The Magazine

Disney’s America

To understand ourselves, this is one place to start.

Jun 10, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 37 • By ELI LEHRER
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What comprises the rest of Disney World is a huge, sometimes haphazard, assemblage of experiences catering to almost every taste and attitude found in modern America. The Disney Company did eventually build something called EPCOT: It’s a theme park that recreates much of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, with exhibits about science and pavilions of various nations. It has also built a new-urbanist town called Celebration on land ceded from the park. 

But there’s a lot more that has nothing to do with anything Walt Disney dreamed up for EPCOT. Disney World, of course, has all of the typical resort amenities—five golf courses, two large spas, lots of boating opportunities, and riding stables. But only a small fraction of visitors take advantage of these amenities. Instead, visitors come mostly for the four theme parks—one of which, Animal Kingdom, is an accredited zoo with animals from all over the world—and the 24 lavish themed resorts with rates ranging from $80 or so for a motel-type room (probably with a giant statute of a Disney character or a Brobdingnagian guitar outside) to over $700 for a “concierge”-level room in the top-of-the-line Grand Floridian. Some of this is self-consciously whimsical. For example, the luxurious Polynesian resort has almost nothing to do with the actual South Seas, but is, rather, a sort of giant 1960s tiki bar. On the other hand, the Wilderness Lodge does accurately evoke the Works Progress Administration-built National Parks lodges of the 1930s. (Disney employees, by the way, are a lot friendlier than park rangers.)

All of the academic literature positioning Disney World as a pilgrimage site makes clear how hard the company and its corps of “imagineers” (the Walt-coined neologism for the people who design the parks) have worked to make Disney a place set apart from the real world. Indeed, the Disney Company has made a hugely elaborate effort to do just this: Visitors following the official direction signs from the Orlando airport to the resort’s hub at the Transportation and Ticket Center outside Magic Kingdom Park will see only a handful of businesses and private houses during the 23-mile journey. The company, thanks to its enormous economic power, has bent a large part of Florida’s built environment to its will. 

And yet, while set apart from daily life, Disney World is as diverse and democratic as America itself. There’s no real central theme that might be considered the apotheosis of the park. And while it certainly isn’t accessible to the truly poor—a lot of other things aren’t, either—a vast portion of America’s population can fully partake in everything Disney World offers. Unlike almost all other theme parks, Disney levels people in a peculiar way: Special needs children (my son among them) and the disabled can skip the sometimes-interminable lines whenever they want, but everyone else must either wait or take advantage of Disney’s Fast Pass system. 

Even Disney’s governing structure embodies America. While Disney World is a private venture owned by the Disney Company’s stockholders, its size and success owe something to a peculiar deal with the state of Florida that gives the company vast powers over infrastructure and zoning through an entity called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Reedy Creek, Disney’s own government, follows open government laws and even holds elections. Only landowners, all of them affiliated with the company, can vote—but it shows that, even as a largely private venture, Disney World is not wholly independent of the state, and, like much of what Americans create, it can’t be considered either wholly public or wholly private.  

For all of its pageantry, Disney World still casts a powerful emotional spell. Some of it is easy to see: The decommissioning of beloved rides has inspired protests more than once. Other things are much subtler: On dozens of visits to the park, I’ve never once heard a voice raised in genuine anger or seen someone deliberately littering. Disney World, quite simply, inspires good behavior. And it’s—really, honestly—a place of beauty. Sure, it’s stagey; but what great monument is not? It’s a real embodiment of American culture. And Disney World has become, perhaps in spite of itself, a real place.

Eli Lehrer is president of R Street.

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