The Age of Jackson at Disney World: A Different Kind of History Paper
Designing writing assignments is hard. I always ask myself the same questions. How do I create something meaningful for students? Something that piques their interest in history? Something they won’t forget two minutes after they turn it in? I also think of myself. How do I create something that will elicit interesting responses? Something that won’t make me weep tears of boredom while reading paper number 135? I teach at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and I found a solution nearby in an unlikely place: Disney World.
Disney World offers a surprising amount of historical interpretation. For example, Main Street, U.S.A. welcomes Magic Kingdom visitors with a supposedly timeless ideal of small-town American life circa 1900. Over at Epcot, Spaceship Earth, the ride inside the iconic geodesic sphere, chronicles the evolution of communications technology. And at Hollywood Studios, For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Singalong Celebration recounts the history of Arendelle and how an act of true love saved the kingdom. Wait, not that last one. That’s just from a movie. But the show is hosted by characters called “royal historians.” (I wonder if they have tenure?)
I visit Disney World often with my family, and at first, I dismissed Disney’s attempts to teach history as typical Disneyfication, but over time I realized Mickey held the answer to my assignment dilemma. Rather than avoiding Disney’s interpretations of the past, I could ask students to engage explicitly how Disney World teaches history. The Disney angle would draw students in, and then they would be confronted with the need to learn content, make interpretive judgments, and communicate with a general audience in an entertaining way.
As a result, I created a final project assignment for my upper-level class on Jacksonian America based on an attraction called the American Adventure. Located at the America pavilion in the World Showcase area of Epcot, the show uses images, music, and audio-animatronics (Disney robots) to depict key moments in American history from the Puritans to World War II. A musical montage at the end brings the story to the present. (You can find video of the full show on YouTube; a transcript is here.)
Did I mention the American Adventure is hosted by Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain? Well, it is—in animatronic form. It makes sense once you’re ensconced in the Disney Magic. Anyway, each historical moment is presented as a vignette that starts with a visual sequence. The audience sees a large painting on a screen, and a camera effect pans from one detail to another. Music sets the mood. Viewers get the broad sweep of the story.
Then, the animatronics take the stage. Robot Franklin or robot Twain interact with various historical characters, also robots, such as Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony. Again, it makes sense with a dusting of Disney magic. Voice-over narrations link each element and send the audience off to the next vignette.
I ask students to create their own vignette that could be added to the American Adventure as representative of the Age of Jackson. (Here’s the full assignment sheet.) Students can choose anything. Something about Jackson himself, his policies, or legacy is fair game, but also anything else: the Second Great Awakening, reform movements, Manifest Destiny, the Mexican War. It’s wide open.
I break down how the vignettes work for students and require that they describe each element of their proposed new story. They must have a visual sequence with pictures and music; an animatronic scene with characters, dialogue, and action; and narrations to introduce and conclude each part. It’s important to note that I don’t require any actual art or music. Just description. The creative part of the assignment is fun, but it’s also challenging. How do you communicate complicated ideas in a visual way?
At the same time, I ask students to explain the significance of each element with an eye toward showing how each choice communicates something important to the audience. Here I want students to also reflect on the numerous constraints on how they might like to tell the story. For example, Disney attracts people from all over the world, many of whom have no background in American history, and some of whom have limited (or no) English. How do you get your message across to such a diverse audience?
Similarly, many children will be watching. How do you make sure the material is age-appropriate? Or, how do you address politically sensitive topics? Disruptions accompanied the debut of a Donald Trump addition to the Hall of Presidents. Disney wants everyone’s money, so attractions must have mass appeal.
However, I caution students that a dumbed-down approach isn’t the answer. There comes a point at which material is so simplified it’s no longer true. But where is that line? How do you preserve quality while accounting for all the other factors an attraction must meet? I created a vignette of my own to show students how it can be done.
Overall, students’ work has been terrific. A survey I conduct revealed the assignment earned high marks for increasing student interest, testing their understanding, and creating awareness of how history appears in life outside the classroom.
Several students did mention they would have preferred a traditional history paper, although they acknowledged they understood what the assignment aimed for. “I don’t know why I don’t like this project,” one student wrote, “but I know it’s good for me and other classmates and I recommend it for the future.” I’ll take that as a win.
With more than 20 million visitors each year, Disney World teaches history to more people annually than the most prolific scholar could ever hope to reach in a lifetime. Moreover, Disney confronts the same issues of interpretation for a general audience as any public history institution, and tremendous skill goes into creating rides and attractions. Crafting a historical narrative in theme-park form is certainly not a typical history assignment, but it shows students how historical interpretations surround them.
22 June 2020
About the Author
David Head is associate lecturer of history at the University of Central Florida.