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from the February 2006 issue

Escape from Disney World

After having spent his childhood doing comic strips and his youth doing animated cartoons, Mickey Mouse finally discovered his true vocation as a corporate insignia. In heraldic times, only mythological creatures or rampant beasts could aspire to adorn a coat of arms. In the century of the cartoon, it's only natural that the Magic Kingdom's logo is a rodent with gloved hands. Like the Mercedes star or the McDonald's golden arches, Mickey is a registered trademark. At this stage in his entrepreneurial consolidation, it would be a ghastly error to cast him in a film. The host of the Disney emporium cannot be reduced to having stories told about him; he is the transaction-validating talisman of a territory dedicated entirely to transactions. Whenever a tropical storm descends on Disney World, the visitors buy yellow raincoats. "I've never felt so silly," remarks one father, who would look like an errant firefighter if not for the tutelary mouse stuck to his back. "Are you calling Mickey silly?!" protests his son, who understands the value of myths.

Umberto Eco noted that every ride in Disney World leads to "a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing." Consumerism is the ruling principle and ultimate goal, but it is mistaken for fun. Even money acquires a new, symbolic dimension. In Disney World you can either pay with dollars or the local legal tender that looks as if a cartoon bank minted it. Although the exchange rate is one to one, Disney dollars do not represent currency but rather admission into an alternate reality in which money obeys the logic of fantasy. It is a displaced article that requires imaginative tactics in order to be able to blend into its surroundings, like the Civil War soldiers patrolling Main Street or the marshmallow-colored cars used as taxis. Money becomes a toy, albeit used the same way as in the forgotten world outside. It also acts as a souvenir, thereby rounding out its commercial merits. To acquire yet another memento, many visitors prefer "not to spend" their last Disney Dollars, forgetting that they have already spent them.

Unlike fun fairs, where sons can climb into dizzying machines without their fathers accompanying them, Disney World demands a higher degree of participation. After all, the family has come a long way and seeks a shared experience far superior to that provided by a fair on any given Sunday. Once the entrance fee has been paid, the rides are for everyone and parents are obliged to show exceptional tolerance towards free falling and vertigo. This tends to result in the division of obligatory amusement by gender: the fathers assume participation on all suicidal transports, while the mothers contemplate with Buddha-like patience the not-always-fun-filled carnivals of fairies and stuffed animals. I confess having gone through these clichéd stages myself, escorting my son on a vaguely cowboyish wagon that traveled up and down spiral rails until we were convinced that real excitement consists of doing 360-degree backwards turns. As I clenched my teeth at the summit, I squeezed my shirt pocket as well to keep my credit cards from falling out. This image reveals something beyond capitalizing on people's fear of indecent displacement: Disney World shakes you like a cartoon character until you've dropped every last cent.

"Mickey is a clean mouse," Walt Disney explained, and by that he didn't mean willing to wash out his ears. Mickey is unpolluted because he doesn't require the stain of personality. The repetition of his image cancels out all arguments except statistics. His success is of the variety that can be repeated without any known impediment: Mickey smiles from the provisional heaven of millions of T-shirts.

Utopia has the disadvantage of being non-existent, but in 1955 Disney came up with the utopian's second best option: to build a phalanstery better than reality. The impact of Disneyland in California was so great that Nikita Khrushchev lamented the fact that abstruse security concerns prevented his going there during an official visit to the United States. The custodian of the socialist dawn wanted to get a look at his rivals' plastic arcadia of automated crocodiles.

The heterotopy of the clean mouse is staged in a perpetual present that incorporates both past and future as miniature spectacles while at the same time capriciously rearranging geography. It is no coincidence that Disneyland was the first city to emerge backed by a television program. Disney theme parks were articulated as a visual montage that foreshadowed zapping: in the blink of an eye, we go from the Far West to the Haunted Mansion, or a pirate stronghold, or an Amazonian tributary, or the space rockets of the future.

When Walt Disney died in 1966, a rumor clouded his passing: Mickey's creator had asked to be frozen. Although company spokesmen denied any pretense of immortality on ice, the idea was not inconsistent with his commitment to bringing together mismatched eras in a present in which nothing happens for the first time because everything is reiterated. What you see now happened exactly the same way a few minutes ago. In Disney World, the facts follow a sequence that never ends (it can only be rewound). Following the same impulse with which the park's trains go back where they started from, those who maintain the Disney legacy have prolonged the patriarch's dream as yet another variant of cryogenics: Disney World and Disneyland Paris preserve the original brand of fun without leaving any room for surprises. Every so often, a cinematographic premiere adds a new corner to the citadel, but its operation is so similar to that of the whole that it never leads to a change in style.

