Patriotism, Disney Style
Nearly five decades after Walt Disney's death, the company he founded continues his tradition of celebrating American exceptionalism.
May 31, 2013 - 1:00 pm
We live in an era where children in their formative years do not know what patriotism means. My grandparents’ generation knew what it meant to love America and to stand up for its ideals, but the leftists of my parents’ generation — the Baby Boomers — screwed it up for all of us. To them, the only measure of patriotism was opposition to President Bush. Remember: “dissent is patriotic.” (Tell that to the IRS.)
I was blessed to grow up with parents who loved America despite having lived through the ’60s, but many members of my generation don’t know how to be patriotic, thanks to political correctness, multiculturalism, and the growing influence of the far Left.
While the vast majority of pop culture mocks patriotism, one famous name has celebrated American exceptionalism for more than seven decades: Disney. This unabashed love of America began with the company’s founder.
Walt Disney grew up as part of the World War I generation — a time that saw both the enthusiasm of the dawn of the 20th century and the unspeakable horror of threats to freedom and peace across the globe. Though too young to serve in the war, Disney worked in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps after the war. He wanted to serve his country, one way or another.
After his move to Hollywood, Disney’s love for America drove him in many ways to develop the unique entertainment he created and to lead his studio the way he did. He believed that America’s values were worth celebrating and sharing with the world. He once said:
Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards — the things we live by and teach our children — are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings.
Disney admitted to a patriotism that occasionally overwhelmed him. He once confessed, “I get red, white, and blue at times.” His love of country showed up in his films and television programs and has carried on in the theme parks that bear his name nearly half a century after his death. Sometimes the Disney brand of patriotism makes itself known in subtle ways, while at other times, it jumps directly in your face.
The Disney Studios did not get much of a chance to make patriotic cartoons until World War II. Days after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army commandeered much of the studio, and Walt and Roy Disney entered into a contract with the federal government to create logos and instructional films. The studio found itself in precarious financial shape, and the promise of steady money as well as the opportunity to serve the country made it easy for the Disneys to sign on the dotted line.
The studio created insignias for the war effort — incorporating Mickey Mouse and other characters — and created training films and short films encouraging the public to conserve and buy war bonds. Walt supervised the making of Victory Through Air Power, a documentary based on the book by Alexander P. de Seversky, which reportedly helped convince the Allied powers to concentrate on the use of planes in the war.
Disney also made films that exposed the threat of Nazism to America and other free nations around the globe. The Donald Duck short Der Fuehrer’s Face packs plenty of laughs despite some offensive stereotypes, while Education for Death alternates between hilarity and horror. The box set Walt Disney Treasures: On The Front Lines contains these films and many others made during the patriotic era of World War II.
After the war, when normal operations resumed, Disney changed his focus to live action films, and many of the pictures the company produced in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s take place in idyllic American historical and location settings — from So Dear To My Heart, to Old Yeller, to Pollyanna. Disney’s television shows featured serialized depictions of the adventures of one-of-a-kind American heroes such as Davy Crockett. These film settings and characterizations find their roots in Walt Disney’s unwavering love of country. But the greatest testaments to Disney’s special brand of patriotism still stand, nearly 50 years after his passing — the Disney Parks.
The Disney Parks carry on the legacy of Walt’s patriotism like no other area of the company, and Disney himself had planned on celebrating America all along. What became the great Disney resort destinations began as a concept for a travelling set of miniature dioramas. This exhibit, christened Disneylandia, would tour the country by train. The dioramas would depict everyday life in different eras of American history. The Disneylandia idea died out when Walt and his proto-Imagineers realized that people probably wouldn’t stand in lines for hours to look at tiny furniture. The concept then began to morph into the theme park idea that would become Disneyland.
Walt Disney wanted guests to see America at its best in his theme parks, and sometimes he wanted them to see America as it could have or should have been. Disneyland arrived on the scene first in 1955. The prototype for the Magic Kingdom parks elsewhere, it is the only park the company completed during Walt’s lifetime. Walt Disney World opened in 1971, and while the two American parks share some common characteristics, they are also distinct and original entities. Several of the lands in both parks reflect Disney’s American ideals.
