Parks in Perspective: Disneyfication and Cultural Impressionism

In just a moment, I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.

You could do so now, try to get an early start on this, but that wouldn’t really be conducive to my employment as a writer. I find that words are much more difficult to interpret when obscured by a layer of eyelid, so if you’d be so kind as to hold off for one moment, I have some preliminary instructions.

When I ask you to shut the gates to your rods and cones, bidding a temporary adieu to the diverse array of external photonic stimulation the universe has been kind enough to provide, there is something else I’d like you to do. Don’t get me wrong, if all you needed was a break from the day, and you start to find yourself stumbling blissfully into the confined corridors and expansive landscapes of dreamland, you will be forgiven for your lack of participation in this mental exercise. For those who possess the fortitude to follow along though, here is what I need from you.

Think about the stars. Envision the night sky in whatever way you can manage. Call forth the multitude of memories you have accumulated over the extent of your existence. Focus on one specific image, or take a cerebral step back and let them all blend together until your mind is forced to stare cross-eyed, like a mid-90s “Magic Eye” poster. Pay attention to what you’re seeing, the depth and detail, but also pay attention to what you’re feeling. Do you get a pang of loneliness when faced with the vastness of the cosmos, or maybe a feeling of adventure? Does it make you think of the possibility of life beyond our tiny planet, or just remind you of nights spent enjoying your time on it. Are you confronted with the complexity of nature, or the simplicity of it?

Spend as little or as much time as it takes to get an impression. You don’t have to do this to continue reading, of course, but at the risk of sounding like one of my ex-girlfriends, this works better if you commit. So close your eyes now, and think - don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, I have a couple of images I’d like to show you.


This image provided to the world by NASA was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in August and December of 2009. The camera captured both visible and infrared light in an effort to properly display a cluster of stars 20,000 light years away. NASA says that clusters like this one, NGC 3603, contain numerous stars at various points in their development, giving scientists the ability to make increasingly detailed analyses of the the life cycles of these celestial wonders.


The Starry Night is one of the most recognizable paintings in the world. This image was recorded in June of 1889, and captures both the view from Vincent Van Gogh's asylum as well as the inner workings of the artist's mind — it uses oil and canvas to portray its subject.

Now tell me, which image most matches up with what you saw when you thought of the night sky? Which most aligned with what you felt? Did either of them accurately display what went on inside your head and heart? Were both completely off the mark, or did each overlap with your mind's eye in just a few ways? Now, most importantly, which image is more valid — the one taken by an incredibly sophisticated camera, or the one created by an artist's brush?

The truth of a thing, the idea of a thing, and our feelings toward a thing are all intertwined, each playing key roles in defining where a subject fits into our lives.


Almost exclusively used as an insult, this term is a way of saying that something has been altered or controlled to make it safer, more family friendly. Something real has been defanged, declawed, stripped of its harsh truths and converted into a saccharine storybook version of itself.

The logic behind the word has a solid foundation. If we take a glance at the way The Walt Disney Company — more specifically the Disney Parks — portray history and culture, it's quite clear that they aren't concerned with getting to the truth of the matter. Take a look at the "historic" lands and attractions of the parks. Liberty Square, Frontierland, Pirates of the Caribbean, none of these make even the slightest attempt at an accurate representation of the time period. Now consider their portrayal of culture. The full roster of countries in Epcot's World Showcase, along with Disneyland's New Orleans Square, don't exactly prepare guests for a visit to their real world counterparts.

Something I've always wondered though, is why doesn't this bother me more? I am a lover of history, and I find the pursuit of truth and accuracy in historic or cultural depictions to be crucial to a healthy understanding of the human race. I have long believed that knowledge is essential for true compassion, and compassion is the gateway to peace. Shouldn't the simplified, storybook versions of real places and time periods frustrate me? Shouldn't I be more concerned with the spread of inaccurate information and skewed perspectives that the Disneyfication of these things might bring?

Perhaps we could boil it down to the fact that this stuff is just entertainment. Entertainment influences us more than we care to admit, even as adults, and I'm still consistently disheartened when I hear someone state a "fact" from a based-on-a-true-story film that has zero basis in reality. Claiming something is entertaining has never been an excuse for misrepresentation in my book. No, that isn't the reason at all.

