08 September 2009

Walt Disney World and the American Dream

This semester I'm going to be posting student work from last semester's American Identities course, specifically the identification projects of those students who wanted me to share their work with a wider audience. Here's the first of many, from leemattar.

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Walt Disney World and the American Dream


My story starts out a long ways from here, yet at the very center of what is "American." Walt Disney used stories and his created wonderland in order to emulate the "Perfect All-American Dream." Many people feel that Disney is fake, but what is the original American Dream? Especially now, when the American Dream is becoming less and less attainable, the original ideals of the American Dream are fading. The ability to fulfill your dreams and goals through hard work is not possible for the average American. As children, we have huge dreams for ourselves, but as we grow up we are forced to give up those dreams for reality. Disney World is a place where people can re-submerge themselves into their childhood imaginings. The family can come together and, for a time at least, feel comfortable and separated from their problems. Their movies transport us into the fantasy of our choosing for a few hours. Disney may be a fabricated place, but it's the lack of reality that draws people to it. It's the emulation of the American Dream and the desire to attain it that keeps us going back.

In the spring of 2007 I was able to do an internship for Walt Disney World. I experienced the Disney Difference first hand. The Disney Difference means going above and beyond expectations. We treat our visitors as though they are guests in our home. Our home is clean, friendly, and inviting. As a cast member, my co-workers were like my second family and my work location became my second home. We would fight and make up, we would share our lunches and swap jokes. I was completely caught up in my own personal Disney world. I had all of Orlando to play in and few responsibilities outside of work. Having to enter the real world again, when my internship was over, was a bit of a struggle. I had to remind myself that I was no longer in a fantasy world where everyone was smiling. Here, I had responsibilities, meetings, and the constant flow of work to deal with. The memories I have from those seven months away have carried me through ruff moments. I can think back to the fireworks, to the laughter with friends, and the magic carpet rides. Those memories help me to smile and to keep going.

Today, people are struggling to keep their heads above water; they are dealing with angry bosses and demanding families. Walt Disney found ways to help people escape from their own lives and into his creations. When people enter the Magic Kingdom they have to take a boat or a monorail; driving in off the street is not an option. They are crossing the boundary between reality and fantasy. Once they pass the friendly ticket collectors they are greeted by the sight of a grand castle and are able to get their pictures taken by a smiling Cast Member. From there, the guest can choose what land he/she wants to visit first. They can visit the Land of Tomorrow where one can become a part of innovations and creations of new technologies. They can choose to visit Liberty Square and listen to the past presidents speak once again. In Frontierland, guests can go on adventures such as chasing run-away trains. Fantasyland has always been a favorite, with classics such at the Spinning Teacups and It's a Small World. Guests can choose to fly like Peter Pan or take part in Snow Whites Adventure. Disney offers those who visit many opportunities to escape reality.

Walt Disney wanted those who visited his park to be completely submerged into his created reality. In his world, everything is clean, everyone is happy, and family is highly valued. This is the kind of world we all strive for. The American Dream has typically been to be able to own a clean house with a trimmed yard, a white fence, and a supportive family. In reality, most people never achieve this version of the American Dream. They struggle to keep their heads above water and fewer of us have yards we can trim. Disney represents the America we wish we had. Every little boy is a pirate and every little girl is a princess. There are surprises and adventures to be found around every corner. Every movie has a happy ending. In actuality, our lives are monotonous, and children have been known to lie on the floor screaming. Happy endings are few and far between, life is more difficult, and animals are not as willing to help us when we are running from wicked stepmothers. We know all these things, but we continue to show our children the movies and go to the theme parks. Feeling like we are a part of an achieved American Dream is important to us and that’s why we continue.

Walt Disney was a man who successfully created his own American Dream. He had to work his way up and overcome many obstacles. He had a family to support and he wanted his children to be able to play in a clean and friendly environment. He also wanted it to be affordable and family oriented. Disneyland and Disney World have raised their prices quite a bit since their opening of Disneyland in 1955, and the following opening of Disney World in 1971. Yet they continue to find ways to entice millions of people to visit every year. The public dedications to all the Disney theme parks have started with: "To all who come to this happy place--welcome" (Disneyland Park (Anaheim)). At the Magic Kingdom in Disneyland, Walt continues, "Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America…" (Disneyland Park (Anaheim)). This quote is crucial to understanding how America and Disney Resorts are related. Everyone is welcome, whites, blacks, Americans and Non-Americans. Disney’s Magic Kingdom takes us back to the days for our grandfathers, or what we consider "the good-old-days." Disney hands over his creation to those who will enjoy it. When immigration first started into the United States, it was seen as the land for everyone. Our Statue of Liberty says, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free…" (Lazarus). These statements both represent the idea of people coming to a place to get away and to be free. At Disney, one becomes a part of the happy atmosphere there and is free of their normal routines, for a time at least. Many who came to America through Ellis Island often came to escape an old life and to take advantage of new opportunities. The problems with this is that one cannot stay at Disney World forever, and in America, many immigrants had to face discrimination and poverty. But people continue to come to the United Stated for the opportunities it promises to offer, just as people will continue to go to Disney World to have experiences they cannot get anywhere else.

