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Bee with Bethanee Bemis: New Book Announcement and reflecting on Disney Theme Parks

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

By Bee Eldridge

 

Welcome to the first instalment of Bee With...


This new segment series highlights new and upcoming Disney works to aid in promoting such fantastic work being done in the field.


Recently, I was lucky enough to snag a brief interview with Bethanee Bemis to discuss her latest book Disney Theme Parks and America's National Narratives: Mirror, Mirror, for Us All (2023).

Bethanee Bemis is a public historian who focuses on meaning-making in American ceremonial spaces. Her work on the Disney theme parks has appeared in The Public Historian, White House Historical Quarterly, and Smithsonian Magazine.


Now, being the sucker that I am for a good title and all things Disney, I immediately gravitated towards this work. While reading it, I was thrilled to see that it delves into Disney as a creator of American folk history, ideals, and identity through the materialisation of the theme parks. I was hooked.


So, when speaking with Bethanee, I began with the most important question of all:


Bee: What's your favourite attraction at any Disney theme park?


Bethanee: The PeopleMover! I could ride it all day.

(For those who don't know, PeopleMover has a complex history and has undergone a few name changes. Recently, it was refurbished in 2022 and is located in the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland).


But now, my dear reader, I must admit - it has been 13 years since I last went to a Disney theme park - and they have changed. However, the Jungle Cruise and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster are still around, and they are my top two favourite attractions.


With that imperative question out of the way and my mind at ease, we were able to get to business and speak more about Disney's Theme Parks and America's National Narratives (2023).


Bee: Moving onto some more challenging questions - with Disney being an ingrained symbol of 'American identity,' how does your work approach this, as well as Disney being a purveyor of American folklore?


Bethanee: So much of Disney historiography spends time unpacking the potential ramifications of Disney being an American symbol, but I didn’t find enough that talked about why that might be. So, the first half of my book tries to tie together a few important moments in the Walt Disney Company’s 100-year history to offer what I think gave Disney the power they have in American culture today. The second half of the book really looks at how the way that Disney represents American culture in their parks has changed over time and the forces that influence that change.

(Bethanne's work has an excellent section on Gay Days)

Bee: That's really interesting. Your work then delves into the cause and effect of Disney's purveyance of American culture. However, within the book, you also touch upon the American dream and the American identity. How relevant do you think this work is in relation to the current debates going on in the United States, such as those on identity, culture, and history - particularly in relation to Disney and its theme parks?

Bethanee: Disney Parks and products can be read as bellwethers of national culture. What we see throughout company history is that the company is often on the cusp of or crest of waves of social change. When changes in the way minorities are presented happen at a place like Disney, it’s usually a good indicator that the way America as a whole relates to depictions of people - specifically, who they want to see visualized as American in this most American of spaces - and how that is (or isn’t) changing.

Bee: Disney's changes in their parks would then indicate a shift in what they define as 'American.' I think this is very important when discussing rides such as Splash Mountain. This brings me to the hardest question that I have for you today, and it may be one you've already gotten, but with Disney's products being so influential on American culture as well as the visit to any Disney theme park being a right of passage as an American child, what are your brief thoughts on the Splash Mountain ride closing?


Bethanee: I think that the discourse over the closing will provide a very interesting and fruitful topic for researchers, especially with how it does or does not bear out against the ultimate result of the larger cultural moment. It’s also interesting to place the history of calls for Splash’s closing or re-theming against the history of civil rights struggles and what was happening outside of Disney’s berms when calls for change intensified.

Bee: I look forward to seeing and reading the research on it, and hopefully, we will see more positive changes in Disney theme parks in the future. Unfortunately, this brings me to my final question. I promise this one's a bit easier - What do you hope your readers take away from this work?


Bethanee: With regards to fellow academics, I hope that this book will help them to see Disney, especially the parks, in a new light. While DisNet members probably don’t automatically cast Disney in a negative role, culturally speaking, many academics still do, and I don’t think that fosters fruitful discussion, either with Disney or with the public.
With regards to Disney fans, I hope that they see that their fandom has meaning and that it deserves to be taken seriously.

I couldn't have said it better myself. I would like to thank Bethanee for taking the time to sit and answer my questions.




 

BUT WAIT! Just like every Marvel movie, there's more...


We are so excited to promote new and upcoming Disney scholarship that Bethanee Bemis will be speaking about her work during the first DisNet Book Launch event!


To celebrate the release of her new book, Disney Theme Parks and America’s National Narratives: Mirror, Mirror, for Us All, Sasha Coles will be in conversation with Bethanee Bemis to discuss her explorations of Disney theme parks as "touchstones of identity" in American culture.


Please join us by signing up for the FREE event here:




 

If you love all things Disney, if you had a presentation that you would love to see written down (and citable) come out into the world, email Bee! Check out our Want to Write for DisNet post.


(Bee's email is also disnetblog@gmail.com)


 

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