Debate about alcohol in Disneyland

From Pirate Rum to Modern Cocktails: Is Alcohol Fit for Disneyland?

Editor’s Note: Welcome to “Theme Park Think Tank,” where we venture into the heart of some of the most debated subjects in the theme park world. Although Theme Park Magazine remains impartial on these hot-button issues, columnist Adam Fagenson will present you with meticulously researched analyses, exploring various angles of a controversial theme park subject every two weeks. Your insights and opinions aren’t just welcomed; they’re encouraged. Today, we tackle a question that has stirred the passions of fans and casual visitors alike: Was Disney’s decision to expand the sale of alcohol in Disneyland the right call? Dive into the perspectives, scrutinize the reasoning, and then share your thoughtful and respectful opinion. We’re eager to hear what you think!

You can now buy alcohol inside Disneyland. Carnation Café, River Belle Terrace, and Café Orleans are expanding their menus to include beer, wine, and cocktails. Although this decision may make sense at face value, many fans have gone to social media to question whether the choice was right.

Given the Walt Disney Company’s losing streak (i.e., Haunted Mansion’s box office failure, floundering Disney+ subscribership, etc.), the company appears forced to seek new income opportunities. Financially, selling alcohol in Disneyland seems like a no-brainer. Drinks are readily available beyond the gates. From the Ballast Point Brewery in Downtown Disney to the Karl Strauss stands in Disney’s California Adventure, buying alcohol was an easy task anywhere in the resort, except in Disneyland Park.

Walt Disney and Mickey ("Partners") in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle at the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California. (photo by Joe Tracy for  ©Theme Park Magazine)
Walt Disney and Mickey (“Partners”) in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle at the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California. (photo by Joe Tracy for ©Theme Park Magazine)

Preserving Childlike Wonder: Walt’s Alcohol-Free Vision

Many believe that selling alcohol in Disneyland undoes Walt Disney’s founding wish to keep Disneyland dry. Alcohol is off-limits for children, a coping mechanism for adult life that Walt found unwelcoming for a place appealing to a younger audience. To Walt, Disneyland creates a boundary between the freedom to think, act, and play as a child and the harsh social ambiguities of the outside world.

In a 1954 interview, Walt elaborated on his criticisms of adulthood. “[An adult has] lost the sense of play he once had and he inhibits physical expression. He’s the victim of a civilization whose ideal is the unbotherable, poker-faced man and the attractive, unruffled woman.” Walt apparently deems adults victims of their society, unable to enjoy the childlike freedoms denied to them by their surroundings. As Disneyland was his antidote, alcohol was banned. “Disney magic” results from this boundary between childlike freedom and adult realities.

Inside the gates, guests needn’t worry about losing their jobs or paying rent. Those issues become insignificant when faced with yetis, pirates, and talking birds. A recent LendingTree study finds that 18% of families visiting Walt Disney World went into debt to afford their vacation, but 80% of those families believe their choice to be worth the cost.

The decision to sell alcohol inside Disneyland Park normalizes an “adult world” experience, blurring the adult-child, reality-fantasy line. Parents can drink and act like their children, but the children cannot drink. Before the decision, the only drink children found in Disneyland was Pirates of the Caribbean. To younger guests, drinking was a warning, the butt of the gag… alcohol makes adults act foolishly. The pirates sing “Yo-Ho Yo-Ho” with drunken camaraderie while the Spanish town burns to the ground.

An inebriated Jack Sparrow shows he still has eagle-eye reflexes at Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland. (photo by Joe Tracy for ©Theme Park Magazine)
An inebriated Jack Sparrow shows he still has eagle-eye reflexes at Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland. (photo by Joe Tracy for ©Theme Park Magazine)

Disney’s Changing Landscape: Welcoming the Wine

With that in mind, selling alcohol at Disneyland Resort has yet to cause the kingdom to collapse. Since 2001, wine and beer have been commonalities in Disney California Adventure. This park opened with Wine Country Trattoria and the Seasons of the Vine Theater, celebrating California’s history of wine production. Following twenty-two years of financial success (and only occasionally a drunken guest), Disney California Adventure is to open the Port of San Fransokyo Cervecería on August 31st.

Before the recent announcement, you could already purchase alcohol in the park. The move is an expansion. Oga’s Cantina opened with Galaxy’s Edge, and Blue Bayou began selling wine with meals in 2019. Disney’s leaders know the risks of selling alcohol at the parks, informing their drinking atmosphere to keep inebriated guests unprovoked.

To their credit, Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel successfully enforces the boundary between kids and drunk adults. The atmosphere is laid back and inviting inside, and for its outdoor seating, a Hawaiian band strums their breezy tunes to relax and distract drinkers from their insobriety. Their menu includes alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, allowing children and parents to drink alongside one another. The safety of a nearby hotel room acts as a welcoming refuge for drinkers, keeping them from reentering the parks. The bar closes at 8 PM to those under 21 to allow drinking adults to have full reign over their experience
without the concern of being seen by a child.

“What Would Walt Do?”

Lastly, using Walt’s wishes as a concrete precedent has supposedly been disproved as a method for lasting success. If Disney were to follow Walt’s wishes to a tee, many innovations emerging from Walt Disney Imagineering, and the Disney empire as a whole, may have been be stifled.

For example, Imagineer John Hench believed that Walt would never have approved Phantom Manor, the Parisian Haunted Mansion variant some consider to be better than its original. Even more, one forgets the revolutionary nature of Pixar’s origins. The studio’s animators proved that a Disney film could be groundbreaking without many traditional elements of a Disney film, such as the “Happy Village Song” archetype found in many of Walt Disney Animation’s fairy tale films (i.e., Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Beauty and the Beast, Moana). For Disney’s output to grow beyond its existing properties, disobeying the phrase “What Would Walt Do?” becomes necessary.

Additionally, Disneyland’s most dedicated followers are not the end-all force that determines what Disneyland should and should not do. Such guests may be viewed as similar to religious followers following traditions laid out by their leader, Walt Disney. Dori Koehler’s text “The Mouse and the Myth” delves into the behavior of Disney park megafans, noting that “Disneyland lays out this experience by creating themed environments like the shrines that populate temples and churches throughout the world.” To disrupt Walt’s wishes and sell a sinful product in a holy place is blasphemous to some, despite not disrupting the Disneyland magic thus far.

Give It Your Best Shot!

Now, we turn the question over to you. What do you think?

Should Disneyland sell alcohol?

Wherever you stand, feel free to drop your comment at the end of this article to start a conversation, but please be polite when posting or responding to others.

Disclaimer: The author has been tasked, by Theme Park Magazine, with presenting both sides of a controversial issue so that readers may dissect and discuss it further in the Comments. Statements made should not be construed as supporting a particular position. Theme Park Magazine champions a diversity of viewpoints on controversial theme park subjects, aiming to foster enlightening dialogues. However, the opinions expressed in this column, comments, or guest articles do not necessarily reflect the magazine’s beliefs or stance. Readers are encouraged to explore and engage with these topics in the Comments/Discussion section below but are asked to maintain respect and refrain from personal or inflammatory remarks.

Explore More: Videos

Podcast Discussion of Alcohol at Disneyland from 2019 (language warning)

Explore More: Resources

Feature image is an editorialized concept art image that depicts a “current day” Walt Disney at Disneyland, deep in thought, with a bottle of alcohol nearby.

Adam Fagenson is a writer, T.E.A. member, and lifelong theme park enthusiast with plenty of curiosity about the inner workings of rides, attractions, and themed experiences.

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