The mouse's village is kept extremely clean. Its irreality or, as Eco puts it, hyperreality depends on everything being new. There is no room for deterioration or wear and tear, largely because no one lives there. The area is kept under total control, which doesn't prevent the odd pedestrian from stealing something now and then. In my family's haste to exit the Lion King show, we forgot our camera on the seat. We came back two minutes later and it was already gone. I was advised to go the following day to the Office of Lost Items (in English it has a more optimistic name: the Lost & Found). I rode a bus between meadows and ponds into a remote zone. I thought I had finally eluded the logic of the theme park, without realizing that I was in fact penetrating its tough nucleus. Upon hearing my description of the camera, one of those employees who seem to know all the answers before even hearing the questions looked as me as if I were an informant from a preverbal tribe. It wasn't enough for me to know the brand and model. Disney World is visited by millions, yes, millions of cameras. Each is different than the rest. Unfortunately, I couldn't be more specific. "How many pictures had you taken?" she asked. Naturally, I couldn't remember. We'd reached a Kafkaesque degree of nuance: the lost camera could only be truly mine if I fulfilled the paranoid requisite of knowing the number of exposed photographs it housed. The woman repeated her question. So I showed her that I come from a culture convinced that the lottery is the perfect cure for adversity. I closed my eyes and said a number. The employee went to look. No, my camera wasn't there. Although this may or may not have been the case, my superstitious mind will forever associate the loss of the camera to my incapacity to guess the right number. But this was no place to treat destiny like something to be improvised. The woman in charge of Lost Items' query had revealed the local accounting mechanism. Disney World has prohibited leaving anything to chance.

During the week before Easter, 100,000 people visit Disney World; every single one of them receives a citizen's passport, but every single one is a tourist. In this metropolis where the sedentary is anathema, the mere thought of "visitors" is an exaggeration; there are only passengers: spectacle and displacement are one and the same.

The two most unexpected experiences we had coincided with our arrival and our departure. Both were frights linked to time and space, both completely foreign to the glacial security guaranteed by Disney World. The first happened while we were unpacking in the hotel. We found an unfamiliar object in our son's suitcase. Next to his faithful stuffed animal Coco was an alarm clock, one of those round artifacts with playful hands crowned by two small bells that ring so hard in cartoons they don't just rouse Pluto, they send him crashing into the ceiling. What was it doing there? This was a few years before 9-11, but even so, it wasn't difficult to associate an alarm clock with a terrorist bomb. Then came the moment in which I would act even more irresponsibly than during the rest of our vacation. I evacuated the family from the room, removed the suitcase (thinking that if it hadn't exploded yet, it wouldn't do so before I reached the parking lot,) seized the clock with two fingers of my left hand (thinking that an explosion would blow off only those appendages, which at the time seemed dispensable) and deposited it in a garbage can (thinking that just by being there it would evolve from life-threatening into recyclable). As I turned around to head back towards the room, I saw my wife and son taking cover behind a car two yards away. Their eyes were glowing as if I had just returned from Vietnam. Some benevolent hand or chance diversion put that absurd alarm clock inside the suitcase in order to create an alternative ride, the only truly exhilarating one in Disney World. Well, perhaps not the only one. Our departure was in a class of its own. More to come on that.

But let's get back now to the urban area obsessed with displacement. Disney World follows the principle of field trips, according to which nothing is as much fun as riding on the bus. According to the greatest child psychologist I know, "even if the destination is paradise, what they like most is the bus ride." Disney World has industrialized this concept. Moving from one place to another is not a pathway to fun; it is the fun. In this sense it has already surpassed Disneyland because its territory is far greater (twice the size of Manhattan, on a par with San Francisco). Its three major hotels are linked by monorail: the mechanized vertigo begins in the lobby. The automobiles are abandoned far, far away. Visiting Mexicans tend to arrive by plane. In the event we do come by car the parking lot, a last resort of the pre-Disney World motor society, looks to us like a vacant lot the size of Chihuahua.

