Close/Lifestyles

The better mousetrap

Why the world beats a path to Disney’s door

Walter Stewart February 21 1977
Close/Lifestyles

The better mousetrap

Why the world beats a path to Disney’s door

Walter Stewart February 21 1977

The better mousetrap

Close/Lifestyles

Why the world beats a path to Disney’s door

Walter Stewart

The band was blaring bravely, cheerleaders were swaying and shouting, Mickey Mouse was waving from his perch atop a float. Donald Duck, Goofy and all the gang cavorted through the crowd along Main Street. U.S.A.. in the heart of Walt Disney World. At the top of the street, where it circles through the shadow of Cinderella Castle, stood the couple from Jolliet. Illinois, with their children, Bobby, three, and Judy, five. Judy was sniveling, Bobby was weeping aloud and their mother was patting Judy in a distracted way and saying “Look, there’s Mickey. Look, there’s Goofy. Isn’t this fun?” Dad was wearing the martyred look of a man who has devoted his vacation to driving through three days of snow, sleet and rain so he can fork out about $80 a day to listen to his children whine, something he could do at home for free.

Never mind. Almost everyone else was having fun, kids and adults alike. Most of them were glad they had come to central Florida to visit what the Rand-McNally road map calls “the largest and most elaborate tourist attraction ever conceived.” And only a spoilsport would point out that fantasy lands are not everybody’s cup of Kool-Aid or that, in this most opulent of all fantasy lands, there is, amid all the splendors and delights, something just a little bit creepy.

Amusement parks are one of America’s current growth industries. These are not the amusement parks of yesteryear, those ramshackle affairs that featured girlie shows, thrill rides, hot dogs, candy floss, freaks, games of chance, sawdust and dirt. In the old days, those were the places where you went to toss softballs at milk bottles, have your fortune told, take a crack at the crown-and-anchor wheel, eat hot dogs and candy-floss cones and drink coke, ride the loop-the-loop and roller coaster and throw up. all for about four carefully hoarded dollars. Today’s amusement parks are clean, orderly, sexless, healthful places where families gambol together and where four bucks will not even get you past the admission gate.

The trend was started two decades ago when Disneyland opened at Anaheim, California, and began to draw tourists and dollars like a giant Mickey Mouse magnet. Since then, more than two-score new-style amusement parks have sprung up across the United States, ranging from such modest efforts as the $ 14-million World of Sid and Marty Krofft at Atlanta, Georgia, through the $60-million Kings Dominion, outside Richmond. Virginia, to Disney

World, 20 miles from Orlando, Florida, which covers 2,500 acres and employs 12.000 workers. In 1976, 50 million admissions were collected at U.S. amusement parks, and the take came to an average of $14 per visitor day, or $700 million. At Disney World—the biggest and best of the parks—the take is higher: $18 per visitor day; Disney World grossed a total of $254,737,000 in 1976.

With this kind of money blowing in the wind, there are more parks in the works, both in the United States and abroad. Disney World has in hand nearly 25,000 acres of its Florida plot that has yet to be developed. By 1979, some ofthat will be covered by something called an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The company is also considering a Disney

World Showcase, a kind of permanent world’s fair, to which 31 countries have already been asked to contribute pavilions.

Canadians participate in the amusement park explosion in two ways. In the first place, they flock to the American sites. Disney officials calculate, from surveys taken in Orlando, that more than one million Canadians visited Disney World during 1976. In the second place, the fantasy worlds are headed north. The Taft Broadcasting Co. of Cincinnati, which owns Hanna-Barbera cartoons through a subsidiary, is involved in the amusement park business through another firm called Family Leisure Centres, Inc. This company runs a park in Cincinnati as well as Kings Dominion. Now Taft plans to build a $50million version of Kings Dominion on a 320-acre site at Highway 400 and Major Mackenzie Drive, about 20 miles north of Toronto. Dudley Taft, president of Taft Broadcasting, says he hopes to see the park opened sometime in 1980. “It will feature some distinctly Canadian themes,” he says. Along with attractions featuring Yogi Bear and the Flintstones, there will be historical shows reflecting “Canadian History and Mythology.” Will there, perhaps, be a thrill ride featuring Laura Secord’s cow, or a slide down a water hose to recreate Drug Smuggler Lucien Rivard’s escape from Montreal’s Bordeauxjail in 1965? A group of Vaughan Township residents, under the acronym save—for Sane Approach to Vaughan Environment—is trying to block the park. But Dudley Taft is “reasonably confident” that it will be under construction some time next year.

These parks are worth looking at because they are becoming part of our lives. They are interesting, too, for what they tell us about the people who flock to them in such dollar-scattering droves. The parks vary widely in size and value. Busch Gardens, on the edge of Tampa, Fla., is really just an inferior zoo with an aviary and a collection of rides. Kings Dominion is a slice of Disneyland with a lion safari thrown in. Six Flags near Atlanta, Ga„ is famous for its thrill rides. The centres have much in common: most are, essentially, collections of attractions built around a theme or series of themes—cartoon characters, pirates, pioneers, historical re-creations or zoological and botanical wonders. Generally they are clean, well-run and expensive. Admission fees range around five dollars to eight per adult and four to six dollars for children, plus parking. The core of the parks are the rides—rides in gondolas, monorails, trains, boats and cars.

