Disney Theme Parks -- a Commentary

The Disney phenomenon makes an ideal case study for students of popular culture and allied fields (tourism, media, sociology). It offers popular experiences in the classic sense that many people have visited a Disney site on holiday (including ourselves, several colleagues and many students on campus, as we discovered). The Florida site was the most popular overseas destination for UK holidaymakers in 1994 (and the most popular internal destination for US visitors). Disney sites are popular in another common sense of the term too: people seem to have enjoyed their visits and to want to go again. Indeed, in our small sample, we found 6 recidivists, one of whom had been 6 times. For that matter, most of the critics and analysts (including ourselves again) enjoyed the experience too, albeit with reservations. This sort of popularity clearly raises the usual questions about why people like Disney sites so much, what the sources of pleasure are (to use Media Studies terms for a moment), and what sort of effects (including loyalty or goodwill towards the Disney Corporation) are produced.

Theoretical Commentaries

The second factor which makes Disney visits ideal as a case study is that they have been the subject of a good deal of commentary, of kinds which are common in the field of popular culture generally. The main approaches include:

The biographical
Examples include Beard (1982) or Mosley (1986), which see Disney sites as produced by the subjective outpourings of a personal vision (‘Walt’s dream’), much as the English novel used to be seen as an expression of the inner essence of individual novelists. This kind of analysis can take quite a detailed form, as when, for example, Walt Disney’s own childhood experiences on a farm apparently produced specific cartoon characters, or, more generally, when his personal enthusiasm for American technology is used to explain the detail of the Imagination ride at the EPCOT Centre. 
This kind of approach is also used more critically, as in a recent documentary (*) about Walt Disney which exposed his right-wing political leanings, his sexism and racism, his record on labour relations and so on. A number of commentators, including Gottdiener (1995) and Rojek (1993a) include biographical details in their analyses, on the grounds that Walt Disney was a specific and an unusual kind of ‘leisure entrepreneur’ who did want to influence personally the activities of his companies, and who did play a major personal role in the creation of the theme park sites.

The structuralist 
The most-cited piece here is Marin (1977 ). This features a clear rejection of the individualism of the first approach, of course, and sees culture as the product of general codes and abstract rules to combine them, which individuals simply happen to ‘bear’ or ‘support’. In Marin’s hands there is a (once common) marxist or critical tinge: Disneyland (in California) is seen as a prime example of a ‘negative utopia’, a site which combines a number of existing ideological themes (codes and narratives) to offer both a promise of an alternative life of hedonism, freedom and recreation and a neat way of combining this utopian vision with the commercial and political realities of American capitalism. Much is made of the physical layout of the site in Marin’s piece, showing how visitors are literally led back to Main Street as the cultural master key of the entire experience.

The postmodern 
This category will serve as a general one to include the work of Eco (1987) and Baudrillard (1983) although neither of these writers fit easily. These readings often draw upon Marin’s piece, but have moved away from both the politics and the faith in structuralist method. Instead we have more free-floating, often personal commentary, often in a spirit of ironic celebration of the absurdities of cultural trends. Disney sites are seen as offering a classic demonstration of trends like simulation or hyperreality, or of the cheerful free-wheeling mix of high and low culture, or of the globalising mix of different formerly local cultures , including bits of ‘heritage’ and so on. 

All three writers also reveal their dismay at these trends, in my view, and all continue to worry about the stultifying effects of experiencing Disney -- on other, more typical visitors, of course.

Thus, for Eco (1987: 45--48), Disney(land) is an Absolute Fake (rather than a reconstructed real town like Morwhellam, say). Carefully-planned elements include several levels of illusion -- the displays include wax dummies and fake alligators as well as real people  dressed up, reconstructed shops really are shops inside, there are real exotic trees in a fake setting. This 'stimulates the desire for illusion' (e.g. the fake alligators on the River Ride are better than trying to locate the real thing on a real river), helps us appreciate the skills of reconstruction, and generally adds to the state of 'hallucination' you enter in Disneyland.

This leads to one 'ideological' critique: Disneyland 'blends the reality of trade with the play of fiction', it offers a 'fetishism of art'. The carefully reconstructed shops on Main Street (full-size ground floors, two-thirds size upper floors) are both real shops ('disguised supermarkets' and nice toy shops which adds to 'disguised merchandising'

There is much admiration in Eco for the hyperrealism of animatronic devices on the Caribbean Pirates Ride and the Haunted Mansion Ride (the two most popular attractions) -- Eco was ‘dumbfounded by their verisimilitude’: 'humans could do no better' than the fake pirates who are carefully modelled on real people and made to deliver lines perfectly every time, and nowhere else do you find such a good collection of 'witchcraft surprises'. 

