Stuffed with tourists, the boat slides slowly into a darkened cave and drifts past a skeleton with a dagger buried deep in its chest.The boat cruises on, past skeletons swigging booze, past grinning pirates guarding cobweb-covered piles of looted gold, past an outlaw galleon bombarding a coastal fort, and then it glides into the middle of a city in the process of being sacked. Off to the right, smirking pirates are tossing the city fathers into a well. To the left, a pack of dirty, drunken old salts have rounded up the womenfolk and are auctioning them off to a crowd of leering lechers whose eyes sparkle with psychotic glee and unspeakable lusts.
The boat drifts along, and now the pirates are plundering the town. They've piled their pillage on the wharves and they're setting the city ablaze, grinning hideously as they watch it burn, stoned out of their skulls, their legs straddling barrels of booze as they celebrate their gruesome triumph by shooting pistols into the air and uttering obscene, drunken cackles.
Suddenly, the trip is over. The boat docks and the tourists step ashore and stroll back into the sunny streets of Disneyland.
That's right, Disneyland. The self-proclaimed "Happiest Place on Earth" is the home of this three-dimensional, Audio-Animatronic ode to the pleasures of raping and pillaging a town.
Just a few steps away from this "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride is a shop called Pieces of Eight where tourists buy official Disney souvenirs that help them relive the raping and pillaging experience -- a plastic sword for $2.95, a Muppets skull-and-crossbones hat for $27.95, a lifelike ceramic skull for only $14.95 . . .
But wait a minute. Isn't Disneyland supposed to be a place of sweetness and light, Mickey and Minnie, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" and "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo"?
Some people don't understand how rape and pillage fit into the "Happiest Place on Earth," but Umberto Eco does. Eco is the hotshot Italian philosopher, historian and professor of semiotics who wrote the best-selling novel The Name of the Rose. He also wrote about Disneyland (all European intellectuals write about Disneyland; it's apparently a prerequisite for the job) and he raved about "Pirates of the Caribbean": "The pirates moved, danced, slept, popped their eyes, sniggered, drank -- really. You realize that they are robots, but you remain dumbfounded by their verisimilitude." The ride is, Eco gushed, "a fantasy world more real than reality." Then he cranked up some major league semiotic analysis: ". . . Consumers want to be thrilled not only by the guarantee of the Good but also by the shudder of the Bad. And so at Disneyland, along with Mickey Mouse and the kindly Bears, there must also be, in tactile evidence, Metaphysical Evil (the Haunted Mansion) and Historical Evil (the Pirates) . . ."
Rape and pillage. European intellectuals. Metaphysical Evil. "A fantasy world more real than reality." Obviously, there's more to the Disney experience than Mickey Mouse.
The thing called Disney is a huge, complex creature. Disney is a man and a mouse. It's a subculture and a cult of personality. It's an ultramodern multinational corporation and a symbol of small-town American values. It's a purveyor of old-fashioned cartoons and postmodern architecture. It's a company that literally prints its own money. It's a state-of-the-art marketing system in which all the products advertise all the other products. It's a fussbudget management system that dictates how employees must dress, talk, smile and groom themselves.
Disney is No. 24 on Business Week's list of "America's Most Valuable Companies." It's a mega-conglomerate that includes several movie companies, a TV station, a cable TV channel, a record company, a book company, a chain of hotels, a National Hockey League franchise named after a Disney movie, a network of 268 retail stores that sell only Disney products and, of course, those four famous theme parks -- Disneyland, Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland and Euro Disney -- that are studied endlessly by anthropologists and cultural historians who slog through Fantasyland and Frontierland and Critter Country and then spew forth such phrases as "a major middle-class pilgrimage center" and a "degenerate utopia" and "a sacred place" and "friendly fascism" and "the quintessence of consumer ideology."
And now Disney is coming to Northern Virginia with a much-publicized history-oriented theme park called Disney's America. Due to open in 1998, it will, the company claims, "create a unique and historically detailed environment . . . which celebrates our nation's richness of diversity, spirit and innovation." Critics are skeptical. They claim the park will create traffic problems, spawn hideously tacky satellite development, foul the environment and poison the minds of our innocent youth with "Mickey Mouse history."
So it seems like a good time to take a fun-filled thrill ride through the Wonderful -- and sometimes Not So Wonderful -- World of Disney. Please take young children by the hand and watch your step on the moving platform. Refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and flash photography. And remember: Keep your arms and hands inside the vehicle at all times.
The Henry Ford of Fun
Walt Disney had trouble with autographs.
