Visiting Disney World in the New Gilded Age
[Ed note: To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the League of Ordinary Gentlemen and Ordinary Times, we have invited writers of note from times past to come back and write something for Ordinary Times. Conor P Williams wrote for the site from 2012 to 2014.]
We went because we’d gone. It was parental mimesis, an echo handed down from golden childhoods, like nervous tics and racial stereotypes. We went because the timing was right, because our kids are peak cultural consumers, smack in the middle of their generation’s exposure to the American mass culture canon, past and present.
We went because they’re big enough to walk miles on a few dollars worth of junk food, but still young enough to wonder if the creature in the plush-looking suit is real, or real, or—at least—“real.”
We went because, oh savior above, we were desperate for a vacation. We went to let go after what felt like years of metaphorical intakes—soaking up savings, tightening up belts, piling up work and student debt.
Fortunately, Florida delivers. It is every bit as technicolor-saccharine as the postcards. The days are mostly perfect—the heat is almost impossible to appreciate when you know damn well it’s supposed to be snowing this time of year. Then, the nights arrive, a little later than they come at home, and all the syrupy-pastel color just drains out into a cool, deep, pleasant darkness. The pool is somehow pleasant at any temperature. Florida is comfortable.
Florida delivers. Even in resort hotels, there are signs to warn the visiting Minnesotans and Dakotans to keep an eye out for alligators and snakes. Somewhere out there, Florida Man is hopping into an amphicar on his way to a knife fight with a crocodile named Messiah in a hot air balloon over Disney Springs.
Disney delivers. Ironically, its specialty is happy beginnings. The day may go on to be wonderful, but there’s nothing like the first few steps after the security check. The crowds are forming on the horizon, but they have not arrived. Music trills and the experience stretches out before you. You are finally here. You are free of exhaustion and full of anticipation as you gaze upon mile upon square mile of pleasure domes and frippery. It is pile upon pile of softness and sweetness.
Disney is all frayed cultural glories, where you come for the fancy adventure you’ve imagined, but wind up loving how the slight shabbiness triggers your nostalgia. There are new rides and shiny toys, but the paint is chipped on those monorails. Disney’s prime lay before you, in the future. But its prime is now, in the present. And its prime was then, in the past. There’s a temporo-metaphysical sleight of hand in place here. But it’s hard to see; at the first step through the gates, Disney feels so good.
Disney delivers. Disney World is late American capitalism at its most muscular. It is a gigantic Carnival Barker for the world, Magic Maker, Stacker of Plastic, a bold declaration that we, our country, our culture, will spend its time, its money, its energy on whatever the heck we want. Disney is where the country and world comes to buy—and witness—the trinkets of an empire.
There are endless sets of themed shirts and twenty different models of glowing plastic thingamabobs and ironic plays on themed shirts and whozits and whatzits galore. There are mouse ears, sparkly dresses, and branded content hidden to varying degrees. You can buy your piece of the common culture in shades sweet or self-aware now. Your shirt can read “Best Day Ever,” or “Most Expensive Day Ever.” Disney lets you spend money to wink at the money you’re spending. It will even memorialize the wink.
Look, we announce, here we are, buying our nutcracker mice. Here we are plodding to face mechanical fears lit with neon fired by oil burned just up the road somewhere in a building which, presumably, does not have a gift shop.
Inside Disney’s power plant(s), there are Americans putting in their 50 hours for 50 weeks a year. They’re like so many other Americans putting in their 50 hours for 50 weeks a year. So long as no one in their families gets sick, and the car’s brakes aren’t too worn, there’ll be enough to cover rent and a little time out here in the sunshine, following the electric current up the road and into the park. There’ll be money and time enough to revel for a few days with the rest of the country, visiting to frolic and chase fulfillment in—and amidst—the symbols we all share.
That’s how you deliver in 2019, in the United States. Work your gears until they grind, work them still and find a path to all the necessities and then a little more besides. Work that you have a chance to share, briefly, in the consumption of a culture curated for us and especially for you.
And you’d better do it, too, if you can. Because Disney is the place where we, 21st-century creatures, go to express ourselves most fully as consumers. Where we go to purchase our places in our culture. Where we come, in a sort of subterranean cultural pilgrimage, deep down to the roots of the common life we spend the rest of our years living. Where we plug most fully into the very lynchpins of our reality. Because these songs, these characters, these films and shows and sweaty, frustrating experiences in Florida lines are the referents we use to make sense of ourselves and one another. They’re the stuff of our similes, the anchors in our emotional tides. “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” sure, but whoever would like to understand American children and the childhood hidden in American adults had better know Disney.
Disney World is impossibly huge. Whether you stay in a resort hotel or in a nearby town, you’re probably getting driven around. Most of our drivers were immigrants. Most of these immigrants are Latinx, and of these, most are Venezuelan. Ask them why they’re here, orbiting Orlando in cars and shuttle buses, and they demur. All have come since instability sparked in Venezuela. Some are studying at local universities. But most are professionals with credentials that won’t quite transfer into US systems. They are skills and training and value that does not fit the language and the culture of our marketplace. So they drive, greasing that market’s gears.
