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The Daddest Place on Earth

Merry Moor Winnett Dumbo (1975) via Smithsonian

The low-budget unsanctioned film Escape from Tomorrow is a better-than-documentary look inside the Freudian neurotics of the Magic Kingdom

When people die in Disney World, medics, who arrive in unmarked emergency vehicles, treat and talk to the corpse as though it’s just a passed-out visitor, so as not to alarm other guests and dispel the magic. By policy no one actually dies on Disney property—they are always still “alive” until they arrive at a hospital, outside the confines of the theme park. This last, at least, according to anonymous employees in the book Inside the Mouse, whose reports are sufficiently tangled up with rumor and urban legend at this point to make none of these claims “verifiably true”—claims which Disney has, furthermore, frequently quashed with the threat of a libel suit.TNI Vol. 23: Shelter is out next week. Subscribe now for $2 and get yours Monday.

What is clear is that people die at Disney World, and Disneyland, and EPCOT, not because of ride malfunction so much as undetected congenital heart conditions, heat stroke, or other illnesses. And workers die on the job—drivers, maintenance, performers: a lot of head trauma from failed acrobatic stunts or falls from catwalks. Like any place where lots of people work and lots of people are—Disney World sees over 20 million visitors per year, and employs over 66,000 “cast members”—people die.

Whether or not accounts of EMTs in Disney uniforms cooing reassurances to corpses as they pass through Adventureland are literally true, they have sufficient reality to make us nod knowingly and think of Jean Baudrillard. Death in Disney World is such an obvious irony that it approaches banality. But the question of sexuality in the Magic Kingdom is a more interesting one; a lot more people are fucking at Disney resorts than dying. What kind of desire could flourish in the never-never land of permanent childhood, or, at least, in the rigidly familial atmosphere of the world’s most notorious simulacra?

The low-budget film Escape from Tomorrow makes a pretty good case that Disneyworld is a territory particularly attuned to both the fantasies and the exposure of rather pervy, borderline-pedophilic middle-aged male sexuality. Shot entirely and illegally on Disney premises, the guerrilla film portrays the surreal and sometimes horrific last day of a family vacation in Orlando.  Sold in its promotional materials mostly as a sort of horror-sci-fi, the film’s generic components are less central to the film’s running time and interest then the squeamish laying bare of the Dad and his pathetic desires.

The first scene sees schlubby, overweight Jim, in nothing but a pair of swim trunks, standing on the balcony outside his family’s hotel room, getting fired by his boss over the phone. As he finishes the conversation he turns to find his ten-year-old son, Elliott, staring threateningly from inside the room. With a sadistic grin, and over the useless protests of Jim, the boy locks the glass door to the balcony and climbs into bed with his sleeping mother, throwing his arm over her.

If we must enter the world of the Oedipal, it is a relief to have it gleefully, cheekily portrayed on the surface, rather than running as silent ur-text for critics to tease out. As the family of four (Eliott has a sister, Sara) ride the monorail from their hotel to the park, a gamboling pair of teenage French girls in short-shorts and tank-tops enter. From a distance they smile and fawn at Elliott, who bashfully grins at them from behind his mother’s arm. Jim leers, and father and son notice each other’s attention, and attentions received. So does Jim’s wife, Emily.

This scene seems incidental as we watch the family take pictures in front of Cinderella’s Castle and go on rides. The rides’ hanging figures are beautiful and eerie in the high-contrast black and white of the film, strange floating phantoms against a pitch-black background. The lack of color strips Disney World of its childish exuberance and removes much of its ugliness. The aesthetic of theme parks is total sensory excess: gaudy overwhelming explosions of color and light, blaring music, screaming children, wafting odors of fried dough, heat, jostling crowds. The choice of black and white and the optimistic orchestral score denaturalize the space from its usual figuring as consumerist hell—which of course it is—and recapture some of Disneyworld’s wonder and appeal and opens it to more intimate, contemplative, and sinister modes.