When he'd stroll around Disneyland, fans would ask for his signature and a quick sketch of Mickey, but he couldn't do either very well. He'd started out as a cartoonist, but he wasn't very good and he couldn't produce a plausible Mickey, who'd been created by one of his animators. More embarrassing was the fact that he couldn't even duplicate the famous Walt Disney signature that served as the company logo. That too was a creation of his employees. Like so many Disney products, it was, as Eco would say, "more real than reality." Walt would try his best, but his fans would go away confused. They didn't understand that he wasn't an artist; he was a producer, a visionary impresario -- the Henry Ford of fun.
Born in 1901 and raised in Midwestern towns, Walter Elias Disney was a failed Kansas City cartoonist who became the world's most successful producer of animated films. He was a pioneer, creating the first animated talkie, the first color animated film and the first full-length animated feature. His method was to take fables or fairy tales like "The Three Little Pigs," "Pinocchio" and "Snow White" and turn them into animated films, often simplifying them and removing many of their darker aspects in the process. Animation is labor-intensive and expensive, so Disney built his films to last, forbidding anything trendy or time-bound, no matter how clever. That way, he could re-release his movies every seven years and each new crop of kids all over the world could still appreciate them. Which is why they have endured for decades and will probably live forever.
His studio, like Ford's auto plant, was a factory, and in 1941, his animators did what Ford's workers had done a few years earlier -- they went on strike for higher wages. The strike stunned Disney, turned him into a right-winger and a redbaiter, and he never again felt quite the same way about animation. He moved on to live-action films and nature documentaries and television. Then in 1955, against the advice of everybody, he risked his fortune to create Disneyland and, in the process, invented the theme park. It worked, so he decided to build one 150 times bigger in Florida. On his deathbed in 1966, according to Disney lore, he lay staring up at the ceiling, hallucinating an imaginary map of the yet-unbuilt Disney World, still fine-tuning its geography.
By then, he was a legend, a symbol, a brand name. "I'm not Disney anymore," he once said. "I used to be Disney, but now Disney is something we've built up in the public mind over the years. It stands for something and you don't have to explain what it is to the public. They know what Disney is . . ."
And they know who Disney was. He was Mickey's dad and America's uncle, the smiling grandfather who hosted "The Wonderful World of Disney" -- a symbol of sentimental entertainment and innocent American fun.
The corporation that bears his name has bronzed that image, literally, in a statue of Walt and Mickey that stands in Disneyland's central plaza. It has also created a cult of personality, selling postcards and plates decorated with his picture, distributing a book of his quotations to every employee, and displaying an exact replica of his offices in "The Walt Disney Story," an attraction located, of course, on Main Street U.S.A.
The company presents Disney, wrote anthropologist Conrad Kottak, "as a mythic figure, creator of cosmos out of chaos."
But last year, Marc Eliot published a revisionist biography, Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, which portrayed Disney as, among other things, an abused child who liked to dress up in his mother's clothes, an antisemite, a Nazi sympathizer, an FBI stool pigeon who told the House Un-American Activities Committee that the leaders of the animators' strike were Communists, a pill-popping drunk who dunked his morning doughnuts in scotch, an impotent husband and a compulsive hand-washer who spent his wedding night having a bootblack shine his shoes over and over again.
Both versions of Disney are caricatures -- a cartoon hero and a cartoon villain -- but what could be more appropriate for the man whose characters are either pure good, like Snow White, or pure evil, like Cruella De Vil?
And every American has heard how his body is cryogenically frozen, awaiting the moment when modern medicine can bring him back to life. "Walt Disney," wrote Jean Baudrillard, another European semiotician who felt compelled to study Disneyland, "awaits his resurrection at minus 180 degrees centigrade."
Alas, it's not true, and never was. Disney was cremated, not frozen. Cryogenic freezing just seems like something that the inventor of Tomorrowland would do, and so it has become part of the Disney myth -- something else that's "more real than reality."
'A New Kind of Reality'
"Walt was used to controlling everything in a cartoon and he wanted to do it in real life," says John Hench. "So we created here -- we didn't have a word for it, but it's truly a new kind of reality."
Hench is strolling around Disneyland, which he helped to design. He's been working for Disney since the '30s, painting backgrounds on "Dumbo," winning an Oscar for special effects on "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," designing portions of all four Disney theme parks. He's 85 now, an elegant man with white hair and a neatly trimmed white mustache, and he's talking about how his old friend Walt wanted to create a kind of movie you could walk around in.
"That's what interested him -- the real three-dimensional life area to create with," he says.
