The 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair helped lead to Disneyland

Disneyland and Disney World are notable to urbanists for their opening spaces. Main Street is meant to evoke an American small town like the one in Missouri in which Walt Disney lived as a child.

I recently read that Main Street had an additional inspiration: the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair. From Wikipedia:

In addition to being the last great assembly of railroad equipment and technology by participating railroad companies, the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair holds a lesser known honor and connection to Disneyland. In 1948 Walt Disney and animator Ward Kimball attended the fair. To their enjoyment they not only got to see all of the equipment, but they were also allowed to operate some of the steam locomotives that were at the Fair. Upon their return to Los Angeles, Disney used the Fair, the House of David Amusement Park, and Greenfield Village, as inspiration for a “Mickey Mouse Park” that eventually became Disneyland. Walt also went on to build his own backyard railroads, building the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. Kimball already had his own, named Grizzly Flats Railroad.

And this fair was quite a gathering of American railroad leaders and equipment:

The fair was rapidly planned during the winter and spring of 1948, and originally scheduled to run between July and August of that summer. Erected on 50 acres (200,000 m2) of Burnham Park in Chicago between 21st and 31st Streets, the fair opened after only six months of planning. A grand opening for the fair commenced on July 20 with a parade that featured such spectacles as a military marching band and a replica of a troop train, a contingent of cowboys and Native Americans, a replica of the Tom Thumb, the first American locomotive, and the spry, octogenarian widow of Casey Jones, who served as honorary Grand Master of the parade. One dollar was the price of admission, and, except food, all the attractions, displays, exhibits and shows were free. Besides the thirty-nine railroads who participated in the fair, there were more than twenty equipment manufacturers, including General Motors. The Santa Fe also sponsored an Indian Village where Native Americans sold handicrafts, staged dances, and explained the different types of lodging that were on display.

A highlight of the fair was the presence of the Freedom Train.The Freedom Train travelled the country from September 17, 1947, through Jan 22, 1949, and was at the Railroad Fair from July 5 – 9. It held many documents and artifacts from the National Archives. Available for public viewing were the original United States Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Security of the documents was the responsibility of the Marine Corps…

38 railroads and more than 20 railroad equipment manufacturers participated in the Chicago Railroad Fair exhibiting equipment and interpretive displays around the fair’s theme of 100 years of railroad history. The majority of the participating railroads maintained a direct rail connection to Chicago…

The highlight of the Chicago Railroad Fair was the “Wheels A-Rolling” pageant. This was a dramatic and musical presentation intended to showcase the development of transportation and the railroads across the country beginning with trails and waterways. The pageant included a recreation of the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory, Utah, and various historic rolling stock and replicas of equipment in operation.

I wonder what Disneyland might begin with if Disney had been a child in the age of the automobile. Instead of Main Street, imagine a typical commercial stretch viewed at 35 mph with signs for fast food joints, strip malls, and gas stations. Would it induce the same sort of nostalgia for later generations? Or, as suburban critic James Howard Kunstler suggests, those suburban arterials are not worth places worth caring about.

Furthermore, this celebration of the railroad would be interesting to contrast with celebrations of the automobile. The largest auto show in the world, the Chicago Auto Show, starts this weekend. The displays are largely divorced from history or urban surroundings. While the automobile has been important for the development of the Chicago region (and all American metropolitan regions), it cannot claim the same influence in helping to kickstart the Chicago region in the mid-1800s. Yet, it is hard to imagine Chicago holding a massive celebration for railroads today, even as they continue to bring much freight to and through the Chicago region.

A Sociology of Disney course makes sense because Disney itself claims an influential legacy

I recently saw a story about a new Sociology of Disney course. Is such a course helpful or a good use of time? Some might see this as frivolous, perhaps the same people who sound the alarms about sociology courses about celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, or Jay-Z. I would argue otherwise: not only is it a good means to introduce students to sociology but Disney itself claims it is an influential factor in American life.

First, a quick description of the Sociology of Disney course:

A classroom case study: A young woman stuck in an abusive home escapes her family through marriage. Fast forward 60 years: Another young woman calls off her wedding to a deceptive fiance and focuses her time on her older sister and a new partner from a lower social class.

If these two fictional examples came from the same writer, what does this say about how the author’s attitude toward women changed?

They may sound like a classic comparison of gender roles, but they’re actually the plot of two Disney movies — “Cinderella” and “Frozen.”

Heather Downs, a Jacksonville University sociology professor, is using such examples in her “The Sociology of Disney” summer course, which she created last year as a way to get students interested in common sociology topics. The course has gained popularity since, and 16 students completed their final Friday by running around the Magic Kingdom and taking photos of examples of sociology topics discussed in class.

