American Icons: The Disney Parks

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This is America’s vision of utopia.

Disney parks American Icons Studio 360 

Generations of Americans have grown up with Walt Disney shaping our imaginations. In 1955, Disney mixed up some fairy tales, a few historical facts, and a dream of the future to create an alternate universe. Not just a place for fun, but a scale model of a perfect world. “Everything that you could imagine is there,” says one young visitor. “It's like living in a fantasy book.” And not just for kids: one-third of Walt Disney World’s visitors are adults who go without children. Visiting the parks, according to actor Tom Hanks, is like a pilgrimage — the pursuit of happiness turned into a religion.

Futurist Cory Doctorow explains the genius of Disney World, while novelist Carl Hiaasen even hates the water there. Kurt tours Disneyland with a second-generation “imagineer” whose dead mother haunts the Haunted Mansion. We’ll meet a former Snow White and the man who married Prince Charming — Disney, he says, is “the gayest place on Earth. It’s where happy lives.”

Special thanks to Julia Lowrie Henderson, Shannon Geis, Alex Gallafent, Nic Sammond, Steve Watts, Angela Bliss, Todd Heiden, Shannon Swanson, Katie Cooper, Nick White, Marie Fabian, Posey Gruener, Jason Margolis, Chris DeAngelis, Jenelle Pifer, Debi Ghose, Maneesh Agrawala, and Tony DeRose.

Bonus Track: Cory Doctorow on the Disney theme parks

Hear Kurt's full conversation with Doctorow about his life-long obsession with Disney in general, and the Haunted Mansion specifically.


Video: Walt Disney's original plan for Epcot


Music Playlist

  1. Beauty and the Beast

    Artist: Disney
    Album: Music from the film
  2. Pinocchio

    Artist: Disney
    Album: Music from the film
  3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

    Artist: Disney
    Album: Music from the film
  4. Wall-E

    Artist: Disney
    Album: Music from the film
    Label: Walt Disney Records
  5. Mary Poppins

    Artist: Disney
    Album: Music from the film
  6. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

    Artist: Disney
    Album: Music from the film
  7. Pirates of the Caribbean

    Artist: Disney
    Album: Music and dialogue from the attraction
  8. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln

    Artist: Disney
    Album: Walt Disney and the 1964 World’s Fair
  9. Grim, Grinning Ghosts

    Artist: Bare Naked Ladies
    Album: The Haunted Mansion: Haunted Hits
  10. Main Theme

    Artist: Danny Elfman
    Album: Edward Scissorhands
  11. Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo (Music Box)

    Artist: Sleephead Symphony
    Album: When You Wish Upon a Star
  12. Nocturnes, Op. 55: No. 1 in F Minor

    Artist: Arthur Rubinstein
    Album: Chopin 19 Nocturnes
  13. Chim Chim Cheree

    Artist: Duke Ellington Orchestra
    Album: Duke Ellington: The Reprise Studio Recordings
  14. Someday My Prince Will Come

    Artist: Stanley Clarke Trio with Hiromi & Lenny White
    Album: Jazz in the Garden
  15. Someday My Prince Will Come

    Artist: Miles Davis
    Album: Someday My Prince Will Come
  16. Someday My Prince Will Come

    Artist: Tigran Hamasyan
    Album: Fable
  17. Someday My Prince Will Come

    Artist: Norman Simmons Trio
    Album: Satin Doll

Izzy Kleiman has been an Annual Passholder to Disneyland since she was 5.

( Katie Cooper )

Now 11, Izzy Kleiman’s fandom is stronger than ever.

( Katie Cooper )

The entrance to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. 

( Andy Castro )

Sleeping Beauty Castle in California’s Disneyland is raised slightly above Main Street USA, making it the focal point of the park. The road also narrows, drawing your eye (and the rest of your body) towards the castle. 

( Loren Javier )

The Market House on Main Street USA.

( Loren Javier )

Even the flowers are carefully chosen to correspond with the color scheme and overall “story” of Main Street USA. 

( Loren Javier )

Above the firehouse sits Walt’s private study, where he would work and entertain guests at Disneyland. Today, cast members keep a light on 24 hours a day to remember the park’s creator.

( Andy Castro )

"Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln:" the animatronic president recites bits of the real president’s famous speeches. 

( Andy Castro )

The entrance to the Haunted Mansion. The attraction is part of New Orleans Square, where the facades are copied from real buildings in New Orleans. 

( Loren Javier )

Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion. Kim Irvine, Disneyland’s Art Director, is a second generation employee: both of her parents worked for Disney. Her late mother, Leota Toombs Thomas, worked in the model shop where the Haunted Mansion was developed – her face was the model for Madame Leota. At the end of the ride, she is also the voice of Little Leota, beckoning riders to return.

( Loren Javier )

A small portion of Cory Doctorow’s collection of Haunted Mansion memorabilia. These plaster wall-plaques were sold in the 1970s at Walt Disney World. 

( Cory Doctorow )

Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland. Each theme park has a unique castle: the castles in California and Disneyland Paris belong to Sleeping Beauty, while the castles at the parks in Florida, Tokyo, and Hong Kong belong to Cinderella.

( Loren Javier )

Disney incorporates all sorts of tiny details into the park design. Since this castle belongs to Sleeping Beauty, one of her woodland friends perches nearby.

( Loren Javier )

Kurt Andersen talks with Imagineer Gary Landrum and press associate Todd Heiden in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom in Florida.

( Jenny Lawton )

Stroller parking at the Magic Kingdom.

( Jenny Lawton )

Princess Jasmine (Lauren Boylston, 6), after visiting the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.

( Abby Boylston )

Annabel Fabian, 9, her mom Genie Cesar-Fabian, and Tigger. 

( Marie Fabian )

Rachel Hankle played Snow White at Walt Disney World for two years.

( Courtesy of Rachel Hankle )

Michael Clowers performing as a Kid of the Kingdom in 1989 at Walt Disney World. 

( Courtesy of Clay Chaffin )

Michael Clowers and Clay Chaffin (who played Prince Charming) at Walt Disney World in 1989. The couple has been together ever since.

( Courtesy of Clay Chaffin )

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks (with Emma Thompson). The film opens December 2013. 

( Walt Disney Pictures )

Larry Pine as Walt Disney and Frank Wood as Roy Disney in the Soho Rep production of Lucas Hnath’s play A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.

( Julieta Cervantes )

Still from Paul McCarthy’s installation WS, 2013. McCarthy often uses the images of Disney characters in his work, recasting enchantment as something more menacing. “I think one thing about Disney is his intention is putting you to sleep, putting you into a dream and not waking you from a dream,” says McCarthy. “And the case of an artist, I think, is to try and wake yourself.”

( Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth (Photo by Joshua White) )

The Siegel Family — Julie, Marita, and Jim — of Celebration, Florida, in front of their home.

( Jenny Lawton )

A typical street in Celebration, Florida. 

( Charles Starrett )

Looking down Market Street in Celebration. The fountain and tidy storefronts have a similar sensibility to Main Street USA in Walt Disney World.

( Bobak Ha’Eri )

Market Street in downtown Celebration. 

( John Cuyler )

Celebration is proud of its Disney lineage: some of its electric transmission towers are shaped like Mickey Mouse. 

( Dough4872 )

To celebrate the winter holidays, downtown Celebration is covered in “snoap” — a soapy snow substitute that falls from the streetlamps.

( Andrew Simpson )

At Disneyland, a statue of Walt and his most iconic creation keep watch over their kingdom. 

( Loren Javier )