. In creating a consistent aesthetic for visual communication, and placing English and the Latin alphabet in a superior position relative to other scripts and languages, Disney constructs a riding and viewing public that, while diverse, is nonetheless humanoid and Anglophone. And, since the voice of this abstract authority is one that is also inflected by the position of the touring company, it is made inescapably clear that the primary organizing principle of this particular universe is commerce.

Star Tours is just one example of a set of strategies at work in the Disney parks since their early days. Text and graphics fit into the company’s themed design in several ways, some of which are more transparent than others. On the most direct level: non-diegetic expository text, such as placards containing safety information, can inform visitors about attractions with little to no attempt at integration. These elements can also be placed more deliberately into the universe of an attraction, where they may be called upon to provide narrative context or add to the aesthetic experience of the waiting space. In forms such as in-queue games or puzzles, these elements can further engagement by inviting active participation on the part of visitors.

Disparate as these approaches may be, they all help to establish the waiting space as an informative one. By offering information about the narrative universe of a themed attraction, or direct participation in it, textual and graphic elements frequently serve the purpose of getting visitors quickly acquainted with its parameters. It is important to note, however, that none of these strategies exist in a state that is anywhere near independence.

Disney and its competitors develop parks and attractions that rely on references to numerous genres and narrative traditions, each of which constructs a specific audience, and rarely have any of these traditions served purposes that are universally beneficial. Uniting a galaxy through leisure travel may seem an admirable goal, but it tarnishes the endeavor somewhat when one begins to ask questions about who is on the giving and receiving ends of these experiences, as well as the interests of those pulling the strings. Enjoyable though it may be to immerse oneself in a themed environment, it is always worth pausing to consider the ideological leaps that environment is asking its participants to make.

If Your Research is Trivial, and You Know It, Scream in Agony

Not a great spot for a breakdown…
Snow White’s Scary Adventures attraction (Disneyland Park – Anaheim, CA)
(Photo provided by author)


Teetering atop a cliff.
About to be struck by lightning.
Unexpectedly and irreversibly exposed.

These terms describe the climactic moment of Disneyland’s Snow White’s Scary Adventures (1955) attraction, and if we add “painfully aware of the utter futility of the endeavor” to this list it also sums up how I feel about my dissertation most of the time.
When riders reach this final encounter (pictured above), the Evil Queen is out of options. Having been outmaneuvered at every turn, she makes one final disastrous attempt to put an end to . . . someone.

A person familiar with any version of the fairy tale will understand that this “someone” is Snow White, and one might then assume that in the attraction riders would identify accordingly. However, one would be wrong in doing this. Since riders are neither definitively placed in- or outside of the narrative universe, nor explicitly aligned with the title character, our relationship to the events portrayed in the attraction is ill-defined. Now is not the time for an extended textual analysis, and a better one already exists, but I do want to pause for a moment on this ambiguity.

Since Disney assumes we have all seen the film, the attraction dispenses with quite a bit of exposition so that we can be moved through in about 2 minutes. Among other things, this means that what the Evil Queen is actually trying to accomplish, and why, is never stated explicitly. All we really see is her putting a lot of work into setting up some elaborate plan, then trying like hell to pull it off and failing miserably. Add to this the fact that Snow White and the dwarfs are never seriously offered as protagonists (we actually see far less of them), plus our own inability to position ourselves definitively in relation to the plot (making it difficult to interpret any malicious actions as being directed our way), and I have to admit that by the end of the ride I actually feel a little sorry for the Queen.

Right about now, you may be asking yourself what any of this has to do with dissertations or humanities research. Have a slow clap.

If there is a point to any of this, it would be that the Evil Queen in this version* of the Disneyland attraction is actually a pretty good metaphor for my research experience thus far. Ethical concerns aside (no matter how much of an embarrassment I may be for my department and my field, I have no intention of imprisoning, conning, poisoning or dropping boulders on anyone), I can identify a bit too easily with dedicating oneself wholly to a goal that most people would consider, if not repugnant, at least worthless.
I can never pretend that this is uniquely my issue. The specter of applicability has always haunted the humanities, and will no doubt continue to do so, but this is neither the time nor the place to make that particular argument. What I propose, if anything, is something of a re-framing.

