Popular Pleasures of Disney: researching the ‘active’ visitor
David Harris and Diana Moore
This paper begins with a brief critical review of recent work on Disney theme parks. The main theoretical and political thrust of this work is identified as 'ideology-critique', rooted in distinctive ('gramscian') marxist and feminist critiques. Analysis here is focused on the ways in which the 'texts' of Disney draw in the participant to a pleasurable but ideological world. Attention is given especially to the ways in which actual participants and their views are constructed in these approaches.
Postmodernist commentary is also reviewed briefly, together with its own techniques of 'poetic reading' and how this methodologically 'manages' visitor responses (via a critique of the empirical subject, especially in ethnography).
Additional dimensions are addressed by considering the move towards ‘redemptive readings’ in Media Studies and Cultural Studies and how they are based in notions of the 'active viewer'. There is also work on the ‘active consumer’, able to strip the goods out of the context supplied by the producer, and use them in personal or local ways. Such activism is supported by dispersed networks of intertextual resources, including ‘popular cultural capital’, which are activated by ‘grounded semiotics’ (including Gottdeiner’s work and themes drawn from work on the politics of identity, including Goffman and Bourdieu).
The results of a small set of semi-structured interviews held with actual Disney visitors are used to demonstrate some possibilities, which include the pleasures of 'ironic' visiting, the 'semiotically exhausted' or pragmatic visitor, and the notion of the Disney visit as a context in which to display aspects of identity. Additional pleasures, based on Bourdieu's notions of 'high' and 'popular aesthetics', and their use in 'social distanciation', are suggested for both visitor and critic.
A plethora of recent publications discuss Disney theme parks, such as Bell et al.,(1994), Bryman, (1995), Byrne and McQuillan (1999), Fjellman, (1992), The Project on Disney (1995), Smoodin (1994). It might be unwise to generalise, but it seems that many academic visitors to the parks have registered anxiety and suspicion rather than pleasure. Critics aim to establish some kind of more ‘realistic’ and much grimmer ‘whole picture’ as a contrast with the apparently limited visitor encounter, as in the classic (modernist) search for some kind of explanatory context, some greater ‘totality’, or some hidden ‘deep’ level beneath the surface [see also file on different readings]
Much work on Disney seems rooted still in such ideology-critique, driven by the desire to trace and expose the dominant (capitalistic, nationalistic, imperialist, patriarchal) values of the Company, or to reveal the hidden connections between the happy fantasy and myth of the wonderful world of Disney, and the ruthless economic logic of the Company’s accumulation strategies. These approaches are insightful, but there are excluded possibilities here which have long been explored in other areas: for example, the reactions of the visitors (or audience) are largely assumed to be congruent in various ways with those predicted by the ideology-critic, and the notion of an active audience is largely unexplored, although Bryman (1995) does at least explicitly discuss the possibility.
Some recent writings on Disney movies and television programmes do discuss the possibility of the familiar ‘oppositional’ reading, although even here, it tends to be a constructed ‘subject position’ which is explored, still very much in the tradition of the early work on (a limited number of) possible types of ‘decoding’ (Hall et al., 1980).
Thus various minorities ‘must’ respond critically to the distortions of Disney , as in ‘…the black feminist spectator gazes at the images, plots and meanings unfolding before her through a lens formed out of an awareness that race, gender and class are inextricable as sites of struggle in the world and that they operate variously in all symbolic acts’ (Soyini Madison in Bell et al., 1995). This ‘must’ probably contains a number of imperatives, in fact, including a political one (these groups should resist and engage in a favoured kind of cultural politics), and a theoretical one (no ideology can ever be that dominant that it leaves out all room for any contestation, especially where it comes to try to represent the lived experience of oppressed groups). The ‘must’ is certainly seldom connected to any empirical data – but then empirical data has long been rejected in this tradition, as we shall see below.
Instead, it is often just assumed that the parks and movies do have a substantial impact upon the lives, beliefs working ideologies and cultures of the ‘ordinary’ members of the public who visit: ‘[Disney World]…is the most ideologically important piece of land in the
There are theoretical grounds for this view, of course. The power of ideology simply leaves no room for real dissent, for some critics: the visitors’ ‘positive but uninteresting assessments…betray a comfortable acceptance of Disney ideologies, which in turn reside in the pleasure of not having to confront the flip sides of Disney’s patriotism, hygiene and gender codes’ (Willis in The Project on Disney 1995: 1—2).
