Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bob Garfield Does Disney

Commentary clipping with photo of the Cinderella Castle by Catherine Watson
Disney is not a favorite of mine, as regular readers know. My recent basement excavation turned up this clipping of an opinion piece by Bob Garfield, explaining his own experience with the Magic Kingdom®.

It was originally published in the Washington Post; I read it in the Star Tribune on Sunday, July 14, 1991. (All prices are in 1991 dollars.)

Because it was not available online, I have taken the liberty of converting my clipping to text, and am hoping Bob doesn't mind me bringing his words into the age of the Interweb.


Disney World pilgrimage made an unbeliever of him

By Bob Garfield

It was meant to be a wholesome, five-day vacation for our family of four in the world's most visited theme park. It proved instead to be a monumentally unrewarding pilgrimage, characterized mainly by anthropomorphic vermin infesting my wallet.

Expense World! Overrated World! DISNEY WORLD!

What an experience. Before it was over (and not counting airfare), Mickey and his pituitary-afflicted friends ate into us for $1 ,700. Park admission alone cost $551 .30.

This purchased entry into the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, Disney-MGM Studios and Typhoon Lagoon water park, where we luxuriated in I hours and 47 minutes of eating, sleeping in our "affordable Disney" accommodations, riding on buses and standing in line, punctuated by a cumulative 6 hours and 47 minutes of fun, fun, fun. That amounts to $261 c.p.f.h. (cost per fun hour).

We spent about a quarter of our time in the fabled Magic Kingdom, where, apart from time spent queuing up and shlepping from place to place, the 17 attractions we saw thrilled us for a grand total of 44 minutes. Our c.p.f.h. in the Magic Kingdom alone was $579.

How delighted my wife was to hear my up-to-the-minute reckonings.

"Yeah," she said, "you're a guy who really knows how to enjoy himself."

Am I that much of a curmudgeon, a miserable Scrooge McDuck who can’t allow himself the simple pleasure of a family vacation? Or am I just the average American, so inculcated in the research-driven, prepackaged, trademarked ways of the consumer society that I actually believed there was real fun and real imagination in store—only to be confronted with an extruded, injection-molded, civil-engineered brand of fantasy, which is to say: no fantasy at all.

From the network of chutes and corrals channeling people into attractions, to the chillingly programmed Stepford Wives demeanor of the employees, to the compulsively litter-free grounds, to the generalized North Korean Model Socialist Society sense of totalitarian order, to the utterly passive nature of the entertainment itself, Disney turns out to be the very antithesis of fantasy, a remarkable technospectacle in many ways squandered on the very young people it is designed to delight.

What's most precious about the imagination of a child is its boundlessness. Kids have the infinite capacity to amuse themselves within the magic kingdom of their own minds—requiring no five-day pass, no mute rodents with pituitary conditions and, guaranteed, no waiting.

Far from liberating the imagination, Disney succeeds mainly in confining it. Like the conveyor "cars" and "boats" that pull you along fixed steel tracks through "Snow White" and "World of Motion" and the "Speedway" rides, Disney is a plodding, precise, computer-controlled mechanism pulling an estimated 30 million visitors a year along the same calculated, unvarying, meticulously engineered entertainment experience.

It occupies its customers without engaging them. It appeals to everybody while challenging nobody. It is just an overwrought Mecca of mass-market escapism: network television with a monorail.

Not that our visit left nothing to the imagination. Imagine, for instance, lining up for "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," waiting God knows how long, and being rewarded with a fake submergence in a fake submarine for a fake voyage past fake coral and fake seafood, knowing full well that there are two magnificent aquariums within a 70-minute drive of your house.

It's only fair to note, I suppose, that the color, buoyant music and (in my view) oppressive cheerfulness of the ride left both my 9-year-old and my 6-year-old bedazzled.

Yes, the girls were absorbed, but the Smithsonian is a million-fold more educational—and free to the public 364 days a year. Yes, they had fun, but I've seen them have as much fun on the back deck with an empty corrugated carton.

Perhaps the most bewildering truth of all about Disney World is that it is not the exotic fantasy destination it pretends to be. The 30 million people who pass through its gates each year represent one-eighth of the nation's population. Even allowing for foreign visitors, the arithmetic of such gigantic numbers over the course of 20 years deflates any question of exotica. Disney is not a rare indulgence. It is a given, an at-least-once-in-a-lifetime expedition for the majority of American families.

Somewhere between an entitlement and a sacred duty, the Disney World vacation has, through our own tragic poverty of imagination and through the sheer cunning of the Walt Disney Corp., become the middle-class American hajj, the compulsory visit to the sunbaked holy city.

One also thinks of lemmings, rodents with a decidedly un-Disneylike mythology and no licensed merchandise to speak of. And the student of obscure cinema can't help but recall a certain scene from "The Time Machine," the H.G. Wells adaptation, depicting the Eloi, a devolved future society of docile near-zombies, all filing mindlessly from a vast, smoking, shuddering mountain cavern that serves as their pagan inner sanctum. The only material difference between Wells' vision and closing time at Disney World is that the Eloi didn't wear tank tops.


Thanks, Bob.


Ms Sparrow said...

So it wasn't that much fun for an adult male, but the kids had a great time? Wasn't that the whole point of going? I've never been to Disneyland or World, and I would only go under protest precisely because I would share Garfield's experience. But, it seems like he should have known that going into it.

Bob Garfield said...

Garfield decided, after this expirience, not to take daughter number three ( 8years old)
I, on the other hand would loove to go. To me it's quintessentially Americana :fake but colorful , tasteless but sweet

Milena Garfield( wife number two, not featured in this story