Disney World invited people of all backgrounds to come and enjoy its resorts. This includes the Cast Members as well as the guests. In the United States we value diversity and Disney is sure to have one of the most diverse work environments. Animal Kingdom and the World Showcase in Epcot try to imitate the places they are representing. They did this by bringing people from the represented countries to work in the simulated countries. Many of the international students I worked with were from Indonesia because I was stationed in "Asia." When I asked them about why they were doing the internship and the overwhelming answer was that this was one of the only ways for them to easily get into the United States and to have American work experience on their resumes. One of the girls I knew decided to get married to an American friend so that she could stay in the United States after her internship was over. I was surprised that she was willing to leave her home and marry a man she had only known for a few months in order stay. I know that people have done much more extreme things in order to live in the United States, but I had never experienced it firsthand. Here, she saw a place for endless opportunity and financial success that she probably would not have back in Indonesia. Disney offers its employees many opportunities to move up in the company, as long as you show devotion and a good work ethic. The United States is seen as a place where people can work hard and give up a few things, and in turn, gain a slice of the American Dream. That dream drives people and it's a part of what makes Americans unified.

Often, we think people who live outside the United States to be more interesting and exotic. I think we forget that there are many different cultures right here in our own back yard. Besides working with people from around the world, I met and lived with people from all over the United States. One might say that people who live in our own country couldn’t possibly be that interesting, but I learned so much from those friends. I found out about lifestyles, values, and practices that are completely different from my own. One such friend was from Arkansas. His family lived in a double trailer, his family worked on a carnival over the summers and preparing food at a racetrack over the winters. His stories would amaze me. I couldn’t imagine living how he and his family did. I live in the suburbs of Buffalo, in a two-story house, with a say at home mother, and a business-owning father. I spend my summers visiting family and working summer jobs. Our lives were so different, but we are both Americans. Jan Radway argues that "American national identity is…constructed in and through the relations of difference" (Gruesz, 21). America--in this case we are talking about the United States--was created out of people who were different. Some wanted religious freedoms, some wanted adventure some were looking for economic relief, and others were forced out of their homelands. Today, our nation prides its self on being a melting pot. It's our differences that help us to be a strong nation. It's our common goals that hold us together; those goals being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Not everyone can attain those goals but it's our desire for them the keeps us unified. We are connected to and learn from the people around us. At Disney World, our goal is to create a cheerful environment that encourages guests to live out their dreams. We are able to do this through our differences. Every cast member has something to bring to the table. Some can speak multiple languages and can communicate easily with guests that do not speak English. Some are great with people and know how to explain situations to the guests. They give just the right amount of information while using the correct voice tones and inflections. Some are creative and are always coming up with new ways that we can be more efficient. We all have different personalities and ways of thinking about things that may clash once in a while, but we all want the same thing; to make a guest smile and to give their children memories that will last them the rest of their lives.

Disney wants their guests to be able to bring stories back that are filled with excitement and adventure. Stories are devices that have been used for centuries in order to pass down information and values from one generation to another. Oral stories were used to explain and teach, or often for entertainment at important events: "narrators told tales to bring members of a group of tribe closer together and to provide them with a sense of mission" (Zipes, 333). It was stories of the "Great West" that sparked young men's interest. It was tales of gold and adventure that drew whole families to California. Stories make us excited, especially stories that are new. Manifest Destiny, our movement to the west coast, was enhanced by the stories told about it. When people from other countries, especially poor ones, think of America, they think of the stories they have heard. Huge homes, lots of money, fun technologies and the freedoms that many of us born American take for granted.

Stories change over time, especially the oral ones. Every time the story is told some small thing gets changed. Life is not static, so it makes sense that our stories will have different variations depending on who is telling it. The American Dream is just like a story. Our idea of it has changed over time, so that we can still believe in it. In a nation wide survey done in 2009 72% of people stated that they believed people could start out poor and work their way up in the United States (Seelye, 1). Americans still believe in an American Dream, but it has changed over the years, morphed into a different dream, but considered no less American. Today, “fewer people are pegging their dream to material success and more are pegging it abstract values” (Seelye, 2). Some of these are being able to live your own life, having a fair chance to succeed, having a healthy family and nice friends, owning a home, and having financial stability (Seelye, 2). None of these mention being rich, but talk about being able to get by and not having too many financial worries. They talk about good friends and a loving family. This is what Americans in the United States want. Disney is able to give people that. Many people believe in the American Dream but, according to polls, only 44% feel that they have reached it (Seelye, 1). For the rest, Disney is a place where one can experience their personal dreams and take the memories back with them. Disney's idea of the American Dream has remained constant over the years, being able to be with your family and surrounded by helpful people who want to be sure your stay is magical.

Walt Disney had been a key player in story telling over the years. He was a creative man with grand ideas that he wanted to share with the world. His innovations led to the first full-length animation films.