Finally, as with other hyperreal sites, like the Hearst castle, nowhere is there any wasted space, no voids as in real cities, no blanks. Everything is designed to communicate, to saturate the visitor in signs, to leave no chunk of reality unmediated. Eco was plainly both impressed and exhausted by this surfeit, but even Disney can get it wrong: Disneyworld in Florida is  much bigger and more organised, so impressively hi-tech as you enter on the monorail that the Disney castle 'no longer stirs the imagination'. Visitors are much less independent, much more subject to regulations and queuing -- visitors (too) 'must agree to act like robots'

Baudrillard’s piece (1983: 23--26) apparently followed a visit to a Disney site (it is not clear which one), and describes the site as offering a 'mix of simulations’. There are obvious fantasy worlds and the 'real America'. It is a 'deep-frozen infantile world', representing US values 'embalmed and pacified'. It can be read as simply ideological, as does Marin, but there is more: Disney is 'presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real'. It is not a matter of the Disney sites falsely representing reality, but more of 'concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle'. 

This small extract offers a number of the major themes in Baudrillard’s more general work , in other words. There is the insistence that all ‘reality’ has become so saturated by signification that it has become ‘hyperreal’ (fused with its representations), and there is also the charge that powerful interests of various kinds (including academic or moral critics of places like Disney sites) are trying to pretend nothing has happened. So much academic aesthetic and moral criticism in popular culture depends on their being some ‘foundational’ uncontaminated ‘proper’ reality, of course, against which to denounce Disney’s, visions as ‘distorted’, ‘vulgar’, ‘commercialised’, ‘ideological’ and the like.

The political/economic 
In one example, Zukin (1990) emphasises the economic infrastructure of the Disney Corporation and rather reverses the priorities of the postmodernists. A number of commentators have pointed out that it is difficult to penetrate the economics of the Disney Corporation, and that, apparently, it is one of the most zealous in protecting its investments. The Corporation is clearly a very big player in the international tourism business, of course. To exaggerate slightly, the cultural aspects of Disney are not free-floating playful significations in some ‘postculture’, but solid chunks of cultural capital, used to gain goodwill, overcome customer resistance, gloss the rather ruthless activities of the Corporation, and so on. There is some convergence here with the work of the postmodernists in that Zukin might be agreeing that this sort of economic activity is characteristic of a new ‘postmodern’ society, although she seems to be rejecting the view that culture has escaped completely from any economic ‘base’. An excellent piec by Schaffer combines analysis of animated movies and theme park design

Zukin shows how cultural developments can occupy an important place in the circulation of actual financial capital. Perhaps the best example concerns the technique of ‘boosterism’ whereby corporations can raise land values considerably by promising some sort of pleasant cultural experience for tenants and locals (‘gentrification’ is one of Zukin’s other examples, and Davis’s (1990) account of boosterism in Los Angeles provides a store of others). This ability to affect land values seems to have given Disney considerable power to negotiate unusual exemptions from local regulations in Florida, for example. 

The work connects with more familiar and perhaps less critical work done on the new economic and political interests in tourism or ‘heritage’ as a means to regenerate old city centres or waterside sites. The economic benefits which are usually stressed concern the prospects for employment or for local sales, however, with often a strange silence about land values.

This kind of analysis reveal an ironic background to the freedom and escapism offered by the actual experience of visiting a Disney site, of course, rather as does the realisation that the escapist and sentimental film Dumbo was produced during a period of bitter industrial dispute at the Disney studios. There are similar paradoxes in commercial companies offering well-organised ‘tourist-free’ or ‘unspoiled’ ‘authentic’ holidays in Munt (1994). 

In a final irony, Davis points out that postmodernist writings can add value to property as Baudrillard encourages tourists to see for themselves just what is so ‘postmodern’ about Los Angeles or as the University cashes in on the fame of its location and founds the first faculty of ‘postmodern geography’.

