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Visiting Disney World in the New Gilded Age

Visiting Disney World in the New Gilded Age

[Ed note: To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the League of Ordinary Gentlemen and Ordinary Times, we have invited writers of note from times past to come back and write something for Ordinary Times. Conor P Williams wrote for the site from 2012 to 2014.]

We went because we’d gone. It was parental mimesis, an echo handed down from golden childhoods, like nervous tics and racial stereotypes. We went because the timing was right, because our kids are peak cultural consumers, smack in the middle of their generation’s exposure to the American mass culture canon, past and present.

We went because they’re big enough to walk miles on a few dollars worth of junk food, but still young enough to wonder if the creature in the plush-looking suit is real, or real, or—at least—“real.”

We went because, oh savior above, we were desperate for a vacation. We went to let go after what felt like years of metaphorical intakes—soaking up savings, tightening up belts, piling up work and student debt.

Fortunately, Florida delivers. It is every bit as technicolor-saccharine as the postcards. The days are mostly perfect—the heat is almost impossible to appreciate when you know damn well it’s supposed to be snowing this time of year. Then, the nights arrive, a little later than they come at home, and all the syrupy-pastel color just drains out into a cool, deep, pleasant darkness. The pool is somehow pleasant at any temperature. Florida is comfortable.

Florida delivers. Even in resort hotels, there are signs to warn the visiting Minnesotans and Dakotans to keep an eye out for alligators and snakes. Somewhere out there, Florida Man is hopping into an amphicar on his way to a knife fight with a crocodile named Messiah in a hot air balloon over Disney Springs.

Disney delivers. Ironically, its specialty is happy beginnings. The day may go on to be wonderful, but there’s nothing like the first few steps after the security check. The crowds are forming on the horizon, but they have not arrived. Music trills and the experience stretches out before you. You are finally here. You are free of exhaustion and full of anticipation as you gaze upon mile upon square mile of pleasure domes and frippery. It is pile upon pile of softness and sweetness.

Disney is all frayed cultural glories, where you come for the fancy adventure you’ve imagined, but wind up loving how the slight shabbiness triggers your nostalgia. There are new rides and shiny toys, but the paint is chipped on those monorails. Disney’s prime lay before you, in the future. But its prime is now, in the present. And its prime was then, in the past. There’s a temporo-metaphysical sleight of hand in place here. But it’s hard to see; at the first step through the gates, Disney feels so good.

Disney delivers. Disney World is late American capitalism at its most muscular. It is a gigantic Carnival Barker for the world, Magic Maker, Stacker of Plastic, a bold declaration that we, our country, our culture, will spend its time, its money, its energy on whatever the heck we want. Disney is where the country and world comes to buy—and witness—the trinkets of an empire.

There are endless sets of themed shirts and twenty different models of glowing plastic thingamabobs and ironic plays on themed shirts and whozits and whatzits galore. There are mouse ears, sparkly dresses, and branded content hidden to varying degrees. You can buy your piece of the common culture in shades sweet or self-aware now. Your shirt can read “Best Day Ever,” or “Most Expensive Day Ever.” Disney lets you spend money to wink at the money you’re spending. It will even memorialize the wink.

Look, we announce, here we are, buying our nutcracker mice. Here we are plodding to face mechanical fears lit with neon fired by oil burned just up the road somewhere in a building which, presumably, does not have a gift shop.

Inside Disney’s power plant(s), there are Americans putting in their 50 hours for 50 weeks a year. They’re like so many other Americans putting in their 50 hours for 50 weeks a year. So long as no one in their families gets sick, and the car’s brakes aren’t too worn, there’ll be enough to cover rent and a little time out here in the sunshine, following the electric current up the road and into the park. There’ll be money and time enough to revel for a few days with the rest of the country, visiting to frolic and chase fulfillment in—and amidst—the symbols we all share.

That’s how you deliver in 2019, in the United States. Work your gears until they grind, work them still and find a path to all the necessities and then a little more besides. Work that you have a chance to share, briefly, in the consumption of a culture curated for us and especially for you.

And you’d better do it, too, if you can. Because Disney is the place where we, 21st-century creatures, go to express ourselves most fully as consumers. Where we go to purchase our places in our culture. Where we come, in a sort of subterranean cultural pilgrimage, deep down to the roots of the common life we spend the rest of our years living. Where we plug most fully into the very lynchpins of our reality. Because these songs, these characters, these films and shows and sweaty, frustrating experiences in Florida lines are the referents we use to make sense of ourselves and one another. They’re the stuff of our similes, the anchors in our emotional tides. “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” sure, but whoever would like to understand American children and the childhood hidden in American adults had better know Disney.

