As the stretch limo crept along an access road to a large wall of strange shapes, my spirit died. This was what the long promised Magic Kingdom was all about? This was the Happiest Place on Earth? The Happiest Place on Earth slowly became the most miscreant marketing ploy on the planet.
Pearlessence spires of white and pastel blue reach effortlessly into a cloudless aquamarine sky. A single golden taper stretches out its ornate finger to try and touch the sun. Walls of marble meet and meld like effortless pieces in a picture puzzle to paradise. Weeping willows offer graceful curtsies, velvet valets at the doorstep to a daydream, their branches laden with leaves so lush and yellow/green they appear to be painted. An elegant eggshell boat, shaped like an enormous, bowing swan, swims slowly and effortlessly through a crystal clear lagoon.
You take it all in at once. The scene registers in your mind and then explodes. The sensation overloads the synapses and the image begins to loose its detail. The vision becomes obscure, colors and curves merging into a single spectacle. The heart leaps as the eyes refocus, the breath that had been suddenly stolen away finally makes a marginal reappearance in your chest. It's still there, like a beacon to better times and brighter days, a medieval fortress of such fairytale grace and comic book beauty that the desire to get drunk off its aura over and over again is irresistible. Suddenly, you remember where you are. You sense the special magic in the air and can almost taste the tears of joy.
We have landed. Ground Zero. The new nexus of American popular culture. An oasis in the middle of the Florida peninsula. An escape from the tempest and turbulence of the wounded world around it (a realm, in reality, this place fails to even recognize as existing). It's more than a vacation destination or a themed amusement park mixing the carnival with the conceptual to turn family entertainment existential. It's a lost world, Atlantis from the hands of animators and heads of imagineers. At this center spot in the middle of this electric Eden, the rest of the otherworldly dominion lay before you. To the left is a massive man-made tree, a strange symbol with stairs leading up its trunk. Slightly above and to the right is a Victorian mansion, guarded by an army of iron gates and a surreal cemetery. A quick turn in the opposite direction and it is the future draped in all those innocent blueprints of the past; a '50s ideal of tomorrow removed of all hints of politics or unpleasantness. Directly behind you lies Main Street USA, a mock-up of small town America dripping with nostalgia and turn-of-the-century conservatism. And at the core of it all, like the answer to a prayer or the bequest from a wish, stands a castle, a citadel to everlasting youth and the "happily ever after" that usually comes from a "once upon a time".
It's mid-December, 1971. Just two months before, on October 25, this regal realm opened its doors to the public, its beginning was the end of the line for one man's life-long dream. After taking his grandchildren to a local festival and finding the features wanting, Walt Disney decided to use his enormous wealth and even larger imagination to create the ultimate getaway. His first foray into this type of vacation destination was set in Anaheim, California's Disneyland. Small in scale and limited in scope (mostly by its location), Walt's wonder was less of a territory and more like a trademark. Thinking bigger and better, Disney wanted to expand his vision to include a planned community and other ambitious adventures. He needed space, room to experiment and invent. The endless orange groves in central Florida provided the vast openness he needed.
Sadly, Disney died before he could see his greatest achievement unveiled to the public. Even when the floors were polished, the hedges trimmed in topiary extreme, and the last animatronic circuit tested, this new "world" was ready, and yet there was still something missing. Back in 1955, Walt had silently walked the entire grounds of Disneyland before its opening, the omnipotent being giving his far-reaching creation one last inspection before the public was allowed to bask in its good times glory. When Disney World opened, the only entity making the rounds that late October evening was the beloved animator's ghost, a true spirit confirming that this new version matched his original vision.
