When keeping it real goes wrong

“Walt Disney is being kept cryogenically frozen in the basement of one of the medical buildings.”
The only thing I remember from the UCLA orientation tour

According to Neal Gabler’s new biography, Walt Disney was so obsessed with a vision of his boyhood home that he wanted to recreate it as the entrance to Disneyland. Thus his memories of Marceline, Missouri, as childhood idyll became Main Street, USA, in Anaheim, California. He also explains on the very first page that Walt’s remains (cremated no less) are interred in a mausoleum in Glendale.

My own childhood memories of Disneyland are linked to the summer visits of my cousins from Maryland and Arizona. They were all a couple of years older than I was, but I got to go to Disneyland, and possibly Knott’s or even Universal Studios, as their Southern California host.

Disney’s psychological motivations were never discussed, but I was forced to deal with my own youthful trauma when I was compelled upon every single visit to listen to the inane recordings of voices trading small time gossip on the phones in the general store. My mom and her grandmother were very close, but for some reason I too had to be implicated in this gesture toward turn-of-the-century Americana kitsch that offended my sensibilities even then and kept me from traveling up the street to get to the good rides. I often wonder what my great grandmother was thinking during these demonstrations. She was an accomplished woman who had lived through momentous times of change in the 20th century only to be reduced to smiling and nodding while listening to a fake party line because it was “just like when she was a little girl.”

When my cousins got older and Disneyland became less of a destination vacation for the family, my visiting schedule slowed down and the ride tickets I had hoarded from previous years (Grandma was always good for giving me her D’s and E’s) would lay wrapped in rubber bands in my piggybank. I still can’t figure out how the ultra-clean Disney ethic was able to reconcile high volume crowd traffic and the sanitation issues that went along with those A-ticket Main Street Horse Cars.

In high school things heated up again. For starters, I went on a date that has now lasted over twenty magical years. My friends started getting jobs out at the park, and so I would tag along to watch them in the parades. The idea of Disneyland as a real place was new to me, as was the way that I began to see and use the park. Infrequent visitors understandably want to squeeze everything they can out of the experience and their role as a consumer is agreed upon, if not overtly embraced. But my friends were young people being paid low wages to spend long hours standing in a hot furry suit or marching down the street in the Electrical Parade all in the service of presenting Walt’s version of reality to the vacationing throng. Things just aren’t the same after you’ve been to an after-work party where Snow White gets drunk and passes out and the Seven Dwarves all turn out to be extremely short girls who smoke and joke about who is getting fat.

Now is the awkward moment where I own up to applying for work at Disneyland only to be turned down. My girlfriend gets her Plushie gig. My other friends work the parades, but my average height and inability to grasp simple choreography quickly leave me on the outside looking in. My tall, awkward friend who has no rhythm or grace whatsoever? He fits into the costume of the royal page perfectly. But I’m not still bitter, not me.

Besides some of the films, with Dumbo being my favorite at the moment, I have always felt that Disneyland was Walt’s most significant creation. It’s just so weird and yet it works. My years of railing against the Corporation as the embodiment of so much that is wrong with our culture in terms of aesthetics and materialism are the subject of another post. And my friends who are better read in postmodernism would be better qualified to speak of simulacra and the like. I do wonder if his vision of Marceline ever existed outside of his own mind and that if trying to rebuild it using forced perspective and ascending scales of proportion (small town Americana indeed) was preserving something as unreal as the other more obviously created parts of the park. Maybe the entire place should be called Fantasyland and be done with it. But whose fantasy is it now?

We recently bought annual passes to Disneyland and California Adventure. We didn’t go the Platinum option that allows you go 365 days a year, but we did opt for the level that included Sundays too. Did I feel like the worst kind of sellout? Oh yeah. How soon until I grow a (bigger) gut and am squeezing my brood up the gangway of a Disney cruise in anticipation of seeing the missus in some Eeyore pajamas? Did I mention there’s a special newsletter and internet site for passholders? Don’t even get me started on the Pomojo of Disney web information known as “dark beer.” I often joke with Adriean that certain cultural signifiers should be sufficient to have one’s voting rights rescinded on the spot, and here I have willingly purchased five passes that would have equaled “go directly to jail” cards in my snob’s universe only a year or two ago. Am I still keeping it real? I am an angry progressive, fighting The Man and sticking it to the suits everywhere if I sneak in a bit of booze in my water bottle, right? Or are my self image and fantasy as intertwined, deluded, and mutable as the park’s creator?

