The Devil in Disney’s Details

As I stand on the edge of the Walt Disney World Dock, waiting for the Disney Ferry that will transport me to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, I am struck by the horrible realisation that you can’t unknow things. Beyond a certain age, the pure enjoyment and wonder of a place – where you are naively unaware of such things as commerce, exploitation, misogyny and sex – is lost to you forever.

Even at age 16, when a tornado of hormones laid waste to the small town of my awkward teenage body while small sunbeams of understanding penetrated the clouds of my adolescent psyche, there was still enough of the pure, child-like optimist left within me to really let go.

This optimist was able to appreciate in a totally unselfconscious way the efforts of men and women with tenacity and imagination without questioning the underlying darkness that is the yang to every surface, cartoon yin.

Unfortunately, at thirty, the things I’ve learned along the way are now always there with me. Stories of Haitian sweatshops, exploitation of children and of Disney’s constant lobbying of the US government to get copyright terms extended despite having made most of their money from out-of-copyright materials themselves sit uncomfortably next to wondrous appreciation of their ability to create a completely dream-like world, where unconstrained joy is actively encouraged.

Thankfully, the sensory overload inherent in pretty much everything they do is enough to temporarily suspend these feelings of guilt and hypocrisy and before long I found myself wishing that more of the real world was like a Disney theme park.

Why I Love Disney

1) Excrutiating Amount of detail

As we entered the Asia area of Animal Kingdom we both became ridiculously excited—it really was like we were back in Nepal! Except now it was without all the dirt, traffic and First World guilt inducing poor people, so it was like a better Nepal: a kind of super-sanitized iNepal.

Prayer flags flap over signs advertising tours written in comically broken English and makeshift stores stand rammed to the rickety wooden rafters with camping gear. It was incredibly well researched and it took us right back to our time in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Clearly no expense had been spared.

Erin’s only disappointment came when she entered the bathrooms and, instead of a row of filthy squat toilets, found a line of immaculately kept stalls.

As a designer, I was fascinated. There were so many tiny elements that most visitors simply wouldn’t see but just by being there they built this atmosphere; an idea of Asia that was to be felt as much as seen.

These things matter. You want your audience to believe in you, and not just your product or idea. This is why Apple can switch from computers to MP3 players and nobody bats an eyelid (compare this with Microsoft’s feeble efforts to enter the digital music market).

2) Comfort and Efficiency

Fourteen months of developing world transit systems and customer service helped us really appreciate how well things at Disney function.

Ferrys run frequently, whether filled or not. Monorails are always moving and they’ll drive you to your car so you don’t have to walk more than 5 mintues at any one time. They know how to handle huge crowds and, even when the parades are on, they work hard to keep the sidewalks clear and the foot traffic moving.

After suffering through countless badly-organised trips crammed on to tight chicken buses, this level of organisation was a welcome relief.

3) Well-trained Friendliness

Sometimes you just want to go up to a ride operator who has just smiled and waved at a departing roller coaster train for the one hundreth and fiftieth time that day and ask them if they ever get sick of being so damned nice.

The thing is, despite suspecting that a weary cynicism grows behind the false smile, it does actually help make your day much more pleasant. Sure, you could stop and remind yourself that they don’t mean it and they’re paid to say that stuff, but this is Disney: such thoughts are banned.

4) Not “rides” but “Experiences”

Disney doesn’t have the biggest rollercoasters. They don’t do corkscrews or multiple loops. What they do well is experience, which links in to the level of detail that they are willing to go to in the creation of their attractions.

The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal Studios is a lot of fun. It’s fast, there are multiple loops and it’s a great thrill ride but, once you’re fired out of the launch tube, the whole Hulk aspect is lost: you’re simply on an exciting roller coaster that just happens to have green rails.

Compare this with the Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Before you get on the ride, there’s an introductory video featuring Aerosmith who invite you along to the gig. You exit this and you’re in a highly detailed parking garage.

The coaster train is shaped like a stretch limo and the whole ride is kept indoors so, once you’re launched, you enter a dark world of neon road signs that continues the story right until the end of the ride.

Although it only has one loop, the suspension of disbelief remains throughout making the entire experience that much more impressive.

We’ll just gloss over the fact that each attraction is, in fact, just a pre-sell to the inevitable gift shop that they make you walk through afterwards. Hey, all this fantasy doesn’t come for free!

Fourteen months in South America was, at times, hard. It was super rewarding, but it was hard. Things at Disney just work and it was nice to have a week where the pressures of trying to make this lifestyle viable were eased by insane amounts of sugar, silly thrill rides and brightly coloured cartoon characters.

Trail Wallet

14 thoughts on The Devil in Disney’s Details

  1. You captured the dichotomy that is Disney so well! Thank you for sharing your experiences and takeaways so eloquently. It did make me want to relive the magic of Disney that I remember from my childhood. It would certainly be interesting to see what differences I perceive from the visit I made at age 11.

  2. The first time I went to Disney World I was 11 and totally wowed by the magicalness of it all. The second time I was 21 and totally wowed in a different way: when I was older I could fully appreciate all of the details and effort that goes into creating that kind of fantasy. It’s a pretty amazing (if inanely commercial) place.

    • It is a testament to human ingenuity and imagination.

      I wonder whose job it is to arrange the cobwebs in the Tower of Terror? I’d like that job.

  3. I like the way you said that it was like Nepal but sanitized. That’s a perfect description of the magic that is Disney. They take a place or a culture and remove all the dirty, seedy, and unsavory (in my mind interesting things) bits and create an idealized impression of that location.

    The sad thing to me is that so few Americans travel abroad, but they do go to Disney. Their only experience then, with Nepal in your example, is with this sanitized version. They then leave Disney with an impression of the world that hides the darker side of capitalism and globalization itself.

    • It’s kind of fascinating. I met a family of Americans who said they don’t need to travel because they’d been to all of the country pavilions at the Epcot centre.

      I appreciate the efforts Disney go to in trying to recreate the details of a place but I’m always aware that it is this idealized version of it. I find it hilarious that they probably had to pay extra to get the worn out, broken down look they have on many of their attractions.

  4. You and Erin have vastly different writing styles. She has more chirp but you have more chip.

    Yea the world can be a pretty shitty place. But I focus on the little things that make me happy. Sunshine, music, birds, what have you. I can be in denial without denying anything. There’s always time to change the world.

    • lol, that’s probably a fair analysis.

      It’s only when I stop and think about it that I feel the pangs of guilt at giving money to an organization that is probably involved in some shady stuff. Luckily, there’s not much time for that when you’re whizzing around Space Mountain for the 5th time. :)

  5. Great post. A lot of us world travelers aren’t hanging around WDW, so it’s refreshing to hear your take.

    I worked for Disney (they own ABC-TV) for 10 years. Just like you mentioned ‘experiences,’ I wasn’t an employee, I was a cast member.
    I was in a TV studio in Chicago and far from the Magic Kingdom, but we did go down there for several TV shoots. Most of us were pretty jaded and I remember slamming it for it’s ‘faux’ everything, but at the same time, have to admit, I loved the clean organization of this ‘altered universe.’ They say no one has ever died on Disney property. But we all knew that if “Goofy” suddenly passed out in his hot costume, they’d drag his body down into the numerous Disney tunnels underneath and just send out a ‘fresh’ Goofy to smile and wave at kids.

    • Disney has this reputation for no crime but I heard a rumour that this is because, if you do report one, they club you and dump you in the river off of Tom Sawyer’s island.

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