UC Irvine Is Teaching A Class On Disneyland. You Guys, DISNEYLAND.
Splash Mountain, it turns out, is designed to minimize the splash.
The roaming Disney princesses all intentionally speak in a circa 1937 Hollywood accent.
And the pirate ships that carry you across the ride "Peter Pan's Flight" rely on an overhead trolley system originally intended for industrial warehouses.
These are just a few of the things you might learn in a new class offered at the University of California, Irvine. That's right, one of Southern California's premier universities now offers an entire class devoted to studying one of Southern California's premier destinations: Disneyland.
Back when I went to UCI (GenX alert!), I had to create my own magical kingdom by bailing on a Bio major to read novels all day in the English department, but I digress.
The Disneyland class, first launched in January for UCI's winter quarter, specifically focuses on the theme park's art, architecture and operation. It's taught by Roland Betancourt, an associate professor of art history and visual studies, whose specialty is the medieval period.
"I work on the medieval portion of the Eastern Roman Empire — so based in what today we know as Istanbul, formerly Constantinople," Betancourt recently told KPCC's Take Two. "So I'm an art historian that's used to trying to understand the way that objects, images, [and] works of art work in space."
But Betancourt is also something of a real-time historian, and has taken an interest in modern, themed, artificial spaces.
Among the topics he's covered in previous classes: the Las Vegas Strip and The Holy Land Experience, a Christian amusement park in Florida.
He says one advantage of studying these types of spaces is that they provide a living, fully realized subject for him to visit and experience. He doesn't have to imagine what the space was like before it was lost to history, or how it might have felt if it had been better preserved.
"So Disneyland sort of was a natural way of exploring these landscape spaces that seek to be themed in some capacity, to transcend the mundane, the average, and to take us to another realm in some capacity. And I think Disneyland does that in a way that pretty much puts a lot of history to shame," Betancourt said.
To prepare for the class, Betancourt visited Disneyland 130 times, rode the Matterhorn 600 times and took more than 20,000 photos and slow-motion videos, according to the university. He studied and noticed everything, from the brand of churros sold at the carts to the hiss of brakes and the clack of anti-rollback mechanisms on passing coasters.
Architecture is in part about creating a particular experience through the design of physical space, and Betancourt is interested in understanding the varied ways Disney manages to bring the Magic Kingdom experience to (artificial) life.
He said he wants his students to go beyond thinking about the park's history and learn how to look critically at its use of space, of art, of architecture.
"And so my interest is really to not give them the story that they can pick up in a popular book, but to also have a deeper understanding of the labor involved, the work that it takes on the part of cast members and designers to sustain, and actively maintain, spaces like these that are so heavily themed," he said.
Instead of a textbook, students pore over cast scripts, analyze social media posts and accident reports, watch YouTube videos, read training manuals and the patents for the rides.
The trick to creating Splash Mountain, for instance, was in figuring out how not to completely soak patrons riding along a track that's submerged in water:
In addition to reviewing the patent, Betancourt took slow-motion video of the moment the vehicle comes out of the tunnel and hits the pool. Water is pushed forward and to the sides and, yes, some escapes to soak a few unlucky (or lucky?) riders. But anyone who's been on the ride knows there are certain seats where you're bound to get wet and others where you can get away with little more than a sprinkle.
For the Alice in Wonderland ride, Betancourt pulled the patent and took more slow-motion video to see the wheel mechanism in action.
On an optional field trip (but really, who opts out?), the students are challenged to face the sensory overload head-on and look and listen more closely. While the average guest might be overwhelmed by all the stimuli and experience a cacophony of noise, a visual barrage, Betancourt wants his students to study and develop a knack for figuring out what matters and what doesn't.
"So when I take my students to Disneyland as a field trip, one of the key things I like to do is just stand them in front of a roller coaster, like the Incredicoaster in California Adventure, and just have them listen and look and have a sense of what are the mechanics, what are the operating procedures that go into dispatching a coaster," Betancourt said.
"So what I tell them is, you know, we're going to ride this ride six times in a row. And that's really what it takes to really get a sense of how something operates, how it works, to really notice all the details," Betancourt said.
Assignment: watch the following video six times in a row.
The class will be offered again in the spring quarter of 2020. Next time, they'll likely focus on Galaxy's Edge, the new Star Wars land, which hadn't opened in time for the first round of Mouse academics.
Betancourt said Galaxy's Edge combines all the building blocks of the other lands and rides, from Peter Pan to Snow White to Indiana Jones, layering together systems the company has developed for a half century.
All this is fine and good. An education is its own reward, and all that. I just can't help but wonder if there's a potential marketing tie-in for students who are lucky enough to get in:
Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC's Take Two.
Lori Galarreta contributed to this story.