Disney World is impossibly huge. Whether you stay in a resort hotel or in a nearby town, you’re probably getting driven around. Most of our drivers were immigrants. Most of these immigrants are Latinx, and of these, most are Venezuelan. Ask them why they’re here, orbiting Orlando in cars and shuttle buses, and they demur. All have come since instability sparked in Venezuela. Some are studying at local universities. But most are professionals with credentials that won’t quite transfer into US systems. They are skills and training and value that does not fit the language and the culture of our marketplace. So they drive, greasing that market’s gears.

We had one white American driver. He explains, in soft tones at first, then gradually louder, that he drives because his old job—along with his old apartment, and his old life—was wrecked in one of last year’s hurricanes.

I said something about how those seemed to be happening more frequently now. He paused, drew a breath, weighed the connection in lonely yearnings and pieces of gold, then said, “You know, I’ve been reading a lot about flat-earth theories on the Internet, and I have to say that they’re onto something.”

I sucked in air to buy time, waiting to see if he’d chuckle and release the oddity of the moment in a joke. We both bent forwards a little, body gestures to the precarity of the situation. We were both earnest, but in the end, we were both rating one another in this car. We were paying and being paid.

All of Disney plays within these dynamics. It costs at least one hundred dollars per person to get into Disney World in 2019. It’s barely accessible to some lower-income Americans, who, after all, can’t escape living in this zeitgeist with the rest of us. But Disney caters to the profligate and the well-heeled.

Once you’re in, you’ve entered markets of fulfillment brimming over with utils of pleasure. The rides compete, but not really, for their supplies are largely fixed. They churn on, hour by hour, day by day, week by month by year, delivering diversion in 60- to 180-second noisy neon packets.

You, the demanding audience, you consume in scarcity. There is only so much time your day, Adenosine Triphosphate in your legs, room at each attraction, and so forth. So you calculate—and you calculate hard. Are you here for the nostalgia? The novelty? The children’s sugary, short-term dreams or the long-term life satisfaction they’ll assuredly get from possessing the photo waiting at the end of the line they’re disrupting?

You vacillate and choose and choose again. You pace yourself to rush at the right times and rest off-cycle from your fellows. You avoid their schedules and their proclivities and their strengths. You time yourself to their weaknesses, to be up when they are down and gone when they get back up. We are all utilitarians in this foxhole.

But, just as in the big, gilded market, certainty is scant. For a park under such security, authority is often lacking (or invisible). This makes the key norms of human crowd behavior—linewaiting, crowdwalking, voice modulation, and the like—especially unreliable. It’s hard to tell if you’ve gamed the system correctly, because the system keeps breaking down. You all—we all—shove our way onto the shuttle bus regardless of whether or not there was a line before it arrived.

What’s more, there are workarounds. There is something called FastPass+, and it is better than an older thing called FastPass, somehow. You probably did not read ahead, because you were too busy working to get together the money for this whole adventure, and there wasn’t time to learn an awful lot about what the FastPass could do for you, or how that + ought to be managed. It’s been decades since you were last here; whatever shreds you remember of the old rules are no longer operative.

Long story short, as with the stock market, you may avoid the rules within the system. FastPass+ opens the door, leaving you to jaunt past, provided you have planned well and optimally leveraged your view of the market and your own desires. The obvious corollary is true: you cannot use your FastPass+ without self-congratulating. You did your damn homework, for once. You picked a good couple of experiences and built your day around them and you are not waiting in that line.

As soon as you exit, however, and find your next line, you cannot watch families prance through the FastPass+ line, past your 55-minute wait, without feeling hard done by. They are cheating somehow, it’s clear. Your resentment shifts your priorities. You wanted this ride too. And you were willing to wait 55 minutes. But you did not want to wait 55 minutes if they didn’t have to. Because they are so very much like you, and these rules don’t seem to be working quite as they should for you at this moment.

We are all Rousseau in these lines. We are all self-concern and self-regard and inflamed ego. We are all Rousseau on the way to the Jacobins. We are all ready to impose some righteous order on the jaunty, prancing families who are congratulating themselves on their good sense.

Incidentally, nigh on every Disney heroine sings for more. Ariel wants to “explore that shore” in search of more than what she has. Belle wants “more than this provincial life.” Mulan wants out from under family expectations. Jasmine falls for Aladdin because he’s offering her a “whole new world.” And etc.