The reason I will happily enjoy these watered-down fun-sized depictions of the real world with a minimum of criticism is closely tied to The Starry Night. What others may call Disneyfication, I call "cultural impressionism." Sometimes, the idea of a thing is just as valid as the thing itself.

Both that NASA image and Van Gogh are depicting the night sky. Both of those equally breathtaking pictures have the ability to inspire in ways that aren't immediately evident. Each vantage point and technique, be the focus more on science or art, can stir something in us that drives us to push further towards the subject on unexpected courses. NASA images have and will continue to awaken something inside future artists, and Van Gogh's rendering has more than one astronomer to its credit. The method doesn't determine the result. Something that must be noted as well, is that most realistic NASA images are edited to be more aesthetically pleasing; color is added so we can distinguish stars and nebulae from each other — a perfect metaphor for history. While we can strive to get as close to the truth of the matter as possible, our most accurate knowledge of history is still colored by the scientists and academics who are analyzing and interpreting the information they have at hand.

For many, visits to Disney Parks may be the catalyst to an interest in science or history. A World Showcase tour might be the first step on an epic real-world tour that takes place over a lifetime. The picturesque scenery may be inspiring not only our next generation of animators and imagineers, but artists of all varieties. Storytelling in all of its forms is a useful tool in showing us what latent interests lie dormant inside. I am not ashamed to admit that my passion for history started with myths read to me at night by my father, and my love of archaeology stemmed from an intense desire to be Indiana Jones when I grew up.

The subject of Doctor Jones brings me back to entertainment. Although I may not appreciate the inaccurate representations of historical events, I greatly appreciate the inaccurate representation of life. I've previously written about my feeling on the merits of storytelling and escapism, and escapism becomes much more difficult the more realistic the subject matter becomes.

Let's take two examples, on the surface both very similar, but in practice vastly different — The Lord of the Rings and Game of ThronesThe Lord of the Rings, written by J. R. R. Tolkein and later adapted into a series of films, is the father of most modern fantasy stories and set in a fictional world where technology is stuck in the Middle Ages for centuries, a place where swords and magic decide the fate of the world. HBO's Game of Thrones, based off the bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels by George R. R. Martin, is set in a fictional world where technology is stuck in the Middle Ages for centuries, a place where swords and magic decide the fate of the world. That is where the similarities end, though. (Well, that and all the middle "R."s.)

While Tolkein's novels are storybook tales, practically mythical, where everyone has a greater purpose and ultimate evil is kept at bay by the true-of-heart, Martin took a different approach. His novels, and the television series, keep the fantasy setting but add in more realistic portrayals of our unfair world. He uses historic horrors as the basis for some of his most shocking scenes, and characters aren't guaranteed an ending which rewards or punishes them for their behavior.

Not only is Martin's series far less family friendly, but it is far less conducive to my own escapism. If I were born a humble peasant on Middle Earth (Tolkein's setting), all I would need is a sword and a bit of courage and I would quickly become a hero; The Lord of the Rings has very few pointless throwaway characters. If I were born a humble peasant in Westeros (the main continent on Martin's world), I would die a humble peasant, presumably early, after a lifetime of working long hours for some local lord and never receiving proper medical care. This is the point where realism becomes a detriment.


While the idea of a Game of Thrones theme park sounds incredible at first, to make it safe and enjoyable they would have to strip it of all of its realism. They'd have to Disneyfy it. Probably best to stick with Lord of the Rings.

The show Westworld depicts a futuristic theme park where the rich can live in a realistic Wild West complete with all the sex and violence you'd expect. Yet its wealthy, vice-ridden patrons don't choose to live out fantasies of an early death by tuberculosis. The setting may be darker or grittier, but their escapist adventures are still highly unrealistic.

When it comes to theme park entertainment, I want the idea of a place, not the place itself. An artistic interpretation meant to convey what a place feels like, rather than what it actually is, gives me the ability to live out my personal adventure. I don't need the dark side of life encroaching on that. Each pavilion in the World Showcase gives me the storybook depiction of a foreign land, and I am quite content with that. If I visit their real world counterparts I'll do so in a more grounded mindset, but when I'm just taking a day to unburden myself of very real stress, I don't need the addition of traffic, or pickpockets, or people vomiting in the streets; all of which I have dealt with on real world adventures.