The ethical universe implied by the ride, as it is experienced by the Evil Queen, is a decent analogue for anyone pursuing weird research topics in higher education. You invest in your projects, do anything and everything to get them off the ground, and will likely suffer a horrible fate at the end. You may become part of a cautionary tale told to university-bound adolescents by well-meaning relatives, or in the case of this attraction a slightly disturbing, but necessary element in a well-rounded visit to the “Happiest Place on Earth.” And maybe the latter is not such a sad ending.

Evil or not, the Queen was passionate and thorough. Fun needs a dark side, after all, and in the savage wasteland of higher education who can say which passions are best pursued? For now, I can rest comfortably in the knowledge that were I to run into this version of the Evil Queen somewhere I could look knowingly into her withered, hideous face and say: “I get it.”

* The opening day version followed the film more closely, as I understand it, to the effect that the Evil Queen was clearly portrayed as evil in more than name. As the ride was refurbished the year of my birth, I am in no position to confirm this, but I am prepared to take full advantage of the ambiguity in the current incarnation.

Disney Parks Infrastructure – Boundaries, Part II

Walt Disney World, or: ALL THE SPACE

Like its west coast counterpart, the beginning of Disney’s Orlando resort is the stuff of legend. And (spoiler alert), for much the same reason, the origin story will not be the specific object of interest for this installment. The (credit where credit is due) decent attempts at subtlety during the land acquisition process, and the adjustment of purpose prompted by Walt Disney’s death, make for charming (and highly marketable, just saying) stories. They have also been influential in defining the purpose and identity of the resort, but what really concerns us here is once again the particulars of the relationship between the physical property and its surroundings. In this case, it is critical to begin by acknowledging just how much the planning for the Orlando resort was influenced by the performance of its predecessor. While this seems like an obvious statement on its surface (it does not come as a shock that the company would have looked to Anaheim Disneyland’s decade of existence when planning for Orlando), it is difficult to overstate the degree to which the Orlando resort has been (and will likely continue to be) defined based on its sister property.

It is therefore fitting to begin an exploration of the Orlando resort with an eye toward the question of boundaries, as it is a topic of high visibility for visitors as well as one which implies that there has been some degree of development since the opening in Anaheim. The most noticeable difference is one of scale, as the “invasion” in California prompted the company to stake a much larger claim on the east coast (roughly 25,000 acres, compared to the 160 bought in 1953 for the Anaheim property). This results in a much lower density within the property, as well as an extensive buffer zone separating Disney from the city of Orlando (as much of the original land purchase was intended to be left undeveloped). While I have once again made something of an obvious point here, it turns out that the implications for a footprint of this size are rather hefty. In the first place, when approaching the resort it is never made entirely clear exactly what or where its edges are. Unlike in Anaheim, where the back sides of attractions are visible to passersby on the city streets, there is no place within Walt Disney World where one can reasonably ascertain the contours of the resort from ground level (this is also difficult from the air, as even the tallest structures offer little in the way of an effective vantage point and the property does not sit within easy viewing distance of the MCO flight corridor). Thousands of acres of extensive landscaping (landscaping that is, very importantly, intended to appear natural) effectively obscure most structures from view until the observer is in close proximity (in most cases, inside a parking area), and except for signage those traveling through the property are given little to indicate that they are moving through anything other than Central Florida roadside woods.

This roadside wilderness, or rather the road itself, offers another intriguing site for analysis. While transportation will be dealt with on its own in the future, it is so deeply implicated in the formation and management of the resort’s boundaries that the topic deserves some mention in this installment. To begin with, it is vital to note that for the vast majority of its inhabitants (both visitors and staff), the resort is only accessible by road, and in a strictly private manner. Whereas the Anaheim resort can be reached entirely by public transportation (the entirety of the property is accessible by foot, Orange County Transportation Authority buses serve the bordering streets and connect to intermodal transit centers providing both local and intercity bus and rail service), the only way to access Disney’s Orlando property is to drive in on one of a handful of state or interstate roads. With entry being offered (tacitly) only to privately owned and/or officially contracted vehicles, and even ride-sharing being kept on a short leash (so as not to interfere with the company’s own “Minnie Van” service), one must travel deep within the property before encountering anything that resembles a monitored entry point (these would be, depending on perspective, either the parking lot ticket booths or the security stations at each park). Monitoring, however, is both an active and passive process, and these staffed checkpoints merely continue a job that has been initiated by the landscape.

