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Inside the Disney dream machine
How does Disney do it ?
Wayne Ellwood visits the newest addition to Florida's Walt Disney World and finds a microcosm of the company's global reach.

The magic starts before you know it. You’ve barely stepped off the plane in Orlando’s dazzling high-tech airport before you’ve been whisked into a Disney-like blender. A smoothly-efficient monorail glides to the terminal building while a silken recorded voice welcomes you to the home of Walt Disney World (WDW). Below, the shimmering pools, waving palm trees and manicured green grass of the landscaped grounds reinforce the message that you’ve made it to fantasyland, a bounded and cloistered universe isolated from the cares and concerns of real life.

Walt Disney World in Florida is the jewel in the crown of the Walt Disney Company, a $23-billion media conglomerate that may just be the single most powerful and influential force in the globalization of Western culture. In the wired world of the newmillennium the real power to promote and consolidate consumer capitalism will lie not with the International Monetary Fund, Texaco or Monsanto but with the control over the ‘infotainment industry’ – film, TV, music, ideas and information. What one writer has called ‘the sinews of our post-modern soul’. 1

You may identify the Disney name with a trademarked signature or for its phenomenally popular animated films Aladdin or The Lion King. But the shoe-string company that a visionary young American artist named Walt Disney founded back in 1923 is today a world-wide entertainment giant.

In addition to the Orlando operation (which contains four separate theme parks), there are Disneylands in Anaheim, California, near Tokyo in Japan and north of Paris, France. The company also has its fingers in book, magazine and newspaper publishing, mainstream feature-film production and distribution, cable TV, music recording, live stage shows, real estate development, major league baseball and ice hockey, video production and sales, retail stores, product licensing, computer software and on-line services. And there’s more. With its $19-billion take-over of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) network in 1995, Disney edged within a hair’s breadth of Time-Warner in a bid to become the world’s number one media group.

At the same time, the term ‘disneyfication’ has entered the language, used to describe the process of turning theflesh-and-blood world we all inhabitinto a replica of Disneyland – sanitized, safe, entertaining and predictable. Reason enough I thought to visit the world’s number one tourist attraction.

The Orlando airport last year welcomed 27.3 million passengers, making it one of the busiest in the world. Estimates are that nearly half those visitors came to visit the Disney World complex of theme parks, hotels, restaurants, bars and shops. In total Disney World draws more than 30 million tourists a year, many of them from overseas. Brits top the list of foreign visitors: nearly 1.2 million flew to Orlando last year, enough to fill ten jumbo jets every day.

Forty years ago this part of central Florida was untouched by mass tourism. It was a land of orange groves, lush wetlands, palmetto scrub and vegetable farms. There were just over 20,000 people then in Orlando, a quiet, relaxed place where ‘good-ole-boys’ ran the citrus-based economy and the town too.

Then, in the early 1960s something strange and suspicious began to happen. Word spread that a mystery buyer was snatching up scattered parcels of bush and orange grove south and west of the city, 20 acres here, 100 acres there. By the time the buyer’s identity leaked out the Disney company owned more than 24,000 acres. Eventually the company’s real estate holdings would exceed 30,000 acres of central Florida.

 The Rainforest Cafe : shopping and eating with an ecological theme.

It’s difficult to appreciate the size of Disney World even after you’ve been there. The numbers give you some idea: 43 square miles, twice the size of Manhattan. The company proudly pumps out all kinds of statistics to give visitors and the press the proper sense of awe. What they don’t talk about is the sweetheart deal they managed to swing with local and state authorities when they were first floating the scheme back in 1965.

Dazed by the promise of millions of tourists and eager to please the Disney team, the state gave the company all the rights and powers of an independent municipal government. Part of the rationale was that Disney was promising to build two communities of the future, each with as many as 20,000 residents. This was where Walt was planning to erect his Environmental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), a technocratic vision of urban bliss smack in the middle of Florida swamp and pasture. The idea of a theme park was a minor part of the planned development.

Today the Reedy Creek Improvement Area, the legal name of Disney’s quasi-government, has the power to build its own roads, operate its own sewage and water-treatment plants, run its own police and fire stations, administer its own planning and zoning and employ its own inspectors.

