I think the way I’ve managed to blog for most of seven years has been to mash up whatever emotions I had at hand, strain them through the cheesecloth of process, and bottle them with a comic seal. But it’s been a hard year. Who wants vinegar when you set out to make wine?
It was my intention to take the kids to Disney World last Thanksgiving, but we had a death in the immediate family and no one had it in them to make the trip. This year we were looking forward to the distraction, even if it meant a 12-hour drive each way and doubling Disney’s most recent quarterly profit of $1.39 billion by our expenditures alone. There’s been some pressure knowing my younger son is the prime age and that my elder is approaching a threshold age and has not been entirely well. Despite the fact that I’m constitutionally not made for Disney, I was ready and willing to undergo the madness of the mouse for the boys’ sake.
I used to be a copywriter, so let me invent a truthful slogan Disney can use: “Clean, and we made an effort with the food.” Seeing my children (often) happy was nice. I even found myself feeling warmly nostalgic at the sight of Main Street, USA aglow with holiday lights, festooned with garland, and thick with pedestrians walking off their coaster-nausea. The fact that Disney’s Main Street invokes the largely dead heart of America—the small-town business district killed in part by major corporations—nearly failed to come to mind. Okay, so I stood thinking of how it’s like plasticizing somebody’s dead grandfather, dressing him in a bowler hat and vest, and propping him up to sell branded key chains, t-shirts, hats, beer openers, snow globes, stuffed animals, plates, flatware, mugs, wristwatches, picture frames, cell phone covers, nutcrackers, pins, other collectibles and animation art, and Starbucks Cake Pops. But then I was right back in it.
Some things had changed since my last visit. They tend to give you stuff to look at now when you’re standing in the cattle chutes for rides. The haunted mansion has better holograms. Several animatronic Johnny Depps now populate the “Pirates” ride. Dummy pirates are chased in circles through doorways by dummy women; didn’t it use to be the other way around? If that was some attempt at feminism it’s deflated a little by the tableau of a white slavery auction, where the auctioneer puzzlingly chides the woman on the block for showing off her “wares.”
The Are you fucking kidding me moments—inevitable, really, after four days—came in the Animal Kingdom, which opened in 1998 on Earth Day. It’s the largest Disney theme park in the world, at 580 acres; 579 appear to be asphalted. You can get there from the other Disney properties by riding one of the buses in their belching megafleet down the highway and through the tollgates onto the eternal plains of the parking lot. Be sure to admire the giant concrete tree celebrating the diversity of life. A few monkeys hide from the cold nearby, inside boxes in a chicken-wire enclosure. Fake Mt. Everest, which is penetrated and wrapped by a $100-million steel rollercoaster, is visible through much of the park, even though it’s .007 times the size of the sacred mountain it trades on.
We got stuck in a line for the "Safari" ride for nearly two hours when the starter gates wouldn’t electronically/hydraulically open. There were no announcements, no attendants, and quite literally no way out, due to the density of the queue behind us and the maze it created in the fake African jungle. The situation reminded me of the short story by Manuel Gonzales in which a passenger plane circles the airport for 20 years. But the diesel trucks (driven poorly on purpose, I’m convinced) finally took us through the “preserve” (“here in Africa we…” the driver insisted to the end). There were deep concrete tire tracks cast into the concrete road, which itself had been poured and perhaps colored to look like mud. Why this, of all things, shocked me, I don’t know, but it had something to do with presumption, as with the logo of the Sherwin Williams paint company, which I see on tractor-trailers all the time: “COVER THE EARTH,” commands their slogan, while a bucket of red paint slops over and smothers the globe we call home.
Fake static from the fake African radio program was blaring on the truck’s loudspeaker when we passed the very real elephant with a real erection so large that there were the predictable titters and jokes about five-legged elephants. My wonderful little Wolfie asked why Disney had strapped a robot leg to the poor beast—one of the smartest critiques of “imagineering” I’ve ever heard. And though any municipal zoo offers better views of the animals than we got on the ride, my safari companions went coocoo bananas over the briefest glimpse of a lion’s mane just visible over the parapet of an enclosure, chattering and laughing excitedly as they took cell phone photos. It’s all context, right?
