Disneyland is supposed to be a magical world of wonder. A place where childhood resides, safe from the effects of time and the naturally maturing mind. Anyway, that’s what we are told. In generations of carefully crafted advertising campaigns. In the multi-million dollar industry designed to disguise itself beneath alternating layers of innocence and pixie dust. It’s a garden with no tree of knowledge, where apples do not tempt us to awaken, but rather to fall into a much deeper slumber.
To me, it was a very large shopping mall. That’s pretty much all. As a clown, I was already in touch with my inner child, so there was no nostalgic remembering. No involuntary gasp of, “Oh, that’s how it felt to believe!” The levers, buttons, and puppet strings on the other side of the shimmering curtain held no mystery.
On my only visit there, years ago, I was disconcerted by a vague perception of something bordering on racism. The trivialization of various cultures. So they might fit nicely into the allotted measures of the slightly creepy, wind-up music box mantra of, “It’s a small world, after all…”
I went on that particular ride with perhaps the only other person on the planet who would have tuned into the exact same station. An extremely artsy and intelligent boho type girl. Beautiful, too. The kind of girl whose lower East side railroad flat housed a collection of Marc Chagall prints on the wall, and not much else.
We got into that little boat and immediately began to analyze what was not meant to be examined any deeper than… well, not at all. The little boat floated on the pervasive music box melody from one room to the next. Tiny animatronic dolls representing children from around the world danced happily in their colorful native costumes. The Indian harem females danced dutifully, obediently, three steps behind the Indian dominant-by-birthright male. The happily Chinese dancing dolls had slanting lines instead of eyes. The African native doll was swinging from an elephant’s trunk. Like a monkey. A happy negro monkey. Blissfully unaware that Kunta Kinte had ever been anything but.
Finally, the international dolls were all gathered in a large room, where everything was white. The walls were white. The ceiling was white. The giant flowers. I suspect that, had he found a way, Walt would have painted the water white, as well. There, the happily animatronic obediently dancing dolls were now dressed in white versions of their trivialized for allotted measure native costumes. At last, all the world is happy and white.
The ride ends, but the music does not. It stays. Playing inside the head for days. My beautiful artsy friend and I joked about subliminal programming. Sure, we knew our cynicism was misplaced, but that only made it funnier. Two New Yorkers clad in black climbed on board a little boat. A Disney float. It’s the intro to a joke, right?
I’ll spare you our lurid descriptions of the thinly veiled sadomasochism plainly evident on the Briar Rabbit ride. Surely, anyone with sense couldn’t help but detect that for themselves?
Flash forward to a few days ago. I had auditioned for a commercial which would be filming at Disneyland. The client claimed they were seeking a European type, and specified that he need not be runway model handsome. What mattered was that he looked real. Naturally, they cast a blond-haired Australian who could easily have stepped off the cover of GQ. I know this because, although they did not hire me for the principal role, they did hire me to be in the background. Real life European dad with kids walking down the street, visible just over the shoulder of the guy they liked really much better.
So there I was, on the practically perfect Main Street of Disneyland. Would I now be more willing to suspend disbelief, to set aside cynicism and embrace the uber-marketed happiest place on Earth? Well, not exactly.
With lots of time to stand around and contemplate all aspects of being there (working on a set invariably involves lots of time standing around,) I found myself just as disconcerted as the first time, but for an entirely different reason.
It was the people. Patrons. Customers. The throngs of visitors who willingly, gladly, paid upwards of eighty dollars a head to get in. Eighty dollars at the low end. For multiple day visits, or passes permitting access to more than one park, the numbers climb steeply. All these people, so excited to be in this shopping mall. Beautifully designed, no doubt. With extraordinary attention to detail, certainly. Even so. A shopping mall. With an exorbitant price of admission.
What’s more, airfare and hotel accommodations for an entire family is a considerable expense. Most of the people I saw walking down that Main Street looked as if they came from neither California nor New York. Many of them had the appearance of small town folk. (That is the kindest way I can think of to say it.) How could they possibly afford a vacation at Disney?
I’m a struggling actor. If they weren’t paying me to be there, I would not have gone. It’s as simple as that. Looking around at the vast crowds of people walking past the set, I had to wonder. If they had so much money put aside, was there really nothing more important they could be spending it on?
The statue of Walt and Mickey held my attention for a long time. They are strolling together, with the magic castle lit up magnificently behind them. How much of this shameless expanse of commercialism had he envisioned when he took hands with the iconic mouse, creating a kingdom together?
To be fair, the machine of Disney is impressive, especially late at night when the park is closed and the worker elves come out to polish and shine every inch of the old-fashioned town of make believe. The items in the windows of the antique shops practically radiate authenticity. The paint on the fancy carved moldings is impossibly glossy and free of brush strokes. The best set designers and properties people in the business must have been gainfully employed throughout, and there is much to be said for that.
At one in the morning, the special effects department showed us one of their best tricks. The magic castle became covered with icicles, and then they made it snow. I saw how it was being done. Both the lighting and the snow. Gears and levers and coils and cogs. Still, it was convincing.
Of course, I love snow, and so was happy to accept the illusion. I guess we all have that choice. Take a bite from one apple, and see beyond the scenery. A bite from the other, and a spell is cast. Cynicism or belief. Both can be justified. It’s a question of which one serves us best.