What to do, what to do. Max, our eight-year-old son, having become enamored of geography and foreign culture—his third-grade class studied and performed an African dance this year—was ready to see the world. But, being eight years old, he wanted it to have rides.
I knew the time had arrived—just as every Muslim must take that Hajj to Mecca, the dutiful American parent, sooner or later, visits Mickey. Our vacation this year would lead us to Walt Disney World.
I know what some of you are thinking: The kid is eager to experience the Roman Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Egypt, and you—the editor of a world music magazine!—are taking him to…Orlando, Florida? Child abuse!
It’s not that he wouldn’t have loved every minute of a journey abroad—we’d already taken him to Hong Kong and that had been a booming success. And, to be honest, my wife and I wouldn’t have needed much arm-twisting to spend our days off in Prague or Tokyo or Cancun rather than a series of theme parks.
But the Mouse beckoned and—guess what!—we’re glad he did.
The decision to patronize Disney World did not come without pause, however. The idea of throwing support behind the Disney corporation worried me. Never the most progressively-minded of organizations, Disney has come under fire for many reasons over the years, among them questionable employment and environmental practices. As one website put it, Disney—whose Florida property alone comprises 47 square miles, roughly double the size of Manhattan—“covers open space with pavement, shopping malls, golf courses and hotels, [which] creates traffic problems that increase air pollution and encourages a psychological detachment from the natural world.”
Indeed, the word “Disneyfication,” defined by another website as “the process of turning the real, physical world into a sanitized, safe, ‘entertaining,’ predictable but profitable ‘hyper-real’ replica,’” has fallen into mainstream usage, so emblematic is the image it suggests.
But thousands of other corporations also develop open land (Wal-Mart, anyone?) and I’m not so sure that a world that is “safe, sanitized and entertaining” is necessarily a bad thing. So there was only one way to find out if Disney was just a big playground or an evil empire: For one week we lightened up, put the political correctness aside and surrendered to the “happiest place on Earth.”
Our ostensible mission: to determine whether it was possible to find true culture—in particular the global kind—amidst what might just be the most manicured, manufactured environment in the entire U.S.A.
Our less high-minded objective: to have a great time. This was, after all, a vacation.
The first question was where we would stay. With the help of a Disney “cast member” familiar with our objectives, we were booked into the Animal Kingdom Lodge, one of Disney’s deluxe resorts. It was the perfect choice. To call AKL a hotel would do it a tremendous disservice. It’s an adventure in its own right (and one with a heated pool, at that). Set on 33 tropical acres, the Animal Kingdom Lodge is designed to give the impression that the visitor has set down not in central Florida but in Africa herself. For starters, half the rooms overlook a wide savannah stocked with giraffes, zebras, wildebeests and nearly 30 other species. Pathways on the grounds allow for closeup views of the grazing animals as well.
The Lodge is tastefully decorated with African-style furnishings, artworks and artifacts, and each of the guest rooms maintains the theme, down to the wallpaper, lighting and bedding (complete with mosquito netting). African music plays constantly in the lobby, and even the walk to the parking lot is enriched by the dulcet voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo emanating from the shrubbery.
And the food! Two extraordinary onsite restaurants, the upscale Jiko, with its open-hearth kitchen, and the buffet<