The Superficial American and the Relationship to the Disney Formula

Though it certainly is not true for everyone, there are large parts of today’s modern societies which never think about cultures. And yet cultural assumptions underlie many of the reasons why Disney parks are successful and therefore should be looked at with a great deal of scrutiny.

Americans, for example, are fond of greeting each other with the phrase “how are you?” If the person reading this is an American, that might well be the end of the story. But those who grew up outside of America might recognize this moment as one which is uniquely American. Why? Because it sticks out to other cultures as surprising that Americans seem to want no answer to this question. For most cultures, a question is meant as an honest interrogation—people would not ask if they did not want to hear the answer. So it’s perplexing when Americans ask questions they don’t want answers to, and some people interpret this type of behavior as indicative of American superficiality.

It’s far from certain that Americans are actually superficial, but the belief is out there among some societies that this generalization holds weight. And so it behooves us to investigate the possibility that American superficiality—assuming for a moment that it exists—contributes to the explanation for the popularity of Disney theme parks.

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Consider a few, uh, “surface level” points in favor of this addition. First, Disney theme parks were built by Americans and for Americans originally. Walt was a proudly patriotic American who largely fashioned Disneyland after his own desires and interests—meaning that Disneyland was designed with America in mind.

Second, let’s remember that the Disneyland formula does not seem to translate equally well across all parts of the globe. The Disneyland-style park was a clear success in the United States and in Japan, but it has continued to struggle to reach the same levels of customers and fan base in Paris and Hong Kong. Surely, part of the problem may be in the execution of the parks. But we should not leave culture of this analysis entirely. The French, in particular, seemed to resent the intrusion of the Walt Disney company into their country. The French have always been fiercely protective of their language and cultural connections, so it is not surprising that they were slow to warm up to an American presence in their midst.

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Indeed, in some ways the Walt Disney Company is seen by large parts of the world as synonymous with America itself. Certainly the United States now exports much more culture than any manufactured goods, and Disney is a big part of that.

Given these claims—the Disney product as particularly American, the Disney brand as seen as synonymous with America, and the lack of universal acceptance of the Disney brand of magic—it does seem that it would be possible to assemble an argument in favor of American superficiality being a part of the Disney formula.

It requires no deep analysis to see evidence of this in fact. Simply listen to the first time visitors at a Disney theme park who are having trouble buying the illusion. They might complain about the shallowness of the whole enterprise, or focus more on the surface level attempt to provide immersion then on the actual story being told.

It’s an open question whether the formula for Disney success truly is shallow and superficial. This is one of those moments where the viewer/reader affects the outcome of the analysis in that he or she comes to the analysis with cultural baggage in the form of a certain set of assumptions. In the great majority of time, these assumptions are neither conscious nor examined, rendering the conversations between people of differing cultures even more unlikely to find common ground.

But because the American perspective is not universally perceived a priori as the correct one, the possibility does exist that the Disney formula is one which relies upon your senses and surface level trappings rather than deeper meaning. It would be interesting to examine attractions one at a time in an effort to determine when they treat the subject matter and shallow fashion versus a more in depth treatment. For example, most of the pavilions and World Showcase take enormous liberties with geography, scale, and size. They do this to establish a feeling of being in that foreign country—again, through the eyes of an American. That usually means crunching together landmarks that are in actuality pretty far apart. This is a superficial treatment of the content, with much more attention given to the exterior flash then the message the subject matter beneath it.

The village of Harambe, by contrast, does more than merely evoke a fictional setting. There is a deeper story at lay here, with props scattered about to establish a village trying to modernize itself and at the same time balance the competing interests of tourism and poaching. In this case, there is still a superficial layer of detail that create a setting, but there is more “there” there.

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Thus we have a complex interplay between visitors (some of whom seek and welcome superficiality, others who do the opposite) and attractions (some of whom PANDER to the surface-level immersion, and others who attempt to do different things). It makes the experience of a Disney park—especially all four in Orlando when seen as a whole—far less homogeneous.

One thought on “The Superficial American and the Relationship to the Disney Formula

  1. Nice start but (to get meta) petered out just when it might have started going deeper.

    I think it might also be worth examining WDW in particular as one of the greatest examples anywhere of pure marketing. People might, on the surface, grumble a bit about the cost of visiting but *not really*. They end up spending much more than they ever expected to, yet return home ecstatic (or close to) and act as positive advertisements for the experience as they encourage all their friends to visit too.

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