Main Street, USA as Living History

by Jessica Black

During my several visits to Walt Disney World as a “guest”, I had never noticed the living history element that is incorporated throughout the resort. Once I became a “cast member” working on Main Street USA, I really began to notice the attention to detail, not only in the architecture, but also in the way the employees dress and act. Every part of the Walt Disney Resort, whether it is the theme parks, hotels, or restaurants, has a theme and cast members are trained to fit in with this theme. Every area of the resort has different costuming for its cast members, and employees consider themselves “on-stage” when in front of guests. Anywhere that is visible to guests is an on-stage area and cast members must keep the integrity of “the show” at all times. While not all cast members are part of the entertainment cast, they all have roles to play in the show, that being the living history presented in the themed areas in the parks.

image2While working on Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom theme park, I had become a resident of Marceline, Missouri living in the early 20th century. Despite the Florida heat, I wore a button down, long-sleeved, collared shirt with a tie and a plaid skirt that brushed the tops of my feet. If any of my co-workers forgot to wear black polishable shoes and black stockings they would be sent home for not keeping within the “Disney Look”. We also had to speak in themed language, such as telling other cast members we were going to “iron my shoelaces” when we had to step offstage to use the restroom. Within the Chapeau, a hat shop I sometimes worked in, we had a phone on the wall that guests could pick up and eavesdrop on a recorded conversation. We would then tell the guests that the speaker was the woman who lives above the shop and that she’s always gossiping.

While Disney World and Main Street USA are not authentic, Disney World has its own heritage and is authentically American. Many families vacation in Disney World as an annual tradition and many Americans grow up watching Disney movies and dreaming of visits to Disney World. Just how James Isenberg created living history in Harrodsburg, Kentucky with the reconstruct of the Lincoln Family’s cabin, Walt Disney reconstructed his hometown of Marceline in Orlando. While Harrodsburg celebrates the heritage of an important historical figure, Walt created a place to celebrate the everyday people who lived in Marceline along with his own personal heritage. Walt’s Main Street USA may be a highly romanticized version of Marceline’s past but he has created a living history that serves as public history by incorporating the heritage of the common people of Marceline.

Walt and Isenberg both “had a flair for showmanship and understood that increased customer traffic eventually turned into sales,” (Moore, 56). Walt used his showmanship in the details he put into his park. The reconstructed buildings on Main Street USA look like homes and small businesses, but really serve as gift shops and offstage offices for managers. Yet this fact does not take away from the experience visitors get. In fact, visitors are so immersed in their new environment it even becomes too much to take in. This may explain why I never noticed the living history present during my previous visits. All the buildings are carefully decorated and maintained to ensure they give off the right impression. The shops are decorated with old photographs and antiques that would be present in the early 20th century. The windows and doors to the shops are rendered to look authentic with the names of barbers, doctors, etc. (including the window with Walt’s father’s name: Elias Disney, Contractor). Performers like the Dapper Dans, the Casey’s Corner Pianist, the Citizen’s of Main Street Performers, the Flag Retreat, Philharmonic, and the Trolley Show are all incorporated into the living history element. Walt may not have used popular history in the creation of Main Street USA, but rather chose to represent small-town America from his own point of view. It is more than obvious that visitors are pleased with what they see at Disney World because many will spend thousands of dollars and become repeat visitors, just to experience Walt’s recreation.

A trip to Disney World is nowhere near as authentic as a trip to Papua New Guinea. The living history at Disney has been recreated and “locals” are paid employees. However, even Papua New Guinea holds some similarity to Disney World, “most tourists who visited the Sepik region had bought a packaged excursion… This was a relatively luxurious, air-conditioned tourist ship…and contained European amenities, ” (Errington and Gewertz in Gmelch, 98). Even though tourists and travelers were visiting a real place, not a created one like Disney, they were still living in the comfort of their own world. Tourists like to stay connected with their own world even when visiting another; they like to view living history but may not want to completely live it while they are on vacation. Disney ensures guest comfort through its many hotels and restaurants, where guests can escape the hectic crowds after a long day at the parks. “The traveler is seeking a very important or “sacred” experience or place “out of this world,” Disney may not be authentic but still fits tourists’ desire because it is a place unlike their home-life and an escapism from reality (Graburn in Gmelch 32).


