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Disney's Animal Kingdom

Mickey's Mecca: A Blue-Stater Searches for Culture at Walt Disney World

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published July 31, 2005

Is there more to "The Happiest Place on Earth" than rides and long lines? How about excellent dining and global culture, for starters?

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. Number one, Caroline and I had both long ago reached that stage in our lives where the thought of deliberately strapping ourselves into a machine that would hurl our bodies every which way at unforgiving speeds and angles does not equal thrilling but, rather, nausea. Slow-moving, relaxing boat rides with cutesy animated characters singing cutesy songs off to the side? No problem! But roller coasters whizzing insanely through the dark? Uh-uh. Max would have to fend for himself.

But more significantly, 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, ranging from questionable employment practices to reneging on its agreement to distribute Michael Moore’s anti-Bush film Fahrenheit 9/11 last year.

And, let’s be honest here, Disney is the ultimate symbol of the lopsided American brand of capitalism—it rakes in more cash annually than some of the world’s nations and, despite such admirable programs as its DisneyHand charity and the Disney Learning Partnership for elementary school children, the company has been criticized for its environmental practices and various applications of its vast financial resources. 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.