On that particular December day, with the park so new you could smell the paint, plaster, and the sweat that went into it, I got my own personal glimpse of this paradise. My father, who had just been named the head coach of the Chicago Bears, was coming to Orlando to WALT DISNEY WORLD! to participate in a month of sport celebrity sightings. My mother, younger sister and brother, along with a few ancillary relatives, rode in a Winnebago from the wintry North to the sunnier climes of the South in an escapade best saved for another time, another couple cups of coffee. As we pulled the land cruiser into the corporate offices at Lake Buena Vista, we were greeted like gods, given special passes and intricate instructions. We were making a grand entrance near the end of some place called Main Street. There would be reporters and cameras. We would stop and pose in preplanned "football" tableaus. Then my father would take a few moments to speak with the media as we were shuttled off into another room. It all sounded very undercover and spy-like, and my 10-year-old mind relished every aspect. We were loaded into limousines, air conditioners blasting ice cold, and driven to the back entrance of the park. As row after row of fruit laden citrus trees sailed by, the excitement level increased. We rounded the first corner and saw a sign: "Walt Disney World Employee and VIP Entrance Only". We had arrived.
It was the biggest construction site the world ever witnessed. Seemingly millions of men hurried over mounds of dirt, iron grids and veritable ponds of concrete in what looked like a futile attempt to make some manner of building progress. As the stretch limo crept along an access road to a large wall of strange shapes, my spirit died. This was what the long promised Magic Kingdom was all about? This was the Happiest Place on Earth? Having lived across the street from the Wrigley Building in downtown Chicago and watched as IBM's new office tower dwarfed the Sun-Times building and Marina Apartments, I had seen massive assembly before, and this was not impressive. It was scattered and unorganized. A twisted column stood in the middle of an empty space. A stack of bricks outlined some manner of monolithic building. The high sunshine washed all the elements of their details, rendering them a vague gray that turned the area into a singular soup of sameness.
As the cars finally parked near a large, plywood facade, my mind was already made up. Disney World was awful. It was a con, a bait and switch stab at the center of my foolish juvenile pride. For as long as I could remember, I lived the Disney ideal. I collected Mickey Mouse paraphernalia and kept close tabs on the studios many amusement moves. This new World had promised to be the culmination of so many of the House of Mouse's imagination principles that, to me, it would be the Valhalla of my own adolescent daydreams.
So here I was, the lead in the long line of Gibrons about to pass through a small, non-descript door and into the same old sports appearance song and dance. Behind us, the dashed hopes of expectation were drowning in the drone of cement mixers. Waiting for a signal and hoping that, once the door was opened, the promotion would be over quickly (the sooner to leave this disappointing place the better), I straighten my clip-on tie, wiped the first bead of perspiration from my brow and, when the hand was raised, opened the portal . . .
That Magic Feeling, Revived
Flashes and faces, that eerie murmur of people excited and gathering. Smatterings of cheers and non-descript applause. I walk into the middle of a small atrium, no bigger than an average living room, and directly before the line of fire. Cameras click off frame after frame and necks careen to see what is happening. As the rest of the family takes their prearranged poses, the strobe flashes increase. Amid the explosions of light, there is time to drink in the new surroundings. There is a wealth of gorgeous foliage around us; more plants and flowers than you ever normally see in the North. The architecture has changed, from building site shoddy to old-fashioned fixtures and baroque brickwork. Off in the distance a calliope plays and the sounds of celebration are audible. As the performance continues, a look to the sky reveals a break in the trees. There stands a white tower topped with a blue crown, its sole black window winking from just beyond the front. I focus on that image until we are whisked off to another room. Questions and congratulations come far too fast to register, and before I know it, my father is leading the way through another door. As it opens, my soul shifts, then leaps.
Beyond the wood and the ever-revving dump trucks is the real Disney World, the COMPLETED parts of the Magic Kingdom. Tomorrowland is still "under construction" with just a few futuristic archways illustrating the retro-techno miracles to come. We turn up the cobblestone road of Main Street USA and the feeling is astounding; like being tossed backwards at dizzying speed into a squeaky clean past of pastoral beauty. Shops with evocative names like "emporium" and "saloon" line either side of the street. People gather around to get a better glimpse of the featured celebrities. Flash, cheer the visuals change like a slide in a carousel. There, again, is the tower I had seen, now sitting atop the most spectacular palace I have ever seen. It is sadly elegant, a mystical vision in stone. As we move closer to it, it becomes even more impressive. It beckons us into the ephemera of its entrance. As we pass through the doorway, we can see the intricate mosaics that grace each wall.
