NO, IT IS NOT cheap, yet it seems at first a good price, once you factor in the happiness payback you hope to receive from the children: whisked by plane from a northern Illinois existence decidedly lacking its own Disney World, and carried—as if by a facsimile of their own imagination—to the former central Florida swamp-cum-pleasure-palace.
Strangely, the story of Disney World and its parent company is inextricably bound to the Chicago area. Walt Disney spent his first four years in Chicago.
His father, Elias Disney, a socialist and supporter of Eugene Debs, labored on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition—perhaps on the White City, an utopic space of European-inspired exhibition halls set away from the hip-gyrating hoochie-coochie dancers and the Ferris Wheel spectacle of the Fair’s lower-order “midway.”
Chicago’s 1933 Fair, the “Century of Progress,” gave birth to the modern New York-style World’s Fairs (1939, 1964), the latter of which would generate Tomorrowland’s “Carousel of Progress” and the Magic Kingdom’s surprisingly still racist/colonialist/offensive-to-the-ears nightmare “It’s a Small World.”
Embark on a delightful boat ride, my ass.
Disney’s theme parks, particularly EPCOT, remain to some extent permanent World’s Fairs. Take “Tom Sawyer Island” in the Magic Kingdom, where one rafts across the fake Mississippi and then explores caves and forts through a wonderfully structured idyll. Sure, this is a far cry from Frederick Law Olmsted’s spectacular Wooded Island at the 1893 fair (still there today, yet transformed, south of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, also from the fair), yet both have more in common with each other and a particular pre-WWII sense of “amusement” than any of the great, crashing mega-coasters that promise herky-jerky bodily thrills, astronaut-level g-forces, and threatening, throbbing brain aneurysms.
I want to like Disney World. I really do.
And so I travel there in the spirit of idyllic amusement, of manicured spaces set to light my daughters’ (five and seven) eyes aflame. In our vacation, thick with the uncharted wonders of the world brought to us in the grandest possible spirit of a World’s Fair, we will rediscover the good in all that is Disney, the magic that must exist, that I have glimpsed, indeed, from the brightly-tipped flails of grass in Alice in Wonderland… rather than the craven DVD-exploitation of princess-paradigm crap-in-a-can typified by finely wrought classics such as Aladdin 3.
And as brash and sexy Aladdin knows all too well from his harrowing DVD adventures, where there’s good, there’s evil.
So, is Disney World evil?
You better believe it.
No, it’s not Ursula-the-Sea-Witch evil. But it’s evil and sinister and many-tentacled all the same. Don’t believe me?
Let me take you through five of the darkest moments from my family vacation—a seven-night stay in the glorified motel called the All-Star Movies Resort, coupled with a five-day “Magic Your Way” pass to the parks.
1) Ayn Rand: Yes, Glenn Beck loves her (sometimes)! Paul Ryan is a fan! (And so too was the enticing co-ed in my undergrad Shakespeare course who briefly bewitched me into glancing at The Fountainhead, pitching me as if I were a Fox News correspondent who believes that only humorless architecture and Wagner operas can save Western Culture.) So, there we were, day four of the Disney odyssey and our second at EPCOT. To avoid the stage where The Guess Who celebrate 120 years of mediocre rock songs with a rousing rendition of “No Sugar Tonight” (Who is the song’s “Jocko“? Why should we believe him? No, I’ll pass on the ringtone), we duck into the nearby rotunda for a viewing of the epic Animatronic pageant: “American Adventures.”
Forget the pageant play itself. Its Disneyfied version of American history would require several more posts to adequately eviscerate (Narrators: Ben Franklin and Mark Twain, time travelers—and not in a cool Doctor Who way); my seven-year old starts staring at an engraved quotation from the Philosopher of Selfishness: “Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision.”
ATHENA (seeing me scowl): “Daddy, what’s wrong with this?”
ME (cycling through the problematic words such as “men” “first” “new” “armed” and “vision”): “Well, let’s just say that Daddy disagrees with LOUD CHORUS OF ‘NO SUGAR TONIGHT,’ and you should to!”
2) Humorless promotions for the terrible Oz movie: No, I didn’t need to see Oz, the Great and Powerful to realize it was probably dreadful. I would enjoy it more, I imagine, if James Franco would play a reluctant wizard named “James Franco” before making a sex tape with himself in the climactic mirror scene. Accordingly, the crew working the EPCOT Oz-promotion area seem less than turned on. First, there are a series of carnival-style ring toss and beanbag games that my daughters want to spend four hours repeating, even during the unforgiving rainstorm. Why? Everyone wins no matter where the rings land. What do they win? Marigold seeds. With promotional Oz pictures. Why marigolds and not poppies?
