March 17, 2005

Fear And Loathing In Disney World, Part II - The Mouse's Lair

(Go here for Part I.)

My encounter with the Mouse began in earnest as we pulled up in front of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, the venue chosen for our two night stay while we explored Mickey’s Dark Dominion. As it turns out, at least in this case, “dark” is pretty much the literal truth. Here is a picture of the main lobby of the Lodge:

(Image found at All Seasons Travel.)

It was actually a good deal dimmer than this photo makes it look. Every time I crossed it, I had to stop myself from automatically putting my arms out in front of me for fear of running into someone or something. Indeed, when I went down to the bar in the evening to read after the Llama-ettes had gone to bed, I felt uncannily like Frodo trying to make his way through the tunnel at Cirith Ungol. Perhaps the effect would have been pleasing after an afternoon of the full glare of the Florida summer sun. But as it was, particularly on a rainy March day, the gloom of the place was downright palpable. (Insert your own Heart of Darkness joke here.)

As a matter of fact, the Lodge reminded me of nothing so much as a set from King Kong. If only Jessica Lange had been chained to one of the pillars wearing suitably tattered bush clothing, it would have been considerably more appealling. As it was, the place contained nothing but gawping tourons - none of whom I'd have cared to see in sacrificial victim costume. Ah, well. "Look on my face - my name is Might Have Been."

The other notable thing about the lobby was the endless Paul Simon-ish African “theme” music piped into it. It wasn’t very long before you had the entire set of tracks memorized. How the people who actually work there day-to-day managed to put up with it is beyond me. I suppose it could have been much worse – had we stayed in the Magic Kingdom, I’m sure we would have been “Small World After All”-ed to death.

Once we made it to our room, I suddenly realized the Prime Directive in Disney World architectural planning: Big Show In Front/ Stack ‘Em In Like Cordwood Behind. Honestly, the room was smaller than those of many Holiday Inns I’ve encountered and I could easily touch the ceiling in the bathroom. And the décor! Paging the Fab Five! The whole thing was done in a color scheme of yellow and brown – which suggested nothing to me other than dirt and grunge and cast a gloom that wasn’t that much less Cimmerian than that of the lobby. Incomprehensibly, the bedspreads were a checkerboard of bright colors – blues, reds and greens – that spent all their time shouting at the walls. The walls, which were also tricked out in some faux-African gewgaws of brown, black and white, shouted right back at them.

“Savvy” Disney-goers will tell you that if you stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, the trick is to get a room that faces the “savannah”. If you do so, they say, you’ll be in for a real treat because you’ll get to see all sorts of Wild African Animals in Neat-O Native Habitat! Indeed, here's what Uncle Walt himself has to say on the subject:

It's a Hotel adventure in the making. Here, most balconies overlook a picturesque savannah where giraffe, zebra and other exotic animals roam about a spacious wildlife reserve. Handcrafted furnishings and African décor welcome you to a world of comfort complete with all the beauty of nature...and all the magic of Disney.

Well…..not really. It does beat staring at the parking lot, I suppose. But what Disney calls a “picturesque savannah” I call “a series of moderate sized pens with some grass and a few trees in them”. The fact of the matter is that the landscaping doesn’t hold a candle to the average modern zoo, and is barely comparable to our local petting park (where, I might add, one can see the animals a good deal closer - and more cheaply).

On our first afternoon, the Missus and the Llama-ettes scurried off to the pool. I stayed behind to take my book out on the balcony for a little post-drive detox. When I first looked at the “savannah”, the only animals present were a black hornbill (about the size of a turkey) and a few of those nasty gray African vultures. As the afternoon wore on, I began to see a pattern – periodically, the gamekeepers would shoo a couple different animals into the paddock. So I did indeed see a few beasts – some gazelle, a few fill-in-the-blank-bok and some African cattle that look like regulation heiffers who’ve taken horn-enhancement steroids. Most entertaining were a trio of giraffes that appeared from time to time.

The reason the giraffes were entertaining is that they had apparently sized up exactly what was going on. There were several baskets set high up in trees scattered around the paddock. At feeding time, the gamekeepers would drive a pick-up full of food into the pen and fill the baskets with leafy branches. I think the idea was to spread the giraffes around among the trees so that the lodgers could get a good look at them. But the giraffes knew better: when they saw the pick-up coming, they would saunter over to the gate. As the driver stopped to close the gate behind him, the giraffes would start helping themselves to snacks right out of the pick-up’s bed (aided and abetted, I might add, by the gamekeeper sitting in back). They would then follow the truck back to the gate. Heh. Watching the actual animals doing a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” about the authenticity of their “picturesque savannah” environment delighted my curmudgeonly sensibilities.