Most Disney visitors have already had more. They carry it with them in the folds, lumps, creases, bleary eyes. It’s in their pounds and worry lines, in the searching, far-off look that fades onto their faces as their attention drifts out of line and into their wallet.

They’ve had more than they can take, before they even get here. They’ve been inhaling and grasping and chasing and grinding and yes, periodically screwing up, for so long. They’re just trying to let it go for a second, to lose themselves in the reassurance of a comfortable, self-assured culture. They’re trying to find and shake loose their own childhoods before their children’s have completely passed. They’re trying to buy a bit of freedom from the pressure, but they’re also, however awkwardly, throwing their money on a low-stakes gamble for fulfillment.

And then, all-too-soon, they’re back home, living their daily version of the cultural milieu Disney helps to anchor. They’re charging around to work and school and hoping that they weighted their tax forms appropriately because ah, jeez, how did that tire get flat again? And they’re—we’re—wistful at the steadily roughed-up plastic Disney cups holding toothbrushes in the bathroom.

The just-experienced begins congealing into memories, with details lost and highlights magnified. You—we—wonder: What do the kids really think? Did it work? Was it worth it? Did we time it—our indulgence—correctly? Will we have to go back? Do we want to? And the Florida sun-glow fades in the face of the imminent arrival of the credit card bills that absolutely, positively will not pay for themselves.


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Conor Williams on Twitter. More background here.

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25 thoughts on “Visiting Disney World in the New Gilded Age

  1. I’ve been to Disney World once when I was 8. I barely remember it but for some people it is the best place in the world and they love going again and again. My parents were not really amusement park people so my experiences at theme parks are thin. We went to Hershey Park once, Disney World once, and that is it as a family. There were some I went to as part of summer camp/programs or school trips (8th grade went to Six Flags for the Day as a graduation nice-thing.)

    But seemingly it is a thing that parents do a lot. Also I think modern parents take their kids to the zoo more often than we went.

    I did go to the Natural History Museum, the Met, and Young People’s Concerts at Lincoln Center as a kid a lot. Maybe this is why I am like me and don’t relate to the current kinder-mania.

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  2. My experience of Disney was something like the above… with a handful of exceptions.

    The fireworks show over the lake at Epcot? Absolutely magical. The best fireworks show I’ve ever seen in my life (and I saw the NYC 4th of July show that they did in 1990 or 1991). It wasn’t the 4th of July or anything. It was just a magical fireworks show for park guests.

    The other was the Frozen live show. They had a live show where actors would come out and give a short bit between the footage of the movie with songs. I was a grown man surrounded by kids who were all singing “do you wanna build a snowman” and “IN SUMMMMMMMMER!” and, of course, “let it go”. It was cute. I was glad I was there with Maribou and her sister’s family and their daughter and I felt like a grown man surrounded by kids who were all singing songs from a movie I hadn’t seen and had no interest in seeing.

    But then? At the end of the show? The lady playing Elsa came out and raised her arms and it started snowing inside.

    Sure, it wasn’t *REAL* snow. It was very thinly shaved ice falling from ice shavers hidden in the ceiling…

    But it was snowing. Inside.

    Holy crap. They got me.

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      • It’s true that I went to Epcot a little more than a decade after I saw the NYC one… but after seeing the NYC one, I was breathless. During that show, I said “that’s *GOTTA* be the finale” *SIX* times.

        And the one at Epcot was better even though it wasn’t the 4th. For them, it was Tuesday. (Or whatever day it was. Point is, it wasn’t a holiday or particularly near one.)

        Wait, wait. I just googled. It was kinda part of the 50th Anniversary. So maybe it was something special.

        Anyway, it *WAS* something special.

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        • Confirmed with Maribou. May or June 2008. So 18 years. Epcot 2008 managed to outdo NYC 1990.

          Surely my AAA ball park isn’t the only one in the country to do something like Fireworks Friday Nights. Is that something that is common across the country?

          If so, when did it start?

          (I’m trying to figure out whether this version of Moore’s law operates on a time scale of 4ish years, 8ish years, or 12ish years.)

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  3. We took the kids at ages 9 & 7 as a check-the-box, rite of childhood passage. Unlike my parents who took the family each time a kid turned five, meaning that as the oldest I enjoyed three trips, this would be it. We would suck the marrow out of the mouse one time only and move on to other family vacation destinations. It would be an efficient trip, and what struck me most in planning it was the efficiency with which Disney managed such huge crowds. And I was sucked-into understanding Disney’s plans in order to understand how we could enjoy all of the attractions the kids wanted to enjoy at three parks in four days. I prepared a scheduling plan, constantly refining it using constantly changing online data, weighing tips from message boards. I’m so proud of it, I still have it.

