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Book Review, Current Issue, Vol. 34 No. 1

Performance and the Disney Theme Park Experience: The Tourist as Actor

Performance and the Disney Theme Park Experience: The Tourist as Actor.  Jennifer A. Kokai and Tom Robson, eds. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019; Pp. 292.

Performance and the Disney Theme Park Experience: The Tourist as Actor brings attention to Disney tourism as a significant site of theatre and performance study, particularly immersive and participatory theatre. By placing the idea of “tourists as actors” at the center of analysis, this multi-author collection helps readers to understand Disney’s experience economy and goods through the lens of theatre and stretches the definition of “actor,” charging it with more cultural and societal connotations.

Just as tourists at Disney can decide their own way to navigate the theme parks, readers here can decide how to approach this book: follow the order of the chapters or jump from one chapter to another, connecting the dots themselves to chart an interdisciplinary journey of the quintessential American theme park experience. Thirteen chapters are divided into five sections based on analogous subjects and methodologies: “Introduction,” “Time, Tomorrowland, and Fantasy,” “Environments as Ideologies,” “Liveness and Audio-Animation,” and “Counter Identities.” In the introduction, editors Jennifer A. Kokai and Tom Robson borrow David Allen’s concept of the “tourist as actor” to challenge the stereotype of passive guests who lose their control in the “Disney virus” made of “artificiality, consumerism, and lack of depth” (6). This concept calls attention to the guest’s autonomy and agency—tourists are actually agentive subjects; they consume the illusive Disney experience with self-awareness and an understanding of how that illusion is constructed, scripted, and delivered.

The subsequent four sections discuss how tourists take on their role as actors through “complicated negotiations with race, gender, sexuality, capitalism, nationality” (19). The first section, “Time, Tomorrowland, and Fantasy,” explores the dissolution of linear time and performed temporalities. Tom Robson’s opening essay excavates nostalgic time travel in Main Street and Tomorrowland installations of Disney World Park. In this signature essay, Robson investigates how the Main Street serves as a theatrical lobby, where guests transform from citizen to tourist to actor, detaching from real-time as well as the normative behavior in their everyday lives. Attuned to historical erasures, Victoria Pettersen Lantz delineates four problematic portrayals of indigenous Americans in the Disney narrative of consumerism, critiquing the romanticized representations and staging indexical absence of First Nation peoples. The section closes with Christina Gutierrez-Dennehy’s illuminating essay about “inserting the values of Middle Class America into the European Middle Ages”; as she notes, the pricy ticket and food in Fantasyland crafts the participatory experience of tourists as actors specifically for the white middle-class, making the experience a privileged act, or at least, an exclusive one (66).

Section two, “Environments as Ideologies,” considers how Disney creates a reality game through the use of characters and landscapes. This reality game, “does not simulate the ‘real’; rather, it celebrates the art of simulation, or the ability to construct fantasy worlds as if they are ‘real’” (93). Jennifer A. Kokai’s essay, “The Nemofication of Nature, Animals, Artificiality, and Affect at Disney World,” succinctly criticizes the depiction of nature as “controllable, consumable, and even constructible good that is superior to geographically occurring nature” in her historical investigation into the evolution of The Living Seas to The Seas with Nemo and Friends (102). Kokai asserts that such problematic depictions further reinforce the stereotypes of increasing anthropomorphism and human estrangement from nature. This section also features Chase A. Bringardner’s essay about the Splash Mountain attraction, which details the erasure of racial narratives and identities in Song of the South as well as problematic queer representations of Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. The section closes with Laura MacDonald’s insightful essay on Shanghai Disneyland and its mantra “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese” (128). Through the strategy of a “glocalized” Broadway-branded musical, for instance, on the one hand, The Lion King in Mandarin with its all-Chinese cast, enables local consumers to appreciate the familiar Chinese elements, while satisfying the Western fantasy and global experience on the other. As such, they are rehearsed to “feel” authentic and become normative guests who contribute to Disney’s rising enterprise in the East.

The third section, “Liveness and Audio-Animation,” explores the non-human and human performers in Disney Park and how they interact with tourists, shaping guest performances in changing contexts. This section begins with Li Cornfeld’s illuminating essay about the must-see, yet boring auto-animatronic robots performing in The Carousel Theater of Progress. These once-futuristic robots were originally featured as a prelude to an expo of forthcoming General Electric products introduced in 1975, and a portrayal of American families enjoying advances in household technology. Yet, decades later, the once-futurist robots now function as objects of cultural nostalgia. Cornfeld uses the robot dramaturgy, such as the asymmetrical aging of the Carousel cast, to showcase how Disney naturalizes its historical vision. Joseph R. D’Ambrosi focuses instead on how non-human performers create an idealized way of behaving for human beings. Drawing upon Jill Dolan’s notion of utopian performativity, D’Ambrosi proposes the term “prescriptive performativity” to describe the forms and functions of Disney’s utopian framework in a case study on the Audio-Animatronic actors in the Hall of Presidents. The final essay by Maria Patrice Amon shifts our attention from non-human actors to human ones. Amon explores how space and narrative in the Magic Kingdom construct a melodramatic imagination for the guests, encouraging and even teaching them to participate in this alluring environment as actors.

The fourth section, “Counter Identities,” explores how the tourist-as-actor evolves over time and influences Disney’s audience today. Jill Anne Morries’s refreshing essay outlines the history of gated amusement parks from Luna Park to Disneyland to argue that the pay-one-price ticket shifts our attention from racial exclusion to class construction—everyone is welcomed as long as they can afford the tickets, which actually feeds colorblind racism and requires more ethical reexamination. Christen Mandracchia, in turn, focuses on the villain characters in Disneyland including the Big Bad Wolf, the Evil Queen, and Captain Hook, attuned to the ethics of their representation. Dismantling the dichotomy of good and bad, Mandracchia brilliantly explores how bad characters are normalized and celebrated as good in merchandise, attractions, and events. This fascinating section ends with Elizabeth Schiffler’s analysis of Disney’s radical consumers from Disneyland Social Club to subcultures, such as the communities attending Bats Day or Gays Day. Schiffler argues that the tourists and subcultural fans deploy agency to re-cast specific characters as their heroes, which changes their reception and meaning.

Building on Maurya Wickstrom’s conception of the “Disney brandscape,” Susan Bennett closes the book by proposing the term “exemplary Disney” to scrutinize how the theme park “has provided a stage for conceiving and realizing (as well as regularly updating) performance practices, contexts, and markets” (269). This edited collection is a worthy addition to popular cultural studies, tourism, environmental studies, and theatre and performance scholarship. Accessible and interdisciplinary, Performance and the Disney Theme Park Experience contributes significant American nuances to the scholarship of immersive, interactive, and participatory theatre, a realm that is predominantly occupied by British and European scholars.

Hui Peng
The Graduate Center, City University of New York

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 34, Number 1 (Fall 2021)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2021 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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