Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sure Disney is fake; but it's such GOOD fakery

     On Election Day, I posted a photograph of myself wearing a Mickey Mouse "VOTE" pin. A reader saw it and mentioned that her daughters works for Disney World, which reminded me that I had visited there with my family, almost a decade ago. My reaction to the place might surprise readers—it certainly surprised me. I've never posted this column on the blog. In this uncomfortable political moment—is there any other kind lately?—I thought it a good time to dredge this out of the vault and share it with you.

     ORLANDO, Fla.—"Doesn't Disney World remind you of McDonald's?" my 13-year-old asked, as the Disney Magical Express, aka a bus, neared the sprawling theme park's main gate. "Aren't they based on the same ideals of sameness?'
     I twisted the iPod buds out of my ears—I was fortifying myself for arrival at the Magic Kingdom with Mozart's "Requiem Mass"—but didn't answer, my eyes fixed on the archway as it loomed. I was not, yet, in Disney World. I could, still, turn back. I had never, technically, been to Disney World. But once I entered, I will always have visited, a stain I could never erase. "Better you than me," our neighbor had scoffed, and more than one reader proudly announced they would never, ever go, as if it were a moral imperative.
     I stayed on the bus. We entered the kingdom. There was a smattering of applause, the way people clapped when a different bus I once rode rolled into Jerusalem.
     We stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, its majestic, soaring lobby filled with African art. There were giraffes and zebras grazing on the savannah outside our balcony. A few hours later we were watching tigers—real tigers—frolic and wrestle amongst overgrown temple ruins.
     This isn't the travel section, but enough readers asked me what Disney World was like that I should try to relate a bit of our stay.
     Those who haven't been there invariably invoke its falsity—it isn't the real world, it's Disney World. That's absolutely true. If Disney were trying to approximate the actual Africa, they would need to place 5,000 desperate refugees living under plastic tarps in their savannah instead of antelopes.
     In that light, reality suddenly seems over-rated. What those who haven't been don't realize is Disney offers some very well-done falsity, giving you a taste of things that, without Disney, you might never experience at all.
     For instance. For the handful of hardy souls who have actually hang-glided over the Golden Gate Bridge, I'm sure the Soarin' ride at Disney is a pale imitation of the actual experience of winging across San Francisco Bay.
     But for those of us who never have and never will, it was jaw-dropping—and I don't mean "jaw-dropping" as cliched metaphor, but as dry description. My mouth was hanging open.
     Walt Disney created the original Disneyland, he said, because he wanted somewhere to take his two daughters, and as a place to bring your kids, Disney World works fabulously. Everyone could satisfy a different goal while still being together. My teen wanted thrills, so we hit Space Mountain and Expedition Everest. The 11-year old wanted grub, so we ate churros and Mickey waffles.
     My wife wanted to master the Disney system, with its Fast Passes and secret codes, and delighted as each activity she meticulously planned months earlier—the Cirque du Soleil, the popular restaurants—found favor with her family.
     And me? I was also interested in thrills, grub and family. But I wanted something to think about, and Disney World offered a college seminar: Faux Reality and Its Visions of the Future.
     If you approach Casablanca—the real one—from the sea, as I have, you are confronted, not with minarets, camels or tents, but with an unbroken chain of modern high-rises. It looks like Miami. The Moroccan section of Disney World, on the other hand, might be small and fake. But at least it looks exotic.
     I savored that one of the wonders offered, sincerely, by Siemens in its "Project Tomorrow" exhibit —"Going to the mall? Your car will find a parking space and valet park itself"—is mirrored, precisely, in a black and white 1950s newsreel clip shown ironically in the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater.
     Disney World often told us to "celebrate your dreams," and I did stop, standing on Main Street, USA, while the parade was passing, to wonder what indeed my dreams might be. They aren't as threadbare as those served up by Siemens, thank God, but not much sharper either, and I resolved right there to cook up better dreams, an insight worth going to Florida for.
     None of the drawbacks people warned us about proved significant. The lines were short, sometimes nonexistent. The crowds, rather than being jammed with rude, grotesque fellow citizens, had a surprising number of sleek, button-nosed French families. I considered whether they came as an expression of Gallic contempt. But they seemed to be having fun, and my guess is they came here grasping at a classic American experience, the way my wife and I hurried to the Follies Bergere in Paris. It wasn't because we thought French ladies still wear crinoline skirts.
     Too many highlights to list—those tigers, great 3-D shows, good food. The drawbacks—a few tired attractions, two of which broke down while we were on them, one incoherent laser extravaganza which locked Mickey Mouse in a Manichean struggle with the forces of evil.
     If I had to single out a single best moment, it was one morning, waiting for a bus. A common Disney World experience that turned suddenly extraordinary when my teenager implored, "Tell us a story." He hadn't asked that in years, and I pulled out one of the chestnuts the boys used to love to hear, and told it one last time.
          —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 6, 2009


  1. Lovely. It's a real delight (though humbling) to find that you can enjoy an experience that you had in principle repudiated in advance.