    And the night before we returned to Magic Kingdom to pick up the rides we missed and revisit favorites, I dreamed that I was floating through an underground maze on some sort of ride-boat, with paths diverging and intersecting, posing decisions and consequences. It was the greatest ride of them all.

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  4. I never went to Disney World until I was 21-literally, I had my 21st birthday there. I went with my then-boyfriend’s family. I’ve never been back.
    After reading this piece I was inspired to start planning a trip. My kids are 8 and 11 and I feel like they should go at least once, and now, before they get any older and any less likely to enjoy the wonder of it all.
    It’s just so expensive and overwhelming.
    Thankfully, I’m up to my ears in people offering their tips and planning services.
    But rather than a full on multi-day disney adventure, I’m thinking just a day or two at Disney, and definitely Universal (because Harry Potter World) and Epcot.

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    • My recommendation is to buy the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, which includes a section on Universal. I bought the latest edition both times we went, as well as subscribed to the related touringplans-dot-com website. Good resources to help decide what you want to do and how to manage time and money.

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  5. My only Disney visit was to Disneyland in California. I went after I had finished my masters degree in operations research, along with three other adults of about the same age. Letting my inner child loose for the day was a lot of fun. What I kept noticing though, because of the degree, was all the little things they did to make the process go smoothly. Lines were handled so that you were constantly moving forward. Some of the rides ran the line through a mood-setting section (Haunted Mansion in particular). I found myself really wanting to visit the hidden parts that the engineering staff must use, particularly the underground.

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    • A firm I worked for was invited to bid on the engineering design for one of the periodic refurbishments of Main Street, and as part of the process, we toured the backstage areas above and behind all the shops.

      As an architect, I knew full well how the buildings were constructed and yet…There was a profound sense of disappointment to see that the backside of a stage set is, well, just a bunch of 2x4s and plywood and wiring.

      Likewise, I was walking along Hollywood Boulevard across from the Chinese Theater, where amateurs put on costumes of famous characters like Spiderman to pose with the tourists. I saw Snow White, sitting at a Coffee Bean nonchalantly smoking a cigarette and yakking on a cell phone, and it was startling, a jarring sort of juxtaposition.

      What was I expecting? I don’t know. But somehow the magnificent illusion of the place seduced me even without my being aware of it. No matter how we tell ourselves it is an illusion, the power of the storytelling is too much.

      I understand now, why Disney is so ruthless and relentless about crushing any non-approved uses of their characters.

      I kind of wish I had not seen it.

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      • Personality flaw on my part, no doubt. I greatly enjoy experiencing the effects, but I love the smoke-and-mirrors part of it. I’ll jump at any “behind the scenes” tour I can get. I put on technology demonstrations for a few years and while the tech was real, there was a certain amount of smoke and mirrors to making it work in a hotel ballroom that I got to do. I loved the Dream Park books — the first three, at least — in part because of the sub-plots that included the smoke and mirrors. Well, and the line from the beginning of the horror ride, delivered by a disembodied voice after the elevator door had closed, that went something like, “This is the grown-up version of the ride. You’ve all signed waivers. What you may not realize is that we are allowed a certain number of… accidents per year.”

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  6. I used to live in Florida so I’d been to DW several times before I was 8. I had been back once or twice post Epcot creation, and I went back once with the now ex wife since she had a business conference there. I watched the line of parents pushing strollers line up at the hotel (it was that one that had the monorail go through it) barely awake, exhausted waiting for the elevator.

    It was expensive-a 2 person dinner at a nice hotel restaurant was greater than dinner for 4 at a fancy seafood restaurant off site. I remember how everyone who served you worked to up sell you, and I remember how Disney calculated within 50 dollars how much we’d spend in 3 days–and they nailed it.

    The ex remembered how clean the place was. I don’t think I’ll ever go back. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but….I don’t have kids and I’ve seen it enough. Hell, I could stay at the El Tovar hotel at the South Rim for 150 dollars.

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  7. Yeah, Disney has really changed over the last 50-years; my folks were “early adopters” taking us there almost from the start.