Marxist-structuralist accounts leave no room for the active subject, privileging instead universalised linguistic structures or ideological mechanisms, and the way they have been used in forming compelling ‘myths’. The influential piece on
In another variant, marxist- or feminist-freudian accounts focus on the essential universal psychic structures that Disney simply must embody. Some early debates cited the sado-masochistic forms of pleasurable involvement in Disney cartoons (see Hansen 1993), while later ones offer the familiar mechanisms of ideologically coded female or ethnic ‘others’ (see Miller and Rode in Bell et al. 1995). There are variants of the classic work on scopophilia and ‘the gaze’, perhaps associated primarily with Mulvey (see Bennett et al. 1981), or on the structures of hysteria-inducing repression (Willis in The Project on Disney, 1995). These mechanisms and forces work behind the backs of the visitors, of course, delivering them into ideology at the same time as making it seem as if they are having a good time, offering an illusion of ‘free choice’ and individuality via some process that still looks remarkably like ‘interpellation’ or ‘positioning’.
Bryman (1995) argues that the unusual ideological power of parks could be traceable to the greater power of the Company to control the body, and thus the gaze of the visitor. The dominant metannarratives of movies, especially now they are available on video, can be subverted and resisted, but the parks organise the visitors as they tour, and manipulate their perspectives so carefully and skilfully that it is impossible to escape: this theme is pursued by many analysts, including Eco (1987).
Yet there are obvious objections to this argument. Even Disney parks offer contradictory or incompletely engineered representations. From half-way along the carefully replicated Main Street (mid-West America in the 1930s) in the Magic Kingdom zone in Orlando, one has only to look up to see the rather jarringly incompatible Cinderella’s Castle. The '
There are subtler contradictions too -- between exhibits stressing the value of rugged individualism and those stressing corporate domination, for example (Bryman 1995). Several commentators trace these to contradictions in the biography of Walt Disney himself (see Smoodin’s Introduction in Smoodin 1994).
Such contradictions might be merely temporary, residual or accidental, and many commentators point to the infernal skill with which the Disney Company can overcome many of them – seen best in Bryman’s account of how Disney values were selectively grafted on to Japanese values in the construction of Disney World Tokyo, or Smoodin’s elegant account of how an abstract notion of ‘France’ in EuroDisney was able eventually to do ideological work for both Disney and the French Government. Such accounts follow the classic themes of ‘negative utopia’ in Marin (1977), where liberating or contradictory possibilities are turned back into the service of the ideological vision of the project, or of the eventual patriarchal recuperation of media images of strong women as in Sells (Bell et al. 1995).
Indeed, pseudo-contradictions, developing only to be resolved, might follow the same kind of commercial logic that wants to encourage the kind of pleasurable, slightly non-conforming, semiotic involvement that Fiske (1987) has described in globally successful television programmes. The consumers might even welcome an anti-corporate theme occasionally, for example, and two popular Florida ‘rides’ in 1996 pick up such a theme in a classic 'imaginary' mode.
The one in the Magic Kingdom (in 1996 at least), ‘the Extraterrorestrial’, involves a blatantly exploitative alien corporation engaged in dubious experiments on cuddly aliens, and offers a simulated risky journey for innocent visitors who are exposed to danger when an experiment goes wrong. As an aggressive alien apparently roams the darkened interior of the spaceship molesting visitors, the spokespersons for the corporation make cynical comments about their our expendability. Universal Studios’ ‘Terminator’ ride offers a story of deep scepticism about the future, and worry about the surveillance technology being developed by a fictional global corporation (‘Cyberdyne’). There is a splendidly phoney PR person who tries in vain to present Cyberdyne’s view in the cliches of corporate-speak. The audience enjoyed heckling the presentation when we were there.
There is also a considerable variation in the semiotic intensity of the individual sites in Walt Disney World. The Magic Kingdom might still be saturated in Disney values, but the MGM site, built after the death of Walt Disney himself, offers an insightful 'back-stage' view of movie-making, almost exposing the illusions of the movies, yet doing so in a controlled and entertaining way. It is tempting to paraphrase Baudrillard's famous comment and suggest that the 'reality' of the movies is being sacrificed in order to preserve the deeper illusion about the reality of the Disney site itself. The water parks seem to offer stylised and playful simulations too – one is designed to look like a ski resort, for example – while the main business just seems to involve having fun in the water rather than following some sinister narratives.
All these examples could be seen as ultimately 'recuperative' engaging a playful intertextuality or semiotic respite introduced by the designers themselves to add pleasure, while staying within the overall boundaries of the larger ideological project. Yet there is another, unmanageable ‘intertextual’ dimension to the visitors’ experience which has been only partially explored. Gottdiener (1995) for example, tries to amend the static and formalist nature of Marin’s 'structural' analysis by considering elements of the visitors’ experience before they actually visit. This is a turn towards a more concrete, local and experientially grounded kind of semiotics, based on the work of CS Peirce rather than Jakobsen. Even here, though the perspective helps explain the ideological closures of the parks: the unfavourable impression of real American cities encountered en route helps only to build loyalty to Disney’s vision of clean, friendly, automobile-free community.