  2. You must have gone to Disney while schools were in session. I lived in Orlando for several years driving for a livery service. My recommendation to those wanting to go to any theme park is, take the kids out of school for 3 days, plus a non holiday weekend and you will do more than you could in 8 days during the summer or Spring break etc. If you could sit in front of a Disney hotel, 10:00 PM, mid summer, you would see families straggling back from a park, parents carrying shopping bags and exhausted children, sweating like convicts on a chain gang. Of course I would first suggest avoiding Disney all together. Under the veneer they are not all that nice. I met many employees with sad stories of their experience. Like a young girl recruited with the promise that being a summer worker would put her near the front of the hiring line after graduation. When she brought her diploma with a degree in public relations to her interview, she was told to return when she had 10 years of experience in the real world. The housing Disney provided cost twice the local rate(that I paid, at least for an equivalent lodging) making it a profit center for the company. Many more first hand accounts by employees and locals are too numerous to count, and sufficient for me to withhold my dollars from their greedy little hands. Go to a museum instead.

    1. Not a fan. When it opened, during the holiday season of 1970, there was a 25-mile backup on the Florida Turnpike, which I got stuck in while driving back to Chicago from Miami. Went there in July and fried, and froze in January, when I Had to wear a down jacket on a bright and frigid day in the 40s. Central Florida lost a lot of its citrus industry that week (in 1982). And 26 above in Orlando felt like Chicago's 26 below, which I was escaping.Had to hang blankets on our hotel window.

      I'd much rather visit EPCOT, with its exhibits from all over the planet. Mexico is highly recommended, as is Germany and its beer hall. England is very enjoyable. The Norwegians actually hire kids from the old country to sell the merch. They were amazed how much I knew about their homeland. That's what happens when you marry a Norwegian.

      During one visit to EPCOT, I was on some kind of indoor ride that involved a tram in a dark tunnel. There was a power outage. Total blackness and silence. Restarting the ride proved unsuccessful. Then some wise-ass yelled out: "Hey, is there anyone else here from NEW YORK?" That got the biggest laugh I heard all day, bigger than at any of the stage shows.

      EPCOT requires getting up before daylight to catch a shuttle at your hotel, enduring a long bus ride, and then milling around at the gate so you can pony up well over two hundred bucks for two people. And there are no trams or monrails. You'd better be able to walk long distances, even in the summer swelter. Average attendance is about 60,000 a day--higher still when school is out. My wife's brother used to take his whole family to the Magic Kingdom for extended stays...his wife, their kids, and the grandkids. I can't imagine doing that, but then, millions do as he does, year after year. Maybe it's just me.

      My wife says Disneyland is better. Older and smaller, but better. I wouldn't know, and probably never will. I miss the old "amusement parks" that are long gone. Places like Riverview, where I enjoyed every sleazy, scuzzy minute. A lot about Riverview was not politcally correct, but then, not too many folks were in the days before expensive, sanitized, Disnified, pre-packaged fun.

  3. I can't find it now, but I read a story a few years ago where these teens were able to sneak in behind the scenes at Disney World. I don't remember if they were ever caught.

  4. One can miss a lot by having too superior tastes. As a character in "Private Lives" observed, "Strange, the potency of cheap music."


    1. The parks aren't totally without entertainment. I still remember vividly my shock when the Lincoln robot stood up, for a second I thought it was alive. That was Disneyland in the 70s, not as hot as Orlando but still overcrowded.

  5. Disney parks are great as a one-time vacation with the kids — never could understand, though, the attraction for adults. Had a fellow who worked for me who was excited that he and his husband would be honeymooning at Disney World! As far as “GOOD Fakery,” theme parks would not generate much revenue if the False Reality were “replaced with 5,000 desperate refugees.” Now, how about pulling out one of your “chestnuts” for your readers?


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