Oh Disneyland. How I dreamed of you. As a child, I used to wake up wondering if I was going to Disneyland today. Most of the time, the answer was most definitely no. Yet morning after morning, I still awoke hopeful – and every so often, my dreams would come true. We’d get in the car, drive south on the I-5, and spend the day at the Happiest Place on Earth. Thirty years later, I still often think of my life as a series of long waits between trips to Disneyland. And I’m not alone in my nostalgia.
Why do people love Disneyland so much? The answer is simple: Disneyland is a Story World. In fact, the Disney Parks are some of the most brilliant Story Worlds ever created: a living ode to Walt Disney’s love for storytelling, world-building, and lovable characters. It’s no wonder that billions of people have visited these parks since 1955. They are some of the most universally loved and experienced Story Worlds in existence.
The Disneyland experience begins with a map. On paper, there are eight “lands” inside the park, each revolving around a given slice of Disneyana. Fantasyland is about fairy tales; Tomorrowland is a voyage into the future. New Orleans Square mimics the look and feel of the French Quarter, whereas a visit to Toon Town is like stepping into a cartoon. Each of these lands could be its own theme park, but instead they’re part of something bigger, cleverly arranged around the central hub of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.
Within each of these eight lands are many individual Story Worlds. In Fantasyland, you can fly through Peter Pan’s Neverland or take a ride into the world of Pinocchio. In Tomorrowland, you can warp into the Star Wars universe, or fire lasers alongside Buzz Lightyear. New Orleans square hides the most elaborate Haunted Mansion ever built, and in Critter Country, Splash Mountain is a strangely awesome ode to the oft-forgotten Song of the South. Each of these rides has a distinct storyline, gorgeous animatronics, and highly memorable characters. Disneyland is a smorgasbord of Story Worlds.
Where Disneyland gets interesting, though, is in what happens between the rides. On any given day, you might encounter Cinderella, Ariel, Winnie the Pooh, or the cast of Toy Story roaming the park – though not all in the same place. Disneyland’s actors are trained to remain within “zones” applicable to their characters, such that you never see Piglet talking with Aladdin, or Captain Jack Sparrow flirting with Snow White. All of this has a clear purpose: to sustain the illusion of the eight magical lands.
But there’s one big exception to this rule. Every day, the park puts on shows and parades at which the characters gleefully mix. If you watch Fantasmic or the Main Street Electrical Parade, you’ll see Belle and Mr. Potato Head dancing side by side, or Goofy bouncing circles around Indiana Jones. Why does this collision of worlds work at the parades and not on the back roads of Frontierland? Because of the presence of an all-important unifying factor: the King of Disneyland, Mickey Mouse.
You see, Disneyland isn’t just made of Story Worlds – it’s also a Story World in itself, and its star is Mickey, who at age 85 remains the most iconic character ever drawn. Mickey belongs exclusively to the world of Disney; his presence invokes the idea that all of these smaller Story Worlds are part of something bigger, something uniquely magical. Mickey Mouse is the linchpin to the whole operation. He’s the reminder that Disneyland is more than the sum of its parts – it’s an experience unto itself.
And at the center of that experience, is you. Ultimately, the story of Disneyland is the story of your visit. Your presence defines the day; you pick your rides and your shows. In gaming terms, Disneyland is an “open world,” where you explore, collect things, and meet characters in whatever sequence you choose. Disneyland differs from a game in that it has no overarching plot – and yet, any kid who visits knows exactly what the plot is. Act one: you wake up so excited you can barely contain yourself. Act two: you run from ride to ride having the time of your life, and the occasional meltdown. Act three: you pass out contented and your parents carry you to the car. The story varies depending on the expectations of the visitor, but the Disneyland experience is surprisingly universal.
Of course, the Disney illusion is not easy to maintain. Being a Disneyland employee is infamously challenging, and a great deal of money goes into keeping the park fresh, clean, and operational. Nor is a visit cheap these days – a couple days at the parks will set a family back a tidy sum. But I for one am glad these parks exist, and as a new dad, I can’t wait to experience Disneyland through the eyes of my daughter. One day, maybe she’ll be the one having dreams of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Usually, she’ll have to wake up and go to school just like any other day. But every once in a while, those dreams will come true. That’s what makes Disneyland the Happiest Story World on Earth.
Brad Kane writes for and about the entertainment industry, focusing on storytelling in movies, TV, games, and more. If you enjoyed this article, you can follow him on Twitter, like Story Worlds on Facebook, or check out his website which archives the Story Worlds series.