However, it is quite possible for real visitors to compare Disney sites to an infinite range of other experiences, derived from a number of additional ‘texts’, some involving actual journeys, but others involving fantasies, movies, guidebooks, travel writings, or even Web pages (of which there are many concerning Disney). Not all of these texts will lead to favourable comparisons or to compatible expectations or experiences, of course. Visitors are no longer likely to be clean slates upon which to write ideology. Specifically, when they visit Disney sites they might well be doing so nostalgically, or even ironically, rather than as true believers, perceiving the parks as ‘unreliable “museums of living facts”’ (Rojek 1993). Fjellman’s goal in his ‘eleventh thesis’ (Fjellman, 1992) -- to reduce Disney World to a museum -- could already be redundant.
However, a more grounded approach has another benefit. It helps us account for the perspectives of the academic critics as well. Many of the critics find deep semiotic richness and ideological subtlety in Disney by making their own intertextual comparisons and readings in practice. Disney parades reveal a sinister domestication when compared with New Orleans carnivals for Willis, in one example (The Project on Disney 1995). The Disney Company can be compared to other similar enterprises, thereby taking on extra significance as occupying a place at the leading edge of globalisation , as in Bryman (1995) or Smoodin (1994). Ritzer has suggested (in Rojek and Urry 1998) that the Disney Company might come to take on the same significance as the Ford Motor Company as an icon of some post-industrial future (where ‘Disneyfication’ replaces ‘Fordism’).
Less obviously, however, Disney narratives and representations are often compared unfavourably to academic narratives and representations. By contrast with (critical) academic history, the version in the American Adventure in EPCOT will clearly seem ‘nostalgic’ (Wilson in Smoodin, 1994) or ‘sanitised’ (Giroux in Bell et al., 1995). Wilson criticises the displays at EPCOT for not encouraging some sort of society-wide debate about the future, as if the highest function of a theme park would be to attempt to emulate a (somewhat idealised) university seminar. Comparisons with universities lend power to the worries, but it is no longer so easy to assume that critical, academic accounts are simply more truthful or more dispassionate or that they represent some universal interest compared to others. Nor is it so easy to remain uncritical about universities as offering some more genuine form of freedom and community, disinterest in commercial or corporate agendas, and ideological innocence, transparency and openness, compared to contaminated organisations like Disney.
It might seem obvious to turn to empirical research on actual visitors at this point, although this option is also fraught with difficulty. For those doing ideology-critique, empirical work would only uncover the limited 'phenomenal forms' of deep ideological structures. For others, immersed in Continental 'structural' theory and its aftermath, the very category of the human subject is problematic. To take a well-known argument as an example, for Baudrillard (1993), asking people questions and treating their responses as ‘data’ is absurd: in hyperreality, in the endless flood of comment and signification, there are no simple personal opinions independently arrived at free of any contamination by some text which has already supplied a comment on Disney. The request for an opinion itself thus immediately invokes a flood of textual references, and produces as a construction or effect a ‘serious’, ‘considered’ or otherwise suitable response.
Postmodernist critique has successfully focused on the deconstruction of ‘social scientific’ pretensions involved in the analysis of data too. The peculiarities of writings produced ‘on holiday’ have been explored by Barthes (1973) who suggests that both the events recorded and the practice of writing itself are mystified and sanitised by a kind of phoney popularity arising from the process. More recent critiques emphasise the creative role of the writing itself in producing the illusion of 'co-presence' or realism (as in Clough, 1992). It is not surprising to find these critics devoted instead either to an 'application' of ideology-critique, or to a non-empirical ‘poetics’, trying to unfold layers of meaning in phenomena encountered in Disney sites by a skilled, sensitive and largely ineffable reading of personal experience.
These readings have problems of their own, however, seen best in the tendency to slide back into a more social-scientific mode, perhaps to lend additional theoretical or political weight to a personal poetics. Generalisations start to creep in, or are implied, as the poet somehow claims to speak for all, to have uncovered a universally applicable description, or some prediction of underlying social trends. Finally, Hammersley’s (1986) critique could be used to expose the occurrence of what might be termed ‘soft quantification’ as a rhetorical device, where terms like ‘most’, ‘many’, or ‘some’ lend significance, and also avoid the tiresome necessity of actually specifying or estimating how many people actually read Disney in this way.
There are still claims for the continued usefulness of empirical work in a kind of ‘post-empiricist’ sensibility. Willis, for example, in a famous intervention (in Hall et al., 1980) justified ethnographic work on subcultures as a useful way to generate ‘surprise’ as a safeguard against theoretical closure or ‘lazy marxism’, to cite a phrase coined by Sartre but since deployed by Hall (1993). It is simply too easy to use powerful concepts like 'ideology' to explain everything immediately. Some sort of concrete investigation (often historical as well as sociological) might prevent this sort of easy reductionism. Of course, ‘the concrete’ could still always turn out to have been produced by the same sort of privileged theoretical or political determinations eventually, but we would still have to work to get there, so to speak.
