The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Culture and Education


Culture and Education

Disneyland will never be complete

Tetsuo Arima
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

53 years ago in Anaheim, California, when Disneyland first opened its doors, Walt Disney turned to a TV news reporter and said "Disneyland will never be complete. As long as there is creativity in the world, it will continue to grow."

These words are very thought provoking. Today, with parks in Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong, Disneyland has become something beyond even Walt's imagination. This year, the 25th anniversary of Tokyo Disneyland, let us ponder upon this meaning.

A Theme Park is Alive

First, I'd like to clarify the context in which Walt said those words. He also said them during an interview with biographer Pete Martin, who wrote "The Walt Disney Story". This interview clearly provides us with the context.

Although many words were exchanged, this is what he was saying in a nutshell.

When making a movie, after finishing it, if you're not satisfied, you can't change or add on to it. But you can with theme parks. You can add on to them, change them, develop them, etc. Change can be brought in much like the air that a living thing breathes.

The 22 attractions available when the park first opened more than doubled to 48 by the time Walt died in 1966. But that wasn't enough. Walt purchased a huge parcel of land in Florida and started building Disneyworld.

This meant that increasing the number of attractions wasn't not enough. More parks were to be built: The Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center, MGM Studios, and Animal Kingdom.

Finally, America's borders were crossed and parks were opened in Tokyo, Paris and even all the way to Hong Kong.

Why did Walt feel the need to add to, change and develop his theme park? He gave us a hint in his interview with Pete.

To complete is to end change. To end change is to age, decay and, in time, die off. Walt didn't want that to happen to his "kingdom".

Tokyo Disneyland Opens a New Dimension

When Tokyo Disneyland opened in Urayasu in 1983, the "Kingdom" made yet another change.

It is often said that Tokyo Disneyland is a carbon copy of the Magic Kingdom in Florida. The fact is, they are identical.

However, even if they are the same physically, what Tokyo Disneyland is to the Japanese and what the Magic Kingdom is to Americans are not.

For example, when Japanese people walk through the gate and see the World Bazaar, they feel the same exoticism as having stepped into an American movie. In other words, when groups of students from regional areas of Japan come to visit the park on school trips, they behold not only a piece of America but also a part of Tokyo's city culture.

Contrastingly, what Americans feel when they walk through Main Street USA at the Magic Kingdom is nostalgia. They don't see another country; they behold America's quaint countryside.

Even identical things will have different meanings and different stories will be written about them if their cultural context is different.

Two Mickeys

A generational aspect is also in play. In Japan, three generations have known Disney culture. For the prewar generation, Disney is characterized by short-film animation. The postwar generation knew it as television programs and feature-length animation. And the second postwar generation generally associates it with Disneyland.

So that means that Disneyland's costume character "Mickey" is seen differently by each generation and the feeling people get when they shake his hand is also different depending on their age. Of course, this goes for all other things in that space.

Each generation gets a different meaning and tells a different story. The space at which this happens countless times is the theme park itself.

Furthermore, there is also entertainment unique to Japan. The "After Six" night-time park goers, the New Year's Eve Countdown, the school trips, the wedding ceremonies, etc. Walt never imagined that his Kingdom's entertainment style would be developed for use as a stage to play out scenes in the lives of people.

Creativity with no Cultural or Generational Boundaries

Walt's "Kingdom" brought here 25 years ago changed bit by bit to become the Japanese people's "Kingdom". This happened by a change in the cultural and generational context, even if the thing itself is the same. It happened with a change of our consciousness as well as our entertainment style and application.

When Walt spoke the words I mentioned above, he most likely meant them in a frame of mind that sees his "Kingdom" as a thing and the creativity involved as its maker. However, what is adding to, changing and developing his "Kingdom" now is the creativity of us all, who are continuing his work crossing cultural and generational boundaries. We then see this creativity change and evolve well beyond the physical.

As long as it takes in creativity like a living thing breathes air, Disneyland will never be complete.

Tetsuo Arima
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Specialized in TV research and media history and published "Waking-up From the TV" (Kokubunsha), "Disney's Magic" (Shinchosha), "Disney and its Rivals" (Film Art), "Media Study that Shows How the World Works", etc.