Of course, neither marigolds nor poppies will grow in the neighboring Astroturf playground adjacent to the “carnival,” where hidden speakers pipe in instrumental Oz music with enough dreadful repetition and bloated compositional acumen to make “Gangnam Style” sound like Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” or even Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind.” When, upon the fiftieth visit to the ring toss tent, I remind the marigold pusher, “Be sure to watch Oz, the Great and Powerful,” in a sad attempt at snark, she looks past me, as if a house has fallen next to her—when she was hoping for a direct hit.
3) There are false gods afoot: We first enter the courtyard of our section of the All-Star Movies Resort to find four-story high statues of Pongo and Perdita—the stars of 1961’s 101 Dalmatians—guarding the courtyard with their 17,000-pound bodies and 15 gallons of paint. They stare with the mysterious sentinel-like qualities of Egyptian guardian statues. What strange sacrifices do these über-dogs demand? Pongo and Perdita have spawned a miniature Dalmatian at their feet, looking up into the empty frame of a television screen—where my daughters play, endlessly dancing and singing to appease these dread canine gods.
The dogs have antennae sticking from their ears, presumably, to maintain a Wi-Fi link with the other courtyard and stairwell deities, as well as with those in the neighboring pantheons. Message to the towering Coke cup guarding a portion of nearby All-Star Sports: We will make our move sooner than the humans sleep, exhausted by the punishing trials we have given to them as “vacation”…
4) The cards, the cards! We stumble into a booth on Main Street USA and discover the “Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom” trading card game. Here, my children receive a “key” card which they wave over various “secret” portals through the park, triggering videos of an interactive cartoon detailing a serious threat to the peoples and integrity of the Magic Kingdom by the wisecracking netherworld god, Hades, from Hercules. Hades is the perfect villain to sneakily infiltrate the park, since no one has seen the movie Hercules.
The players must fight this band of crossover villains from other Disney properties by holding up “spell” cards which cause the cartoon to respond as if a cartoonish hex from a particular card has been cast. This quickly becomes an obsession for my daughters, interrupted only by the roving packs of unaccompanied kids who huddle way too close in hopes that the little ones may have doubles of desirable spell cards that they can be coerced into trading or giving away to the roving packs. When I ask one boy, clearly nine or 10 years old, to kindly back away from Kallista, five, who can barely figure out how to hold the card in front of the trigger camera, his mother suddenly appears: “Oh, he just wants to help.” Me: “Thank you, but I think we have it under control.” Mom: “Where you all from?” Me: “Outside of Chicago.” Mom: “Yeah, I thought you sounded like Northerners. C’mon son, let’s find some other small girls to harass.”
We don’t run into that pair again, but meet no shortage of middle-aged adults, without children, including a solo adult male in his 40s who grunts insanely as he runs between key portals, racing ahead of the streaming children in an effort to get there—where?—first.
5) Duffy and Stacey: The television in our room shows two “programs” in perpetual and insane repetition. The first is the resort-wide infomercial featuring the irrepressibly perky park-going adventurer, Stacey J. Aswad, who gets some great lines (in this case for Animal Kingdom): “It’s a lot like going to the real Africa, but without all the malaria shots and stuff!”
The other program is an all-day teaser screen for a few hours of a repeated “bedtime story” starring the newest Disney character commodity, Duffy the Bear. We never make it back from the parks before the 10pm Duffy curfew, so on our “off day” the girls are excited to jack into this new entertainment. The story begins with what we all know so well: “Mickey is a sea captain, so naturally he spends a lot of time on the ocean. But sometimes he gets lonely, being away from Minnie for so long.” Minnie makes Mickey a stuffed bear named Duffy to get him through those long whaling voyages, and Mickey takes every opportunity to cuddle with the animal—representing the absent Minnie—before taking his new BFF on a worldwide photo safari where, together, they engage in all sorts of colonial adventures (in the jungle, at the pyramids, in front of an Asian temple). You’d have to be fairly jaded to read this story with a cynical commodity-sexualized-colonialist edge, but after several days of intense theme park jostling, I’m there.
Okay, Disney may not be completely evil in the Dick Cheney way—it is absurdly kid friendly—but it is also the least relaxing way to ever spend a vacation. The parks in some degraded way still preserve elements of the old World’s Fairs, albeit in a space between homage and insult. The spectacle of these elements—the homey main street, the future that never was, ad nauseum—allows us to remember, well, that the entire narrative is a colossal, P.T. Barnum-worthy fabrication.
This has value as a sort of temporal crossfade.
Listen girls, we’re here, but not here.
Despite the way this creates opportunity for moments of strangely life-affirming instability, I don’t want to get too close to Disney’s version of the past that never was, or the future that will never be. I don’t want to live in a world where captive safari animals share a space with an artificial tree, a roller coaster, and a Finding Nemo play.
And if I have to visit, because what else is a parent to do but submit to the over-will of two giant Dalmatians, I’ll do it without the target-marketed stuffed bear, thank you.