I did something during spring break in Florida that I’m not terribly proud of. No, I didn’t forget to use sunscreen and burn my body red. I didn’t trash any hotel rooms. I didn’t even wake up on the beach in a pool of my own vomit. No, I did something far worse.
I went to Disney World. And I enjoyed it.
I know, I know: Disney is the embodiment of all that is wrong with American culture. It sanitizes and whitewashes the world, drains it of real character and replaces it with an homogenized, idealized, shiny, fake world, the true purpose of which is to mass-market products into a frenzy of unsustainable mass consumption, using aggressive copyright law in an attempt to corner the market on American culture and even childhood itself.
On the other hand, they sure know how to run an amusement park.
Years ago, when my kids were very little, we bought a five-day pass with no time limit. We used another day of the pass last week to go to Epcot, with its vision of an unlimited future and its country pavilions where everyone lives in harmony and mutual admiration.
I was struck by how both very conservative and very liberal Disney’s vision is. Stripping away historic unpleasantries and hearkening back to an idealized past that never existed is something many conservatives are attracted to. Desiring to live in an international happy place where everyone respects other cultures and where realpolitik doesn’t exist is very attractive to liberals. Somehow, Disney is able to tap into everyone’s delusions in a way that allows Disney to make a lot of money.
And yet, as fake as everything is, it is nice to spend a day in a place where everyone gets along, the rides are pleasant, people are happy, and we can remember the best of our past while looking towards a hopeful future. We can’t get there if the vision isn’t there in the first place, vapid though it may be. We just have to take care not to mistake the vision for reality, because in reality we have to account for the worst of ourselves, too.
So, Disney gives us the best and worst of ourselves. It gives us a nice, albeit homogenized, version of life, but doesn’t provide much of a path for getting there. At Epcot, there are two perfect examples of this.
The first is the best amusement park ride in the world: “Soarin‘.” It puts you in a fake hang glider in a concave IMAX and gives you a gentle but thrilling ride over major sites in California, complete with orange grove smells and ocean spray. Disney does these kinds of rides better than anyone. It may be a fake experience of a hang glider, but it’s a safe and pleasant one, and provides an experience many would not otherwise have, given how dangerous hang gliding would be for the average person. It’s using fantasy in a useful and fun way.
The other end of the spectrum is “Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable” or, as I like to call it, “Simba’s Circle of Hypocrisy.” It’s a short movie that shows Timon and Pumbaa about to clear-cut the savanna so they can put in a resort and make big bucks. Simba then comes along to scold them to be more environmental and not so greedy. Then it shows the natural world in all its 70mm glory.
It’s a great message for the kids, but come on. That’s exactly what Disney is all about: clear-cutting land and culture to make a buck. You don’t funnel hundreds of thousands of people through amusement parks on a daily basis without trashing the environment in some way. I don’t doubt that Disney wants to be environmental, in the same way that it wants to feed the world via hydroponics. It’s just that, like any corporation, it wants to be profitable more than it wants to be environmental.
And yet, it’s good for kids to get the message that trashing the environment is a bad thing, even if they don’t immediately make the connection to Disney itself. Hopefully they will internalize the message. Maybe they will even grow up to become leaders at Disney. Maybe Disney will eventually find a way to be truly environmentally responsible. Maybe greed and evil will be eradicated from the Earth, and there will be a mango tree in every yard that blooms even during cozy snowstorms (my own personal version of heaven).
By the end of the day, we were all exhausted and whiny. But, we decided to stay for the final “IllumiNations” show over the lake, which consisted of a lot of explosions and fireworks and lasers. During the big finale, a huge globe of the Earth moved over the lake, and then opened up to reveal a large fire inside. The intended symbolism, from Disney PR, is that the “the Earth Globe blossoms to reveal a torch and the glow of a thousand fireworks and laser lights that fill the night sky in a shimmering kaleidoscope of color and sound, propelling us into the future“
As I craned my neck over thousands of people, it looked to me to be a charred, husk of an Earth opening up to spew forth flames from hell, showing us a glimpse of our future planet if we don’t figure out how to live sustainably. It’s what will happen if we visit Disney parks more than we visit the farmer’s market. It’s what happens after a full day walking around an amusement park with tired children.
Nonetheless, I have to admit, it’s fun when fireworks explode and fireballs flame and lasers lase. And it’s fun to be in a shiny, happy, fun place for a day. But it’s a guilty pleasure, in keeping with a typical spring break in Florida.