Last week I went to Disney World. Nominally the purpose of the trip was to observe some belly dancing at the Moroccan Pavilion in Epcot center as well as another group performance at an arts festival in Orlando and to interview a couple of Orlando-based belly dancers.
But the truth is: I love Disney World. Love it!! I know it’s a completely fabricated, managed, imaginary space that is basically a vast stage illusion. I know it is like five hundred bajillion dollars a day to get in (well, more like $100 if you want to see more than one part of the park in a day – excluding taxes, food and souvineers.) I know that every time I go something I want to see will either be closed for repair or have an hour and a half wait to get in.
Nevertheless, going to Disney World is one of my favorite things to do in the, well, world. My mom and I have gone together about once a year ever since my parents moved down to Florida and we always have a fabulous time. Personally I like having a world entirely based on the premise of me having fun and not having to worry about anything besides how long the lines for the rides I want to go on will be. I enjoy the sense of being part of something crafted for a singular purpose, even if all the little houses are fake and there is another realm happening to prop up everything in Disney World behind a gate somewhere.
Some people hate this feeling. They find it unnerving that everything is constructed, nothing is genuine, that the entire Disney universe is stage-managed by a thousand invisible troops. I admit that certain aspects of Disney World trouble me: much as I enjoy the World Showcase I don’t think any of it represents an accurate picture of the countries they are supposed to depict. Personally I can enjoy it on the level of a living cartoon; it’s a fantasy come to life, I know it isn’t reality. But I can understand why this would be disturbing for some people, especially if they don’t like they way their own country is represented there.
I’m also fascinated by the amount of work and effort it takes to make Disney World appear seamless. Every employee wears a uniform that corresponds to the particular area they work in (like one of the restaurants) as well as their job function (cashier, floor manager, food server). That is a LOT of uniforms to keep track of. On the day we went, it was cold (I know this is Florida but it was only 55 for the high!) Every shop had put a rack of sweatshirts out front, even if they didn’t normally sell sweatshirts. Hats and gloves were on sale next to all the registers. All the ice cream carts were closed, and instead the popcorn carts were out in force. Imagine all the planning that goes into making those decisions – and that’s just for one slightly chilly day.
As much as all that planning, management and careful cultivation fascinates and delights me within the confines of Disney World itself, I have to say that thinking of it in another context entirely creeps me out. Florida is home to many, many planned communities, including the Disney-managed town of Celebration. Mom and I went there for dinner one evening. They have a lovely but entirely too perfect-looking downtown. There are several nice-looking restaurants, a twee little ice cream shoppe, a convivial-looking bar, a movie theater, an arcade, a Starbucks. The streets are small and leafy, there’s plenty of parking although Celebration residents can also use small electric vehicles to get around. There is a lovely, perfectly landscaped lake and a small park with a pool at which we were warned by a sign that CELEBRATION RESIDENTS ONLY were welcome. Housing there varied from attractive though sterile-looking little condos to large, immaculate-looking houses with gables and front porches. It looks a lot like Stepford. (Actually what it reminded me of even more was an old episode of The X Files called “Arcadia” in which this gated community is policed by a monster that kills people who violate the property codes, but I wouldn’t expect any of you out there to be geeky enough to make that connection.)
Interestingly we saw bunches of teenagers hanging around on the Celebration town center sidewalks. I’m sure there is an ordinance against loitering (there’s certainly one against skateboards, roller blades, or wheeled thingies of any kind on the sidewalks which was noted prominently around the town), but it appears that there really aren’t a lot of places for the young people of Celebration to go. Florida isn’t known for its crowds of young people so they were mildly startling to see in any case, but I felt rather sorry for them. Even though it was a bitterly cold night most of them chose to slouch around outdoors than patronize any of the local establishments – not that there was any place they could really go, aside from the Starbucks. Most of them looked too young to drive, so they couldn’t escape to anywhere else without enlisting their parents, either. Though really, outside the theme parks and downtown Orlando, most of central Florida is one giant, ugly series of tatty strip malls. (For my British readers: I do not mean shopping centers full of strippers, though there are some of those in Florida too. A strip mall is an ugly commercial development that doesn’t have a hallway connecting the businesses, basically.)
I can see why Celebration and communities like it appeal to people whose alternatives are limited to gated condo developments where there isn’t a downtown of any kind or horrible ugly highrises surrounded by the aforementioned strip malls. But still: it’s just so bright, fresh and PERFECT that I personally came away with a lingering feeling of creepiness. I’d be afraid to move there for fear that I’d either end up being replaced by a doppelganger robot or eaten by “a Tibetan thought-form” called a Tulpa, which is what the X-Files agents decided was plaguing the people of Arcadia. Planned communities: they look great on the surface, but if you spend all that time working to make a place perfect on the outside, all the bad juju has to go somewhere…and maybe it won’t stay where you put it!