A bad ride at Disney World.
After all these years of avoiding it, I had begun to feel pressure to check it out. For one thing, it had become difficult to face my Long Island students as a Disney virgin, and maintain credibility as an authority on popular culture. And so I dragged my daughter (the one person always willing to accompany me into cultural terrain where no one else will be caught dead) and headed south, at the height of the summer-vacation season, to meet the Head Mouse.
It was an experience for which, I confess, I was ill prepared. To visit Disney World is to be transported, in more ways than one: to be immersed in a universe that is somehow totally "Other," "Elsewhere," even as it is - paradoxically - the most mundanely quintessential of American landscapes.
There's nothing here that you haven't seen or experienced a million times, every day of your life, in every mall and airport and multiplex and fast-food franchise. And yet, to find yourself - like Dorothy in Munchkin Land - suddenly set down in the middle of a vast landscape in which no trace of anything noncommodified, non-simulated, nonregulated, non-smiley-faced, is visible or reachable, is to suffer a profound mental disorientation. Most people seem gleefully and instantaneously to adapt to this new psychic environment. I did not do so well.
"Transported" is actually a perfect term to describe the experience of being Disney-fied. From the minute you hit the Orlando airport, you enter a system of transit that moves you effortlessly, via monorails and people movers, through underground tunnels decorated, almost nostalgically, with scenes of the "real" Florida, the one that Disney so strenuously attempts to supersede and render superfluous. From there, it's a quick ride to the 28,000-acre enclave - a self-contained, self-regulated fiefdom in the middle of, but wholly separate from, the state of Florida. And then it's into another, even more elaborate system of monorails that whisk you, with utmost efficiency and ease, through a series of prescribed routes to preplanned itineraries.
"Day One," begins the Disney guidebook you probably selected from a shelf full of choices - Disney With Kids, Disney on a Budget, Disney for Honeymooners, Disney Without Kids - at your local Barnes and Noble. And then come pages of dauntingly detailed, rigidly precise schedules of events and sights and rides, accompanied by timetables, tips, rules, and coupons to help you complete the exhausting course.
"You must stay at least six days," said my travel agent, with a Disneyesque cheeriness, "or you'll never see everything." Never mind that "everything" on Day Six was pretty much the same as "everything" on Day One.
Indeed, the sameness, the static predictability of this wholly managed, wholly simulated world of "Taylorized fun," as it's been described, seems to be a large part of its appeal. Nothing can possibly go wrong here, because nothing can possibly happen.
But the nothing that endlessly doesn't happen is designed to fill the senses and the hours with comfort, amusement, and a kind of luxury not typical of most American lives. The "family-rate" hotels and restaurants of Disney World are commodious, yet relatively affordable and free of the appearance of class distinction. Our hotel room was by far the largest and most lush I've ever occupied at my own expense. The hotel restaurants were surprisingly posh, too. And since none of the 26,000 "cast" members who served us (no one works at Disney World; even the staff of waiters, cleaning persons, yard workers, and so on are "players," dressed up in Disney costumes) is allowed to frown or be rude or irritable, the service is regal.
There is a "style" at Disney World that - in sharp contrast, certainly, to my Manhattan neighborhood - is uniform in its middle American, asexual, uninflected sameness. Oversize unisex T-shirts and walking shorts - almost all, save those of the Day One new arrivals, marked by Disney logos - are the standard-issue garments from which most visitors diverge in only minor ways. (A young woman in our hotel dressed in high fashion "cruise wear" stood out as odd.)
This sense of classless luxury and unthreatening sameness has its attractions. People who visit regularly as children develop attachments to the place. Many even choose to get married here. There was a Disney wedding during our stay, actually, to which we were invited - via telecast. The groom, who had proposed here the previous year, gave the bride a gilt-edged Disney Cinderella book and a shopping trip to Treasure Island. The bride told the world that she first fell for him because, "He had very good manners; that was important to me."
Good manners are important to everyone at Disney World. So is shopping. And Treasure Island - like virtually every edifice of every kind in Disney World, whether a restaurant, a hotel, a ride, or an actual store - is filled with virtually identical items of clothing, housewares, food, toys, games, and media products all imprinted with the Disney motifs.