Before Disneyland, amusement parks were chaotic jumbles -- a roller coaster here, a shooting gallery there. There was no flow, no theme, no master plan. Disney wanted his park to unfold like a movie: Visitors would move from scene to scene, and everything in every scene -- all the sights, the sounds, the smells, the workers' uniforms, even the trash cans -- was carefully designed to fit each theme. "He wanted his communication to be as airtight as he could get it."
Hench walks toward Frontierland, which is surrounded by a fake fort. "You get some of the story by walking into a fort, and it's made of logs and there's banjo-playing and you hear shots from the shooting gallery. So, gradually, the story unfolds -- Scene 1, Scene 2, Scene 3." He stops and gestures toward the ground: The texture of the pavement has changed. "Your feet are involved. You felt that it was different -- you'd gone from somewhere to somewhere else."
No detail is overlooked. Around the "Matterhorn," for instance, hidden loudspeakers broadcast the soft whooshing sounds of alpine winds. On Main Street U.S.A., the smell of fudge is pumped out of holes in the sidewalk in front of the candy store, which not only creates a mood but isn't bad for the candy business either.
Hench helped design Main Street, where the upper stories of the buildings are scaled back to a smaller size, just to make them more friendly, less threatening. The buildings are ornamented with cute little curlicues that project "a cheerful kind of confidence" and the colors are heightened and brightened. "Color is one thing people respond to," Hench says. "It has its roots in very primitive times. Game was more plentiful when there was color than in wintertime. So we respond to that."
Main Street U.S.A. is designed to evoke the spirit but not the reality of a turn-of-the-century American town. Real towns had abandoned storefronts and peeling paint and dirty drunks and lots of pungent horse poop. "It represents a kind of ideal," says Hench. "It's the setting for an idea."
Apparently, it works. "We've been asked by many little Main streets of Kansas and Nebraska how to make theirs as authentic as ours," he says. "But ours isn't authentic. We preserved the essence of the place rather than the whole story, which is full of contradictions."
Everything in a Disney theme park is painstakingly crafted to make people feel secure and welcome -- it's a world without danger or conflict or even litter. "Mainly what people come to do is be reassured," says Hench. "Everything says, 'Hey, we're going to be okay.' It's like patting you on the back."
Of course, some people don't like Disney parks. They find them not reassuring but phony, controlling, a little too cute. Hench has heard all that. "One of the big complaints is: 'It's wrong to help people turn their back on reality. It's unconscionable.' I have to protest. Our reality is as good as outside. It's better. It's equally real . . . Besides that, I never could decide where you put the line between fantasy and reality."
'A Kind of Sacred Place'
The Ayatollah Khomeini was dead and mourners filled Tehran. On one street, a group of men in black shirts and black armbands marched in tight formation, slapping their heads, then slapping their chests, then raising their fists and yelling in unison.
Tony Horwitz, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, asked one of the marchers to translate what they were chanting.
"Death to America," the demonstrator said. Then he asked Horwitz: "Are you American?"
"Yes," Horwitz replied, a little nervously.
"I must ask you something," the demonstrator said. "Have you ever been to Disneyland?"
"As a kid, yes," Horwitz said.
"It has always been my dream to go there," said the demonstrator, "and take my children on the teacup ride."
Then, as Horwitz recounts the story in his book Baghdad Without a Map, the man rejoined the march, raised his fist and chanted, "Death to America!"
It seems strange that a quintessentially American place like Disneyland would hold allure for anti-Americans, but it does. When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made his tour of the United States in 1959, he asked to visit Disneyland and threw a temper tantrum when his request was denied.
"Just now I was told that I cannot go to Disneyland," he angrily informed reporters. "I asked, 'Why not? What is it? Do you have rocket-launching pads there?' . . . And just listen -- just listen -- to what reason I was told: 'We' -- which means the American authorities -- 'cannot guarantee your security if you go there.' What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place . . . What must I do? Commit suicide? That is the situation I am in . . ."
Commit suicide because you can't go to Disneyland? Come on, Nikita, get a life!
Obviously, Disney theme parks exert a powerful magnetic pull on all kinds of people. It's a pull that lures more than 60 million visitors to the four Disney parks every year. And it's not a cheap trip: A family of four can easily shell out $200 a day at Disney World -- and that's not including travel and lodging. So why do they come?
"It's a kind of sacred place," says Conrad Kottak, a University of Michigan anthropologist who analyzed Disney World in his book Cultural Anthropology. The Disney parks are "shrines," he wrote, and thus a visit to them "takes on some of the attributes of a religious pilgrimage."
Disney's creations -- Mickey, Donald, Snow White, Cinderella, even Disney himself -- have become, Kottak says, "quasi-mythological symbols" comparable to mythic figures in primitive cultures, while attractions like Main Street U.S.A. and the Hall of Presidents have become symbols of traditional American values. "It's clearly a pilgrimage site in that people go there not just for a simple vacation but to relive the myths they grew up on," Kottak says. "You go there to relive your childhood and see the things that passed for gods and goddesses. It's going to see a national mythology at a sacred site."
