The dark side of Disney

There's no escaping the commodification of childhood.

Published August 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

My 4-year-old daughter Sarah was scooting up the concourse of Orlando International Airport, letting loose all the energy harnessed during
our flight from Newark, when suddenly she halted. I caught up to her and saw why. She was gazing worshipfully at a statue of Tigger overlooking a Disney store. "Let's stay here," Sarah begged. "Look at all the stuffs."

Sarah's adulation told me I was in for an unforgettable week. From the start, the omens had been bad for this, our family vacation to Disney World. Back in July, when we'd first intended to come, wildfires and 100-degree heat had raged across Florida with biblical intensity. Instead of heeding the augury and canceling the trip altogether, we had rescheduled for Thanksgiving week. There were a thousand dollars' worth of non-refundable airplane tickets at stake, after all; there were several hundred more in theme-park passes bought at a reduced advance rate.

And there was the force of destiny. Every family with children of my acquaintance seemed to have made its pilgrimage to Disney World. Editors, photographers, pastors, attorneys -- people who should have known better -- submitted to their duty. One of them, mindful of Art Spiegelman's Holocaust comic book, called the place "Mauschwitz."

How exactly had a visit to Disney World become such an obligation, such a hajj? During my own childhood in the 1960s, I enjoyed the tatty boardwalk of Seaside Heights as much as any Jersey kid. I had gone to the 1964-65 New York World's Fair often enough to drive my father half-mad with pleadings for a Belgian waffle. (Too much whipped cream, he ruled.) But in 18 summers of family vacations, I spent exactly one day at the original Disneyland, and that was only because my left-wing parents refused to visit Knott's Berry Farm, whose owner was said to support the John Birch Society.

As a father, I tried to fill my house with books and craft projects. Rarely did a Raffi tape sully our stereo. The television dial stayed at PBS. I gloated. Maybe that was my big mistake.

Somehow, Disney World contaminated my home as stealthily as radon gas -- a few Disney tapes from a doting grandmother, a few tales of trips there by cousins, a few excursions to the local mall's Disney store to buy birthday presents. Before long, Sarah and her 6-year-old brother Aaron were bleating for their own vacation in Disney World. I could only feebly argue to my wife that we should wait until they were both older and ready for a full day's trekking from ride to ride. Having surrendered on principle, I soon capitulated on the details.

Now, driving from the airport to the Embassy Suites room we had booked in a feckless stab at frugality, I felt dizzy, almost sun-dazed, even though the sky was overcast. I took the wrong exit, wound up somewhere within sight of the Epcot globe. Here on Disney property, every hedge had been perfectly clipped, every lawn edged as if with an X-Acto knife. Each sign bore the same aggressively cheerful purple lettering. There was nothing as utilitarian as a gas station where I could actually ask directions.

Somehow I backtracked to the corner where Disney property gave way to the strip of fast-food joints, T-shirt shops, and time-share complexes that included our hotel. At the traffic light, we idled a few feet from a statue of Mickey Mouse atop a brick column.

"Emperor Mickey," Aaron chirped.

You got that right, I was thinking.

Another imperial Mickey, this one done up in faux bronze, surveyed the Embassy Suites lobby. Complimentary breakfast the next morning featured pancakes with those famous ears. A television screen the size of a medieval tapestry dominated the restaurant, and from it issued the Disney Channel's cartoon of "Timon and Puumba." I remembered those two from "The Lion King," the only Broadway musical in my memory whose theater doors opened directly into a gift store stocked with tie-in merchandise.

"Magic Kingdom, Magic Kingdom," Sarah chanted in the back seat as we drove toward the gates the next morning, past resorts, golf courses, shopping centers and water parks, all the province of Disney. A college friend of my wife's, who lives near Disney World, had tipped us off to avoid the parking lots during a holiday week and instead leave our car at the Grand Floridian, the hotel closest to the kingdom, and ride the monorail. At the guard station, I stammered when asked if we were guests. My wife Cynthia calmly lied that we were arriving for a "character breakfast" with Pooh.

The deception complete, we walked into the Grand Floridian lobby, dominated by a Christmas tree that could've fit into a Cold War missile silo. At intervals in the vast room there were alcoves, each consisting of several chairs turned to face a television -- Jiminy Cricket on this screen, Bambi on that one, glassy-eyed children sitting in rapt obedience. I wished for a plague of attention-deficit disorder.

Five minutes later, when we stepped off the monorail and pushed through the turnstiles into the Magic Kingdom, the first thing I noticed was an automatic-teller machine. Beyond it, before reaching a single ride, we were funneled up "Main Street, U.S.A." Despite the turn-of-the-century architecture and quaint signs for "Emporium" and "Confectionary," this byway peddled nothing but Disney products, especially those tied to the new Disney film at the time, "A Bug's Life."

Running the gauntlet, we aimed for the safety of a carousel ride. From every direction beckoned another toy, another doll, another sweat shirt. I surrendered the cash for one magic wand, two mouse-eared hats, and four rain slickers with a Mickey logo. It was 10:30 in the morning of our first day and already Sarah was quaking, her circuits overwhelmed. Aaron was dashing around madly, stopping just long enough to say of his Mouse hat, "I think they put hyper lotion in here."