While the issue of density has already been introduced, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider its interaction with those of transportation and access. In doing so, we can begin to understand just how diffuse boundaries are even within the resort. As one can easily imagine, and also see quite clearly on any map or aerial image, there are few (visibly) hard edges within the property. Rather, the company seems inclined to rely preferentially on isolation in order to maintain its territorial integrity. During the drive into the property, as I teased earlier, the visitor is rarely permitted to see much more of the landscape than is required for the placement of the road surface, which gives the impression that the space simply continues just beyond the tree line. Somehow, far from seeming channeled, the impression given by the drive in is one of meandering through a woodsy road. This continues all the way into the parks, where one is equally unlikely to encounter an obvious obstruction such as a perimeter wall or fence. Instead, “natural” barriers are provided by sculpted landscapes or building facades. Even though one can often approach a physical edge quite closely (and in the case of the Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain even cross it, as the attraction is in fact located outside the perimeter of the park), because these edges are formed by spaces with which visitors can interact, the implication is that the universe of the park just keeps going. Beyond the space of the parks, fleeting glimpses of the surroundings, granted by momentary pauses on the taller outdoor attractions (all of which are kept under 200 feet in height in order to avoid the necessity of installing warning lights for aircraft), reveal the distance which needs to be covered in order to reach other resort areas and, eventually, the world beyond. This principle also works in reverse, as internal divisions within the parks collapse distances on the scale of both light and geological years, and in the case of the Animal Kingdom park the two work in tandem. Here, few would question the proposition that the planet Pandora (of Avatar fame) and Earth’s Cretaceous Period (you know, then one that most of the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park franchise are from) are apparently situated within walking distance of one another, and yet the view from the top of the Himalayan-themed Expedition Everest roller coaster (located between them, in the “Asia” section of the same park . . . I know, I know) never fails to inspire surprise as riders are reminded that they have actually been in Florida the whole time.

The point of all this is that Disney company has actually pulled off a rather impressive feat of spatial trickery here. The sheer size of the resort’s footprint, along with its peculiar pattern of development, has held the Orlando metro area at bay in a variety of ways. On one hand, this is more or less transparent: the distance between city and park, maintained by apparently undeveloped green space, offers both physical and metaphorical room for those on property. When moving through or into the resort, one does so not on an urban street or within a public conveyance, but from the comfort of a private vehicle traveling along an interstate highway. Surrounded by green space and other concealing features of the landscape, there is often little to announce the company’s presence aside from roadside signage. Even the four massive resort signs that straddle major highway entrances feel somewhat out of place, as the space on either side appears more or less the same. Parks and hotels seem to congeal from out of the background, not quite coming into view until one is essentially in the parking lot. Once inside the gates, we are then made to understand that an infinite universe is contained without edges in each park, which itself seems to fade into existence from out of the aether that constitutes the majority of the resort’s footprint. Traveling through the space thus gives the impression of crossing unthinkable stretches of time and space to reach destinations that always manage to sneak up on you. In a way, one does not so much enter the resort as just sort of become engulfed in it. And all this without a fence.

So, Who Cares?