These artistic interpretations take on a life of their own. They aren't just a poor copy of what they represent, they become something unique and special. Just as The Starry Night isn't attempting to be a legitimate map of the stars, World Showcase isn't attempting to precisely depict the nations that call Earth home. Both Van Gogh's painting and Disney's Imagineering have used reality as inspiration to create something uniquely their own. Disney's lands and attractions aren't representations of history and culture, they are impressions of them. In a different setting, that same theme park mindset has produced some of the most emotionally-provocative art ever created.

Let's take a look at the real-world basis for Cinderella Castle — Neuschwanstein Castle. This picturesque fairy tale castle actually exists, yet it is, in and of itself, a sort of cultural impressionism. King Ludwig II of Bavaria built the palace in the late 1880s, well after the need of such structures existed. It was intended to be a romantic depiction of the Middle Ages, inspired by the operas of Richard Wagner. It was far more grounded in myth and fairy tale than reality. This fact does not demean the existence of actual Middle Age castles, how they were really designed and constructed, or what their primary functions were. It is merely art inspired by storytelling, and can happily coexist with the "truer" examples.


I do have to realize that from a different perspective, what I lovingly call cultural impressionism may be the rewriting of painful history to another. I am seeing things from the perspective of a middle-class white American male. For me, Liberty Square is a quaint, patriotic display celebrating the foundation of my country. If I had grown up with the knowledge that this country was largely founded on the slavery and abuse of my people, I may have a much more difficult time facing the omissions of painful truths there. I understand why The Hall of Presidents proclaims the heroics of certain leaders of this country who were slave owners, I get why it leaves this and other disheartening facts out, but I also recognize that it is much easier for me to make the "proper time and place for truth" argument having no personal history with the subject. I can attempt to think of things from someone else's viewpoint, but I just don't have the same emotion tied to it. While I am ashamed of the actions of my country regarding this subject, I don't hold personal shame. Most importantly, I have never been reminded of that period in history by the all-too-prevalent racism that some deal with on a day-to-day basis. I'm not sure how the family-friendly version of American history would affect me had my background been different.

I also cannot imagine what it's like to visit a foreign country and see my own culture stripped down to a few biased elements. I don't take issue with the portrayal of the United States in the World Showcase, as it was developed by my fellow Americans and is therefor built to be inoffensive to me. If I were to see another nation give my country the theme park treatment, I might not be so satisfied with what they produce. I often wonder what members of other cultures think when they see their homelands depicted from our eyes, usually based on a few notable landmarks, clothing styles, and culinary offerings.

On the subject of proper time and place, there are instances where my idea of cultural impressionism completely falls apart, and I'm forced to call it by its given name — Disneyfication. When The Walt Disney Company desires to profit off of a previously untouched culture they are more than willing to completely rewrite not just a myth or legend, but an actual historic event. The most notable example is 1995's Pocahontas. Disney not only re-imagines Native American culture, but rewrites the life of a very real, very tragic figure. A young woman held captive and ransomed by the English, only to be married off and shipped away from her home so that she might be presented to Europeans as a curiosity and used as an interesting anecdote. We can learn much more from her life than we can from the film, but more than that, it is insulting to her memory and legacy to sell her as a storybook princess.


Truth and art work hand in hand to shape our lives, and they overlap frequently in all that we touch. It is only through the careful consideration of motivations that any value can be found in either.

When Disney or anyone else re-imagines or completely rewrites a topic, I find that motivations usually shine through in the work. The concept of focusing on the idea of something rather than the details tends to work best when done with a genuine love of the source material. New Orleans Square is one of my favorite locations on Disney property, and although the dream and reality look somewhat different, they both have their value. New Orleans obviously doesn't have to prove its worth to anyone; it is a city rich in unique history, architecture, cuisine, and people. Fantasy New Orleans omits the grittier aspects, but is obviously crafted out of admiration and respect. Thus the city, and the artistic interpretation of the city, can coexist on my list of wondrous places to visit.

It is when the truth is completely sidelined for the sake of profit, and culture and history are transformed into family-friendly intellectual property, devoid of artistic soul and unrecognizable from their origins, that I find the dark side of Disneyfication.

As mentioned, the two interpretations of a starry night go to NASA and Vincent Van Gogh. Following those are images from The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and HBO's Game of Thrones. The animated version of Pocahontas is quite obviously from Disney's Pocahontas. The much older image of Pocahontas and the image of Neuschwanstein Castle were both obtained from Wikipedia.

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