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?