Valerie Oberle, a Disney World executive, agrees, although not in anthropological lingo. "People come here because they feel it's something they need to do," she says. "There is an emotional connection with Disney at a very early age. You almost have to come here at some time."
Disney's legions of public relations people work to subtly reinforce the idea of Disney parks as sacred pilgrimage sites. The company's much-publicized "Give Kids the World" program helps provide terminally ill children with what one Disney brochure calls "their greatest dream -- a visit to the Walt Disney World Resort." Which makes Disney World a kind of secular Lourdes, Kottak suggests: "Even though a visit to a Disney park is not regarded as curative, it is an appropriate last wish."
Meanwhile, Disney's "What Next" campaign turns the same pilgrimage into the perfect reward for a heroic deed. These days, victorious athletes are inevitably confronted, at the very moment of their triumph, with a camera and a question: "You've just won the World Series/Super Bowl/Stanley Cup/NBA championship, what are you going to do next?" To which the equally inevitable reply is: "I'm going to Disney World!"
This year, Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan marred her triumphant parade through the Magic Kingdom at the right hand of Mickey when she was videotaped saying: "This is so corny. This is so dumb. I hate it. This is the most corny thing I've ever done."
After that, say Disney officials, Disney World was barraged with calls from people who were furious at Kerrigan's comments. Which makes perfect sense: Maligning a sacred pilgrimage site is, after all, a form of blasphemy.
The Secret of Mickey Mouse
"Remember," Walt Disney used to say, "this all started with a mouse." But that's not quite true. Actually, it all started with a rabbit and a rip-off.
In the beginning, back in the mid-1920s, Disney's films featured a rabbit named Oswald. Then, in the kind of fine-print chicanery that has long characterized ethics in Hollywood, Disney's distributor stole the rights to Oswald. Disney responded by creating a new character, a mouse named Mickey. His chief animator, Ub Iwerks, simply erased Oswald's long narrow ears, replaced them with new round ears and fiddled a bit with the face. Presto, a mouse!
That little change -- from long ears to round ears -- made Mickey's head basically a series of three interlocking circles. And that, says John Hench, is the secret of Mickey's unprecedented international success. Hench ought to know: He's been Mickey's "official portrait artist" for 40 years. "There's power in that kind of arrangement of circles," he says. "His contemporary, Felix the Cat, has got a lot of points on him and I think that activates a very old concept -- that you can get hurt around sharp points. Round forms are definitely more friendly."
Round forms recall a mother's breast and a pregnant torso and a baby's face and other good things, Hench says. He swears he's seen ancient fertility symbols that looked like Mickey. "They were carried as some kind of magic."
Whatever the reason, Mickey was instantly more popular than Oswald, and he's now among the most widely recognized symbols in the world. "Like yin and yang, like the Christian cross, and the star of Israel, Mickey can be seen everywhere," wrote John Updike in a Disney book called The Art of Mickey Mouse, "a sign, a rune, a hieroglyphic trace of secret power, an electricity we want to plug into."
Early on, Mickey was a mischievous, even sadistic little rodent. In his debut, in the 1928 short film "Steamboat Willie," Mickey coaxed music out of a menagerie by twisting a goat's tail, drumming on a cow's teeth, squeezing a pig's nipples. But as Mickey became Disney's corporate symbol, his creators deemed him too important to misbehave and gave him the enforced blandness of a royal family member. Now, like Liz Taylor, he's a movie star who seldom stars in movies, a celebrity serving as a mute official greeter in Disney parks.
"As Mickey's personality softened, his appearance changed," wrote Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould in The Panda's Thumb. Gould traced Mickey's evolution from a ratty rodent with a long, pointy snout to a cute little creature with the round, soft features and big eyes of a human baby. Why does a Harvard biologist pay attention to such matters? Because the cute-ification of Mickey illustrates a famous evolutionary theory, which holds that human beings -- stuck with offspring requiring years of labor-intensive nurturing -- are biologically programmed to get all gooey and gaga over animals with babyish features. That, he says, is why we love the Mouse: Mickey "reflects the unconscious discovery of this biological principle by Disney and his artists."
Hench disagrees slightly: He says the artists consciously made Mickey look like a cute little kid. Mickey is the archetypal little guy, he says, a David in a world of Goliaths. "Everybody feels like they're the little guy. He's a survival symbol and a fertility symbol."