There is a synthetic spirit of democracy about all this that is seductive. The working-class family that has saved all year for a week's vacation is indistinguishable from the CEO and his kids who are virtually slumming. The stress of competition - whether sexual, material, or status-based - seems to dissolve. I have never seen so many small children forced to wait in so many long lines in so much heat with so little nagging, whining, crying, or fighting. Nor have I ever spent so much time with so many people and seen and heard so little unpleasantness, conflict, hostility. And why should there be any? These are the very things one comes to Disney World to escape.
I overheard one couple telling another that they had flown all the way from California, although they could have gone much more cheaply to Disneyland, because "you really get away from the world here. It's like an oasis in the middle of nowhere. No one can get to you and you don't have to worry about what's going on in the world." That, it seems, is how most people want it. Every morning when I bought my New York Times there were five copies on the counter. Every evening when I returned, four were still there.
My grandmother would have said, "So what's not to like?" (My students' version was, "Like, you didn't like it? Like, that is just too weird!") My daughter Alison and I did indeed feel un-American, but by Day Three we were bored silly, and by Day Four we were seriously antsy.
Even Epcot Center's famously "erudite" (by mass-culture standards) presentation of scientific, historic, and geographic wonders, at first intriguing, was ultimately a drag - but again, a perversely democratizing drag. Here, in a series of elaborately constructed national and scientific pavilions, are all the wonders of the world, all the culture, knowledge, and productivity that mark the greatest achievements of human civilization, commodified, packaged, and converted into lowest-common-denominator infotainment.
Each pavilion celebrates the cultural and historic achievements of a different global location. Each ride charts the course of some branch of learning or progress. And each is exactly like the other.
Want to visit China but a bit short on cash? Come to Epcot, where you can spend a couple of hours watching videos of highlights of Chinese history, eating Americanized versions of Chinese dishes served by an appropriately costumed "cast" of wait persons, and browsing and shopping among the many, many, many booths and enclaves filled with all the Asian-style chotchkes and souvenirs you can carry (most of which are available at any mall, but not in one convenient setting).
Want to know about the history of communications? Just jump in the first open seat in the little train and take yet another easy, sight-filled ride. Little wooden puppets, meant to represent key figures and scenes in communication history, bob about, sing, and act out facts and dates and major breakthroughs. There's Sam Morse, looking very much like Ted Turner, but with longer hair.
Perhaps the ultimate Disney experience is the MGM-Disney Studio ride, a series of clips and scenes from movie history, every one of which is a simulation of a simulation of a memory of a simulation. For memory itself is what Disney has most ambitiously and arrogantly confiscated, transformed, patented, and retailed.
Walk out of any of the rides or events and you're on Main Street, 1900, as Norman Rockwell would have painted it, had he been able to imagine this many varieties of mass-produced, useless objects, all linked to other Disney attractions. Buy a T-shirt and be lured toward the game, or movie, or ride of the same motif. Pocahontas - the biggie this season - was everywhere seductively beckoning us to consume further representations of her cinematic image and narrative. In Disney's version, of course, Pocahontas, her Native American heritage, and her European lover are indistinguishable from Barbie and Ken and their state-of-the-art camping gear.
I felt depressed on our last morning, reading The New York Times, dressed inappropriately in black, mentally shooing away the larger-than-life Mickeys and Plutos that wander about chatting up the customers and offering coupons to do ever more Disney things. And yet, it would be unfair to say that I didn't understand or appreciate the charm of the place - especially for families with young kids.
Walt Disney, a visionary if there ever was one and a serious social thinker in his way, planted the seeds of what has become a $22 billion empire of entertainment, media, theme parks, and consumer goods. And the signature achievement of his lifelong dream is Disney World, an ever-expanding "city-state" - it has its own police force, taxation system, and governing administration - that draws 100,000 people to its gates each day, a total of thirty million a year.
Disney's dream was explicitly utopian. He was a man who believed in the American Dream of peace, progress, and prosperity in its most uninflected, idealized form. And he built an empire on the hunch that billions of people would pay to spend time indulging the fantasy that the dream, at its hokiest and most misleading, promised. In this dream version of the American project, technology, the free market, and mass education have all been channeled into the service of an elaborate vision of a classless, stress-free, immaculate land of plenty and harmony.
