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FOODIE RUSTICA: JUNE 2009

The Disney-California connection: So logical.

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Photos: (top to bottom) Disney's California Adventure entrance and a rendering of Walt Disney's vision for a theme park. (Courtesy of disneylandnews.com.)

As a native Californian, I have always been at least somewhat aware of the history of this state. Growing up proud of the flag with the bear and the one red star, I took California history in fourth grade, capped off by my crafting of a sugarcube model of the San Juan Capistrano Mission.

After spending some time recently at Disney’s California Adventure theme park, I went to the little Compass Books store at Downtown Disney in part to see what I might find at a small boutique bookstore that might not otherwise capture my attention at an enormous Barnes and Noble. On display there was a goldenrod paperback book entitled simply California: A History by USC professor and former California State Librarian Kevin Starr. So many years after my fourth grade history class, I felt it was time to give myself a refresher course in the history of my home state.

This scholarly but readable tome begins with California’s ancient history as a Native American tribal homeland, moves to the Spanish Colonial era, then on to the Mexican California period (“Is it part of Mexico or part of the United States?” – To some people the question still lingers.), then on to bona fide statehood after the Gold Rush of 1849 helped the population boom, the earthquakes, the fires, the oil spills, the political wranglings, the racial tensions, the technology boom, etc. It also caught us up (lest we should forget only six years later) with the fact that an iron-pumping Austrian mega-celebrity fought off porn peddlers, punk rock stars, former child actors and more to win, in a “total recall,” the election for the gubernatorial seat in 2003 over sitting governor Gray Davis. California is portrayed as a place where anybody can come and make it big.

As a shining example of someone moving to California and making it big, literally making dreams come true for millions—and interesting connection since I purchased the book at Disneyland—is Walt Disney, the visionary genius who not only told great stories but who envisioned utopia and brought both to his first theme park in Anaheim, which opened in 1955.

Disneyland was not just a place where cartoons came to life and guests were thrust into interactive three-dimensional representations of classic fairy tales, but “a species of city planning that set up a paradigm of value for Orange County and the rest of Southern California. Disneyland suggested that complex urban environments could be deliberately created and orchestrated to incorporate regional and related cultural values," Starr says. "Disneyland assured a newly suburbanizing generation that the values of a more intimate America—small-town America—need not be lost, as was being feared, in the creation of the suburban developments of the postwar era.”

It’s no wonder that I’ll often take a break from the hustle and bustle of “real life” and stroll through Disneyland, sometimes not even going on a ride. But speaking of rides, where does entertainment end and practicality begin? For Walt Disney, the two concepts often blurred. While not the inventor of the monorail, Walt brought the monorail to a much larger audience, with an eye to helping this unique form of transportation spread throughout the non-Disney world.

In 2001, Disney’s California Adventure opened, which now is being further themed to convey to the guests the possibilities Walt himself saw when he moved to the Golden State (and may even have its name extended to “Walt Disney’s California Adventure”). This second Anaheim theme park, in addition to thrilling guests with attractions such as California Screamin’ and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, seeks to educate visitors about California history with numerous informative historical plaques around the park, interactive exhibits (the popular Soarin’ Over California attraction even takes guests on a “flight” over the many varied terrains and landscapes of California) and more. The theme park also has its annual California Food & Wine Festival, which attracts a rather adult crowd, a far cry from the little girls in Princess outfits and little boys in Jack Sparrow garb that you expect to see at Disneyland.

As I finish writing this piece I can hear the Disneyland fireworks at my place in Irvine, approximately fifteen miles away. They serve as a nightly reminder to me of what Starr calls “a text through which we can look back and reexperience the hopes and fears, the beliefs and illusions, of a postwar generation in the throes of creating the place we know as suburban Southern California.”

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