No Matter How Your Heart Is Grieving: Disney for the Sad -The Toast

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At the time of this writing, the Walt Disney Company does not control the weather in Orlando, Florida, but for some reason it is a surprise to arrive at Disney World’s French Quarter resort under cover of darkness during a mild cloudburst, a little like catching your grandmother sleeping in church.

We, that is my wife Pamela and I, accidentally arrive on Disney Gras, a chaste celebration that extends from Fat Tuesday all the way through the end of the week. We’d considered other resorts, but Pamela, a lifelong fan of all things Disney, has done careful research and ruled out The Art of Animation because it caters to families with lots of kids, Animal Kingdom, because it is too expensive, and Key West, because it is, in her words, “a little bit too declining-years-of-Tennessee-Williams.” It is, in her words again, the worst kind of simulacrum. Or the best kind of simulacrum. Neither of us can decide. It comes down, I suppose, to how you feel about simulacra.

Pamela is from California and has been to Disneyland many times but never to Disney World; it is an entirely new and wonderful experience to her and a significant departure from her other trips to the South, where my family is from (although it’s arguable whether Orlando is really part of the South and not just a colony of Long Island), in that the entire staff of the hotel and every restaurant in every park takes great care to accommodate her food allergies (which are severe enough to curtail the trip if triggered) and to keep everything in our field of vision at any moment spotless. The facades, surprisingly, do look a lot like the row houses in the French Quarter. The insides look a lot like a Days Inn, albeit better-kempt and filled with Disney branding; everything from the soaps (Pam takes several) to the In Case of Emergency cards (I consider trying to steal one but Disney World seems to be more fun if you obey the rules. Also I can’t get it out of the plastic frame screwed to the door). We see perhaps three insects during the trip. To and from buses and ferries to the parks, we walk past balcony after balcony where no one is throwing bead necklaces at anyone. “Stellaaaaa!” Pam bellows softly.

I have been a business reporter for several years and am interested in arcane stuff like last-mile logistics and customer relationship management, and let me tell you, from my annoying perspective, all the little things about Disney World are just unbelievably cool. If you put a Disney World tag on your luggage, for example, the airline sends it straight to the hotel, where, when it is time to depart, you can retrieve boarding passes and check your bags back in again and move straight to the security line as you head reluctantly home. Upon arrival in Orlando, travelers to the resorts on the 66-square-mile chunk of central Florida owned by the Walt Disney Company walk between seatbelt barriers at the back of the airport topped with festive Mickey signs, which draw a little path to a fleet of huge, air-conditioned buses that wait to fill up while cartoons play on grainy monitors. A friendly person checks the ticket you got in the mail.

It’s clearly supposed to be like going through customs, except everyone is pleasant, happy-seeming, and wears uniforms emblazoned in several discreet places with Disney’s corporate glyph—you know the one, the three interlocking black circles that are nominally the face of Mickey Mouse. Mickey’s visage will be nearly everywhere in the parks and the resorts; each of the rides built when Walt was alive has a hidden Mickey head somewhere in the décor. Fans can point them out to you. The effect is not unlike entering a country in the firm grip of a benevolent dictatorship, where pictures of the popular President-for-Life are hung in every place of business and displayed in every patriotic home.

My wife and I have been married for five years on Friday. Our marriage has been difficult, but rewarding, and the difficulty has seldom been a matter of neglect or cruelty. The week after we were married, Pamela’s paternal grandmother died; I’d just taken time off from work to move in and missed the wake, arriving only in time for the funeral. As we embarked on our honeymoon a few months later, my maternal grandfather died; we rerouted flights to attend the funeral and then tried to relax. In quick succession, several more of Pamela’s close family members died, then the beloved professor she’d hoped would head her dissertation committee, averaging about one memorial every six months through those five years.

