Robbins Barstow’s “Disneyland Dream” (1956), a time capsule of theme park visitor “play”

Curator's Note

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.

Full film: 

Cited: Telotte, J. P. "Theme Parks and Films — Play and Players." In Disneyland and Culture, edited by Kathy Merlock Jackson and Mark I. West


Great post! You don't mention the concept of "Disneyfication" but I couldn't avoid thinking of it in your critique of the postmodern accounts of the Theme Park. I’ve seen this concept generally used in a pejorative way to describe popular forms of entertainment and consumption as less authentic and thus worthy of our attention. It’s really interesting to see how, as you mention, the Barstow’s home movie makes evident the limitations of such conceptualizations.

Love the post. Such an interesting film. It made me think of the importance of considering class and social status in judging Disney fandom. As you and I are very aware, there are fan communities for Disneyland that know everything about the artifice and hold it to a standard that stretches from camp to "quality." Are those with the cultural currency, the knowledge and the interest in the constructedness of Disneyland, especially able to take advantage of the invitation to play or do you think this clip shows that "all that come to this happy place" are in on the fantasy?

Thanks for this post! learned a lot. Interesting to hear the end of the narration about being so fortunate. Fandom and fortune are somehow intertwined. It is not just that we are fans of a cultural representation or become culturally competent about it, narrate it, record it, experience the hyperreal as real, but also that we feel fortunate doing so. As Ethan Tussey mentions above, this is the class and social status aspect of fandom.

There's definitely a lot more to explore on the topic of "Disneyfication" as Beatriz points out. Karal Ann Marling has done some interesting work on Disneyland's "Architecture of Reassurance," that points to how the park's architectural strategies for soothing visitor/consumers have been applied to venues from malls to museums. If the postmodern fear of "Disneyfication" meant fearing some kind of loss or detachment of the real, I think in our post-postmodern era the terms may have shifted. Entertainment, play, and escapism -- from Comic-Con to Viking River Cruises -- are as real as any other experiences... if you can afford them. Which brings it around to the issues of class that Ethan raises. I think there are certainly fan communities that are super-savvy about the Disney artifice and all that constructs it. However, what Telotte is getting at is that Disneyland has ways of calling attention to its artifice that enable ALL visitors to be savvy, on some level, about the constructedness of escapist entertainment. I would add to his analysis the fact that Walt Disney himself was on prime time revealing the "secrets" of the park's artifice during its construction, as well as the "secrets" behind the company's animated films. Disneyland, in my assessment, was built as an intersection of Play and Technology. The former requires leisure time and imagination, while the later necessitates some level of understanding of the mechanics (literally and figuratively) involved. The Walt Disney Company has changed substantially, however, in the nearly 50 years since Walt Disney's death. Disney is opium for the naive consumer masses - according to those who consider themselves above those masses. That is pretty much what is behind the pomo hyperreality argument, which I think is essentially an argument against consumerism in general with Disney being an astonishingly successful instance of it. I certainly don't have any answers here, but the reason I'm perpetually interested in all things Disney is precisely because of the brand's position in the fandom-consumerist-technology-play constellation. Thanks, everyone, for a stimulating discussion!!

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