Jason Lantzer’s family trips to Disney World started as vacations. They ended up becoming research for his new book, Dis-History: Uses of the Past at Walt Disney’s Worlds.
In the book, Lantzer, Assistant Director of the Butler University Honors Program, looks at the way Walt Disney’s theme parks have presented history over the years. Each area of the parks, starting with Main Street, gets dissected—what’s there, what’s missing, what’s changed, and what Walt Disney wanted to do as he attempted to reflect his vision of America.
“In some ways, Walt Disney is a public historian as he’s fashioning Disneyland, which opened in 1955,” Lantzer said. “And that carries over into Disney World 16 years later—that notion that we’re going to have an educational component to what we do, that it’s not just about going and seeing characters from movies and riding rides. They were helping shape public discourse at the time.”
Early on, the Disney Company was interested and active in “edutainment” about subjects as broad as Davy Crockett and space exploration. Lantzer said that when Disneyland opened, Frontierland was supposed to give visitors the sensation that they were stepping into the past. The original exhibit had horses and a stagecoach, and real Native Americans talking about their customs and traditions.
Lantzer writes that in a speech when the park opened, Disney said he wanted to connect today’s youth with what their parents and grandparents had to go through to settle in this country.
“Davy Crockett was a huge part of that,” said Lantzer, who also teaches an Honors Seminar at Butler called “Disney in American Culture.” “He has almost no presence in the Disney parks today.”
But Disney was a different company then, Lantzer said. It didn’t have the mythology—or the raft of characters—it has today. So while longtime history-related exhibits like the Hall of Presidents still spark interest and discussion among visitors, Disney now has its own history and doesn’t need to rely on the grand American historic narrative anymore.
“In the Epcot theme park, the Norwegian pavilion has been taken over by Frozen,” he said.
Lantzer said the Disney Company cooperated in the writing of the book, giving him access to corporate archives. Among the nuggets he was able to glean: Disney had planned history-intensive exhibits that let visitors “experience” the signing of the U.S. Constitution and see what Boston was like before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, but those were never built.
The archives do not indicate why.
In the book, Lantzer also looks at the quality of the history Disney presents—both positive and negative. He particularly likes the Hall of Presidents and American Adventure at Epcot.
“It’s hitting on everything possible,” he said. “Does it get everything? No, of course not. But what it does do, it does surprisingly well for a 20-minute show exposing American history from the Colonial period to the present.”
Overall, Lantzer said, Disney does a reasonably good job presenting history.
“Could they do things better? Sure,” he said. “But that’s not their business. They are a company, for profit, and they are trying to find ways that are going to hit with the public. If history is a tool in that regard, then they’re going to use it.”