It’s the first thing out of every athlete’s post-championship-winning mouth: “I’m going to Disney World!” Most television viewers don’t waste time pondering over how much Disney has paid said athlete to exclaim this in front of a national audience, nor does it seem particularly striking to the zealous sporting fan why grown men, adults as we call them, would prefer the cartoonish land of screaming children and sweltering heat over pretty much anything else. Why has this particular amusement park grown so steadily in the hearts of Americans? Why is Disney World still the “happiest place on earth?”
1. Sheer Size
It’s not called Disney City, State, or Province; it’s Disney fucking WORLD. From the very moment tourists step off their plane in Orlando, Florida, a city that has become synonymous with Disney, they are immersed in fantasy – pools, palm trees, manicured lawns, but most importantly Mickey, Mickey, Mickey. This is not accidental. Disney World has made the Orlando airport one of the busiest in the nation and the city a fundamental destination spot for anyone that considers themselves American; thus, it is imperative that the magic begin as soon as the airplane lands. (If only the Orlando Magic were as good at basketball as Disney is at sensory manipulation.)
However, Orlando was not always an entertainment capital. Before Walt Disney purchased the land in central Florida in the 1960s, it was merely home to orange groves, wetlands, and farms. Soon enough though, the Disney company came to own upwards of 30,000 acres. Although it’s difficult to comprehend the size of Disney World when you’re there, the statistics provide some idea: 43 square miles. That’s double the size of Manhattan whose Empire State Building bears a dominant phallic resemblance to Cinderella’s castle.
Also giving emphasis to the illusion of a different “world,” Disney’s “imagineers” created an elaborate entrance system where visitors either board a ferry to transport them across an artificial lake or they ride a swift monorail to the doors of the Magic Kingdom. Leaving their cars, belongings, and independence behind, tourists step from reality and start their journey towards the looming façade of Disney’s trademark castle. Only then can they enter the kingdom’s gates (do I detect some religious subtlety here?)
2. American Nostalgia
Once visitors have completed this rather time-consuming process and make it through the gates to the seeming heavenly wonderland, they find themselves on Main Street, USA – a nameless, unidentified projection of small-town America. While we romanticize this idea of the small town – its moral values, sense of community, and single, unifying Main Street – it is just that – an idea. Lined with faux storefronts, Disney’s Main Street doesn’t even pretend to be real, which is fitting since the whole concept of Main Street is also mythical, emerging from fabricated American nostalgia. As Miles Orvell states in his essay “Constructing Main Street: Utopia and the Imagined Past”:
It is largely a function of created memory…a kind of second hand, ersatz memory, a collective memory, given form in the many materializations of the small town that marked twentieth-century culture… a place that implies a harmonious community and a democratic society, it is what Americans (and the rest of the world) want to think America stands for.”
Disney placed this concept of Main Street at the center of its park where visitors both enter and exit. It is a comfort zone, a place where patrons can purchase memorabilia that will add to their conception of nostalgia. Through this process Disney equates itself with Main Street, thereby re-directing nostalgic Americana attachments to the park itself. Disney becomes the place we long to return to, not twentieth-century America. The purchase of Disney merchandise solidifies this transmission; the mouse-ear hat is now as American as apple pie. There are more gift shops in the park than there are rides for a reason. The main focus of Disney World is capitalism, not entertainment. The souvenirs that leave the park remain as visible reminders and traces of Disney. They are not American flags or storybooks or the core values Disney pretends to convey; they are cartoons and self-referential fantasies that lead only back to Disney. This is evident to anyone with eyes, but is rendered invisible by the “magic” or hyperreality. As E.L. Doctorow says in his semi-historical novel The Book of Daniel:
The ideal Disney World patron may be said to be one who responds to symbolic manipulation that offers him his culminating and quintessential sentiment at the moment of purchase…What Disney World proposes is a technique of abbreviated shorthand culture for the masses, a mindless thrill, like an electric shock, that insists at the same time on the recipient’s rich psychic relation to his country’s history and language and literature.”
