Wednesday, March 30, 2005

"I wish the line wasn't so long"

We took the kids to Disney World during their spring break last week.

Opinions about Disney World are rather sharply divided, even among my little circle of friends, by and large a liberal and well-educated lot, if I may say so. Pro-Disney people are delighted to hear your post-vacation story, and might even want to share tips: how to move around the Disney properties, minimize long lines, get reservations to the character breakfasts. (Don't scoff, there are entire Fodor's-type guide books on how to navigate Disney World. It's a veritable field of study, it is.) Other friends smile politely but with a look in their eyes that says, "Why in the hell...?"

Everyone is right. It's fun, it's grueling, it's magical, it's gauche. The rides are huge advertisements for the movies, and the movies are advertisements for the rides, and we consumers chase our own tails in ever decreasing circles, eating $8 ice cream cones, wearing $30 souvenir t-shirts. It's the most cosmopolitan crowd I've been in in a long time; there are loads of people from Europe and Latin America. I had a nice chat with a man from Guadalajara while we sat on the asphalt in the middle of the world's largest parking lot, awaiting our shuttle bus. We observed German parenting styles up close and personal in our hotel swimming pool. (Teutonic discipline and efficiency? ha!)

I was struck anew by the fact that Disney refers to all park employees who work in the public eye as cast members. Having had a little exposure to the ego-negating ideology of customer service, I have to give a certain grudging respect to Disney workers, who maintain high levels of courtesy and good humor, while handling the relentless flow of irritable tourists about as well as humanly possible. Here was a high point: At the height of the lunch rush, they were holding people at the door of this burgers-and-fries place. As one Disney cast member stood aside and let me enter the building, another one ushered me to the shortest cashier lane. He looked me in the eye and said, "I wish the line wasn't so long... but I picked the best spot in line for you." And we shared a chuckle, admiring an exquisitely polished bit of bullshit.

The darker side is the extreme secrecy Disney requires of employees. I got just a taste of this when as a teenager I was in a choir that got to sing a brief concert at Disney. We had to pass through some of the "Cast Members Only" areas, and we damn near had to sign waivers and give DNA samples as part of our promise to never, ever take photos or otherwise divulge anything we saw or heard behind the scenes.

I dragged the family into the Hall of Presidents show; I actually had fond memories of it and wanted to see it, and it being Disney Day 5, the others were happy for an air-conditioned place to sit down for awhile. But wow, was I unprepared for the sight and sound of an animatronic Gee Dubya Bush being the master of ceremonies. A whole generation of youngsters will come away believing that Adams and Madison and FDR were non-speaking extras, while President Bush the Younger is one of the leading players in the great American drama. Clearly, Bush sat for Disney and recorded the voiceover narration his own self (to be fair, I'm sure Bill Clinton did as well). I guess the most disturbing thing was how much more believable and confidence-inspiring the animatronic Shrub is compared to the real article.

New wrinkles since I was last at Disney World seven years ago: The army of middle-aged guys who search your bag for weapons or contraband before you enter the park. The Fast Pass system that lets you skip to the front of the line of the most popular rides, as long as you come back at the time--maybe an hour later, maybe six hours later--that the computer algorithm tells you to. (I felt guilty about using the Fast Passes at first, but they're actually a pretty great idea for balancing the traffic.)

I was interested and a teeny bit perturbed to read that for their upcoming film version of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Disney hired a Christian marketing firm that Mel Gibson used with The Passion. But on the whole, one can make a case for Disney as a good guy in the culture wars. I believe they still follow gay-friendly policies, despite protests from conservative Christian groups. (I think in trying to mount a boycott against Disney, the Southern Baptists picked a battle they couldn't win.) Okay, Walt was a sentimental sap, and Disney hopelessly anthropomorphizes nature, and Epcot permanently enshrines a hokey obsolescent George Jetson vision of "the future." But by gosh, the technology shows honor Charles Darwin where appropriate, and the Epcot international pavilion still honors France, and the Uncle Remus ride was dismantled a number of years ago, and it IS a small world after all.

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