Disney and Me

By staff November 1, 2002

My mother was a very liberal parent, but she had her rules. And the three strictest were no bowling, no comic books, and no Walt Disney. The bowling I could understand ("not our class, dear"); likewise the comic books ("read a real book"). But I had a harder time with Walt Disney. I rather enjoyed the Mickey Mouse Club (the Mouseketeers were perfect for those of us who had to invent imaginary friends); and I never tired of playing Cinderella, usually taking the role of the prince or one of the stepsisters but occasionally, when luck was on my side, of the heroine herself. And like any child, no matter how artistic, I was dying to go to Disneyland.

I never went.

But now, as a Florida resident of long standing, I do have occasion to visit Disney World every now and then; and I find that the whole Disney thing still produces strong feelings in my gut and my soul. As a place of amusement I find it anything but-the sun is merciless, the walking incessant, the lines torture, and as for the rides, well, am I the only one who is starting to find them a bit dated? Those robotic figures are so jerky they'd only fool a little baby or a passed-out drunk. And the layout of the place is anything but spacious. Special effects and theme park planning have gone far beyond what the Magic Kingdom has to offer. My mother's main problem with Disney was something she considered much more dangerous. It might best be described as a sort of fascism of the imagination. Children should create their own fantasies, she believed, not buy into already-made ones, particularly those made with motives so blatantly commercial.

I certainly see her point. And what's up with those "character breakfasts"? When I first heard the term, I thought it was the strangest thing I ever heard-imagine staying at some hotel at a theme park and you go to a breakfast where one's moral character was discussed. One would doubtless be exhorted to live cleanly and with integrity. Hopefully, one would learn that true character comes from helping others. But no, a character breakfast turns out to be a breakfast at which a Disney character appears. Some actor in a Mickey Mouse costume goes around hugging the children.

Yes, Disney World is a quagmire of angst-ridden philosophical problems, but that doesn't mean you can't have a good time. As a visual experience, Orlando and the Magic Kingdom in particular are second only to Las Vegas as places worth seeing just for their "look." The first example you see of this is Main Street, at the very entrance to the park. It consists of a row of marvelous Victorian and Queen Anne facades, beautifully complementary and proportioned, the architectural details both correct and clever.

Then you look up and see Cinderella's castle. It dominates the park and serves as the Magic Kingdom's visual symbol. It certainly is one of the great buildings of the century, if for visual recognition alone. It's imprinted on you in childhood, and you never forget it. In this building the Disney genius found its full flowering, never equaled since. Its grace, it blue and gray color scheme, its very silhouette, stir the emotions. It's the one time the Magic Kingdom really does create magic.

How odd that there's nothing in it. Oh, a restaurant that's hard to find and a small, dark store that offers crystal replicas of the very castle we're in at up to a thousand dollars each. But there's no ride, no attraction, nothing to explore. There you are, drawn to the castle by a pull you can't explain but when you get there you are barred from entry. It's the perfect Disney touch-the one thing you want most you can't get. Another way of establishing control.

As for the various "lands," Frontier Land and Adventure Land suffer the most from being 45 years old. What kids today care about Davy Crockett ? Tomorrow Land suffers so much they've had to re-explain it as '50s retro and still it's much too tame. Oddly enough, the older I get the more I find myself hanging around Fantasy Land and Mickey's Toon Town. In fact, it was here on my last visit that I discovered my latest Disney World treasure-Minnie Mouse's house.

You sure can learn a lot about a person when you go through his house, and that's what happens here. There's nothing to do, just walk through it and look, like a Sunday afternoon open house, but believe me, that's plenty. It speaks volumes. Minnie becomes real as you examine her home -the living room with its cartoony but comfortable furniture, the classic kitchen, the garden out back.

Though modest in scale, it is set on a prime piece of Florida real estate and is clearly not the home of a young girl. Minnie comes across as a woman of the world, financially independent in some mysterious way. How did she pay for all this, one keeps wondering, until the obvious dawns on you: She's a kept woman. Mickey seems too much of a wuss to be her patron but when you picture her with Walt, then everything falls into place.

Perhaps the most under-discussed topic concerning Disney World is the shopping. There certainly is a lot of it. You are never more than 50 paces from merchandise of some sort or another, and the wares range from souvenir dreck to some very viable purchases.

The men's clothing, for example, is nonpareil. True, there is usually a mouse on the outfit, but with things like golf shirts and going-to-the-gym togs, it 's oddly appropriate. I myself have a large stash of T-shirts from Disney World and find them to be the best T-shirts I have ever owned. They fit my torso perfectly, they are just the right weight, they have a pocket, and they last forever. I prefer the kind with the small mouse logo on the aforementioned pocket; the effect is similar to the Ralph Lauren polo player. People stare at it, trying to figure out what it is. Guesses have included a hot air balloon, Schuman the Human, and a dead bug.

The best buy at Disney World is the Mickey Mouse watches. For some reason, these transcend their tacky origins and become classic fashion statements, along with Rolex and Cartier. Every sophisticated wardrobe should include a Mickey Mouse watch-Jackie O had one, so did Ronald Reagan-and Disney World has the best selection in the world.

Some people consider the shopping at Disney World to be overdone and intrusive. I consider it the most underdeveloped aspect of the whole park. I wanted a much larger selection. Let's face it, I wanted a mall. An enormous, fabulous mall like the one they have at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Disney World-in fact, Orlando in general-lacks a place like this and sooner or later somebody is going to build one and make a fortune.

Any visit to Orlando must now include a side trip to Celebration, that Disney-created town west of the city. It is a most curious place, part Andres Duany, part greedy real estate developer. The Disney aesthetic here is hard to see.

The look is American vernacular, 1850 to 1940, with Colonial houses, Federal townhouses and art deco office parks; and the social atmosphere is entry-level country club Republican. Celebration is famous for its rules and the ways its more individualistic residents subvert them. One man kept placing pink flamingoes all over town under the cover of night. And during my last trip to Celebration I saw a telling vignette. A man was picketing City Hall. But his picket sign, which he wore around his neck rather like a lobster bib, was discretion itself. "No More Hotels" it proclaimed in letters three inches high. Which I'm reasonably certain is the maximum allowed for picket signs under the Celebration town by-laws.

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