Day One: Gray is the new pink
Your Disney Experience begins long before you arrive. You are supposed to pre-select the color of your wristband, which you will use as a room key, admissions ticket and credit card. It probably records biometric data.
If you don’t log into the app before you arrive to select a color, you get the gray band of shame. I am going to play it off like I chose gray because it goes with everything. It’s a sophisticated neutral.
At dinner, L. spotted an Amish family, the woman in a long dress and white cap, man and boy in bowl haircuts and green shirts. Visitors?? Talent??
Classical trio plays music from Frozen as little girls in netting skirts twirl on the pavement. One girl clutches a character doll in each hand. You can buy cocktails in go cups. There are enormous Lego sculptures. There are souvenir shops at every turn. One out of five people are wearing or carrying Disney merchandise.
The shoreline of Downtown Disney is illuminated. Fake water tower, fake hot air balloon. After only a few hours here the phrase Downtown Disney sounds normal. My husband laughs and asks if I wish I was staying in a loft.
He has stayed home with the younger daughter. I am here with the older daughter and her dance group. I have written previously about the frenetic pace and professionalization of children’s activities, all of which seem bound for state or national competition, and how this is a thing I deeply question, but a special needs dance group is both special and different; it is the exception. The promotion of a program that provides her with a network of friends and advocates was something we wanted to support. She was psyched. A dance team trip to perform at Disney has been the hyperbolic theoretical example of the crazy times in which we live and A Thing I Would Never Do. Reader, I’m doing it. I am on the boat in a fake river.
Day Two: Standing ovation
Where do you begin? There are so many parks and rides and experiences. There are singalongs and parades. There are fast passes and fast pass pluses. Some rides and experiences are booked a year in advance.
The kids’ performance, the reason for our being here, will take place at a waterside stage in Downtown Disney. They leave ahead of us and we, the parents, follow, with an hour to kill before the show.
When people talk about the Disneyfication of a place, New York City for instance, mainly, it is this: unnaturally clean and wholesome, concept places and chains, “immersive shopping,” safe, expensive, banal. And something darker, the eradication of the place where I grew up, where the old speakeasies, the used-clothing stores, you know the rant, become Pradas and Rainforest Cafes, so that it appears to exist, but has been taxidermized.The 19th century facades of my old neighborhood are just as fake and scrubbed up as the ones here. There are three food trucks parked by the water. The vibe is hyper-normal contemporary. Everything has been designed to create the affect of a thing with a history, a provenance, but it can feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone or Star Trek where the characters think it’s Earth or their own past, but it’s formless Martians channeling human memories to appear like the soda jerks and elementary school teachers of the crew’s youth. It looks like an old, cool dive, but it’s chain, but it’s so familiar, so comfortable. Captain, we have to get out of here before we are drawn into this illusion.
Strangest person spotted: a mom in a knee-length Cinderella costume, black choker, heels. Blonde hair piled up. Little girl in regular clothes, maybe a set of ears. This is mom’s Disney experience.
By the time we parents arrive there an audience has assembled, an audience of unaffiliated people, actual members of the public. The founder of our program introduces the group and explains how their mission is to make the arts accessible to people with special needs, how the program has grown to serve over 500 children and adults. She urges people to take this idea back to their own communities.
The kids are having a great time on stage, not nervous, or at least not showing it, they are beaming, and for that, for them, the fact that we are sitting in the middle of America’s collective fantasy and these kids, each of whom has a particular set of challenges, but has found his or her way to this point, where they feel public acclaim in a place they have always known existed, is pretty, for lack of a better word, magical.
Disney is such a touchstone — it covers such a broad array of characters, it has infiltrated everyone’s childhood in one way or another. To perform here is to be anointed with some kind of pixie dust that will stay with them, I hope, in the days and years to come.
They receive standing ovations and on the bus home they are given special performer mouse ears. My daughter declines the mouse ears because she doesn’t wear hats.
Day Three: Yo, Mickey
At dawn, I walk down to the cafeteria to get breakfast. There is steam rising off the pool, happy vibraphone music plays from speakers hidden in the landscaping. We have to be at The Epcot Center at 8:15 a.m. for the kids to go to a dance workshop.