    Our wrinkle was staying at Fort Wilderness (aka the camp ground). We would spend 7-10 days just at the camp ground with maybe one day at the Theme Park (and then one day at the Epcot Center)… The camp ground was the magical place for us… trams, outposts, beach, (eventually, a water park, then no water park), and access to all the Disney facilities via the marvelous (to a 10-yr old in the 70s) internal transportation system of Boats and Monorails open Trams (and busses). We were even allowed to explore everything on our own! Plus Disney movies outside every night… giant bonfires… sing alongs(!)… everything was FREE (and spotlessly clean, and [presumably] safe, and had all these tiny attention to detail things, like, piped bluegrass music from hidden speakers at various points and employees who were super friendly and helpful [or else]).

    Our last couple of trips (let me signal: on account of nostalgia by my parents wanting to get the cousins together) have confirmed that some bright MBA somewhere between 1975 and 2015 figured out you could monetize the f*ck out of Fort Wilderness. I can’t tell if the Theme Parks were less magical owing to my age, or owing to the fact that they became somewhat more conventional as thrill rides and rather less unconventional propaganda devices. The original vibe of Disney was: This is our tradition, this is how great we are now, and this is how great we will become… the propaganda was as relentless as it was genuine. I miss the old flavored propaganda.

    My other sociological comment comparing 1970 to 20teens is that they used to soft-sort the rides by Class. The good rides required the E-ticket… and you only had a couple of those… the crappy rides? Plentiful A-tickets. So what we didn’t notice was that we kept ourselves off the good rides (once our tickets were gone) so that people who bought ride books without regard for using *every* ticket could go on as many under populated E-ticket rides as they wanted. Genius, really. We had no idea. You got your one trip on 20,000 leagues under the sea and then off to the tea-cups to make room for our betters… and we did it with smiles on our faces, never seeing the people cutting in front of us.

    The one constant… the food was always terrible… like Hospital food leftovers reheated haphazardly.

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    • The feel in the 1970s was a lot different because there was one park, so the pace of the vacation was different. I think we would stay at an off-site motel three nights, and then we went to the coast to round out the week on a beach. It now probably takes five days to substantially see four parks.

      Also, the original park was more informed by classic children’s stories (though mostly versions shown on the Sunday TV show), and are being replaced by the new animated favorites and/or corporate acquisitions. We watched some of the lesser known movies related to the attractions, but didn’t get around to Swiss Family Robinson, so the poignancy of that line-ride was lost.

      The age range has expanded. Once dead space has been allocated to character signings for younger kids/ toddlers. There are now more thrill-rides for kids older than the Space Mountain crowd. The area now called Disney Springs has more adult related food, shopping and entertainment.

      I confess to finding the expansion and stickiness and all of the resulting logistical issues fascinating, but my impression is that people that go regularly operate at a different pace — checking out the attractions when the gates open, head back to the hotel around 11 AM when crowds surge for a nap or pool time, and go to a park around 4 or 5 PM when people are departing to eat off-site.

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      • Yeah… I’m agog at all the new parks, the zoo one, Universal, the adult zone my company sent us to during corporate meetings… and the old parks are totally renovated and updated… busier, crowdeder, funer. Still a marvel to see the crowd handling techniques in action, like a self-aware lab-rat (or so I think).

        I can totally see doing what you did… the fact that Disney gives you the tools to customize and manage your vacation online is something I’d completely appreciate (and obsess over)… I’m just an odd duck whose childhood vision of Disney is a big meadow with a river, a faux trading post, and tetherball.

        Even today with all the amazing upgrades to the Theme Parks, our Park to camp ground ratio is still 3:1 days… we’d never try to do more than one or two Theme parks. For us, the main attraction still is just being inside the Disney system… the Disney vacation womb.

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        • The funny thing is that I don’t think Disney gives any tools. The book/website I identified has people go to the parks under different crowd conditions and have people wait in line and time themselves. I think they also have people stand in particular places and count how many people they see from that vantage point, as well as time themselves walking from point A to point B.

          They eventually have official park attendance figures, but the tool has to predict future crowds based upon similar events and time of year in the past. I think they also monitor airplane tickets and certain things Disney does that tip their hand about how much of a crowd they anticipate (release of fast-pass or adding hours of operation).

          So while Disney is using big data derived from the magic bands people wear, I think the planners are developing their own models based upon public information and their own proprietary data. The planning stuff actually looks a lot like Sabermetric analysis.

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  8. My wife and I went to Epcot pre-kids because we happened to be in Orlando for a wedding. That was enough to cure us of any latent Disney fever we may have had.

    I always told my kids that I was setting them up for parental success by never taking them there. They could bring their own kids to Disney, and congratulate themselves on what better parents they are than their parents were. Feel free to steal this.

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