I’m going to guess right now that you’ve never heard of Disneyland Detroit. You’re not alone; not even most of my Detroit friends have heard of this. To be fair, it’s nothing at all like Disneyland, either. But that’s the name locals dubbed Ukrainian immigrant Dmytro Szylak’s vision when he erected this whimsical creation in his Detroit backyard.
My daughter found this attraction online as we were ending our weekend in Detroit. Our bellies were full of Buddy’s pizza and we were debating whether we should do anything else before we retired to our hotel for the night. She discovered a TripAdvisor review of Disneyland Detroit described as a folk art installation on top of two back-alley garages in the Hamtramck neighborhood. To be fair, some of the reviews described it as nothing more than junk. But as luck would have it, we were only two exits away, so we veered off the highway in search of “Disneyland.”
We couldn’t find it. Our GPS directions took us to the closest intersection in an older neighborhood, but we didn’t see anything that looked like it might be Disneyland Detroit. My daughter read further and learned that Dmytro Szylak had died the year before and that the house had been put up for sale. It was hoped that the new owners would keep the installation intact, but now we wondered. It was dark, anyway, and we couldn’t find it, so we drove back to our hotel.
The next morning we hit the road, reluctant to draw our Detroit weekend to an end, so we doubled back to Hamtramck again in search of one more attraction in Motor City. This time, we had an actual address. And realized that we needed to park the car and wander into the alley behind the houses if we were going to find anything. So we did. And there it was: Disneyland Detroit.
Probably not the Disneyland you imagined. Not the one we imagined, either. But it is the one that a man who’d immigrated to America from Ukraine during the Cold War imagined.
We stood alone in the alley, trying to take in all the decaying touches that Mr. Szylak had erected. There was an old merry-go-round and a defunct spaceship ride. Of course, they were high above the ground, so I’m not sure that they were ever functional once Mr. Szylak inherited them. There was a Mickey Mouse head in homage to the Disney theme among an assortment of figurines and colorful wooden beams.
My daughter and I didn’t know what to make of it. It was the furthest thing from Disneyland that we could think of. But my daughter “got it.” She stood back in appreciation of the detail that went into Szylak’s creation and said, “I think it’s his way of expressing how great America is, and that anything is possible.”
I think she’s right. We loved the way he paid tribute to “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”) as well as putting “God Bless America” front and center. I believe this was the dream of this immigrant who came to America, worked in the auto industry and then retired to a seemingly easier life than he might have had in his home country. To him, I’m sure most of America was “Disneyland.” And so he gave this love back to the world — or anyone who stopped by the hidden alleyway in Hamtramck to look.
I’m glad we did. Would you?
I love you and your daughter’s reflection on this place, this “exhibit.” I also think it belongs in a novel! 😉
Love this. I’d search it out in preference to the actual theme parks. And your daughter summed it up right I think.
Me, too, Roy. Much quieter, though there is something to be said for the artistry within Disneyland, too. A lot of designers study that. You can really appreciate the little details that Disney attends to when you compare it to other amusement parks that don’t carry out their themes.
How can you not like quirkiness. And this sculpture screams it. I love it when people pursue their dreams, wherever they take them. Thanks for sharing, Juliann. –Curt
Exactly. This scream quirky in the best possible way.
oh my goodness this is amazing. this reminds me of a local vegas gentleman who collects like this as well, mostly old casino props and the like!
I’d love to see his collection! I loved the Neon Museum in Vegas. Next time I’ll have to seek out more collections like those.
This is actually really sweet. One, a mini adventure for you and your daughter to find it and two, I think I get his message too. In my hometown we have a house owned by ‘Yellow Man’ – his whole property is covered in ‘junk’ brightly painted yellow. Many think he’s bananas, but I love the message he send out about spreading joy.
That sounds awesome! I’d love to look at that yellow house and ponder it all. Art 🙂
I was just about to say that I loved how he paid tribute to his Ukraine and the God Bless America! I had never heard of this either! What a fabulous concept and totally artistic. I love it. I’d visit!
He’s definitely saying something about loving America but also respecting his roots. Art can say so much.
I love Disneyland, and pretty much anything whimsical. I love it when we have these expats from other countries that come and offer a fresh take on things that may be normal for them. This looks so so so fun, and really like a place I would actually come to Detroit for.
It is definitely a fresh take on America from an immigrant’s view. A sweet one. I’m glad the new house owners left the creation intact.
Haha you read my mind, I was just about to ask “there’s a Disneyland in Detriot that I didn’t know of?!” You and your daughter were so persistent in finding this place. Even though it is not functional anymore like a proper theme park, it was an interesting installation to see!
Haha. Calling it Disneyland is quite a stretch. I think that name has more to do with his vision of America than the actual creation in his backyard.
What a strangely curious place! Makes for great photos. I love Detroit and have not nearly explored it enough, this will be on my list for my next trip!
“Strangely curious” describes it perfectly. If you need a quick art fix, this is your spot!
Great article. Your thoughts and ideas on Mr. Szylak’s creation are inspiring and sends a very positive message. I hope you and your daughter has a fantastic weekend in Detriot.
Thank you! We had a fantastic weekend. I want to go back again sometime and see what we missed.
This is so precious! My family and I came to America as immigrants and well and yes, that notion that America is Disneyland is very true in the eyes of foreigners! It’s a wonderful concept. If you enjoyed this, you might also really like the Heidelberg Project. If you haven’t checked it out, maybe you can on your next trip to Detroit.
The idea of America as Disneyland makes me smile. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that. We did visit the Heidelberg Project as well. LOVED it!