Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Argentina's Political Disneyland

Cynics might suggest that all of Argentina is a political amusement park, but this post's starting point is the República de los Niños (pictured here), a children's theme park near the Buenos Aires provincial capital of La Plata. The park opened in late 1951, less than a year before the death of Eva Perón, who was one of its major promoters.

Erected on the site of an expropriated British golf course, República de los Niños was a political project from the first, and Peronist governor Domingo Mercante carried it out. Its concept was that any underprivileged child could participate in the scale model legislature and other institutions, and aspire to visit the Taj Mahal and other global landmarks. In the process, of course, that child would become a committed Peronist.

I've visited República de los Niños several times and, while reviewing the park's website and other online information for a new Argentina guidebook that I'm preparing for National Geographic Traveler, I noticed several references to a visit by Walt Disney in 1953. According to these accounts, Disney used the park as at least a partial template for Disneyland, which opened in 1955.

In 1941, Disney and a group from his studio had taken a ten-week goodwill tour of southern South America, as a part of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy. I had never heard of any 1953 visit, and it seemed improbable that such a visit could have affected a large project that must have been well underway by then. To clarify matters, I phoned Disney archivist Dave Smith in Burbank, who checked the records and told me that Walt's only other Latin American visits had been to Mexico, in 1953 and 1955. He never returned to Argentina, though Argentine gaucho caricaturist Florencio Molina Campos did work on several Disney cartoons and, says Smith, gave one of his paintings to Disney.

Smith also surprised me with the news that Disney's 1941 trip to the Southern Cone is now the subject of a documentary, Walt & El Grupo, by Theodore Thomas - son of pioneer Disney animator Frank Thomas. The movie has been shown at film festivals in San Francisco and Seattle, and is due to screen at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival late next month.

Update: Shortly after I posted this, director Ted Thomas informed me by email that the film will have commercial release after the Rio festival.

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