Sunday, February 3, 2013


Many many years ago a friend of mine in Rome was working as a guide on a tour bus and she invited me along for a ride for some reason I can't recall. I sat at the back of the bus while the American tourists filled the seats from the front. I was the youngster at the back, Italian in appearance yet fluent in English and as curious about these alien Americans as any European would be; they came from a world barely seen on the large and small silver screens. As the bus took us from the airport into the Eternal City with the tourists eagerly peering out of the windows at the industrial suburbs of the most romantic capital in the world the bus driver fired up the music. "Hey," one woman called to her buddy across the aisle. "I never figured I'd come all the way to Italy to hear the top forty from home." Her throwaway comment has stuck with me for three decades and still I am amazed at how far and wide and deep American culture has penetrated the world. TV music and fashion emanate from this continent and are soaked up everywhere, then and now. I was in the heart of Americana this weekend: Walt Disney World.

When I told my colleague Keith, a man with a sardonic sense of humor of his own, about this family outing he looked at me and asked with a straight face if I knew that Disney World is the happiest place on Earth, made for happy people? Well, I said, it's my sister-in-law's idea, to get the family together in Orlando in February. Who knew my hippy sister-in-law loved Disney? I could get into this I said, and meant it. Mind you the saccharine magic of the Magic Kingdom almost did me in. You can do anything if you believe? Magic happens? On the other hand the firework show was nothing short of other worldly. Every night is the fourth of July in the Magic Kingdom when they let loose the most overwhelming show of fire over the lake. But yesterday we toured my preferred park: the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.

The Magic Kingdom is for kids, Epcot they say is more adult themed, and the last time I came to this place, some thirty years ago, Epcot was under construction. The promised pavilions from around the world to bring culture and curiosity to Orange County Florida. Where the Magic Kingdom has a castle, Epcot has a giant silver golf ball to greet visitors. Unlike the Magic Kingdom where drivers have to park, take a shuttle followed by a boat or a monorail we arrived here early and took a gentle stroll into the park of the future.

My sister-in-law paid for our Florida all day passes, so I'm not sure of the exact cost but apparently Disney gives state residents a massive discount on the general admission to this magical place. I saw the mouse on the mouse and I needed a picture. Spot the mouse:

Employees are called cast members because everyone is on stage performing a part in the pageant that is Disney. Outside the French pavilion where Claude lived down to his stereotype and looked over our American heads, all other cast members greeted us with smiles and were excessively helpful and cheerful. It should feel oppressive but you know what? The people there really do seem okay with their lot, waiting endlessly on crowds of strangers and none of it felt forced. Perhaps they are all just excellent character actors.
Let's be clear, Disney is safe in a non threatening way, where there are no challenges and adventures have determined outcomes. This isn't Outward Bound and cleanliness is next to godliness. Gardens are perfect, floors are swept obsessively and Morocco is a movie set not a place where foreigners act foreign...I did seam with several employees in a couple of pavilions and they made it clear they know this isn't representative of anything but Disney World and they know that seeing Orlando on their days off isn't the same as seeing America.

But before we went to see the various countries set around the edge of a large circular lake we went inside the giant golf ball. Actress Judi Dench narrates the fifteen minutes journey through the geodesic dome called Spaceship Earth. The story follows the arc of human achievement from cave dwellers to modern life with hints at the possibilities for the future. The dioramas are superb if brief and the story is perforce brief - thousands of years of history, even illustrated by moving figures is a tall order for reduction into a story length of a quarter of an hour! This was the computer diorama, just feet from Gutenberg's moveable type printing press...

For some reason I was smiling out of charcter when I was photographed in the approach to the tour. My wife and I appeared in our own future storyresemted to us at the end of the ride, a fantasy promising middle class Americans a Jetson future of unlimited energy and leisure and travel like modest one percenters.

My nephews played in the Siemens sponsored energy planning game, a discussion of wind, solar, gas and nuclear energy as alternatives to cheap oil. The diorama had promised us plenty of oil for our life times as Disney is not here to pander to Peak Oil crackpots or to shake up the comfortable assumptions of the masses. My alternative living relatives were happy to discuss the inconsistencies of the presentations but it was understood by all of us that Disney isn't making a serious case: this is entertainment.

I was amused to see payhones everywhere not exactly the future but clean, not vandalized and some offering texting capabilities. Disney may be seeking the cutting edge of entertainment but the standard back up systems have their place.

Imagine showing up here, staying in a Disney resort and living in the sun for a week. Imagine coming here from under gray skies and snow drifts Up North. Mrs Disney didn't raise a fool for a son. The bum lying on the bench was just some woman worn out by the sensory overload of Epcot. There is a lot going on in this place.

Check out the stroller parking behind my nephew and niece organizing their kids for the car testing circuit ahead.

Reality barely intrudes in the Disney park where work seems to get done out of sight and out of mind. Disney World is notorious for being gay friendly, offering gay employees partner benefits, bringing modern attitudes to Central Florida where the "gay lifestyle" is as foreign as Moroccan food! And there are plenty of gay workers here. The ferry at the Magic Kingdom is the first place I have ever seen a deckhand on a commercial vessel sporting plucked eyebrows.

And you juxtapose this modernity with the corporate message spread by Disney and supporting corporations. You see Chevrolet at the Test Track showing off the Volt and letting the All American family take their picture with this desirable innovative car...

...and then you check out the exterior of the Test Track at the Imagination Pavilion and outside you'll see this weirdness in a fake car wash facility. A car loaded with fake ice and soap suds with boxes full of fake cokes? What's that all about? Corporate synergy...?

