Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
Vintage photo of Main Street USA in Disney World

On Walt Disney’s Utopian City


The creation of a land so fantastic that visitors once inside will never abandon it altogether.

The American literary critic, Harold Bloom, devoted much of his life to studying the work of William Shakespeare. According to Bloom, the Bard was the greatest creator of personalities in history, preceded only by those who’d written the Bible. One controversial thesis of Bloom, one often debunked as mere psychologism or even snobbery, asserts that our own characters are more indebted to Shakespeare than to anyone else. Our workmates are Iagos of dubious intentions. We feel like buffoons telling truths that nobody wants to hear, or like two teenagers from rival families unable to legitimize our love. Or like an unarmed king – a mere man in the middle of the Battle of Bosworth – we’d exchange our entire kingdom for a horse.

Beyond the film empire, the major franchises and the entertainment industry brands (like Marvel and Star Wars), Disney’s endless childhood dream continues to materialize today in the theme parks of California and Orlando, not even counting those in the rest of the world. The first parks opened in the 1950s. They received and continue to receive visitors to Main Street, USA, a frontier where the conventions of the “outside world” cease to operate, where the senses are bombarded and stimulated to a point of anesthesia. As a consequence, rational judgment is suspended, identity shifts toward acts of consumption (much more concrete, they’re equally numerous) and the visitor is “immersed” in this experience, more as a character than as an endless film.

In Disney’s Design – Imagineering Main Street, Josef Chytry traces the idea of ​​the theme park as a three-dimensional essay on the Utopian city. It was a project conceived by Disney and then endorsed through numerous attempts and explorations until it included the creation of a school and even the possibility of separating his properties from beneath the jurisdiction of the state of California.

According to Chytry, Disney’s film studios were organized following a model of urban planning which imagined a film set that would never close and in which a viewer might break the fourth Brechtian wall (a convention dictating that theater or cinema occupy a place opposite that of representation). Here one might enter a world that somehow seems familiar: a world of infantile fantasies materialized in objects and acts of consumption that offer an experience free from Thanato and the fear of death.
The tradition of California musical cinema (the tradition questioned, for example, in La La Land’s doubt-filled tribute) enchants fans while irritating detractors of the genre. Yet it offers an implicit script for the visitors to these theme parks. Don’t know what to do? Sing a song, buy a T-shirt. Travel to the past, to the future, to pirate-infested seas or to the world where children never grow up. In the midst of sudden outbursts of dancing, dissent ends with the elimination or containment of villains, and in turn, there’s an agreement between disputing parties. It always ends in settlement, in forgiveness, in rebuilding, all Disney roads lead to a Happy Ending, to the capital.

A Doll House in the Form of a City

Facade of German castle

Disney’s plan to build a real city started in 1958. Although it never took off, the result was the founding of the California Institute of Arts, an educational center. In his next attempt, Disney didn’t want simply an improved version of Disneyland. According to Chytry, his intent was “to build a utopian city adjacent to the theme park.”

Like figures on a colossal table game, Disney World never managed to be a Utopian city either. It wasn’t politically independent, as Disney had dreamed it might be. The film studio, the theme park, the school, the museum: all of these experiments were set out along the road to reaching higher goals. These included achieving a city with its own rules and form of government, and in which inhabitants had absolute control over civil affairs as long as developers and investors could retain ownership of the land.

If it didn’t work, it wasn’t for any lack of vision, nor because of the labor unions. Every aspect of the project was personally reviewed and supervised by Disney as if it were his greatest film project. The impossible city of his dreams conformed ultimately to the needs of visitors and guests. Disney’s genius was not in producing exploitable and profitable imagery, but in making visitors and fans somehow never abandon the promised land of fantasy. Walter Disney managed to construct a factory of memories, and millions of people have been piloted since then to the manufacture of childhood.

The parks today can be read as an alternative to real-world history, as a model of fantasies, in which all peoples are represented as the followers of characters and legends. We’re not fools. We know that it’s only a game and a costume. That’s what parents tell children on their first visits to Disneyland. And they look around, knowing intuitively that adults, too, behave very strangely here.

Related Articles