As hotbeds of political subversion go, Disneyland has never struck me as particularly high on the list. But a funny thing happened when I visited the amusement park in December.
My sister, her husband, and three children were visiting from their home in Australia. On the Saturday before Christmas, we were gathered in Disney California Adventure—a 2001-era addition to the original Disneyland theme park. It was nearing noon on an overcast morning, and we were waiting for the “Viva Navidad Party” parade to begin. My mom, bless her, had secured warm pretzels to pass around, plus two Micheladas—a Mexican shandy that combines Clamato, lime juice, beer, and a spicy salted rim—for the grown-ups.
At noon, right on schedule, men in giant sombreros and little bolero jackets emerged with women in giant red skirts, their black hair shellacked into tight braids.
“Fies-taaaaa!” pealed the music, seemingly from the sky, as the dancers led a rolling stage atop which a sombrero-ed Donald Duck and Jose Carioca danced. The men tapped their caballero-heeled boots on the street as the women swirled their skirts around them. Mariachis strummed guitars and blasted their trumpets to a medley of ”Feliz Navidad” and “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime.” As Minnie Mouse strode past, waving in a folksy magenta striped dress, my heart swelled a little. And an unexpected phrase popped into my mind:
“Fuck Trump,” I thought.
And then I couldn’t stop. “Fuck Trump,” I thought, as the Mexican dancers smiled broadly at the children who lined the spectacle. “Fuck Trump,” I thought, when my sister pointed out the elderly man in a wheelchair, wearing Mickey Mouse-ears and clapping along. “Fuck Trump,” I thought, when Afro-Brazilian drummers and dancers in Bahiana-style turbans joined the parade, and we all started to dance along. And when a grinning rickshaw driver in pedaled past with Minnie in the back while his compatriot waved a “Feliz Navidad” flag, all I could think was: “Fuck Trump.”
On Disneyland’s opening day in 1955, Walt Disney dedicated his park to “the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America.” But he probably never intended to present it as a liberal globalist utopia. As The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg recently wrote, the Walt Disney company has long “maintained its association with fantasy and fun by avoiding political turbulence whenever possible.” And Disney himself was not particularly progressive when it came to politics; he was an anti-Communist accused of anti-Semitism, sexism, and racism, who some claim was an FBI informant.
But today, the park is necessarily colored by its location in California—the land of diversity and progressive values, where liberal policies on immigration, minimum wage, gun laws, and recreational marijuana stand in stark opposition to those of the Trump administration. Some state leaders have gone so far as say that the administration is declaring ”war on California,” given its slew of announcements in the new year regarding everything from increasing deportation officers to opening offshore drilling and enforcing federal marijuana prohibition.And in the upside-down universe that is Trump’s America, where basic values of civility and inclusivity are challenged daily, Disneyland itself has taken on tones of glorious repudiation.
If California is the center of the resistance to Trump’s belligerent nationalism, then Disneyland is our cartoon city upon a hill. Here, we celebrate the contributions of immigrants. We make fiestas wheelchair-accessible. We put Micheladas on the menu. A few of us may even be a little bit stoned.
At Disneyland, multiculturalism is impossible to ignore. While we lunched on tacos, spaghetti, and corn dogs (America!), a Spanish-language rock band played “Donde Esta, Santa Claus?” That isn’t really novel in a state that is nearly 40% Latino. But with a president in office who’s pledged to build an impenetrable wall between the US and Mexico and to deport undocumented immigrants—which number some 2.3 million in California, the vast majority of which are Mexican—it smacked of gleeful defiance.
Perhaps no attraction sang “Fuck Trump” quite as adorably as the slow boat through the glittering kingdom of “It’s a Small World,” where smiling animatronic cherubs dressed in traditional native garb—dirndls, grass skirts, thawbs, saris, kimonos, and more—chirped lyrics like: “There is just one moon and one golden sun; and a smile means friendship to everyone. Though the mountains divide, and the oceans are wide, it’s a small world after all!”
I’ve since learned that Disney conceived the ride for the 1964 New York World’s Fair in honor of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and subsequently brought it back to California, where it became so adored that it was replicated in every Disney park worldwide. The genial ride made an appropriate tribute to the UN, an international organization whose charter calls for its members to maintain global peace and “develop friendly relations among nations based on respect.” It’s taken on fresh significance in the wake of Trump, who used the UN podium in September to hurl epithets at Kim Jong-un, threaten to “totally destroy North Korea,” and declare: “I will always put America first.”
The park’s emphasis on nature also felt like a rejoinder to an administration that casts doubt on climate change science, and has vowed to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. At Grizzly Peak, America’s national parks are celebrated in a digestibly Disney fashion, complete with evergreens, river rapids, and, yes, an artificial mountain resembling a bear—not unlike the national monument at Bears Ears, Utah, which Trump has cut by a cool million acres. Grizzly Peak pays homage to the spirit of outdoor exploration with zip-lines, lookout towers, and a vintage butter yellow Rambler station wagon with a canoe strapped on top. Nowhere did I observe coal mines, oil derricks, or lumber yards—which I most certainly would in Trumpland.
At the Disney Animation Studio, we chatted with Crush, the cartoon turtle from Finding Dory, who frankly seems the sort that would be pretty stoked on California’s legalization of recreational marijuana. We talked surf spots and sea grass, just days before the US president proposed opening offshore drilling that California State Senate leader Kevin de León called an assault on “our pristine coastline.”
At the day’s end, we gathered in the dark for the fireworks, smooshed shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. Some children drooped on their parents’ shoulders, exhausted from a day of sugar and adrenaline, while others simply laid down on the pavement.
At Trump’s rallies on his road to the White House, he invoked nostalgia amongst his supporters for a mythical America where life was better. Disney does something similar with the Magic Kingdom—to a very different effect. My sister and I laughed at the flagrant cheesiness when a voice piped through the speakers at the beginning of the fireworks show: Does your heart hold the magic of the holidays? But then Sleeping Beauty’s castle started to shimmer. I watched my nieces’ faces, turned up to the sky along with hundreds of others, lit up by a ballet of fireworks, accompanied by a medley of Christmas carols, Hannukah tunes, and Disney originals. At the end, “White Christmas” began to play, and lo and behold, big white flakes floated down all around us, backlit by blue lights.
When the show was over, the masses shuffled out toward Trump’s America. I might have preferred to stay in Disney’s small world.