March 18, 2005

Fear and Loathing In Disney World, Part III - How To Be Entertained Within An Inch Of Your Life - Forty Eight Hours On The Ground In The Magic Kingdom

(Part I is nyah. Part II is over nyah.)

At the stillpoint of destruction,
At the center of the fury,
All the angels, all the devils,
All around us, can’t you see?

I come from a Scots background. My great-grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. So by nature I am somewhat resigned to the idea that we’re put on this earth to suffer. This isn’t always necessarily a bad thing: there are times and places where I really don’t mind being, for example, tired, wet, cold and hungry. Indeed, in the proper circumstances such feelings add a certain edge to whatever I am doing. However, I like to pick and choose my suffering when I can. When I find myself tired, wet, cold and hungry owing specifically to the machinations of the agents of a certain Cartoon Mouse, well, I don’t like that so much. Hoots! Toots! Sooofering, indeed.

The high point of our first day in the Magic Kingdom was to be breakfast at Cinderella’s Castle with a selection of Disney Princesses. I’m told by aficionados that our securing of a slot for this particular breakfast – which the Missus achieved by calling at some ungodly hour of the morning on a given date - was a major coup. And indeed, this signal event was the talk of the Butcher’s House for some time -so much so that we were determined not to run any possible risk of missing our seating. To this end, we undertook to follow to the absolute letter all of the guidelines we received from the Mouse High Command regarding our attendance. Among the most stringent instructions we got were those which stated categorically that if we hoped to make our 8:05 AM reservation at Cinderella’s Castle, we had got to be on the 7:00 AM shuttle-bus from the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Cinderella runs a tight ship and brooks no straggling and we feared that, as we like to say in my family, if we’d snoozed, we’d of loozed. Thus, sans coffee and barely awake, we duly saw to it that we all got aboard the 7:00 AM bus.

Well. Tempus fugit I suppose, but not always, because, together with rather a lot of other folks, we were at the front gate to the Magic Kingdom by about 7:15 AM. The problem we found ourselves facing was twofold: For one thing, the gate didn’t even open until 8:00 AM (a detail nobody bothered to mention). For another, despite a whole series of forecasts to the contrary, this was not your typical balmy Florida day. Indeed, the weather seemed to have chased us down from Dee Cee – It was about 50 degrees, with a thick drizzle and a biting wind. The Llama-ettes had raincoats, but we had packed calculating that the temperature was going to be about 20 degrees warmer than it actually was. At the very least, we had figured we would be able to zip right inside and that, after breakfast, we’d be better fortified for dealing with the elements.

As I held my poor, shivering five year old in my arms, I began to seethe – You bastards, with your gonzo bus schedule, this is your fault! You did this to my little girl! Even the Missus, whose opinion of the Magic Kingdom is considerably more favorable than mine, was sufficiently unhappy that she spoke to the attendants loitering on the other side of the gate. But no joy – that mile-wide, inch-deep Customer Service Standard I wrote about yesterday was in full force and effect. “You can’t let us in to get out of the weather?” she asked. Nope – gate doesn’t open until 8. “What should we do in the meantime?” she asked. They simply shrugged.

Eventually, of course, the gate did open. By then, I had become moderately soggy and my caffeine-withdrawal headache was beginning to kick in. “At least,” I thought, “I’ll be able to work off some of my bile by deconstructing this ‘Princess Breakfast’ business in my head.” As we entered Cinderella’s Castle and started climbing a winding stair up to the dining room, I reached out and gave the wall a quick rap. The thud of reinforced plastic was music to my ears – this might be some fun after all.

It’s been a long, long time since I saw Cinderella, but my recollection of the interior of the Prince’s castle was that it was of a fairly modern, sort of stylized 19th Century design. Not so here. For reasons I can’t fathom, Disney decided to combine the place’s famous Mad King Ludwig exterior with a kind of D&Dish Medieval interior, overlayed with some of the Quatrocento design prevalent in Sleeping Beauty and capped off it seemed, with a touch of Elizabethan half-timbering. The juxtaposition of all of this was enough to give any respectable historian or architect conniptions.

