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America should be more like Disneyland

The country needs Walt Disney’s optimism and investment in infrastructure and human happiness

December 12, 2014 2:00AM ET

America in the 1950s was a land of boundless expectations about the future. We built the interstate highway system, created NASA and invested in middle-class prosperity. It was not the nation of today, in which the commonwealth crumbles around us, while powerlessness and hopelessness define millions of people’s lives.

To get some perspective on what was, what is and what could be, I flew west to spend a day at the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California, for the first time in 25 years.

Were Disneyland a person, it would be eligible next month to take funds out of a retirement account, yet after almost six decades, in which more than 600 million visitors walked down Main Street and over the moat to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, it still looks brand new. Indeed, it looks better than that hot Monday, July 18, 1955, when my Norwegian grandmother and I were among the first paying visitors.

Every night Disneyland gets freshened up. When the park closes at midnight, the lights go up, and crews steam gum off the sidewalks, daub fresh paint where needed, water the flowers, polish the streetlights and examine the walkways. I had to look hard just to find unrepaired cracks on Main Street and the paved walkways. By chance, I got to walk backstage, where the asphalt and concrete surfaces were in near perfect shape, the walls painted, the handrails free of rust.

The Walt Disney Co. invests in infrastructure because it makes the company money. The park draws on average 43,000 people a day willing to bear a basic ticket price of $92 for those 10 or older.

Yet outside the gates, America fails to invest in its infrastructure, costing us lives from accidents, floods, sinkholes from water-main failures and explosions from faulty natural gas lines. Sidewalks buckle or heave after winter freezes, making many hazardous to walk on. America’s roads deteriorate, costing the economy in efficiency, though the front-end-alignment shops and tire dealers do well. How strange that the roads I traveled this year in the impoverished Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa were smoother than those I drove in Atlantic City, New Jersey; Boston; Cleveland; New Orleans; Syracuse, New York; and Los Angeles.

The water fountains at Disneyland all worked, while in city halls and airports, many barely dribble because there is no budget to replace their filters before sediment clogs them. Instead, we give tens of billions in subsidies to profitable corporations.  

People are willing stand in line for half an hour or so for about 90 seconds on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the flying Dumbo elephants and a bit longer on the Autopia, the Matterhorn bobsleds and the Mark Twain Steamboat. But as a society, we resist paying a bit more in taxes so that our mass transit works on time and traffic flows smoothly.

We pay a huge price for our lack of investment and faith in the future of America.

Walt Disney’s vision

At the park’s grand opening on July 17, 1955, Walt Disney said, “This happy place” is “dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America.”

To raise the $17 million ($150 million in today’s money) needed to turn Anaheim’s orange groves into the Magic Kingdom, Disney mortgaged his home and created a Sunday night television show on ABC. Today the Disney Co. owns ABC, because Walt Disney’s vision of a richer future paid off beyond even his imagination.

But as a people, we disinvest in America. Even though the country could borrow at extremely low interest rates, we refuse to take the risk. Instead, we let infrastructure deteriorate, cut school budgets, close libraries, raise college tuition and pay ever more for police and security even though crime has been declining for decades.

In an era when human knowledge is expanding at a rapidly accelerating rate, Congress cuts budgets for basic research, thereby encouraging smart young scientists to go overseas because they can get funding abroad. And of course the countries that receive them will reap the benefits of their discoveries.

Disney’s brother Roy and other critics thought Disneyland was too audacious and costly an idea to succeed. Yet it not only prompted a wave of theme parks around the world, including the complete remake of Las Vegas, starting in 1989 with the Mirage, a themed casino resort on the Disneyland model.

Creating a happy place

Imagine if we applied that same vision of a better world from infrastructure to education and scientific research or even to just having public restrooms — and clean ones at that. Imagine how much more pleasant our lives would be if we just kept up the public furniture, not to the near perfect level of Disneyland but enough that at public buildings rust, cracks, leaky roofs and toilets that stop up became rare rather than commonplace.

Disneyland has become a time capsule not of the romantic idea of 19th century Main Street or even the possibilities in Tomorrowland but of a time when Americans believed in a better future — and were willing to invest in it. A half-century ago, we put almost 1 percent of our economy into landing men on the moon, yet today we fall behind other countries in exploring space, supposedly because we cannot afford it.

We pay a huge price for our lack of investment and faith in the future of America. We pay for all the inefficiency of our decrepit infrastructure. We pay with minds that will never be fully developed and with scientific breakthroughs that will enrich other countries. And we pay with lives of daily grind and unpleasantness without hope of respite.

Would that as a people we thought like Walt Disney so we could make America into a happy place.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times, teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the best-selling author of “Perfectly Legal,” “Free Lunch” and “The Fine Print” and the editor of the new anthology “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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