This is a fair question, but I have to confess that I have no good answer. Maybe we can get to one by starting with the facts. In the two US Disney properties, we have examples of two different strategies for managing boundaries and dealing with the cities that lie beyond the berm. For the Anaheim resort, historical circumstances forced the company to wall itself off, maintaining a dense presence within a confined area. Moving outward and away from the center of the resort, its presence is made apparent through interventions in local and regional transportation systems. A distinct geographical boundary obscures an enterprise that is, nevertheless, fairly tightly integrated with its surroundings in a number of ways. On the other coast, stretching out is the name of the game. With a large footprint, the company is able to establish a sizable buffer zone between itself and the environment around it, separating itself physically as well as concealing much of its mass even from those not filtered out by the restricted opportunities for incoming transportation. Inside the gates, the scale of the property is constantly manipulated by compressing physical and temporal distances in one moment, then expanding them in the next. The result is the creation of a space that is implied to be infinite, yet somehow fully contained in an area that does do without explicit boundaries of any kind. Perhaps we can find solace in the knowledge that for the Disney parks, as is so often the case, edges function more as sites of exchange and negotiation than as a container. Rather than cloistering themselves, as was (at least to some degree) the original intention, it seems that the resorts have only sutured themselves to their surroundings in weirder and creepier ways.

If pop culture scholarship has taught me nothing else (it most certainly has not), it is that everything is always the worst. And in that spirit, I can happily say that this is only the beginning. If you managed to make it this far, then you can look forward to *probably* surviving the horrors that await you in the rest of this series. If boundaries are the skin of the beast, then future installments will examine its innards in pornographic detail.

Happy Holidays.

Disney Parks Infrastructure – Field Guide

Hell-llo there.

It can be pretty easy to forget that things exist, especially in academia. Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, when reading theme park scholarship one gets the distinct impression that most of these authors never quite manage to spend much time getting to know a park intimately. There are a variety of reasons for this, which I should probably have avoided bringing up because now I have to deal with it, but the point here is that quite a bit of the research in this field is somewhat disembodied. While the standby sources (industry documents, press, interviews, etc) are certainly informative in their own way, there seem to be few who are willing to assert that a visit might have some research value. While this is troubling from an intellectual standpoint, it also introduces some practical issues, as theme park infrastructure can be a little . . . tough to come to terms with through a screen.

Stepping down from my soap box, I can come to the point by saying that on-site observation is absolutely critical for this particular body of work. There are some difficulties, of course, not least of which is the sheer amount of sensory information that confronts a visitor to any park. Add to this the fact that infrastructural elements are often only obliquely referenced, and we find ourselves in something of an investigative quagmire. In that spirit, I thought it might be interesting to gather some resources for those who might want a little more focused engagement with the parks. Based on my own on-site observations, along with supplemental sources in a variety of formats, I assembled something of a starter kit / field guide for Disney Parks infrastructure (attached below). The guide can be studied ahead of time or consulted at the parks, and it includes introductions to major topics, questions, on-property references and readings/resources. Not so much a planning document, it is really meant to help frame in-person observation and generate research topics. Methods and theoretical context are explained within, as well as elsewhere on this blog, so I hope I can be forgiven for not going into too much detail here. While the guide is far from comprehensive, and equally so from complete (expect updates), it hopefully offers at least a starting point for some interesting projects.

Trust me. What could go wrong?

Infrastructure Guide (Web)

Disney Parks Infrastructure – Boundaries, Part I

In honor of the season, it seems appropriate to open with an anatomical metaphor. Though this point can and should be disputed (by someone else, and after this post has gone up), one might consider the skin to be one of the fundamental boundaries of organisms at every level of complexity. In addition to serving as a container for its material components (most of them, anyway), for my own questionable purposes the more important characteristic of skin is its capacity to act as a mediator between an organism and its physical environment. It is therefore fitting to begin our infrastructural analysis by exploring the sites and surfaces through which the Disney resorts meet the rest of the universe. Though the company trades on immersion, the relationship between a Disney park and its habitat is considerably more complex than simple binaries can capture (inside vs. outside, etc). This relationship, riddled with slippages and held together by workarounds, will be illuminated in this and the next post by exploring the distinct ways that each of Disney’s US resorts continuously negotiates its own boundaries. In the same way that skin serves as a zone of interaction between a physical body and a physical world, these boundaries serve as critical sites at which the Disney company is constantly re-articulating its relationship with the spaces and communities that surround it.