On another tack, it would be absurdly contradictory for Baudrillard to claim that his own readings of Disney were uncontaminated from having talked to anyone (or encountererd any other texts) about it before he went. Talking to individuals in a more systematic manner seems an equally acceptable way to help generate even poetic readings -- as long as no great claims are made for the ‘scientific’ status of this procedure. In the ‘disclosure’ type approaches to ethnography, for example, as in Burgess (1984), the researcher makes no attempt to conceal personal involvement and the interpretation of the data is clearly foregrounded -- yet insight can still be delivered.
In this cautious spirit, we undertook some interviews of our own with a small local sample of volunteers who had recently visited a Disney site (Note 1). We attempted to generate as much 'surprise' as possible, or at least to force ourselves into more vigorous theorising, by taking responses at face value. We tried to benefit as much as possible by a conventional division of labour -- one of us dealt mostly with the interviews, while the other dealt mostly with the existing critical literature. Even so, we make no strong claims -- our findings are not 'driven' just by the data -- and we have explored only some possibilities.
Possible 'readings ' of the Disney experience
Perhaps it is best to begin, in a spirit of 'disclosure', with a brief personal response before we encounter the results of any interviews. This one tries to demonstrate the possibility of an ironic, ‘post-tourist’ sensibility, which is mentioned by Bryman (1995), but almost entirely neglected in most of the other commentaries. The full description can be found on the Harris website [see file], but a selection might give the flavour of such an approach.
‘The saving grace of the site was the white-knuckle rides that all members enjoyed, the adults, perhaps, in one of those states of induced infantilism noted by Eco (1987). We also enjoyed a couple of more leisurely rides, not least because of the cheerfully ironic comments of the guides (one of whom told us not to worry about the water being squirted from the fibreglass elephants because it ‘was only animatronic’). Reading Bryman (1995) later, however, we now realise that irony is actively encouraged or even scripted by the Company, precisely to make the product appeal to people like us...
Both adults felt uneasy at first when visiting EPCOT. One said it brought back memories of the sinister Village in the cult TV series The Prisoner, while the other thought of the description of the equally eerily immaculate city of Singapore as ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’. We recalled other subversive connotations: the workers in the newspaper office in Glasgow who described their new managerial regime as Disneyland (‘this disnae [dialect – ‘does not’] work, that disnae work’), and the general British use of the term ‘Mickey Mouse’ to indicate amateurism or inefficiency (as in one local rendition of our College as ‘The College of St Mick and St Mouse’, or in a recent reference by a British politician to a ‘Mickey Mouse project’)…
Tourists are in the foreground of every photograph we took, which tended to ruin the clever perspectives and scale models designed by the imagineers. It was almost impossible to recreate the carefully-landscaped ‘authentic’ vistas that so impressed Eco, without encountering constant reminders that this simply was a tourist site: did he visit during the off-season?’
It would not be the case that our interviews showed anything approaching such a determined (and excessive?) ironic stance, however, as the extracts below reveal.
Coming to Choose a Disney Site
For some, Disney sites do have some considerable ideological power it seems -- they represent a ‘dream’, a personal ambition, either for the respondents themselves or for their children. As Rena put it: ‘...having children we sort of got involved with the Disney thing...Disney world was a sort of a dream really. Everybody would like to go to Disney World’.
In Ozzy’s case, the dream seems to have persisted past his childhood and into his son’s : ‘I wouldn’t have chosen it if it were for me but my son is a TV watcher and he’s always wanted to go to Disney. But having said that when I was a little kid my dream was to go to Disney and it was never fulfilled, so finally it was with my son...But we did go thinking that it was never fulfilled for me so [I’m] going to tick it off the list’.
For such people, Disney iconography does seem indeed to have fused with the concept of childhood itself, as some critics feared. Hetty went: ‘…mainly for the sake of the children. It’s a dream that I think children always have and we always have. And children are the best excuse in the world, I think, to go somewhere like that’.
For other respondents, more pragmatic factors seem to have been at work -- Disney sites appealed as a sensible family destination, to respond to ‘…pressure from the children...they’d wanted to go for a long time’ (Jean). As with other family occasions, there seem to be misunderstandings of who actually wants what and who is doing things for whom, as In Liz’s comment: ‘Dad said “Oh let’s go to Disney”...he always thought it was a good idea...I think he enjoyed going round there more because he was taking his kids round than we actually did getting dragged round there.’
Mike had little initial interest: ‘Most places I’ve travelled I’ve never had a really burning desire to go anywhere to be honest...I’ve just done it on a whim... [His friend, who had booked the trip]… was desperate to see this Disney thing’. Here, we might have the possibility of the semiotically exhausted or disinterested visitor. Such people would be quite capable of refusing excessive signification, of operating as a Disney visitor entirely pragmatically, of treating a Disney visit as a commodity to be consumed without too much reflection, speculation, or the pursuit of hidden meaning, even when confronted with ideology. Analysts can often miss this pragmatic level and may need to be reminded of it: to cite a very old British study of the effects of affluence on working class households, ‘a washing machine is a washing machine is a washing machine’ (Goldthorpe et al. 1969) (i.e. buying a washing machine may be some crucial sign of aspiring to a middle class lifestyle for some commentators, but the purchasers are most interested in keeping their clothes clean).
