The Mecca of the Mouse

The Magic Kingdom
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
March 28 2008 11:39 AM

The Mecca of the Mouse

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Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate

Inside every Disney theme park, you'll find at least one booth—often more than one—stocked with information about Disney Vacation Club Resorts. A nice man or woman will hand you a brochure, offer to take you on a tour of model rooms, and talk you through a few different time-share options. Apparently, it's a terrific deal if you want to bring your family back to Disney World every year.

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Query: Why would anyone want to go to Disney World every year? You can pretty much see the whole thing in a week. OK, fine, kids might like it enough to go back again—once, or maybe twice. But this time share makes financial sense only if you return about seven times.

Holy frack! I'd go mental if I had to spend seven precious vacations trapped inside the Disney universe. But let's put my personal feelings aside. Let's say you're a parent. Mightn't it be better to broaden your children's horizons just a tad? Like, maybe visit Canada—instead of just the Canada pavilion in Epcot?

According to Disney, there are more than 100,000 member families in the Vacation Club. These people have handed over all their foreseeable leisure time to the Walt Disney Co. It's an astonishing decision, no? And it's surely less about a destination than an ideology. We'll call it Disneyism. These families aren't choosing a vacation so much as a religion.

Walt Disney, the man, is a singular character in American history. He gets his start as an animator, then becomes a movie mogul, an amusement park baron, and eventually a mythmaker—a sort of unprecedented high priest of American childhood. By the mid-1960s, with his techno-utopian plans for the living city of Epcot, Walt had even turned into (in the words of anthropologist Stephen M. Fjellman) "a social planner and futurist philosopher."

It's these later incarnations of Walt that really fascinate me. The guy is sculpting the toddler id while also designing a domed metropolis with a monorail. How did this happen? A man who got famous drawing a cartoon mouse was now going to solve all America's urban problems?

It's hard to think of a comparable career arc. But as a parallel, evil-twin figure, consider Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. He was born 10 years after Walt, also in heartland America. His career likewise took off on the strength of mass-market entertainments (in Hubbard's case, sci-fi). And then midcentury—during that Atomic Age moment when everything somehow seemed possible—he turned his attention to a grand, ego-gratifying social project of dubious utility.

Who knows what ambitions might have bubbled up in Walt if he'd lived past 1966. But I think one way to look at his life is as L. Ron Hubbard gone good. This is a long way of saying: Disney isn't just a media outfit with some theme parks. It's a worldview—sprung from the head of a lone, imaginative man. And ultimately, for the people who come back to Orlando year after year, it's a church.

On my last day here, I visit the Magic Kingdom—the original and still best-attended of the Disney World parks. After walking down Main Street U.S.A. (a fake, turn-of-the-century boulevard lined with yet more Disney souvenir stores), I come upon the famous Cinderella castle. Fairy-tale spires everywhere. It's so gleaming, it looks like they repaint it every night. (Over the last several years, furthering my Disney-as-religion theory, the castle has become a prime location for wedding ceremonies. Up to five weddings per day are held on Disney World's grounds. Mickey and other characters will even attend your wedding reception. For a fee.)

As I get closer to the castle, I see the familiar Disney apostles (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy) performing musical numbers on a stage, enthralling a large crowd. The lyrics to their songs shuffle around a few key words—dreams, magic, imagination, wonder—and weave them into some upbeat string arrangements. Hymns for the Disneyist congregation.

Many of the little girls watching this are wearing princess dresses (bought at those souvenir stores). For years, Disney must have sought a boys' version of the princess obsession, and it seems they've finally found it—thanks to the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean films. Lots of little dudes are running around in pirate costumes, waving plastic swords.

Disney has increasingly managed to find characters to leverage for each different demographic group. Tinkerbell, from Peter Pan, has been rebranded as the slightly saucier "Tink" and now graces T-shirts targeted at your tween daughter. Meanwhile, your death-metal son will be drawn to the skull-and-bones imagery of TheNightmare Before Christmas franchise.

Even adults wear Disney gear here. There are moms in Mickey ears and dads with giant sorcerer hats. This is a safe place for everyone to act like a kid, and I'll admit there's a certain sweetness about that.

I'm not a fan of the gender dynamic implicit in the princess/pirate split. (Visiting Mickey and Minnie's side-by-side houses does little to reassure me on this score. Mickey's house has a nonfunctioning kitchen and is full of sports equipment, while Minnie has a to-do list on her wall with the entries "Bake a cake for Mickey" and "Make a box lunch for Mickey.") Still, my heart melts when I see a little girl wearing a princess dress while sitting in her wheelchair, beaming ear to ear as her even beamier parents take pictures.

I can understand why families love Disney World. And there's nothing wrong with making kids happy. I just think we'd all be better off if we didn't indoctrinate our kids in the Disneyist dogma.

After spending the past five days here, I've come to the conclusion that Disney World teaches kids three things: 1) a meaningless, bubble-headed utopianism, 2) a grasping, whining consumerism, and 3) a preference for soulless facsimiles of culture and architecture instead of for the real thing. I suppose it also teaches them that monorails are cool. So there's that.

I end my day with the "It's a Small World" ride. Yes, it's a prime example of bubble-headed utopianism. Yes, it features animatronics, which are dated and lame. And yes, that song just never ends. No matter: The ride somehow manages to charm me anyway.

Designed for the UNICEF pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, it shows us children of many cultures all living in harmony. (A color-saturated, Pop Art harmony.) It's an unassailable message, and there's also something comforting in the ride's retro simplicity. Our open-top boat floats along, and I love the gentle bump and redirect when it hits an underwater guide rail. I even have a soft spot for the music. (Though I prefer to reimagine it as a slow, melancholy ballad.)

As I leave the park, I decide that after all my cranky complaining, I'm glad my week came to an end this way. "It's a Small World" makes for a nice, pleasant memory to finish on. I'm feeling positive about Disney again. And then there's an incident on the parking tram.

I'm seated on the tram, ready to ride back out to the parking lot where my rental car's waiting. The driver has already blown the horn and announced that no more boarding will be allowed. Suddenly, I notice a woman 20 yards away, running toward us.

The driver spots her too. The tram is in motion now, and he screams over the loudspeaker: "Ma'am! Stand back! There is no more boarding!" But the woman can see that there's no real danger here—the vehicle is moving at, like, 3 miles an hour—and fer crissakes she doesn't want to wait 15 minutes for another tram if she doesn't have to.

The driver keeps shouting. The other passengers are tut-tutting at this rule-breaker. The tram keeps rolling. The woman is getting nearer.

As I watch all this, I start to think about the totalitarian seamlessness of Disney. The berms that hide the loading docks and the Dumpsters. The fireworks that go off every night at precisely 9 p.m. The impeccably G-rated entertainment. The synchronized rides. The power-washed streets.

"Ma'am!" the driver yells again, with real exasperation. She's just a few strides away, with her eyes on that slow-moving prize. "Ma'am, there is no more boarding at this time!"

I can't help but break into a satisfied grin as the woman hops up on the running board and takes a seat.

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