Disneyland, or: Damn It, Why Didn’t We Plan For This?

article-2543873-1ade975900000578-344_964x404Disneyland’s creation myth is widely known and, at least at the moment, does not need repeating. The resort’s seemingly divine inspiration, and the blind sprint toward its debut, are considerably less interesting for our purposes than the steaming mass of urban humanity that stormed its gates in the ensuing decades (there is, of course, the possible exception of the opening day fiasco, which will more than likely make an appearance in this series). From the beginning, Disney’s Anaheim resort has suffered from something of a space problem. As the preceding photo amply demonstrates, the park’s (and in the early days, it was indeed just a park) immediate popularity inspired a land rush that saw nearly every adjacent property claimed by entertainment and hospitality providers, and the company was rather unsurprisingly left with little room for expansion (both physically and economically). More important, however, is the fact that as a result of this onslaught of related interests Disneyland was never quite able to function as the closed system that Walt Disney had imagined (I stress the word imagined here, as we shall soon see that no amount of planning and design can keep the outside world at bay).

It is precisely this constant semi-alien presence that has shaped the resort’s peculiar relationship to its surroundings. Without the elbow room enjoyed by its east coast counterpart (to be explored in this series’ next installment), the Anaheim resort can be characterized by its varying acknowledgment of, and reliance on, infrastructure to make its presence known and felt. Wedged against I-5 and cut through by city streets, Disneyland defines its extended space through seemingly casual acts of seepage. Parking lots and employee facilities (often some distance away from the main gates) are physically connected by the company’s own transit service, an arrangement that enables a sort of shoe-string annexation of the space between the resort proper and its colonies. These stretches of city roadways, also carrying hotel shuttles and Anaheim Resort Transportation (a quasi-government transit provider, partially contracted by Disney and separate from the county’s main service) vehicles in addition to normal street traffic, are noticeably better kept and more aesthetically unified than those just a few blocks beyond the main strips of the resort area, and it is here that we see the resort’s most overt use of infrastructural tactics to incorporate parts of the surrounding area while simultaneously marking itself as distinct. The strategy shifts, however, as one moves farther into the space of the resort proper.

The official company shuttles converge in the relative serenity of the resort’s bus terminal, having entered from a service road that peels off from Harbor Boulevard (the resort’s eastern boundary). All other traffic is forced to enter through the front gate, as it were, as non-Disney vehicles release their passengers along Harbor Boulevard to join other pedestrians as they file through a break in the shrubbery that surrounds the resort on most sides. The transition, while lacking physical subtlety, does facilitate a rather elegant adjustment in terms of pace and mood. The next choke point is thus approached once safely inside the (quite literally biologically-defined) space of the main property, with familiar tunes from popular franchises replacing the clamor of the busy street just beyond the hedge. A security station, featuring a hands-on bag inspection and metal detectors, momentarily increases crowd pressure (to a degree that varies based on attendance) before releasing the human torrent into the resort’s central corridor. It is at this point that we begin to notice an apparent slackening in the mechanisms of separation. Disney works hard here to make sure that their security operation has a likable human face. There are no locking gates at this checkpoint (nor overt barriers of any kind, for that matter), and none of the x-ray scanners that one would expect to find at an airport. Officers ask permission to check bags, and occasionally wave people around the (temporary) stanchions to bypass the metal detectors, all to give the impression that this process is nothing more than a momentary inconvenience. Completely ignoring the fact that the resort has to be one of the most heavily monitored vacation sites on the planet, the atmosphere between the terminal and the security station is intended to suggest a greeting of guests, rather than a screening for potential disruptions to the resort’s operation.

Having been given a friendly go-ahead by security, those moving into the next resort area witness the disappearance of nearly all forms of familiar infrastructure. By design, Downtown Disney (the food, retail and entertainment district forming a central corridor through the resort and offering access to both parks from the on-property hotels and the world beyond) is meant to stand apart from downtown Anaheim. With little in the way of visible utilities (wires, pipes, gutters and the like), the only non-food/retail work being carried out by the occasional sweeper and the parking lot trams being the sole vehicular presence, there is essentially nothing to indicate what exactly keeps this place running physically. The wide and (relatively) uncongested pathways make it very clear that this is a space meant to appear as though it has no other organizational principle than that dictated by the whims of those meandering through it. Downtown Disney is, thus, more of a place to move through than to go to. Familiar Disney imagery sits alongside established brands such as Lego, Splitsville and The VOID (these will, with the exception of Starbucks, disappear entirely once inside the actual park gates), providing an intermediate space between the all-Disney universe of the parks and the everything-else of the city outside. Ticketing is a centralized affair here, with a handful of simple kiosks flanking a wide plaza suggesting that rather than getting into the parks, the real work lies in making it out of Anaheim. In Downtown Disney, we are thus presented with a space that references a type of real-world location without the inconvenient support systems required for its operation. Moving into this area is therefore akin to entering a show set, albeit one that facilitates a transition between the city outside and the fantasy space inside the parks.

