I just flew back from Walt Disney World – and boy, are my ethics tired.
I suspect many of you, gentle readers, have not been to Disney World since your own childhood, or not at all. Some of you intend to protect your current and/or future children as much as possible from the Disneytainment conglomerate, because something about it—or everything about it—is far too lowbrow, too decadent, too sexist, too liberal, or too conservative: perhaps, in a word, too American, in whatever sense you believe Americanism is either beneath your children or dangerous to them. You may also, or instead, be morally opposed to or logistically incapable of mustering the time and money required to make the pilgrimage – especially if it’s to a Mecca you don’t believe in.
My children are seven, four, and two. I, too, am concerned that Disney, like many other bedrock components of our culture, may in fact be too lowbrow, too sexist, etc., for our own good. But I am also keen for my children to grow up comfortable in their culture, aware of its joys and tragedies, fluent in its faults and in its fantasies. For example, my wife and I are enthusiastic public-school parents, despite the fact that some of our friends and neighbors decry the educational system’s academic rigor as poorly calibrated and others say the same about its moral compass.
That is not to say that Disneyism is as vital to my childrearing goals as our involvement in the public schools. But its flaws, however grandiose and dangerous, do not necessarily preclude me from allowing my children into the mouse’s den.
One of the first things we must admit about Disney, like many entities I embrace far more enthusiastically (such as public schools or the FIFA World Cup), is that it is truly one of a kind. There’s no Target to Disney’s WalMart. There’s not even an Apple to Disney’s Windows, or an IHL to Disney’s NHL. The M-word certainly applies, but I submit that Disney is not merely a single seller, it’s sui generis.
This Disnopoly has 70+ years of branding momentum behind it, to be sure; few other brands reach that far back. But at the risk of seeming to be a Disney apologist, I think we must also admit that its identity goes beyond mere product marketing. The Disney multiverse encompasses numerous archetypal classics, like Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast—narratives, characters, and mythologies that bring to life questions and answers I actually want my children to explore.
And I’m not even counting Pixar.
To that point, let me clarify what I mean by the $34.5 billion–dollar word “Disney”: not their recent colonizations of pre-existing classics, such as Aslan or Kermit; not high-school musicals or whatever a Ferb is. I’m thinking of Mickey and Goofy, of “It’s a Small World” and “I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!”, of the Briar Patch and the Liberty Tree, of Snow White and Cruella De Vil. Most of them weren’t dreamed up by Walt and company, of course. But the broader culture has known and embraced them primarily in their Disneyfied incarnations for a generation or more. (“Classic Pooh,” which appears—during one’s first visit to a Babies ‘R’ Us, for example—to be a rare instance of original imagery resurging and thriving alongside Walt’s version, is also a Disney property.) By “Disney,” then, I mean old-school Disney—the stuff theme parks are made of.
On my visit this fall, I was reminded again and again that the magic of the Magic Kingdom is, in effect, the magic of its stories. After all, the theme parks—and the company’s bread-and-butter branding—depend far more heavily on discrete arcs, such as Sleeping Beauty or Pooh and Some Bees, than on the interchangeable episodes of Hannah Whatsername or the Witches of Wherever. Most of these stories and characters preceded Disney’s Nine Old Men by decades or centuries.
What Disney has done to make these stories the building blocks of its brand is perpetually remind us of its golden age of best-in-class artistry and technology, when it was the only feature-quality animation purveyor around. Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Mary Poppins are probably preferable works of art in their original, prose format. But let us not resent their movie versions, in and of themselves, any more than we do The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, or Beau Geste (to mention just a few of the many book-based gems produced by Hollywood in a single year).
This is not to ignore the fact that the Disney factory also churns out quite a bit of prepackaged product masquerading as art. Its cross-marketing is relentless, its advertising sometimes frighteningly ingenious. I am still startled and disturbed by its rampant expansion into the tween audience, apparently cemented in the 20ish years since I left that demographic by an army of airbrushed live-action mannequins stepping through plots of laugh-track predictability on cable TV. And even old-school Disney is recursively self-marketing: there is perhaps no marketing strategy more bald-faced and (one assumes) effective than the positioning of carefully calibrated gift shops at the exit of each major Disney World attraction.