The wonderful world of Disney—wonderful especially for its owners, who made more than $250 million last year. Some of the attractions include such ‘beloved’ characters as Donald Duck (above) and (clockwise from top left on facing page), the paddle steamer on Bay Lake, Cinderella’s Castle—with good old Mickey in the foreground—and Main Street, U.S.A., as it never was, and finally an in-park shop that helps families spend $80 a day

rides in rockets, airplanes, roller coasters and ferris wheels, rides with such names as the Great Gasp and the Python and the Great American Scream Machine. And then there are shows: dance shows, minimusicals, water shows, animal acts, pageants and parades.

The parks go by various generic names: amusement centres, theme parks, funlands, fantasy lands or—in the case of Disney—the somewhat sinister term “final destination resorts,” which is supposed to mean that everything one could possibly want is on the premises, so why go farther? Surveys show that the parks attract as typical visitor a family man between the ages of 18 and 49 who earns more than $15,000 a year and brings his wife and two children along. The visitors are from Middle America, well-heeled, mostly white, family-oriented and conservative.

If a visitor from Mars were to drop in on Walt Disney World, he would probably come to some odd conclusions about the American people. He might decide, for example, that U.S. citizens reproduce by some sort of parthenogenesis; for there are no girlie shows, no suggestive posters, no sexuality at all on display at Disney World,

Disney World’s monorail and traditional flag-lowering ceremony (amusement parks are at least as American as apple pie), and a mother capturing her children’s ‘magic moment’ in pictures, and a swimmer in ‘River Country’

only acres and acres of smiling, wholesome girls and boys. The monorail operators, with their hard hats and blue jumpers, are eerily reminiscent of George Orwell’s Anti-Sex League in the novel 1984. “Walt believed in wholesome, family entertainment,” says Bob Mervine, a Disney World publicist. “He always emphasized the three Cs—cleanliness, cordiality and competence.” A Martian would also observe that Americans are technical wizards. The displays, rides and transportation systems are beautifully designed and superbly crafted. In the Haunted House, for example, frighteningly convincing ghosts appear. In the Pirate Lair, the singing, swordswinging, cannon-flying manikins are remarkably lifelike, down to the hair on their legs. In the score of restaurants, reasonably good food is served quickly at moderate prices, and considering the mob to be fed each day that is a considerable feat.

On the other hand, a Martian knowledgeable about the civilization of this planet would have to conclude that there is really not much imagination in Disney’s Fantasyland. The ideas are all borrowed, from Snow White to Treasure Island, from the ersatz cowboys to the castle that turns out to be, mainly, a collection of shops and rides. And there is a patina of cloying cuteness laid over the borrowed objects in the Disney tradition that robs Alice in Wonderland of her intelligence and Tom Saw-

yer of his native wit. Main Street, U.S.A., a supposed re-creation of a 19th-century American town, is like no town that ever existed. The Disney people talk about the educational value of their creation, but you cannot learn anything about the United States here except that Americans are always brave, that virtue always triumphs, that fun always pays and that childishness is a virtue in a world where wishing makes every dream come true.

A Martian visitor would also find reason to consider the degree of commercialism that underlies the fun and games of Disney World. Most rides advertise other rides, and the ads come in layers. In Tomorrowland, one of the six “lands” of Disney’s magic kingdom, there is a people-mover that turns out to be a promotion of the electrical industry. It takes you on a tour of pavilions, most of which are industrial promotions themselves—for General

Electric, RCA, Eastern Airlines and Monsanto Carpets.

Finally, a Martian would be forced to conclude that Americans are remarkably docile. To move large crowds through the grounds of Disney World at a brisk and profitable rate requires discipline. It is applied, politely but persistently, by disembodied voices, signs and barricades. You line up to enter, line up to park, line up for the monorail, line up for tickets to the rides and shows, line up for the rides and shows themselves, line up for all

meals, line up to pay for goods at the stores that encrust the premises, and line up to get out again. Throughout the process, you are reminded to behave yourself. On the monorail, a cheerful voice tells you not to smoke, drink, eat or stand up. On a ride through the Pirate Lair, a taped voice growls: “Avast there, me hearties, keep your arm in the boat.” In four days at Disney World, I never once saw anyone balk at the litany of commands. No one smoked on the rides or brushed aside the barricades, or jumped a queue, or even talked back to the relentlessly cheerful guides, ushers and crowd-herders—no, not even after the hundredth instruction of the day not to drink, smoke or eat, to take all small children by the hand, duck your head, remove all possessions from the vehicle and “y’all have a pleasant day.”

Perhaps the Disney organization has discovered something new about Middle America. Perhaps, despite all the talk of individualism and self-reliance that Americans write, read and hear about themselves, there is a broad segment of society that wants nothing more than to be told, cheerfully, exactly what to do. Obviously, not everyone gets the same thing out of a visit to a theme park. What stayed in my mind was the docility, the efficiency and the plastic feel of the place. This is a world in which nature has been tamed, tidied, softened and sold. I found it just a little strange; but chacun à son schlock, v?