3. Hyperreality – Escapism
This layering of fantasy is what makes Disney World the ultimate example of hyperreality – where signs and images no longer bear any resemblance to the “real” world, but rather have replaced the real with the imaginary. This concept of the hyperreal, as defined by postmodern thinker Jean Baudrillard, is a component of the larger concept – the “Death of the Real.” In every land of Disney World there exists these sorts of simulations that have no grounding in reality, but rather perpetuate created memories of American place. Disney World takes the already fictional tales of American places – Main Street, the Western frontier, the vision of the future – and fictionalizes them further by reducing them down to the barest of scraps, harnessing this simplicity into reproductions that leave the consumer with the inability to differentiate reality from fantasy.
It was Walt Disney himself who perhaps set the tone for this postmodern condition. He said, “I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I have ever known.” Was it this statement that marked the dawn of hyperreality? If the simulations have replaced the real and images have replaced experience, what does place mean when fantasy is at the root of its construction? Has the world become so unbearable that we’d rather be lost in its representations than the actual thing? If you ask a child why they love Disney World, they’ll say because it’s where dreams come true – the dream being a vacation to Disney World. The place creates its own fantasy, just like “real” American places, even though it’s just a theme park. It plays an active role in its own myth-making. The material and abstract traces work together to create this illusion of a different “world” even though, as Orvell says, “it’s the essence of inauthentic: it represents nothing but itself, its own factitious universe.” Still visitors accept the inauthentic; in fact, they embrace it.
4. Historical Consciousness – Shorthand Culture
While guests seek nothing but these simulated stimuli, they are still being historically, albeit, unconsciously informed. After patrons go through the birth canal of Main Street with their treasure maps in hand, they are given the choice of which land to visit first, a pick-your-own-adventure sort of narrative. If one is to move in a somewhat chronological order, Frontierland would be the first stop. Themed to the American Frontier, it looks more like a setting from an old Western film. Already visitors find themselves, again, to be another step removed from reality – they are visiting the American Frontier of cowboy movies, not the historical frontier, which like Main Street, is lost in the realm of endless reproductions. Frontierland, then, is initially a copy of a copy. The copies then continue into an indefinite chain of modifiers – the plants are fake, the rocks are actually speakers, the pioneers are actors, the presidents are wax figures, and references to anything remotely real are radically reductionist. For example, the attractions “Tom Sawyer Island” (another artificial island) and the “Mark Twain Riverboat” condense the brutal lifestyle of slave-trading on the Mississippi River into a ten minute cruise. As Doctorow states:
The intermediary between us, this actual historical experience, and the writer Mark Twain…is now no more than the name of the boat. Piracy on the high seas, a hundred and fifty years of harassment of European mercantile exploration and trade, becomes a moving diorama of all the scenes and situations of the pirate movies made by Hollywood in the thirties and forties. When the customer is invited then to buy, say, a pirate hat in one of the many junk shops on the premises, the Pavlovian process of symbolic transference to the final customer moment may be said to be complete.”
While Frontierland contains just as many elements of the fantastic as the next, Fantasyland is the only land that is self-referential; even though the entirety of Disney World is a fantasyland, this is the only area of the park that flaunts the fact. Many of the rides are based on Disney film-recreations of classic children’s literature like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Snow White. But as Doctorow says, “It is clear that few of the children who ride in the Mad Hatter’s Teacup have read or even will read Alice, let alone the works of Mark Twain. Most of them will only know Alice’s story through the Disney film, if at all.” This is true for most of the references that are implicit in the park’s construction and only serve to reinforce the hyperreal. All of the references to real events, people, or places are presented as the already modified versions of these things. “Peter Pan’s Flight” is itself a copy of the Disney film Peter Pan, which is a copy of the novel by J.M. Barrie, which is a work of fiction and thus open to interpretation; therefore, as visitors consume these images, they believe them to be real experiences of the story they are riding through. However, as Doctorow again notes, “what is being offered does not suggest the resonance of the original work, but is only a sentimental compression of something that is itself already a lie.”
