Disneyland’s scorched-earth protection of its brand and properties hasn’t stopped it from becoming an unauthorized shooting location for many guerrilla filmmakers—including more recent, notable entries Escape From Tomorrowland and Exit From the Gift Shop. But neither of those films compares in importance to a 1968 film by a gay filmmaker named Pat Rocco. His Disneyland Discovery (originally titled Discovery or Ron and Chuck in ‘Disneyland Discovery’) features two young gay men holding hands, exchanging longing looks, and checking out the rides and attractions.
The fact that two gay men are openly displaying affection within a heteronormative public space in a wildly homophobic time holds up as a heroic feat for scholars and audiences alike. “Disneyland epitomized middle-class, heterosexual, nuclear-family leisure,” explains Finley Freibert, a visual studies Ph.D. candidate at UC Irvine. “[Discovery] remains significant not only because it represents the gay liberation politics from its time, but it also anticipates future events and films that centralized Disney properties as more recognizable today.”
Rocco, a New York native who moved to LA as a kid, is an LGBT legend in his own right for his erotic filmmaking and activist work. He was one of the leading organizers of the first LA Pride festival and parade in 1970 and started Hudson House, a shelter for homeless gay men and women. His film career began when he answered a wanted ad in the Los Angeles Free Press, an underground newspaper, for short films on nude male models, which he captured in 8 mm. He graduated to shooting longer films with storylines in 16 mm, selling copies to interested patrons through ads posted in the Free Press. Business boomed thanks to wide interest.
Rocco’s film output by the time he filmed Discovery were mostly shorts depicting scantily clad muscular men, comedies or romantic films with storylines based on his own relationships. Some didn’t have overtly gay overtones, and none carried sound or dialogue, since 16 mm wasn’t equipped to hold an audio track. Eventually, the owner of the Continental Theaters cinema chain, Shan Sayles, contacted Rocco to see if his films were good enough for public viewing at his Los Angeles locale, the Park on Alvarado Boulevard. It was one of the few well-established theaters that regularly screened gay programming or films with gay sensibilities such as Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. Rocco’s films were accepted, and Sayles enlisted him to make more films, including Discovery.
He, his two actors (who have never been identified, though scholars speculate they were either friends of Rocco’s or actors found through word of mouth) and an assistant took a 16mm film camera and a tripod to the (now) Gayest Place on Earth. Without permission or notice, they created a romantic storyline about two young gay men meeting for the first time at Disneyland and falling in love, leading to a nude love scene in Tom Sawyer’s Island (the only part not shot at Disneyland).
The 30-minute feature entranced viewers as it circulated among gay screening rooms across Southern California, including the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), which had chapters in LA and OC. It’s considered one of Rocco’s most popular films, often shown as part of a programming block of the director’s features. MCC founder the Reverend Troy Perry even requested to screen it in Europe.
But once Disneyland lawyers found out about Discovery, they pressured Rocco to trim the film down by removing shots of signs and identifiers of the theme park. But it was all for naught: Even with a shorter running length of 15 minutes, any viewer can clearly tell the location is Disneyland. Rocco later said in a 1983 oral-history interview with Jim Kepner for the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives that the park’s lawyers didn’t go through with a lawsuit because it would have brought more notoriety to the film and blown up its public profile. “I almost wish they had now,” Rocco quipped. Since then, tripods are not allowed at Disneyland.
Technically speaking, Discovery is quite impressive. Rocco was clearly adept at constructing a narrative solely through visuals, and the meticulous attention to detail and variety of shots from different angles complements the action between Ron and Chuck. The film stock carries a blue tint that washes over the movie as the viewer is treated to the spectacle that is Disneyland’s many rides: the Mark Twain Riverboat, the Matterhorn, It’s a Small World and the Mad Tea Party’s spinning tea cups. The music, however, roughly transitions between show tunes and the soundtracks from animated Disney features, including “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from Cinderella and “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio.
There’s a hazy, dreamlike quality about it all, especially during the lovemaking scene, for which different shots of the two naked men kissing and holding each other are superimposed over one another. Otherwise, their public displays of affection are quietly open throughout their time at the park and go largely unnoticed by the crowds surrounding them. The film ends with them exiting Disneyland while holding hands.
In the ’70s, Rocco slowed his erotic film work because of popular demand for more hardcore porn, but he would continue to document the gay Los Angeles scene’s demonstrations, marches and parades. Many of his softcore films, including Discovery, were donated to UCLA’s Film & Television Archive in 1983, where they are occasionally screened in retrospectives and gay independent film blocks. Rocco moved to Hawaii with his partner, David Ghee, in the mid-’80s, then relocated to Mount Baldy in the late 2000s before passing away of a heart condition in 2018. His legacy is cemented as one of the most iconic filmmakers of erotic gay films, with Discovery preceding Disneyland’s Gay Days by 30 years.
“The films [themselves] made me kind of a liberationist because of how they were done—the fact they were up front, that they were the first really overt gay films with nudity in a public theater, and that they had something to say that was positive,” Rocco said. “I’ve had a number of people tell me, ‘I came out because of your films.’”
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.