At last we boarded the carousel for the soothing canter of wooden horses. I recognized the calliope's tune. It was a song called "Feed the Birds" from a Disney movie of my own youth, "Mary Poppins," and its words promised a very different sort of childhood than the one that, as I was discovering with each passing minute, the Disney corporation these days conspires to create.

"Mary Poppins" was in its way a rather subversive film. The two children at its center, Jane and Michael Banks, feel emotionally abandoned by their financier father. He finds it especially outrageous that, instead of depositing their allowance in his bank, they give it to the beggar woman who sings, "Feed the Birds." It is working-class Mary, a nanny with a Cockney boyfriend and a single carpetbag of possessions, who provides the children with the love and attention they crave. In a remake, I thought to myself, Jane and Michael would blow off the bird lady and spend those tuppence on action figures.

By 12:30, Sarah had dissolved into yawns and whimpers. I drove her back to the hotel while Cynthia stayed with Aaron for a promised dinner in the Snow White castle. With Sarah napping, I opened that morning's edition of USA Today. In the bottom corner of the front-page was a chart showing how often parents purchased items -- including visits to theme parks -- at the behest of their young children. The headline said, "Nagging can work." I was in no position to disagree.

The next morning, Sarah bounded into the sofa-bed Cynthia and I shared at precisely 4:53. Desperate to keep her quiet while Aaron still dozed, we flipped on the television. Sure enough, the Disney channel had some cartoon with squirrels or ferrets. "Rescue rangers, Chip and Chip and Dale," she was soon chanting in the dim light of the screen. "Rescue rangers, Chip and Chip and Dale."

Cynthia and I decided to try Epcot. We had the notion it would be educational, less like an amusement park and more like the New York World's Fair. How well I remembered seeing the Pieta in the Vatican pavilion, wandering the narrow streets of Biblical Jerusalem in the Israel exhibit, even hearing about the Sukarno dictatorship and the CIA when my father explained why Indonesia had withdrawn from the exposition. Those illusions vanished the moment we parked our car in a lot with each section named for a Disney character. Pluto, Row 24. Gotta write that down so I don't forget.

Oh, Epcot had its moments -- an underground aquarium, a daffy yet informative film about the brain. But what looked like an exhibit about insects turned out to be a shop peddling "Bugs Life" paraphernalia. In the "Wonders of Life" pavilion, the study of the human body provided excuse enough for a boutique selling Disney exercise gear. Aaron craved seeing the African village; it was nothing but a couple of tchotchke stands covered by palm thatch.

By mid-afternoon, we withdrew to the hotel and room service. Scanning the Orlando paper, I noticed a story about how Disney World had forced one of its tenants, a record store, to take down a banner for the soundtrack to "Prince of Egypt," produced by the competing SKG Dreamworks. This business of delighting children, it seemed, was rather a blood sport.

Morning after morning, Sarah rose by 5, Disney-possessed. Cynthia and I peered down into the central atrium, waiting for the stroke of 6 when the complimentary coffee service began. Me, I was lucky. I got to take off one day and interview a convicted bomber in a federal prison a few hours away. Cynthia, poor soul, took the kids to MGM Studios, lest our "park-hopper" passes go unused at nearly $200 a day.

Thanksgiving arrived. We spent it at a character lunch with Mary Poppins. The next day was our last and even the children had reached Disney saturation. We thought about going to a playground, but the only one we'd discovered was run by a Lego store. Instead we snuck into the Grand Floridian to spend a few hours at the pool. Before the holiday weekend was over, I had the flu, which I proceeded to pass onto Cynthia and the children.

In our years as a family, we'd been through our share of failed vacations. There was the week in the Bahamas when Aaron ran a temperature of 104, the seven days of rain and fog at Montauk, the time Sarah got a scratched cornea in Newark's baggage claim area. But the misery I felt about Disney owed to something more than bad luck or nature's caprice. It was the dull ache -- the shame -- of fatherly failure.

I had grown up in a home where few words were more profane than "materialism." My father's all-purpose way of tweaking me, even as a grown-up, was to call me bourgeois. And I appreciated the standard he set, the values he espoused. Yet here I was, spending a week of vacation time and upwards of $5,000 for the privilege of having my children bombarded by every commercial message in Disney's arsenal of synergy.

As a working father married to a working mother, I knew only too well the exhaustion that led us to flip on the television or buy a fast-food dinner for the children. How I wished, though, that every concession hadn't invited some other Disney toy or product or pitch into our home.

Just after our return, Disney bought WQEW, the Manhattan radio station on which Jonathan Schwartz had hosted his sublime program of jazz, standards, and storytelling. Soon Aaron was singing the Disney radio theme song, clapping his hands in correct syncopation. How did he know it? I hadn't dared tune in the station once. This just wasn't a fair fight.

For solace and inspiration, I remembered a moment that occurred midway through our week at Disney World. As we plodded up a ramp into one of the Epcot pavilions, a little boy knelt oblivious on the concrete, coaxing a centipede onto a dried leaf. In a place that commodifies childhood in the name of celebrating it, he alone revealed what being young is really all about.

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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