Team Rodent

Charles Taylor reviews 'Team Rodent: How Disney Devours The World' by Carl Hiaasen

Published August 5, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of hearing my best friend's mom express relief that Walt Disney had finally kicked the bucket. When I asked her what he'd done to be such a bastard in her estimation, she told me, "He wanted to rule the world." That may seem like a strange opinion to any kid who was raised to equate Disney with Mickey and Goofy and those silly Kurt Russell comedies we'd go to see every year. And the opinion expressed by Carl Hiaasen in his hilarious and venomous pamphlet

"Team Rodent" -- that his empire has succeeded in ruling small pockets of the world, and can do so because it exerts a pervasive mind control on much of the rest of the planet -- may seem strange to the 46 million people who annually descend on Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., or the millions more who flock to Disney movies, or perhaps the ones distributed by Touchstone, Miramax or Hollywood Films (all Disney subsidiaries). It may seem strange to the people who buy books published by Hyperion or CDs released by Hollywood Records, maybe even the combined billions who tune in to programming on ABC, ESPN, Lifetime, A&E, the History Channel. Getting the picture?

Who could have known, when Uncle Walt left us for that Magic Kingdom in the sky, that his minions would join ranks, mousestepping in his name across the literal and figurative American landscape to establish an empire that will last a thousand years, all the while trading on the trusted Disney name, and the visions of sweetness and light it conjures, to consolidate their holdings? Strength through joy, indeed. Certainly the farmers in central Florida whose land, beginning in the mid-'60s, was being snapped up at $200 an acre by buyers careful to keep the Disney name hush-hush (lest real estate prices shoot up) couldn't have foreseen Disney's master plan. Not true of the Florida legislators who, after Disney revealed itself and its intentions, went to outrageous lengths to secure the money Mickey could pour into their state. Hiaasen, in addition to being one of our best popular novelists, is a longtime investigative reporter with the Miami Herald, and he details goings on that would do the con men and sleazebags in his mysteries proud.

To ensure it landed Disney, Florida created the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a geographical district that comprises Disney World and its surrounding lands. The effect is to allow Disney to operate as an autonomous district. The supervisory board is elected by landowners (the Disney corporation), and since there is no voting population to speak of, the corporation is free to call the shots, to establish its own zoning laws, to pressure the state Assembly to allocate money for its sewage
treatment rather than allot the dough to another county's proposed low-income housing. And it's free to refuse to obey state law -- it refused, for instance, to hand over the manual of Disney's security force after a member of that force engaged in a high-speed chase that ended in the death of 18-year-old Robb Sipkema, whose only apparent transgression
had been horsing around at night on company property. Though the security force works for Reedy Creek, a public entity, Disney's lawyers succeeded in convincing a worm by the name of Judge Belvin Perry Jr. that relevant files were private property.

Hiaasen details Disney's talent for asserting its presence to gain the trust of officials or the public and then absenting itself at the first whiff of trouble. When a housing development promoted by Disney was found, after Hurricane Andrew blew it off the map in 1992, to have had incredibly shoddy workmanship, Disney succeeded in persuading the court to leave its name out of the class-action suit that followed, the reasoning being that a jury could assume the pockets on Mickey's shorts went awfully deep.

If you've ever read one of Hiaasen's mysteries, you know he can be killingly funny (if you haven't read one, for God's sake, stop wasting time with this). "Team Rodent" is a swift, hilarious read. At one point, Hiaasen fantasizes about breaking into Disney World to populate its lake with a truckload of hungry bull gators. His conscience precludes this -- he's afraid a gator might get hurt.

But the laughs shouldn't disguise that there is a serious and complex subject here, the same one addressed in the early "X-Files" episodes and "The Truman Show": the ability of power to create its own reality. And since power does everything it can to convince us that the reality it creates is benevolent, people who insist on the facts -- no matter how outlandish those facts seem -- can easily be dismissed as cranks. "Disney is so good at being good," Hiaasen writes, "that it manifests an evil; so uniformly efficient and courteous, so dependably clean and conscientious, so unfailingly entertaining that it's unreal, and therefore is an agent of pure wickedness. Imagine promoting a universe in which raw Nature doesn't fit because it doesn't measure up." People do not want to believe that, because it's selling Mickey and Donald, an obscenely large conglomerate actually behaves like one. But has any company that has set its sights on transforming the way the world looks, and going about that master plan with autonomy, ever summed up its philosophy any more honestly than "It's a Small World After All"? And isn't it about time to change the name of that tune to "Mickey \ber Alles"?

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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