Main Street, U.S.A. stands in for Walt’s recollection of growing up in Marceline, Missouri, and it also bears the stamp of set designer Harper Goff’s reminiscences of his hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado. Main Street represents the American hometown that used to be, yet never really was, and its setting takes place at the turn of the 20th century when idealism and excitement abounded.
There is an obvious faith in the American way of life at play on Main Street, where, according to The Imagineering Field Guide to the Magic Kingdom:
Horseless carriages share the road with horse-drawn trollies. Gas lamps are being replaced by electric bulbs. The place is all hustle and bustle.
Walt wanted Main Street to embody the American spirit. It is a place where people are friendly, hard work is rewarded, and everybody shares a dream for a better life. This is representative of Walt’s heartfelt patriotism and love for his country and is part of the message he always wanted to convey with his work.
Main Street, U.S.A. hosts a moving flag retreat ceremony every evening, and invites veterans to participate in it.
Frontierland depicts another era in American history: the time of Westward expansion. The land covers a wide berth, from the Old South to the Wild West. Frontierland brims with its own kinetic excitement, much like the buzz that must have been in the air during those dangerous, exhilarating times.
As the Imagineers tell it:
[Frontierland] lives as a tribute to the pioneer spirit that drove Americans westward in covered wagons and stagecoaches — a subject that was as near and dear to Walt as Main Street, U.S.A…
The stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and the tales of Uncle Remus make their home in Frontierland. What else could be more American?
Disneyland is the exclusive home of New Orleans Square, which celebrates the uniquely American culture of Louisiana, complete with wrought-iron balconies and surprises at every turn. Much of the mystery and intrigue of the area show up here as well — it is the home of the original Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, which resides in Adventureland in Florida.
At Walt Disney World guests can encounter Liberty Square, which conveys the spirit of the colonial and Revolutionary War eras. The land boasts its own Liberty Tree, along with possibly the most patriotic attraction anywhere, The Hall of Presidents.
At the center of Epcot’s World Showcase at Walt Disney World stands the host pavilion, The American Adventure. The pavilion’s stately mansion houses the titular attraction, in which hosts Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain celebrate the American spirit in an elaborate multimedia presentation. The pavilion also plays host to the Voices of Liberty chorus:
Other theme parks at Disneyland and Walt Disney World commemorate America’s uniqueness in their own ways. Disney’s Hollywood Studios represents the golden age of Hollywood in its idealized state — no Norma Desmonds here. Camp Minnie-Mickey at Disney’s Animal Kingdom pays tribute to the archetypal summer camp experience. Disney’s California Adventure at Disneyland represents the sense of awe and excitement of its home state. Additionally, many of the resort hotels capture the spirit of different areas of the United States.
Some of the nighttime parades at the theme parks incorporate patriotic tributes as well. A couple of years ago I wrote an article for Celebrations magazine detailing the history of these parades. Walt Disney World’s Electrical Water Pageant, the longest continuously running parade on any Disney property, includes its own patriotic segment.
The Main Street Electrical Parade, which began at Disneyland less than a year after the Electrical Water Pageant made its debut in Florida, added a float titled “To Honor America” around the Bicentennial. The parade has played at both parks, including this float.
Guests don’t have to go far to find patriotism and tributes to America’s uniqueness and greatness at Disneyland or Walt Disney World. This reverence for the United States and American ideals stems directly from Walt Disney’s brand of patriotism. As a frequent Disney guest and a fan of the films and television shows, it’s obvious to me that one can’t help but have the Disney faith in America rub off on him or her. I would go so far as to claim that Disney culture may have had nearly as great a hand in making me a patriotic American as did my upbringing. I never tire of Disney’s often unabashed celebration of America and its exceptional greatness.
Check out the previous installments in Chris Queen’s ongoing series exploring the values and philosophy of Walt Disney:
April 22: 10 Must-Read Books for Disney Nerds