The logic shifts yet again once inside the parks themselves. Entering through whimsical (ie – sanitized) representations of localities significant in the life of Walt Disney (1920s Hollywood or 1900s Marceline, MO), we are drawn by vintage conveyances (electric streetcar, omnibus, horse-drawn carriage, etc) into a universe where infrastructure is encountered as an amusement above all else. With nearly every physical structure tied to a recognizable IP (the workings of which are deemed largely inconsequential) and transportation systems providing a focal point for attractions such as the Rivers of America and the Disneyland Railroad (ie – the “boring” ones that let you get off your feet for a little while), the physical logic that governs the space is fascinating in its tendency to teeter between confirming and denying infrastructure as a mechanism for defining and separating spaces. This is all a rather roundabout way of pointing out that Disneyland has established something of a concentration gradient when it comes to physically asserting itself. Moving outward from the parks, while the environment presented becomes more grounded (an upscale urban leisure space, as opposed to a world of Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar), there is no pretense that Downtown Disney represents any kind of functional municipal entity. As the the borders of the resort proper are reached, things that actually work begin to creep into the picture. The bus terminal off of Harbor Boulevard waits just outside of the security checkpoint, and beyond this the live border that signals perhaps the most drastic break in Disney’s grip on the physical environment. Those on foot pass the resort’s driveway and step through its hedges, entering a zone where Disney is forced to negotiate its presence within the regular-ass city that houses it. Remote facilities, like satellite states linked to the Disney mainland by the fleet of parking shuttles, are still clearly visible for several blocks, and those traveling out of the city may very well notice the increasing height of buildings (reportedly reduced in the vicinity of the resort so as not to ruin sight lines from within) and catch a glimpse of a licensed airport shuttle heading to or from John Wayne or LAX. Interestingly, the farther one travels away from Disneyland, the more overtly the resort relies on infrastructure to assert its presence in the physical landscape. From its narrative (though not practical) acknowledgment within the parks to its indisputable but generally unnoticed presence in the road-, rail- and airways of the Los Angeles metro area, Disneyland’s shifting infrastructural stance underscores the fact that no matter how it tries to separate itself the resort can never quite exist without the city that it continues to define.

Disney Parks Infrastructure – Introduction

A lot of people wind up in Hell.
I truly earned my place

I have a problem. A theme park problem. A Disney theme park problem, to put an increasingly fine point on it. Over the course of my adult life I have attempted to indulge, rationalize and even outright deny this bizarre compulsion without any hope of reaching peace. When all else failed, I descended into the abyss of academia with the feeble hope that at the very least I could understand my ailment and potentially earn a meager living from doing so. This, of course left me with the question of how exactly I was to meet my fate. While generations of scholars have studied Disney’s media empire and representatives from every industry have emulated its design and management techniques, it struck me that looking through lens of infrastructure might illuminate both the parks themselves and, by (several) extension(s), theming as a contemporary cultural practice.

Why theme parks?

While the Walt Disney Company can not in good conscience be credited with the invention of the theme park, one would be justified in saying that it has done more to shape the modern industry than any other single organization. Attendance figures, earnings statements and comparisons of mass are well known, but for my purposes the more interesting description is a qualitative one. The terms “Disney” and “theme park” are nearly synonymous in the American public imagination, and as the company continues to set the de facto standards for design and management it is not unreasonable to consider the Mouse to be more or less representative of theme park industry. Before beginning our dissection, however, it is worth taking a step back to consider the appeal and importance (there, I said it) of theme parks in our historical moment.

