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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

At 60, Disneyland Celebrates Its Musical History

Ever since the Silly Symphony cartoons of the 1930s, music has played a big part in the creation of the Disney magic. Snow White sang about her prince, Pinocchio wished upon a star, and Mickey conducted “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia. Films and television programs developed by the Disney studio used music to help tell the story. It was only natural that when Walt Disney opened Disneyland sixty years ago this month, music would continue to play an essential role in guiding the audience through the experience.

But on opening day there was no “It’s a Small Word” or Enchanted Tiki Room, let alone the attractions and parks to come in later years such as Star Tours and the California Adventure. Instead marching bands, Dixieland jazz, and Fess Parker singing as Davy Crockett all entertained the crowds on that hot July day in 1955. Only later would songwriters and composers like George Bruns, the Sherman Brothers, X. Atencio, Michael Giacchino and Randy Newman make their indelible mark on the parks.

To celebrate the musical heritage of Disneyland and its newer neighbor, California Adventure, Walt Disney Records this summer has released a three-disc collection of music spanning the sixty-year history of the two parks. The only place to get the album right now is at the resort itself, but it will be available for purchase online in late August. Your favorite songs are here, including ear worms like “It’s A Small World” and “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me),” as are orchestral melodies from rides like Soarin’ and even a bit of jazz, and electro-synthe-magnetic musical sounds from The Main Street Electrical Parade (still one of my favorites).

Listening to the album, the genius of the songwriting and scoring becomes more apparent than when you’re in the park. Like the subtle architectural and design details that signify a shift from say, Tomorrowland to Fantasyland, music is everywhere in the Magic Kingdom, easing guests from one experience to another. Within the rides, songs like “It’s A Small World,” “Yo Ho,” and “Grim Grinning Ghosts” each work a simple melody repeatedly, creating a seamless, continuous experience throughout the running time of the attraction, and complementing the visual story elements. Modern arrangements of John Williams’ music for Star Tours and the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland mash-up themes at a dizzying pace, whipping folks from Darth Vader one moment to the celebratory “throne room” cue from Star Wars the next. There’s a medley of Disney songs from “dark rides” like Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and the nighttime spectacular Fantasmic features a medley that crams some twenty themes into about 20 minutes. Your mileage may vary on how good of a listening experience some of the medleys on this set are (I do think the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage cue is really lovely), but all of the 54 tracks, including a few dedicated purely to ‘park announcements’ or sound effects, contribute to happy memories of being at the “Happiest Place On Earth.”

Listening to The Legacy Collection: Disneyland, I did make a few musical discoveries worth singling out. First, there’s George Bruns, a man whose name I never knew, but whose musical contribution to the Disney company is remarkable. Bruns was nominated for four Oscars over the course of his career at Disney. He scored dozens of shorts and features, and wrote the immortal “Ballad of Davy Crockett.” On this set, he’s represented by a charming sea chantey with lyrics by X. Atencio that became "Yo Ho," the theme for Pirates of the Caribbean, and by the churning, whirling “on the go” music of the Peoplemover. Just listening to that orchestral cue makes me think of progress, 1960s style. It’s that spirit of Space Age bachelor pad music that Michael Giacchino draws on for his short but exhilarating cuefor the park's most recent update of Space Mountain, found on disc two of the set. Opening with a grand fanfare and theremin, it soon takes off into the stratosphere to a pulsating backbeat. Flight is also evoked by the esteemed film composer Jerry Goldsmith in his majestic theme for Soarin’.

It’s hard to imagine a trip to Disneyland today without a soundtrack, from the moment you walk onto Main Street U.S.A. to the peak of the Matterhorn. This Legacy Collection set reminds me of a quote from Walt Disney: “I love the nostalgic myself. I hope we never lose some of the things of the past.” Music is often the best of those things.

For further listening about the history of Disney Parks, I highly recommend the public radio program Studio 360's excellent American Icons documentary, embedded below.