- Dis-History: Uses of the Past at Walt Disney's Worlds by Jason Lantzer
Jason Lantzer is both a historian of American history at Butler University and a frequent visitor to Disney's theme parks. In his book Dis-History: Uses of the Past at Walt Disney's Worlds, Lantzer combines this professional background and expertise with his hobby to analyze Disney's theme parks within the context of public history and provides readers with detailed observations on how these parks portray and package the past for contemporary park goers, or "guests" as they are generally called at the Disney parks. Lantzer readily admits that the Disney parks are full of historically inaccurate or inauthentic depictions of the past, but for Lantzer these inaccuracies are only tangentially relevant to his central argument. Lantzer's main point is that the reworking of the past in the Disney theme parks is one of the ways in which "Walt Disney created an American mythology" (xx).
In keeping with the different themes represented at Disneyland and Disney World, Lantzner organizes much of his book around different landscapes or spaces within the parks, including chapters on Main Street, Fantasyland, Liberty [End Page 209] Square, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland. In each of these chapters, Lantzer analyzes how the past is used to convey the particular feeling or frame of mind associated with each of these distinct attractions. Lantzer argues that even though all of these attractions engender a sense of nostalgia, each goes about it in a somewhat different way.
In the chapter on Main Street, Lantzer argues that Disney and the other "imagineers" who designed it evoke a sense of belonging to the type of stable community that Disney associated with small-town America. The American past that is portrayed on Main Street is partially based on Disney's memories of his boyhood town of Marceline, Missouri, but Lantzer shows that there are many ways in which Disney's Main Street differs significantly from the Marceline that Disney knew as a boy. Disney's Main Street depicts a town without cars, saloons, or churches. It depicts a town where everyone feels welcome and safe. As Lantzer points out, the guests who stroll down Main Street are encouraged to feel nostalgic for a time and a place that most of them never experienced in their actual lives. According to Lantzer, Main Street offers "a sense of 'home'—which need not be a physical place we have lived, but one that allows us to be grounded" (59–60).
In the other chapters, Lantzer discusses the varied forms of nostalgia associated with the different attractions in the parks. The chapter on Fantasyland evokes a sense of nostalgia associated with childhood fantasies. The chapter on Liberty Square deals with the connections between nostalgia and a form of American patriotism. The chapter on Frontierland taps into the sense of nostalgia for the mythic West of brave pioneers and rugged frontiersmen. The chapter on Tomorrowland relates to the nostalgia for the optimism that many Americans felt about the future during the years immediately after World War II. In every chapter, Lantzer argues that Disney recast the past in such a way that his theme parks provide visitors with a reprieve from the problems associated with the present day.
In addition to writing about how Disney used the past in his theme parks, Lantzer also discusses how the Disney parks have shaped American history. The author points out that by the late 1980s, "70 percent of all Americans had visited a Disney theme park" (51). This shared experience has provided many Americans with common cultural points of reference. Nearly all Americans, for example, can sing the song associated with the attraction called "It's a Small World." Lantzer cites the tremendous popularity of the Disney theme parks as evidence that Walt Disney largely succeeded in "forging a variant of public history" (226). For Lantzer, this form of public history is more of a collective mythology than authentic lived history, but it has become...