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Disney's Newest Attraction Turns Cars into Fantasy

Josh Stephens on
Jun 6, 2012

Just as new policies are arising in California to wean Californians off their cars, a force more powerful than public policy has arisen to get the next generation all amped up about driving. No, gas prices haven't plummeted and high speed rail isn't dead (yet). Those would be child's play compared to Cars Land -- the newest "world" at Disney's California Adventure theme park. 

Forget the old Autopia ride, which was basically a string of glorified golf carts putting down a track. According to its website, Cars Land re-creates seemingly the entire landscape of the American West and sends cartoony roadsters bounding over ravines and along canyon walls. Kids can scamper among jalopies, jeeps, and low-riders, and then have a milkshake at a roadside diner.

It may remind you of a movie you've seen. It was called Cars. 

I spend enough time bounding over nothing while I'm idle on the 10 Freeway, so I don't think I'll be engaging in this particular fantasy. But I have a feeling that millions of kids have other ideas. They're going to clamber aboard and experience a thrill unlike anything they've ever experienced before. Unless they've ever ridden in a real car before. 

Cars Land could make driving cool in a way that we haven't seen since James Dean. Well, OK, Paul Newman. Maybe Steve McQueen. Or Burt Reynolds. And David Hasslehoff. And Dale, Jr. Hey Girl, Ryan Gosling grabs a mean gearshift too. 

Oh, never mind. 

Given that cars have been cool for the past 100 years or so, I guess Cars Land isn't going to leave any impressions that aren't already there. In fact, given Disney's track record with Americana, Cars Land, which opens June 15, might actually herald good things for the real California. 

Disneyland inspired lot of interesting 1980s urban theory, which celebrated the eerie unreality of the place. Fresh off Space Mountain (and who knows what else), Jean Beaudrillard theorized that Disneyland created a copy of the real world--and yet, is also in the real world. Disneyland is a place and the idea of a place all at once. I, for one, never bought into this notion of hyper-reality, which Bauldrillard refers to as "simulacrum," meaning a copy without an original. I have never for a moment believed I was in anything other than an enormous diorama. 

(California Adventure takes this idea to a new extreme, by re-creating famous sites in California, as if visitors couldn't just visit the actual sites themselves. It even includes replicas of old Los Angeles landmarks, including the Carthay Circle movie theater and the streamline modern masterpiece Pan Pacific Auditorium. The thought of seeing buildings that really ought to still exist sounds, to me, more depressing than It's a Small World.)

For those of us who can neither suspend our disbelief nor stomach too much poststructural theory, Disneyland as a magical place isn't so interesting. But Disneyland as an archeological site is another matter entirely. 

With the possible exception of Fantasyland, each of the other five "lands" in the original Disneyland park--Adventure-, Tomorrow-, Frontier-, and Main Street, USA---was grounded in something resembling reality. Even Tomorrowland drew inspiration from the conquest of space during the Cold War. 

Notably, this is archive of places we've lost, sometimes in tragically ironic ways. The rainforest is retreating and conquered the frontier. Fairy princesses have given way to Snookie and Khloe, and tomorrow has come and gone.

Main Street, USA troubles me the most, since it celebrated the classic American main street at the very moment when small town life was giving way to suburban life (thanks, in part, to the car). The Happiest Place on Earth is, in short, a graveyard of American ideals. 

There's an argument to be made that Disney actually contributed to the decline of main street America, by introducing mass-produced entertainment that degraded community life, but that's beside the point. What's more salient is that Disney may be on to something with its uncanny ability to predict, and create, nostalgia.

I'm sure that at one point the demise of the frontier, the jungle, and manned space flight seemed preposterous. It could be that, in the near future, driving and automobiles will also lose their luster and that they'll be best enjoyed in amusements parks rather than on I-5 at rush hour. 

If that's the case, then Cars Land may flip Baudrillard's simulacrum on its head: the real world might actually become better than the fake one. 

Even in light of that rosy notion, I confess that I'm still not excited to visit Anaheim anytime soon. But I'm sure plenty of other people are. I wonder how they'll all get there? 

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