As we disembark from the bus at Epcot, a mom asks if we are here for the princess breakfast. This is a normal-sounding question. This is a place where you send a text to your friends saying that you are in starting your day in Fantasyland, which many of us may do in real life on a regular basis; here it is an actual place on a map.
The world does not open until 11 a.m. We wander through Norway, Mexico, England and France. The French bakery is open. A gay couple with gelled hair and tiny eyeglasses drink flutes of champagne. Each country is staffed by people of its nationality. All cultures are reduced to their most easily recognizable traits. In America, they advertise turkey legs, frozen beverages and beer.
At the turn of the century, Coney Island featured exhibits emphasizing the exotic aspects of foreigners. They recreated great sites of the world and moments in history, a trip to the moon, a tenement fire. The grandeur and grandiosity are part of showmanship. Disney is a more polished, sanctified, larger scale version of this concept. We, who believe in the magic, have become the barkers.
We ride through watery canals, along tracks, in the darkness. Voices narrate our experience for us. There is no need to read anything. There is nothing to read. We sit on a ferris wheel chair in front of a screen that fills our entire field of vision so that it appears we are soaring over mountains, through orange groves, across the Golden Gate bridge.
We travel through a storybook version of Mexico. We travel back in time to the beginning of human civilization and see cavemen, Romans, monks, Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, and the invention of binary code. Everything they put in a diorama they lay claim to. It becomes part of the Disney experience. Human history? We’ve got that.
Disney is for people who don’t like travel but are willing to put up with all the unpleasant aspects of it — endless queuing, crowds, being in a constant state of expectation, consulting your map and being out all day — in exchange for safety, convenience and familiarity. There is no language barrier, no currency to decode, no complicated transport system, no risk. If you were in an actual place, you could escape the crowds, leave the center, have an adventure or even a catastrophe, but here you are inexorably pulled from one attraction to the next, flowing in a river of people, wishing periodically to sit down, sitting, flying, flowing, pumped through a system of entertainment.
There are people with lanyards or vests jangling with metal souvenir badges. There is an endless variety of mouse ears. Whole families don mouse ears, a style for each. A woman in an expensive looking Mickey sweater and a luxurious red velvet headband with a large Minnie bow. A 10-year-old white boy with his carefully curated hip hop look sprawls on the bus next to his little sister. He has on a crisp Mickey cap with graffiti letters.
Among the most enthusiastic of the visitors are the Japanese youth. Four girls in bright tutus and sneakers photograph each other outside of Epcot. Two girls in blue and purple zipper sweatshirts with grey horns on the hoods stroll through “France.” Young couples hand-in-hand, in coordinated outfits.
There are websites devoted to eating at Disney, Disney for grown-ups sites that recommend coffee and cocktails. Surely in the layers of the empire there must be a sub-Disney with after-hours activities, cabaret and character role playing. There are sites with tips for figuring out the system, shortening the wait, booking your meals, getting upgrades, getting closer and closer into the core of Disney. The idea is that this not be a one-off. It’s not a question of if you will return, but when.
The best thing about this trip for my daughter is being with her friends. It is like college. You can see your friends all the time. You eat meals together, you run into each other, it’s all just a huge buffet of experiences.
An environment like this makes you ask fundamental questions like, What is fun? What is relaxation? What is the point of a vacation? Are they providing the backdrop or the main event?
There is a national high school cheerleading competition going on. Total number of injured cheerleaders spotted today: nine (seven in wheelchairs, two in air casts).
Another thing about Disney is the scale of the operation. They keep the places looking smaller, the lines appearing shorter, so you don’t you realize how huge it is. Everything is built on a slightly miniature scale. Hotels with modest “riverside” frontage go back and back and back. Tiny cottage fronts expand in caverns when you enter. We eat lunch in a place that serves hundreds, a buffet with characters.
My daughter is reprimanded by Donald Duck for touching his bill as she blows him a kiss. Hey, kid, hands off the costume. But Donald is a splenetic character so maybe he’s not really pissed, but I get a pissed vibe from him. And when the heads are through, they’re through, off duty. Tigger and Winnie leave the photo call in Fantasyland later like celebrities, flanked front and back by minor cast members. Don’t even think about it.
Road signs have mouse ears. Streets have names like World Drive and Backstage Lane. Everyone is a cast member.