Of course even these extracts also show certain difficulties in interpretation. Obviously some of them might be rationalisations, for example -- Hetty’s remarks raise that possibility, and Mike’s cool indifference could be read that way too (perhaps we were picking up apologies here – common among British visitors who feel slightly guilty about visiting Disney sites). The recidivists in the sample also raise problems. The reasons they gave might not refer to all their visits, for example: Liz had been to a Disney site six times!
What Were They Expecting?
Most people seem to have had ‘good’ expectations, but not Peta ‘I was expecting it to be a terribly commercialised fairground...where you’d be queuing up to go on rides’, or Mike, who said he expected ‘Wally World’ [ the movie parody]. Several report having had these expectations exceeded by the actual visit, as a spontaneous addition to the response. These expectations seem to have derived from ‘official’ sources like brochures or TV (promotional?) pieces, and there may be traces of their influence in the terms used to describe Disney. A more detailed comparison of the contents of tourist brochures and promotional materials would be required to pursue this further.
There are indications of the tendency for visitors to make comparisons between Disney and what they take to be similar sites, as in 'grounded semiotics'. As suggested above, these were not always the result of actual ‘real’ visits (to funfairs or theme parks), but included ‘virtual’ sources, including the reported views of friends, or more generalised ‘images’, like Mike’s, gained from American movies. Steve too reported: ‘It’s kind of like when you watch all the American films and it’s all sunny. The weather’s really hot...it always looked so big and clean...I just wanted to see if it was as big and as bright and as colourful as it looked on TV’.
A Disney visit is not an unalloyed thrill, it seems, even for Ozzy who had dreamt the dream: ‘I had doubts just to whether I would enjoy it personally because it’s not really my sort of scene at all but I just put that at the back of my mind because it’s something my son wanted to do and we were going to do it’. Others had no doubts at all, or reported only ‘pragmatic’ doubts -- about queues, the climate, the availability of suitable rides and so on.
The source of some of the doubts is interesting, perhaps, in that they reveal some more glimpses of visitor intertextuality. Like Peta (in the section above) George and Fran began to think of Disney in terms of the notion of a funfair (a notorious ‘site of disorder’ for the British, perhaps?): ‘I don’t like funfairs. I don’t like queuing I don’t like being organised...I wasn’t overenamoured with American things in general, quite honestly, and I just didn’t want to go’ (George). ‘I’m always a bit dubious about funfairs...I suppose I always think there might be danger for the children and I was paranoid about losing the children because that happens in America in Disneyland’ (Fran).
Another three respondents specifically referred to TV coverage of Disney sites (as did Steve in the section above) --Yan and Una had had their doubts removed by what they had seen on TV, while Clint thought TV coverage exaggerated ‘the big rollercoaster...You don’t see the Small World...the magic of that is never expressed’.
With a few exceptions, our material seems to reveal a triumph for Disney impression management. Visitors seem aware that they are about to be present at a spectacle with even the size of the car parks contributing to the sense of ‘awe’ (although more mundane intertextual references to tollgates or ferry terminals are also present). There seems to be a fair sprinkling of what might be Disney terminology here too in the references to the experience as being ‘magical’, a ‘fairytale’ and so on, as in Clint’s recollections:
‘I just couldn’t believe the scale of it all...I remember the first morning when we walked in and walked down through the Main Street and the music was playing and it was just as if you were, well, in Fairyland...You get the general feeling of it there and then, the magic starts from there...It did feel a bit like a film set, as though you’re walking down a film set...I couldn’t take it all in...I can remember being absolutely enthralled by it, you know, and suddenly thinking “Ooh where’s everybody else?”...There’s not many places where that would happen actually. Maybe because I didn’t realise what I was going to, that that’s why it was so magical’.
Or in Quentin’s: ‘I was really impressed, it all seemed very magical...I think it was the colours...lots of greenery and trees...lots of pink...and old-fashioned shop fronts and jars of sweets and things in the window. It just seemed like a child’s ideal sort of place really’.
There may be hints of Gottdiener’s comparisons with real cities in the remarks on cleanliness, lack of aggression or even car-parking space here. There may be some hints too of how any initially critical impressions were managed in Clint’s references to Main Street as a ‘film set’, in Boris’s recognition that it is all ‘very very clever’, or in Steve’s self-reassurance (?) that the ‘cast’ really were happy: ‘Everyone working there was having a good time...there’s a band on Main Street and they play all day and they look like they’re having a really good time...Everybody there’s having a good time and that sort of rubs off on you, you think “Hey, I’m going to enjoy myself”’
These remarks can sound a little like rationalisations or excuses to permit a bit of enjoyment. Then again, perhaps they indicate the emergence of an ironic ‘second-degree’ stance, or they might result equally easily from implicit comparisons again with British holidays in grimy, dull surroundings with obviously unhappy staff?