The ‘social-semiotic’
This is actually Gottdiener’s (1995) term for his own analysis, although others seem to be launched on a similar approach including Rojek (1993a, 1993b), possibly, and me. The approach involves drawing back from the ‘reductionism’ of biographical, postmodernist and marxist approaches which want to privilege one particular reading, to treat the meanings of a Disney visit as if they were fundamentally or crucially personal to Walt Disney, a mere crystallisation of some general tendency to play with signifiers, or really only the latest in a series of economic strategies to realise value (respectively). 

Of course, it is not so easy to resist reductionism, and it is tempting to see such approaches as merely eclectic, or a kind of liberal compromise. There is a whole thorny issue at the theoretical level of how to develop a suitable non-reductionist approach -- common to both Gottdiener and Harris, for example, is an argument about the pragmatics of social action (although they draw from rather different theoretical traditions -- Harris wants to develop more of a micropolitical analysis). 

Briefly, the approach acknowledges that there are multiple levels of meaning available to the Disney visitor, including all the ones we have described above. In fact there are also meanings added by what might be seen as the context of the visit too: Gottdiener suggests that Disneyland gets meaning from a kind of implicit contrast with real American cities -- it is not as violent as Los Angeles, not as impersonal, not as dominated by the automobile and so on. As we shall see below, a visit to Disney World can also evoke such contrasts with the rest of Florida (including Miami) or the USA, and doubtless the same could apply to EuroDisney and Paris. Baudrillard wants to close down such contrasts by imposing his own interests in reality and hyperreality, but there are many other options, including critical ones. 

Rojek’s work picks up similar themes. His 1993b piece is the more extensive, and considers ‘Disney culture’ as a whole, to include the movies and the themes in the parks. ‘Disney culture’ turns out largely to be graspable as realising an interwoven set of ideologies with familiar themes: 

‘The Disney parks present white, male dominated bourgeois culture as “normal” or “natural”...The view of the American past ...is excessively nostalgic...[and]...presents American society as free of conflict and contradictions...[T]he parks celebrate the inventive and creative powers of individuals while leaving the masses as passive spectators of “carousels of progress” which they are powerless to influence....[finally]...”free”-time behaviour operates to organise [human] subjects’ (1993b: 129--30)
 However, Rojek is not simply offering marxist ‘cultural studies’ or structuralist analyses in the old sense, and has indeed published several critiques of both approaches. For him, modernity has changed society, so as to diminish the social bases for marxist cultural studies (roughly, by changing the nature and importance of labour, and by decomposing the traditional revolutionary collective subjects). The same changes will diminish the effects of Disney culture too, though, as the old hierarchies and certainties implicit in Disney ideology are subverted, and as the Disney experience ceases to be anything special in a world of clever simulations and theme parks. Disney does not even exert total control over their own creations, argues Rojek: ‘Mickey has escaped the clutches of Disney...he even appeared as a gleeful witness of the Gulf War horror in the canvases of the official British war artists, John Kean’(Rojek 1993b:134). In other words, the 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 themselves rather than as true believers, leaving the parks as ‘unreliable “museums of living facts”’ (ibid: 134).

Harris’s interests developed against a background of a turn towards the audience in Media Studies, and an interest in the active participant in Cultural Studies, both of which suggest an almost infinite number of ‘inter-textual’ resources which visitors might use to decode Disney which stretch far beyond the immediate local and physical comparisons in Gottdiener: visitors can rely upon their (textually-provided) knowledge of ‘America’ built up over many years of watching Hollywood movies, or draw analogies between Disney sites and other theme parks they have actually visited, find links with Disney movies specifically, or, more remotely, see analogies with other TV programmes (like The Prisoner) or with cities like Singapore (see below). 

At the same time, though, it is important to recognise that this variety of meanings may never actually be activated at the time, so to speak, and that all this rich potential for signification may not be realised. People are quite capable of refusing excessive signification, so to speak, 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. Analysts can often miss this pragmatic level and may need to be reminded of it (as Gottdiener does): 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 be middle class for commentators, but the purchasers are often most interested in keeping their clothes clean). 