Speaking of feeding, we got to the Lodge around lunchtime. It boasts two restaurants and a bar, none of which was open. “Oh,” it was explained with false chirpiness, “everyone is either out in the park or asleep at this time of day. But the snack bar is open!” (This was the first direct example I came across of Disney’s ruling philosophy regarding the accomodation of its guests: “Do It Our Way Or Screw You.” That example was to be repeated many times over the course of our visit. The concept of “Customer Satisfaction” at the House of Mouse is a mile wide and an inch deep.) Anyhoo, the snack bar proved to be a nasty cafeteria-style enclave down in the basement that wouldn’t have passed muster in the average Student Union. Not that the average student could have afforded it, however. When you get to Disney, it’s frightening how fast you start automatically thinking of prices in $50 increments.

One night we did eat in one of the restaurants, but it proved to be a buffet-only place. We hates buffets, the only purpose of which (in accordance with the Mouse’s philosophy of Volume! Volume! Volume!) is to move the maximum number of people through the place with the minimum expenditure of resources and personnel. The food, I might add, was of a type I recognized from long experience of professional dinners and conferences – easy to prepare in bulk and relatively tasteless - and which is, I strongly suspect, not that far removed from what you might find in a military chow hall. I also had a couple glasses of wine from the purported South African wine list. I forget the name on the label, but it billed itself as a “Gamekeeper’s Reserve” Cabernet. I must say that, considering the circumstances, it wasn’t too bad. However, it would have been much more appropriate to charge $9.50 for the entire bottle rather than for each glass of the stuff.

Overall, the thing that surprised me most about the Animal Kingdom Lodge was its relatively mild attempt to expose guests to the cultural joys of pan-African Utopianism. You know, the sort of “The Peoples of the Serengeti have lived in blissful harmony with Nature for thousands of generations and our Gift Shoppe has been laid out in an authentic recreation of a typical village in order to reflect the Wisdom of their ways! – Buy things and You Too will be Enlightened” stuff. There certainly was some of this, but not really as much as I expected and most of it very mild at that. I mean, apart from the overall architecture, the lobby music and the pith helmets and khaki shorts worn by the concierge staff, we might have been at almost any ordinary (poor quality and outrageously priced) hotel. Then again, as I mentioned, it was pretty damn dark in the Lodge. Perhaps there were lots of little signs posted about to illustrate how all of Africa is One Big Happy Family. But if so, I didn't see them.

The primary place I did spot this sort of thing was in the restaurant, which featured weird-assed shaped tables (made, I think, to represent horizontal cuts from those large hard-wood trees you used to see full of baboons on Wild Kingdom all the time). Its drinks menu had a bit of hoo-haw about, well, the Wisdom of the Peoples of the Serengeti as reflected in their Communal Dining Experience. Geh. In fact, this looked to me like cheap cover for squashing us all into one giant dining hall. Also, the menu almost got political at one point: One of the featured South African wines on the list was something that carried a “Diversity" label which was meant, I suppose, as some kind of tribute to the triumph of the ANC but, at least to my mind, actually suggested the pouring of the dregs of a variety of different bottles into one large vat and rebottling it. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! Needless to say, I didn't touch it.

I also noted a spasmodic attempt at cultural enlightenment on the kiddies’ placemats. Among other things, they had a handy-dandy vocabulary of useful Xhosa terms. I don’t speak a word of any African language, but I immediately spotted a good bit of old-fashioned Pidgin English. Car, for example, was rendered as “moto”. Cat became “Ikitu”. (Here I’m guessing there’s not much of a tradition of domesticated cats among wandering tribal herdsmen. Dogs, yes. Cats, no). And so on. As with all the other examples of Disneyfied Africanism I encountered, this was just hokey enough to be mildly irritating but not so much that I felt inclined to do anything more than, well, save it for snarking purposes here.

As I say, I was surprised that Disney's foray into Potemkin Africanism (how's that for coining a phrase?) was as mild as it proved to be. On reflection, though, I really should not have been. After all, people come to the place to be entertained, not indoctrinated. Give ‘em the standard package of rides and entertainment dressed up with a few gewgaws and some animals and sprinkled with the "Disney Magic" (whatever the hell that actually is) and they’ll happily empty their wallets. And that, after all, is what Disney is after to begin with. Why go any further?

For this, I suppose, I should be grateful. Of course, that's a little like saying, "Yes, the Japanese made me march across the length of Bataan, but at least they didn't beat me on the way." But you see what I mean.

Next Time - Fear and Loathing In Disney World, Part III – How To Be Entertained Within An Inch Of Your Life: 48 Hours On The Ground In The Magic Kingdom.

Posted by Robert at March 17, 2005 12:51 PM

Try Googling "Potemkin Africanism" -

You invented the term!!

Posted by: Steve at March 17, 2005 01:43 PM


You, my friend, have done me a great service, as I can sit my wife down to read these next time she makes noises about dropping a few large on a trip to the not-so-magical Kingdom.

I haven't written up my spring break adventure yet, but I am confident I can say that I had at least twice the fun at no more than a quarter of the price, as predicted.

Ha ha ha...

Posted by: JohnL at March 17, 2005 01:55 PM

This is up there with P. J. O'Rourke's trip to Epcot 20 years ago! Thanks for the cautionary tale.

Posted by: Gordon at March 17, 2005 02:07 PM
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