We had noon reservations for Thanksgiving dinner at one of the places fake-distressed to look like it’s in a non-industrialized country. Bad karma: The restaurant lost power early and was finally declared down for the day, but only after we’d stood in line for an hour, been told to come back, and stood in line another half hour. I’m afraid that when Guest Relations Jessica, one of a small army of sympathetic, polite, and slightly scared-looking young people tasked with finding dozens of enraged families somewhere else to eat that day, asked sweetly if I was happy again after she’d found us space at a teppanyaki place, where we’d share a mediocre meal in grease smoke with strangers for $135, I gracelessly did a bit about the ecstasy of ascending bodily from the purgatory of Disney, where we’d been trapped lo these many days, into whatever came next, even if it was the lake of fire of Universal Studios.
Maybe the oddest part of Disney for me is their continued dedication to serve as mouthpiece for American democracy and its fruits, as if it was still 1949 and Uncle Walt was just up in his office, putting his sweater on to go meet with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. (My favorite Simpsons riff: “Roger Meyers, Senior, the gentle genius behind Itchy and Scratchy, loved and cared about almost all the peoples of the world. And he, in turn, was beloved by the world, except in 1938 when he was criticized for his controversial cartoon, ‘Nazi Supermen Are Our Superiors.’”)
I mean, I’m an all-American boy next door, but is American democracy really the corporate tie-in that it used to be? There’s something in the stance, tone, and rhetoric in places around the parks, not just in the Hall of Presidents, that pushes this notion and parallels that of the banal and outdated Energy Adventure ride (“a cute look back at the prehistoric origins of today's energy sources”). That ride originated in the Reagan-Bush years, though its current narration by Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye the Science Guy was taped a decade later when Ellen still wasn’t funny and not yet elegant. The ride was sponsored for 22 years by Exxon.
I tried then and I’m trying now, so let me say that my favorite part of the whole thing was a ride called Soarin’. Not just because it didn’t cause micro-tears in my brain tissue the way I’m sure the Aerosmith rollercoaster did, or because it still makes me unsteady and nauseous even to mention the enclosed Mars shuttle simulator that evidently killed at least two people, which they don’t say on the signs where you stand in line to ride.
In Soarin’ you sit in a fake hang glider and are lifted up 20-40 feet before an IMAX screen, so it looks and feels vaguely like you’re flying through California landscapes—forests, ski slopes, a golf course, breaking surf. It has smell-o-vision. There’s a charming naïvete about its wide-eyed look at natural and manmade wonders, in the ‘50s-sounding score, and in the film’s jump-cuts from one biome to the next as if spectacle supersedes narrative. The film is not entirely innocent, of course, somewhat rudely promoting the home state of the Disney Corporation while being shown in a park growing cancerously on Florida soil. It's also militarized in service to American might: Fighter jets blast by (creating fake turbulence) in the high desert, and you skim the deck of an aircraft carrier in San Diego. The carrier was chosen, I presume, because it gave the designers liberty to bring riders in fast on the six of a departing Seahawk, and in the chest-thump of rotors there’s the urge to lift your feet out of the way of the blades.
People like to point at the Chinese for their odd simulacra, but Americans have been at it a while. The Dickeson Panorama is a 348-foot long, eight-foot high painting that shows 25 scenes of life in the Mississippi Valley’s expansionist period. In 1852, Dr. Montroville W. Dickeson, an amateur archaeologist and naturalist, having commissioned the painting from his own sketches, took the panorama on the road. During shows he’d scroll it from one giant spool to another in front of seated audiences, who paid 25 cents a head ($6.80 today, but note the price of land, below) to watch it move past. The promo for the show said “Dr. D devoted twelve years of his life in these investigations, having in that time explored the whole Valley of the Mississippi”—as well as digging into “1,000 Indian Monuments or Mounds” and appropriating “40,000 relics,” some of which he brought to use in his talks. Like John Smith’s writings about the opportunities awaiting English settlers in the Americas, Dickeson’s panorama was a kind of “educational entertainment” that much of Disney has always aimed for, with similar expectation of profit. (According to Mississippi Panorama [City Art Museum of St. Louis, 1950], there was a “bitter competition” among other traveling panorama-ists of the Mississippi in the nineteenth century. “John Banvard [1815-1891] showed, for example, a lush prairie that could be obtained for $1.25 an acre. Here he combined his role of artist and painter of the largest painting in the world with that of an apologist for any Midwestern land speculator.”)
As we were headed for Orlando, other fathers of my acquaintance, whom I suspect had traveled or were at the office a lot when their kids were growing up, told me to treasure the trip. I carry fatherly guilt, but not that kind. Those who’ve been on the same rides as I have responded with miniature sympathies.