‘It’s really a state-within-a-state,’ quips Ed Erickson, an investigative journalist with the Orlando Weekly. Erickson is a wraith of a man with thinning red hair and a clipped goatee. We’re in the Tiramisu Café on Orange Avenue, north of downtown Orlando and a good half-hour drive from WDW.

Erickson is explaining how Disney’s municipal status works in its favour. ‘Because the company can float bonds and tax itself to pay for them, it can then write down some of its capital expenditures as “local taxes”,’ he says. ‘After that it’s a matter of deducting those taxes from corporate income tax, rather than amortizing them. It’s legal and it saves them millions every year.’

Erickson pops another clam into his mouth and sucks at his ice tea before he races on. ‘Disney gets what it wants in this town,’ he snorts. ‘The people who run Orlando work hand-in-hand with those who run Disney.’

And they protect themselves. In Florida, state law prohibits lawyers from suing people they’ve represented in the past. Disney hires every attorney it can. Everyone gets touched by Mickey’s plump little fingers, which leaves few lawyers who can pursue legal complaints against the company.

Feeling more in touch with the local reality I jump into my rental car and head over to the I4, the state highway which snakes up from Tampa, skirting the perimeter of the Disney territory before slicing north through the heart of Orlando.

This main access road to WDW carries 160,000 cars a day and was built to accommodate 70,000. I later discover that the infamous 1967 charter exempts the company from ‘transport impact fees’. That means it contributes nothing to the upkeep of the public road system which brings them their guests. Well, almost nothing. In 1985 county politicians finally got fed up with Disney’s corporate-welfare stance, threatening to sue. The company eventually ponied up $14 million (not much more than lunch money for these folks) over five years for improvements to roads leading to their property. In return the county agreed not to challenge the constitutionality of the original Reedy Creek agreement.

Massive road signs soon guide me effortlessly into Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the newest of the parks, a 500-acre, $800-million project which opened this past April. Animal Kingdom is Disney’s first venture into real life, what one promotional pamphlet calls ‘the amazing reality of nature’. The main attraction is a recreation of an African savannah with imported wildlife, plants and flowers. There are lions, warthogs, giraffes, kudu, zebra and dozens of other species. Around 1,000 animals in total have been placed into a 110-acre ersatz African habitat. Before you reach the savannah and the Kilimanjaro Safari ride you make your way through the Safari Village, past the Disney Outfitters (‘fine apparel, accessories and decorative items’) and Island Mercantile (‘Animal Kingdom themed merchandise, candy and more’) to the Tree of Life, an astonishing 14-storey baobab that could only have sprung from the minds of Disney’s ‘imagineers’ – a word supposedly coined by Walt himself to describe the people he enlisted to design his first theme park in California.

The colossal baobab is made of steel and painted concrete and its trunk and roots have been carved into the features of 325 different animals. A long queue of visitors noiselessly shuffles around and around the 170-foot base of the tree slowly making their way to a cinema inside the trunk. Queues, as I soon discover, are part of the fantasy. Outside each ride or film there is a sign posted with the waiting time. It’s rarely less than half an hour and more often longer. But people for the most part wait patiently. The ‘imagineers’ are experts in crowd control; the lines twist and turn so often you can see only a short length of the queue; there’s always a new vista, music plays from invisible speakers, video screens preview what’s inside, posters dot the walls.

I head for Harambe, Disney’s replica East African port village. The concrete walls look like dried mud and the thatch roofs were made with imported African grass and assembled by African craftsmen. The village of course is a shell. Inside there is the usual collection of shops shilling Disney trinkets, snack bars and restaurants like the Mr Kamal’s Burger Grill. Several Africans in native dress stand around for photos. A discreet red and yellow sign points out that this is a Kodak Photo Spot, just in case the decision is too much for the dazed tourist.

 Cooling off in Harambe village with one of Disney's hand-crafted baobabs behind.