In the spring of 2012, we learned that Pamela had a chronic heart condition that would require extremely complicated surgery. The procedure was fairly common and high-tech, with a very short recovery period. In her case, the operation went badly wrong; the anesthesiologist discovered an allergy to a medication we hadn’t known about before and when time came to insert the stent, the surgeon punctured Pamela’s femoral artery in the wrong place. I sat for hours outside the operating theater reading the same page of a book of short stories over and over again; when I cornered the doctor after the surgery and asked him about the problems with the drugs, his first words to me were, “Well, the good news is she won’t remember any of it.”

I went into the recovery room to see her. Still deep under general anesthesia, she looked dead. As I touched her shoulders gently, trying to come as close as I could to hugging her without hurting her, an alarm went off in the corner of the room and she began to writhe in uncomprehending pain. A nurse quickly escorted me out and I saw the surgeon begin to remove bandages from her leg as the door swung shut. Had I hugged her too much? Should I not have touched her at all? Was she going to die now?

I had no idea how much blood she’d lost until a few days later when a huge bruise covering most of her thigh welled up to the surface of her skin as it healed. It took weeks for her to fully recover and for several days she couldn’t get out of bed.

I had never been a caretaker before and had difficulty coming to grips with my new wife’s proximity to death in that one awful moment, tortured by all the things I should have mentioned to the doctor before the surgery and all the ways I should have stood up to the flamboyantly lazy and careless nurses in the heart ward who wouldn’t bring her food or linens. Sometimes she would call me from the next room and I wouldn’t hear. We went to the Met to see an exhibit on Gertrude Stein and learned exactly how rude middle-aged art lovers are to people in wheelchairs (very). When otherwise calm, I couldn’t stop thinking of her anesthetized face.

Pam healed quickly, but by September I was fully suicidal, prey to fantasies of walking into the ocean when we went to the New Jersey beach or creeping out of our cramped apartment in the dead of night and making my way over the railings at the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge when we were at home. I started therapy. A year later we moved away from the bridge, deeper into Brooklyn.

Things got better. Then much better. We learned how to live with each other and had a home we’d picked together. Her heart healed and I stopped believing I needed to die. In five years, we’d never really taken an honest-to-God vacation together barring that one awful weekend at the beach and with the frequent flier miles we’d racked up traveling to conferences (I’m a reporter, Pamela is a graduate student) and to funerals, we had enough to take a few days off and go someplace interesting.

There is much to be said against the idea of Disney. Walt himself appears to have been the worst possible kind of charlatan-tyrant, his career devoted to crafting a reputation for fluency in a discipline he had mostly stopped practicing by the time he got famous. His greatest skill seems to have been a knack for taking credit where it was due someone like Ward Kimball or Walt Kelly or Carl Barks or Ub Iwerks. Disney World itself is the target of withering criticism from thinkers as elevated as Jean Baudrillard, whose book “Simulation and Simulacra” posits the park as an utterly alien, fictive region of greed and consumerism made into virtues. Many agree with Baudrillard and many have followed his lead in criticizing the Disney Company as an entity devoted to molding children into little merchandise-purchasing machines and demanding vast sums of cash from their parents.

Disney World, its critics tell us, is (briefly) a place where morbidly obese white people haul screaming brats from line to line where they stand, bovine, waiting endless hours to be admitted to funhouses and tunnels of love filled with corporate propaganda and then ushered into retail outlets that will sell them plastic crap and unhealthy food for a big slice of their all-too-scarce disposable income.

I suppose that is one way to look at it all, if you desperately want to.

Another way to look at it is this: Poverty and obesity are frequently coincident, and people who do not hold the one state in contempt have been known to despise the other. In Disney World, every courtesy is extended the overweight, many of whom use little maroon Jazzy scooters to zip around the parks. All buses are equipped with wheelchair ramps and many drivers make a point of saying something friendly to whoever is waiting for it to descend. This is pretty clearly an outgrowth of Disney’s strategic and aggressive marketing to the handicapped community, but it effectively includes overweight patrons in a way that they might not have felt included other places. Absolutely no one expresses any resentment to anyone in a scooter, regardless of why they might or might not need one.