Hench strolls down Main Street U.S.A. and eyes a display of Mickey Mouse watches. The watches have been phenomenally successful for decades: 2.5 million sold in just the first two years after they were introduced in the '30s. "Maybe time is a threat to most people," Hench speculates, "and Mickey is a David fighting that Goliath."
He walks to Town Square, where somebody in a Mickey costume has attracted a crowd of wide-eyed little fans. It amazes Hench. "He hasn't been in motion pictures for a long time. You see young kids who've never seen him before respond to him. He still works." Hench acknowledges, however, that the costumed Mickeys bother him. "The walk-around Mickey is, to my mind, a monstrous distortion of what the real figure should be. They have to get a human being in there, and human beings are built differently." He shrugs. "But it still works."
Hench sits on a park bench, takes out a piece of paper and starts sketching Mickey. With a couple quick strokes, he creates the famous ears. "They're always circles, no matter which way he looks," he says. Then he adds Mickey's rounded hairline and pointed widow's peak. "This gives him his eternally surprised expression -- surprised and delighted somehow." He smiles. "And he is delighted. He's a kind of pro-life symbol."
Whistle While You Work
While planning Disneyland 40 years ago, Walt Disney decided to do to its employees what he'd done to Mickey Mouse -- clean them up, denature them, make them cuter, spiffier, perkier, "more real than reality."
"He wanted to hire people who were energetic and friendly and liked talking to people," says Valerie Oberle, who is energetic and friendly and likes talking to people. She is also the vice president of Disney University at Disney World, one of four DU campuses worldwide.
Disney detested the surly carnies who worked in most amusement parks -- dirty guys with tattoos and cigarettes and a palpable cynicism. He wanted employees who were clean and neat and peppy and constantly smiling. So he created Disney University, an institution devoted to transforming low-paid cashiers, bus drivers and burger flippers into living, breathing nuggets of pure all-American wholesomeness.
"What we're trying to create," Oberle says, "is a conservative, non-distracting appearance."
She's wearing a dark blue dress whose hem lies between "the top of the knee and the bottom of the calf," and gold earrings that "do not exceed the size of a penny" and a gold necklace that's "in good business taste" -- which are, not coincidentally, the specifications required by "The Disney Look," a booklet distributed to all employees. It's a fully illustrated, 40-page guide that covers everything from mustaches and beards ("unacceptable") to hair ("must be symmetrical") to undergarments ("required") to armpits ("use of an anti-perspirant or deodorant is required"). "The Disney Look" not only codifies the grooming style of a "conservative, family oriented business," it also helps to scare away the kind of free spirits who'd ask the subversive question: Hey, didn't Walt have a mustache?
"If you just can't shave your mustache, if you just can't go without frosted hair," says Oberle, "you probably won't want to work here."
She strides down the halls of the Disney World campus of Disney University and steps into a classroom where new employees undergo the two-day orientation called "Disney Traditions." Today's class of 40 students is out taking a coffee break, but the walls are still decorated with gung-ho slogans. "We're Making Magic Together," says one sign. "We're Creating Happiness," says another. In the background hums an instrumental version of the Disney tune "Whistle While You Work."
"The emotional link is real important," Oberle says.
She flips through a stack of signs and stops at one that says, "Do You Speak Disney?" It refers to "Disney-ese," a show biz-derived dialect in which employees are called "cast members," bosses are "leads," public areas are "on stage," uniforms are "costumes," rides are "attractions," customers are "guests," and the toll booths where the guests shell out $5 to park are "auto plazas." Beyond the jargon is a speaking style that always accentuates the positive: Cast members don't tell guests, "We close at 6"; they say, "We remain open until 6."
Oberle steps into the Learning Center, where cast members can take courses in "Developing Positive Assertiveness" and "Pathways Toward Personal Progress." The work stations are named after Doc, Bashful and Happy, and a file cabinet is labeled Dopey.
She walks down the hall to Company D, a store where workers -- er, cast members -- can purchase special Disney souvenirs, including a Mickey Mouse T-shirt that says "Team Disney: A Sign of Good Character."
Oberle quotes one of her colleagues: "We're just doin' our darnedest to spoil our cast members rotten."
In a bar outside Disney World, that idea meets with cynical groans from three cast members and two officials of the Teamsters union, which represents them.
"These people are so underpaid," says Mario Ferenac, vice president of Local 385, "that a lot of them qualify for food stamps after they cash their paychecks."
