For more than a half-century, Disneyland has been Southern California’s top tourist draw and an iconic cultural landmark recognized—and replicated—around the world.
Last month, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened. The original park’s first major expansion since the 1990s, it’s an entire “land” dedicated to the Star Wars universe, which Disney has overseen since 2012.
To find out more about the new attraction, and what’s made Disneyland so successful in the first place, Curbed caught up with Roland Betancourt, a professor of art history at UC Irvine. Betancourt teaches a course on Disneyland, and the park has become a principal focus of his research (he tells UCI News he’s made 130 visits to the park and ridden the Matterhorn more than 600 times).
He visited Galaxy’s Edge for the first time earlier this month.
Curbed: How did you become interested in Disneyland to the point that you now teach a class about the art and architecture of the park?
Roland Betancourt: I am a medievalist by training, and I work primarily on the Byzantine empire. A few years back I thought, “let me do a class that engages the fact that I’m in Southern California.” So I taught a graduate seminar that was basically looking at all sorts of architectures that unsettle time and space. We began thinking about Jerusalem and medieval churches and then moving forward in time to places like Disneyland and Las Vegas. Over the years, it’s become a more sincere research topic.
You recently visited Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. What were your first impressions of the new addition?
I think what everyone’s said is that when you go into Galaxy’s Edge, you do forget you’re in Disneyland. My partner commented that he only remembered he was in Disneyland when he saw a Disneyland security guard walking by. It is so immersive and the experience of it—the approach to spatial design—is very different from what we see in Disneyland.
I don’t think claustrophobia is the right term for it, because it’s very open, but there is a sense that you are in a valley, surrounded by very large structures. That’s very different from what Disneyland has been able to do in its other lands.
Some have raised eyebrows at the park’s embrace of Star Wars, which still doesn’t totally feel like a Disney franchise.
One of the things I always remind myself of is how much of the original Disneyland comes from things that are outside of Disney’s intellectual property. We think about Peter Pan or Snow White. These are, of course, Disney movies, but we often gloss over the fact that these are older stories coming from different sources.
Thinking about Star Wars in that way is very helpful. When you go back to the opening day dark rides—Peter Pan, Snow White, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride—you see an analogous drawing from outside material. And I think that’s what makes Disneyland successful and unique. It draws from different materials and sources.
Disneyland’s also never had a “land” devoted to a single franchise before. How do you think that will affect the park’s identity moving forward?
Returning from Galaxy’s Edge into the park was a more jarring experience than going into it, which says a lot about how successful the space is. It could have easily been its own park. It will be interesting to see how the rest of Disneyland will respond to that, because when you make a bold move and produce something that’s very successful, that means the rest of the park will have to respond to the successes and failures of what you add to it. That response [might be seen] in everything from the Matterhorn and Fantasyland to how the park itself is conceived.
One of the most fascinating things about Disneyland is the park’s ability to draw you in with little details. There’s little structure outside the Jungle Cruise where the glow of lamplight appears in the upper level window at night. It’s not necessary to the ride, but it adds something to the experience.
Yeah, it’s really interesting as a space. Disney is a corporation, and I think what we expect from corporations these days is cutting corners, but that is one of the interesting dynamics of being in Disneyland. You expect these details to disappear, because we’re so used to living in landscapes where those details have disappeared. These are the things that often get cut out.
At Galaxy’s Edge, I really love that they spent a great deal of time producing a leaky pipe that has made the color of the stone change, and has salt accruing on it. Those little details are what I find so compelling—more so than “how accurate is the Millennium Falcon?”
Do you think that’s part of what keeps people coming back? What is it about the park that seems to capture the imaginations of so many diehard fans?
That’s kind of the key question about Disneyland. Anything I say will always be lacking, and I think that’s inherent here. We’ve talked about details, and in places like Galaxy’s Edge, details can do a lot of fan service in the way that they can reference the films and the extended universe of Star Wars.
Another aspect is the idea of theming. Going to Disneyland, there’s this idea that this is where you meet the princesses and you meet Mickey Mouse. But the reality of it, which I think even the children experience on some level, is that you’re not actually there. And so, on some level, you know that you’re as close as you possibly could be to a cartoon. But you’re still not there. I think that tension sort of sparks a sense of desire. You’re walking through Star Wars, but even if you’re meeting Rey, it’s not actually Rey.
It’s similar to icons. When you look at an image of Christ, you might treat it as if it is Christ, or the saint that you are worshipping, but it also at the same time makes you poignantly aware that you are not really with that person—and there’s a sense of loss. I think that feeling of perpetual loss is one of the most captivating aspects [of Disneyland]. You are entering this land of imagination, but that removal is still there.
It’s the “Happiest Place on Earth,” but the experience you’re describing sounds sort of melancholy.
There is an element of melancholy in happiness itself. That’s so crucial to how Disneyland works. There’s an expectation of more that sort of gleams in the horizon—but is not always fully there.