This past week we were in Orlando FL for a competition – a Ninja Warrior competition to be precisei – and while in the area, and with two Disney-fanatic in-laws in-tow, we spent a (very) full day at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, the flagship theme park property for the world’s leading youth indoctrination empire.ii

And what, you might ask, were some take-home lessons from Disney World in 2023, at least from the perspective of a well-travelled Europhile?

Plastic Fantastic Château de Chenonceau meets Neuschwanstein Castle

For one, that you’ll enjoy the shit out of the place if you just so happen to have a kink for knee-capped versions of The Simulation, ie. 18th century New England, 19th century California, early 20th century American prairie towns, and a very Trekian / Non-4th-Turning version of the 21st century,iii or you came of age watching more Disney movies than sunrises and you get the tingles in your naughty bits every time you hear Buzz Lightyear, Jack Sparrow, or Peter Pan sing their signature taglines. Under these very specific, but really very broadly experienced, set of circumstances can you relish the steep price of admission, bask in 35°C heat with 100% humidity, glow in the inevitable midday rain showers,iv lick your fingers at the seriously sub-par food,v and line-up like willing lemmings for 1-2 hours time and again.vi

A slightly more obtuse and wholly less satisfying angle is one of mildly-detached anthropological intrigue to see first-hand the truly astounding amounts of energy,vii capital, and human coordinationviii required to keep the whole shebang running like a Swiss watch – I mean, if that’s your thing, go nuts I guess – but for someone who cares deeply about history, culture, and human flourishing in all its shapes and sizes, doesn’t have any excessively strong nostalgic associations with the classic cartoons, and who can find plenty of anthropological intrigue in a rural highway gas station to say nothing of a random city’s downtown core,ix the Magic Kingdom just wasn’t all that, well, magical.x 

Not that it was a wasted adventure, of course!xi This trip was probably the first (and last) time we’d ever do something like this with my beloved in-laws, whose health and general mobility is on the decline, and who absolutely adore this kind of theme park, having taken their own four children here and to Disneyland in California on multiple occasions, and therefore have a wealth of positive nostalgic associations to go with. So from a “family bonding” perspective, the experience absolutely ticked all the boxes, and wouldn’t have done so without the boys’ grandparents there. Further still, there were some personal highlights – some diamonds in the rough for this middle-aged Europhile – particularly the TRON rollercoater, which was so enjoyable that we went twice. Mounted atop lightcycles, TRON felt like being strapped to a roofless Taycan Turbo S… on a racetrack… headfirst like a skeleton racer.xii Space Mountain was also a thrill, and readily belied its nearly 50-year age, so we went on that twice as well. And then there were a couple other smaller rollercoasters, but that was about it for entertainment value and anything approaching goosebumps. Overall, I’m not sure that even our 5- and 7-year-olds really enjoyed the Magic Kingdom that much.

Yes, we had the best possible version of the experience – VIP tour and all – and yet it didn’t even live up to my admittedly modest expectations. Maybe it’s a generational thing, or maybe we’re just not “modern” (or “mid“) enough of a nuclear family to have had enough cultural Disney exposure to make those deeper connections, but I feel like we would’ve had more fun at Six Flags. Hell, we nearly had as much fun at Orlando’s Starflyerxiii swing that only cost $15 for the first ride and $9 for subsequent rides… a steal at twice the price! The boys even paired up and went on their own. They grow up so fast…

Taking a step back, how does Magic Kingdom compare to America’s other great cultural institutions and exports? Pretty favourably with the likes of Vegas and Barbie at least! Which is to say that Disney World is still “on brand” for America at present, which is to say:

  • Inventive if detached
  • Energetic if hollow
  • Capable if misdirected
  • Self-devouringly reflexivexiv

    But if that’s the vibe, to paraphrase George Soros, buy that shit until it pops baby!