He takes out a paper that lists pay rates for various Disney workers. The printers who silk-screen Disney's hugely profitable T-shirts start at $4.90 an hour and reach a top pay, after five years, of $7.30. Bus drivers make between $5.95 and $9.25. Characters -- the people inside the Mickey and Goofy outfits -- start at $6.10 and end up, after five years, at $8.95. Which means that even by working full time -- and many are kept on part-time status for years -- they can't even gross $20,000 a year. Meanwhile, Ferenac adds acidly, Disney Chairman Michael Eisner made $203 million in salary, bonuses and stock options in 1993.
"The average visitor should know," says Ferenac, "that behind these costumes are real people who work very hard for very little money."
"People are concerned about whether they can pay their car payments or their rent," says one of them, a man who makes his living inside a character costume. He doesn't want to be identified for fear of reprisals from his bosses. "I feel strongly that what I do is a great thing. I just wish they treated me that way. They treat me like a cartoon character, like I can get hit with a hammer, get stuffed into a box, get a safe dropped on me and come up smiling. We're not cartoons, we're people. We need to be treated like people."
"We get taken advantage of because we love our jobs," says another Disney performer, who also asked for anonymity.
"Disney is a great illusionist," says the man who wears the costume, "but when it comes to reality, they can't face it."
It is deliciously apt that the first money Walt Disney ever earned from his art came from the sale of souvenirs -- and bogus ones at that.
It happened in France right after World War I. Disney, who drove an ambulance for the Red Cross, and a buddy he called Cracker invented a classic scam, according to biographer Marc Eliot: "Cracker would buy surplus German helmets, shoot them full of holes, and turn them over to Walt, who for 10 francs apiece would decorate them with various German insignia and/or camouflage to suggest that they were genuine enemy combat gear. Cracker would then sell them to the other soldiers as authentic war souvenirs."
Thus began the career of history's greatest purveyor of mouse ears, duck bills, Mickey watches, coonskin caps, glow-in-the-dark Goofy boxer shorts and tens of thousands of other knickknacks, gewgaws and tchotchkes.
Merchandising tie-ins have been a part of the Disney formula since the days of Oswald the rabbit. In fact, royalties from Mickey memorabilia saved the studio from bankruptcy during lean days in the early '30s. Now, the merchandising is so well organized and so relentless that it sometimes seems that Disney's magnificent animated films are merely elaborate commercials for the inevitable product spinoffs.
It works the same way at Disney theme parks, where virtually every ride empties out into its own gift shop with its own specially themed souvenirs. In Disneyland's Frontierland, for example, there's Davy Crockett's Pioneer Mercantile store, where coonskin caps cost $8.50 and American flag jackets go for $130, and there's the Westward Ho Trading Company, selling feather headdresses for $3.95 and posters of Indian chiefs for $9.50 and toy flintlock pistols, which cost $9.65 and come decorated with stickers that read: "Made in America. If Traveling by Air, Check as Baggage." And those are just a few of the items available in just two of Disneyland's 68 souvenir shops.
To make shopping in the theme parks more fun, the Disney folks print their own currency -- Disney Dollars, complete with a color picture of Mickey. They sell for an American dollar apiece and kids love to spend them, which is, of course, the whole point.
But you don't have to go to a Disney theme park to buy Disney products. They're also available in 268 Disney Stores on three continents. And the company plans to open two a week for the rest of the year.
All in all, Disney merchandise brought in $8.5 billion in fiscal 1993. It didn't happen by accident. In the Disney empire, every Disney product is designed to promote every other Disney product. It's an elaborately choreographed dance of cross-marketing that Disney folks call "synergy." Synergy turned the Disney movie "Beauty and the Beast" into a Disney World stage show and a Broadway musical and a line of products. Synergy turned the Disney movie "The Mighty Ducks" into an NHL hockey team called the Mighty Ducks, which helped promote the movie sequel, called "D2: The Mighty Ducks," which helped promote the Mighty Ducks product line.
But the greatest triumph of Disney synergy thus far is the endless cross-marketing of "Aladdin." Not only did the animated movie gross more than $300 million worldwide, it also spawned a Disney Channel cable TV special; daily Aladdin parades at Disneyland and Disney World; a toy giveaway at Burger King; a Disneyland restaurant called Aladdin's Oasis; a home video; a video game; an auction of art from the film at Sotheby's, which grossed $1.3 million; a daily TV show scheduled to premiere this fall -- and more than 4,000 Aladdin products.
Unfortunately for Disney, synergy does not always work as planned. The main reason why Euro Disney has lost hundreds of millions of dollars -- "our first real financial disappointment," Chairman Eisner has called it -- is that Europeans have proven resistant to synergy's siren song. They're coming to Euro Disney in droves but they're not buying enough Disney products or eating enough Disney food or staying in the Disney hotels. Apparently, these wacky foreigners prefer to stay in Paris and bring their own food to the park and face life without Mickey Mouse golf balls and "101 Dalmatians" bedroom slippers. What's wrong with them?