Of course, the debate runs the risk of reductionism again if we are not careful, and Gottdiener comes close to rejecting the postmodernist figure of ‘signifying Man’ only to impose his own ‘(US philosophically) pragmatic Man’ as the real essence of the Disney visitor. It is worth pointing out, of course, that Gottdeiner's work is very early, written well before any of themore recent commentaries. 
To end this section, it seems possible to switch from abstract philosophising (with political undertones, of course) to a more empirical level: 

  • Of all the possibilities which ones actually are realised when people visit Disney sites? 
  • Do visitors happen to operate nostalgically, or pragmatically and functionally, or do they speculate about reality and play with signs? 
  • Which resources and ‘texts’ seem to be operative for actual visitors -- the ‘imagineering’ of the Disney designers or the other texts visitors carry in their heads beyond the reach of the cleverest Disney manipulators and persuaders? Here, work like Urry’s (1990) on the struggles over the ‘tourist gaze’ seem appropriate.
Empirical Research

It seems obvious to anyone trained as a sociologist to turn to empirical research to get some sort of answers to these questions, but this is rare in the commentaries cited above. Those commentaries often belong to the tradition that focuses on the production of meaning in a text rather than the creation of meaning by the readers (visitors, or audience), at the reception end. The assumption often is that the readers’ meanings will only be garbled, imperfect renditions of the meanings in the text anyway. At the extreme, at the high point of marxist or structuralist analysis, ‘individual readers’ were simply focuses of ideological codes or messages, and it was an absurd empiricist mistake to assume that solemnly recording ‘their’ views would produce any relevant theoretical knowledge. 

For Baudrillard, as we have implied, this argument rebounds on any sociological research. Asking people questions and treating their responses as ‘data’ on their real opinions 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. To develop a well-known methodological problem in interviewing, the question itself immediately invokes the flood of texts, and produces a ‘serious’, ‘considered’ or ‘suitable’ response. ‘The masses’, as Baudrillard calls them have been questioned, surveyed and interviewed many times before for many purposes (most of them manipulative ones), and respond to sociological interviewing much as they do to any other kind -- with a world-weary fatalistic compliance in the game.

‘Postmodernist’ critique has recently focused on the deconstruction of social scientific techniques involved in the analysis of data too. Older generations of sociologists will be familiar with the attacks on ‘positivism’, say in Adorno (in Adorno et al. 1976), which liken social scientific research to magic ritual: both are driven by a political and cognitive desire to dominate the empirical world, to simplify it and manage it. However, there is little hope for non-positivistic alternatives like ethnography either, as we know from, say Clough  (1992). Ethnographers have often been equally associated with a desire to control exotic (sub)cultures, politically and cognitively (the former in the name of a colonial power investigating the natives, say, the latter in bringing to respectable readerships a sanitised or complexified account of low life). In both cases, the writing up of the ‘data’ is what turns them into knowledge, the commentary, the narratives into which data are inserted: those ethnographic techniques often replicate those of far less exalted writing in realist fiction or soap opera. (Clough 1992).

These are powerful criticisms, and should forestall any naive attempts to turn to empirical data or to a favourite ‘method’ to deliver some unproblematic solution to theoretical wrangles. It is not surprising to find critics devoted instead to a non-empirical ‘poetics’ to unfold layers of meaning in phenomena like Disney sites by a skilled, sensitive and largely ineffable reading of personal experience (which is what most of them offer). 

Such readings have problems of their own, however, seen best in the constant tendency to slide back into a more social scientific mode. Jameson refers to this tendency as ‘taking the temperature of the times but without using a thermometer’  (Jameson 1991). There is no time here to explore these problems, but readers are invited to examine closely any of the commentaries cited above and try out a critical reading for themselves. Generalisations start to creep in, or are implied, for example, as the poet somehow claims to speak for all, to have uncovered a universally applicable description or even prediction. Readings have a tendency to appear as ‘evidence’ to act as independent data with which to test theories after all. At the more detailed level, such commentaries are ripe for deconstruction themselves, of course, as we investigate the writing techniques they use to persuade the reader in their arguments.

Examples  of these techniques might include ‘slippery pronouns’ (originally Geraghty’s 1991 term I think) where the pronoun ‘we’ slips between referring to the author and referring to all of us in sentences like ‘We now see that...’. Another example has been provided by Hammersley’s (1986) critique of what might be termed ‘soft quantification’, where terms like ‘most’, ‘many’, ‘some’ avoid the tiresome necessity of actually specifying or estimating how many people actually read Disney in this way (or whatever).