We had one white American driver. He explains, in soft tones at first, then gradually louder, that he drives because his old job—along with his old apartment, and his old life—was wrecked in one of last year’s hurricanes.
I said something about how those seemed to be happening more frequently now. He paused, drew a breath, weighed the connection in lonely yearnings and pieces of gold, then said, “You know, I’ve been reading a lot about flat-earth theories on the Internet, and I have to say that they’re onto something.”
I sucked in air to buy time, waiting to see if he’d chuckle and release the oddity of the moment in a joke. We both bent forwards a little, body gestures to the precarity of the situation. We were both earnest, but in the end, we were both rating one another in this car. We were paying and being paid.
All of Disney plays within these dynamics. It costs at least one hundred dollars per person to get into Disney World in 2019. It’s barely accessible to some lower-income Americans, who, after all, can’t escape living in this zeitgeist with the rest of us. But Disney caters to the profligate and the well-heeled.
Once you’re in, you’ve entered markets of fulfillment brimming over with utils of pleasure. The rides compete, but not really, for their supplies are largely fixed. They churn on, hour by hour, day by day, week by month by year, delivering diversion in 60- to 180-second noisy neon packets.
You, the demanding audience, you consume in scarcity. There is only so much time your day, Adenosine Triphosphate in your legs, room at each attraction, and so forth. So you calculate—and you calculate hard. Are you here for the nostalgia? The novelty? The children’s sugary, short-term dreams or the long-term life satisfaction they’ll assuredly get from possessing the photo waiting at the end of the line they’re disrupting?
You vacillate and choose and choose again. You pace yourself to rush at the right times and rest off-cycle from your fellows. You avoid their schedules and their proclivities and their strengths. You time yourself to their weaknesses, to be up when they are down and gone when they get back up. We are all utilitarians in this foxhole.
But, just as in the big, gilded market, certainty is scant. For a park under such security, authority is often lacking (or invisible). This makes the key norms of human crowd behavior—linewaiting, crowdwalking, voice modulation, and the like—especially unreliable. It’s hard to tell if you’ve gamed the system correctly, because the system keeps breaking down. You all—we all—shove our way onto the shuttle bus regardless of whether or not there was a line before it arrived.
What’s more, there are workarounds. There is something called FastPass+, and it is better than an older thing called FastPass, somehow. You probably did not read ahead, because you were too busy working to get together the money for this whole adventure, and there wasn’t time to learn an awful lot about what the FastPass could do for you, or how that + ought to be managed. It’s been decades since you were last here; whatever shreds you remember of the old rules are no longer operative.
Long story short, as with the stock market, you may avoid the rules within the system. FastPass+ opens the door, leaving you to jaunt past, provided you have planned well and optimally leveraged your view of the market and your own desires. The obvious corollary is true: you cannot use your FastPass+ without self-congratulating. You did your damn homework, for once. You picked a good couple of experiences and built your day around them and you are not waiting in that line.
As soon as you exit, however, and find your next line, you cannot watch families prance through the FastPass+ line, past your 55-minute wait, without feeling hard done by. They are cheating somehow, it’s clear. Your resentment shifts your priorities. You wanted this ride too. And you were willing to wait 55 minutes. But you did not want to wait 55 minutes if they didn’t have to. Because they are so very much like you, and these rules don’t seem to be working quite as they should for you at this moment.
We are all Rousseau in these lines. We are all self-concern and self-regard and inflamed ego. We are all Rousseau on the way to the Jacobins. We are all ready to impose some righteous order on the jaunty, prancing families who are congratulating themselves on their good sense.
Incidentally, nigh on every Disney heroine sings for more. Ariel wants to “explore that shore” in search of more than what she has. Belle wants “more than this provincial life.” Mulan wants out from under family expectations. Jasmine falls for Aladdin because he’s offering her a “whole new world.” And etc.
Most Disney visitors have already had more. They carry it with them in the folds, lumps, creases, bleary eyes. It’s in their pounds and worry lines, in the searching, far-off look that fades onto their faces as their attention drifts out of line and into their wallet.
They’ve had more than they can take, before they even get here. They’ve been inhaling and grasping and chasing and grinding and yes, periodically screwing up, for so long. They’re just trying to let it go for a second, to lose themselves in the reassurance of a comfortable, self-assured culture. They’re trying to find and shake loose their own childhoods before their children’s have completely passed. They’re trying to buy a bit of freedom from the pressure, but they’re also, however awkwardly, throwing their money on a low-stakes gamble for fulfillment.
And then, all-too-soon, they’re back home, living their daily version of the cultural milieu Disney helps to anchor. They’re charging around to work and school and hoping that they weighted their tax forms appropriately because ah, jeez, how did that tire get flat again? And they’re—we’re—wistful at the steadily roughed-up plastic Disney cups holding toothbrushes in the bathroom.
The just-experienced begins congealing into memories, with details lost and highlights magnified. You—we—wonder: What do the kids really think? Did it work? Was it worth it? Did we time it—our indulgence—correctly? Will we have to go back? Do we want to? And the Florida sun-glow fades in the face of the imminent arrival of the credit card bills that absolutely, positively will not pay for themselves.