That's not the way the Disney folks planned it. They hoped Euro Disney would work the way Disney World works, which was described quite aptly in Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen's theme park satire Native Tongue:
"The Mouse's sprawling self-contained empire sucked tourists' pockets inside out; they came, they spent until there was nothing left to spend; then they went home happy. To lifelong Floridians, it was a dream concept: fleecing a snowbird in such a way that he came back for more. Astounding!"
The Mouse Can Bite
The Mouse is a cute, cuddly, friendly little rodent, and such a good neighbor.
The Mouse loves to help people. It sends Disney "VoluntEars" out to work on community projects like building parks and playgrounds. It sponsors the "Teacherrific" awards for teachers in the Orlando area and the Disney Channel's annual American Teacher Awards. It dispatches Disney characters to hospitals to cheer up sick kids. It sponsors Disney Harvest, which delivers more than two tons of leftover food from Disney World to soup kitchens around Orlando every day. It sends "The Disney Crew," a musical anti-drug puppet show, out to elementary schools. The Mouse is so friendly that a list of its charitable activities can -- and does -- fill a 36-page, profusely illustrated Disney booklet called "Sharing the Magic."
But the Mouse is no pushover. The Mouse is tough. When angered, the Mouse will bite.
The Mouse is a litigious little rodent, filing roughly 800 lawsuits and regulatory cases a year. The Mouse sued the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences because it didn't like the portrayal of Snow White during the 1989 Oscar ceremony. The Mouse also fought a highly publicized legal battle with singer Peggy Lee, who made all of $4,500 for playing four characters, singing three songs and co-composing the score of "Lady and the Tramp" in 1955. Lee wanted a cut of the profits from the video of the movie; Disney didn't want to share; the jury awarded her $3.8 million. The Mouse is also vigilant in policing Disney trademarks and copyrights. Recently, the Mouse told the editors of a forthcoming book of critical essays that they couldn't call it Doing Disney, explaining that the name Disney is protected. Fearing an expensive legal battle, the publisher, Indiana University Press, changed the name of the book, tentatively retitling it Of Mice and Mermaids.
Even worse, from a PR standpoint, was the Mouse's threat to sue three Florida day-care centers that had decorated their walls with unauthorized paintings of Disney characters. That dispute was resolved when Universal Studios, Disney's Orlando rival, painted the Flintstones over the Disney characters and threw a party for the kids.
The Mouse doesn't fool around. The Mouse plays hardball. In Florida, Disney managed to persuade the state legislature to permit the company to set up its own government, called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. (See accompanying story, Page 15.) In 1990, when $57 million in state tax-free bond money became available to local governments on a first-come, first-served basis, Reedy Creek was first in line and took all the money to upgrade Disney World's sewer system. That sparked howls of protest, particularly from the government of adjacent Orange County, which had hoped to use the money to build low-cost housing. After that, the Orlando Sentinel called Disney "the grinch that stole affordable housing."
In Virginia, the Mouse arrived incognito and secretly purchased options on 3,000 acres of land near Haymarket. Only then did the rodent reveal its identity and outline its plans for the $650 million history theme park called Disney's America -- plans that required, it announced, that the state of Virginia pony up $163 million for road construction, worker training and equipment relocation. Gov. George Allen supported the subsidy, but the state House and Senate originally voted less money for the projects (a paltry $125 million) and the House attached a rider to its bill that would have delayed the final vote until May. That wasn't good enough for Disney, which demanded all the money and none of the delay. "Our company cannot come to Virginia if these elements are not included in the final legislative package," wrote Mark Pacala, general manager of Disney's America, in a letter to the House-Senate conference committee. ". . . Any such delay would be fatal to the project and cannot be included in the final legislation."
That didn't leave any room for compromise. So there was no compromise: The legislature approved the whole $163 million package. The cute, cuddly little Mouse had won another game of hardball.
In the rotunda of the American Adventure pavilion at Epcot Center in Disney World, a woman wearing a long, billowing, old-fashioned dress and a white kerchief stands at the podium. "On behalf of American Express and Coca-Cola," she says, "I'd like to welcome you to the American Adventure."
Which pretty much sums up the Disney version of American history -- period costumes and a corporate message. Disney's history is to history as Disney's Main Street U.S.A. is to Main Street -- it's spruced up, prettified, mythologized. There's no "Other America" and no other-side-of-the-tracks.
