Disney is a land of dreams and imagination, or at least that’s how they sell themselves. But at this point, it’s more than just a marketing tactic – it’s a cultural truth for Americans and many people around the world. And it’s certainly gospel truth for my husband’s family. They absolutely love Disney. Which is why Chris and I ended up spending 10 days in Florida last week on vacation. (It’s also why I’ve been updating the blog sporadically.)
Much like the last time I was there, the one thing that struck me over and over again is that Walt Disney World‘s greatest strength is its ability to immerse a visitor in a narrative. They say there are no rides, only attractions and adventures, and they mean it. While other parks make vague hand-waves at a story that’s at best loosely connected to a roller coaster – I’m looking at you, Six Flags – Disney designers pay close attention to the smallest details. For example, while I was there, I downloaded an app called “WDW Secrets” that highlights bits of trivia and hidden tips of the hat throughout the parks. One of the most charming ones is that if you pick up an old-fashioned looking telephone in the hat store in the Magic Kingdom’s Town Square, you can “overhear” a conversation between a young woman and her mother. In it, her mother advises her daughter not to settle for any man who makes less than $8 a week because ham is so very expensive these days. When we picked up the phone and started laughing, other people turned around, quite surprised. I’m sure 99% of people who enter that shop never even think to pick up the phone!
In fact, Disney’s ability to do this has actually increased over time, with each new set of rides becoming more complex and rich. The waiting area for their new Himalayan rollercoaster in Animal Kingdom includes not only a recreation of a backpackers’ supply store, but also a hilarious museum dedicated to whether or not the Yeti exists. It actually reminded me quite a bit of the haphazard Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
As a storyteller, I found these details and level of world-building to be immensely satisfying and enjoyable. After all, who doesn’t love being whisked away to a different world, full of light and magic? Whether it’s “the future that never was” (my favorite area in Magic Kingdom), an dinosaur institute that uses time travel, or a 1930s Hollywood hotel in the Twilight Zone, literally stepping into a story is enchanting.
But as an activist, I believe that this world-building could also be so much more – and Walt himself would have agreed. In fact, the original concept for Epcot was not the giant golf-ball that most people know, but an entire revolutionary city. Originally called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, Walt envisioned it as a true city of the future, a place that could actually encompass all of the visions from the various World’s Fairs he loved so much. It was to be the “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” sung about in the Carousel of Progress. But before it could be built, Walt passed away, and the company decided that city planning shouldn’t be in their future. In the end, it may be for the best it didn’t follow Walt’s original vision – some elements of his semi-utopia sound a little creepy these days.
But the fact remains that we still need that City of Tomorrow – the challenges we face in climate change and peak oil are far too great to continue down our current path. Current cities rely on far-away rural areas for too much energy and food and suburbs are built upon the myth of cheap, endless oil. We need to find, commercialize, and demonstrate the “new materials and systems” that Walt saw EPCOT illustrating.
Thankfully, we’re not without visionaries and innovators. People around the world are finding new ways to revitalize cities, from busy bikeshares to transformations of vast city blocks into urban farms. But these efforts are mostly under the radar, not part of our common culture. The people who are interested in New Urbanism, sustainability, and city planning have heard of them, but others either don’t know or care. Unfortunately, this effort requires everyone for it to work. A few people biking here or there just isn’t going to cut it when oil gets so expensive that people have trouble getting to work. A handful of urban gardeners alone can’t feed their city.
So what we need now are the storytellers. And as I noted, this is where Disney excels. Perhaps they don’t have the vision for the future like they once did when Walt was around. But that’s okay. What they need to do now is amplify and glorify the efforts of others. Immerse people in this potential future so that they can believe that it’s not only is possible, but necessary. Help people see that the future does in fact have the potential to be a bright and shining place, but that we have to make it that way. Inspire people to dig in and get their hands dirty because the effort is so captivating that they simply must participate.
Now, I know this isn’t Disney’s current job or purpose as a corporation. Simply put, its only purpose is to make money for its shareholders. Parts of their sometimes sketchy environmental and human rights records certainly reflect that. They are far from perfect corporate citizens.
But I don’t believe profits are what motivate the “Imagineers” to create vast worlds to play in and include details most people never notice. No, I believe it’s because that old idea of imagination. The concept that ideas can change the world for the better. While I was there, I read a book that reinforced my belief in this, Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. While this book was pure SF with no basis in history, the fact that the idea of people visiting the Magic Kingdom in a post-utopian society being believable said something to me about what Disney means to people. Disney is and can be more than just Princesses – it can help all of us envision a new future.
So I have high hopes for what Disney could do if they set their mind to it. In the next post, I’ll talk about what they’re doing now in this realm and how they could expand those existing efforts.