Selling Happiness? A Disney Insiders Thoughts on “Escape From Tomorrow”: Part 4

As we walked through the facades on either side of us, my friend Doug shouldered his head back and coolly took in the view.  Our pace was fractional, it being off season, and only a few people wandered across our path.  “Man”, he said with a whistle following, “It’s sad to see how far man will go to build a monument to himself.”

I had moments like those when I worked at Walt Disney World.  Moments when it all seemed false and maybe even prideful.  Moments when it seemed like mankind was desperately trying to feed itself an illusion and a lifeless corporation held out its palm to collect a fee from those addicted to distracting themselves.  There were moments when it seemed that the illusion was a consumable item imprinted into the consciousness of the world of a company that streamlined its stories into marketable forms.  They were moments of a broken world poking through a grand show, like noticing a makeup line 2 hours into a great stage production.

They were just moments, though.  Moments in a long period of time like a note in a beautiful concerto.  Walt Disney World is all of those things above at times but, from my time there, I learned it is something better in much greater proportion.  Where Doug saw vanity, my friend Chris saw Disney World as a wonderful place where the creativity God gave man was on display.  There are those who are looking to substitute Disney for good parenting but there are more parents who are using Disney to join in exploring childhood with their kids.  There are certainly some who want distraction from the crappy world they live in but many, many others experience Walt Disney World because they want to embrace the positives they see in the people around them.  These aren’t thrill junkies, after all you can go to much better parks for thrill rides, these are people who want to experience stories.

Disney has at times and still does market a consumable philosophy of life (nearly all consumerism does, fyi) but the massive percentage of what they do has nothing to do with maximizing profits.  If that were so, they wouldn’t care about doorknobs on the streets being authentic or providing poorly frequented street entertainment at high cost (such as acapella singers in the American Pavilion) or building water conserving pipes into Spaceship Earth to collect rain or growing a lot of the food in the Land pavilion that is eaten in the quick service locations there.  I could literally go on and on.  Disney cares little about streamlining profit at the cost of providing a truly great experience.  That to me tells me that it cares far more about the experience its providing than the bottom line.  It believes in the message.

It makes sense why that is if you think about it because no one works at Disney for the money.  There are 60,000 plus employees at Walt Disney World alone and those people do what they do because they love people, not money, and they want to pass on joy and hope for a living.  One of the most frequent questions I got at Walt Disney World was “Why are all you guys so happy all of the time?  It’s so weird!”   First, I hope being happy isn’t weird, but second, trust me, cast members aren’t happy all of the time.  There are plenty of times when it is just a job.  There are times when an employee high 5’s a kid and then runs backstage to lather on the antibacterial soap.  However, I found that most cast members like their job because they are placed in a spot where they get to do good to people all day.  These are the people – the people on the ground – that control the message no matter what corporate bullet points say.  No shadowy Disney corporate panel could change this.

I can attest that the Disney corporation is not controlling, despite the hype.  I was given ridiculous freedom to help people in whatever way I saw fit – far more than any job I’ve ever had.  This is the biggest difference between Walt Disney World and other corporations when it comes to service –it is not mere talk, it diligently empowers the little guy.  If it didn’t, people who want to be happy wouldn’t dedicate their life to working there.  Randy Moore actually edited Escape From Tomorrow in South Korea because he was supposedly so afraid of Disney evil corporate types finding out (side note to Randy: if you are trying to hide something Disney, east Asia is probably not the best spot).  To this day there has yet to be a peep from the supposedly over litigious company.

