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A Day at Disneyland
Musings on the Nature of Storytelling in a Hyper-commercial World and Related Matters
One of my daughters lives in San Diego with her husband and two children, and we recently flew to see them for a long weekend, a trip we try to make several times a year. This trip was prompted, in part, by a long postponed day she had planned for a venture north to Disneyland, a day that originally had included her sister and family from Colorado but one that COVID had suspended. We had been in possession of the tickets for two years or more, the trip a victim of the vagaries of life during a pandemic, which, as an aside, is still going, right, despite declarations otherwise, a notable peculiarity when venturing into a place that attracts slightly over 50,000 visitors a day, double the number of residents in the county where I live and ten times that of my town. Now I have traveled to some of the densest cities in the world, including Bangkok and Mexico City, so crowds alone do not necessarily put me off; however, let’s just allow that if I lived another life, say one where I had reason to hold a trophy in the aftermath of a world championship, I would not be the one to utter the catchphrase “I’m going to Disneyland,” as an act of celebration, promotional or otherwise.
I have, to put it mildly, never been a fan of amusement parks generally, less so of the spectacle that is the themed Disney “Parks, Experiences, and Products” empire. My family knows this about me. Label me a curmudgeon, a killjoy, an elitist; all likely apply. Although I’m not pathological. I do fine among crowds and have the advantage of being tall, yet I don’t particularly love them (does anyone?) or the requisite waiting they require. I can’t spin circles without hazardous effect, I abhor crass commercialism, and I find what I see as the plasticization of culture offensive, preferring real experiences over manufactured ones. A recipe for a successful trip, right?
My wife had warned me to be on my best behavior, and I had seconded the warning to myself, vowing to curb commentary and focus the day on the grandchildren, ages four and nearly two. I thought I had behaved rather well, soaking up the warm weather and soaking in my grandson’s wide-eyed wonder, while loving that “Pop-Pop” was currently in vogue with his younger sister, who, on past trips proved suspicious of me. The rollercoasters—sans grandchildren, so an altered course from parents and grandparents alike—were fun, the people-watching extravagant, the layers of Disney bureaucracy and logistics mildly amusing (although I would not place the fact that all entrants to Disneyland now have their photo taken, clearly data they are selling and concerning given recent stories of AI failures when using facial recognition technology). All in all, I thought I had comported myself well. However, I slipped up the following morning, when frustrated with no agenda for the day prior to our return drive to San Diego and we were caught inside the hurry-up-and-wait of the “what do you want to do” chorus, I added an expletive to my question to my wife, a grandchild-addicted shopping hero, “Do you want to go back to ‘Main Street’ for some more Disney shit?” I was immediately rebuked by my daughter. “Can’t you just drop the ‘shit’ comment and do it for your grandchildren?” Her chastisement hurt, both because I knew she was right to call me out and because I realized I had failed to gage her own frustrations, for as my parental recall returned, the nature of a theme park had meant most of her previous day had been spent carrying the two-year-old who is at a stage where she often wants only her mother, had repeatedly fended off potential child meltdowns by having a steady supply of snacks instantly at hand, managed needed naps while remaining mobile, maintained the self-imposed task of making certain the dozen family members present were all enjoying themselves, all while she managed the frustrations of wooing a risk-averse four-year-old. This on top of the logistics of crowd threading, journeys from distant parking, stroller management, potty break monitoring, entertainment duties during forty-five-minute lines for rides, demands all coming amidst the omnipresent certainty every parent knows when among throngs of people—their child will wander off and be lost forever. I hadn’t factored her stress or her own Disney misgivings, and she didn’t need to be concerned with curbing her father’s internal distaste for rampant consumerism.
No, I’d instead patted myself on the back for not only quelling my propensity to comment on things like the manufactured Disney experience but for mostly avoiding the beliefs that led to such commentary. Instead, I had marveled at what I found a shocking percentage of adults sporting an equally shocking variety of mouse ear styles or other Disney headgear, the ears and hats an obvious display of infatuation among other Disney attire that allowed my attention to focus on the sizable proportion of patrons who were accompanied by no children. I had, after all, offered what I thought was minimal commentary on having survived my Disney nightmare near the end of the day—trapped in a “it’s a small world” (the stylized lack of capitalization apparently part of its theme) boat one stride away from the disembarkation point, the endless repeat of the inane “It’s a Small World” song blasting from loudspeakers and only interrupted by whimpers of my in-law’s four-year-old that “I can’t hold it” and the shouted warnings from Disney minions to “Stay in the boat” no matter the consequences of the potty emergency. The ride, twice closed that day “indefinitely” for repairs, something that made whoever in our party’s selection of the ride seem optimistic at best, dates to 1966 and looks worse for the wear, despite its annual Christmas update (so, to be fair, after every chorus of “It’s a Small World” we were also treated to “Jingle Bells”, not exactly, in my book, an improvement in musical originality or quality), yet the line we endured lasted over an hour, before another temporary setback when we were within sight of the embarkation point, one manifested in the boat wranglers letting a series of craft launch empty (the clear final warning we also failed to heed).
