Professor Robert Neuman recently published the monograph From Hollywood to Disneyland: Walt Disney’s Theme Park and the Influence of American Movies (McFarland, 2022). A respected scholar in the field of Early Modern art history, Neuman also teaches and publishes on Disney animation and theme parks.
Dr. Neuman’s new book focuses on the conceptual development of the park, beginning in 1948, and its first year of operation from its opening in July 1955. He argues that the themed “lands” and rides in the Magic Kingdom owe a huge debt, long ignored or overlooked, to directors like Frank Capra, John Ford, Michael Curtiz, and lesser lights like W. S. Van Dyke, as well as to flag-waving fare favored by movie moguls like Louis B. Mayer and Darryl F. Zanuck. According to Neuman, Disney’s “fabulous playground” (as Walt once called it) tapped into storylines and cinematic clichés in motion pictures seen by millions of Americans in the pre- and postwar years. Moreover, the designers adopted many of the skills and production techniques used to make Golden-Age films.
Using previously unknown primary sources, Dr. Neuman demonstrates that early Disneyland was publicized as a vast, walk-through stage set. Incoming visitors were obliged to stroll down a backlot version of a small-town main street. In Frontierland they explored a Hollywood-style Old West location set; in Adventureland, they embarked on a simulated jungle cruise on the Rivers of the World. Two things helped make this subliminal stage-set gambit work. First, the fact that these cinematic tropes were familiar to one and all, thanks to the movies; second, because, whether they knew it or not, each one of the park’s “guests” was conscripted as an unpaid bit player.
Disneyland’s subliminal ties to canonical film genres, combined with the imaginative genius and showmanship of the park’s master builder, are what made it the enchanting experience it was in the beginning, and remains still today. Dr. Neuman has been pleased to find the book well received by Disney Imagineers as well as Disney Studies scholars.