Disneyland's "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln" is typical. An Audio-Ani- matronic Abe robot utters quotes from Lincoln speeches and then the music swells and a chorus sings, "Flying high! Flying high! America!" and the curtain closes and the audience files out past a huge fake gold coin surrounded by the words "Free Enterprise: America's Fifth Freedom."
Epcot's American Adventure, Disney's newest rendition of history, is a little more realistic. It is relentlessly upbeat, of course, and it ignores any hint of class conflict or unfortunate overseas shenanigans, but it does interrupt the parade of rich, white male robots to permit speeches by Frederick Douglass, Chief Joseph and Susan B. Anthony robots. And then the show ends and the music rises to a climax as a chorus exhorts America to "keep on flying high!" and the audience walks out through a door that stands between a Coca-Cola logo and an American Express logo.
The New York Times calls Disney history "ersatz history." The Nation calls it "Mickey Mouse history." And Stephen Fjellman, author of Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America, suggests that what Disney does is "suppress, rearrange and invent history in the interest of safe, dramatic presentation."
One of the historical consultants to Disney's America, James Oliver Horton, a George Washington University history professor, agrees with the critics: "I've seen the history that Disney has done in the past and I've written critically about it. I saw the American Adventure, which I didn't think much of at all. The great American Adventure starts with the landing of the Mayflower. Well, what about the people who were here for 30,000 years before that? There were some people there to greet the Mayflower."
Nor is Horton a fan of Main Street U.S.A. "Even people who grew up in small-town America know that Main Street never looked like that," he says. "That's not history, that's fantasy. I have no control, but I'll make a lot of noise if we see that kind of fantasy passed off as history."
Horton doesn't have to worry about that, according to Robert Weis, vice president of creative development at Walt Disney Imagineering -- the man in charge of creating Disney's America. "We can't sort of flip through the nice chapters of American history and just put them in," he says.
The park's much-publicized original design called for nine areas, including an American Indian village, a little Ellis Island, a roller-coaster ride through a steel mill and a Civil War fort where visitors would see an "authentic reenactment" of a battle. But all that is on hold, says Weis, and "the ideas will keep evolving." He's not sure what the final plan will be, but it will, he says, reflect some of the nation's less savory history, including slavery and the Vietnam War.
"You have to tell the dark points in order to have a sense of uplift," Weis says. "It's like a movie -- you have funny moments and sorrowful moments, but it's all part of the story. I point out to people that they did shoot Bambi's mother. Without that, the film wouldn't have worked."
Inside Disney, there is much debate over whether Mickey Mouse will have a role in Disney's America. "You will not see Mickey Mouse walking around in the Civil War reenactments, because he doesn't belong there," Weis says. But Mickey and other Disney characters did make government propaganda films during World War II, he points out, and that would be one place "where our characters converge with American history."
Unlike Disneyland, the new park will not portray an "idealized" America, Weis promises: "You're going to see in Disney's America a lot more of the gritty reality of American history."
But it won't be a grim history lesson. No way. "We don't want people to come out with a dour face," says Mark Pacala, the park's general manager. "It is going to be fun with a capital F."
Gritty reality . . . Fun with a capital F . . . Disney characters that converge with American history . . . The mind reels. And the mind that has recently experienced the "Pirates of the Caribbean" tribute to rape and pillage reels even more. Consider the possibilities:
Outside the gates, an Audio-Animatronic Khrushchev robot complains about being turned away from Disneyland . . . In the McCarthy Era attraction, an Audio-Animatronic Walt Disney tells congressional witch hunters that the leaders of the strike against him are Communists . . . In the Watergate Pavilion, a surprisingly lifelike Richard Nixon robot authorizes the raising of hush money, says, "I am not a crook," and then resigns . . . In the controversial Age of Imperialism attraction, an Audio-Animatronic Mark Twain denounces his country's colonization of the Philippines . . . In the adults-only section of the Revisionist History Pavilion, an Audio-Animatronic Thomas Jefferson seduces his Audio-Animatronic slave Sally Hemings and an Audio-Animatronic JFK entertains an Audio-Animatronic Judith Campbell Exner in the Lincoln Bedroom . . . Finally, in the crowd-pleasing American Violence ride, sponsored by the NRA, tourists travel through grittily realistic re-creations of such great moments as the burning of witches in Salem, the Battle of Wounded Knee, Custer's Last Stand, the Ludlow Massacre, the Valentine's Day Massacre, the lynching of Emmett Till, My Lai, the Manson murders, Kent State, the beating of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Gritty reality! Fun with a capital F! The possibilities are endless. As the man said, "The ideas will keep evolving." So all bets are off. Anything is possible.
At this point, only two things are certain about Disney's America: It will be "a fantasy world more real than reality," and there will be plenty of souvenirs for sale.