I love the idea of a monorail system serving the Keys. Imagine a train appearing every fifteen minutes where you could snatch a ride in air conditioned comfort to and from Key West or Key Largo...but where would the money come from to build and operate it? It wouldn't even look (too) intrusive riding above Highway One.

All that futuristic stuff aside, ignoring the sketchy future of cheap oil and the value of conservation and reuse which the capitalists fear defeats their mantra of constant expansion, the rest of Epcot was a lake lined with "countries." Take Mexico:

We skipped the restaurants as we are familiar with Mexican food already. My wife took a margarita from the ever popular stand selling the fruit drinks. The employees at these various "countries" are brought here on a one year work visa by Disney, and they give these places a touch of reality that was a bit surprising.

We did take the tour inside the pyramid and boy, that was not what I was a tour of Mexico featuring idiotic Disney characters playing insensitive gringos in Mexico, cartoon characters in sombreros of all things.

And how many mariachi groups can you stand to hear, one after another? Like this is the only music to come from this ancient and sophisticated culture?

Overall it was pretty embarrassing and made me wonder what I had let myself in for. Technically it was a tour de force but the message was simply reinforcing all negative stereotypes of Mexico as seen from the US over previous decades. Disney is stuck in the 1950s here. Then this cryptic message appeared in the sky overhead. Maybe the writer got chased off the skies by the Disney air force for all I know. Just another magic mystery.

The family wanted to eat healthy food which sounded a bit of a contradictory notion in a place like this, not impossible but rather limiting. Sod salad! I wanted to try stuff I'd not eaten before and somewhat unwillingly they followed my lead to try Norway's coffee shop. We ordered a vegetable pie and an apple and ham toasted sandwich. The servers in the café were dressed in traditional garb but they were Norwegians.

The ride was a Viking saga, and at first glance Norway was an odd choice for a country to be included in the exclusive list of pavilions at Epcot. Yet when you think about it Diseny's American-centric view of the world must have justified the inclusion of this small Scandinavian country on the ground stat Norsemen most likely from Norway settled Vinland in what is now Nova Scotia, long before Columbus crossed the Ocean Blue.

Spain and Portugal didn't make the cut but Italy did.

The courtyard was surrounded by Italian eateries and in the middle they put on a short performance that we caught the end of, some sort of medieval style Commedia dell'Arte possibly.

There was no movie, we speculated because Italian tourism authorities didn't chip in to pay for the publicity... but who knows. The statuary was sanitized for Middle America, a convenient piece of cloth covering the man's weeny. Let me say my wife noticed and pointed out the prudery to me, oblivious as I was.

China had a fantastic 360 degree movie but can you imagine how exhausting all this stuff was? For me the strongest impressions were made by places I knew and Disney's copies reminded me of them. How this parade of foreign cliche's gets absorbed by people who have never traveled there I can't say. China is a case in point for me. The pavilion was lovely but decidedly directed at a China that barely exists anymore. Modern China was shown in the movie along with fantastic flights of fancy across an amazing landscape I've never seen and it made an impression!

It was a perfect day to be outdoors. I just wished there might have been a few parks or contemplative corners to sit in and absorb all the colors and sounds and impressions pouring down about our wads. Instead the only benches in Epcot were used to line the walkways at the edges of the stream of human visitors rushing back and forth.

Not everyone was here to lern about foreign cultures, even in the most superficial way. This crowd was here for a bachelor party (!) and they drank with a will and got louder and louder as they went. But this is Disney and no one got out of hand. Safety is all aspects is the rule; there is nothing remotely edgy here.

The big new ride is called Soarin' and we did get in eventually booking a fast pass for after dark before we left Epcot. That was pretty exciting, "flying" over California in a simulated ride that was quite remarkably exciting. The big ride I remembered from 30 years ago in the original park called Space Mountain was on everybody's mind Friday evening but the ride broke! An actual Disney failure! I wonder what happened to those on the ride at the time? Space Mountain was exciting enough I have never forgotten being thrown around in the dark on a spidery roller coaster simulating space flight...


We also took a tour of Disney's experimental farm where the grow fish and plants and sometimes in unison. The ride showed off hydroponic agriculture and tropical fruits growing in a large greenhouse. It was interesting but I wonder where the energy will come from to develop this stuff on a vast scale.

We were finally wrapping up an incredibly long day so we gave our neighbors to the north a chance with a visit to the movie called Oh Canada! It was a chance for Americans to learn about Canada and the film played to Americans willful ignorance of this friendlest of neighbors.

My wife and I wanted to give Marocco a shot, we've both been there and we enjoyed our plate of lamb in the cafe.

Had I had the room and the energy I'd have washed down our meal with mint tea but as it was we had water and hummus and tabbouleh and flat bread. Not bad for thirteen bucks.

We met the family who was noshing vegetarian at the Japanese pavilion where drummers were drumming. I was toast and ready to go back to the hotel. It had been a long couple of days and it was worth the visit. Sure, I'd like more adventure and far fewer safety warnings but I am amazed how efficiently Disney moves people around and figures out how to limit lines. Magic Kingdom is too childlike for me and Epcot could use less cliches if that were possible but human ingenuity is a wondrous thing, and worth admiring up close.

If, from one short visit I can offer any advice I would say get to the park early and ride the popular rides first. Disney apparently has kennels for visitors' dogs but I wasn't going to put my Cheyenne in a cage so we elected to leave her with my wife's best friend who agreed to house sit. I got this phone photo of my dog as the guest of honor at a picnic back in the Keys and I miss her terribly. I am hoping she misses me as well.

Homeward bound today! Six hours in the car, with time I hope for a long hug for my Labrador then off to work for a twelve hour shift tonight. From Mouseland's unreality, back to my reality tonight - with a vengeance!