Disney was a radical filmmaker who changed our way of viewing fairy tales, and that his revolutionary technical means capitalized on American innocence and utopianism to reinforce the social and political status quo. His radicalism was of the right and the righteous. The great "magic" of the Disney spell is that he animated the fairy tale only to transfix audiences and divert their potential utopian dreams and hopes through the false promises of the images he cast upon the screen; (Zipes, 333)


Americans have always dreamt of a utopian society, where everyone gets their fair opportunity. We like stories where the unfortunate end up on top. This is what Disney provides. We look at moves such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. A young girl escapes death, meets some dwarves who help her out, then she find her true love after being poisoned by her evil stepmother. He uses what Americans know and combines it into what we want in an artistic and creative way. We know that people are labeled and ranked according to the status society gives them. Cinderella, for example, is shown as a young girl who is abused by her stepfamily. She is a poor women, which, at one time would have made her extremely low in the social hierarchy. We like to see the underdog win and those who were the suppressers punished. Cinderella, with the help of her fairy godmother, was able to meet her prince and have her happy ending after much struggling. Her stepfamily is distraught because none of them were able to marry the prince.

Disney Americanized the original tales. Many of the happy endings we find in his versions of the stories don't exist in the originals. Americans don't want the sad endings; they want to feel that anything is possible and that your dreams are always achievable. This is one of the reasons Disney films did and continue to do so well. It's important to remember that every story is the teller's version of it. We often forget because Disney's versions of the stories are on a big screen, they are visual; we can hear them and we are pulled into them. We feel for the characters and we can see the build up of their identities as they change from the beginning till the end. People are more likely to believe something they see on the television or at the moves than something they are told. When the original films were first projected, people in the audience were scared and screamed when they saw trains coming at them. We make movies real and internalize them. The art of story telling is slowly dying. The original stories do not matter anymore because we do not remember them. I wonder if the original idea of the American Dream will matter after a time. As people's circumstances change they are forced to change what they want out of life.

Fairy tales and stories are not just for children. They are for anyone who feels that they need to be connected to something larger than themselves. Alys Eve Weinbaum states that "nations need narratives to exist – that they need to be narrated into being" (Weinbaum, 168). A nation is created by its people and by their commonalities. We learn about other people through stories, and we become connected to people by knowing their stories and passing them on. I think it is important to teach our younger Americans about stories, and to be sure that they recognize that the Disney versions of stories are romanticized versions that reflect what we want America to stand for. Stories are vices that allow us to get our points and feeling across to other people, they do not have to be true to do that. Disney was able to show his ideas of the American Dream through his stories, and had millions of people believing in a happily ever after. There are many who do not ever let that go, and that's one of the reasons, I think, that we are unified as a nation. We have the hope that Disney instilled in us. We want to beat down the suppressers and to finally reach our happy ending. We will continue to try and to move forward. This is what unites us. Our version of the American Dream may have changed but we still have a dream, we still have something to aim for.

It's important to constantly critique society, to re-examine our ideas and to continue to grow in our Identity. While I was working for Disney I had to completely change the way I viewed the world around me and re-think my self-identity as an American. I went to Florida as a naive individual who had few ideas about how the world worked and how our nation was viewed by others. I came home with a completely new attitude. I understood the struggles of the middle class worker, I knew how to talk to people without offending them, but most of all, I learned about how the American Dream has become an illusion. Those who fulfilled their dreams put in a great amount of time and energy in order to do so. It takes commitment and a drive to accomplish the goals that have been set out. Walt had clear goals and a passion for what he was creating. He has shared his hopes and dreams with us in order to help others believe that anything is possible. As Jiminy Cricket says, "If your heart is in your dream,/ No request is too extreme,/ When you wish upon a star,/ As dreamers do…" (Pinocchio). We need to have dreams, they give us something to aim for, something that we will want to continually reach for. Disney has instilled this idea into the hearts and minds of those in the United States and around the world.

Works Cited
"Disneyland Park (Anaheim)." Wikipedia. 8 May 2009. 6 May 2009 .

Gruesz, Kirsten S. "America." Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Eds. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU P, 2007. 16-22.

Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus." American Studies @ The University of Virginia. University of Virginia. 07 May 2009 .

Pinocchio. Prod. Walter Disney. Disney Inc., 1940.

Seelye, Katharine Q. "What Happens to the American Dream in a Recession." The New York Times 8 May 2009.

Weinbaum, Alys E. "Nation." Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Eds. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU P, 2007. 162-70.

Zipes, Jack. "Breaking the Disney Spell." Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: Norton, 1999. 332-52.

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Helena Kisova said...

Hello,
We - me(55)and my grandaughter Diana(3)are Slovak,Europe and live without other family.My daughter and her friend decided for homeless life.
My Diana dreams about Disneyland every day. I cannot help her. Our life is sad, work,some food,sleeping.
I cannot earn money more.Disney world is becoming less and less attainable for my grandchild.Are you someone who would and could help to us? I can help in some housewok or Elderly Assistance.I have experiencies in Care Home.
Thanks,Helena

Disney Dean said...

Wow - this was so well-written and I absolutely loved everything about it. Excellent work, and it totally embodies what I love and cherish about everything Disney. It all started with one man's vision and perseverance. Thank you so much for posting this!
--- DisneyDean
twitter.com/DisneyDean