Disney in Class: UC Irvine Associate Professor Teaches A Course Dedicated To Disneyland

Photograph courtesy of UC Irvine

UC Irvine associate professor Roland Betancourt teaches a course on the Magic Kingdom, “Disneyland: Art, Architecture and Operation.” As part of his research, he’s made more than 130 visits to the park and has been to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge several times.

“The class is a survey of Disneyland and trying to put Disneyland into the context of the history of the middle to late 20th century. One of my interests is the history of industry and manufacturing, and how do technologies developed for industries and mass production suddenly turn into amusement ride experiences.”

So his students may learn, for example, that the pirate ships in the Peter Pan Ride travel through Neverland on an overhead conveyer system designed for warehouses, or they can review drawings showing how Splash Mountain’s vehicles were designed to deflect splashes away from riders.

Betancourt is also fascinated with places that create an “unsettling of time and space.” These, he explains, are real places that attempt to take visitors to another place, and can be as varied as Medieval cathedrals, the city of Jerusalem, the Las Vegas Strip and Disneyland.

“(We explore) some of the tactics (Disneyland) uses to try to take you to another place. For example, New Orleans Square tries to put you in New Orleans. There’s always this feeling that you’re aware you’re not there but creating this illusion of, this ‘as-if’ feeling, of almost being there. With Galaxy’s Edge, there’s this idea that you’re visiting another planet.”

“The Imagineers were clearly trying to be very smart in how (Galaxy’s Edge) fit into the Star Wars universe. It very much fits into the timeline of the new movies. One example that cast members like to point out is the fact that Chewbacca has gray hair. So it’s not young Chewbacca, it’s the older Chewbacca.”

Five More Questions with Roland Betancourt

What were your expectations of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and what were your initial impressions?

One of my major expectations both as someone who goes to Disney a lot and who has an academic interest in the park was that I was very interested to see how this land was going to be borrowing techniques and design that we’ve seen in some of the other parks around the world but not necessarily in the California park. I was very interested in how some of the elements of a place like Animal Kingdom would come into play in a place like Galaxy’s Edge. I think that in many ways it was very much what I expected in the sense that a lot of the tactics used in a place like Animal Kingdom to create a sense of an exotic land were definitely deployed. And just hearing how designers of the land have spoken of it definitely very much looking at places in the Mediterranean and the Middle East as a model for the experience of Galaxy’s Edge would be.

How would you describe the atmosphere of Galaxy’s Edge?

There is a sense that you are on a planet occupied by the First Order and so there is an element of dystopia, even with the whole narrative that the jedis are coming back. If you build your lightsaber, you’re technically doing it in secret. So there is this sort of undercover (aspect), less of the heroic Star Wars that we might associate with the original trilogy. So I think in terms of narrative, that dystopian aspect works really well with these tattered flags and so forth. They were very much trying to go with a gritty Star Wars feel, which I think if you compare with something like Star Trek, which is a very clean, utopian future, versus the more Western model of Star Wars.”

What do you think of the response to Galaxy’s Edge so far?

I think everyone has their own theory as to why Galaxy’s Edge isn’t what everyone expected. In many ways, those theories go from Disney did their planning perfectly and therefore were able to avoid the massive crowds to the land doesn’t fit in with the ethos of the park or it’s not Star Wars enough. Placing it in a very smart way in an expanded universe of Star Wars is great because the land works almost like a form of fan fiction. It works in parallel to the universe but you’re not walking through the Death Star, you’re not meeting Darth Vader. I think in may ways for the die-hard Star Wars fan, it might not be Star Wars enough. That’s one very popular critiques of the land.

On the other side of that, for those who idealize Disneyland as a place of childhood wonder, of fantasy, it all seems like a contested terrain where Stormtroopers walk around asking you for you identification card, which might not fit into that. These are definitely tensions that are present.

Your class is about placing Disney’s technology and theming into a broader historical context. How does that fit in with your work as a scholar of the Byzantine world?

The thing that I like to say is that the Byzantines were very fond of what we would call animatronics today. We have stories that they were very interested in various forms of automata, from the elevating throne of the emperor to a tree full of birds that would chirp according to their different species through the pumping of pneumatic air, which of course sounds very similar to Disney’s animatronics of the Tiki Room. A nice fortuitous parallel there.

As an art historian, I’m very interested in understanding how art isn’t just a painting on a wall but rather that there are rituals and prophesies and operating guidelines that go behind how you use works of art in the Middle Ages. That’s where my interest in Disney comes toward this aspect of technology, understanding how the visual world is put to use and what systems and behaviors are scripted into that as well.

How long have you been teaching about Disneyland?

I taught the first course this past year but in the fall of 2017, I taught a graduate seminar on themed spaces called Simulacral Spaces. One of the great things about being a scholar is that you definitely exist in a community and I think everyone who knows me as a Medievalist believes this is a very logical topic given my interest. Also (with) Disney, there are a lot of people who are interested in different parts of the history. That has opened up a new community of scholars, which has been a wonderful part of this experience, feeling very welcomed and getting a chance to meet people who are working on various parts of the history of Disneyland.

Check out the rest of our ‘Lightspeed to Disneyland!’ cover story at this page, which will be updated throughout the month.

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