Selling Happiness? A Disney Insiders Thoughts on “Escape From Tomorrow”: Part 3

Imagine if Randy Moore made his own theme park: Randy Moore World.

First of it’s Main Street – all crumbling, broken, and run down. The park officials are using the money for repairs on their secret coke habits.  What’s that you smell?  Not popcorn, it’s cotton candy tinged with smog!  Ahh … cotton smoggy.  You purchase a cookie , not shaped like Mickey’s head but instead like an unemployment office.  It first tastes sweet but then finishes with the taste of hot garbage at the back of your palate.  It’s a Small World has been replaced with It’s a Deadly World.  Japanese animatronics take rosie cheeked pot shots with rifles at those little Australians playing with the kangaroos.  The ride operators just let people of any size on rides saying “Hey, the world’s a dangerous place, take your chances.”  As you are buckling up a recorded voice instructs you “Enjoy this ride with your father but not too much.  It may give you a false image of the love you have.  It will probably be the only positive memory you have because at some point your parents will get divorced and he’s going to take off on you.”  Expedition Everest is transformed into a ride called “S#@! Happens.” where the ride actually breaks down at the top.  Randy Moore World.  Now that’s a place I want my family to go for generations.

In the last blog I said that Disney tells stories interactively that reach children the world over with their message.  A good question to ask would be “How do they know people will respond to the stories?  The answer is simple:  Disney knows they will respond because they have already responded!  This business about Disney being some insidious corporation that brainwashes people into believing a certain brand of happiness is obvious nonsense because nearly all of the stories that Disney tells do not originate from Disney itself.  Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, the Jungle Book, Peter Pan, and I could go on and on, were written by other people.  The Lion King is based on Hamlet for goodness sake!  Disney is just retelling popular stories with interactive elements.

Each section of the Disneyland Park (and subsequently Magic Kingdom) was based on a popular movie genre of the time.  Disney didn’t invent space travel (and therefore Space Mountain) being fun.  People watched movies about it and wanted to live the stories out.  At WDW all of the parks follow this mold.  At Epcot, you can ride Soarin’.  Why?  Because hang gliding is already established as fun.  Or you can ride Test Track and get an idea of what tests cars have to pass in developmental stages to make them fit for consumer use.  Why does it bring happiness?  Because people already enjoy cars the world over.  This principle works for Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios (or any other Disney park).  The content of Walt Disney World and Disneyland (and the Disney company is general) is by and large set by the world itself, not Disney propagandists.

Not all of these stories are happy.  In fact, most of them involve tragedy.  Bambi’s mother is killed.  Mulan’s country is being invaded by murderers and her society will not allow her to do something about it.   Again, I could go on and on.  Moore’s essential line in the film that  “Nobody can be happy all of the time” doesn’t make sense because at no point in the Disney retelling of a story do they emphasize that you can or should be happy all of the time.   It’s ironic that the filmmakers  rode Small World dozens of times to get the shots needed because they clearly never listened to the lyrics  “It’s a world of laughter, a world of tearsIt’s a world of hope, it’s a world of fear …”

The Disney message, created as a moral amalgam of the stories around the world, is that happiness is won through overcoming adversity by never stopping in the belief that there is something better we are supposed to be and can achieve.  The overcoming of adversity often requires a helping hand from kind people around us who believe the same thing or a helping hand from God/fate .  This is “magic”.  This is “imagination”.  This is “believing”.  It is not setting limits on the power of love in action.

Moore says that he tried to see Disney through the eyes of the foreigner.  I talked to a lot of foreign visitors while on the Dream Squad.  I know for a fact that right now some guy from Argentina or India is walking through the parks with a silly hat on.  I love that.  Moore is implying that Disney is just an American thing from his statements.  From my experience there, I found that part of what made Disney wonderful was that it was one thing that most of the world could agree on!  I sat next to an Irish boy who had the time of his life on Soarin.  I talked to a Cuban man who told me that he took all of his Cuban friends who visited first to WDW to show what a good thing could be in America.  I took pictures of countless smiling Japanese tourists in front of Spaceship Earth.  I talked to Chinese tourists whose first glimpse of the Forbidden City in their country was at the film in the China pavilion.  People from all over the world wear Goofy hats because they find common ground to relate to Goofy and Mickey  and the others.  That’s why they are beloved.  Those personalities are in every culture.