Second, I recently saw the Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Lots of people know Disney and like Disney but I was particularly interested in how Disney itself was presented. And the legacy-building was thick. It included: the early life of Walt Disney in the heartland of America (Chicago, small-town Missouri); his early forays in Hollywood with interesting cartoon work and new ideas; the formation of the Disney company; all sorts of new techniques in animation (matching sound with drawings, coloring, a multi-plane camera, reintroducing fairy tales); innovative work matching animation and live-action (think Mary Poppins); the construction of iconic characters and theme parks; and best-selling movies. All throughout, there were videos and quotes from Walt Disney talking about what the company was trying to do and how they accomplished it.

Connecting this to the Disney course, it is worth studying Disney because this successful international corporation itself recognizes its influence. Walt Disney is held up as an American success story, a Midwestern boy who followed his dreams and helped enrich the lives of millions. Individuals don’t have to like the films or themes or what Disney stands for but it is hard to refute that most, if not all, Americans have interacted with Disney in one form or another. While people are certainly influenced by other sources, Disney capitalized on a number of trends – generally, adapting to new mass media forms – and is worth examining.

Why live in Celebration, Florida when you can live in a Disney gated community within the resort?

Celebration, Florida gets a lot of attention as a Disney-designed New Urbanist community but there are more exclusive Disney housing options: living in a big house within a gated community inside the resort.

Walt Disney Co.’s gated community known as Golden Oak—named after the company’s California ranch—is the only place in the world where you can own a home within Disney-resort boundaries. Some 980 acres are being carved up for as many as 450 homes on the Lake Buena Vista site, a few within eyesight of the famous Cinderella Castle fireworks.

Homeownership in the development starts at $1.7 million, and homes have sold for more than $7 million. Extras include property taxes and annual fees as high as $12,000 to cover perks, which include park passes, door-to-park transportation, extended hours for visiting attractions such as the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, and a 17,000-square-foot clubhouse with a restaurant and concierge. Residents also will have access to some of the amenities, including the spa and dining rooms at the $370 million, 444-room Four Seasons resort expected to open in Golden Oak next summer…

Many homes include nods to Mickey Mouse and friends. (Disney is willing to overlook trademark violations inside the home.) The ceiling of one of Mr. Bergami’s guest rooms has a tray ceiling in the shape of Mickey’s head. Doors have carvings of the castle, Donald Duck and Goofy.

Homeowners also have the option of adding “hidden Mickeys”—as the features are known—in everything from kitchen backsplashes to stair railings. Builder Chad Cahill included an estimated 75 hidden mouse ears in a showcase home finished earlier this year. Some are tough to spot, so when the furnished $2.7 million home sells, the new owner will receive a map of the locations.

See a 2012 post about the construction of this gated community. Sounds like the gated community is all about giving the wealthiest Disney fans what they want: an immersive Disney home just a short distance away from the Disney gates.

A thought about these wealthy Disney fans: are they easy to spot at the Disney parks? We spent a day at the Magic Kingdom in Florida last year and I was struck that the people around us looked like a broad slice of middle-class America. Granted, it is not cheap: single-day tickets were over $90, the food was moderately expensive (not as bad as I thought it might be), and many people have to travel far and pay for airfare, a hotel, and a rental car. Of course, there are lots of other things to spend big money on (for example, giving your small daughter the full princess experience), but I don’t remember seeing people who were flashing wads of money and really expensive clothes or other goods. Perhaps this says more about Americans trying to downplay their wealth (we’re all middle-class) or the findings that most millionaires don’t act like stereotypical millionaires.

Anthropologist behind story of Manhattan moms who hire disabled tour guides to bypass Disney lines

Lost a bit in the story about Manhattan moms who hire disabled tour guides to avoid lines at Disney is how the story came out: from the research of an anthropologist.

“It’s insider knowledge that very few have and share carefully,” said social anthropologist Dr. Wednesday Martin, who caught wind of the underground network while doing research for her upcoming book “Primates of Park Avenue.”

“Who wants a speed pass when you can use your black-market handicapped guide to circumvent the lines all together?” she said.

“So when you’re doing it, you’re affirming that you are one of the privileged insiders who has and shares this information.”

A win for social science? Perhaps not – Wednesday Martin was trained in comparative literature. I imagine there is some more backstory to this including how Martin found out about this practice and how this information made it to the media. Here is more about the book with an intriguing title which is to be released next year:

What happens when an anthropologist from the Midwest moves to Manhattan’s most prestigious zip code…and raises her children there? Primates of Park Avenue is an anthropological memoir of Manhattan motherhood by Dr. Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do (Houghton Mifflin, 2009).  By turns hilarious, touching and insightful, Primates of Park Avenue reveals the pressures, conundrums and competition that make mothers and mothering in Manhattan unique. From a deconstruction of the exercise and self-care practices of the caste of women with children she calls “Manhattan Geishas” to the lurid details of her own crazed pursuit of a Birkin bag; to an analysis of the rites of passage like the coop board interview, the gut renovation, bed bug battles and “ongoing” school applications that brought her to her knees; to an exploration of what she calls “the world’s most complicated, fraught, and misrepresented relationship, the dance between mothers and the nannies they hire to help them raise their children”; to an inside view of the galas, benefits, kiddie birthday parties and other extravaganzas of conspicuous consumption that define her adopted tribe, Martin spares no detail in exploring what makes Uptown motherhood strange, exotic and utterly foreign and fascinating. At the same time, Primates of Park Avenue illuminates the quests, anxieties and ambitions–for a healthy, happy child, a good night’s sleep, sexual satisfaction, financial security and a concealer that actually works–that connect women with children all across the country and all over the world.

An “anthropological memoir” – this might be easier for the general public to understand than saying it is a personal ethnography. It sounds like the book, in the words of one of my colleagues, will take the familiar, the wealthy in New York City, and make it exotic.

Disney building luxury community of Golden Oak

The Disney community of Celebration is well known (see earlier posts here and here) but the company is developing a more luxurious community called Golden Oak three miles from the theme parks.

At prices ranging from $1.5 million to upwards of $8 million, the developer promises a house and neighborhood with the hallmarks it has carefully cultivated for decades: meticulous attention to detail; extensive personal service; and, if you’re so inclined, a daily dose of Mickey, Minnie and the crew…

Although Florida abounds in upscale communities that promote a “lifestyle” of one kind or another, Golden Oak’s planners think the Disney brand is the not-so-secret weapon that sets it apart: Buy here, goes part of the sales pitch, and get years of virtually unlimited access to Disney properties in the surrounding area.

“We’ve never done this for anybody else,” explained Stacey Thomson, public relations manager for Golden Oak, who said that buyers in the current sales phase will get three years’ worth of unlimited VIP-access passes to the parks for the homeowner and four guests, in addition to such services as door-to-park van service, access to special events, and numerous other Disney-esque benefits that don’t accrue to the typical visitor…

Where Celebration was conceived as a full-fledged town with a large contingent of full-time residents and a share of units at a much lower price point, Golden Oak is a sprawling, 980-acre subdivision that will function more as a gilt-edged resort…

This is a great example of branding. If your company can be associated with ideas like quality, fun, vacation, and magic, consumers will go to great lengths to be a part of this. The reach of Disney is so broad that they can build communities and people are drawn to them because of the Disney name even though they could find comparable homes or amenities elsewhere.

While we know there are enough buyers to make this work, it would be helpful to hear more from Disney in what they are trying to do with Golden Oak. Here is “the story of Golden Oak“:

The story of Golden Oak begins in true once-upon-a time fashion. As a youth in Missouri, Walt Disney would lie beneath the spreading branches of his “dreaming tree” and let his imagination run free. It was here that Walt’s talents for storytelling and fantasy began to take shape into some of the world’s most beloved characters.

Years later, a scenic ranch in California’s Placerita Canyon proved an equally inspiring location for filming segments of The Mickey Mouse Club TV show. Walt Disney Productions purchased portions of the property in 1959 and, over the years, acquired more than 900 acres to reserve its quiet vistas for TV and movie productions and protect its harmony with nature. In fact, Walt and his family spent time relaxing and playing on the ranch.

The name of this ranch? Golden Oak, in honor of a storied tree there, under which some say gold nuggets had been found in 1842. From these illustrious origins, the legacy continues with Golden Oak at Walt Disney World® Resort.

The website for Golden Oak emphasizes a blend of neighborhood plus resort living. Will there really be a neighborhood here or is this more of a resort that can be called a “neighborhood” because it consists of single-family homes? Or does Disney think that without calling it a neighborhood, the development won’t be as attractive? If only you have the money necessary, you too can purchase this unique Disney blend.

I wonder if we can read anything into this development in terms of how it relates to Celebration. This wealthier development could be a marker of several things:

1. Disney has gone as far as it wants to go with Celebration type developments which are more geared toward “average” suburbanites. Disney now wants to take advantage of wealthier people who are willing to buy larger and more expensive homes these days.

1a. Does Disney consider Celebration a success or would they do a lot differently if they were starting a new community?

2. Disney finds these housing projects to be profitable and will pursue more of these in the future as conditions allow. It would be interesting to know how profitable the developments are.

 

Housing, IP, and Disney

A New York Times article from last week reports on the convergence of housing, intellectual property, and the Walt Disney Corporation in a recently built suburban home near Salt Lake City:

The sherbet-colored structure sits at the intersection of Meadowside Drive and Herriman Rose Boulevard here, but you don’t need directions to find it. Just look for the swarm of helium-filled balloons that the developer tied to the chimney of a house that has a gabled roof, scalloped siding and a garden hose neatly coiled next to the porch — all details taken from “Up,” the 2009 hit about an old man and his flying abode.