Thus, a very broad swath of humanity is able to receive value for money at Disney World, and not just people who use scooters. Everywhere, single or at least solo mothers accompany toddlers and grade schoolers who are having the times of their tiny lives. At Epcot and Hollywood Studios, many of the mothers are having a beer. Couples on dates sing licensed tunes softly to one another on the bus rides back to the hotel. Sorority sisters in matching t-shirts shoot tequila in the Mexico section of Epcot and no one tries to pick them up or grab their asses. Hollow-eyed bald kids who will never go to the prom get fluorescent wigs and princess dresses and cerebral palsy sufferers get to fly with Peter Pan and amputees get sent to the front of the line to “go backstage with Aerosmith” on the best roller coaster in the parks. Hipsters sit agog at Captain EO as their irony meters overload. It is very easy to think while you are reading Baudrillard that you are too good for Disney World, but you are not.

We wear red buttons that say “Happy Anniversary!” on them, and perhaps every third staffer at the park says “Happy anniversary!” with a big, utterly sincere smile.

This is not to say that parts of the experience are not super disturbing if you think about them even a little. One of the coolest rides in Epcot is The Sum of All Thrills, a virtual roller coaster in a pod on the end of a robotic arm that the rider/user can instruct to scoop you into barrel rolls or send you plummeting down a steep slope, as portrayed on a TV screen inside the pod. It is sponsored by Raytheon, the defense contractor that has cornered the market for guided missiles. Another ride in Epcot, Ellen’s Energy Adventure, starring Ellen Degeneres and Bill Nye, is not much more than a 45-minute long family-friendly advertisement for petrochemicals, complete with animatronic dinosaurs.

More generally, there is the unsettling feeling that you are in a place that has developed for entirely mercenary reasons the too-rare virtue of gentleness, and that has carefully focus-grouped and market-tested the price point for each aspect of that virtue across the Disney World experience. The food is expressly designed for a family on a budget: roughly $10 per person for a counter-service meal, say $25 per person for a restaurant with a kid-friendly gimmick (one, a “drive-in” has trailers from old B-movies playing on a loop and tables shaped like cars), correspondingly more if mom and dad want that one fancy dinner. If you’re down to $5 and your kid is hungry, you can buy him a baked potato the size of a football. It feels considerate. The convenience of staying in the parks does not include a financial savings—you can get a cheap hotel in Orlando—but, if forced to assign a dollar value to that convenience, especially as a chaperone to more than one child, you might find it to be worth exactly what you are being asked to pay for it.

Gentleness is almost nowhere in American business culture, and thus, by the standards of American business culture, correspondingly valuable. The parks segment of the Walt Disney Company earned $14.1 billion in revenue in 2013, more than twice what the studios earned.

Disney villains have proven tremendously popular over the years, so much so that “Villains” is an officially sub-branded grouping of characters from the company’s prodigious library of intellectual property.

It’s easy to see why: Disney says “good” in punishingly specific ways—curvy and pretty, or muscular with regular features, always gets the prince or princess. Hair color is variable, and skin tone (within a very narrow range) but everything else fits neatly within the same harsh guidelines a modeling agency might employ.

Disney says “evil,” however, in all kinds of gorgeous ways. Fat, bony, snaggletoothed, sallow, deformed, squinty, hook-nosed, bug-eyed (and yes, beautiful or handsome, too—hateful people can definitely be pretty, it’s just that beloved people can’t be ugly)—all these markers make for fascinating-looking people, and people who look a lot more like the wonderful variety of the typical Disney World patron.

You are among these people. Or at least, I am. We leave the hotel on the fourth day, which has been set aside for lounging. I put on a Sharktopus t-shirt and smooth down my beard; Pam puts on a long black and gray striped sweater, ties her dark hair behind her, and dons a pair of big, ovoid sunglasses. We go to the boat that will take us to the right park and sit in the only two seats available, opposite a couple about our age. He has a large brown beard, wears a Japanese-language Friday the 13th t-shirt, and she wears a gray and black striped dress and giant black sunglasses tucked behind her dark hair. We try to ignore each other for a few moments, and fail. I probably say something terrible like, “I see you got the memo.”

