It is true that the majority of Western kids cannot make it to their teen years without acquiring at least a familiarity with Disney's films and images. Most love it in its various manifestations, whether growing up in the 50's to the Disneyland television show and the Mickey Mouse Club or in the 80's to Ducktales and Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers or in the present day to Pirates of the Caribbean and High School Musical.
Growing up, most teenagers shed their childhood interests in a desperate attempt to act as though being cynical and contrarian made them something approximate to adults. Disney becomes lame kid's stuff, Disneyland a nightmare of endless garish horrors that one is forced to endure with their families (who are also, of course, lame). If they have to go to an amusement park, at least let it be somewhere with great roller coasters and no gross princesses.
Eventually they grow out of this phase into actual adulthood, and from there divert into a number of different streams. Some get over their contempt for Disney altogether and embrace it anew. Some trade in Disneyland, which is still considered for kids, for the adult versions like Las Vegas and all-inclusive resorts in the Bahamas. Some translate their thinking Disneyland is lame into thinking that Disneyland is dangerous, symbolic of all that is evil in American transnational corporate conglomerates. A recent book on globalization and its problems used Mickey Mouse's famous silhouette as a marker for a world brought under the thumb of greed and monoculture... A benign Satan compared to the likes of oil companies and technocrats. Disney peddles in images, and so its images become easy symbolic targets even if it's a relatively ill fit.
This is not to say that Walt Disney's vision was not without its faults. With a new awareness of technology and the distance of time and sober consideration, it is easy enough to see where Uncle Walt's ideas were, in fact, quite dangerous. Consider the kind of unquestionable centralized authority required to create a highway in which all the cars drove themselves, stations were able to use rockets to change the weather or a man could build an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow without a single thought given to due democratic process. It's easy, though, to pick on the undelivered pie-in-the-sky ambitions of a man gone 40 years past, and most prefer to leave him gently buried.
Instead, a frequently heard refrain is that Disneyland is fake... Its rides are cheap and its food is not. It's a sham, a lie, an illusion masquerading as hyperreality, a dream machine engineered to separate the gullible from their money. It suffers that most dire sin of a pre-postmodern society wrapped up in existential navel-gazing: Disneyland is inauthentic.
Ironically, authenticity is an inauthentic concept. Almost entirely unique to the socially-collapsing West, authenticity and the quest for it is an extremely fluid and negotiable quantity. As Erik Cohen notes in his insightful essay Authenticity and Commoditization in Tourism,
The vast majority of tourists do not demand such a "total authenticity." Even "experiential" tourists, though seriously concerned with the authenticity of their experience, and entertaining strict criteria for judgments of authenticity, will often focus in such judgments on some traits of the cultural product and ignore others.
He is reacting against one of the most popular narratives of travel: that there is a fundamental qualitative difference between the authentic traveler and inauthentic mere tourist. Even the most respected and otherwise insightful thinkers fall into this trap. For instance, Daniel J. Boorstin says "The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes 'sight-seeing.'" Even the mighty G.K. Chesterton does, declaring that "The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see."
The ultimate truth is that both are tourists, whether they like it or not. The only difference is in what "traits of the cultural product" they consider critical for authenticity. Cohen asks,
Which are the diacritical traits which, for a given individual, in particular a tourist, make a cultural product acceptable as "authentic"? The question is not whether the individual does or does not "really" have an authentic experience... but rather what endows his experience with authenticity in his own view.
Why the distinction? Because authenticity is necessarily individualistic, as it is rooted in the relative disenfranchisement (or lack thereof) of the individual from the society of which they are a part. It is the Holy Grail of their own search for meaning in the world and in their engagement with alternative cultures. Often, it is negotiated with utter obliviousness to "which traits of their own culture [the tourees themselves] consider to be 'authentic'", which is an issue that "is rarely, if ever raised." Some of the most stringent searchers for authenticity can be the most damaging, arrogantly expecting "traditional" cultures around the world to stay in a kind of anthropological purity as defined by them for their benefit, rather than embrace the practices and products of the "inauthentic" Western world. Authenticity in the matter of personal experience, then, is subjective.
If authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, then what are people seeing when they look at Disneyland? One might suggest that it is a confusion of form and content. When critics argue against Disneyland on the grounds of authenticity, they essentially argue that the park's content is cheap rides, expensive food, gaudy souvenirs and rampant corporate consumerism while its form is the jungles of Adventureland, the Old West of Frontierland, the fairy land of Fantasyland and the outer space of Tomorrowland. In making this argument, they might as well insist that a novel's content is words printed on bound paper and it's form is the drama of Captain Nemo or Oliver Twist, or the content of a human being is three packets of salt and a bucketful of water governed by selfish genes while its form is its thoughts, feelings, spirit, ambitions, actions, relationships and everything that we classically consider to be what makes us humans.
The theme park is a wonderful type of experiential media. It's not "new" insofar as people have been manipulating the environment to evoke emotions and inspire imagination since we painted woolly mammoths on cave walls. Ancient Egyptians retold their creation stories as one walked through their temples. Gothic architects drew the eye piously to Heaven by their magnificent arches and buttresses. Exhibit designers lit on something profound when they started designing their museums to replicate the rainforest, log cabin and undersea grotto. Disneyland follows in the long tradition of our evolutionary inheritance: spatial awareness and opposable thumbs.
Therefore the critic has it completely reversed. The form of Disneyland is the amusement park with its rides and trinkets and screaming children and sunstroked adults. The content, that which can inspire such a love of subject as enjoyed by true believers young and old, is the jungle, the Old West, outer space, fairyland. As Cohen notes, what projects the air of authenticity for the largest number of tourists is what the great travelers may consider its direct antithesis: verisimilitude... A recreation of "what it must be like" to ride a paddlewheel steamer down the Mississippi of a century ago or careen through space in an out-of-control spaceship.
There are parts of Disneyland which, it could be argued, the "real life" version would be better. Why take in the sham artifice of Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye when you could fight equally large throngs of tourists at a mutually acknowledged "authentic" temple somewhere in Southeast Asia? Unless the point is to go along with Dr. Jones in that romantic period of the 1930's. We readily advocate going beyond the park to experience as closely as possible the factual inspirations, be they the words of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault or the landscapes of the American Southwest and African rainforest. The truth is that Disney shines its brightest when it takes the visitor to those places that no longer exist or never did exist in fact. At no point in time or space can one walk into a Hawaiian hut overflowing with singing orchids and chanting tiki statues, tour a decrepit New Orleans plantation teeming with frolicking ghosts, fly a pirate ship over midnight London and celestial Neverland, or sail beneath the waves in a cast-iron Victorian submarine.
This can be done at Disneyland, at least through the springboard that the theme park provides for the imagination. Like a novel or a film or even a piece of DIY handiwork, Disneyland is the medium which inspires the participant to invest themselves in an imaginative flight of fancy. A fibreglass pirate ship suspended by wire from a rail, hovering over a blacklit miniature model of London is a convincing enough means for the guest to take the next leap in imagining that "this is what it must be like" to fly with the boy who never grew up. For those with a particularly acute sensitivity to visual-spatial awareness, it is even the ultimate form of media. Reading it is one thing, seeing it on film is another, doing it yourself, as closely as is possible in this world, is the best of all.
Perhaps this is what the cynical, contrarian and critical don't quite "get" about the whole thing. Form and content are confused so that one sees contrived artifice where one is meant to see an endless ocean of stars, and wish upon them.