Saturday, December 22, 2007

At Disney World...part I

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Last week Mme. D and I went to Disney World in Orlando. This is our 3rd trip together and my first since I began blogging. We left last Sunday the 16th and got back early on Friday morning just in time to encounter the snow that hit today.

I have always had a sort of love/hate relationship to Disney.
On the love side-as is the case with many of my generation, I grew up with Disney characters and movies. Watching the Walt Disney show on Sunday night was something I looked forward to. I fondly remember movies such as Flubber, and Swiss family Robinson.

My favorite movie when I was 10 or so was 101 Dalmations-not the recent remake but the original cartoon. I am not sure what I liked about this movie but was thinking about this just last night and I believe it had to do with the dogs communicating the plight of the kidnapped Dalmatians. I knew even at that age that animal communication is generally not so detailed but I remember thinking that there must be a whole secret world of communication we humans are not aware of. Of course this insight proved to be correct if the particulars were wrong.

At any rate, the movie was serialized in the comics and I loved the movie so much that I actually collected all the strips, taped them together in sequence and made a viewer out of a cardboard box and some pieces of wood so that I could run the strip backwards and forwards and pretend it was a TV-today we might say a VCR or DVD. What's odd is that 101 Dalmations also sensitized me to the flip side of Disney. Cruella Deville is totally dastardly and I can remember thinking that she has a French name. At that time I had become sensitized to a sort of mild ethnic dislike between the Irish and the French communities in my home town and wondered if Deville wasn't some sort of anti French swipe.

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The characters are very one dimensional
-that is part of the appeal for children and I don't think adults are immune from that appeal either. Disney today is a lot more than the cartoon characters-not only is it a media empire in all sorts of ways but the theme parks have expanded to vast merchandising and real estate empires. For instance we own a time share so we are able to stay in a Disney World resort, get transport to the parks do everything at the parks. For us it is a great vacation since my wife can no longer walk very far. Disney does take good care that its resorts and parks are friendly to persons with mobility related disabilities.

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But Disney today is I think in disconnect both from its roots and also from the natural world and very carefully manages the information the visitor receives about the the resort. Now some of this is because Disney is all about fantasy and part of what makes fantasy work is control of information. But several things strike me as odd about Disney World in Orlando. First of all while you can get maps of the individual parks that is Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom etc, there does not seem to be a readily available map showing the whole complex and how the different parks are connected. Second. When we first arrived the Disney Tour driver pointed out that Disney World in Orlando is the largest single site employer in the United States with 60, 000 employees-read cast members and also that by agreement with the State one half of the Disney property must be left natural. Yet I have not been able to find anything out about the natural side of Disney World and it does not seem accessible to visitors except as glimpsed while on the monorail system. What happens to the waste produced by the millions of visitors? How is Disney caring for the natural parts of its land, or is it?

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Another curious thing is the lack of insect life. Orlando ought to be swarming with insects and yet I saw very few insects on site-a couple of ants, a katydid and one zebra Long wing butterfly. Now you might go so what? Probably most people are like my wife and think I take pictures of strange things. As she said...most people go to Disney for the characters but you shoot pictures of plants. But consider this-last May there was a butterfly garden in Epcot; my wife had taken her Mom down last May and saw it. But the the whole thing was just temporary. The larvae are reared indoors and trucked outside and allowed apparently to emerge in a screened in area. Not quite what I had pictured for a butterfly garden.

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The whole Disney approach is technological, Julian Simon run amok. Now don't get me wrong I am not a luddite and I have always approved of the sort of forward vision that Disney has. But there is something curiously 20th century, curiously quaint and not in a nice way-about the disconnect between the corporate technology can solve everything and we really don't need nature and the the messiness of the real world. As I remind my students the real world is not Disney World.

This is the year of million dreams at Disney so I entertained myself and my wife... by dreaming of an alternative to Disney World called Paul's World. This would attractions such as:

  • The natural selection walk. Leave your I-pods at home and match wits with the natural world including big cats and not so friendly snakes.
  • The invasive species walk. Avoid the stinging fire ants, cut your way through Kudzu and help defend bluebirds from starlings.
  • Germ pavilion. Test your immune system against 20 great old time pathogens including Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Plasmodium vivax and Yersinia pestis!
  • Global warming water park. Experience the Florida of the the next century full of wonderful tropical parasites and snakes to challenge even the most seasoned survivalist.
  • Creationist wonder park. Thanks to the wonders of synthetic biology combined with genetic archeology, come to the Jurassic and see just how well Adam and Eve would fare if they lived with dinosaurs. By the way, you play Adam or Eve.

Somehow my wife doesn't think these would be popular attractions. Perhaps not. But if I can dream more realistically then I dream that Disney will find a way to get out of the whole Spaceship Earth 20th century technology can do everything rut and turn its considerable resources to bringing about better understanding of the natural world-lessen that disconnect we have as a civilization towards nature at precisely the time when understanding the connection between humans and the rest of the natural world is so critical.

Yes I know, Disney is about fantasy but fantasy can be consciousness raising and it doesn't have to be heavy handed about it either. Maybe all it takes is a real butterfly garden with native butterflies and native vegetation. Maybe all it takes is a bit more transparency and a bit more show casing of the natural side of Disney and just a bit less merchandising of prepackaged dreams.

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