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Disneyland: A Reader

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World's Fairs and Expositions

Along with the concept of the Hollywood studio backlot and the faded glory of Coney Island, a set of key influences on the design of Disneyland were the midways and the scientific and ethnological exhibits of the various world fairs and expositions that were popular in the United States from the 1890s to the mid-century. Raymond Weinstein points out that the world's fairs set the stage for the modern amusement park as the commercial attractions and outdoor entertainments of the midways proved to be more popular than the educational and artistic exhibitions. One of Disney's biographers noted that as the idea for an amusement park grew, Disney began attending outdoor attractions of all kinds throughout the United States and Europe such as county fairs, state fairs, circuses, carnivals and the Tivoli Gardens in Denmark. Undoubtedly, the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where Disney's father had worked, and the many world's fairs and expositions that were to follow, also provided fodder for Disneyland's designers.

In his book World of Fairs: the Century-of-Progress Expositions, Robert Rydell points out the significance of the "century of progress" expositions that ringed the United States between the world wars, and the Victorian era world's fairs that preceded them. Rydell argues that America's turn-of-the-century fairs promised not only material abundance but linked these promises to visions of empire. Examples of America's technological superiority, such as dynamos, flush toilets and a model of the Brooklyn Bridge made of soap, were displayed alongside exhibits of so-called "primitive" human beings, centrally placed along the Midway. the effect this had on the broader culture was to conflate ideas of progress and abundance with imperialism, racism and social Darwinism. Rydell argues that world's fairs played a central role in constructing a new vision of society based on consumption and leisure combined with principles of empire rooted in the discourse of scientific racism. 

Along with the modern technological and commercial wonders on display at the fairs, exhibits of ethnological villages, sanctioned by prominent anthropologists, were also offered up for public consumption. The ethnological villages were located along the centrally located entertainment corridor of the Midway, conflating "native" bodies with commercial entertainment. Especially popular during the Columbian and St. Louis expositions was the Philippines Reservation, located adjacent to the American Indian Reservation. The juxtaposition of American imperial prowess, with its expansionist past, within the technological and commercial wonderland of the fair, reinforced social Darwinist notions of white America's racial and cultural superiority. Another popular attraction were the African exhibits that featured native African performers brought from a variety of African nations. While these exhibits attracted visitors through claims of authenticity, African-American performers sometimes substituted for natives from Africa. For example, for the San Francisco Midwinter Fair of 1893, African-American performers, including vaudevillians George Walker and Bert Williams, were substituted for natives from Dahomey when the Africans were late in arriving. By the fairs of the 1930s, Africans had been replaced by African-American performers. 

America's world's fairs were interwoven into daily life before the six months during which they generally were held. Before each fair, state committees began the difficult task of gathering material for display, a process which was covered extensively by newspapers. After each exposition, these materials (both anthropological and commercial) found homes in museums throughout the country. The fairs' vision of materialism and imperialism became part of the broader culture. 
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