If Scientific Romances have had any great patron in the 20th century, the applause might have to go Walt Disney and the company that bears his name. The resume of Extraordinary Voyages that he has taken us on is quite impressive: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Swiss Family Robinson, In Search of the Castaways, The Island at the Top of the World, The Rocketeer, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet... And those are just the films that can be be said to be directly inspired by Scientific Romances, Imperialist Adventures and Pulp Fiction. What of the theme parks, with the former 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine voyage at Walt Disney World, the Verne-inspired Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris, the 20,000 Leagues-based Mysterious Island at Tokyo Disneysea, or the love affair with nostalgia and steam at Walt's original Disneyland in Anaheim, California? And on top of it all is a wide-eyed enthusiasm that carries through so much, whether it's animation or live action, True Life Adventures or Disneyland, that seems to pull directly at the same heartstrings.
Not that Disney hasn't received criticism for these flights of nostalgic fancy. On the contrary, the name has become synonymous with cheapness and fakery... A sad irony for a man who was driven by perfectionism. Against those who are willing to dismiss these as trite, empty-headed kidstuff, there are always an array of defenders. One of the best is Ray Bradbury, one of the great pioneers of modern Science Fiction, who wrote in response to a blistering review of Disneyland by Julian Halevy. Against such scathing words as "The overwhelming feeling that ones carries away is sadness for the empty lives which accept such tawdry substitutes" and "the pathetic gladness that illuminated [a Jungle Cruise guest's] face as a papier-mache crocodile sank beneath the muddy surface of the ditch was a grim indictment of the way of life for which this feeble sham represented escape and adventure," Bradbury had this to say:
Dear Sirs: I think it goes without saying that I am as critical as you people are of many facets of American life. Lord knows I've raised my voice often enough. But when someone like Julian Halevy equates Disneyland and Las Vegas (The Nation, June 7), I begin to doubt his or my sanity.
Not that I haven't met his type before. The world is full of people who, for intellectual reasons, steadfastly refuse to let go and enjoy themselves. Mr. Halevy damns himself immediately when he states he is glad he didn't take a child with him to Disneyland. I did better than take a child; my first visit, I accompanied one of the greatest theatrical and creative minds of our time, Charles Laughton. I've never had such a day full of zest and good humor. Mr. Laughton is no easy mark; he has a gimlet eye and a searching mind. Yet he saw, and I found, in Disneyland, vast reserves of imagination before untapped in our country.
I admit I approached Disneyland with many intellectual reservations, myself, but these have been banished in my seven visits. Disney makes mistakes; what artist doesn't? But when he flies, he really flies. I shall be indebted to him for a lifetime for his ability to let me fly over midnight London looking down on that fabulous city, in his Peter Pan ride. The Jungle Boat ride, too, is an experience of true delight and wonder. I could go on, but why bother?
I have a sneaking suspicion, after all is said and done, that Mr. Halevy truly loved Disneyland but is not man enough, or child enough, to admit it. I feel sorry for him. He will never travel in space, he will never touch the stars.
In the absence of iron rivet submersibles and aetheric sailing ships, providing a window for the imagination to soar from is a wonderful thing. Ultimately, that is what Disney represents, why the worldwide resorts can credibly advertize themselves as the place "where dreams come true": imagination given the means to be realized, dreams made into reality. Yes the means are corporate and capitalistic, but who of us wouldn't want a Nautilus or a Hyperion? Or at least, the next best thing?
The Disney experience, as it were, is always at its best when it provides that platform for taking us along on trips to places that have never or no longer exist... Into the worlds of Jules Verne and Captain Nemo, along Mark Twain's river in a sternwheeler or Davy Crockett's wilderness in a canoe, flying over Neverland or falling into Wonderland, the pristine wildernesses of the True Life Adventures, waltzing through Sleeping Beauty's Castle, creeping into a Haunted Mansion or bobsledding down the Matterhorn, hitting the candy shoppe along a 19th century main street or blasting into outer space in an 18th century tall ship, into realms of history and nature, adventure and nostalgia.