Mistah Walt–he dead.

The kids do love it, though. An excuse? Perhaps, but I might argue that it is worth it to see what a new generation of parkgoers (I won’t say patrons and the preferred term “guests” isn’t at all right either) make what they will of the place. I still imagine Walt on ice wanting to micromanage his kingdom of finite space and my almost-4-year-old sons and daughter subverting the old man with every step as they drag me quickly past his precious Main Street and on toward their favorite rides. Or does his ghost smile when they pause to play on the old-fashioned fire engine?

So, did my kids get off the hook of having to listen to the chatter on those general store phones? No way. I’m not bitter, but Grandma, that one was for you.

And all of my love to Sophia Ann: may you grow up to wear the Gideon head someday.

6 responses to “When keeping it real goes wrong”

  1. I’ve regretted, the last two times I’ve been to Disneyland (last year and then a couple years before that) that we didn’t make time for more of the Main Street stuff. What about those presidential robots? I loved that stuff when I was a kid, but as an adult I’m a little too eager to get to the fun stuff.

    I know what you mean about giving yourself over to the role of consumer. But there’s also something to be said for shutting off the thinking cap and just having fun, which is what happens when I’m there. Of course, we do point out fun things to the kids like “Notice how each tiny Scandanavian country has its own room in It’s a Small World but the entire continent of Africa gets a couple token dolls. Notice, too, that they’re the newest ones.”

    Still, you have nothing to apologize for, Ruben. If I had 4-year-old triplets and lived 20 minutes from the park I would have subscribed this year too.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Wait. Adriean had a “plushie” gig at Disneyland?

    Great post, Ruben. And I’m glad I’m not the only one who’ll cop to youthful DisneyTrauma. (Incidentally, my students all talk and write about Disneyland as if it truly is the happiest place on earth and have nary a critical word to say about it, which I always find odd–Baudrillard aside, that place really is “just so weird”…)

  3. don’t forget, jeremy, it offers a great american freakshow in the other “guests.” we were constantly in awe of the bizarre people congregating and were so relieved when a stray family with visible tattoos or rock and roll t-shirts stumbled into the mix.

    when we went last year, one of the people in the group who went with us (know to some of you west coasters, but name withheld to protect identity) talked about going there as a high school student and tripping on psychedelics through the more bizarre rides. i would think it could be terrifying! it’s already trippy enough on its own!

  4. brooke says:

    I can’t think of Walt Disney, Disneyland or any of the Disney characters without cringing. The reason is that Walt Disney (the man and the company, I presume) was/is a central force in making Copyright Law one the most abused clauses in the US Constitution.

    Disney is inextricably linked to Steamboat Willie (the prototypical Mickey Mouse), a character that was created by Disney in 1928, and, like all works ever published since then, are *still* not in the public domain.

    I don’t know why this works me up, but it does… So when my kids ask me to go to Disneyland, I’m going to punch them in the face and take ’em straight to the library.

  5. miller says:

    Funny, Disneyland has always been a very, very dark place for me. My first experience was when I was five and my family came to visit from Michigan. My uncle came very close to sexually assaulting Cinderella, and I was extremely traumatized by my first ride ever: Snow White. For the record, that ride is much too horrific to be marketed towards children.

    When I was in junior high and early high school, it morphed into the best place to smoke weed and drink. I’ve heard stories of sex in the bushes (X-induced, no doubt), blow jobs on Pirates of the Carribean, and mushroom trips gone horriby awry on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. “The Happiest Place on Earth” for many Southern Californian kids was the best place to get fucked up under an innocent pretense–Heart of Darkness (or what that an Apocalypse Now reference?) indeed.

    So I think sneaking a little booze is perfectly okay, but watch your step if you pass by rustling bushes…

  6. brooke says:

    Continuing my conversation with myself from #4, I just came across this awesome Disney movie about copyright. Enjoy.