Walt said that Mickey was popular because he created him without an agenda.  He was just supposed to be a little guy that brought smiles to people.  Then he left a lasting reminder to the people coming after him that we should all remember that “it all started with a mouse.”  That doesn’t sound like some profiteering madman.  This is one of the most quoted Disney lines from the cast members.  Consider these other words from Small World.

” … a smile means friendship to everyone.  Though the mountains divide, And the oceans are wide.  It’s a small small world”

Escape From Tomorrow’s setting in Epcot is especially confusing.  Epcot houses the World Showcase, a place that honors countries from every part of the world.  People from those actual countries, despite their ethnicity, social class, or religion all work together there.  (The designers purposefully put the America pavilion in the hardest to reach spot to ensure people would go to the other pavilions)  The fountain in the middle has water from rivers and lakes all over the world that were poured into it at the inaugural in a celebration of that unity.  Every night Epcot has an amazing fireworks display called “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth”.  The entire show, like Epcot, is devoted to the amazing things the world does when it works together.  It shows the history of the human race culminating with mankind reaching space (a common theme in Epcot) – a feat that was made possible by the contribution of many nations working together.  I used to work on those nights and I would watch the faces of people from all over the world light up in the glow of fireworks as they watched.  At the end, the people who crowded around the world showcase would all applaud – seriously, every single night without fail – and it was like the world joined hands and agreed for a few minutes.  It was amazing.  Those moments will stick with me for the rest of my life.  The best part of the Dream Squad was working on the fountain those nights, giving high “fours” with Mickey gloves to those hands connected to the smiling people as they walked out of the park.  I wasn’t bamboozled or tricked into those emotions.  I was confronted with a moment of the power of harmonic love.  It was not manufactured.  It was not some corporate trick.  It was real.  For that moment at least, the world agreed together that something about their day and something about that moment was universally good.

If you listen closely to Walt’s Epcot/WDW spiel (linked on the last blog) you’ll find that he doesn’t promise happiness.  He promises that he will provide a place that has tools that can be used to find it.  At WDW, the message, decided by the world, is not that happiness is something that accidentally happens to you.  Happiness is won.  Things need to be overcome for it to happen.  Mr. Moore pinpoints the issue he has with the reality of his father/son relationship.  To him, the WDW magic was a parasite that lived because of the love it leeched off of the power of his relationship with his dad.  The relationship is gone, so the magic seems false.  Anyone caught up in the “magic”, therefore, to him, is feeding the parasite.

Perhaps, however, Disney has never said that it in itself is the magic.  Perhaps it has always said that the magic comes from the things you overcame and do overcome.  Perhaps there have always been villains portrayed in the world stories that Disney has chosen to adapt who find ways to make themselves unhappy no matter what blessings surround them.  Perhaps, by enhancing and allowing us to live for a moment in the love we once had or have now that has been won, Disney allows us to remember the power of goodness and that remembrance may cause change.  In all seriousness, clearly Disney forced Mr. Moore to confront the issue that has been unconscious in him for a long time that he would not address: the relationship with his father.  That pain was real even though he built a false world around himself to prove that it didn’t need fixing.  Perhaps he will have trouble finding happiness until he exhausts all of his options to repair that love.  Instead of doing that, he’s gone to herculean lengths to make a movie to criticize literally all of humanity in an attempt to justify that his situation doesn’t need to be or can’t be resolved.  Before asking the viewer what hidden reality they are confronting, perhaps he need to ask himself some questions.

A while back, a cast member saw two women standing in front of Disney’s iconic castle.  That cast member, a popcorn vendor, did what a lot of cast members do: asked the women if they would like him to take a photo of them together in front of it.  They did.  The cast member went back to the popcorn and thought nothing of it.  A few weeks later the photo came back to the cast member via the backstage offices with a note.  The note said that the women involved were two sisters that hadn’t gotten along for years.  They came to Disney to try to talk about the situation.  The photo taken was the first one they had had together in decades.  After the photo was taken, they each broke down and fixed their relationship through tears.

(Part IV coming up next deals with WDW and Christianity as well as the “parasite”: is corporate profit on emotional experiences evil.)

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