Sensory overload again, mind shutting down. Walking aimlessly as more and more marvels passed by. The crowds swell and follow. We move along a line of kiosks with confusing names: "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" and "Peter Pan's Flight" The heat rises. The overwhelming feeling of being watched by thousands of eyes comes over me. Suddenly, we duck into a side entrance. Our host, an amiable ex-football player who had arranged this appearance as part of a PR campaign (he was one of Disney's Florida marketing team), asked us to wait in a small hallway, half lit by a single light.
Another door opens and the music is deafening. Within 30 seconds, the refrain is buried in the brain: " . . . it's a small world, after all/ it's a small world after all . . ." and we are moving down a gantry to a floating set of seats. The Gibrons take an entire flotilla and the journey begins. As one of the Magic Kingdom's signature rides unfolds before us, everything else about the day, good or bad, disappears. Small, comic cartoon figures cavort and clank for our enjoyment. It seems like the entire spectrum of outside existence just vanished. We are enveloped in the enchantment of flawlessly executed whimsy, awash in emotions pure and perfect. As the mechanical happiness pours from the robot residents of this tiny planet, we too find ourselves filled with a sense of possibility and universal brotherhood. The jingle plays on and on, through each generalized culture and concept that makes up the populace of Earth. Suddenly the importance of sports, interfamilial competition and the growing pains of childhood are scattered to the cool, air-conditioned winds. The medium becomes, and is, the message. It indeed is a small world, after all, and there is just so much that we share throughout the world that it is time we are made aware of it.
We depart the boat and head up the exit. The intoxicating stupor of silly happiness is still there, and it barely ebbs as we continue from one phantasmagoric phenomenon to another: a trip 20,000 leagues under the sea; a cavalcade of ex-Presidents walking and talking their way through an abbreviated history of the nation; a haunted house full of fun frights and goofy ghouls. Everything from the information booths to the fancy rainbow tickets suggests offerings of amusement that will surpass our wildest expectations. Cartoons come to life and dance before our eyes. Beloved films find a way to translate their multifaceted magic into three-dimensional dreamscapes. For a young child, Walt Disney World is a sugar rush, a birthday/Christmas package all rolled up into a snow day and ripe for the taking.
For adults, it is a safe and secure enclave, a way to keep the confusions and conflicts of the real world at bay while the wonders of a disconnected entertainment reality came beckoning. Though obviously aimed at the small fry, many of the "lands" created by Disney's designers touched on tradition and nostalgia; from the streets of small town USA with all its throwback charms, to the obtuse, twisted vision of a future filled with lunar colonies and intimidating technological advances. With the sun setting, and dinner time ringing its park clearing bell, the carefully cleaned avenues and paths of this pristine playground prepared for a breather, a chance to recollect its pixie dust before draping another dose on those who dared to stay until the 9:00pm closing time.
Where Did the Magic Go?
It went on like this for days. Pictures, patter, and then on to the park. After a week, it was all over. It was back to the snow and sludge in Chicago as the holidays called. Bedazzled and bedraggled, we couldn't see it then. No one really could. In Florida, as the baking rays of the Sunshine State illuminated the last views of those perfect castle towers, as the warmth floated over the dazed and delighted visitors as well as the workers still pushing to finish the projects, Walt Disney's diorama planted seeds of discontent that only a return trip could satisfy. Like a joy junkie, another fix of fantasy and fun was the only thing that could satisfy the craving.
And there was another issue, one lying slyly under the surface of this super-sized sensory stimulator. The outward aspects should have been a hint. In 1971, Disney World had a dress code, a "no counterculture" creed that suggested an exclusive Establishment country club. Rumors swirled that hippies were turned away at the gate and no one seemed out of step with the "Love it or Leave it" mantra of the silent majority. Everywhere you looked, men wore sport coats and dress shirts, while women donned dresses and fashionable pant suits. This was not a typical day at the State Fair or a trip to the local zoo. This was an Event Environment and people put on their best jingoistic jodhpurs to keep in step. The Magic Kingdom was so named not just because of the flights of fancy it offered, but for the cocoon of conformity and non-confrontation it created.
