I’ve now been to four Disney parks: Disney Land (California), Disney World Magic Kingdom (Florida), Disney World Epcot Center (Florida), and Disney World Animal Kingdom (Florida). I went to Disney Land when I was younger, though I have some memories of various attractions (the Matterhorn, Swiss Family Robinson House, the Haunted House, and the nightmarish It’s a Small World). Debi and I went to Epcot a few years ago. Last weekend I went to the other two while some of Debi’s family was visiting.
If you’ve ever discussed Disney with me, you’ll know that I’m not a fan. I have a lot of reasons why, but here are some of the main ones.
- Disney aggressively protects its copyrights. In and of itself, protecting copyrights isn’t a terrible thing. People deserve to make money off their creative works, for a reasonable amount of time. However, the way Disney has done it is disturbing. Disney takes public domain works, like The Little Mermaid (written over 100 years ago, ergo, public domain), turns them into copyrighted works like their 1989 film, then aggressively litigates against anyone who mentions the fairytale, despite it technically being a public domain story. In other words, Disney makes its money off of stealing stories and ideas from the public domain, turning them into corporate property, and fighting anyone who tries to use them. Additionally, Disney has aggressively fought copyright expiration, leading the charge for the Copyright Term Extension Act, which has extended the length of copyright in the US well beyond what it should be for all practical purposes. In short, Disney has abused, ruined, and bastardized copyright law in the US.
- Driving into Disney, you pass through an arch that reads, “Where Dreams Come True.” If your dream is a completely commercialized, over-priced, jam-packed-with-people theme park, then I could see that being the case. But I don’t think that is the dream most people have when they go to Disney. I think the dream they have is that it is “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Observing people there seems to suggest that isn’t true either – I saw a lot of kids crying (though I also some kids who seemed to really be enjoying themselves). What really gets me about the whole “Dreams Come True” thing, is that some people actually seem to think Disney means it. One girl I saw in the Animal Kingdom typified this. She must have been 11 to 13 years old and was dressed in a fairy princess outfit, walking around with her parents who were probably in their 50s. I saw a lot of little girls who were dressed as princesses, but most of them were 5 to 6 years old and their parents hadn’t told them yet that it was just a fantasy and not reality. But when I saw an 11-13 year-old girl still imagining that she was, in fact, a princess, I saw evil. Unless you happen to be born into a royal family in one of the ridiculous monarchical dynasties that still exist around the world today, you’re not a princess. Get over it.
- So, the fact that some people really believe Disney makes dreams come true bothers me. But what bothers me even more is that Disney takes fantastical ideas and commercializes them. It’s all about making money. In short, Disney monetizes fantasy. Certainly people who create fantasy realms deserve credit for doing so. But the level of commercialization at Disney is over-the-top. There is nothing Disney won’t sell you – they even sell seats in their parades, if you pay enough! In fact, Disney hires scientists to study children and teenagers to figure out how to sell them stuff. The most amazing part about all of this is that kids think they are engaging their imagination even though Disney does all the imagining and really has an ulterior motive: convince them to buy stuff. Parents are then roped into the Disney commercial world by their Disney-obsessed kids, and 99% of the people who fall prey to Disney have no idea that Disney executives are only interested in maximizing revenues through pseudo-fantasy, not in actually making anyone’s dreams come true. It’s quite genius, actually.
- Another reason I really, really dislike Disney is because they put on a facade of multiculturalism and being welcoming, but it’s lip service to tolerance. Case in point: It’s A Small World. The superficial idea behind this very creepy ride is that it introduces people on the ride to various world cultures and then suggests we can all live together. That sounds nice, but how are the various cultures identified? Through stereotypes. For instance, France is typified by a bunch of women doing the CanCan (and not, say, Laicite or the French Revolution). Holland is represented by blonde-haired people wearing wood shoes (and not, say, for it’s remarkable engineering feats). Various African nations are represented as being undeveloped and tribal (and not for being the birthplace of humans). Latin American countries are represented as relatively undeveloped as well. In short, every world culture is boiled down to one or two stereotypes that do nothing to help people really come to understand other cultures. While I can’t say with any certainty that It’s A Small World has never led someone to become less ethnocentric, I’m guessing all it has ever really done is reinforce stereotypes. And, of course, Epcot is basically just the same stereotypes writ large. If Disney really wanted to reduce prejudice and ethnocentrism, you wouldn’t look at scary little dolls singing some unintelligible song in weirdly high voices but would sit down and have coffee or a drink with someone from another country. Actual contact with people who are not like you on an even footing is probably the single best way to reduce prejudice. So, rather than pay lip service to multiculturalism, why not actually do something to reduce prejudice?
- My last issue is more of an annoyance than a major problem. If you’ve been to Disney you may remember that employees wave at you all the time. What is up with that? I’m wondering if Disney did some research at some point that found that people feel more welcome if someone waves to them. It actually had the opposite effect on me: it creeped me out. The fact that random strangers waved to you, usually with no smile and only as a perfunctory part of their job, made me feel uncomfortable. Maybe waving is a bit too intimate for me; I don’t typically wave at every random stranger. And maybe that’s the idea – it makes you feel like everyone knows you and cares about you. But they don’t. And since I know that they don’t, it creeped me out. Add to that fact that some of the stuff you see at Disney is creepy in other ways, and you have to wonder why people think it is such an amazing place. Perhaps it’s just me, but I could imagine that, if hell existed, it would be something akin to going through It’s A Small World for eternity. These freakish little animated dolls bother me at some fundamental level:
If you simply change the context, can’t you imagine a horror movie that includes these dolls coming to life and tearing people to shreds? Or maybe they are secretly possessed by evil spirits – that would make a great independent film: It’s A Small World… And Then You Die! Yeah, Disney is creepy at some weird level (at least it is to me).
In short, Disney is everything that is wrong with corporate America. It steals from individuals and the public domain, but gives nothing back to the public domain. It monetizes fantasy. It pays lip service to tolerance, but in fact reinforces and even sells stereotypes. And it uses social psychology to try to deceive people into feeling welcome when the real intent is simply to take their money. Yep, Disney is a pernicious evil.
But this post isn’t quite over. I have yet to introduce the irony: I’m going back, at least two more times in the next two months. Why, you ask? And yes, you should ask that considering what I just wrote. Well, Disney had a special offer when we bought our tickets for Florida residents – 4 days at any of the 4 parks for $99.00, which is less than you’d pay to go for just 2 days. Since we were going for 2 days, we figured we should buy the 4 day pass. And now that we have the passes, I can’t help but think that I should maximize their value to me. So, I’m going to go back and do some more ethnographic research on Disney. Maybe I’ll ask some of the employees why they wave all the time. Maybe I’ll shoot one of the dolls in It’s A Small World for being so creepy. Maybe I won’t stare during the parade and repeatedly utter under my breath during it “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen; how could anyone find it interesting.” Or maybe I’ll just go, try not to be a sociologist, and enjoy myself.
There is another smaller bit of irony. I enjoyed going to Disney last weekend. What?!? Really, what?!? After that lengthy, mean diatribe you’re telling me you enjoyed it? Yes, I did. But not for the reason you think. I enjoyed it because I got to spend time with my family. Being at Disney wasn’t the important factor (though I did enjoy the Everest ride in the Animal Kingdom); being with family was. Would I go back if my extended family wanted to? Absolutely! Family comes first! Family even comes before sociological analysis of the most perniciously evil place on earth – Disney.