  1. Our 7-year-old Spartan was quite content with himself that he “brought us there” by qualifying for the world championship Ninja Warrior competition, but at least he was humble enough to acknowledge that his dear old mom and pop played a “small” part in the whole thing by footing the bill and making all the travel arrangements. Strong and self-aware… must be good genes!
  2. Samo Burja and Bismarck Brief recently, and with impeccable timing, wrote a deep dive on Disney’s role as US-led global shepherd of societal values and norms. It comes recommended!
  3. Which is probably someone’s twisted version of what it’s going to feel like once we all have Apple Vision Pros strapped to our foreheads.
  4. My toe-shoes got so soaked by the midday rain showers that I had to buy socks and Crocs just to save myself from trench foot. Ew!
  5. Yes the food was terrible and no I shouldn’t have expected better, except that some random dude at my health club a couple weeks ago mentioned off-hand that the food at Disney World was “great” and “there were lots of salads and healthy things”, which turned out to be some kind of sick joke! The only salad I could find was drenched in ranch sauce, plastic cheddar cheese, and motherfucking fried chicken fingers each the size of an iPhone… with maybe 4 pieces of romaine lettuce hiding underneath this fetid pile? Blech on blech.
  6. No we didn’t personally wait in these lines but my hearts went out to the families who did, especially the shocking number with very very small children in tow. And all this on a “low-to-moderately busy” according to our VIP guide, who graciously ensured that we never waited more than 5 minutes for any ride and that we knocked off 16 attractions in a 7-hour span. Maybe waiting in lines builds anticipation for some, but for me personally it’s some kind of twisted torture device… like scorpions dancing on my nutsack.
  7. Speaking of energy, I know I know it’s all to fashionable to think that we’re living in the Matrix and it’s all pre-programmed yada yada, but have you ever actually run the numbers to see how much energy is required for the kinds of compute that sci-fi scenario entails? MP did. Be sure to read “The complexity of life, a triad” if you haven’t already.
  8. In sociological defence of the 75,000 employees who work full-time at Disney World, they’re exhibiting an impressive social technology! It might be applied for truly bizarre ends, but who said humans were rational?
  9. Speaking of random downtown cores, on a different day, while the rest of the family went to Universal Studios, I did a daytrip to the Tampa Museum of Art in our Turo’d Porsche Panamera V6, stopping along the way at what is apparently the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world at Florida Southern University. That day was a delight! Even driving through the sparsely inhabited swamp land in between and noticing how most Trumpists live (not that I have any particular problem with them) was eye-opening in a way that Disney World could never hope to be.

    Also, how great is the base model Panamera? The V6 has plenty of speed, nicely compliant ride, intuitive tech interface, space for 4 adults, 600 miles real world driving range, and really rather sharp-looking in dark grey. It’s only the robust ego of middle-age that prevent more buyers from sticking with the “base” model! The 50-somethings whose days of Need For Speed are behind them will be more than sated here and get awesome bang for buck.

  10. Neverdamnmind “The Most Magical Place Pn Earth.” Good lord what a self-aggrandising and unearned claim. The most magical place on earth for my money is, at least at this moment, Paris or Venice.
  11. What does “wasted” even mean?!
  12. Magic Kingdom only launches big new rides about every 10 years or so, and Tron just opened in April 2023, so our timing was great on this front. It was definitely the highlight for this speed junkie!

  13. This description certainly fits for Barbie, which also en vogue again at the moment. To quote Nathan Lee on the subject of “Barbification”:

    Barbie perpetually foregrounds its groundlessness. The movie is pure simulacrum—a copy with no model. Its true sisterhood is the company of films like Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003), Southland Tales (2006), and Speed Racer (2008), whose ruling principles are flamboyant pastiche and self-devouring reflexivity.

    via Lee’s article Plastic Fantastic for Film Comment (archived).

    Las Vegas also emblematically fits the bill, which is incidentally where we went as a family for last year’s Ninja Warrior competition. But at least Vegas has great food and wide-open racetracks, if exactly the same issues of too many people in too small of an area in too hot of a climate with too car-oriented of an urban design for too high of a price.

4 thoughts on “Disneyification.

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