During our long wait snaking through the turnstiles like cattle unaware that the end of the line would be announced with a sledgehammer to the brain, we were entertained by the start point of the daily Disneyland Parade. Because of a detour by the senior child (a fifth grader), his beloved uncle, and a tag-along in-law grandfather (me) seeking the adventure of THE MATTERHORN (a ride accompanied by scratchy yodeling and equally scratchy growling from cave-dwelling Sasquatches) we had been separated from my wife, daughter, and grandchildren, who I later learned had taken up positions at the “town square” to watch the parade. The result of this separation, as I learned only later that evening after my four-year-old grandson’s interrupted nap, was my missing what he enthusiastically identified as the highlight of his first Disney adventure, seeing the real Buzz Lightyear. He held nearly equal excitement for having seen, firsthand, a number of other beloved characters (and I’m sticking to that term despite Disney’s insistence at labeling them “cast members”), including Belle and Ariel. Only the submarine ride could compete with the parade experience, registering two thumbs’ up on his assessment scale. I am saddened by not being present with him to see his delight at glimpsing characters he loves, not so much for my alternate imprisonment on “it’s a small world,” which was more in the realm of absurdly funny and bureaucratically annoying rather than “nightmarish” in the end, but because I had not witnessed the “magic.”
My absence in that moment parallels the lasting thought that has stayed with me in these “return to realism” days since, a rather obvious realization but one for a fiction writer that holds interest: that the entire Disney empire—the cruise line and theme parks, the streaming service and networks and movie studios—all owe their existence to storytelling. Now I may see fabricated experiences like Disneyland itself as a perversion of storytelling and a living metaphor of consumerism gone cancerous, but I am more than willing to concede that in the storytelling realm, Disney is masterful. I understand, indeed I share, a love for the genius of how this corporation tells stories. They balance bruised fables and myths with originality, offer adults good jokes and social commentary embedded in stories children find mesmerizing, consistently advance the technology of art and film, blend genuinely catchy earworm music with the aplomb of musical theater, and they capture something universal about the human condition with a mix of preserved childish wonder in the midst of coming-of-age narratives. I can sing along with near total recall the Disney soundtracks of my daughter’s own childhoods and many of those of the grandchildren’s. There is, despite the need to retire “it’s a small world” and the “Matterhorn” alike, a timeless quality to Disney storytelling (even among the preponderance of dead parents and appropriated cultural traditions), and the grandchildren know the characters and movies of their parent’s childhood as clearly as they know their own (something that likely would have occurred without Disney’s profit minded current streak of remakes featuring live actors—itself a topic worthy of inspection). Occasionally, Disney creatives have ventured into material that is probing of deeper human questions and useful introspection—titles like Soul, Inside Out, Coco, Up, and, I’m guessing since I haven’t seen it Elemental come to mind. There is a lot the writers and artists at Disney have mastered and they have successfully added meaningfully to elemental storytelling for children and adults alike. I honestly think that the first Toy Story is something of a masterwork at several levels and universal in many of its appeals—so I’m right there with my grandson’s enthusiasm for Buzz Lightyear even if I lean more towards Woody’s wisdom. It is these stories and their memorable characters that create the real magic (and the fodder for other enterprise). I just could do without the constant selling that accompanies them. But I find it revealing that my grandson’s highlight from a trip to Disneyland was in encountering the characters he knows intimately through the stories he loves.
As a lifelong reader and a writer, I am pleased that my California daughter, as do her sisters, read to the children daily. I harbor those grandparent concerns that too much of children’s lives are passed in front of screens, but all of my grandchildren will know books, a fact that will, I remain convinced, provide them any number of advantages in their futures. Whether in Disney stories or in the artful and demanding novels that I choose for my own reading pleasures (and study), I see story as a medium to get to other things, to ideas, to human experiences, to enduring questions. For my life as a writer, like my life as a reader, part of my admiration for Disney storytelling is that while the stories they tell are told in a highly entertaining way, there are relevant, often useful messages present, and increasingly a deeper embrace of both other cultural traditions and other artforms if often presented in a sanitized manner. It’s an interesting mash-up—the ultimate marketing machine that typically offers something more than fluff. I just could do without the marketing and the bizarre (to me) cultural phenomena that the corporation behind such storytelling is an entity larger than itself, that their audience’s lust for the Disney image/product and, dare I say “lifestyle,” extends so far beyond the stories they tell. There are explanations for this I assume, the inevitable loss of our childhoods and the correspondent loss in many of imagination.