Can conventional sociological research be justified after all? It is impossible to claim some conclusive independent status for the results, but there are weaker claims for the continued usefulness of empirical work. Willis, for example, in a famous intervention (in Hall et al. 1980) justified ethnographic work on subcultures as a useful way to generate ‘surprise’. One might rephrase this comment, bearing in mind his audience, as an argument for ethnography as a way of avoiding ‘lazy marxism’ (to cite a phrase originated by Sartre but since deployed by Hall 1992). It is far too easy to use powerful concepts like those in marxism (or structuralism or postmodernism for that matter) to explain everything and to explain it immediately: Disney must be ideology since everything is in capitalism. Some sort of concrete investigation (often historical as well as sociological) prevents this sort of easy reductionism. Cynics might be forgiven, however, for suggesting that ‘the concrete’ will still always/ever turn out to have been produced by the same sort of privileged ‘determinations’ in the end.

A similar argument could be found even for the advocates of poetic readings, of course. It would be absurdly contradictory for Baudrillard to claim that his own readings of Disney were uncontaminated from having talked to anyone (or read) about it before he went. Talking to individuals in a more systematic manner seems an equally acceptable way to help generate poetic readings -- as long as no great claims are made for the ‘scientific’ status of this procedure. A procedure rather like this appears to be developing in the ‘disclosure’ type approaches to ethnography (e.g.Burgess 1984), where the researcher makes no attempt to conceal personal involvements and where the interpretation of the data is foregrounded. A brief personal account is appropriate before we encounter the results of our own interviews, then (although it is being written after those interviews). Readers may decide for themselves whether or not these personal accounts are the only possible ones

Personal Readings

The Harris family visited Disneyworld in Florida in the summer of 1993. What follows is an account largely dominated by the recollections of Dave Harris.

The enthusiasm for the visit had come largely from Harris Junior: both parents had a number of reservations before they went. Neither parent had particularly liked the idea of patronising a Disney site, and had mostly subscribed to the views cited above about Disney ideology (see Rojek), and there was some reservation about the commercial hype aimed at children especially. In favour of the visit, though, several friends and relatives had been and had reported favourably, the child was keen to go, curiosity was aroused, and, of course, there was a chance to develop some teaching materials or research. 

The clincher was the realisation that Disneyworld need not entirely dominate a holiday in Orlando -- there were other attractions close to hand, and a reasonable fly-drive deal would mean a chance to escape, maybe even to visit the coast or the Everglades. There was a downside too, inevitably. Apart from the challenge of driving our first left-hand drive automatic after a long and tiring flight, we were aware of the horror stories involving tourists in hire cars and the local criminals.

The theoretical interest provided a possible escape route too -- if things got really rough, the adults could pretend to be doing ethnographic research, or, more mundanely, to go into ‘pleasures of the second degree’ mode, a stance described in Urry (1990) as enjoying the experience of people trying to involve you in naff activities. ‘Things getting rough’ in this context meant being trapped into being involved in some sentimental drama with the Disney characters, for example. Having comforted themselves in this way, the adults still felt a strange embarrassment in revealing their holiday destination that year, and would often respond to an enquiry with an apology for having ‘chosen’ Disneyworld or with some other ‘technique of neutralisation’.

The visit itself did indeed take place in the context of exploring all the attractions of Orlando. We visited Sea World and Water Mania first, while we were acclimatising. Overall, the family preferred rival attractions, in fact, especially the Universal Studios theme park and the Kennedy Space Centre. Within the Disney site itself, the Magic Kingdom site proved least popular, and we spent hardly any time (and even less money) on Main Street. The parades left us cold, although we admired the endurance of the performers in the Florida heat. The Kingdom looked rather faded and tatty, in fact, especially in the section for small children. We visited Mickey’s House largely to jeer, and both adults found the atmosphere vaguely paedophilic. 

The saving grace of the site was the white-knuckle rides which all members enjoyed, the adults, perhaps, in one of those states of induced infantilism noted by the critics. 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’). The famed Caribbean Pirates ride (praised by Eco as state of the art) turned out to be pretty tame stuff 15 years or so later, with sentimental little tableaux, and ‘cute’ marionettes creakily moving parts of their body as you floated by. We thought we had seen better material in Blackpool. The Haunted House proved rather old-fashioned and tame too, saved by a delightfully over-the-top performance by the guide (probably heavily influenced by similar performances in The Munsters or Beetlejuice).