Brad and May (names have been changed) are from Sacramento originally. He’s a freelance illustrator for a new line of Topps Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. She’s a barista. They’ve had a hard time recently and have had to move back to St. Louis, where he’d rented out his place so he could try to make it in California. “I had a house out there and a bunch of meth heads moved in and stopped paying rent,” Brad says. “They really tore the place up.” They’ve had to move back and live in the house in order to renovate it. They are having a very good time in Disney World. We wave goodbye shortly after disembarking; they go on their adventure and we go on ours.

We try to make sure we’ve seen the attractions unique to Florida, settling after a few minutes on the Under the Sea ride, which narrates the story of the Little Mermaid for three or four minutes to an audience cocooned in scrupulously clean, enclosed cars with generous room for two people. The cars are made up to look like pretty, uniform pink seashells. Ahead of us is a converted clamshell with a wheelchair ramp used by a person with a severe neurological disorder, who is wheeled aboard by an elderly man with white whiskers and a baseball hat. He’s wearing cargo shorts and a tie-dyed T-shirt. His companion is so swaddled in blankets that I can’t determine an age or a gender and don’t want to stare.

The ride itself is lovely—an animatronic smorgasbord of puppets and wonderful old songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS in 1992. But they’ve cut out a particularly good line reading by Pat Carroll, who plays Ursula the Sea Witch (all actors, living or dead, provide authentic voices to the displays at Disney World. Carroll, who is still with us, is probably best known outside “Mermaid” for a one-woman show called “Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein,” which ran off Broadway for 18 months starting in 1979). It’s the most memorable line of the movie, at least to me: Ariel has agreed to give her most precious attribute, her voice (actually Jodi Benson’s voice), to Ursula in exchange for a brief period when she’ll be able to walk and breathe long enough to charm her beloved prince Eric. Ursula, her grinning face stripped of all the friendly pretense she’s used to seduce Ariel, leans out toward the viewer and says, in a bitter growl straight from Hell, “Now. SING.”

On the ride, at the vital moment just before this perfectly horrible scare, the audio track cycles back to its beginning for the benefit of the next set of riders, and we move on to images of Ariel, magically growing the gorgeous Bettie Page legs that will bring her closer to Eric, and to life Happily Ever After.

“Did you like that one?” the caretaker asks anxiously as he and his charge de-clam, smoothly and without any slowing of the ride. “Yeah? You did?” It’s hard to make out individual words in the answer­—the caretaker seems to understand the specifics—but it is unequivocally affirmative.

Throughout the park, there are performers hired to play the humanoid characters from the film; they are stunningly beautiful men and women. The dude playing Gaston even manages to seem nice and harmless in a role that requires him to act lecherous. “Who’s your favorite character so far?” he asks Pamela, who is already laughing. “Mine’s me.”

And of course, the person who sings the most popular song has the most kids waiting to meet her. You know the one. Parent friends have confided in me that if they ever again have to hear “Let It Go,” the Oscar-winning earworm from “Frozen,” the resulting carnage will be in all the papers, but the line for the college student dressed up as Elsa is longer than any line for any roller-coaster or funhouse. It’s nothing but tiny little girls hanging onto scooter handles or tattooed arms or legs or the hems of cargo shorts and staring agog at a young woman in an ice-blue dress who, fair enough, appears to actually have blue eyes of her own and a bottomless reservoir of patience. The actor playing Anna, her plucky, unglamorous sister, is content to be ignored. The characters are mostly played by college theater kids, plenty of them from the University of Central Florida where Disney has invested generously, and some of them are still young enough to be living a sort of dream his or her heart made many years ago, in the throes of that first grade-school pit-of-the-stomach crush on Belle or Robin Hood.