In a place where the most interesting activity consists of moving from one place to another, waiting can be stressful. Sociologists of decay calculate that on an average day, an eight-hour visit involves up to five hours of waiting in line. Therefore, the greatest architectural innovations in Disney-brand theme parks are the small shelters annexed to each ride, designed to conceal the lines. Once you're under the roof, you have the sensation that you are "inside." The line's winding path makes it impossible to see where it ends; while the music, symbols and smells generate the impression that this is already part of the spectacle. Despite a sign announcing the estimated wait time, the visitor doesn't see that many people and decides to enter. After an hour of snaking around an implausible space, he's on the verge of a nervous breakdown but knows that there is no turning back, he has invested far too much time in a cavity that was never empty, but somehow didn't seem quite so full.

Lines are the main platforms for psychodrama. Given that families feel compelled to be happy all day long, they suffer severe emotional crises during the long prelude to a ride that will last only a few minutes. Purgatories of frustration within spaces that cry out to be walked through, lines can generate monsters. It is at these crossroads that the mother invariably recalls she had suggested another option, definitely deserted, recriminating the father with an acrimony that seems to encompass every blonde he has ever found attractive. A moment of crisis in which the children discover that throwing a fit can be as effective as any of Dr. Mengele's instruments. Lines are a golden opportunity for someone to throw up, for an obese person weighing three hundred pounds to spread popcorn butter and perspiration on you, for an Argentinean woman to cry out with pitiless volume, "Vení nene, vení!" At this juncture of sweat and tears worthy of the best television drama, as tiny, anonymous hands smear sweet mush into your socks, any parents capable of maintaining a minimum of composure can feel certain that they are heroes of willpower. They have done all this for their children, they are capable of suffering in silence alongside offspring who suffer in stereo and who, after the free fall, are going to want to get back into the same line. This submissive preconciliatory surrender merits compensation further along down the road. After five days in Orlando, all parents deserve a moral moratorium: Mom can spend a weekend with Kevin Costner and Dad with Sharon Stone without having it count as an affair.

As for me, I am a repeat offender in both reproduction and Disneymania. Our daughter listened to her brother's tales of Disney World like Isabella of Castile receiving chronicles from the Indies until finally, we decided she deserved her own dose of hyperreality. This time we went to Disneyland Paris. This same park almost went bankrupt under the name Euro-Disney because it was an oxymoron and an anthropological error: the mouse clan evokes an essentialism alien to mixed marriage. But despite the change in nomenclature, Disneyland Paris continues to be a more or less pale reflection of Disney World. To begin with, the French do not know how to unconsciously produce smiles. In any park aspiring to be gringo, the human touch depends on a grin that guarantees every moment will be experienced as a success (even if your hotel room won't be available until two hours from now). No, the French don't know how to laugh like that, nor do they have orthodontists capable of converting their teeth into an emblem of national identity. Nor do they know how to wait in line. The Enlightenment was not in vain. Even though this is all very well and good for the parts of France surrounding Disneyland, it creates difficulties in a place where all lines must follow the rhythm of a death camp. Ennobled by a century of lights and alerted to their individual responsibilities by existentialism, the French (including those who do not smoke Gauloise) break the rules and elbow their way in. This is the only place where a culture of liberty eventually fosters vandalism.

The long lines of atonement end up privileging movement of any kind. The detained man sees the sky cabs and wagons that surround him as fugitive forms of Eden. In Disney World -an urban bazaar complete with Bavarian castle, space mountain and flying Dumbos-the only thing local is the mechanism: a city of transportation with no destination other than itself. The 26,000 employees do not qualify as locals; in the first place, because they are only pretending to be there (the men in cherry-red shirts are spectators of the spectators;) and second, because nearly all of them work at night, vacuuming popcorn or supervising laser beams so that every new day can be greeted in a perpetual present state. At MGM Studios, a cafeteria from the 50's includes waiters who act out the dubious psychology of way back when: if a child refuses to eat, they tie him to the table and smear him with spoonfuls of food. Reality is transformed into a television program; no one can blame the waiter for his cruelty because he is only acting, he is the emissary of an era whose greatest virtue is that it no longer exists. Upon seeing this, my son, who never eats the vegetables we wish he would (the same ones I won't eat myself,) told me, "it's a good thing your world doesn't exist any more," a logical phrase within the Disney galaxy.

Why do families keep coming back to a spot that manages to be different but doesn't always make us feel good? In Variations on a Theme Park, Michael Sorkin argues that Disney World's success depends greatly on its deliberate lack of authenticity. It can't disappoint us because it doesn't promise to be anything other than an artificial imitation, with no precise model to act as a reference point. "What is falsified," Eco comments, "is our will to buy." In this sense, our behavior is more fallacious than the park's honest simulations, conditioned by the concept that technology conveys a higher dose of reality than nature.

