If you have any doubts about anything in the world – the purposes of money, the transience of joy, the point of it all, frankly – it is swept away the second you watch your daughter running barefoot through the grass in the dusk to see the fireworks burst over the lagoon.
It’s the best place ever she says, awestruck.
It’s Disneyworld. The happiest, smiling-est, hottest, sweatiest, standing-in-lineiest place on earth. This year’s motto: “The Year of A Million Dreams,” which suggests they’ve completed Jungland: cool! I had a dream in which a large mouse was pulling my brains out my nose, and my brains were made of gold. Doctor, what does it mean? I didn’t think it meant I had Disneyphobia, which makes its sufferers treat Mickey as a sin visited upon the world, a demon equalled only by that Dark God of Body-Rot, Ronald McDonald. I’ve always enjoyed Disney Products™ - I’ve just never had awestruck melty adoration of all things Mouse-related. At best, total love of this or that. At worst, shuddery dislike of some of its manifestations. For the most part, temperate admiration. I looked forward to this.
Not to spoil the story, but having spent four days in the realm of the Mouse, you could cut my wrists and I’d bleed Disney Kool-Aid. Because that’s how much I drank. This is going to take a few days, so let's begin.
I should also note that I banged this out at the end of each night, and this is mostly unedited tripe; one of those vacations, alas, where I didn’t have a lot of time to edit. I resized some graphics on the plane, but don’t we all. Right now I can’t even get into my email, since it’s all on my laptop, and the power brick is in a bag which was mistakenly sent to another city as part of AirTran’s “See The World” program for luggage. I can’t complain much about AirTran – they had XM radio in the armrest, which was highly cool, and they have equipped their jets with the most powerful toilets known to the airline industry. I’m serious: there should be a sign that says WARNING: forming a tight seal while flushing may result in concave eyeballs, as the ocular fluid will be draw from your head via your urethra.
Anyway. The trip was a perfect tonic to the sturm and / or drang of the Festival of Downsizing. The plane landed, as they are wont to do, and we loaded into the tram to the terminal. First look at Orlando: those are some scraggly, mean looking trees. Those are trees that would just as soon kill you as look at you, frankly. Through the terminal, down to the Disney Bus portal. And here's what I wrote the night of the first day.
The Bus Stop. Your first line! There’s a smiling middle-aged man with a giant Mickey hand – if that was some genetic anomaly, that’s the one to have around here. The sign says that the people behind the counter are “Cast Members,” and if that makes your teeth hurt just a little, you’re in the wrong place, pal. After you check in, you head down the hall to one of 148 lines, or so. Each feeds a different bus. The bus takes you to the resort to check in, then another bus takes you to your neighborhood; you walk to your building. There are thirty-three buildings with rooms.
It’s clean. It’s so clean and perfect you wonder why everything doesn’t look like this. But why is it clean? You see no one picking things up. Maybe the very fact that it’s spotless and pristine makes people hesitate to ruin the perfection. Then again, you placed a small piece of paper on the ground and walked away a few yards, just to see what happened. It vanished in a puff of smoke. So you’re thinking some sort of micro-targeted laser, probably from an orbital platform.
Again: why isn’t everything else so clean? Why can’t we have cities that look like this, and theme parks full of urban grot for the people who want that authentic experience that graffiti-slathered-metal-shutters represent? You’re tempted to stay up all night to watch the robots come out at 3 AM to touch the place up – a lick of paint, new mulch, bulb replacement. It could be that the entire operation exists to fund a noturnal robot testing ground. The day it shuts down, you know the invasion begins.
You tire of the second person, so you switch to first and third.
We stopped at the Port Royale food court, and got something to keep us from falling over. My wife selected an Oriental salad; I chose a small, pre-packaged salad, and Gnat had a small bag of chips. I presented my card, which has become my Identity Document in this new land. It keeps track of our ration coupons.
The clerk set a tall cup on the tray. “This meal comes with a dessert,” she said, “so until you get a dessert we cannot complete this transaction.”
I stared at the cup: half a quart. Apparently I was not only expected to fill it up with soft-serve, but eat it. Or not. I could have thrown it all away the second I left the line.
“I don’t want any dessert,” I said. “Yet,” I added. “I mean later. Tonight.”
“Fine,” she said, “no dessert.” And she punched in some numbers into the machine. Across the room, a fellow in dark glasses spoke into his shirt cuff, and a security camera above whirred. Great. Now I’m in the database. Mr. Colors-Outside-the-Lines. I have the feeling that before the weekend’ through I’ll be hauled off by a gang of Mickeys, who will force my jaw open beneath a soft-serve dispenser. Haha! You paid for it! Haha!