Not content to confine its historical bowdlerization to the building itself, Disney also decked out the serving staff in knock-off Colonial Williamsburg Innkeeper costumes and, apparently, commanded them to speak in a vaguely Shakespearian dialogue with American Cockney accents. At least that was the impression I got when our waitress sidled up to the table.

“Good morning, me Lord,” she said, “may I tell thou about the royal breakfast?”

Heh. The effect was like nothing so much as James Whitmore doing his Shakespearian gangster routine in Kiss Me, Kate. I think the waitress realized this, because her delivery was pretty half-hearted to begin with and she eventually dropped the business altogether. (I deny categorically that my incredulous stare had anything to do with her decision.) Listening around the room, though, I noticed that some of the other waiters were much more enthusiastic about their roles, liberally sprinkling their talk with “My Lords” and “My Ladies” and the like. Indeed, they probably were fueled by the audience response: most of the crowd seemed to eat it up. It strikes me as rather droll that as a people, Americans like to pride themselves on their egalitarianism. Yet if you give the average Joe a chance to play King for a Day, he’ll jump on it with both feet.

Anyhoo, after a few minutes, the Princesses started to filter into the room. All of the heavyweights were there – Cinderella, Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty), Snow White and Belle. Mary Poppins also made the list for some reason, although I noticed that none of the more, er, ethnic princess heroines - Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan - were around. (Make of that what you will.) They circulated about the room earning their living – signing books and bags, having their pictures taken, chatting with the kids, etc.

From the moment I first spotted them, something about the Princesses definitely looked to me. I think it was how they all had the same frozen, glittering smile, while at the same time maintaining a uniform level of eye brightness. Indeed, seeing the identical expression on five or six different faces in short order gave me quite a pause. As I type this, I am looking at some of the photos we took of them with the Llama-ettes and am becoming more convinced that this is exactly why they seemed so strange. Indeed, I think I’ve come up with an appropriate name for this phenomenon – the “Stepford Princesses Effect”. I am told by people who know that Disney dictates every single aspect of its characters’ behavior and appearance. Given this, I wouldn’t be surprised if all of the Princesses had been drilled intensely in the same Disney Smile Boot Camp. Uncle Walt might have had a uniform standard of pleasantness in mind, but the actual effect, as I say, was slightly unnerving. (I believe this corporate discipline is true offstage as well as on – I’m guessing the Mouse does not permit the woman who played Cinderella to kick back with a pack of smokes and a bottle of Jim Beam when she’s off duty, much as I would think she’d earned it.)

Speaking of training, here’s another thing I noticed. We had meals not just with the Princesses, but with several sets of full-costumed characters as well (Pluto and Goofy at dinner and Pooh and his friends at lunch, to be exact). In each of the latter cases, I had thought I could simply slide into the background and let the Llama-ettes get all the attention. But in each case, those characters zeroed in on me, putting their arms around my neck and patting my head in an apparent effort to tease me for trying to avoid getting involved. (The other adults in our party thought this was extremely amusing. Emphasis on “the other”.) Not so the Princesses. They didn’t lay a hand on me or any other adult in the room, so far as I could tell, and barely even acknowledged our existence. More’s the pity, too. A couple of them were pretty decent looking. Ol’ Dad might be writing a somewhat more charitable review if they’d have at least given him a wink.

After breakfast, we toddled back downstairs. (The food, incidentally, was the best I had the whole time there. But breakfast is a meal that is pretty hard to botch.) On the ground floor, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother was seated in a large chair. She was a rotund and slightly breathless woman and seemed the most human of all the actresses, actually displaying some emotion and interacting with the adults. I suppose Disney figures it doesn’t have as much to worry about with her in terms of character reputation.

The ground floor of the Castle, incidentally, is a kind of staging area for those whose reservation times have come up. When we walked down, many people were standing about the room waiting for their tables. Periodically, a woman dressed as a herald would appear and say, “The Royal Party of Smith (for example), your table awaits!” I suggested to the Missus that, given all the apparent claimants to the throne, Cinderella’s Castle must be in a constant state of civil war. “Shut up,” she replied.

