Photo by Scott Smith: https://www.flickr.com/photos/scottrsmith/
Before last Tuesday, I had visited the Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Florida just once, 26 years ago, at the age of 12, in October 1989. My husband had been once before too, also on a family vacation, when he was eight. His parents spotted a bargain fly-drive deal in the newspaper and broke the news to him and his ten-year-old sister just a couple of days before they were due to go. The big announcement came after dinner: “We’re going to Orlando!” The children ran into the bedroom to trade excited whispers about their impending trip to the city where the real-life Disney World was! The actual one! How amazing to be so close to it! It didn’t even cross their minds that they might actually be going to Disney World itself. That was just too much.
To British kids in the late eighties, everything American was the ultimate in cool: Coca-Cola, Michael Jackson, Converse boots, baseball caps, Michael J Fox, Madonna, McDonalds… and, of course, Mickey and Minnie. Going to Disney – Land or World – was by definition ‘the trip of a lifetime’, the kind of vacation you won on a game show or raised money to give to kids with cancer so they could see it before they died. If you got to go to Disney, you were almost certainly the only one in your class (apart from that one who lied about it or possibly genuinely couldn’t tell the difference between truth and fiction), and on return it was sure to earn you playground celebrity status for a good two weeks at least.
Things were a bit different for us in 2015. We’d been living in America for the past eight years and would be returning to the Magic Kingdom as parents with our seven-year-old son, born and raised in the USA. Many of his friends had already been, some of them multiple times, it being just one state away. So, while to him it was not quite the impossibly exotic escapade that once blew his parents’ tiny minds, he’d been keen to go for a while and was excited.
The sustained success of Disney’s parks and resorts is extraordinary by any standards. The Magic Kingdom has consistently topped the rankings of the most popular amusement parks in the world, attracting 19.33m visitors in 2014, with eight of the other nine in the top ten also owned by Disney. This is perhaps especially impressive given the rather breathtaking prices: our day passes to the Magic Kingdom cost more than $100 each. As a point of comparison, we could have traded just one of them for a year’s family membership to the zoo or children’s museum in Atlanta.
The Florida property is much larger than Disneyland in California; apparently Mr. Walt, who actually died before construction on it started in 1967, had become dismayed by some of the other businesses that had opened up around his first park so wanted a bigger lot this time to keep the neighbors at bay. And its scale is indeed awe-inspiring. At 27,258 acres – about the size of San Francisco – it houses four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Disney Hollywood Studios), 27 resort hotels, nine non-Disney hotels, two water parks, several golf courses, a camping resort, a shopping district and a number of other entertainment venues. And yet, as you drive in, what you mostly see is roads and green spaces. As a riffraff-distancing strategy, it’s pretty watertight.
The transportation from the vast parking lot runs wonderfully smoothly and everything is clean and gleaming (Disney spends $100m a year on maintenance at the Magic Kingdom alone) – or at least it was on September 15th, a date rated by Undercover Tourist as a 2 out of 10 for crowds. The place was by no means deserted (“If this is a two, I wouldn’t like to see a five” – my husband), but we didn’t spend a long time waiting in line. So far, so most magical place on earthTM.
As we began to walk around, what struck me immediately was how little had changed since 1989. A few rides have come and gone, and there’s an inevitable Starbucks disguised as the ‘Main Street Bakery’, but the bulk of the attractions (which actually number just 34 in total, not counting sideshows, stores and so on) and the overall atmosphere very much matched my memories. That said, of course everything’s different through grown-up eyes. You see the gears and the levers moving (my husband found himself spotting blown lightbulbs in It’s A Small World – just the sort of thing he recalled his father doing 30-odd years before) and, if you’re any sort of cynic – which, admittedly, many of the visitors, especially those who go without kids (some on honeymoon!), probably aren’t – you can’t help looking for tiny cracks in the pristine façade, or the briefest shadow of weariness passing across the face of a ‘cast member’ (Disney’s word for an employee) in split-second lapses between bright sunny smiles.
