On She Goes

Palatable America: Disneyland, Food & Culture

The park provides heavily mediated encounters with the Other, guiding guests from the comfort of Main Street, U.S.A.

Soleil Ho
Soleil Ho
October 3, 2017
Story hero image

How does Disneyland, the iconic and beloved theme park, handle race and culture through its food? As I walked under the arch that led into Main Street, U.S.A., I just didn’t think about it—even though I had purchased my ticket to the park in order to pursue that question with my own experience. During my last Disneyland visit, I was elementary school–aged; I don’t remember a thing about it, though certain sensations that I experienced triggered a very strong sense of nostalgia. My friend and I decided to go in the late afternoon, hoping to take advantage of kids’ early bedtimes and avoid long lines on the big-ticket rides. As we walked in, a swinging, romantic orchestral rendition of “All in the Golden Afternoon” was being piped into the open air and a multiethnic group of princesses waved at us as they walked in the late afternoon parade. I felt something warm and kind envelop me, and I smiled.

But, as my friend and I walked through the park, with its themed areas clumped and arranged much like a zoo, we became more and more aware of the feeling that we were being “programmed.” Even down to the smells, like the wafting aroma of popcorn at the entrance or the muskiness around the Haunted Mansion ride, all pushed out by Disney’s famous and ubiquitous Smellitizer machines. It was amazing to see how every detail of the park was meticulously planned to sate our desire to experience something strange but not too strange. The park provides heavily mediated encounters with the Other, guiding guests from the comfort of Main Street, U.S.A., to jungle treehouses, spooky hellscapes, and literal alien worlds. Grouped into the spectacles were notable pockets of life that I recognized: a tiled Mexican kitchen, a version of New Orleans’ French Market, clumps of Spanish moss slouching off tree branches, and maybe a kind of vaguely Vietnamese puppet singing while holding onto a rope for dear life.

The park provides heavily mediated encounters with the Other, guiding guests from the comfort of Main Street, U.S.A., to jungle treehouses, spooky hellscapes, and literal alien worlds.

I’m going to be honest: as a Vietnamese American person, I’m used to being part of the ride. People like me and my family have been part of the background flavor for as long as I’ve been alive, adding just the right amount of spice to the countless movies devoted to processing the United States’ brief but messy encounter with our country. In the American imagination, we have great potential as thrift store furniture, another attraction in the human zoo, stripped of our context but prized for our aesthetic contributions. And that’s not just us. America’s digestion and sublimation of the Other is far-reaching: every culture that has put the nation at risk of psychic nausea has taken a turn to be rendered palatable. Where else is that clearer than Disneyland, the hysterically apolitical nexus of Hollywood convention? Here are just a few points of racial and cultural interest that jumped out at me.

Tiki Juice Bar
The Dole Hawaiian pineapple sign in Adventureland (the JUNGLE part!) was my first double take of many that day. It, before the poopy diaper smells of the kids around us or melodramatic cast members guiding the path with glow sticks, was the element that really pulled me out of the initial reverie that caught me at the entrance. The sign at the fruit stand was Discourse staring right at me, unashamed and naked under an overhanging palapa, presenting two corporations bent on selling me a fantasy of the tropics. The messaging—that I was to associate the sweet taste of Dole’s pineapples with adventure, the Pacific, and the jungle—could not be clearer. The Dole family, with the support of the United States Marines, played an instrumental role in the violent coup d’état that deposed the Kingdom of Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani. And here they were, selling pineapple-flavored soft serve and fruit bowls at Disneyland. I opted not to try it; the prospect of waiting in a long line for this added insult to injury.

Lobster chips from a stand in Disney’s Critter Country.
photo by Soleil Ho

Loaded Lobster Chips
I was intrigued: the combination of lobster meat, goopy nacho cheese, sriracha, and potato chips sounded like something I would have come up with in a fever dream. The dish didn’t seem to really fit the theme of the Critter Country park, but I was eager to try it. I was generously willing to assume that the dish could have easily gone in either the Applebee’s Chicken Wonton Tacos direction or the Kogi BBQ direction. It was definitely the former. It felt like the feeling you get when you see someone you know from behind, only to realize it’s a completely different person when you call out their name. It was bad: the lobster meat was tough and old and the cheese sauce only suggested the taste of sriracha, but somehow we ate all of it. At least the chips themselves were fresh.

“Street” tacos at El Rancho de Zocalo in Disney’s Frontierland.
photo by Soleil Ho

Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante
The bonito restaurante in Disneyland’s Frontierland looked a lot like the gift shops that populate Mexico’s more tourist-centered airports in Puerto Vallarta and Cancún, with yellow, blue, and white tiles lining the walls and crepe flowers and painted calaveras framing the kitchen. We grabbed a burrito and “street tacos” with some agua and sat in the courtyard, which was surrounded by bougainvillea bushes. We’ve got those same flowers back in Mexico, I thought, as I took my first and last bite of a carnitas taco that seemed only haunted by the concept of flavor. My friend took a bite of her Burrito Guadalajara and told me, “You’re gonna be mad if you eat this.” The burrito was enormous, full of under-seasoned rice, and covered with a tragically bland tomatillo salsa. We both left our plates unfinished and wandered away to watch the fireworks instead.

It’s a Small World
Think the Dole sign is Discourse? It’s a Small World is DDDDDDDDiscourse! This slow-moving boat ride through puppet depictions of a racist old white person’s thoughts about each and every ethnicity felt like a much fuzzier version of the cinematic aversion therapy scene in A Clockwork Orange. We were trapped on this tiny boat and had to listen to that song in English, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish by the time the ride was over. Though the ride purports to promote global unity, it reflects a take on humanity that values and is centered around a Eurocentric view of history. How are you supposed to feel about a ride that reduces the entirety of Central and Southern Africa to shirtless tribespeople riding giraffes in a jungle? At the end of the ride, all of the nations come together to sing to a concert-band accompaniment, all of their disparate music, language, and fashion choices streamlined into a grand white and gold finale, each individual a supporting element of a greater, bombastic whole. It was #AllLivesMatter the ride. Why did I pay $100 to go on that when I could have just hit up Twitter for that nonsense?

So, should you go to Disneyland? I actually think so, if you’re interested in learning about the whys and hows of the American cultural apparatus. While a lot of what we saw and felt was problematic as hell, my friend and I ended up having a really great, hours-long conversation about American exceptionalism, the cost of the American dream, and middle-class aspirations as we walked around the park. That, plus the tea cup ride was A+++ and fun as hell.