EPCOT was pleasant, leafy and very clean and tidy, but both adults felt uneasy at first. One said it brought back memories of the sinister Village in the Prisoner, while the other thought of the description of the equally immaculate but creepy city of Singapore as ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’. Over coffee in the American Pavilion, we recalled other subversive connotations: the workers in the newspaper office in Glasgow who described their managerial regime as Disneyland (‘this disnae work, that disnae work’), and the general use of the term ‘Mickey Mouse’ to indicate amateurism or inefficiency (as in ‘The College of St Mick and St Mouse’). Recently, of course, the growth of subjects like Media Studies in the so-called ‘Clarke’ or 'Major' universities (those awarded university status in 1992) has been described as the ‘Disneyfication’ of higher education ( the Observer  February 1996).

Much cheered we went to scoff at the pavilions themselves. We went into ‘second degree’ mode at the French Pavilion on being greeted by a young woman with a classic stage French accent, laughed at Merrie England (while thinking of downtown Portsmouth) and at Hofmeister Germany, marvelled at how the Disney imagineers had contrived to leave out Mao and the last fifty years at the China Pavilion, and shopped diligently and with no irony at the excellent store in the Japanese one. 

We decided to decline the Disney narrative by inspecting rather rapidly the American Pavilion (except for the cafeteria -- all Southern plantation decor, complete with black female (wage) slaves), and thus simply missed out all the good stuff about America’s history and world role. It would have made an interesting contrast, no doubt, with the picture of America everyone gets driving around downtown Orlando. It is almost impossible to avoid seeing poverty and deprivation in America en route to Disney, of course.

On a subsequent visit, we did visit  the Amercian Pavillion and watched rthe show -- here's what we thought:

The American Adventure (at EPCOT) (96)

Presented at the US Pavilion. Preceded by 10mins of songs about America (usual sentimental stuff), performed by a choir in the foyer. Appallingly nice – professional niceness.
The adventure takes place in a huge 1000 seat auditorium. Presented by animatronic B Franklin and S Clements (M Twain). Offers a history  of the USA. Stage flanked by statues of pioneers with titles like Enterprise etc.Opens with a quote from Steinbeck (about how organic solidarity is the route for the USA – from Grapes of Wrath? -- none of the critique of course).

Presentation pretty old-fashioned – drawings projected on to big screen with animatronic tableaux in front. Both naff. Stages:

1. Early period of Pilgrim Fathers
2. US War of Ind (Boston Tea Party, Valley Forge)
3. Civil War (i.e. corporate capitalist stage omitted).Personified history via family photo – War as a family dispute rather than any analysis
4. Post-war immigration (preceded by an actual speech by a Red Indian chief predicting the swamping of his country).
5. Industrial growth via US National Exhibition 1876. Bell and Carnegie personify.
6. Slump and Depression 1929 (small-town speakers discuss)
7. New Deal and WW 2 with an animatronic Rosie the Rivetter
8. Collage of US greats since – Marilyn, Bob Hope, Disney, Einstein, JFK, Martin Luther King (‘dream speech’ sequence), Vietnam wall (weeping vets), Challenger disaster, Einstein again. Short clips against patriotic music – very like the brainwashing sequence in Parallax View.
9. Closing tableau – Franklin and Twain predict still more growth. All optimism and hope – depression behind us etc.
Lights went up via spots on the statues of frontiersmen, doughty women etc. We reeled out feeling rather worn out. No-one applauded or cheered.

We visited the Mexican Pavilion with gratitude (it was cool and dark inside, with a simulated night scene), but the ride through Mexico’s past was pretty banal -- classically ‘ethnic’, all about exotic religious practices and dances and with strange silences about the Conquest and its aftermath. We came away thinking how similar was the treatment of the Greeks for Year Three children in the British National Curriculum.

EPCOT’s spaces were crammed with tourists, dressed in summerwear, taking photographs and making home videos. Those 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 was a tourist site. Did Eco visit during the off-season?

EPCOT’s other focal point, the famed geodesic dome (‘golfball’) and Technology Pavilion, which showcases American technology, had long queues, but we endured them to be taken on a variety of rides, the most tedious of which was AT&T’s trip through the ages showing various whimsical depictions of ‘communication’ (ending, of course, with AT&T’s telephone services as the highpoint of evolution). The Walter Cronkite commentary sounded like a parody. Like one of the respondents (below) we were much more impressed by the fountains at this location which released ‘pulses’ of water to trace complex paths through the air.

