Soon after checking in to my hotel room, I discover a mouse in the bathroom. Three mice, in fact. One is imprinted on the bar of soap. One peers out from the shampoo label. And a third, on closer inspection, is a washcloth—ingeniously folded by hotel staff to create two protruding, terrycloth ears.
I'm growing used to these rodentophilic touches. Earlier today, as I drove into the enormous Walt Disney nation-state here in Florida, I noticed a tall electrical stanchion topped with a pair of Mickey ears. Soon after, I spotted a water tower with the ears painted in black. When it comes to branding, Disney's aim is total immersion.
Which is good, because that's my aim, too. I'm here to envelop myself in the Disney World experience. I've obtained lodging deep within the compound, at a Disney-owned resort. I've bought a $280 multiday pass, granting access to more Disney attractions than any person could reasonably endure. For the next five days, I plan not to stray beyond the borders of the Disney empire. (Don't worry, that still leaves me 47 square miles, an area roughly twice the size of Manhattan, in which to roam.)
Why on earth would I, a childless adult, visit Disney World by myself? Basically, to figure out what the hell's going on in this place. Because America has clearly decided it's hallowed ground.
More than 100,000 people visit Disney World every day. I went when I was a kid. Nearly all my friends went. A few went more than once. Heck, I know Jews who weren't bar mitzvahed but did go to Epcot.
Somehow, this cluster of amusement parks has grown into a rite of American childhood. Kids are born with homing beacons set for Orlando. Meanwhile, parents—despite the hefty costs—often seem just as eager or more so to make the pilgrimage.
My question is: What exactly are we worshipping at this mecca?
Day 1: Epcot
I drive the three minutes from my hotel and ditch my rental car in the lot. After swiping my pass-card and getting my fingerprint scanned (a new security measure), I enter through Epcot's gates. Once inside, I'm immediately jaw-dropped by the looming mass of Spaceship Earth.
It's tough to ignore—being a 16-million-pound, 180-foot-high disco ball. One of Walt Disney's personal rules for theme-park design involved a concept he curiously termed the wienie. A wienie is a show-stopping structure that anchors the park. It is meant be iconic and captivating, so that it lodges in your visual memory forever.
Spaceship Earth is perhaps the wieniest of all wienies. And it announces right off the bat that Epcot will not be your standard kiddie fun park. Over at the Magic Kingdom, the wienie is the fairy-tale Cinderella Castle. Here, it's a geodesic sphere inspired by the theories of R. Buckminster Fuller.
When I enter Spaceship Earth, I board a ride tracing the history of communication—from the first written symbols to the advent of the personal computer. It's low season now, so there's a mercifully short wait for the ride. That's the good news. The bad news is that once the ride is under way, I discover that it's a vague, aimless snooze. Toward the end of it, we pass what I believe to be an animatronic Steve Jobs. He's pneumatically gesturing inside a replica of a 1970s California garage.
When the ride is over, we spill into an area called "Innoventions." It's sponsored by a company called Underwriters Laboratories, which specializes in product-safety compliance. Among the fun activities here for kids: Try to make a vacuum overheat! Also: See if you can fray the cord of an iron! (I'm not kidding about this. There are 9-year-old boys with furrowed brows attempting to cause product failures.)
Several other exhibit halls surround Spaceship Earth. According to my guidebook, they feature "subjects such as agriculture, automotive safety, and geography." Well gosh, that's what being a kid is all about!
Inside a pavilion labeled "The Land," I find myself being lectured on sustainable development. The lecture is delivered by the animated warthog from The Lion King. I can overhear the nice mom behind me trying to distract her whimpering toddler. "Look honey," she says, reading from her Epcot brochure, "the next ride is a 'voyage through amazing greenhouses and a fish farm!' " The kid cries louder.
Though I was only 8, I still remember the day Epcot opened in 1982. The TV networks treated the event as news, airing live coverage. Every kid in my third-grade class was desperate to see this wondrous new place.
Once the fanfare faded, though, we began to sense that Epcot was a slightly odd duck. Disney had purposefully designed it to appeal more to young adults than to their offspring. It was bound to disappoint all but the nerdiest of children. It had been the largest private construction project in all of American history—requiring three years and $1 billion to complete—and in the end, it was essentially a tarted-up trade expo.
A perusal of Disney history suggests that Epcot was in some ways the brainchild of the man himself. What Walt envisioned was an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—a real town, serving as a laboratory for cutting-edge ideas about urban planning. But after Walt died in 1966, his dream was gradually perverted into the theme park we see today.
Sponsors were called in to defray the huge costs, and in return, Epcot's "Future World" exhibits became an ode to giant corporations. The automotive safety ride is brought to you by General Motors. The agricultural science ride is compliments of Nestlé. In his tome Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America (the title refers to the fake leaves on a Disney "tree"), mildly paranoid anthropologist Stephen M. Fjellman writes that Epcot's attractions are meant to "convince us to put our lives—and our descendants' lives—into the hands of transnational corporate planners and the technological systems they wish to control."
When I leave the Future World area, I walk around the Epcot lagoon to the other half of the park. Here I enter the "World Showcase." It consists of 11 separate pavilions, each dedicated to a different nation.
I like the idea of the World Showcase. And some of the architecture—the faux Paris street scene, for example—displays an astounding talent for mimicry. But if you've ever actually been outside America, this nod to the rest of the world is mostly just insulting.
Half the pavilions have no cultural content at all. The Morocco complex is just souvenir stores selling carpets and fezzes. The ride meant to encapsulate Mexico is a collection of slapstick Donald Duck skits. (Donald loses his bathing suit while parasailing in Acapulco, Donald flirts with some caliente señoritas, etc.) I guess none of this should surprise me. Lots of tourists view travel abroad as basically a chance to shop for regionally themed trinkets.
By the early evening, it's getting dark, and both kids and adults are getting crankier. A lot of strollers get wheeled into corners as moms whisper-shout, "Settle down, Hunter" and "You stop that right now, Madison." I'm also noticing a lot more people buying the $8.50 margaritas available next to the Mexico pavilion.
I take this as my cue and head back to the parking lot. Tomorrow's another day—and another theme park.