New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?
This is the question posed by Spring For Music’s blog contest for the best arts blogger challenge. I don’t write a traditional arts blog and there are many who would consider the idea of Disney theme parks as “art” as something to be sneered upon. However, despite the fact that I live and work in theater in New York City, as could be expected, I’m going to have to make an argument for the center of culture in America being in Orlando, Florida. When speaking of culture in the arts world, there is often an assumption that culture should imply “high art” and not “pop culture”. America at its artistic heart has, in my opinion, always had a thriving popular culture and that popular culture has proven its greatest contribution to the world. I am arguing Orlando as the center of culture in America (though of course similar arguments could be made for the LA/Anaheim area) because American culture is popular culture and the various theme parks of the greater Orlando area embody the popular aspect of our artistic culture. I see Orlando, and yes, Disney World, as the heart of American culture in part based on the sheer number of people it reaches, but more importantly on the influence that the various theme parks and other Orlando based attractions has on the average person and children on what to expect from the performances that they see later and on. For better or worse, the Orlando area is a top tourist attraction for both Americans and international visitors (even more so than the LA/Anaheim parks). While many people come to New York and maybe catch a Broadway musical, once a visitor or family is in the Orlando theme parks, they are there for an all inclusive cultural experience, from live performances and rides to themed dining and pyrotechnics. The end result is that more people have seen Disney’s Hoop De Doo Musical Revue dinner show than have seen almost any Broadway show or tour (except maybe Phantom of the Opera) and certainly more than any off-Broadway performance.
So what then do the theme parks of Orlando provide culturally? Between the various theme parks it allows two important things, the ability to create one’s own experience and the option of immersive escapism. So many of the narratives that fuel Disney, Universal, and Sea World are drawn from other sources and remade into something that adds an American cultural twist, whether it be in altering the narrative itself (see all those Disney princess movies) or the more cynical gross commercialization of a narrative (oh wait, there’s those princesses again!). No matter what, between the shows, rides, and immersive park experience that isolates you from the rest of the world, there is always a happy ending and often a popular theme that provides a universal experience that everyone can latch on to. It is unsurprising that in building the Harry Potter section of Universal Studios Orlando that the designers went for the kind of experience, already present at Disney, where the entirety of the experience is housed in a fully imagined and detailed space. Nor is it surprising that as with so many of the properties used by Universal and Disney that aspects of the films it draws from (see for instance that wild ride in Gringott’s Bank) seem to be crying out to become a theme park ride. It’s also important to mention the element of nostalgia and a type of moral education that is particularly relevant to the experience that these theme parks provide. From the familiar music, the sense of old-time American patriotism, and the stories we are all familiar with, the experience of going to one of the parks is meant to wrap you in a feel-good moment. I think this focus on nostalgia and a narrative with a universal center (whether it is about sharing with Winnie the Pooh, dreaming with Cinderella or protecting the animals of the world at the Animal Kingdom) is something that audiences seek in the revivals and new plays that they prefer. Tapping into a universal idea is something Disney in particular does well, and it allows the visitors to feel like they are a part of the manufactured world around them and thus provide their own sense of reality.
Historically there is a definite argument to be made for the evolution of the kind of theme park that Walt Disney created from the popular performance forms of Vaudeville, Circus and Wild West Shows of the earlier part of the 20th century. Today though I see influence coming from the opposite direction where shows today aspire toward a more heightened artistic version of the kind of experience offered at Disney World. I don’t wish to take away anything from the wonderful working playwrights, musicians, etc. of New York who continue to create masterful works, push boundaries and explore new things and provide voices to numerous problems and narratives that need to be told. However, even taking a quick glance around the Broadway and Off-Broadway world I can see the influence of theme parks. I regularly hear complaints of the Disneyfication of 42nd St. but Disney theatrical is hardly the culprit. One need only look at Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark to see the desire for theme park spectacle. In fact I would argue that shows like the Finding Nemo musical are actually more artistically sound and provide a more coherent narrative than that particular piece. In a more interesting way I would argue the popularity of a show like Sleep No More is in keeping with the desire that we have developed to control our own experiences. We seek to be enveloped by the experience, but still maintain the illusion of control in what we are seeing. This idea of envelopment in a world and detail I think can also be seen more subtly in the ways in which stage design has moved from being self contained behind the proscenium wall to becoming all encompassing as in recent productions of Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson and Follies on Broadway. The theme parks also frequently serve as a training ground for actors, dancers, singers, directors and designers who later go on to perform around the country.
I’m sure if I looked I could find the exact numbers for the families that go to Disney World at least once in their children’s lifetimes, but we probably all know more people in our lives who have gone at some point than haven’t. I see in looking at the shows around me that there has been a movement since the opening of Disney World in the 1970s towards bigger and more spectacular shows, more experiences that involve the audience (whether sitting on stage, or bringing them into a part of the show) and allow them to feel like they are a part of what is being presented. Is it the cultural center of America? Well, you can be the judge of that depending on your definition of culture. I for one though do see it as the heart of American popular culture. While it may not be the creator of new pieces, the influence on audiences and their expectations has shaped the performance culture they expect.
You can view other people's response to this question from the link at Spring For Music. You can also vote for your favorite entries there until Thursday the 29th at noon.