The room: nice. Colorful. I’ll say this for the quantity of pubic hair in the bathtub: it’s not a lot. I prefer to think of them as “Jiminy Crickett’s eyelashes,” which is how I explained them to a disbelieving child. It took a while for our bags to arrive, though – the Disney Magical Wonder Express World Happy Joy Dream Shuttle brochure said they’d be in our rooms within three hours, but it took four and a half. When I called the front desk the clerk explained that she had the bags, and was waiting for a bellboy; the airport was responsible for getting the bags to Disney, and was chronically late, it seems. I gathered from her tone that this was a common occurance, and she had become to inured to the situation to muster anything more than six quark’s worth of sympathy. Which, like quarks, were undetectable without special equipment. Which I lacked.
Around six we strolled through the immaculate grounds to the restaurant. It was called “Shutters,” since that’s what people close in the Caribbean when the bad weather comes, mon. Or perhaps some Caribbean-accented description of the effects of bad food. He had the shutters, mon. He couldn’t stop shuttering and had the shuts until dawn. I had the chicken with Shutters Potatoes; the secret ingredient was some sort of salt-based salt. The chicken was okay. The desserts were wonderful, but this is the sort of place where you know they’ll be good. Because it’s all dessert.
Back to the room, then to the pool. I walked back to the main commercial area to get a beer for my wife and a drink for me. The beer was $4.75, and came in a plastic cup, which meant that every time I spilled a drop I could see a dime sloshing onto the pavement. Well, get used to it: this is one magnificent dollar-extraction machine, and even though we’re on some sort of plan, I feel as though twenty-dollar bills are flowing out of my account every time I take a breath.
Worth it? Well, yes. We saw gekkos today. Also strange frogs. Gnat is absolutely dancing on air, and cannot stop proclaiming this the most awesome spot in the universe. It certainly is beautiful. Aside from the aforementioned cleanliness – something that deeply impresses a psycho order-enthusiast like me – there’s the genuinely heartfelt ersatzness of the architecture. We’re in the Caribbean Resort. It’s a fantasy of the islands, and suggests that lush slightly creaky outpost of empire. On the other hand, the speakers play steel-drum muzak, which after seven minutes makes you fear for your sanity. After nine minutes, you don’t hear it anymore.
It looks like this:
You’d make many new urbanists bust a cerebral artery if you suggested that communities should resemble Disneyland – but it’s everything many theorists want. Few cars, central shopping accessed by walking or electric carts, circular feeder busses and a planned economy that set aside one-third of the land for preservation.
But it’s Disney, and therefore unreal! Well, any illusion becomes a reality if there’s enough money to sustain it for a while.
At the end of the night we watched the fireworks, then headed inside to retire. I fell asleep instantly, which was good: we were set to storm the castle early, and would need all our strength for the first grand day inside Walt Disney’s head.
I’m writing this between shifts. We spent the morning and afternoon at the Magic Kingdom. Around the three the hammerblows of the heat and sun had taken their toll, and we limped back to the hotel to pass out. Fun is exhausting. I don’t know if I have enough reserves to continue tonight’s super-extra fun-time return – we’re going back to see the fireworks, which means we’ll spend three hours trying to get back to the room, I fear. But so far, it’s been wonderful. You’d have to have a heart made of coal and an utterly incurious mind not to find this place fascinating.
Bus to the Magic Kingdom. Our bags are given a perfunctory look; we enter our index fingerprints into the database. The park isn’t open, so we join the throng of hardcores and neophytes, waiting for . . . what? The answer comes in a few minutes: a train, an actual steam train, appears above, with all the Beloved Licensed and Trademarked Characters leaning out and waving. Including Cindyrelly! A welcome song is sung; everyone waves back (including me, I note – I haven’t even set foot in the place yet and I’m almost weeping at the sight of Goofy.) The music! The architecture! The trains! From the very first moment, it’s like a live wire jammed into your Disney Lobe, a part of your brain that’s been rewiring since you were very small, just so it could release endorphins at this very moment. All that’s missing is Disney himself in a white robe and sandals, carring a lamb, projected against the sky. If they’d done that I would have bloodied my knees.
The park opens, and in we stream. My first glance at Main Street. Wedding-cake Victoriana; it somehow brings out your inner Teddy Roosevelt. Bully, I think. Let's go to war with Spain. It’s over-done but well-done, and I suspect that might be the general idea here. I see the great iconic castle, symbol of romantic American conceptions of royalty (it’s benign, august, and a great vehicle for class mobility – look at Cinderella, for heaven’s sake.) But no time for monarchical illusions; we turn into Tomorrowland.
