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Planet Mouse:
At Animal Kingdom, A Disney Critic Smells A Rat

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 1998

  Style Showcase

ORLANDO—Right away, Carl Hiaasen starts apologizing for not bringing a satchel full of rats.

"I didn't think I could get them through airport security," he says. "They make a lot of noise. They're not like snakes. Snakes are quiet."

Rats, snakes, gators – Hiaasen considered them all. If he had to come to Disney World – and he couldn't believe he'd actually agreed to set foot in the Mouse's evil empire – then he figured he should smuggle in some animals. After all, the new Disney theme park is called Animal Kingdom. Why not bring along some real Florida animals, the kind of critters who lived here before Disney and its imitators started turning the whole state into a theme park? Why not let them loose, show the tourists how real animals behave?

It's a fantasy he discusses in his newest book – a slender anti-Disney screed called "Team Rodent" – and now that he'd agreed to accompany a reporter to the Animal Kingdom, he figured he ought to try it. If nothing else, it would make one hell of a publicity stunt. But could he smuggle animals on the plane? Could he sneak them past Disney's gatekeepers? And what would happen to the poor critters when Mickey's minions captured them?

"I couldn't live with myself if I put a gator in harm's way just to satisfy my own sick sense of humor," he says.

So he left his animal friends home – including the snakes he keeps under his house in the Florida Keys – and now he's riding the tram from Disney's parking lot to Disney's Animal Kingdom. And he's not too happy about it, either.

He slips his $44 ticket into the turnstiles and joins the huge crowd surging into the $800 million, 500-acre park, which opened on April 22 to laudatory reviews. In a man-made wetlands area called "The Oasis," he stops to gaze at a waterfowl called an African spoonbill.

"We have the roseate spoonbill here in Florida, but of course they didn't want to use a Florida bird," he grumbles. Then he notices something rising from the bushes. "Look, there's fake mist! It's coming out of a spigot. It's fake mist! Unbelievable!"

The triumph of the faux is one aspect of Disney that drives Hiaasen crazy. "They think they can improve upon nature," he says. "At some level, that's creepy."

He walks past a fake bamboo fence and some fake boulders and checks out a display that is supposed to include an anteater. But the anteater is hiding in the bushes, so a Disney employee is showing the tourists a photograph of the beast.

Hiaasen loves it. "She's passing out pictures of the anteater because the anteater has enough sense to hide!" he says, grinning gleefully. "Oh, that's perfect! It's a great country!"

Hiaasen is a snide, sarcastic fellow – delightfully so. He's a satirical columnist for the Miami Herald and the author of seven viciously comic crime novels, including "Tourist Season," "Native Tongue" and "Strip Tease" – the last a very funny book that became a movie so dismal that even the presence of a topless dancing Demi Moore could not salvage it. The satirical targets of both his journalism and his fiction are the people he feels are ruining his native state – developers, politicians and, yes, theme park owners.

Hiaasen, 45, grew up outside Fort Lauderdale in the '50s and '60s. Back then, a boy could ride his bike from his back yard into primordial swamps full of exotic birds and fish and, of course, alligators. It was a glorious, idyllic boyhood. But now Hiaasen's old stomping grounds, like much of Florida, have been paved over in a hideous sprawl of condos, malls and tourist traps. His whole writing career is an attempt to fight back.

Last year, the folks at Ballantine Publishing – which puts out the Library of Contemporary Thought, a new monthly series of pamphlet-size, polemical books – called Hiaasen to ask if he'd like to write one. "They said, 'What really hacks you off?' " he recalls, "and I said, 'Disney.' "

The result is "Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World," an 83-page assault on the Mouse and all his works. Hiaasen denounces virtually everything about Disney – the movies, the TV shows, the 636 Disney stores, the ludicrously large compensation for the company's top executives. But mostly he deplores the Mouse's role in the overdevelopment of his native state. Before Disney began secretly buying land in the mid-'60s, Orlando was a sleepy rural backwater. Now, it's a collection of massive theme parks and tacky tourist traps that draws 40 million visitors a year. "The gates opened and in galloped fresh hordes," he writes. "The cattle ranches, orange groves and cypress stands of old Orlando rapidly gave way to an execrable panorama of suburban blight."

John Dreyer, Disney's senior vice president for corporate communication, scoffs at Hiaasen's broadside. "It's an essay, not a book," he says. "It's a 20-minute read. All the books in this series are thin books with big type and wide margins. I think readers are getting ripped off by Ballantine if they pay $9 for this."

Nor is Dreyer convinced that Disney is responsible for Florida's overdevelopment. "The development of Florida came about because of its sunshine and blue skies and beaches," he says. "It had more to do with the development of the highway system and the jet plane and air conditioning – that was a big factor – and bug spray."

