by Rob Horning

28 March 2006


In the spirit of open-mindedness and discovery I decided to go to a place that I never thought I would be: Disney World, and in particular Epcot Center, which I was told was the “educational” park on the resort. But I wasn’t so open-minded not to have already prepared a thesis to test, an elaborate theory about reificiation of the ideas of “curiosity” and “discovery” and the efforts of Disney to capitalize on consumers’ habitual passivity but promising pseudo-interactivity and all that sort of thing. The premise—you pay them to do your imagining and discovering for you but then take the credit for it simply by showing up. As it says in the Epcot brochure: “Use your imagination and experience more of ours.” For some reason (general unfamiliarity and credulity, I think) I had it in my mind that Disney was actually really good at capturing the spirit of discovery and the excitement of new things and was capable of conveying the feeling of that without the substance. (This way they stifle the desire for substance and and reinforce the desire for shortcuts, for experience as a packaged thing rather than a process of which every step yields pleasure and personal betterment. Imagination is a process. not an experience, but Disney wants to invert that. Disney, I thought, was trying to hoard the “magic” of discovery and curiosity to itself, to corner the market on it.) I figured the whole point of the company was that its name guaranteed a tourist experience a cut above the run of the mill tourist traps.

Obviously, anyone who has been there knows it is the mother of all tourist traps, trading on the fame of the cartoons to hawk merchandise and pacify children. I was shocked at how shallow and second-rate Epcot was; the lameness was beyond all expectation. Epcot doesn’t reify curisoity; it pretends that it simply doesn’t exist. In Disney’s world, curiosity is extinct and all that is left is platitudes (“Over time, communication has changed!” “Man has learned over time to take care of the land!”) and empty spectacles, epitomized perfectly by the sail-by dioramas (with the weird robots acting out cliched scenes), the soaring films of landcape footage and the vapid tones the corporation’s “cast members” (aka wage slaves) are trained to take when making their mirthless recitations of any information that they are required to provide. Our guide on the “Living on the Land” ride spoke as if to make it clear that he had no idea what he was saying and none of us should really care about that. The tone he took to list (not explain or elaborate) the fruits of hydroponic agriculture was the exact same tone the minion in charge of the “O Canada” movie took when she instructed us not to sit on the lean rail. It is a tone to discourage questions and placate children. It’s a tone that doesn’t admit of inqusitiveness in any form, and it is the prevailing spirit of the park.

And very little need be said of the absurd “World showcase” exhibits meant to represent a dozen or so countries—these reduce cultures to a representative restaurant and gift shop, and perhaps, maybe a surround-screen movie shot in the 1980s featuring marching bands in a parade. (The same idiots who watch parades are perhaps the same people who flock to Disney World. Parades and pointless pagaentry seem to feature prominently in every aspect of the resort—the triumphal music that blares everywhere, the grandiose architecture, the uniforms, etc.) Not that one would expect anything resembling authenticity, but still—I’ve learned a lot more about Italy from reading the placemats at Sal & Joe’s than I did by visiting the Italy portion of Epcot.

So Epcot was a pretty much a waste of $60 for me (I had about ten zillion times more fun at Disney’s miniature golf courses, which are hidden away in nooks and crannies of the Disney fiefdom) but I looked around and I didn’t see too many discontented faces while I was there. It seemed like no one would have ever thought to question that what they had paid was worth it. “Worth it” probably wasn’t really a factor. Being able to be there at all is probably better understood as a middle-class rite of passage, a sign that you’ve made it into the mainstream. $60 is a small price to pay to feel like you belong in America.

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