That doesn’t mean Escape From Tomorrow doesn’t make that critique. Jim has a hallucinatory breakdown in the dark waterway of It’s A Small World. The hanging figures bare vampire teeth and hiss at him. Elliott’s eyes go all pool-of-infinite-blackness ala The Grudge. Emily, her face distorted in a fish-eye lens, tells Jim she hates him and he’s not Elliott’s father. But if these images are the ones that dominate the trailer, their sudden emergence 15 minutes in feels disjointed, their symbolism obvious. Any college freshman who has heard the word existentialism can tell you that Disney World is creepy and alienating, with its claims to being the “happiest place on earth,” its dys/Utopian “Main Street, USA.” The obviousness of this criticism becomes clear through the ease, the shorthand, even the suddenness with which Escape From Tomorrow deploys it.

Things get much more interesting as, having split off from the girls to go on the Buzz Lightyear ride, father and son once again catch sight of the two French teens luridly eating bananas. Both are captivated but Jim becomes obsessed, dragging Elliott on ride after ride to follow them, who eventually asks him why they’re following “those girls.” Jim deflects his questions, but Elliott isn’t convinced, asking Jim if he thinks they’re pretty. This will become the main narrative thread of the film—Jim, pretending innocence and good will, lusts after and follows these girls, but everyone, his children, his wife, the girls themselves, can see his desire plainly. His constant disavowal, even in the face of an invitation to “come with us” from one of the girls near the end of the film, fools no one, and when he tells her he can’t join them because he’s afraid something bad would happen, the girl consummates his hypocrisy by spitting in his face. This hypocrisy will prove fatal for Jim, as the girl’s spit contained Cat Flu, an influenza epidemic imported from France that the park and its employees are trying to cover up.

***

One of the things that is so compelling about Disney World, both to its visitors and its critics, is the totality of its vision. Unlike other amusement parks, which may have a theme but generally content themselves with a smattering of rides, games, eating, and shopping centers, Disney World is built around a futurist vision meant to capture everything. As William van Wert argues in his essay “Disney World and Post History,” the layout of the Magic Kingdom park gestures towards total temporal domination, with past, present, and future all spread across a single plane that can be traversed easily in a single day. You approach through Main Street, USA, a shopping strip meant to evoke the small towns of Walt Disney’s turn-of-the-century youth, then move through Cinderella’s Castle, which opens out onto Frontierland, full of pioneers, cowboys, and Tom Sawyer’s boat ride (not a whole lot of slaves or Mexicans, however) on one side, and Tomorrowland on the other with its 3D movie theater, Space Mountain, and Buzz Lightyear rides. All of American history flattened into a series of aesthetically differentiated but affectively identical zones of fun—a massive planned procedure of dehistoricization.

Meanwhile, the EPCOT center effects a sociological and technological flattening, presenting itself as the summation of all technological progress and heterogeneous global experience. EPCOT stands for the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” and was envisioned by Walt Disney himself as a futurist city entirely controlled by the Disney corporation:

It will be a city that caters to the people as a service function. It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities. In EPCOT there will be no landowners and therefore no voting control. No slum areas because we will not allow them to develop. People will rent houses instead of buying them, and at modest rentals. There will be no retirees. Everyone must be employed.

Such a town was well outside of the financial capabilities of the Disney corporation at the time of Walt’s death in 1966. It wasn’t until the founding of Celebration, Florida in the 90s that Disney actually ran a mixed residential and commercial community. Celebration was designed, planned, built and given charter by Disney, but is not nearly so directly managed, built on a neo-liberal consensus model rather than the fascist-Utopian city Disney envisioned.

Still, the EPCOT park, with its aspiration towards being a year-round World’s Fair, does not lack in grandiose designs of social control and historical totality. Half of the park is called Future World, with its famous globe “Spaceship Earth,” which features an exhibit about the history of communications technology, and other mildly educational ride-exhibits titled things like Universe of Energy and The Land (about nature, agriculture, and food production). EPCOT also features the “World Showcase,” which features pavilions representing nine countries—Mexico, France, Japan, Germany, Norway, China, Morocco, the UK, Canada, Italy, and “The American Adventure”—filled with shopping centers and restaurants themed around the nation, along with further pseudo-educational exhibitions.

