If you’re going to Disney World in Orlando for the first time—or going again—I’d suggest beginning with the Disney-MGM theme park. It’s a cute, gaudy shrine to the American entertainment machine in all its forms, from so-called Golden Era Hollywood (represented by Spanish-inflected art deco architecture, faux studio backlots and employees affecting hardboiled, “Hey, Mac!” accents) to the Muppets, arena rock, Rod Serling and big-budget action pictures (the Lights! Motors! Action! Extreme Stunt Show). The ideal gateway would be “Fantasmic!”, a sound-and-light show that also serves as a metaphor for the theme parks and for the world of Disney in general.
The show unfolds at a semi-circular outdoor theater that surrounds an island/mountain set ringed with a moat-like river. It’s a psychodramatic blowout in which Mickey Mouse, clad in his sorcerer’s apprentice garb from Fantasia, struggles to control and direct his own dreaming mind. The sweet side of Mickey’s imagination—represented by princes, princesses and forest creatures, fairy dust and bubbles—clashes with images of treachery and evil, including Disney villains who invade Mickey’s dreams and try to control them. The show’s twin high points are guest appearances by Jafar, the bad guy from Aladdin, and Maleficent, the witch from Sleeping Beauty, who transform respectively into a serpent and a dragon. It is literally an elemental spectacle: high-intensity projectors cast moving images on sheets of water; a gust of dragon’s breath sets the moat ablaze, and Mickey himself chases away the forces of darkness with a eye-scalding, eardrum-rattling bombardment of fireworks.
The show grants theatrical shape to the Disney brand’s schizoid quality, its longstanding habit of juxtaposing sugar-cookie goodness against unsettling images of wickedness and destruction. “Fantasmic!” dramatizes the forces that always collided within Walter Elias Disney’s subconscious and the dreams he implanted in generations of moviegoers. He was the American Prospero, an artist, inventor, tycoon and social engineer whose creations have outlived him.
Of course the theme parks are mainly consumerist havens and vacationer’s destination points, places where you forget to watch the clock and just eat and frolic and spend money; basically Las Vegas without the gambling and lasciviousness. Yet the creative/autobiographical/visionary aspect is still front-and-center, where anyone can engage with it, and somehow the parks’ increasingly corporate ownership has not destroyed, or even seriously degraded, the odd, old magic, which emanated from the bland yet fevered brain of Disney himself.
The buildings, characters and rides don’t feel like pre-fab products shat out of a factory somewhere. They seem to have been sketched in pencil or charcoal and then willed into existence. The floor of every ride should be covered in pink eraser dust.
The parks are also shrines to Disney’s personality and imagination, an autobiographical spectacular. To walk through the parks is to stroll through Disney’s conscious and subconscious mind, his childhood and adulthood. The experience is like those Charlie Kaufman setpieces wherein characters scamper through theatrically exaggerated rooms representing significant locales and formative moments in the hero’s life.
You enter the Magic Kingdom through Main Street, USA circa 100 years ago, a distilled, sanitized façade of the rural Midwestern environment that sired not just Disney, but Booth Tarkington, Orson Welles and Ray Bradbury, a setting that’s now so far removed from early 21st-century life that it might as well be Rome in the age of Caesar. Frontierland doesn’t represent any actual location in the history of America’s westward expansion; it’s a childish mental space, The West as represented in silent-era Western pictures. There are no overt references to specific state territories, and nary an Injun, missionary or prostitute in sight, just tall tales and showdowns and hitchin’ posts and locomotives. Tomorrowland never really pretended to be a credible vision of humanity’s future, just a playground for kids who grew up on H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and their descendants, as represented in magazines like Amazing Stories; and after Disney’s death, it became even more of a literary/cinematic construct, a place where Buzz Lightyear and Stitch could feel at home.
With the exception of the still forward-thinking, outer-directed Epcot Center—which I’ll deal with in a separate post—every Disney theme park, including the ones designed and built long after Disney’s death, tell us more about Walt Disney’s inner space, and the inner space of most Americans, than whatever their mission statement promised they’d be about. Because Disney World expresses a personality, you can connect with it as you would a person. This rare quality has made successive generations feel protective toward the parks and toward Walt Disney, man and symbol. Their protective feelings serve as levees holding back a rising tide of soulless, focus-grouped, shareholder-pandering idiocy that has destroyed other great pop culture institutions. Disney the publicly held megacorporation knows that if it messes too much with Disney the man, Disney the artistic/entrepreneurial ideal, it will incur the wrath of Disneyphiles, who would sooner stop going to the parks than pay hard-earned money to experience a taxidermist’s facsimile of the place they grew up loving. (A side note, and a warning. Anyone from Disney corporate who’s reading this should know that a lot of old-time Disneyphiles consider the post-Walt corporation to be a hulking shadow of its former self, and feel that the parks just aren’t as attentive and surprising as they used to be. For now, they keep coming back, but there are no guarantees; as soon as they feel that the suits have tipped the park toward cynical exploitation, they’ll mourn the death of their great love, then promptly find something else to be obsessed with.) The intense, affectionate scrutiny of Disneyphiles has forced the parks to retain their idiosyncratic, defiantly personal flavor, despite the creator’s death and longtime CEO Michael Eisner’s attempts to make them a bit more slick and contemporary.
To walk through the parks is to peruse a living, breathing museum of American cultural fads and theme park affectations, from the post World War II craze for African safaris, space exploration and Polynesian culture to the 1960s and ’70s interest in animatronic puppetry and monorails and psychedelia (see the Electrical Parade on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom). These are fascinations, enthusiasms, obsessions made physical, and presented so seductively that we want to revisit and re-experience them again and again. Their blunt naïveté, their dreaminess, their disconnection from anything “real,” makes them entrancing, and instills visitors with the wish to see the creator’s essence preserved. The company’s desire to protect its bottom line by continuing in some semblance of Disney’s spirit ironically makes Disney’s theme parks, perhaps the most ahistorical places on earth, deeply conscious of their own history, and unfashionably inclined to protect it.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.