The Disney World project, briefly, is to convince you—yes, you—that, within the space of what employees call The Property, the apathy of a hideously unfair world is suspended. Believe, the company instructs, and you will be rewarded, irrespective of physical infirmity, age, size, or gender. Few negative emotions are permitted in Disney World, and yet the possibility of sadness is admitted in order for the company to undertake the pitiless annihilation thereof. It’s one that many people here want to stop feeling. In what feels like every line, we hear pairs of women (accompanied by kids) discussing some bastard or other who left or won’t leave, rarely in tones of blame, usually in terms of simple, grim logistics. Wishing, dreaming—these are for people with less to worry about. Kids, probably. Squash your own dreams quick, before someone else tortures them to death. Disney’s prosaic response is best expressed in a couple of lines in the theme from the studio’s 1950 cartoon “Cinderella,” which plays over and over again in various arrangements pretty much everywhere in the Magic Kingdom:

“No matter how your heart is grieving,” it promises, “if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”

We are in the Future World section of Epcot, mostly to humor me, because there is a wonderful, zoo-quality aquarium and a “Finding Nemo” ride. I like “Finding Nemo,” which is about a clownfish, played by one of my heroes, Albert Brooks, who’s looking for his son. My wife hates it. She gets sad watching anything about orphans and a surprisingly high number of Disney films are about parents who lose their children or children who lose their parents. As we look at a brace of cuttlefish who are waggling their tentacles expressively at one another and conversationally changing color in one of the many columnar tanks, we notice a family of four—three kids and a mom—who are walking up past the line for the ride to the front.

“That kid’s got a special pass,” Pam says. She hesitates. “The whole family does. It’s from the Make-A-Wish Foundation.”

Sure enough, one of the kids has no hair anywhere on his head, but a big smile on his face; his mom is not smiling at all and a brother and a sister are kind of stoic, but nobody seems harried or worried. The group has either the full attention of a park employee or an official chaperone. They climb aboard a seashell and roll through the first hallway on the track, down into a gathering darkness with a blue light at its end.

We take the ride ourselves a few minutes later and at the end, the animated fish from the film are projected onto a long glass wall that runs for perhaps a hundred feet. On the other side of it are beautiful fish—real ones—of all sizes and descriptions.

I start to cry.

It occurs to me that I don’t enjoy my emotions very much; they feel dangerous to me, the way a high wind that is constantly changing directions probably feels to someone who is patching a roof. At some point, I feel sure as I stare into the fish tank, they are going to carry me away and over and down, possibly into the Hudson River. Clownfish wander by, actual clownfish, looking for their children and thinking their Albert Brooks thoughts, and I am there, with my wife, in another plastic seashell, and neither of us is dead at the moment. Pam’s hematoma is gone from her thigh. Inaction is my only real victory, but it is mine, however small. We have health insurance and enough food to eat and an apartment in Brooklyn where, over the next few months, we will have to deal with a Satanic nest of roaches in our kitchen wall and a bathtub that does not understand the way drains work and a radiator that squeaks out Wagnerian high notes in the dead of winter, and those things will be annoying and difficult but fun-difficult, not toneless, dead, anti-life difficult.

And holy shit, we’re in Disney World. It’s an astonishing place. It is not actually The Happiest Place on Earth but it is The Place Where the Largest Possible Number of Brand-Friendly Conditions for Happiness Are Orchestrated to the Greatest Possible Human Degree At Scale. It is a resort for working families crafted and perfected by a corporate entity probably capable of successfully prosecuting a fairly large war, and while, on some level, it is like being tickled gently by Cthulhu, it wouldn’t exist if it didn’t work. Do not open your heart to betentacled monstrosities from beyond the stars, I’m not saying that, but do open your heart, no matter how it’s grieving. Especially if it’s grieving. Open it at all costs. There are moments when it seriously bothers me that the relationship I value most in the world needs a kind of maintenance only an animatronic bear with a New Orleans accent can provide, even though that country bear, nay, his entire Jamboree, appears to have spontaneously generated in a petri dish of shareholder greed and substandard wages. But it does. Whether or not it should is moot.

The tank is a circle. The fish swim around the curve of the glass. The wheels under the seashell bump up a ramp, away from the tank, and into the sun filtering down through the skylight. It’s starting to rain again.


Sam Thielman is a staff writer for Adweek, as well as a freelance reporter and critic. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife.

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