Developer Blair Bangerter duplicated Pixar’s Up house with as much fidelity as physical reality would allow.  And he got permission to do this from Disney!  As the article notes, getting such permission from Disney is highly unusual:

This is a company that once forced a Florida day care center to remove an unauthorized Minnie Mouse mural. More recently, Disney told a stonemason that carving Winnie the Pooh into a child’s gravestone would violate its copyright [though it later “reversed its ruling on that Winnie the Pooh tombstone after the news media reported the rejection”].

So how is a homebuilder in this Salt Lake City suburb getting away with selling a near-identical copy of the floating house in the Disney-Pixar film “Up”?

Although Disney declined to comment for the story, the article suggests several reasons:

  • The developer is the son of a former Utah governor.
  • The developer was able to convince Up‘s director, Pete Docter, to “personally intervened on behalf of the project.”
  • Disney “is trying to evaluate with more care the hundreds of requests it receives a month from people wanting to use its characters and imagery.”

Taking these suggested reasons at face value, it sounds like Mr. Bangerter obtained permission primarily because (a) he was well-connected and (b) Disney sensed a PR opportunity.  There are at least two ways of interpreting this:

  1. Bangerter and Disney saw a market opportunity and bargained to create value.  Most homes in the subdivision are priced around $300,000; the Up home is listed at $400,000.  Disney is often seen as an IP bully; it now looks a bit nicer.  Thus, a deal between Bangerter and Disney created almost $100k in new economic value for the developer and (possible) new goodwill towards Disney.
  2. IP is being used here to create an unnecessary monopoly rent to benefit the already well-connected.  It’s hard to see how Disney would suffer any economic loss if everyone were free to build Up houses–Disney is in the business of selling media and related merchandise, but generally not houses.  However, since everyone is presumably not free to build Up houses, Bangerter and Disney had to spend time and money hammering out an agreement.  As a result of their agreement, Bangerter (apparently) gets ~$100k more for the Up house than he gets for comparable houses in the subdivision, and Disney successfully pacifies a politically powerful developer.

Especially insofar as Disney only considers such deals with well-connected developers like Bangerter, the IP issues quickly blur into fairness issues.

Celebration, Florida, built by Disney, has first murder

Many suburbs rarely experience a murder. In fact, many suburban residents might give this as a reason for moving into these communities: the crime, particularly serious crimes, is limited. So when a murder is committed in a model community, particularly one built by Disney, it will receive attention.

Here is a quick summary of what happened in Celebration, Florida:

Residents of the town five miles south of Walt Disney World woke up Tuesday to the sight of yellow crime-scene tape wrapped around a condo near the Christmas-decorated downtown, where Bing Crosby croons from speakers hidden in the foliage. A 58-year-old neighbor who lived alone with his Chihuahua had been slain over the long Thanksgiving weekend, Osceola County sheriff’s deputies said.

What is interesting to note is how the rest of the story describes Celebration. Some of the commentary is what you would expect from any wealthy suburb: this was an isolated incident, this sort of stuff doesn’t happen in the community, and the residents shouldn’t worry. But here a few pieces of the description about the uniqueness of Celebration:

The killing sullies the type of perfection envisioned in 1989 when Peter Rummell, then-president of the Disney Development Corp., wrote to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner about building a new town on vacant, Disney-owned land in Osceola County.

The community would be a “wonderful residential town east of I-4 that has a human scale with sidewalks and bicycles and parks and the kind of architecture that is sophisticated and timeless. It will have fiber optics and smart houses, but the feel will in many cases be closer to Main Street than to Future World,” Rummell wrote in the letter.

Houses incorporated “New Urbanism” ideas such as placing the garage out of sight in the back and a front porch close to the sidewalk to encourage neighbor interaction. Restrictions on home color and architectural details also were in the community’s rulebook. Colonial, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts-style homes grace the streets; the downtown is a mix of postmodern buildings and stucco condos.

Residents arrived in 1996. Critics viewed it as something out of “The Truman Show,” or “The Stepford Wives.”

Fans saw other things. A return to small-town values. A walkable community. Safety.

So this is the media story: the murder that took place in the “perfect Disney town” (as the link on the Chicago Tribune’s front page suggests). A few thoughts of mine about this:

1. Celebration receives a lot of attention due to who created it and how it was created. Is there a point where this will become just another community?

2. No community is “perfect,” even one created by a company like Disney which sells its products based on this idea of joy and magic. The same AP story lists some of the problems from recent years including graffiti and a recent day when the local school was on lockdown.

3. Suburbs or small towns are not immune to crime, even of this magnitude.

4. It will be interesting to see how this story affects the marketing of the community.

5. This seems like an illustration for all suburbia: crimes like this can upset people’s feelings and attitudes toward places that they once considered perfect and safe.