I’ve visited Disneyland at least once a year since I was three. While I still love going there, much more than a childless person my age probably should (I could ride Star Tours every day of my life, and the churros are killer), I’m a little freaked out by the lengths the company goes to to maintain the park’s idyllic image—most if not all of which are undoubtedly necessary to maintain its visitors’ safety, but many of which are also reminiscent of every dystopian sci-fi novel I’ve ever read. For one, there are plainclothes security officers and surveillance cameras all over the park, even in some of the rides. I was maybe nine or ten when I found out about the cameras—I think I’d been watching a travel program on TV—and was utterly mortified: I’d recently returned from a Disneyland trip where I had been vigorously scratching my crotch while riding Space Mountain, thinking that, since the inside of ride was pitch-black, no one could see me.
When the people at Disneyland aren’t recording your embarrassing adolescent indiscretions, they’re manipulating the very air you breathe: Koenig’s book contends that there are hidden vents in Disneyland that blow sweet scents like vanilla and (in December) peppermint into the park. I alternate between thinking this is really cool because, you know, I enjoy the smell of vanilla, and then wondering if this is just low-key mind control. I mean, it’s one thing to walk by a restaurant or a bakery and catch a whiff of something yummy in the oven inside; it’s quite another to manufacture an aroma that promises a delicious source that doesn’t actually exist. The lovely aromas wafting through the park come not from a fresh batch of cupcakes or a Christmas tree festooned with candy canes, but from some brainstorming session in a corporate boardroom. Also, the vents are located near the park’s entrance/exit, where there are rows upon rows of shops. I imagine that if you’re all happy and hopped up on the smell of vanilla, you’re probably more likely to throw down $24.95 for a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.
I’m most fascinated, though, by how clean Disneyland is. Think about it: nearly 40,000 people from all over the world visit the park every day; many of these people are sticky, naughty children who drop shit on the ground or just touch everything; and tons of visitors are walking around with potentially messy foods like popcorn, turkey legs, cotton candy, ice cream, and churros. This place should be filthy. But the people in charge are ruthless when it comes to disinfecting everything. Every night the park undergoes a hardcore scouring to ensure that everything is nice and sterile by the time visitors arrive the next morning. Throughout the day, a piece of trash is never on the ground for very long, because employees are constantly sweeping up; and, according to Disney legend, trashcans are positioned no more than 30 steps away from one another, to discourage littering. And according to Koenig’s book, there’s one guy on the cleaning and maintenance staff whose entire workday is devoted to polishing the brass on a carousel. What the hell?
Then there’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, a slow-moving attraction located in the Fantasyland area based on Disney’s 1949 adaptation of the book The Wind in the Willows. Riders sit in an old-time-y car and visit Mr. Toad’s mansion, drive through the countryside, crash into some explosives, then drive willy-nilly through London, wreaking havoc on the citizenry. You finally enter a courtroom, where a judge finds you “guilty.” And then, at the end of your journey, you end up…in hell. The room gets warmer, and there’s a dragon with demonic eyes and a sinister soundtrack replete with evil laughter—and then the ride is over. There’s no uplifting resolution: you just go to hell. Isn’t Disney is supposed to be about wishing on stars and hope? The only explanation I can come up with is that the ride’s story has a moral, and that is: do not go on wild excursions with toads who wear suits.
By far the most enigmatic part of the whole Walt Disney empire, though, is the man himself. As a kid I saw him as a kindly uncle figure with the pure heart of a child who, I guess, was sent down from the heavens to bring us all joy through his cartoons and theme parks. But as I got older I learned some troubling stuff about him. There have been persistent rumors that he was anti-Semitic, based partly on the fact that in 1938, a month after Kristallnacht (a series of attacks on German Jews by the Nazis that left at least 90 people dead and some 30,000 imprisoned in concentration camps), Disney gave the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl a tour of his studio. He later said that he wasn’t aware of her politics, and his alleged anti-Semitism has never been substantiated.
There have been claims of other sorts of racism too, mostly based on some of the early Disney animated movies, which occasionally featured racist stereotypes. Two examples of this that really make my stomach churn: a 1932 short film called Trader Mickey in which Africans are depicted as dim, big-lipped cannibals, and 1953’s Peter Pan, where you’ll find a repulsive song about American Indians called “What Makes the Red Man Red?” sung partly in broken English. In the documentary Walt: The Man Behind the Myth, Floyd Norman, a black animator who worked for the company in the ’50s and ’60s, says that as a boss, Walt treated everyone equally; and to be fair, Disney didn’t direct Trader Mickey or Peter Pan—though he was clearly fine putting his name on them. The whole thing confusing, and probably speaks more to what was considered an “acceptable” amount of hideous, stomach-churning racism back then than to anything else.
One totally upsetting claim that can’t be denied is that for the last 26 years of his life Walt Disney secretly worked for the FBI, informing on people in Hollywood who he presumed were “Communists”—including a number of Disney studio animators who were on strike against his company in 1941. Walt Disney may or may not have been a racist, but he could definitely be a dick.
Each of these things has worn some of the innocent wonder of Disney away for me, but that’s not necessarily bad news. The relationships that we have with the things we loved when we were kids change and become more complex as we get older; they have to. Disney is pixie dust and penis castles, and that’s the way it’s always going to be. ♦