It's this last idea that troubles me the most, something that is constantly on my mind as a writer. Despite being the country most associated around the world with the dominant entertainment industry—in film, music, television, even books—despite the devotion of fans to those entertainment options linked to their individual tastes, it feels to me that modern American culture (or is it modern life throughout the industrialized world?) is uniquely expert at killing human imagination. Or rather, we turn to others to do much of our imagining for us. I have been an educator for much of my life, and I worry that much of contemporary education fuels this removal of imagination as surely as it too often fails the development of critical thinking. The wonder and creativity that we idealize as a part of being a child is too often extinguished by any number of cultural forces, technology prominent among them. Because we have so successfully commercialized imagination, the bulk of our entertainment for the majority funnels us to the same movies, the same bestselling books, the same mainstream musicians. Many, perhaps a majority, are encouraged into fandom rather than some deeper grafting of the ideas inspired by creative artists onto their own ideas (and no, with “grafting” I am decidedly not suggesting the products of fan fiction or its equivalent). There are exceptions in every nook and cranny of American readers, listeners, watchers,…consumers…as I hope I represent as well, but for the majority we accept manufactured imaginative experiences that are selectively fed to us.
Now, I’ve tipped my hand, of course. For my own tastes, I have little interest in creative artists who wish to stop at “entertainment.” I’m of the mind that my responsibility to entertain, or more accurately, to engage a reader is to a means to offer them an immersive and fulfilling journey that, I hope, ultimately transports them deeper inside themselves, their ideas, their experiences, their beliefs, their culture…a more profound rendezvous with their imaginations. Perhaps this explains my happiness when I see a novel that asks something of its readers—asks intellectually, linguistically, and emotionally—that then gains a larger audience or even manages to enter “popular” culture. For all these reasons I have always been troubled by the very notion of “escapism” in literature. For my own narrow interests, while it is true that I want to disappear into the world of a novel while in the midst of reading that novel, I do not wish to escape reality, I’d rather use the respite offered by a well-written book to explore and examine reality. No matter the genre, for me, reading or watching a film or television series is not about avoiding reality, it’s about finding new perspectives with which to understand it or form new questions about it. I want to enter other lives not to escape my own but to live among others, learn from them, experience a portion of what they have lived, broaden my own understanding of both what is unique to others and what is universal. Does such interest make me elitist? Possibly. I am of the mind that we should each do what makes us happy and fulfilled. I don’t view it as my place to pass judgement. And I fully understand that the choices I make because of my own individual interests and tastes once extended to my own writing naturally limits the size of my audience. I have no false beliefs of generating a Disney-sized readership, nor do I condemn those who aspire to some bookish equivalent. I’m okay with that. I’d rather have readers who find something deeply personal in a connection to something I have written. And I definitely wish to maintain the freedom to pursue the stories I wish to pursue and do so in my own eccentric, unscripted manner without having to meet any expectations of “the market” whether real or imagined. And then…the opposite…for it is impossible to sustain creative development either without readers or without a good paying gig that still allows the luxury of time to create.
None of this helps me understand the solitary, fifty-something Disney pass-holder wearing a Mickey Mouse hat who I sat next to on the tram back to the parking structure as he fumed about his annoyance with people and their stupidity, complaining about those patrons in electric scooters and the general heard mentality of crowds. Nor does it help me understand his response when I attempted a joke about whether or not he would feel compelled to “burn his hat,” a joke that he responded to with a look of shock and the declaration that, “Oh, I’ll be back next month, but I’ll know that my pass allows me the freedom to leave when I get sick of people.” Or to understand adults who wear Mickey Mouse ears or Goofy ones, as in actual “Goofy ears,” not just goofy ears. Understanding evades me. But I am left with one dominant takeaway beyond the wonder that all this theme park acreage replicated multifold in Florida, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Shanghai originates with storytelling, that amazement so many people seek out a fabricated experience rather than a real one. That they pay for it. That they endure the expense and the crowds and the complex logistics of parking and travel and hotels and multi-day passes. That they build whole vacations around it. The parks themselves are wonders, of course, testimony to both mechanical and marketing ingenuity. But do most people see beyond the careful facades, the false horizons? Do they accept a corporation’s “fantasy” as their own? Do they seek out the sanitized version of life, or of imagination, that Disney peddles?