The parks are designed for young, old, with wheelchair ramps, and some rides that can adapt to wheelchairs. Map legends code the rides for accessibility and speed. The bathrooms are numerous and easy to find. And yet despite this more humane view of guests, the parks are still designed with carny knowledge of human nature which involves controlling and managing crowds and the flow of people, whoever those people are, however they may travel.
Day Five: Let it Go
Someone told me that if you bring your cup to the cafeteria, refills are free so I have been taking the coffee cup from my room to the cafeteria every morning and either availing myself of this “amenity” or “stealing coffee.” But this morning, I forget my cup. The coffee at the resort is so bad that I will not pay for it again, so I will forgo coffee until we get to the airport where there is Starbucks.
The bus from the hotel to the airport is the resort’s last chance to hook you. It is a fascinating lesson in marketing. Just as there is Disney clothing to suit every taste, so too are there deep layers of segmentation and customer engagement strategies.
The Disney bus video blasts us with classic animation, stories about the friendly grounds staff and the dancing Main Street USA cast member, the glass-blower, the chocolate covered apple people, ads for the new rides.
I learn from an interview with a cartoonist the definitive answer to the difference between Pluto and Goofy. They are both dogs, but while Pluto identifies canine, Goofy identifies human.
Meanwhile, the driver launches into this monologue about his own Disney journey. I can’t figure out if it was his idea to do it or part of a script. It is the first time on the trip where I am stumped by the question, Is this real?
He is from New Jersey. His first trip to Disney was in the early ’70s, when it was just the Magic Kingdom, and he thought it was wonderful. He spends ten years driving buses and then gets the gig here in Orlando. It’s not exactly a story of a life’s ambition to work at Disney per se, but it has narrative unity. It feels like a success.
Now he lives so close that he can see the castle from his house, hear the fireworks at night and the whistle of the steam train in the morning. I wonder if all the workers live on the grounds. He tells us about the Disney health plan. He tells us about D23, the fan club for serious fans, a kind of inner circle, where they preview movies and have the Hollywood voice talent perform. The woman who sings “Let it Go” came in 2013. Angelina Jolie turned up for a screening of Maleficent. This is good marketing. The tribe creates the buzz, a ripple effect.
Does he tell this story to every busload of passengers or only when the spirit moves him? Or do they tell all the drivers to talk to the passengers and our driver from the airport just didn’t open up? Do they have a list of talking points? Make it sound personal. I am glad, even this late in the trip, to have encountered him. Most of the cast members I have been professionally friendly but not particularly engaged. Whether he is making the best of a crappy condo with constant amusement park noise or living the dream, he has woven a narrative and, sitting at the helm of the bus, he is a cast member starring in his role, which is the stuff of the videos we have been watching on this very bus. Everyone has a role. You can make of it what you will.
They release us gently into the Orlando airport.
It’s 10:30 and the headache is creeping in. Maybe not wise to have left having coffee so long. We had cleared security and were riding the monorail to the gate when I realized that we had left our our carry-on at the security scrum. TSA had pulled it because there was toothpaste inside. The real world is hard.
“Should I delete the My Disney app?” my daughter asks when we are on the plane.
“You might as well,” I say.
“Because we’re not going back?”
And yet it will be this: a time she will remember as fun and special, a vacation that just the two of us took together, no bickering with her sister. Because there is so much build-up to a Disney trip, she was psyched from the beginning. When you tell people you are going, they say how much fun you will have. People have positive reactions that reenforce the value of the experience. They will tell you their favorite rides. If you said you were going to an American city, they might tell you mixed things, or say how that’s alright for you but they’re not a fan of that city, or cities in general. Europe is far. People may say they have never been or they may say how lucky you are. With Disney you just get a full-on happy reaction. Even if people think Disney is stupid they won’t say it because they wouldn’t want to ruin it for you. People can relate, they’re excited, you’re lucky, but lucky like we’re all lucky together. Disney belongs to all of us. When you get back, they will still be excited for you. Maybe, anyway, reality is overrated.
The urge to crack the Disney code is such that both my husband and I start to calculate whether or not I would have saved money on the meal plan, but this implies that next time you will get it right. And next time and next time. As I would tell my daughter, it was good trip, we had fun, I’m glad we went, but, as I said at the restaurant, Step away from the duck.