Many of the rides in Disney World originated at our nation’s World’s Fairs, events that shamelessly boasted our superiority on the international stage. (e.g. Our measly Ferris Wheel totally kicked the patriotic ass of the Eiffel Tower.) One of these attractions is “Small World.” Supposedly representing diversity and togetherness to the viewer who rides in a boat “around the world,” it is curious that this ride was placed in Fantasyland. Perhaps that is because this attraction masks the true realities of our world, especially the harsh realities of globalization, by presenting an ideal image of international unity and cultural harmony. The static dolls who are singing throughout the ride all have Euro-American faces with tainted skin, and, as a transnational corporation, one could read this as Disney’s promotion of imperialist values, which was a very prominent sentiment in our nation’s history of world’s fairs. As a place of amusement and entertainment, Disney can get away with these underlying messages; in the hyperreal place, all of the potentially political antagonisms of the real world implode into nothing. It is a true sign of the power that Disney holds over its patrons who are lost in this hyperreality and unable to realize the messages that many of the rides convey.
Just as important as what is seen is what is not seen. In Tomorrowland current technology mechanizes the “futuristic” look of the ironically old attractions. The main appeal is Space Mountain, which is just a kids’ roller coaster popularized by the fact that there are no lights – it’s in the dark. In fact, there is not an adult ride in the whole of Disney World that is not encased in an movie-set style building, which is what separates Disney World from everything else – the elaboration of simple pleasure. The attractions’ structures take the emphasis off of the typical rides that are housed within – rides that are no different from attractions one would find at any other theme park. Though these complex building plans also function as crowd control and an escape from the often scorching temperatures of Orlando, Florida, they also largely contribute to the experience of the rides themselves. The build-up of waiting and walking through a space station, haunted mansion, underground cave, etc. to arrive at the final destination is what’s really entertaining because these interactive waiting zones are usually more advanced and amusing than the actual rides themselves. The importance of this elaboration is the illusion. The rider cannot actually see the rides from the outside that they are about to go on because they’re hidden within mammoth structures, making the thrill all about the presentation.
Operating underneath Disney World is a secret city, an underground system that allows the characters and workers to appear and disappear as if by magic. The network of tunnels allows the workers easy access to all parts of the park. This was created so that the customers never see a worker moving to their work station. No one ever sees the trash being emptied or maintenance taking place. These duties are not a part of the Disney experience and are thus literally covered. For a place supposedly purporting American ideals, like the importance of hard work and labor, it’s curious how they choose to give meaning to their employees. No matter their job function, all Disney employees are cast members and being in a visible area is called being on stage. If a cast member comes out of character, even if they are in danger, they’re fired on the spot. If one does not abide by the “Disney Look” they are fired, meaning anyone with any sort of alternative, unique attributes is not worthy of employment. It’s not difficult to see that the term “casting” has been used to justify placing the attractive men and women in the front-line guest interaction jobs, the Hispanic women in housekeeping, the African-Americans on the safari, and the man with one leg in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” So imperative is illusion to the Disney atmosphere that workers are no longer people; they are docile servants that serve one god, The Mouse. They function as replacable, low-paying cells in a powerful and merciless unit.
In conclusion, Disney World has become a cultural icon – a place of pilgrimage for contemporary culture, a fantasyland that perpetuates fantasy. Yet behind the scenes we see a picture of corporate greed and mass manipulation – information that is well-known, often written about, common knowledge. So what does this say about the current state of society? That we enjoy hyperreality – this replacing of reality with an exaggerated ‘real’ where happiness is found only through artificial simulation – more than the truth? This active ignorance towards reality is turning us into drones, programmed with corporate slogans and agendas; this postmodern state of hyperreality is allowing for mass manipulation, re-wiring our already oversaturated brains.