Deep in Enemy Territory

Now, Hiaasen is engaged in Disney's most common experience – standing in line. He's waiting to get into the park's premier animal-related attraction – Kilimanjaro Safari, a ride through a 110-acre replica of an East African savanna, complete with "wild" animals. Right now, though, the only animals visible are humans – hot, tired humans with crying babies and squirming toddlers who demand to get up on their fathers' shoulders and then demand to get back down.

"You've got to really love your kids to put up with this," Hiaasen says. "But there's no denying that kids like it."

He remembers taking his son, Scott, to Disney World two decades ago. The tyke loved it, he admits. "But after about age 5, he preferred to go down to the Keys with me in a boat and see some real stuff."

The line moves slowly but finally Hiaasen reaches the front, climbs aboard the truck and departs for his safari. The truck rumbles through a man-made stream and over what Disney wags call the "world's most expensive dirt road" – which is actually a fake dirt road made of cement with carefully molded fake tire tracks and fake paw prints.

Soon, he's in a reasonable facsimile of a savanna. Four hippos bathe in a pond. Antelopes and gazelles wander atop a ridge. Off to the right, there are ostriches and zebras. The truck traverses a rickety bridge and some Disney magic makes it seem like the bridge is collapsing. The truck crosses safely, of course, and then it cruises into a land with elephants and giraffes. A cheetah sits in the shade of a distant tree. A rhino wallows in a mud puddle.

Suddenly, the truck radio gets an urgent message – poachers in the area! The driver steps on the gas and chases them. There's the sound of gunfire and then, around a corner, a guy holding a fake AK-47 on the evil poachers. And the radio crackles with congratulations for helping to corner them.

That's the thrilling finale. Now the safari is over and Hiaasen renders his verdict. "It's tolerable," he says, "but I wouldn't call it a breathtaking experience."

Coming from him, it's the equivalent of a rave review – four stars and two thumbs up.

After the safari ride, he wanders off in search of sustenance, ending up on line for the Rainforest Cafe, which is a theme restaurant perched in the middle of a theme park.

He is sent to wait in the restaurant's store, where souvenirs are sold beneath a ceiling lined with fake vines, fake birds and a fake monkey that chatters right over Hiaasen's head.

"I'd like to take that thing and throttle it till the batteries fall out," he growls, sounding like a man who hopes to become Hunter S. Thompson when he grows up.

He inspects the souvenirs – Rainforest mugs, Rainforest wrapping paper, Rainforest golf garb. He picks up a Rainforest picture frame. "This has got to be a way to screen the species," he says. "If you go up to a cash register with this thing, a net drops down and you forfeit your right to be on the planet."

Finally seated, he gets a cheeseburger and discourses on why he detests Disney. "It's the subjugation of nature," he says. "They do it better than anybody, you've got to admit that. They're so efficient at replacing and improving upon nature. But there's something creepy about it. It's completely passive."

As if on cue, the fake gorilla that's perched a few feet away begins to roar and then the whole fake rain forest ceiling begins to shake with fake thunderclaps.

Hiaasen isn't impressed. "You get the same effect at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City."

Then he gets serious again. "I guess it's because of what has happened to Florida in my lifetime – it's gone from a rural place to completely urban – that I feel it's an insult to nature to come in and create a place like this and pretend you can do it better than nature. I mean, fake mist?"

Yesterday, he says, he was out on his boat in the Keys, watching a pair of dolphins feeding. "It's fantastic," he says. "It's a thrill just to be there and see it. It beats 10 tram rides to a fake savanna."

He wanders back out into the Animal Kingdom but his heart isn't in it. It's hotter than Hades and the lines for the popular attractions – the dinosaur ride and the animated show called "It's Tough to Be a Bug!" – are endless rivers of sweating humanity.

He saunters over a bridge to Camp Minnie-Mickey. It's packed with parents and their tiny offspring, who are waiting on long lines to get their pictures taken with Mickey and Minnie and assorted chipmunks.

Hiaasen knows something that these kids don't: There are humans inside those huge rodent costumes. "If it's this hot out here," he says, "imagine how hot it is inside a 50-pound chipmunk costume."

Very hot, no doubt. But the chipmunks are cavorting blissfully and the kids have huge smiles as they hug the critters while their parents scramble to capture the moment on film.

Hiaasen watches closely and marvels at the scene. "They're so earnest, these people coming here with their kids," he says. "There's such devotion. That says something about us as a species."

Is this possible? Is Disney's corniest tableau melting the heart of Disney's harshest critic?

"Ah, you gotta love 'em," he says, watching the parents who are watching their kids. "They mean well."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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