1955, Disneyland: ‘The Happiest
Place on Earth’ and the Fiction of
Cold War Culture
On 17 July 1955 the Disneyland amusement park, self-billed as ‘the Happiest Place on Earth’, had its grand opening. In many ways, this was as much a culmination as a commencement. The hit television show, Disneyland, which had premièred the preceding October, was a year-long advertisement, aimed at using the power of television to sell the park to the American public, a prescient strategy, in that in the 1954–5 television season the number of American households with television sets would pass the 50 per cent mark. The power of television to affect every aspect of American life, moreover, had already been demonstrated by the Disneyland television show in December 1954, when the broadcast of the first of three Davy Crockett episodes created a national craze previously unequalled in speed and scope. With Davy Crockett Disney provided for the nation a Western hero at the height of the Cold War at the same time he proved television could dictate national consumerism. Even more important, the Davy Crockett craze demonstrated that a nation initially composed of disparate colonies and subsequently covering a vast cultural and geographical landscape could share a nationally homogeneous vision. Television, Disney conclusively demonstrated, was the nation’s public space, the site of images shared simultaneously by a majority of all Americans, and Disneyland – the show and the park – had become that nation’s town hall.
The park and television show shared not only the same name but also the same visual structure, one that divided ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ into four ‘lands’. These lands spatialised and temporalised national identity according to the principles of cinematic representation, creating a form of verisimilitude that powerfully combined cinema’s capacity for illusion with early television’s reputation for veracity. Thus the park’s opening, a live televised event watched by an estimated audience of 90 million, certified television’s coming of age as the matrix of narrative, commerce, and citizenship, by showing that national identity was profoundly cinematic.
So tenacious was Disney’s insistence on the reality of Disneyland that when Billy Graham, after visiting the park, referred to it as a nice fantasy, Disney replied:
You know the fantasy isn’t here. This is very real … The park is reality. The people are natural
here; they’re having a good time; they’re communicating. This is what people really are. The
fantasy is – out there, outside the gates of Disneyland, where people have hatreds and people
have prejudices. It’s not really real! (Findlay 1992: 70)