The ungovernable realm of the authentic can be disappointing. You enter the jungle in search of spider monkeys and after six hours, there are none to be found but you have been eaten alive by mosquitoes; you climb a rugged peak in search of daybreak and clouds are blocking your view; you arrive at a beach of string bikini babes only to find a convention of uninhibited eyesores. On an unstable planet, Disney World offers us both the virtue of being predictable and the superiority of imitation: it "is just like the world, only better," Sorkin writes.

Disney World is the first urban enclave with a copyright; its scenery is patented. Although it profits from the imitation of famous scenes and characters (the old West, Ludwig's castle, Pinocchio, Star Wars,) it lends these copies new meaning. Here, the Polynesian Hotel meets the dual goal of evoking the lake dwellings in which it was inspired and of being a building made out of Legos. We are in a second reality: the evidently plastic vines show us that we are playing at crossing the jungle. The Disney theme parks are places behind the adventure, not because they know all the backstage tricks, but because we enter an environment already encoded by fairy tales, kindergarten, television, and movie premieres over the past sixty summers: Goofy gives us a plush embrace while Indiana Jones gets close enough to give us a whiff of his epic sweat. The idiosyncrasy of travelers consists being able to verify, once inside the Magic Kingdom, that everything continues to be imaginary. Therein the importance of the ostentatious plastic screws in Cinderella's palace, the mechanical purring of the primitive canoes, the courteous waterfalls that don't splash us as we pass, the robotic affability of the staff. The world is reproduced with honest artifice. The mission of mankind is to imitate the panicky enjoyment of Porky and friends. In places that are guaranteed fakes, we sense the perturbing fascination of being fictitious ourselves, copies of copies.

Those who are enamored of the authentic can descend the stairs of Tomb 7 in Monte Alban or despise The Man with the Golden Helmet, a splendid oil painting that, unfortunately, is not a Rembrandt. Disneyland is an emporium of lies. It is a worthwhile endeavor to describe the cultural contraband, but it does little good to lament the fact that Snow White's tears are made of glycerin: their effectiveness depends on their unabashed irreality.

Given that theme parks propose a retreat from sadly authentic streets, the periphery tends not to be taken into account. The Disneyfication of space conceals everything that has been left outside, any surroundings that may lie beyond the Alternate City. Yet in an obscure sense, the park is engulfed by another Parasitic City (in its first ten years, Disneyland grossed 283 million dollars and its freeloading suburbs, 555 million). Therefore, this second heterotopy was intended to absorb all related business within its own territory. Disney World lies between enough lagoons and swamps to ensure its isolation. Its scale emphasizes the importance of transportation: the day is a trousseau that ends only because of the fireworks display every night.

The sensation of having entered an ecosystem dominated by vehicles begins at the Orlando airport, where a train unites both terminals and recordings promise us that very soon, our best friends will be made out of plastic. In fact, the airport offers us the chance to take one more ride. Which brings us to the second scare that led us to challenge time and space. By now, my family had already become cast members of a staged show. We'd interpreted ourselves to such a degree that we now saw ourselves in the third person. This was the final scene of an ensemble no longer able to distinguish between protagonists and spectators. The day of the return, the father shows up at the airport counter, his son having festooned his head with the emblematic black ears. The American Airlines employee looks down at the tickets and discovers that the family has arrived one hour late. We find ourselves witnessing one of the great moments in the clash of generations: dad made a stupid mistake. There isn't time to check the baggage; the family has to break a Para Olympic record while dodging luggage carts and nuns wearing Peter Pan shoes. A deafening noise erupts at the metal detector. A commando discovers that the child is carrying a revolver in his suitcase next to the stuffed crocodile. No matter that the weapon is a fake, bought at the variety show starring Indiana Jones' stuntmen: an armed boy qualifies as a hijacker. We are obliged to bid a farewell to arms and run for the train while yelling at our weapons-deprived son: "We'll buy you an AK-47 in Mexico!" Then comes the race down the plastic tunnel that leads to the airplane, the boarding from hell, the final sprint as we fight our way down the aisle to our seats. "We made it!" says the equivocal head of the tribe. "That was a really great ride!" his son observes after experiencing the only real excitement allowed in Disney World: our own unexpected escape.

Read more from the February 2006 issue
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