It seems like a lot of the issue of people thinking Disney is evil comes from people who think that they see something that others don’t.  Randy Moore, the film maker, was bothered when a woman told her kids to behave because Walt Disney World truly was magic to her.  What bothered him was that she supposedly “believed” in the magic.  He seems to be missing the point that she acknowledged that life isn’t to be that way all of the time.  From talking with thousands of people from all over the world let me snuff a myth out: people are very aware it’s a show.  They are aware that it is streamlined to limit some of the harshness of reality.  They know Disney is an ideal.   They like that.  They like the belief that we can be better than we are.  It certainly gives our past and our future a facelift concerning the purity that existed in them but not in a propagandic way.  There is a knowing minimizing of the ill motives to pull out the pure ones.  It is a dedicated focus on the good intended and that stems from a faith in humanity.  This criticism that a mass of people are being bamboozled by a sophisticated corporate spell shows that the people criticizing have the opposite of that.  They don’t have faith in humanity.  My advice to the critics: talk to the actual people going there without a predefined motive.  You’ll find they’re pretty smart en masse and a hopeful bunch at that.  How is there change for the good without visualization and hope in humanity?

In my day, I’ve run into a lot of people who have tried to convince me that Disney is anti-Christian.  From working there, I don’t see it.  If the idea is rooted in the idea that Walt Disney World is not a substitute for Jesus or the church, I agree, but I’ve never seen anything that there is a company wide effort to imply that it is.  At Epcot every year  they have a thing called the Candlelight Processional at the stage near the American Pavilion which people line up for hours previous to get into (far longer lines than for the classic bands that play there in the spring like Davey Jones or Boyz II Men).  In it, the story of Jesus is told to the backdrop of Christmas carols.  I’m telling you – the story straight out preaches Jesus.  The line for it is longer than any ride in the park which should tell you something about the hunger for the story of Jesus!  Further, the attractiveness of the parks stems from an encouragement to have a childlike spirit – something that is very Christian.  Over all, Disney has compiled a world message and wants to see people get together, love each other, be good to each other, and enjoy community together.  These are all Christian virtues.  Anti-Christian messages can be found in anything.  They can be found in Disney.  Sometimes they can be found in corporate mandates.  Remember, however, that it is tens of thousands of people employed there telling the story together that make up the true message of Disney.  No matter what happens at the top, it’s the people on the ground who decide.

There is a desire in the world to go out of its’ way to corrupt things that are pure.  With the sheer availability of vice, it causes a person to stop and wonder why people spend so much energy taking things that are sweetly connected to childhood or positivity, like puppets or cartoon characters, and debase them as well.  I suppose there are those who will say and really believe that they are showing that the things they learned in childhood were false and the feel anger toward them.  It may be worth consideration, however, that a lot of this is based on people who want to legitimize their own moral decay.  In order to do so, they must attack or corrupt the things that speak out against their conscience.  Ephesians 4 talks a lot about this:

“Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. They have no sense of shame. They live for lustful pleasure and eagerly practice every kind of impurity.”

It may also be worth consideration that there is an enemy who has lived this philosophy from the beginning.

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It is implied from Randy Moore in the title and content of his film Escape From Tomorrow that he wants to escape from a commercialized view of the world perpetrated by a soulless corporation try to capitalize off of sham values.  I jokingly created Randy Moore World in the last post to illustrate something serious.  It is easy to criticize or sling mud.  It is hard to offer an alternative.  Not offering an alternative is more than an act of cowardice, it is the act of a drowning man trying to submerge a rescuer who is trying to save others from drowning.

If you are escaping “from” something then it follows that you are also escaping “to” something.    Walt Disney World is not salvation.  It is not perfect even though it gives glimpses of perfected things.  It does not offer a completed path to get to perfect.  If people were looking to Walt Disney World to do that, then they would be disappointed.  Walt Disney World may be one of the best the world has to offer at the illusion of perfection but the real thing, however, is only found in Christ and the church.  In a way, Escape From Tomorrow confirms that.  But, without glimpses or way points along the way, is it not much more difficult to get there?  The tomorrow I want to escape from is one where people accept that there is no true goodness so they never bother to try.   You can never reach a destination you don’t believe exists.  In that way, Walt Disney World becomes much more than a theme park.  It becomes a laboratory where people experience the goodness that could come with the desire and the tenacity to get there.  It is tangible proof of a true good.  It becomes a taste of a tomorrow that could be if it is chosen.  And, when people choose it and try to reach it, it takes it out of the realm of philosophy and makes it, in some portion, reality.

