This article originally appeared in Latterly, a magazine covering social justice issues globally.
There is nothing left to chance in the elaborately crafted endeavor known as Disney World. The process begins on the bus ride from the airport, the PA system cranking out authoritative, delineated instructions on how to board, the method for stowing any luggage, how to disembark. The assumption seems to be that nobody has ever ridden a bus.
Television sets are mounted throughout the vehicle, blaring out Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto. This proves to be another one of Disney World’s constants: If nature abhors a vacuum, Disney World abhors silence. Recorded music emanates throughout the vast Disney domain, filling in every nook and cranny. There are steady announcements before, during, and after the rides and attractions. Even a short boat excursion is taken up with the guide’s hokey patter and continuous stream of forced jokes. It is as if a moment of introspection is deemed too alien or inappropriate.
Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss Disney World as nothing more than a rote, narcotized experience. Although there are long lines galore, the massive crowds of parents, children and entire families are ushered through with admirable precision. The crowds are engaged and genuinely enjoying themselves.
As they should. What Disney World does, it does very, very well. The nightly display of fireworks are truly something to behold. Many of the rides are spectacular, like Soarin’, a multimedia, immersive experience in virtual reality that really feels as if one is, well, soaring.
Another erroneous assumption is to consign Disney World as destination-central for Middle America. The crowds, in fact, are strikingly international, with a noticeable number of female vacationers garbed in the hijab. But since nothing is left to chance at Disney World, one can assume that this is deliberate, that these constituencies have been wooed by various touristic inducements. Disney, World cannot be separated from Disney, Walt and the revered panjandrum’s nutty, reactionary politics. It’s a safe bet that American cultural hegemony was one of Walt Disney’s core values. Being from foreign lands does not preclude wearing Mickey Mouse ears or Disney T-shirts, shopping for Disney merchandise, dressing your child like a Disney princess, watching a Disney parade. All are equal (provided one has the adequate funds) under the Disney sun.
And yet with all these factors, there is a steady, odd undercurrent to Disney World, embedded within the cartoon characters themselves: Mickey Mouse’s castrato voice, the fact that he seems to wear gloves. And then there is Pluto, the dog, who for some inexplicable quirk is the only member of the Mickey Mouse cadre to be mostly untouched by anthropomorphic transformation. The long-running myth that Walt Disney himself lies somewhere, cryogenically preserved, is strangely fitting.
Disney World is a behemoth, with a size and scope that renders it a domain unto itself. The employees — mostly referred to as “cast members,” as if the entirety of Disney World was one long, unending live production — number approximately 70,000, a hefty number that equals the population of small-scale cities on the order of Gulfport, Mississippi, and Lawrence, Massachusetts. Admission is gained by colorful “magic bands” that are stamped with a small rendering of the ubiquitous Mickey Mouse ears. The magic bands are worn on the wrist. When they don’t function as they should — for even Disney is fallible — fingerprints and photographs are used as backup methods of admission. These magic bands are capable of low-level surveillance and can track you throughout the Disney World environs, which most likely means that data exist on how many times you’ve gone to the bathroom.
There is a stunning adeptness at re-creation; intensely skillful renderings of “Africa,” a British pub, a tiki restaurant, small-town America and snippets of foreign lands like Morocco, Norway, Japan, France — staffed by employees from those selfsame countries. Old, iconic Hollywood lives on here: Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Brown Derby restaurant. There is a fabricated 1950s-style diner, the inevitable array of television sets all emblazoned, in retro cursive, with the Disney name — in case one has forgotten, for the briefest of moments, where you are.
These TV sets broadcast clips of those wonderful, classic 1950s shows. Father Knows Best, I Married Joan, et al, served as carefully constructed palliatives and certainly made no claims to be gritty, slice-of-life depictions. And Hollywood, of course, was overtly, cheerfully predicated on artifice — like an ersatz Chinese theater. Hence, Disney World has re-created what were, in essence, already re-creations: meta-artifice.
Disney World feels hermetically sealed, which is no mean feat, considering its colossal sprawl. There is not the slightest hint that you are in the South or in Florida. You are everywhere and nowhere. It is such an effectively immersive experience that stray signs of the outside world — like an ATM — engender a momentary surprise. The occasional glimpse of the flag of Florida (Confederate iconography still intact) comes as a jolt.