Slate‘s advertising journalist, Seth Stevenson, is currently chronicling his five-day trip to Disney World from a marketing perspective, and I’m enjoying reading his dissection of Disney’s presentation of its image through the parks. For one thing, I think he expresses very neatly my dissatisfaction with Epcot (which Dan rated the best of the parks after our recent trip and I rated the lowest): “Once the fanfare [of the park's opening in 1982] faded, though, we began to sense that Epcot was a slightly odd duck. Disney had purposefully designed it to appeal more to young adults than to their offspring. It was bound to disappoint all but the nerdiest of children.” As Stevenson points out, attractions about “agriculture, automotive safety, and geography” don’t exactly scream childhood fun. That’s not to say that there was nothing for me to enjoy at Epcot, but then again, I’m 30, not 8, and, admittedly, rather nerdy.

That said, I think Stevenson’s assessment of Disney is overall rather harsh, and it’s not out of keeping with the kinds of derisive snorts I’ve encountered from Disney haters since returning. Those comments tend to revolve around contempt for the “Disneyfication” of American society, and I want to defend Disney against some of those charges. One argument the anti-Disney crowd typically brings is how fake everything is. Stevenson notes this, with a “Blah blah simulacra blah blah Baudrillard.” One of Stevenson’s examples is that the World Showcase at Epcot is not an accurate representation of what travel to those countries is actually like. I mean, fair enough, but did you expect it to be? And moreover, I have to defend Disney on this particular point, because the governments and ministries of culture of the countries represented at the World Showcase are the ones who determine what attractions to include, how to depict their country in their promotional film, and what aspects of their culture they want to highlight. So if, as Stevenson says, “the Morocco complex is just souvenir stores selling carpets and fezzes,” that’s on Morocco more than it is on Disney.

One of the other Disney criticisms I’ve heard is that “Disneyfication” has caused the world to be dumbed down to a child’s level. Disney, however, is in fact very clear that they make entertainment for a wide range of age groups. Not all Disney products are G-rated and acceptable (or accessible) to all children, nor should they be. Pirates of the Caribbean carries a PG-13 rating, and yet it’s a Disney property. The Disney Channel has separate blocks of entertainment aimed at toddlers (like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse) all the way up through teenagers (like High School Musical). Anybody who thinks these various properties are equally acceptable to any age group is crazy, and Disney doesn’t claim that they are. I don’t deny that there’s a push for completely child-safe content in American society right now, and it frustrates me, too, but that is coming from parents, not from Disney.

I think the final point I’d make is that the strongest Disney loathing tends to come from very liberal people, and I think their censure is misplaced. Disney consistently upholds some pretty liberal principles, as opposed to many other large conglomerates. I’m not arguing that it’s perfect; I acknowledge, for example, that the majority of Disney’s characters do portray a white, American, middle-class existence. Stevenson complains, too, that he’s seen “literally more French people [at Disney World] than African-Americans.” First of all, that doesn’t correspond to the experience we had in December, when the pleasantly surprising number of minority families we encountered was a subject of discussion between Dan and me back in the hotel room one evening. Perhaps Stevenson’s observation is specifically a factor of American schools being in session right now and French schools being on spring holiday. But moreover, in the last ten years Disney has produced movies depicting Chinese (Mulan) and Native American (Brother Bear) stories, and they have a new one coming out that will introduce their first African-American Disney Princess (The Princess and the Frog). (And, for the record, the Disney Princesses lineup already includes Jasmine from Aladdin.) In other words, they’re actively working to be inclusive of other cultures and traditions.

Further, every eatery at Disney, every hotel room, and even most places to simply throw away trash within the parks provides recycling opportunities. You have no excuse at Disney for throwing away your Aquafina bottle instead of recycling it; Jiminy Cricket stares at you from signs all over the place and admonishes you to recycle. Disney also has a long history of welcoming gay rights groups to the parks, which it continued to do even after intense pressure from protesters like the Southern Baptist Convention. If you’re looking for evil companies to demonize, as a liberal, I just think there are much more deserving targets than Disney.

4 Responses to “Disneyfied”

  1. regan
    March 26th, 2008 16:29

    When we went to Disney in February we noticed a ton of folks from the UK and France. After speaking with some of them, we learned that since the dollar is so weak right now it’s cheaper for them to come to Disney for vacation than to go almost anywhere else. And since America is on the brink (or midst depending on what news channel you watch) of a recession it would make sense that more foreign visitors would be in Disney than US residents.

    And on Epcot, we were there with a 5 year old and a 3 year old and they loved, LOVED, the few rides that are aimed at children, specifically the Nemo ones. The rest of the park caused a “meh” reaction.

  2. Erin
    March 26th, 2008 20:52

    I agree — the Nemo ride and all of the Sea pavilion was pretty cool. I personally really liked the Land, too, but I don’t think that’s a very kid-focused ride/area. I was very nonplussed by Spaceship Earth, though, and the Kodak ride with Eric Idle (I don’t remember the name) was just bizarre and boring.

  3. Dan
    March 27th, 2008 08:52

    (I can’t believe you didn’t link to me from the sentence “It was bound to disappoint all but the nerdiest of children.”)

  4. dsandler
    March 29th, 2008 14:13

    Also, I know you aren’t a fan of graphics accompanying your blog entries, but as it happens there exists a perfect photograph to illustrate this article:

    “It doesn't look real.”

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