The ‘safari’ is on a high-powered,open-sided truck which lurches over arutted concrete path, engine screaming, splashing through streams and charging up and down the ‘African’ countryside. The scrubland was first flattened, then doctored with imported flora, rocks and soil to create the landscape. The smaller baobab trees and termite mounds look real though I discover later they too are cast from concrete. The driver stops to point out different animals, most of which studiously ignore us. They’ve seen the show thousands of times so don’t pay much attention to the gawking guests. A full safari vehicle was leaving once a minute when I was there and I can’t help but wonder about the cumulative impact on the animals’ sanity of the relentless noise and exhaust from the roaring vehicles.

The company claims to have a ‘global committment to wildlife’ and I’m keen to ask management about the conservation message of Animal Kingdom and about animal-rights activists’ charges that the new park is a ‘fraud’ and a ‘sham’. But the interviews I requested were denied a few days before my trip and when I suggest follow-up phone interviews I’m told executives are busy for the ‘next several months’.

As I pad along the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail I run into Abel, a young ‘trail guide’ from Botswana. He is one of 50 Africans brought over to the Animal Kingdom on one-year contracts to lend authentic flavour. It’s his first visit outside Africa. But what he’s looking forward to, he confesses, is visiting New York.

There are 3,400 people working at Animal Kingdom and an astounding 50,000 in all at Walt Disney World. It is a telling comment on the changing nature of the US economy that this place now has the largest mumber of employees in the country at a single worksite.

Another Disney worker tells me later that employees are routinely assigned jobs according to age and appearance. ‘The company calls it “casting”,’ he says. ‘In practice that means all the “pretty, young people” get the main front-line jobs. Old ladies sell the merchandise, old men work in security. Haitian women work in housekeeping, Puerto Rican young people work in food services and preparation, African-Americans work as cooks or stewards or in food preparation. And all the “less-than-presentable” people get stuck in the third shift from eleven at night to seven in the morning.’

On my way out I wind past the still un-finished Asian Adventures area, turn right and retrace my steps back to the park entrance. The Rainforest Café, another heavily-themed, shopping/eating extravaganza, beckons to my right. Inside, hundreds of kids and parents pack the cavernous space which is draped in lianas and hung with stuffed-toy rainforest creatures. One of the workers tells me the café takes in $65 million a year and that the average spend is $21 a person. I’m beginning to understand what post-modern culture critics mean when they call Disney World the ‘fullest representation of commodified space in North America’. The Disney theme parks are as much about buying as they are about entertainment. And it’s this seamless web between carefree consumerism and innocent escapism that I find both banal and perverse.

Critics argue that the theme-park model which Disney invented has escaped its tether and now mediates social relations around the world. Shopping malls, chain eateries like McDonald’s, the logo-mania of Nike and Reebok, all these are influenced by the Disney model which offers what some have called ‘shoppertainment’ as a replacement for citizenship.

Outside the park I follow the Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway a few miles east to the town of Celebration – Disney’s attempt to create a ‘community’ anchored in the benign mythology of 1950s America. The short main street has quaint New England-style shops, a bakery, a bookstore, a few cafés, a post office and a court house. It has a city hall, too, though the ‘city’ has no government. It’s run by a community association with services provided by the county. And the town’s thicket of rules are laid down by Disney management. The houses clustered around the town centre are neo-traditional in a range of styles – from townhouses to grander, single-family dwellings with dormers, gables and wide porches. It’s a highly-controlled community with a manufactured history. A town ‘meant to be consumed’ as one observer put it. Personally I find the place downright creepy and I can’t wait to leave. 2

The irony of Celebration is that few Disney employees could actually afford to live there. Even the low-price townhouses ring in at around $125,000. Affordable housing is a key concern in the Orlando area. The city’s phenomenal growth in the last 35 years has pushed the population from 20,000 to nearly a million. Many of those have come in pursuit of the Mouse and its scrambling competitors. The area around Orlando is jammed with tawdry Disney wannabes, outlet malls, souvenir shops and more than 90,000 hotel rooms, half of them Disney property. What this has done is create a gigantic low-wage service economy. And that in turn has sparked horrendous urban sprawl as developers move further out in search of cheap land. With no public transport to speak of, cars become a necessity as commuting distances expand. The average wage here is beneath both the state and national average.