As we came back outside, the sky had stopped messing about with drizzle and settled down to some genuine rain. Unlike the Llama-ettes, I did not have a raincoat, only a sweater, and soon got pretty wet. (Disney sells transparent plastic ponchos with large pictures of Mickey on them, but I refused point blank to wear one. Eventually, however, I was persuaded to buy a brown baseball-style hat with a modest Disney logo on it.) Trudging about, I was aware of one thing for which I could feel some gratitude - because of the lousy weather, there were relatively few people at the park. As a result, we got to nip around to a great many rides without having to wait too long for them. (I’ll give the details about the rides in the next installment, which will deal primarily with the adventures of the Llama-ettes.) Nonetheless, by mid-afternoon we had all had about enough. The rain, which had never let up all day, was turning into a first-class downpour. My shoes – the only pair I had brought - were positively water-logged. All I could think about was getting back to the hotel, taking a nice, long, hot shower and then sitting down to a big meal. The shower went fine, although I had to put my cold, wet shoes back on in order to go down to dinner. Thus, as you can imagine, I was already pretty crabby when I discovered that The Animal Kingdom Serengeti Communal Dining Hall was buffet only. D’oh!

Unlike the day before, the weather on our second morning in the Magic Kingdom was beautiful, with clear skies and gentle breezes. But at Disney, this is a detriment rather than a bonus because it brings out the mob. Attractions with lines of five minutes or so the previous day now required one to wait for half an hour or more. (Keep in mind, too, that once you got on to them none of the rides actually lasted more than about two minutes.) Indeed, just physically moving about the place was more difficult owing to the sheer numbers of people milling around. And it’s not just people. Disney rents strollers for babies and toddlers which cause significant additional congestion. At one point, trying to make my way through Toon Town, I actually experienced something very much akin to gridlock – there was simply no place to move. (Fortunately, it was still moderately cool – 65 or so. I don’t even want to speculate about what the place must be like in the depths of summer. Just imagining the idea of being caught in a squash of sweaty humanity with no chance of escape and temperatures approaching triple digits makes me claustrophobically ill.)

As a result of this crowding, I didn’t wind up doing very much that day other than standing about. However, this gave me a chance to do a little people watching. I’m not going to indulge in flings at particular socio-economic groups, but let’s just say that there was quite a, em, cross-section on display. “Two of everything” might be the best way to sum it up.

At one point, I sat for some time beside Minnie Mouse’s House and listened intently to the people passing by. Despite all the advertising hype about the Joys of Mouseland, most of them did not seem especially happy to me. Many were griping about something (the long lines, the cost, the transportation system – in fact the sort of thing I’ve been yapping about here) or else frantically scurrying around, trying to find lost companions, potties or a place to eat. Some seemed just plain bewildered, as if they didn’t really understand what they were doing there.

This is where my ultimate questioning of the “magic” part of “Magic Kingdom” kicks in. Where is this magic? Show me this magic! The Missus says that it comes the first time you visit the place as a little kid. You don’t notice all the bad things, but instead are happily and innocently overwhelmed by the spectacle – the characters, the rides, the bright displays, and so on. And the fondness you have for the memories you create on that first visit arm you against all the slings and arrows you recognize when you go back to the place later as an adult. She also says that I can’t possibly understand this since I never went as a kid but instead was brainwashed into despising the place by my parents.

The Missus probably has a point (I hate when that happens) about residual childhood memories. But isn’t there a passage in the Bible somewhere that says “when I was a child, I thought as a child,” the corollary being that once the speaker – Paul, I believe - became an adult he, well, grew up? One need not be long out of adolescence to see at a glance that the Mouse’s Empire is an elaborate scam - a fraud and a cheat, the sole purpose of which is to hoover its guests’ wallets. (To give one example, do Mickey’s minions deal with the long lines for all the rides by trying to find ways to expand capacity? Nooooooooo. Instead, they came up with a system of “Fast Passes” which, if you’re willing to shell out some extra bucks, lets you cut.) On top of this, for all the hoo-hah about magic and memories and getting to hug Cinderella, the truth is that Disney treats its customers downright brutally. Everything is on Uncle Walt’s terms, the food, the lodging, the transportation and the entertainment. As I said previously, the corporate slogan may just as well be “Do It Our Way Or Screw You”. (I’m not just making this up, by the way. I know several people who have done legal or consulting work with Disney. All of them say the same thing – that every iota of Disney World’s existence is rule by an iron fist, that customer profiling is taken to almost insane levels in order to maximized profitability and that the corporate culture there is among the most cutthroat imaginable.) Rather than indulging in moon-eyed sentimentality, it seems to me that adults ought to stand up against this behavior. Yet they don’t and Disney continues to act this way because it can – because the market continues to clamor for its services. That the place should remain so maddeningly popular with such a large part of the populace in the face of all of this says as much to me about how people think they deserve to be treated as it does about their taste in entertainment.

