Disney theme parks have made recent headlines because officials have moved to update the content and imagery of attractions, while relaxing restrictions on employees’ appearances. This is all part of the company’s broader push toward diversity and inclusion.
Right-wing fans of Disney entertainment have pushed back, saying that Disney theme parks are being politicized and are surrendering to “wokeness” and “political correctness.” But such complaints ignore the ideological — and politically charged — origins of Disneyland, which opened in Orange County, Calif. in 1955. While Orange County cradled a suburban backlash against the political protests and social upheavals of the 1960s, it provided an ideological setting for the three-dimensional expression of Walt Disney’s world view, which enshrined traditional hierarchies of race, class and gender that civil rights activists sought to dismantle in the 1960s.
Disneyland’s opening in 1955 showcased the politics of the New Right as it came to fruition in the following decade. The park’s nationalistic overtures took shape through spectacles such as “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” in which the robotic (“Audio-Animatronic”) likeness of Abraham Lincoln stood up to recite a patriotic speech without any direct mention of slavery or the Civil War. Park designers situated this exhibit within Main Street, USA, one of the five themes of Disneyland and the creator’s ode to his Midwestern origins. In its Southern California context, Main Street USA superseded the racial and ethnic mix of an urbanizing region with a nostalgic recreation of a lily-White small town.
Disneyland also embraced patriarchy. Walt Disney positioned the suburban White nuclear family at the center of the Disney brand and theme park experience. He took measures to promote Disneyland as “family entertainment,” a familiar term in the lexicon of 1950s American popular culture, which included a call to restore traditional patterns of gender relations. One exhibit, “The House of the Future,” featured a detached single-family home made of glass and plastic. But the actors modeling the family of the future actually embodied traditional gender patterns. The aproned wife was stationed in the kitchen as her husband relaxed in his “psychiatric chair.”
Walt Disney’s soft racism and his belief in racial hierarchy were also on display at his new theme park. Originally, Disneyland maintained a de facto policy of hiring only Whites for its public interface positions.
There were a few exceptions, however. For example, Black women were initially hired to play the role of mammy in “Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House,” which opened 62 years after the character debuted at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. “Relive the days of the Old South,” promised an advertisement from the Aunt Jemima Company for a presumably White audience. The restaurant modeled a Southern plantation kitchen, where a Black woman dressed “as Aunt Jemima did … on the plantation” and warmly welcomed visitors. Here, “Aunt Jemima will serve her famed pancakes every day and also will sing to entertain visitors.” The actor playing this mammy figure, embodying Black female servitude, remained one of the few Black employees of Disneyland throughout the 1960s.