I am reminded, as I ask these questions and as I marvel at the complex logistics involved with visiting somewhere like Disneyland, that my own daughter, a Rocky Mountain transplant from college towns to San Deigo by way of job opportunity and then marriage, finds a trip to the beaches that are emblematic of my own romanticized vision of Southern California, so unrewarding and exhausting. She has offered partial explanations. I have conjectured others. That she married a wonderful man who happens not to enjoy water, who, perhaps, may hold some minor fear of it, is central to their reluctance to experience this sandy portion of the natural, non-fabricated world. That there is the tiresomeness of so much sand brought home in cars and clothes and on pets is legitimate, if, in my opinion a weak explanation, for sand, like insects and weather is part of the experience of leaving human-constructed surroundings. Ironically, when I have asked her about the dissatisfaction they often (not universally) find with their rare beach trips, most of her reasons feel painfully familiar to my recent Disneyland experience: the near impossibility of finding parking and the long walk while overloaded with requisite child equipment said lack of parking demands, crowds, the constant awareness demanded of excursions with children, the inherent risks involved because of limitations in children’s ability to negotiate their surroundings, the burden of packing lunches and snacks and managing naptime… Is a trip to Disneyland then distinct primarily in that one pre-factors such logistics, that they are expected in a fabricated set of “lands” that attract the gathering horde?
My response to this irony is twofold: one, I have lived all my life in the Rocky Mountains—in Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana—so I am accustomed to places with long winters, lengthy cold periods, and in the case of Montana, extended stretches of dark, overcast days. As a result, the idyllic weather of San Diego (is it ever not seventy-three degrees?) is inviting, more so when presented with the inspiration of an ocean, and as such I am baffled by the example of my daughter’s family who spend very little time outdoors. I actually do know the inaccuracy of my seventy-three-degree question and I recognize how you don’t have to go but a handful of miles inland from the coast to register far hotter temperatures, yet my Rocky Mountain native belief is that if I lived there, I would pass all of my time outside. (Which offers an aside, for one of the oddities, genius in its own way, I suppose, about Disneyland is that while you pass nearly all of your day there out of doors, albeit standing in lines, the majority of their “experiences” are either indoors or partially indoors, for they are experts at two remarkable things, allowing you only glimpses of the “adventures” you have selected until you have nearly embarked on them and manipulating the way they use darkness to conjure emotional reaction to mechanical artifice; in this manner, Disney is the ultimate flirt.) Using my own longing for lovely weather offers a mechanism to return to a statement I made at the outset of this essay: I prefer real experiences over manufactured ones. I’ll take the day at the beach, particularly if it involves some beach games, some ocean play, and a nighttime bonfire over Disney any day if I am among the family I love. The stories I want to live, as opposed to those I want to read, feel more likely to transpire out of doors than inside someone else’s calculated vision. Have you ever taken a long walk among family or good friends that the footsteps are not measured by the satisfaction of the conversations you have?
I found it uncanny that within a day of our return from California, the New York Times ran an interview titled “When Ruthless Cultural Elitism Is Exactly the Job” with the famed, curmudgeonly literary agent Andrew Wylie when he referenced Disney in two of his answers, in both cases as a kind of metaphor. The interview is of interest to this writer for much of what he says about books and the current publishing environment and most notably about his defense of culturally important books and his affection for lavishly good writing. The interview is worth the read if only because Wylie is one of those humans who does not attempt to be diplomatic or mask his opinions and he consistently responds in hilarious, if often crass, deadpan one-liners. For context to much of Wylie’s stance, it should be noted that he represents a very specific “brand” of writer; among his clients are or have been Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and John Updike, Sally Rooney, Salman Rushdie, and Karl Ove Knausgaard. I’ll end this musing on Disneyland, stories, and my own elitism with one exchange from late in the interview.
The interviewer asks: “We’re not supposed to look down our noses at pop culture anymore. Do you think that’s a phony attitude? Is there some defense of cultural elitism that you want to make?”
Wylie responds: “Not particularly. I suppose to a great extent I’m just guided by my taste, and that’s probably idiosyncratic and narcissistic of me. I’m not a person who would ever go to Disney World. There are a lot of people who do. I don’t necessarily think that they’re ridiculous. I just don’t share that taste.”
(And yes, this image is a needlepoint pattern!)