Second, and I know the Stuffiness Police are going to bust my chops for saying this, childhood memories are important – but real ones are better than fake ones. Indeed, despite what Certain People think, I have lots of treasured moments tucked away in my own brain, some of which might indeed be labeled “magical”. But none of them involve getting a hug from some guy in a donkey costume who gets paid minimum wage to pretend he’s my best friend.

I’m not suggesting that everyone who goes to Disney World should be marked for life with a scarlet “M”. What I am suggesting is that it simply isn’t worth the enormous trouble, expense and indignity. Almost anybody has the tools for a quality vacation experience much closer to home. We, for example, have a petting zoo near our house with a far more interesting selection of animals than Disney’s Animal Lodge. We also have several amusement parks nearby that have far better rides than Disney (more on that later). And there are plenty of authentic events, sites and attractions round about here to provide fond memories to young minds. Best of all, none of these are operated with the same level of naked rapacity and contempt for their customers as is Mickey’s Empire.

Refresh my memory. We went all the way to Florida why, exactly?

Next time – Chapter IV – Gratuitous Domestic Posting (TM), or No, They’re Not My Children

Posted by Robert at March 18, 2005 11:42 PM

Disneyworld ™ is just a pale shadow of Disneyland ™, the real seat of power where Uncle Walt and the Giant Space Rat are frozen in carbonite awaiting the prophesied time when their dominance is at hand.

And as bad as Orlando may be I can't imagine it could be more terrible than the balck land of Anaheim.

(Actually, I like Disneyland ™ though I imagine it would be a bit different with small children in tow. And by "bit different" I mean "intolerable".)

Posted by: Matt Navarre at March 19, 2005 02:02 AM

I think it was how they all had the same frozen, glittering smile,

Vaseline on the teeth, darlin'.

It's an old pageant trick: if you slather the vaseline on your teeth, you, quite literally, cannot stop smiling because your lips can't get past the vaseline.

Posted by: Kathy at March 19, 2005 10:15 AM

Believe me- you do NOT want to go to Disneyworld in the summer. My wife set up a "vacation" there when our daughter was seven. I endured TEN days of Hell there. The temperature was well over 100 F each day. the Humidity approached 100%. There are precious few water fountains there, thus forcing one to buy $5 bottles of water. The food is unbelievably expensive , and equally bad.

We stayed at the Royal Orleans "resort". The ONLY food available was at a cafeteria-style facility that had a grand total of about 3 different dishes available for each meal- let me tell you after 10 days, you become nearly as interested in eating yet another "meal" as a GI in Iraq is in consuming another MRE.

I could write more, much much more, but I won't.

I will never, ever go back to that hellhole, and if I can actually avoid Florida for the rest of my natural existance, I will gladly do so.

From one grizzled Mouseland vet to another, I salute you.

Posted by: Harry at March 19, 2005 11:29 AM

Next time you have some vacation stored up, GO TO IOWA and write a report contrasting the experience, instead. I kid you not.

A couple of summers ago, we made a 12-hour drive up the road to Des Moines to visit some close family friends for a few days. While there, we got to enjoy a day playing in the water and hiking the hills at The Ledges State Park, another day seeing the famed bridges of Madison County and John Wayne's birthplace, and another at their Six-Flags-type-park called Adventureland. Imagine riding double-loop roller coasters again and again and again with NO wait. The longest wait of the day was for the log ride and was about 10 minutes.

If I ever receive a threat of going to Disney (in CA or FL), I'll insist on Iowa, instead.

Posted by: at March 20, 2005 11:10 PM
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