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As American as apple pie, or Disneyland

DESIGNING DISNEY'S THEME PARKS: THE ARCHITECTURE OF REASSURANCE Edited by Karal Ann Marling Canadian Center for Architecture 223 pp., $50

In one way or another, almost everyone knows Disneyland - including those who've never actually been.

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The original park in Anaheim, Calif., opened its gates to the public in July 1955, and seemed, at the time, the quintessence of 1950s, "I like Ike," middle America.

It was denounced by the intelligentsia as plastic, prefabricated, and escapist. Some critics even saw it as a kind of miniature fascist-corporate state. But most people seemed to enjoy it.

Before too long, the Disney theme-park empire had expanded all over the place, from EPCOT and Walt Disney World in Florida, to Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland.

"Designing Disney's Theme Parks" offers a close-up, detailed, often insightful look at the phenomenon. Edited by Karal Ann Marling, a professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota, it includes a fondly reminiscent essay by Marty Sklar, one of Disney's chief "Imagineers"; an interview with architect Frank Gehry, who worked on Disneyland Paris; a historical look, by Neil Harris, at earlier fairs, exhibitions, and amusement parks that shaped Disney's idea of what a theme park should be; and Yi-Fu Tuan's far-ranging consideration of Disneyland's place in the history of world culture.

In his detailed introduction, Marling claims that although Disneyland has often been reviled as the apotheosis of the vacuous, materialistic Los Angeles lifestyle, it should also be seen as Walt Disney's constructive critique of that lifestyle. In a region dominated by the automobile, crisscrossed by an ever-expanding grid of freeways, Disneyland included "pedestrian spaces free from vehicular traffic" and rides that spotlighted "every imaginable kind of people-moving device that did not entail a driver piloting himself through increasingly congested streets-and chewing up the landscape in the process: trains, monorails, passenger pods, canal boats, riverboats, and double-decker buses."

Marling notes that Disney's political outlook had a great deal in common with Henry Ford's. Both men didn't like anything that stood in their way, both were fiercely antiunion. But both shared a somewhat redeeming belief in what might be called responsible capitalism. Both thought that corporations must try to maintain the balance between production and consumption. Thus, Ford postulated, his workers' wages should be low enough not to drive up the price of a Ford Model T, but high enough so that they could afford to buy the car themselves. Disney's capitalist "utopia" similarly envisioned wage-earners with enough extra cash and leisure time to be able to spend some of each on a trip to Disneyland.

Perhaps the liveliest essay is Greil Marcus's astute look at the 40 years of critical commentary - some of it positive, most of it negative, and too much of it merely snide - that Disneyland has engendered. As Marcus rightly points out, much of this criticism, rather than engaging its subject, seems determined to demonstrate the critic's intellectual and moral superiority to Disney's bastion of middle-class, middle-brow values.

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Reading this highly detailed book on Disneyland is not exactly a walk in the park. But it is, undoubtedly, a valuable book, full of good material, and approaches its subject with an attitude that is appropriately appreciative, without being overawed.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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