While it originally referred to a person’s perceived control over his and her actions and their attribution to personal (or ‘internal’) or environmental (‘external’) factors, the term ‘locus of control’ here applies broadly to the agency and motivations demonstrated by the park’s various participants (visitors, employees, and company executives) in shaping and assigning meaning to the park’s environment.5 As some critics have shown, the Disney corporation’s efforts to shape its environment are not just confined to the park’s physical landscape but include an entire array of legislations and infrastructures, allowing the company to contain outside forces and exert greater control over its parks.6 Beyond such hegemonic interpretations, other critics have placed the locus of control not within the Disney-controlled environment of the parks but within individual visitors as well as the wider socio-economic context of which the parks form only a part.These diverse perspectives show evolving conceptions of the reception processes of mass media, that is how people respond to and consume mass media as well as how the social, economic and material conditions surrounding its reception affect personal interpretations.Similarly, ride operators share methods for punishing unruly visitors while giving the impression of following standard procedures; such strategies notably include the self-explanatory “seatbelt squeezes,” “seatbelt slaps,” the “‘break-up-the-party’ gambit” as well as the somewhat cruel “‘Sorry-I-didn’t-see-your-hand’ tactic.”28 In a groundbreaking article “‘Real Feelings’: emotional expression and organizational culture,” co-authors Van Maanen and Gideon Kunda focus more specifically on the performative and participatory nature of work at Disneyland.29 Since social interactions are scripted in advance, they require a performance on the part of the worker — an active process of internalization of scripted lines and even emotions that occasionally generates resistance.
A third, final trend evaluates whether the seemingly autonomous environment of the parks is itself a locus of control — that is, an environment whose design and operations are the exclusive products of the Disney corporation.
Since we focus on issues of reception and agency, we do not include an exhaustive review of all scholarly approaches to the Disney parks.
Long held as the province of capitalist domination, the Disney parks have recently seen other trends of analysis emerge, providing renewed emphasis on user activity and the parks’ competitive environment.
In this article, we identify three trends of research toward the Disney theme parks, with the ‘locus of control’ for the parks’ meaning, design, and operations placed successively within the Disney-controlled environment of the park, within the user, and, lastly, within the park’s wider socio-economic context.
In the fifty-five years since Disneyland’s opening in Anaheim, California, the characteristic insularity and thematic coherence of the Disney theme parks have made them prominent examples of the “landscapes of power” so often discussed both inside and outside academic circles.1 While Disneyland’s opening was met mostly with silence by academics, later responses have been mixed at best, revealing the suspicious attitudes of intellectuals with regard to popular culture: as early as 1958, the comments of screenwriter Julian Halevy on Disneyland would set the tone for later discussions of the parks, as he remarked in that the park’s “sickening blend of cheap formulas packaged to sell” only “exist[s] for the relief of tension and boredom, as tranquilizers for social anxiety, and …
provide[s] fantasy experiences in which not-so-secret longings are pseudo-satisfied.”2 However, other voices soon emerged that found the environment of the park “immensely exciting” rather than oppressive and debilitating.3 In 1965, Charles Moore’s serious treatment of Disneyland’s playful theming helped the low-brow theme park enter high-brow discussion, thus paving the way for postmodernism in architecture: then the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, Moore praised the park as “the most important single piece of construction in the West in the past several decades” — a new public arena that responded to the erosion of public space in Los Angeles and allowed visitors to engage in “play-acting, both to be watched or participated in, in a public sphere.”4 At the heart of these interpretations of the Disney theme parks lies the issue of who controls the visitor’s experience or, more precisely, where the locus of control for this experience really sits.This has effectively allowed the park to serve as a differentiating device, whereby the Japanese can marvel at the spectacle of their cultural adaptability and superior sense of craft and service.As Maanen says: “The message coming from Japan (for the Japanese) is simply ‘anything you can do, we can do as well (or better).’…This essay is intended to evaluate how the notions of reception, agency and control apply to both the user and the Disney corporation.We first identify one research trend that draws from semiotics and post-modernism to cast the park as a ‘text’ whose meaning largely escapes the visitor.While Fjellman makes a solid point when he suggests that the fantasy landscapes of the parks present themselves as the objective product of collective labor and of specific structures of production (or what Marx called ), his analysis also shares some of the limitations of the works he draws from.Much of Fjellman’s work revolves around the meaning or ‘meta-message’ that visitors ultimately extract from the park’s environment, yet the author provides no convincing model for reception, thereby suggesting that reception is largely an unproblematic activity, neatly separated from production and free of interference of any kind.In the same way, the audience has long enjoyed the Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour, a ‘walk-through’ attraction unique to the Japanese park, since it requires the audience to closely follow the instructions of the Guide — a requirement that would be inconceivable in the American parks.More generally, the park is widely presented as a cultural import rather than a cultural export, suggesting that the Japanese were actively involved in its recreation.Were the park built more specifically to Japanese tastes and cultural aesthetics, it would undercut any contrast to the original in this regard.”35 This point was elaborated on by Mitsuko Yoshimoto, who remarked that “[t]o the extent that it perfectly fits in with the nativist discourse valorizing the selective hybridity of Japanese culture, Tokyo Disneyland is in fact one of the most powerful manifestations of contemporary Japanese nationalism. Far from being a manifestation of American cultural imperialism, Tokyo Disneyland epitomizes the ingenious mechanism of neo-cultural imperialism of Japan.”36 Ultimately, by defining “[t]he happiness trade [as] an interactional one,” Maanen suggests that the success of Disney theme parks cannot be properly accounted for without an interactional approach.37 In other words, visitors and employees are Finally, macro-socioeconomic analyses have shown that the Walt Disney Company, while actively involved in crafting its own legal and commercial environment, conversely finds itself shaped by the interactions of various political, economic and social groups with differing interests.The experience of coherent narrative universes has also been shown to extend beyond the pristine confines of the parks to other businesses, suggesting that ‘theming’ and ‘Disneyization’ respond to wider socio-economic trends that now largely escape Disney’s control.