Disneyland's impact on U.S. cultural is tremendous

Presidents. Foreign leaders. Super Bowl winners. Olympic athletes. Celebrities. Disneyland has hosted them all in its 50 years. An instant classic upon its launch, the theme park has survived some of the most tumultuous times American society has seen.

Its influence on pop culture is tremendous: songs, movies, TV. It’s influence on people’s thinking is ingrained: It’s the symbol for faux happiness, American cultural imperialism, childlike happiness. Even the travel world was impacted: The modern destination theme-park business was invented by Walt Disney.

The story of Disney taking his plan for the park to an amusement park trade group, for instance, illustrates his distinctive thinking. They told Disney that “it was going to die on arrival,” according to Marty Sklar, who has worked for the Walt Disney Co. since 1956, and is now vice chair and principal creative exec of Walt Disney Imagineering.

Sklar also functions as the strongest link to Disney and his original vision. “Walt was so happy when he came back and reported that these people thought Disneyland would never work,” he says. Disney wanted the opposite of what parks were at that time. “This was the anti-amusement park.”

Indeed, practices originated by Disney are ubiquitous in the retail landscape today.

“We’ve always thought about our guests first,” says Sklar, “even invented a new language and set up a Disneyland University to teach that language: ‘guests’ instead of ‘customers,’ ‘cast members’ instead of employees … all those things that really subliminally communicated to people. Rides became ‘attractions’ and ‘adventures’ and ‘experiences.’ “

Even the use of employee nametags sprang from Disneyland.

Sklar boiled down Disney’s most effective business strategies into “Mickey’s 10 Commandments.” “Can this be a great show? And how can we raise the bar? Walt wanted to move on; he was a risk-taker. We were never allowed to rest on our laurels,” says Sklar. “Mickey’s 10 Commandments” are taught in business schools worldwide.

“Now we jump to the 50th anniversary, and we knew it had to be of a scale that we’ve never done before,” says Disneyland president Matt Ouimet. “In any culture, 50 is a big milestone so it had to be bigger. We knew we had to take our best elements of storytelling, technology and pull them together into something that no one’s seen before.”

But the wedding of old and new was key. “Everything we did was not an homage to history. Walt did not want this to be a museum. Taking those things that people love and taking them into the next half-century and beyond,” is the mandate, according to Ouimet.

The marriage of technology and creativity also has been a hallmark of Disneyland. Disney loved going to the big research labs, and “they would trot out all the things they were working on,” says Sklar.

Disney would want to buy any new innovations, but would be told there’s no market for it. “And Walt would say, ‘You know, I can communicate that (innovation) to the public.’ It was because Walt understood how to tell stories and to communicate to people through storytelling,” says Sklar.

The museum business has been snapping up Imagineers to help plan exhibitions, and Sklar points out that people-moving ideas from Disney’s theme parks have made there way into cities around the world. Shopping malls, town planning, urban design have all been influenced by Disneyland and other Mouse House parks.

Sklar asserts that to move on, Disneyland must innovate using new technology to en-hance what people love about the park in the first place.

Ouimet echoes that sentiment. “I’ve been out here about 18 months,” says Ouimet. “But for the first seven or eight months I lived on the (park) property. I spent my time in the parks. And in the hotels and Downtown Disney. I am a big believer in being where our guests are having fun and see opportunities to take the magic up a level. And I probably met a lot of those people who are online, who are never shy about giving their opinion about Disney.”

Disneyland’s status in pop culture gives its keepers a unique marketing perspective, coupled with a sincere love of the park. “It’s pretty amazing that all the same entertainment and all the new entertainent still communicates to people, ” says Sklar.

“There’s a reason for that because I think Disneyland really reassures you. I think the world is tough place for many of us and Disneyland says things can be beautiful, they can work. The whole place has an optomistic tone to it — that was Walt Disney. He was the perennial optimist.

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