And just like that humoresque hunger from which there is no satiating, as a leisure time measure, Disney World set up rewritten rules so concrete and clever they would never be altered again. Until you had experienced the marvels of Walt's wonderland, a true vacation had not been had. Parents scrimped and saved, earmarking holidays years in advance as the instance when their family would finally be part of the restricted and fashionable elite. A trip to the Magic Kingdom was like a coming-out party for the diminutive debutantes of the grade school set. It was a bragging right, a symbol of success, an indication that your family, no matter how hard it seemed for them to make the mortgage or keep you in decent shoes, had found a way to treat you to the ultimate trip into the terrific. And there was a sense of accomplishment for Mom and Dad too, a "we found a way" badge of honor worn with pride and purpose, knowing that they had sacrificed so much to achieve quality time with the progeny.
As the years went by and everything became as cost preventative as a trip to Disney World, the luster from that particular vacation jewel dimmed. Then the stone was revalued and reshaped. Soon, anyone could get into the expensive empire and uniqueness gave way to that most destructive element to dreamlands: easy access. Additional aspects of the vision were explored, but it all soon seemed like extensions of the same mentality. There was no closed community concept at the heart of Epcot, no working animation factory fun at the Disney-MGM Studios. Just as it would come to represent the rest of their product throughout the '80s and '90s, the Happiest Place on Earth slowly became the most miscreant marketing ploy on the planet.
Today, Disney World is a sullen, shallow shadow of its former self. Overrun by the omnipresent juvenilization of the nation, everything is geared toward exploiting child time and minimizing parental pleasures. Mass marketed and media hyped to a point of frenzied fakeness, the world Walt once planned as the ultimate in familial fun is now an overpriced, under-performing relic to regressive thinking. Crowded, cramped, dirty and near anarchic in its free-for-all functioning, the relaxing aspects that once peppered the landscape have all but disappeared. Where once there was an almost serene sense of community, an overbooked mob mentality has taken its place. Too many people all wanting to do the same thing at the same time.
The Swan Boats have closed, the days of a casual float around the perimeter of Cinderella's ice cream castle long over. Shows that used to feature classic characters cavorting to classic songs have been replaced by sound bite symbols of the latest television or film franchise. Adults, hoping to maximize the wee ones' park participation, make reservations for line placement to key attractions, micro-managing their experience of the World's worn-our wistfulness into easily digestible segments. Dirty diapers are changed on once picturesque benches and everyone feels overtired, overheated, and overwhelmed. In contrast to 1971, the beleaguered now bask in a commercial overkill zone of hyperactive hard sells, a non-stop barrage of oppressive options guaranteed to maximize profits.
But like a single snapshot kept and cared for in a scrapbook over the years, a definitive image of the Magic Kingdom the way it used to be can still be envisioned, if only you remove the cynicism from your mind and the irony from your heart. Locked within this callous world of short attention span tabloid temperaments, there is still a little bit of enchantment left. It shows itself every once is a while, like a groundhog of glad tidings peeking out of his hole to see whether or not we are going to have six more millenniums of rancor . . . or revelry.
True, in a world where the news proclaims doom as the pundits describe gloom, we are left looking for those small moments of magic. And at one time and in one place, they seemed to exist in perfect synchronicity. Secluded among the orange and yellow fruits of the tropics and dappled with non-stop sunshine like God's own private spotlight, those magnificent milky towers in their lithe cobalt hats still point ever upward toward the realm of dreams. Sure, the surroundings are burdened by advertisements and other attention getters. The trees no longer bow gracefully, but rather break to the will of designers looking for one last square-foot of space. People pack together in thankless throngs, filling up the streets and sidewalks with an unruly combination of noise and anxiety, each face trying to find the fun in a mob mentality. And still the castle stands, just like it did 33 years ago.
No longer the very center of the World, it's still a reminder of the reason Disney built his themed worlds in the first place. Life is full of disappointment and disgust. Reality bangs on your doorstep with coarse, harmful urgency. People need to know that there is at least one site on the planet where wishes can come true. And even if the answers to such wishes are clouded by consumerism and commercialization, the purity of Walt's vision remains; it can be found in the pearlessence of those spires, and in the memories of anyone who witnessed the novelty of its wonder, first hand. Still, a sad question remains: why did it ever have to go away?