Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 64 (of 81)


Illustration by Idiots’Books

What the World Can Learn from Disney

Suzanne Church

It’s easy to dismiss Disney. They make more lawsuits than rides these days. They have a reputation for Polyannaish chirpiness. Their corporate communications veer from Corporate Passive Voice Third Person to a syrupy, condescending kiddee-speak that’s calculated to drive children into a frenzy of parent-nagging screeches.

But if you haven’t been to a Disney Park in a while, you don’t know what you’re missing. I’ve been in Walt Disney World for a week now, and I’m here to tell you, it’s pretty good. No, it’s better than that—it’s amazing.

You’ve probably heard about the attention to detail: the roofline over Fantasyland features sagging, Georgian tiles, crazy chimneys, and subtly animated gargoyles (left over from a previous, goth-ier incarnation of this part of the park). You don’t see this unless you raise your eyes above the busy, intriguing facades that front the rides, above the masterfully painted signage, and higher still. In other words, unless you’re someone like me, looking for details, you won’t spot them. They’re there as pure gold-plating, they’re there because someone who took pride in his work put them there.

It tells you something about the people behind the scenes here. People who care about their jobs work here. It’s easy to forget that when you’re thinking about Disney, a company whose reputation these days has more to do with whom they sue than with what they make.

But oh, what they make. There’s a safari park here, something like a zoo but without that stuff that makes you feel like you’re participating in some terrible exercise that strips noble animals of their dignity for our amusement. Instead, the animals here roam free, near their hairless monkey cousins, separated from them by water features, camouflaged ditches, simulated ancient ruins [more details].

That’s just one of six parks, each subdivided into six or seven “lands,” each land with its own unique charm, culture, and customs. That’s not counting the outlying areas: two new towns, golf courses, a velodrome, a preserved marshland that you can tour in a skiff with a local naturist. In these days of cheap fabrication, it’s easy to forget what you can do with several billion dollars and the kind of hubris that leads you to dredge lakes, erect papier mache mountains, and create your own toy mass-transit system.

Of course, Disney Parks are no strangers to small scale fabrication. See their tiny, clever Disney-in-a-Box devices, which I have chronicled here from the other side. On the one hand, these things are networked volumetric printers, but on the other, they are superb category-busters that have achieved an entirely justifiable—yet still staggering—market penetration in just a few months.

I came here ready to be bored and disgusted and fleeced of every nickle. I am disappointed. The parks are tremendous at separating people from money, it’s true. They’ve structured each promenade and stroll so that even a walk to the bathroom can create a Mommy-Daddy-Want-It-NOW situation. For such a happy place, there certainly are a lot of weepy children and frustrated parents.

But it’s hard to fault Disney for being a business that makes a lot of money. That’s the point, after all. And it can’t be cheap to keep the tens of thousands of “castmembers” (yes, they really do call them that, even when they’re earning minimum wage and work jobs with all the glamour of a bathroom attendant) hanging around, picking up litter and confronting every new “guest” with eerily convincing cheer.

As for “bored” and “disgusted”—not yet. Bored—it’s impossible to imagine such a thing. For starters, the world’s middle classes have converged here in a sort of bourgeois UN, and you can get a lot of pleasure out of watching a Chinese “little emperor” with doting parents in tow making friends with a tiny perfect Russian mafiyeh princess whose parents flick nervously at their nicotine inhalers and scout the building facades for hidden cameras.

Of course, if people-watching isn’t your thing, there are the rides themselves, which make art out of the shoebox diorama. There are luaus, indoor scuba diving with live sharks, and an island of genuinely sleazy nightclubs where you can get propositioned for some improbable acts that are hardly family friendly. These last appear to be largely populated by the “castmembers” seeking a little after-work action.

Disgusted? I think if I were a parent, there’d be parts of the experience that drove me nuts. But once you get to know the rhythm of the place, you start to see that there are navigable pathways that don’t lead through any commercial areas—fantastic adventure playgrounds, nature hikes, petting zoos, horseback rides, sports training. And for every kid who’s having a blood-sugar meltdown after consuming half a quart of high-fructose lube slathered on a cinnamon bun, there’s another who is standing open-mouthed with complete bodily wonder, at some stupendous spectacle, clearly forming neuronal connections of a sort that will create the permanent predisposition to an appreciation of spectacle, wonder, and beauty.

This is the kind of place where you have to love the sin and hate the sinner. The company may sue and resort to dirty tricks, but it’s also chock full of real artists making real art.

If you haven’t been for a visit, you should. Honestly. Oh, by all means, also go somewhere unspoiled (if you can find it). Go camping. Go to one of the rides I’ve written so much about. But if you want to see the bright side of what billions can do—the stuff you never get from outside the walls of this fortress of fun—buy a ticket.

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As part of the ongoing project of crafting’s electronic edition of Makers, the author would like for readers to chime in with their favorite booksellers and stories about them in the comments sections for each piece of Makers, for consideration as a possible addition to a future edition of the novel.

Doctorow’s Makers is now available in print from Tor Books. You can read all previous installments of Makers on on our index page.


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