The Imagination Pavilion had a very old-fashioned and appallingly whimsical ride featuring loveable cartoon characters and amiable eccentric professors extolling the virtues of unleashing the imagination as the key to personal success: we were badly bored, and, judging by the expressions on people’s face in the photographs of the riders, so were many others (although not one of our respondents -- see below). If this was the best that Disney imagination could produce... 

There were also more enjoyable high-tech shows and rides, however, one of which featured Michael Jackson as a 3-D Captain Nemo -- presumably it no longer does so, following Jackson’s drastic reinterpretation as a popular icon. It is, of course, unlikely that these or the ‘virtual reality’ scenarios feature American technology any more, although the Japanese brandnames on the electronic kit are discreetly concealed: the simple, mechanically-driven wire and plaster (fibreglass?) models of pirates or professors offer a rather quaint ‘Heath Robinson’ image of American technology by comparison.

We stayed one night for the famed fireworks display, but were not that impressed -- we had seen quite a few in our time, of course. We were pleased there was always something for kids in the evenings (and during the day) a major bonus for all of us.

The MGM theme park is the newest addition to the Disneyworld site, and has been little discussed by the commentators so far, although it is a perfect case-study for the student of hyperreality. The visitor tours simulated movie sets, although there is a working TV studio on site too. We went on the backstage tour of the Disney studio and watched, through plate glass, artists drawing and painting by hand Disney characters (for the Lion King) on perspex sheets (simulated animation cels). Of course, those cels were not actually used any more to make animated films, we were told, but it was possible to buy them (as simulated ‘originals’) in the souvenir shop. 

The ‘backstage’ scenario was available on other lots too. We toured displays of some of the larger movie props and sets (like the Bulldog Cafe in The Rocketeer) (or were they copies?). We visited a set where a simulated ‘accident’ had us still present while oil tanks exploded and water cascaded towards us (harmlessly, it turned out) in a simulated ‘take’. We watched a special show where stunt-persons re-enacted simplified scenes from current movies (including one based on a chase in an Indiana Jones).

Here, as with the similar tours in the Universal Studios park, the visitor is not particularly bombarded with official or corporate values (although souvenir shops were everywhere, and the Disney studio tour featured them, of course), and there seemed to be no careful orchestration of a narrative to link the different lots: one could wander, in any direction between, say, Star Trek and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, pausing at the Ninja Turtles roadshow en route, and, as before, avoid with ease the periodic parades to puff Disney’s latest movie (Aladdin in 1993). 

The pleasures on offer were different too, and seemed to depend on both knowledge of (at different levels) and identification with the films to which the tours referred: a vicarious participation, organised in different ways, was possible in a film which one had admired (which probably accounts for the popularity of ‘spin-off’ video games too, no doubt). For those with little initial knowledge of the film in question, the tour guides (real or video) would insist on its fame and worth, sometimes as you waited in the queue.

There was a genuinely ‘educational’ pay-off to the backstage tours, as one went apparently behind the scenes and learned some of the secrets of movie-making. Of course, this educational function is also deeply paradoxical in that it is controlled and limited, and relies upon visitors not penetrating the artifices of the tours themselves -- a Baudrillardian sacrifice of the ‘reality’ of the movies in order to prop up the reality of the Disney site, perhaps? Many a respectable educational institution operates with the same limits to reflexivity, however, where everything is open to critique except the institution itself. Thoughts like this led to a number of speculations on our part on the parallels between Disney’s ‘educational’ mission and some work on distance education -- which still deserve to be explored.

Overall, there was much to enjoy directly, and much to enjoy indirectly, in the manner of the ironic or ‘second degree’ pleasures discussed above. The occasions we had feared (‘things getting rough’ -- above) were simply avoided by keeping out of the way of the wandering employees dressed as cartoon characters. At Universal Studios, we reluctantly signed up for a breakfast with Universal’s characters (a transgeneric clutch of the Flintstones, the Jetsons, and Woody Woodpecker, it turned out), but only so we could be first in the queue for the Back to the Future ride, and it was manageable once the unfortunate Hispanic immigrants in the costumes (so we imagined them) realised we would all welcome a pretty tokenist participation in their antics. Other families joined in with enthusiasm, but for us, the long-practised technique of fading into the background, which had served us so well at family weddings, office parties or Graduation Days seemed quite adequate to help us cope in Florida too. Perhaps this is what Baudrillard meant by the postmodernist tendency to want to ‘disappear’?

now see the file on the empirical research on the visitors we undertook

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