And that brings me back to my recent trip: when we find ourselves three steps inside the turnstiles of the Most Manufactured Place on Earth; when we cradle an overtired, overstimulated preschooler who has had her heart set on a ride that’s closed for the final day of the trip; when we disembark from the Pooh ride into shelf after shelf of overpriced Pooh product, how should we react—as parents, as ticketholders, as citizens of the culture at large?
Some adults embrace a certain if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em respect for the consistent excellence that makes the Disney theme-park experience possible; on a customer-satisfaction level, they’re comfortable being impressed by the scale and polish that 70,000 “cast members” manage to maintain 365 days per year, rather than engaging with the value(s) of the content itself. This is, in its own way, an all-American reading of the situation. As post-Protestant capitalists, we in the U.S. may not technically embrace the idea that the ends justify the means, but we certainly appear to believe in success as a reflection of Somebody’s divine approval—might doesn’t necessarily make right, but we tend to treat it as a lagging indicator.
Other adults throw up their hands in semi-apathetic protest, pretending to be mere corks tossed about on the tsunamis of their cultural obligations to provide their children with The Most-est of everything. This is also a tempting posture for Americans, because it involves three of our favorite cultural pastimes: (over)indulging our children, jumping on bandwagons, and keeping up with the Joneses. But a week in Orlando, despite the drop in real prices for airline tickets since my visit in the pre-Reagan era, is no small investment, and parents who pretend to go reluctantly or passively are openly abdicating their power of the purse—in full view of their children, no less.
Perhaps most foreign to me, personally, is the approach of the hard-core devotees. Aided by geography, singlemindedness, a startling disposable-income level, or all three, they manage to make numerous, routine visits and don’t care who knows it. On one hand, I believe Floridians get a resident discount—one of many reminders of the colossal regulatory and tax-based underpinnings of the Mouse’s infestation of an otherwise empty swamp. (It almost suggests a private-sector variant of the Federal incentive for residents of the exact opposite corner of our continent, a Wonderland of a very different sort.) On the other, I suspect we have all met one or more adults who seem to believe that Orlando is Neverland—a place where everyone is always a child. This seems a dangerous way to invest one’s aspirations, not least because it seems akin to worshipping at the altar of Las Vegas, which employs even more cast members to fabricate the equal and opposite fantasy.
What about me, you ask? Am I immune to all of these temptations? No, not as much as I’d like. On this trip, my wife and I aimed to be ‘in Disney World but not of Disney World,’ but it’s a seductive, exhausting place. (From a practical perspective, if you venture to Mickeyville with children in tow, I do recommend including any available grandparents and making the trip a family affair. Not only do you forge more memories for all involved and spread out the stroller-pushing duties, you also ground your children during the visit with a reminder of the rest of their universe. It’s a lot harder for parents or children to slip into an ‘anything goes’ mentality in the immediate presence of older, wiser loved ones.) As with anything else, balancing is harder than either boycotting or binging, but balancing is what being an adult is all about.
Being a child, on the other hand, is all about growing out of unrealistic extremes. In fairy tales, good and evil are writ large, innocence and peril exaggerated. Stepmothers are not merely difficult to get used to, they’re wicked to the core. Princes, on the other hand, are universally charming and incredibly capable in battle. Parents tell children fairy tales of all shapes and sizes—not just the ones Disney has appropriated; as children mature, they recognize more and more what can happen in the real world and what can exist only in Fantasyland. They take home the moral of the story, and the imagery and the tragedy and the hope, and they carry them along like souvenirs. Eventually, they learn that there is no such thing as a magic kingdom where the regular rules don’t apply (and if there were, you might want to be careful not to spend too much time there). They also learn that scullery maids still exist, and so do balls, and that sometimes the least among them shall be great, if the shoe fits.
Fairy tales may not include overpriced, uniformed photographers, but we take our memories of these stories with us when we return to the real world. And if we choose to take home a Pooh-themed souvenir to help our children remember the extravagance and wonder that a trip to Disney World embodies, it’s nice to know where you can find one for sale.