There is some overlap with the responses in the section immediately above, of course. There is also no doubt that these respondents realised that the ‘fairytale’ involves a lot of hard work, planning, good management and crowd control: in some cases, it could be Eco responding here, or people who had read the Project on Disney’s piece. Some ambiguities or doubts appear especially where the staff are concerned, although any anxiety about their genuineness or happiness seems to have been easily managed:
‘...and it’s very well thought out the crowd control, how they keep people happy...it’s just like, what is it, a production line, it really is...I enjoyed myself better than I thought I would and, I have to be honest, I think it was because they made it quite easy and it was quite painless with the going on rides...Just the whole set-up: the people management...and there’s always someplace where you can find a loo’ (Ozzy).
‘Obviously it’s their job, but they really went to town. I mean you were almost scared to ask them something because you know you’d have a diagram drawn for you’ (Nerys)
Unlike all the other critics, though, these respondents seem to appreciate and enjoy being at the receiving end of all the technology, to appreciate being processed like a robot. Is this the result of being positioned as a subject by some Disney ideology, or is it just a pragmatic acceptance of the price to be paid for enjoyment? Perhaps there are some implicit comparisons being made again with past experiences of ill-organised queuing on other holidays.
There were some bad impressions too, inevitably, perhaps even some more signs of ‘resistance’ to the commercialism and the charm offensives. Rena reported : ‘...I suppose you could say it’s overly commercialised. You do get a bit fed up after the first couple of weeks of people saying, you know, “Have a good day”’. The deep ambivalence of Ozzy continued here too: ‘The only thing that turned me [off] is the heavy merchandising...they do that everywhere in America but it sort of ruined the whole magic of it all’.
Of course, these responses followed prompts and may not be ‘spontaneous’ (and this problem affects the other responses too, of course). Our respondents expected us to want a ‘balanced’ view, no doubt
Things remembered most clearly
We have here some clear signs of the simple and (from what we can see) genuine pleasures to be found in simulation and in the Disney views of childhood, with a fair sprinkling again of Disney adjectives like ‘magical’. No-one seemed to mention any ‘second degree’ pleasures here. Ozzy would probably qualify as the archetypal positioned Disney subject:
‘Toon Town because [my child] went to Mickey Mouse’s House...And they sort of fed them through the house and there were all these things of interest to see and then suddenly they’d come close to where [Mickey] was [supposed to be] filming. There was only this door between the kids and him. And they’d let a few in at a time to meet Mickey. And I think that was the biggest moment. [My child] became like a three year-old again. It was all very magical because he saw Mickey, and Mickey went up to him and put his arms around him and it was all “Aaah”... and it was as if he believed it was Mickey...and that was all very magical because I was full of tears. That just made the wonder of it all...’
Unlike ourselves, Helen seems to have remembered the Imagination ride with affection: ‘I like that one, that kiddies’ ride...it was called Imagination and it was beautiful. You’re supposed to use your imagination and have a good time...You could have been a hundred years old and you could have enjoyed yourself and you could have been 2 or 3 years old and it’d have been fantastic’. Colin remembered Small World quite differently from us ‘with all those lovely animated Lucy Mabel Attwell type characters. I went on it 5 times....’.
Mike remained cool and comparative: ‘Ridewise, specific rides: Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, not that it was very good’. His main interest seems to have been rides, and there are many rival attractions in the Orlando area that he admired. (Indeed, he tended to talk mostly about the rides and was not even really sure which ones were found at Disney sites as opposed to, say Universal Studios).
There is also the resourcefulness of George in being determined to get into the holiday spirit despite personal discomfort. He recalled:
‘Trying to sit down on a boiling hot pavement because we were tired... and I thought then “How stupid. We’re sitting here in this makeshift street, sitting here with a horde of people. We’re hot, we’re tired. What the hell are we doing here?” And I thought “Well, I’m quite enjoying it really”. And then when the parade came round the corner and it was only floats with lights around them and people, it was really quite magical’.
We did prompt our respondents with questions about standard criticisms of Disney values, including some found in the literature. None of the respondents actually raised these points themselves, though, and this has some obvious implications for interpretation.
On the issue of the ‘American values’ in Disney, for example, Jon’s reaction seems to echo those of some of the critics:
‘It’s very very much this thing about the American Dream of everybody being equal, no class in society...I guess they do try and put this message over to you in things like It’s a Small World that there are no race, class, colour or whatever differences between people, that everyone is the same...They try to break down boundaries...between people of different countries’.
Lee even sounds a bit like Marin: ‘It tries not to put across [the] negative side. Everything’s very optimistic when you visit and it’s made into like this utopian world...’, and Mike like Eco: ‘I fully appreciate the fact that it’s a multi-billion dollar business so that they are just trying to sell products... The shops were very glossy and they were set within like an atmosphere...’.