Though it wouldn’t have bothered me as a twelve-year-old, our guide on the Jungle Cruise – one of the rides I remembered most clearly – rattled off her prepared spiel so quickly and carelessly it was almost inaudible, which, as a thirty-hmph-year-old I was finding irritating until, just before the ride ended, she alluded briefly to the fact that, once we left, she’d be doing exactly the same thing again, every ten minutes for who knows how many hours and days to come. My soul ached for a brief moment, my mind flitting back to the brief but hellish time I spent working as a greeter at a women’s fashion store. My son felt no such empathy, of course, and declared the ride his favorite, especially the two real ducks on the dockside, the only non-robot animals he’d see all day.
While my husband and I were quite happy indulging in a bit of nostalgia, we came away from the Magic Kingdom feeling that it was frozen in time – a theme park of a theme park, if you will. Some of the attractions – the Carousel of Progress, the Hall of Presidents and the super-kitsch and abominably-scripted Walt Disney’s Tiki Room, enjoyable only for the air-conditioning – were created for the 1964-5 World’s Fair, and are really tributes to Disney’s history, in no way designed to pique the interest of a modern kid. The Carousel of Progress is an audio-animatronic presentation in a revolving auditorium, where on taking your seats you are instructed through a speaker that attempting to leave before the end of the 20-minute show will cause the whole thing to malfunction. Thus we were condemned to spend 17 minutes tackling our son as he tried to get up, struggling to explain in manic whispers why – though, yes, it did sound unlikely – him making a quiet exit would ruin things for everyone. I was just glad he was seven and not three.
Now, I must make some disclaimers. My son, whilst more than willing to don a sparkly necklace from time to time, is not a princess fanatic. Nor is he robust enough for rollercoasters. So what may be the main pulls for other families didn’t apply to us – although I note that only a handful of the rides include any significant thrill element, so I’m not sure if that alone would justify the ticket price compared with, say, Six Flags or other high-adrenaline alternatives. Outside of princesses and thrills, most of the attractions at the Magic Kingdom are based on spectacle. And, of course, a 2015 child is much more spoiled in terms of entertainment and sensory stimulation than a 1989 child was. My son enjoyed these rides well enough but the wow factor has inevitably weakened in a world of 3D films and other easily-available multi-media extravaganze, and I rather doubt whether, had we gone on a more crowded day, he would have tolerated standing in line for his fourth or fifth such experience.
Disappointingly, one of the newer rides we were keen to try, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, turned out to be a dull shooting game with no instructions, where you sat in a seat with a lever you could use to turn it sharply for an instant crick in your neck. In terms of technology, it felt very unambitious. Also, it was only tangentially related to the Toy Story movies, which prompted the broader question: why don’t they make much more of Disney’s best-loved stories? Some of the rides have no connection with them at all. Where’s Mary Poppins? Or the Lion King (except in Simba parking lot)? The Aladdin ride is just a bunch of magic carpets rotating around a central pole. It feels like a lost opportunity for extra magic.
When we were kids, amusement parks were the anti-museums, places of pure fun where, for once, we could feel protected from any mean grown-ups trying to make us (mandatory eye roll) learn something. That sharp distinction between experiences designed for pleasure and those designed for education has faded over the last 30 years. Many modern museums are highly interactive and child-focused, designed to promote learning through fun, not instead of it. In this context, it was notable that none of the rides at the Magic Kingdom, apart from a couple of the boring, un-kid-friendly ones preserved from the sixties, incorporated any educational element at all. This, too, felt old-fashioned. But perhaps when you’re as resoundingly successful as Disney continues to be, it’s hard to find the motivation to update or innovate.
Overall, my son enjoyed the Magic Kingdom – he’d decided he was going to before he went, and the reality, while less than magical, was pleasing enough that he wasn’t forced to change his position. For him, and I presume many other kids like him, the attraction of Disney was more about the idea of going than the substantive experience of being there, which, in my view, carries more than a whiff of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Naturally, as parents, we want our kids to be happy and are ready to sacrifice for the sake of that goal, but why anyone would choose to spend multiple days there, or go without kids, or with kids too small to appreciate it or put up with waiting in line, is frankly a mystery to me. Maybe those millions of people who do so are able to find fun where I cannot. Or maybe, just like the children, they’ve bought the idea of fun they’ve been sold by the amazing marketers at Disney.