That’s the ‘Disney dilemma’ that Orlando faces, a problem that many believe will lead to a ‘downward spiral in public services’ unless it’s arrested. Judith Kovisar is one of them. She’s local director of the Fanny Mae Partnership, a billion-dollar mortgage company with a commitment to fund low-income housing projects.

We’re chatting in air-conditioned splendour on the 15th floor of a steel-and-glass skyscraper at the corner of Orange and Jackson in downtown Orlando. Through the heat haze you just make out the car-clogged I 4 expressway in the distance.

Kovisar is no radical. But she sees a crisis coming. ‘People around here don’t want more development and more roads. Yet Disney will need another 10,000 workers to meet their projected expansion and three-quarters of them will be in low-paid positions.’

She looks at me and shrugs: the straight goods. ‘The real danger here is the growing disparity between rich and poor. Disney’s got the wealth, they just won’t distribute it to those who need it. It’s a colonial relationship. The investment is here, but most of the wealth ends up back in California. The workers are just an expendable resource, another consumable commodity in their fun-filled world. And people are beginning to understand.’

Amen to that. Maybe they’re even mobilizing in Celebration.   

1 Benjamin R Barber, Jihad vs McWorld (Ballantine Books, 1996). 2 Russ Rymer, ‘Back to the future’, Harper’s Magazine, October 1996.


Uncle Walt ... his life and times

Early years
The Walt Disney Company’s eponymous founder was born in Chicago in December, 1901 and died in Los Angeles in December, 1966 almost exactly 32 years ago. As a young boy his family moved to Marceline, Missouri and bought a 45-acre farm. Though he spent only three-and-a-half years there the idyllic pastoral setting and the turn-of-the-century streetscape of the midwest American town were forever etched in his mind, triggering a nostalgic yearning for romance and simple values which shaped his personality and coloured his creative vision for the rest of his life. ‘Main Street USA’, the entry to Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida, is said to be a carefully-crafted homage to his Marceline childhood.

Walt’s father Elias was a jack-of-all-trades whose wanderlust took him from Chicago to Missouri to Kansas City with his family in tow. He was frugal, authoritarian and moralistic, all traits which had an impact on his son. Walt’s strongest emotional ties were to his mother though he was also close to his brother Roy who later became his life-long partner and the business brains behind the company.

Film Pioneer
Disney began to draw and sketch in high school and studied cartooning on the side. After a ten-month military stint in France towards the end of World War One he returned to Kansas City where he met a young artist named Ub Iwerks. In 1922 the two started making short animated cartoons together.

A year later Walt moved to Los Angeles and re-established the studio along with Iwerks and his brother Roy. They vaulted to fame in 1928 with Steamboat Willie, starring a spindly-legged mouse named Mickey. It was the first cartoon with sound. Other short cartoon hits followed including Three Little Pigs and the Silly Symphony series.

In 1937 Disney made film history by releasing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length, colour, animated movie. It was an enormous commercial and critical success. Disney also came up with the world’s first theme park and the first use of what he dubbed ‘audio-animatronics’: lifelike replicas of people and animals with both sound and movement.

Disney was a notorious workaholic, a perfectionist who ran his company like a personal fiefdom. He was both paternalistic and domineering. And not surprisingly he brooked no dissent, rewarding loyalists with favours and punishing dissidents. He quickly learned that his real talents were not as an artist (he did no drawing after the early 1930s) but as a story editor and an entertainment visionary. He had an intense, single-minded need to succeed and a child’s delight in fantasy and imagination. One of his favourite hobbies was toodling around in a miniature train which he had built on the grounds of his Los Angeles home.

Politics and peccadilloes
In later years Disney was a heavy drinker (doughnuts dipped in scotch were reported to be a favourite breakfast). There were no women nor blacks in any positions of power when Walt was running the company. Though his father was a lifelong socialist and Walt flirted with progressive politics in the 1930s, he became a militant anti-communist after a strike by animators in 1941.

In the 1950s he was appointed as a (secret) FBI special agent charged with passing on information about supposed communist infiltration of the Hollywood film world. By the end of his life he was a right-wing Republican supporting Cold-War hawk Barry Goldwater in his failed 1964 presidential bid.

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New Internationalist issue 308 magazine cover This article is from the December 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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