In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower ruled over an America flush with consumerism and riddled with fear of the Soviet Union. Rosa Parks set the civil rights movement marching, and Dr. Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine. Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were earthy, sexy stars. And on July 17 in Anaheim, Calif., Walt Disney unveiled a whole new world of make-believe family fun: Disneyland.
''It just totally knocked my socks off, even though it was so incomplete,'' says Wanda Martin, 63, a Stockton, Calif., bookkeeper who visited the self-anointed ''happiest place on earth'' two months after it opened. ``Main Street was wonderful, and all the land -- it opened up into promise.''
Fifty years later, President Bush rules over an America obsessed with property values and terrorism alert levels. Rosa Parks remains absurdly locked in battle with progressive hip-hop group OutKast, and there's no cure for AIDS. Tom Cruise and Madonna peddle religious sects. And the Walt Disney Co., which for much of the previous century was practically synonymous with popular culture: Well, where exactly is it?
''The creative flame at the heart of the place is flickering rather dimly at this point,'' says James B. Stewart, author of Disney War, a book, published this spring, that details the corporate doings and undoings that have overtaken Disney's public image during the last two decades.
Disney has been a highly visible barometer and shaper of the American psyche since brothers Walt and Roy began making cartoons in the 1920s. Its impact reaches around the globe, where it's an icon of Americanism -- of opportunity and youthful imagination, as well as of commercialism and cultural imperialism. It's the company some love fanatically and others hate with equal passion.