Despite Disney’s futurist/modernist designs, this massive project of flattening history, future, technology, and science into an eternal and consumable present, sold as a perfect childhood experience seamlessly combining fun and education, sounds rather more like the vanguard of End of History postmodernism. For cultural theorists like Baudrillard and Umberto Eco, this is precisely what Disney World represented: the transcendent victory of simulation over reality.

But eleven years after Baudrillard wrote “Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the ‘real country’…whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real,” Angelenos would prove otherwise in riots that spread across the West Coast and shook the whole country. The breakdown of the symbolic order, the problem of any signification’s potential capture by reaction, did not spell the end of reality but has rather been resolved in the streets through riots and social movements.

Disney World made sense as the symbolic center of America only as long as America’s ideological projection of itself as “the good totality” successfully hid its massive economic inequality, its inexorable transformation into a police state, and its function as a global military empire. Perhaps Donald Duck provides sufficient cover for “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo, but the naked violence and domination of the Iraq War and the War on Terror requires a stronger, more teeth-baring image of American benevolence.

What to make, then, of Disney World? The route Baudrillard et. al. take reads Disney World from above, schematically and through its own claims about what makes it desirable. But Escape From Tomorrow steals images directly from the park itself to talk about what sort of experiences and subjectivities emerge from actually going to the place. At a New York Q+A, writer and director Randy Moore discussed how the film reflects his own relationship to his father, and his adulthood suspicion and disillusionment with the man who took the family to Disney World. In light of this knowledge, it could be easy to see the film as little more than a bit of Freudian revenge, were it not for the sort of bland everydad that Jim clearly represents and the way the symbology of Disney World so seamlessly supports a #nodads psychodrama.

The film, which wears its Freud on its sleeve, is full of phallic imagery. On arriving at the EPCOT center, Jim comments “It’s a giant testicle!” One scene takes place within a ride centered around a fountain that spurts a constant stream of water straight up into the air. Elliott watches the fountain with wonder. This massive erection is cross-cut with Jim anxiously watching the French girls. As opposed to the editorial special effects deployed in It’s a Small World sequence, here the technique of secretly filming within the park’s regular operations pays massive dividends—the glances of the actors might be staged, but the park is being filmed as is. That such imagery is readily available, and that the park is so amenable to a story about lecherous, desirous glances and approaches, ties the film’s themes inexorably to the territory in which they’re produced.TNI Vol. 23: Shelter is out next week. Subscribe now for $2 and get yours Monday.

Disney World is a place that both empowers the paterfamilias and totally reveals his impotence: he brings the family there but then gives up all power once within the park itself, which designs and manages the experience from the parking lot forward.  Dragged along entirely by his childrens’ desire—to which, by bringing them there, he has gestured at consenting—pushed ever forward by the park’s perfect flows, the father must struggle to keep any authority at all. Disney World out-dads the individual dad by giving his kids everything they want—as long as it remains within Disney’s aggressively circumscribed vision of reality and happiness. A vision that is nevertheless much more appealing to the kids than dad’s equally circumscribed world of work, school, family commitment, and finances. In the end, dad can only buy his kids admission to this much grander vision, his authority and worldview diminished to the fundamental dimensions of its validity: his purchasing power.

In the Q+A, Moore said that at an earlier screening he was approached by two women who had grown up in Orlando. They told him that as teenagers they would do exactly as the french girls: dress sexily and run around the Magic Kingdom, teasing the dads into revealing their lecherous gazes to their families. At Disney World, the dad, stripped of the massive power of his “because I said so,” in the face of massive crowds and an uber-dad with whom he could never compete, is revealed in all his buffoonish absurdity.

The dreamed-of futuro-fascist EPCOT, Walt’s cryogenic eternity, the aggressively infantilizing atmosphere of Disney World, the total cleansing of experience so that there is nothing out of control, out of explanation, out of Disney’s prescribed image of childhood and family life: what could be a better description of Dad politics?

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