Several respondents were prepared to comment on the issue of ‘artificiality’, such as Una: ‘What hasn’t been tampered with? [Places like Hampton Court are] mockups of something from the past.’
If this sounds like Baudrillard, Rena echoes Gottdiener:
‘I mean the real world isn’t clean. Real America isn’t like Walt Disney World...Florida as a state is a very poor place...in the hotels that are supplying Disney...the waitresses only get about $2.00 an hour...People behave [differently inside Disney World] They might not realise it but they do. Things like litter. You don’t see people throwing things on the floor...You don’t often see people walking round looking miserable whereas if you walk through ...New York...everybody is so miserable or it appears so...I mean it is a false world. It’s got to be. I think that’s why people like it because you can actually cut yourself off and pretend that all this thing outside isn’t existing...It was [Walt’s] dream. I mean I know it’s probably commercial but you know we’ve all benefited from it.’
However, George’s reaction was even more favourable, and more like those of the other respondents: ‘The girls in all the different nationality houses in EPCOT, they were really good ambassadors for their countries...Yes, OK, it was big tourist offices really, wasn’t it, I suppose, but it wasn’t, it was so nicely done. You didn’t feel you were going to meet a lot of hooligans round every corner.’
When asked about the Disney workforce, several respondents seem quite capable of making criticisms, giving examples and so on. More common, though, was an admission of the possibility of exploitation followed by attempts to justify, deny, or in some other way neutralise any anxiety aroused by the possibility. Cultural relativism is invoked, or some notion of free choice, or some belief in the workforce’s ability to cope. These ‘techniques of neutralisation’ are probably widespread among experienced tourists.
Boris offers another strategy altogether, which comes close to a rather uncritical version of a ‘second degree’ pleasure, perhaps: ‘They’ve got a smile on their faces and they’re saying “Have a nice day”. They probably don't mean it but so what? They make you feel good and they make you feel special when they say that’. Here, it is tempting to think of Adorno and Horkheimer (cited in Rojek 1993) on the commercial and ideological form of the contract or ‘gift relationship’ in such encounters for tourists: politeness and smiling is a kind of gift, and in return (there must always be a return) one is expected to behave as a conventional tourist, to be uncritical, polite, restrained and well-behaved back.
Although it is hard to summarise in these extracts, Mike developed a quite surreal meditation on the Disney workforce, claiming to be wondering how the guys in the furry suits managed to go to the toilet. Did they have to use special loos, or was it possible for a tourist to wander in and find Mickey taking a pee? Did the employees have to stay in role even at such moments -- would Pluto take a pee as a dog?
When questioned about Disney ‘sentimentality’, one or two respondents had never thought at all about this criticism, it seems, but others had, and most of them seemed capable of applying it post hoc, so to speak. However, Jean argued that engaging in sentiment is a necessary conspiracy if others are to enjoy the experience. Other responses hint at notions of childhood as necessarily involving sentimentality, or as sentimentality being an appropriate stance for adults on holiday, escaping, or resisting the non-sentimental ‘age we live in’, as in a spirit of ‘rebellious subjectivity’ almost. Anyone not sharing these views can be easily dismissed: ‘ I think [that’s] taking PC [political correctness] too far...’, ‘If someone really was a cynic and looked on it as they’re only doing it to make money that could put a damper on it. As soon as you walk in you become a child...You’d have to be an incredibly grumpy cynic to really hate it’. Many of the critics have also noted this tendency for actual visitors to react with incredulity or scepticism to any attempt to imply any sort of criticism
Many seem to have interpreted 'sentimentality' more positively, to mean ‘emotional’, or ‘capable of inducing emotion’, and we seem to have examples of a ‘popular aesthetic’ (Bourdieu 1986) that welcomes or expects such emotional engagements. To hear that Disney views of childhood have been accepted as natural, or even that Disney sentiment can be seen as offering some critical alternative to a violent society would confirm the critics' views: interestingly, Liz seems quite close to that sort of analysis too: ‘It’s a very cute place isn’t it?...It’s designed to be a sort of utopia [specifically the Magic Kingdom], everybody’s happy and smiling...I can imagine why so many Americans go round with guns. That’s the total opposite’.
Finally, we asked our respondents to offer advice to anyone visiting for the first time. Good pragmatic advice was on offer here, largely (some of which echoes one of the Disney guides, possibly). Other themes are hinted at too which seem to invoke the sense of continual disappointment and ‘incompleteness’ of the modern consumer (noted by commentators such as Featherstone 1991). No attraction can live up to the hype, perhaps, and so one should prepare by de-hyping, so to speak, as in Lee’s suggestions: ‘Don’t expect miracles because it’s only a theme park. Enjoy it. Go in there with an open mind...It’s just a theme park and it’s just because it’s all like this the name Disney that it’s built up over all the years, that’s what gives it all the hype’.