What's missing in Disney's model, of course, is the class, race, and gender strife that American technological and economic progress has, in truth, been built upon. In Disney's utopia there is no poverty, no crime, no blood, no dirt. The idea that nature might be "red in tooth and claw" was utterly foreign to Disney's world view. But even more than blood, he abhorred dirt.
Indeed, it is no accident that Disney's central ambassador is a neutered, hairless, civilized rodent - by nature the filthy scourge of every slum in the developed world. Disney is quoted as saying proudly, on more than one occasion, that "Mickey is a clean mouse." But I could not help thinking, while touring Mickey's empire, of the New Yorker cartoon in which a bunch of scraggly, highly unclean urban rats peer at a framed oil painting of the Great One in a museum and mutter, "Yeah, but what has he done for his people?"
Mickey, of course, has no "people." And the real "people" who run the place - who do indeed bleed and sweat and get dirty as they work to make Disney World function - are invisible. Ingeniously, the park is built above an underground system of tunnels that hides the infrastructure of the park and the workers who keep it functional. The "plenty" of Disney's utopia, then, is made to seem entirely free not only of blood and dirt but of work itself.
I was reminded, upon being told of this underground system, of Herman Melville's story, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," in which a society of prosperous, pampered white businessmen lounge in an urban men's-club environment while, below them, in an underground factory/sweatshop world very similar to Disney's underground workplaces, an army of young working-class women slave away to produce the commodities and services upon which the "bachelors" thrive.
But it's not just domestic, industrial life that Disney renders unthreatening and consumable, a form of entertainment. It is also the specter of cultural and economic globalization that Disney has tamed.
One of the most popular Disney rides at Epcot is called "It's a Small World." In it one rides the usual little train through a series of global scenes in which the ubiquitous wooden puppets, this time painted in varying shades of beige, yellow, pink, and brown, and dressed in "native" attire of various kinds, bob their little heads, and sing - over and over and over again--the brain-jangling jingle itself.
This ride exemplifies the very spirit of Disney's world view. The world and its cultures are gobbled up, reproduced as Disney images, and put up for sale to those who cannot afford to visit the real locales or be trusted to look squarely in the face of the real people who live there. No one yells or spray paints "Yankee go home" at Epcot. Everyone is already home and the world has come to us, in a form we can tolerate - indeed consume - without fear.
While I was put off by the audacity of Disney's vision and ambition - the sheer gall of his belief that he might actually hang a paper moon over the ruin that commerce has made of our living space and call it Heaven - I could certainly understand why so many chose to ignore the transparent ruse and enjoy the ride they had saved and paid for. It is the illusion of absolute escape that, understandably and justifiably, people come here to experience.
Everyone knows, down deep, that the real world of work and worry and credit-card bills that made the trip possible is waiting and that all the social and political problems of home are right there waiting. And if they choose - as I did not - to repress that truth for the duration, who could blame them?
I returned to Manhattan with pleasure. I love New York for the very reasons so many people hate it. In New York everything that's stressful and scary about today's world, everything Disney tries to deny and mask, is right there, in your face, all the time, everywhere. No one pretends to be or feel anything but the raw truth. The tension and despair and rage are visible in the blank faces of those who beg on the subways, who rant their mad magical prayers for salvation on every street corner, who sleep and eat in the cardboard boxes discarded by those who have too much of everything and still demand more.
Disney World is the ultimate effort to deny all that, to create mass social amnesia and blindness. But anyone visiting Times Square (where Disney's latest gargantuan plan to clear the landscapes of reality and replace them with synthetic versions is in the planning stages) knows that his is ultimately a fool's errand. Times Square and its squalid, street-wise denizens - its pimps and whores and runaways and druggies and hustlers and indigents - are not going away and they are not about to let Disney World's version of America erase their own nasty reality from sight. The poor and elderly and feeble, the deranged and addicted and destitute, the runaways from the real middle America, the social and sexual and esthetic "deviants" whose tastes refuse to be contained by the puritan ethic enforced by Disney - all these are going to stubbornly cling to the skid-row streets that we have forced them into until we decide to deal with their needs and desires. Where else can they possibly go?
That is the truth that Disney World can never silence or obliterate.
Elayne Rapping, most recently the author of "Media-tions," published by South End Press, appears in this space every month.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 1995|
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