Disneyland to Celebrate 50 Years

The baby boomer Disneyland turns 50 this week. Host Jennifer Ludden talks with marketing expert Adam Hanft about the Magic Kindom's imprint on America and the family vacation.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Once upon a time in America the most your kids could wish for was a two-hour stop at a roadside attraction. Then dreams came true. On Thursday, Disneyland, America's first theme park, turns 50. Adam Hanft says it transformed this country in many ways. He runs his own marketing company and is a columnist for Inc. magazine, and he joins us on the line.

Hi, Mr. Hanft.

Mr. ADAM HANFT (CEO, Hanft Unlimited): How are you?

LUDDEN: Good. What was so different about Disneyland from what had been a typical family vacation?

Mr. HANFT: I think up until that point, adults really planned the vacation, and maybe there were a few activities for kids along the way. But in this postwar environment, when kids became the center of our lives, Disneyland was the perfect vacation because it was built around the child, the child's needs, actually even the child's scale because Main Street was scaled down to about 80 percent of normal height. So everything about the environment was, as we say now but didn't say then, child-friendly.

LUDDEN: Did Walt Disney, though, really make this happen, this shift toward the focus on children, or was this tapping into some shift that was already under way?

Mr. HANFT: He saw, as a great marketer, as an instinctive promoter, what was happening with the demography of postwar America. That was no surprise. And he saw an opportunity to take his vision and, really, encode it in this city that was able to represent all of our postwar fantasies and aspirations and hopes and, also, gave us a way to somehow ground our fears because we can't forget that Disneyland was built right smack in the middle of the height of the Cold War. And this was an opportunity for people to come and escape the pressures outside and feel, even for an illusory few days, that the world was a wonderful, secure place.

LUDDEN: So we have only ourselves to blame for making children the center of our lives?

Mr. HANFT: We have only ourselves to blame for creating, yeah, the hypercompetitive environment that now, in many ways, is an outgrowth of that kind of Spock-like obsession with creating a perfect world for our children.

LUDDEN: You're a marketer. How did Disneyland change what you do?

Mr. HANFT: Disneyland really showed us that a brand could live outside of itself in so many ways. Pretty much everything we see today, from MTV to the way department stores are marketed, even to the way Web sites are marketed, comes from that central proposition that a brand is something bigger than a product; it's a lifestyle, it's a state of mind, it's a collection of ideologies, really.

LUDDEN: Didn't other companies also, though, do this same kind of branding--I mean, cigarettes and car companies? Wasn't that happening at the time?

Mr. HANFT: There had been, at that point, a lot of brands that had, as we call it now, line extensions and other ways to get their product out there. But Disneyland was the first example of really taking a brand that lived in film and, to some extent, in toys and blowing it out across all dimensions.

LUDDEN: You've also said that Disneyland even changed the layout of towns and cities.

Mr. HANFT: Well, I mean, it was no surprise that Disneyland had a Main Street and everything was built around that. That was the prototypical American fantasy of small-town life. And now, 50 years later, if you look at a movement called the new urbanists, for example, who are trying to re-create that more intimate scale of living, in many ways it's extrapolating what Disney built, which was a stylized version of a small town, which existed to some degree but never to the extent that our memories believe it. So, yes, it became a big influence on town planning and the American imagination of what it's like to live in a small environment.

LUDDEN: Adam Hanft is the CEO of Hanft Unlimited, a marketing and branding company. He's also a columnist for Inc. magazine.

Thanks so much.

Mr. HANFT: Thank you.

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