The Happiest Place On Earth

At 3:17pm today I was leaning against a railing on Main Street, U.S.A., watching Mickey Mouse cruise by in some sort of giant plastic bubble. He was surrounded by dancers and characters from Disney movies. I have a digital camera with 256 meg on the storage card, which gives me 317 pictures, so my motto is “if you keep shooting, they’ll start to go in eventually,” which Ray will tell you is also how I play basketball. I took about 50 photos of the Main Street Parade, and I’ve been looking at them the last couple hours.

What strikes me immediately is not the plastic bubbles or the gigantic floats, but the faces of the spectators, of which there are some thousands. Practically everyone is at least amused. Many, many people are smiling. Almost all the children under 10 seem to be laughing. Disney bills itself as “the Happiest Place on Earth,” which is marketing, sure, but judging from the photos I took and the faces of those close to me, there’s some truth tho the slogan.

Now, Disney itself is a marketing machine. The park costs $65-70 to enter, and that only gets you in the door. We rented a double stroller for $15, then there was lunch for those of us that did not bring a sack, which cost $10 for a hamburger and fries. My family has 8 people in it, so you can do the math on that. Altogether this family reunion is possessed of 19 people, so we contributed to Walt’s legacy a little less than $1000. Just today. Well, with ice cream ($3.15 for a 4-oz sundae), probably a little more than $1000.

In our reunion, we split into three groups: the pregnant women (Jeanette and her sister-in-law Valerie), which group includes the four children six and younger; the middle kids (7-10); and the older kids, which is the group I got to spend the day with. There were seven of us, six children from Nicholas (11) to Michelle (17). I’ve never had a better day at a theme park. I could have been a real drag, being the old fogey in a group of rowdy teens, but the kids treated me just like one of them. And they were having a ball. So I did, too. There was not one negative word, not a single argument, despite very long lines, tired feet, and the fact that with that many people, it’s impossible for everyone to get his way. Some say that there’s no magic left in Disney. They’re wrong. I felt it.

Yes, there’s a motherlode of kitsch. Practically nothing for sale in the park has any durability, and most of it is a little weird, even embarrassing out in the real world. I saw a number of couples wearing Mickey-and-Minnie ears, the male half sprouting from a top hat and the female half trailing a veil. Wear that in Lehi, and you could get arrested. On Main Street, what did that outfit get? Smiles. People pointing and asking where they could get some. It’s kitschy, yes. But it’s also magic.

There is a temptation when surrounded by the full neon glare of a US industrial marketing machine to look for the tinsel, so to speak, to scratch the surface and try to find that what’s underneath is poor quality or even decaying. I do this myself, and think I’m generally performing a service by doing so. But not here. Not only did I not want to do any digging, I think that those that do will find something surprising: it’s not all about the money.

I watch people. And in a place that advertises itself this way and that openly calls its employees “cast members”, I spend time watching the employees. Some were less than enthusiastic, especially early in the morning. But over and over again, I saw employees, staff, even food servers going out of their way to do something nice for the guests of the park, even under stress and occasionally abuse. One guy at an ice-cream shop, whose entire job was to take people’s money and send them through to get their cones, stopped us and chatted for a couple minutes. he turned out to be from West Jordan, had worked at Kennecott Copper Mine for 15 years, and had come down to Florida to get away from the snow. Here he was working at Disney in what is, frankly, a fast-food job. Did he like it? “Been here four years. Loved every minute of it.”

Can you spend too much on this?

This is a theme I’ll revisit in my “I’m Sick of Hearing About the True Meaning of Christmas” post in a week or so, but I am a huge fan of marketing, especially when it’s done well, and Disney does it well. They have a theme. They stick to the theme. It’s not Tomorrowland, where the line for Space Mountain was 80 minutes long at noon. It’s not Frontierland, where the line for Splash Mountain was a gigantic 140 minutes at 1pm. It’s not even “Dreams Can Come True”, though that’s a big part of the magic of Disney. The theme is happiness. Everywhere you look, there’s happiness. The kids are happy. The adults are happy because the kids are happy. Lots of people spend a great deal more money than they can afford on Main Street, U.S.A., but I think they get their money’s worth. I did.

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