I don't know what it's supposed to suggest, and I don't care. I just want to live in a place where these things exist, and they're not State Mandated Mass-Lasik Surgery Centers.
The first objective is Space Mountain, which I have no intention of riding. I don’t like that sort of thing, unfortunately. So Wife and Gnat head in – first batch of the day – while I wandered around Tomorrowland. The only brand that comes close to having the Disney presence is Coke, and this is the Coke Brand of the Future:
Odd how they still lack the confidence to let the script-style "C" and the truncated Dynamic Ribbon carry the message. We must still be reminded it's Coke.
I took Gnat on the Buzz Lightyear shootout whatever, where you fire at Zurg’s minions from spinning saucers. Score: could be better. Experience: unbeatable.
Outside the ride I saw a few women wearing these curious veils. Nuns, perhaps: the Brides of Mickey.
We enjoyed the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, where faceless improv comics use motion-capture technology to make Pixar characters play off the audience. Charming. Then Gnat met Stitch for the first Character Autograph Opportunity.
He's a B-lister, but still in the pantheon. Then we hit the monorail for Gnat’s “Character Breakfast” at the Polynesian.
Monorails. Sigh. part of you thinks this is so cool and part thinks this is so lame. The rails themselves, with thier pylons and stained we concrete, have a deadening effect on the landscape, but the moment the cars slide past they look cool again. Then they leave, and the rails look like an abandoned aqueduct. The monorail passes through the Contemporary Hotel, which isn’t – at least outside. The rooms have been redecorated, I’ve read, but inside it looks like the set for a failed Gene Roddenberry pilot. It’s all seventies futurism at its worst, a dull bunker of a building with the obligatory Portmanesque interior. You expect to see Lee Majors checking out and Michael York checking in. The Polynesian was next, and it too has a seventies feel. I mean, really:
Jeez. It's like a phone booth where Jack Lord could turn into Jack Lord. Because if you're Jack Lord there's nothing better you could b, except maybe Jack Lord with a cape. One with pineapples all over it.
The breakfast? The best hotel breakfast ever. They don’t take your order. There’s no point in taking your order, because they know what you want so they might as well bring it. You get a big plate of eggs, bacon, potatoes and sausages, plus tiny Belgian waffles shaped like you-know-who. This is what it means to be an American: pouring syrup on Mickey’s head and eating him. It’s secular communion. And it’s delicious! Various characters come by to say hello, and as usual, you speculate whether they’re having any fun at all. Because Disney employees seem to come in two flavors: there are those are working. And they’re working for Disney. Whatever. Then there are those who are WORKING for DISNEY! And they just beam because they are having the best day at the best job in the best place ever. There might be some people like that at Microsoft, and grew up with a Bill Gates doll they took everywhere, but they’re few.
Back in the monorail. Past the new Floridian resort, which looks beautiful. Someday. Back in the Kingdom; up to the train. The depot is done in the classic 19th century train station style, and I lingered, full of gratitude: it was just a space to pass through, but it was perfect – or was it? Was it just what I thought something should look like? This place is tailored to fulfill and exceed your expectations, not recreate actual history. Of course it missed the feeling of having been lived in – no spittoons, no cigar butts, no horse-manure smells. It had been teleported from the past, retooled along the way and deposited it here without evident signs of human use. And I couldn’t have cared less.
Oy. Wow. Yes. Yes, indeed.
The train took us through the woods to Frontierland, where I began speaking in FRON-teeer voice that irritated Gnat greatly. We’ll have fun, by cracky! Dad, don’t. A gen-u-wine jamboree! Dad. More rides, with no wait: we got speed passes, or just wandered in. The Haunted Mansion – right by the smoker’s area, which had a big keg of TNT near the entrance – had no wait, so in we went. Gnat was a little unnerved by the preliminaries, and held my hand quite tightly. This from a kid who took Space Mountain without blinking. We shuffled down a dim corridor, lined with amusing symbols of Victoriana; apparently for all time, the late 19th century domestic style is fixed as the preferred model for haunted homes. As I’ve said before, it’s like waking up 70 years in the future and discovering that the post-war rambler is now the standard model for domiciles cursed by the dead. We were crammed into a dim octagonal room with 70 other damned souls, and the doors were closed. It appeared that there weren’t any doors at all, and there had never been any door.
Then the lights went out.
I think this is as good a time as any to reveal that I am severely claustrophobic.