Tourists even, “manifest their own corruption by remaining content with [their] obviously inauthentic experiences,” (Errington and Gewertz in Gmelch, 98). Everyone who visits Disney knows the living history is romanticized. After all, Main Street USA leads right up to a castle and the fantasyland beyond that. However, some visitors do prefer this type of living history to experiences in foreign countries, “some prefer simulations like ethnic theme parks, living museums, and other reconstructions to the real thing,” (Gmelch, 20). Gmelch used the example of a woman she overheard saying she preferred the submarine in Disneyland over the small submarine they had just stepped off in the Barbados. Guests who walk down Main Street USA are satisfied with the buildings they see and are content to take in the Disney-ified version of Marceline rather than visiting the real thing. Even if guests did seek to visit the real Marceline they would be unable to go back to the time period Disney World presents it in.

Isenberg’s recreation of the Lincoln Cabin and its surrounding sites is also unauthentic because it’s a modern reconstruction, “rather than a historically accurate reconstruction, the fort was a permanent structure wrapped in veneer that served as an interpretive device for the edification of 20th century visitors,” (Moore, 65). The reenactment of the Lincoln marriage is unauthentic as well because it is staged by reenactors, “the centerpiece of the day, however, was a re-enactment of the Lincoln marriage ceremony performed by students,” (Moore, 73.).  People living today will never be able to met the real Lincolns and are forced to be satisfied with living history reenactments.

When it comes to Disney World, they may not even realize the performances on Main Street USA have any historical significance since they are not linked to major historical events. Either way, visitors are pleased with what they see because they take it as entertainment. The pageant held in Harrodsburg parades reenactors dressed as historical figures. Disney has its own pageants with the several parades that are held daily. Guests and the cast members watch as princesses and cartoon animals float through Main Street. Neither event is accurate. Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone would never have paraded together through Harrodsburg in the past, and Princesses would never have been the local heroes of 20th century Marceline. In Papua New Gineau, tourists may feel they are encountering realistic living history, but despite that they are not reenactors or paid employees the initiates are still putting on a show for the tourist sake, “the hazers had suddenly defined the performance as staged, at least in part, for tourists rather than the Chambri themselves and this called into question its authenticity,” (Errington and Gewertz in Gmelch, 106).

Living history does not have to be deeply rooted in authenticity to gain attention from tourists. Walt Disney World is more discreet about how they incorporate living history into its park. While living history is not Disney’s primary goal in the creation of its “theme” parks, the parks could not exist without it because that’s where they get their “theme” from. Living history is a successful way to entertain guests and tourists, even when it is not on the most educational scale or derived directly from major historical events. Main Street USA is designed to create an atmosphere for the park, rather than to serve as a destination to see living history. Cast members are required to dress and act according to certain guidelines to submerge guests in their new surroundings and make them feel as if they stepped into a new “world”. Living history doesn’t have to be overt. Disney World successfully mixes living history along with their attractions to satisfy and keep guests coming back. Many guests never notice the living history element present on Main Street USA and elsewhere in the park because they are lost in the excitement of it all. The details put into the living history will keep guests coming back because they will always discover something new upon returning.


Errington and Gewertz, “Tourism and Anthropology in a Postmodern World,” in Sharon Bohn Gmelch, Tourists and Tourism: A Reader, Waveland Press (2009): 91-114.

Gmelch, “Why Tourism Matters,” in Sharon Bohn Gmelch, Tourists and Tourism: A Reader, Waveland Press (2009): 3-24.

Moore, William, “United We Commemorate”: The Kentucky Pioneer Memorial Association, James Isenberg, and Early Twentieth-Century Heritage Tourism,” in The Public Historian, Vol 30, No. 3 (Summer 2008): 51-81.


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