Yesterday, after spending 10 hours in the Magic Kingdom, I became convinced Disney World is the biggest marketing scam in the industrialized world. I’ve been to Disney twice in years before, and I’ve read many insightful (and hilarious) critiques. But I’m no longer too hip for Disney and I’ve come to terms with post-colonial and tourism studies critiques. Disney is the post-modern simulacra extraordinaire, I get it. But my younger brother generously offered to foot the bill so that my daughter could spend her 8th birthday in Disney World, I assumed it would be corny, but fun. Nothing prepared me for how, well, miserable the experience could be.
After waiting in a long line for tickets, then paying almost $500 for admission, we waited in an even longer line for the boat which takes you to the real entrance. We then jostled along with hot and sweaty crowds to our first ride, only to stand in another line with another, even more sweaty and tightly-packed crowd for 90 minutes … all for a taste of being physically jostled for 90 seconds. And when that was over, we did it again.
Families and couples of all races and nationalities allowed themselves to be packed into small spaces and corralled through lines that seemed designed by Temple Grandin. Yes, the Disney grounds are charming, and the castle at night is beautiful in its changing blue, purple and pink. But the pleasure and value come from brand recognition as much as anything else. After all, there are many other amusement parks and resorts: yet nothing evokes pleasure and a childhood rite of passage like Disney. And Disney-goers are not just families. Years ago, when I worked at a travel agency, I was told that Disney World was the number one most requested location for honeymooning couples. And while waiting in line for a jungle boat ride through the pseudo Nile, Ganges and Amazon, an elderly woman collapsed from the heat. At that point, I was tempted to run through the streets shouting, “The emperor has no clothes: we are all having a miserable time!”
Then we learned about the “fast pass.” Ahh, the pleasures on day two of walking briskly past hundreds of exhausted and demoralized dupes who hadn’t yet learned that they didn’t have to wait in line. The fast pass is legalized skipping, a brilliant pyramid scheme that depends upon the ignorance of the uninitiated.
Our second day, at Hollywood Studios, was much more fun. The pastel Art Deco buildings, the life-size dioramas of a bygone film era, palm trees waving in the breeze. Did I mention the fast passes? It was almost heavenly.
In the 1970s, when I was 9 or so, my mother took me to Disneyland in California. We had driven across country from Buffalo to Santa Barbara where some hippies from our commune had moved into an old ranch in the mountains. A day at Disneyland was my reward/bribe for driving across country in 3 days (no hotel stops) and for taking long hikes with the adults across the hills. My memory of Disneyland is of a sweet set of old-fashioned buildings –probably the Magic Kingdom, a couple of tame roller coasters, and a treasured Winnie the Pooh ring.
Twenty years later, my father and I took my little brother to Disneyworld in Orlando. I was in graduate school at the University of Florida in Gainesville where my father and brother would visit me every summer. (My father also visited for 2 weeks every January, sitting in my classes and watching me teach.) We drove down to Orlando for the day, choosing, for some reason, Epcot Center. It was summertime, so the lines weren’t horrible, but it was very hot and my father’s old car had no air conditioning. I remember the admission for one day being incredibly expensive, something like $50 a person. My father seemed shocked, but we wanted to give my little brother (then around 10) a treat. I have little memory of the rides or the park, except that the price of souvenirs, sodas and hot dogs were so high that at the end of the day, when we paused to eat dinner at the “Japanese” house, my father snapped and he shouted, “We’re splitting one meal!” We sat silently and shared one small serving of chicken teriyaki. We drove home exhausted and my brother didn’t even lobby for another day: he was sated.
One has to marvel at the efficiency of Disney. Although continually expanding, Disney cannot possibly grow to keep pace with the increase in visitors. The careful balance of maximizing profits while still retaining the semblance of pleasure requires the park to make being in a crowd and waiting in line as unnoticeable or as painless as possible.
So why did I come to Disney? For the sake of my child, like parents everywhere. Why did my daughter beg, year after year, to be taken to Disneyworld? Because her friends had gone and because of those wonderful advertisements that promise magic, that whisper to children that they can join Tinker Bell and Cinderella and Ariel, that they can enter their favorite stories. In fact, my favorite ride was the Little Mermaid ride, an ingenious affair that combined film clips with real actors singing clips, spraying the audience and giving us the illusion that we had entered the story. I had been Bippity Boppity Booed.