Robbins Barstow’s 1956 home movie, “Disneyland Dream,” added to the National Film Registry in 2008, documents a trip to Disneyland (and Los Angeles) his family won in a Scotch-Tape slogan contest. It includes the family’s entire adventure from their contest entries, to “fainting” at the news of their win, through trips to Catalina and Hollywood, and finally their time at Disneyland with the latter comprising only 15 of the film’s entire 34 minutes. As their visit took place during the first year of Disneyland’s existence, the film presents a charming time capsule of early Disneyland tourism and of 1950s culture in general.
Postmodern theorists have for decades held up Disneyland as “the alpha point of hyperreality,” the epitome of late capitalism’s urge to package and sell perfected simulations as substitutions for messy reality. Central to this criticism is the fear that park visitors passively accept Disney’s “sanitized” versions of history—such as Main Street U.S.A., Frontierland, etc.—and of culture—like Epcot’s World Showcase plazas—in lieu of real history or real travel.
More recently, theorist such as Scott Bukatman and J.P. Telotte have instead posited Disney park attendance as playful and interactive. Telotte points to a “blatantness” in Disney attractions that calls visitors’ attention to the artifice of their fictions and allows them to “play along.” The attractions, he posits, “let us explore the ‘sets’ of our world… and in doing so… we can, if only briefly, reverse the control a cinematized world would wield over us.”
The Barstow family’s home movie clearly records them exploring and “playing” with the “sets” of Disneyland. A range of activities we’ve come to consider typical of fandom in the 21st century is already in evidence in their film, including homemade costumes, narrativizing, and recording and editing their experience. The film is also evidence that Disneyland was but one of many California “attractions” the Barstow’s visited. They did not consider it a substitute for further travel.
“Disneyland Dream” represents an instance of a family taking cinematic control over their own history, which, in turn, has become an official document of our shared cinematic and cultural history.
Cited: Telotte, J. P. "Theme Parks and Films — Play and Players." In Disneyland and Culture, edited by Kathy Merlock Jackson and Mark I. West