As indicated by Scott A. Lukas et al in The Themed Space, and by Alan Bryman in The Disneyization of Society, theming is by no means limited to entertainment applications. While parks, dining and specialty retail are among the most visible instances of this practice, they are far from alone. Operating alongside these flagship examples are a host of other venues (transportation, small urban centers and cultural institutions, to name a few) which are far more numerous, yet tend to keep a much lower profile. Any investigation into theme parks is, from this perspective, an investigation into a principle around which many contemporary societies (not to mention economies) are organized.

Woefully unqualified as I am for such a discussion, however, my own interest in the topic is considerably more modest. As current scholarship on theme parks is dominated by social science and business inquiries, this project’s broader goal is to consider this material from the perspective of Media Studies. I see this approach as being particularly valuable given the interest in convergence and fan studies on the part of media scholars, as the Disney parks are known to foster engagement across a variety of media formats, which helps to facilitate robust fan communities. Investigating theme parks through an infrastructural lens will, I hope, complement the two dominant modes of inquiry by providing a critical space in which the consideration of human interactions coexists with that of the economic and industrial forces with which they are entangled. When applied to the material and communicative foundations that allow these myriad entities to interact, methods of analysis common in Media Studies will render in gory detail the steaming innards of the hyper-convergent consumption fest that is a typical Disney Parks visit.

Why infrastructure?

Forgettable as it may seem at first glance, infrastructure contributes quite actively to any theme park experience (though it is often unclear exactly how intentional this contribution may be). While this topic goes far beyond the scope of a humble research blog, we can at least begin to orient ourselves by looking at the Walt Disney Company’s enduring relationship to infrastructure. It would be an understatement to say that the designers, fabricators and day-to-day personnel at the various Disney properties are interested in the subject. From the number and variety of transportation systems given feature roles in attractions (among them: Autopia, the Disneyland/World Railroads, the Rivers of America, the PeopleMover . . . the list goes on), to the massive urban design and planning initiative that guided the development of EPCOT, infrastructure has been both an explicit and implicit concern at every Disney resort since its inception. Not to be left out, the individuals and organizations that interact with Disney have also made the subject a matter of concern. If the ever-growing collection of behind-the-scenes and advisory programming (from both official and unofficial sources) is anything to go by, Disney Parks infrastructure assumes the enviably slippery form of a black box with fuzzy edges whose lid never quite closes. This series of will begin to parse this complex identity by exploring three topics: boundaries, attraction design and crowd control. While specific research questions will be posed in the introduction of each post, at the moment it is sufficient to say that all will attempt to use infrastructure to illuminate aspects of Disney resort operations that are less directly visible, and to offer some explanation for how this shapes (and is shaped by) both convergence and fan activities.

Sources and Methods (How am I going to pull off this stunt?)

This is a research blog. Come on. My methods and sources for this project are (appropriately) fairly informal and somewhat unconventional. While traditional scholarly sources will of course inform my research, and those will be dealt with accordingly as various posts are spun off into more substantial projects, this series will for the most part concern itself with material collected -and intended to facilitate operations- at the parks (it may be helpful to think of this as something of a field guide). Analysis will be structured around firsthand observations from site visits too numerous to list here (to start with: a combined 6 visits to both US resorts within the last 16 months). These observations will be supplemented by productions from various Disney Parks fan communities (in the form of fan websites and b/vlogs), as this content provides an interesting balance between onsite documentation and after-the-fact commentary. A different, though no less informative, perspective will be provided by the official and semi-official communications produced or sanctioned by the Disney company, a category which includes visitor documents (resort websites, brochures, etc) and outside media coverage (both traditional journalism and entertainment-oriented documentary content).

This lovely mess of a series will serve as the foundation for what will, I hope, be a rather nice ongoing research project. With the Disney resorts as a model, later installments will use a similar approach to make inferences about other major theme park brands, the industry as a whole, and (very) eventually the societies in which they are embedded.


Bryman, Alan. The Disneyization of Society. London: Sage Publications, 2004.

Lukas, Scott A. ed. The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007.