Donna reminded us that visitors from Britain have often spent a lot of money to get to the US attractions and should approach the sites in a fairly determined manner in order to get their money’s worth (another theme echoed by some of the guidebooks). This perception is shared, perhaps, in the earlier comments about visiting Disney as a ‘natural’ thing to do if you are in the USA (or Japan) anyway. This can mean pragmatically organising yourself (providing food, avoiding the heat of summer and so on), or being determined to follow your own route rather than the official one (e.g. to avoid the boring educational bits in Mike’s case). This sort of stance is a calculative, work-like one, it night be suggested. Most of all, though, the advice seems to be to go there to enjoy yourself, not to analyse too deeply or worry too much about anything. This advice might be connected to the context of the interview: since this section followed all the material about criticisms, it might be a continuation of the material on the ‘popular aesthetic’, or perhaps even a continued justification of or apology for visiting.
Clearly, it is not possible to use these simple data to test any of the theoretical commentaries we have cited. What appears is the capacity of the respondents to read their own experiences in different ways, to offer complex and qualified views, and to be able to try out or apply views that are not necessarily their own. Such responses might indeed indicate some degree of ‘activity’, possibly even some ‘resistance’, ironic pleasures or intertextuality. As a scan of the responses also shows, however, there are marked tendencies to use words like ‘magical’ or ‘dream’ to describe experiences, and these are suspiciously like official Disney accounts.
Talking to people about visiting Disney can be ‘surprising’. If we compare our personal impressions with some of the extracts above, very different general orientations and stances are detectable. The same general differences are striking initially at least, between many of the visitors' comments and those found in many published commentaries. Apart from anything else, such major differences would make it very unwise for any of the commentators to assume that theirs was the popular view of Disney -- scepticism, irony, analysis and critique are not the major features of the Disney experience for most of the respondents cited here (although such characteristics are not entirely absent either). How might we account for these general differences, and, should we or can we choose between them?
It seem possible to begin to pin down general differences in orientation using Bourdieu’s (1986) work on the ‘popular’ and the ‘high’ aesthetic. To be very brief, the ‘popular aesthetic’ features precisely the kind of unmediated demand for participation, the focus on content rather than form, and the valorisation of emotional involvement that many of the respondents express in their rejections of or management of critique, their advice to ‘just enjoy it’, their reported engrossment in Small World, their dismissive remarks addressed to ‘cynics’ who criticise Disney and so on. Much of the respondent data in this piece could correspond well to Bourdieu’s survey findings on differences in tastes in film, photography or music in France, although no sociological explanations of the responses can be pursued with such a small group.
Bourdieu argues that the ‘high aesthetic’ defines itself explicitly in opposition to the popular, which leads to the valuing of unemotional detachment, theoretical formal analysis, disattending to specific content and so on, and, of course, he identifies an academic variant rooted in the ‘structures of judgement’ in university life (Bourdieu 1988). This would seem to describe quite well the stances of the published critics, which raises in turn a number of implications for the pursuit of the politics of their own identities. Perhaps writing critically about Disney offers one of the last acceptable locations for academics to practice social differentiation and to demonstrate a commitment to non-popular values? The ‘populist turn’ in cultural studies in Britain has made it no longer acceptable to do this for shopping or watching popular television of course, especially in the institutional context where there is a strong need not to alienate the customers in universities (see Harris 1996).
Finally, it seems important to retain the issue of the pleasures of being critical. Critics like the writers on the Project on Disney have done much to explain that pleasure for the visitor is work for the Disney employee (or for the managers of this huge corporation), but they seem reluctant to acknowledge the converse. Their own research is described unequivocally as ‘work’, and often rather grim, ‘serious’ and self-sacrificing work at that (although Fjellman and Bryman are exceptions). It can be pointed out that analysing and criticising Disney can be also highly pleasurable, for critics, and, of course, for readers as well. There are ready targets, fairly obvious and widely-shared reservations to explore, relatively penetrable insights to deliver, and the classic method of inverting the ‘popular aesthetic’ to rely upon. Academic critique becomes simply another mode of gaining pleasure from (and, ironically, helping to reproduce and to support) the product!
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(1) An opportunity sample was drawn from persons connected with the College of St Mark and St John who answered an advertisement, and from personal contacts. The size of the sample was limited largely by funds available. 40 individuals were interviewed overall, 22 of them as individuals, and the remainder in family groups. 14 were college students (mostly at the College of St Mark and St John). 6 were at school. The occupations of the others included classroom assistant, headteacher, housewife, chaplain, fitness instructor, library assistant, administrator, civil servant, student nurse, reflexologist and furniture restorer/dealer.
10 had visited sites in Paris, 13 in Florida, 5 in Los Angeles, and 1 in Tokyo. 6 people had visited more than once, 3 of them to different sites. In terms of ages (at interview), 4 respondents were under 18, 8 were aged 18--21, 3 were aged 21--25, 9 were aged 26--40, and 9 were 40. Information was not recorded for 2 persons.