As Walt said, “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world.  But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

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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.)

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

Selling Happiness?  A Disney Insiders Thoughts on “Escape From Tomorrow

by Todd Tipton

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While I was working at Epcot in the summer of 2008 I came across a family setting up for a picture across the World Showcase Lagoon with the Big Golf Ball .. er .. Spaceship Earth .. majestically in the background.  Being  a good cast member I stopped and asked the family if they would like me to take the photo.  They agreed and I, a veteran Disney photographer by this time, asked them the question I asked before all photos at W.D.W. to get smiles.

“What does Mickey Mouse like?!?”

The family looked back at me in their Goofy hats and shouted “CHE-E-E-ESE!!!”

Well, all except for one little boy who instead shouted “MONEY-Y-Y-Y!!!!!!!!!”

I was laughing so hard I had to retake the photo.

This year, a film that is essentially a feature version of the story above called Escape From Tomorrow caused a bit of a stir at the Cannes film festival.  Said stir emulsified in response to film maker Randy Moore, not just because he bothered to make a dystopian, David Lynchesque film about the happiest place on earth, but because, *gasp!*, he did so by gorilla filming in the parks themselves.  No, I do not mean magical Disney gorilla’s filmed him, although I would definitely see that film.  Instead I mean that he shot scenes in the theme parks without getting permission.  Oh no you didn’t Randy Moore!!!!!!

As you can imagine from the fact that he did not get permission, the point of the film isn’t particularly complimentary to Disney.  The plot centers on an unemployed father losing his grip on reality during a trip to Walt Disney World leading to surreal hi-jinx around the parks like getting into fights with characters, implying that some of the princess characters are actually hookers for Japanese businessmen, and calling Spaceship Earth a “testicle” all in an attempt to justify a line at the end of the film that is apparently the profound statement it was made to deliver: “You can’t be happy all of the time.  It’s just not possible”.

Well, that and to tell us that Mickey likes money.

I have not seen Escape FromTomorrow.  I mean, I would watch it but I highly doubt I or any of you good readers will ever get the opportunity to do so because Moore violated a whole clown car full of intellectual property rights in filming this on WDW property without permission and would likely get his chip ‘n’ dales handed to him in a colorful gift bag by Disney snipers/lawyers if it ever approaches a watchable medium.  So, it may seem funny that I’m going to do a review of a film I haven’t seen.  However, I don’t need to watch the film to weigh in on the moral of it which has been clearly stated by the film maker.  A few years ago I came to Walt Disney World as a non-Disneyphile and managed to get myself into a spot working 6 months in a position that was the ultimate insider’s view of the entire operation: 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, golf courses, arenas, shopping areas, 20+ resorts, and 60,000 + cast members.  I had unparalleled views into the nuts and bolts of the operation of the parks throughout entire seasons, interacted with cast members across the spectrum of company hierarchy, and had complete access to the inner workings of the minds of the Disney guest s from all over the world.   I have ideal experience to comment on the things asserted for our consideration in this film.

So, did I come away jaded with the Mouse ?   Is Walt Disney World truly the happiest place on earth?  Is it what this film says it is?  Is Disney a soulless, insidious corporation only looking after its bottom line?  Does it peddle happiness like a cheap commodity?  Does it attempt to control the very definition of happiness and force it on others by marketing into the subconscious of children through colorful characters?  Does Walt’s cryogenic head lie under the bowels of Spaceship Earth awaiting mourners like Stalin’s body?

And what of the faith I profess?  Can you love Christ and still approve of Disney?

Step out of your car and into the cabin of a written monorail headed towards the answers of these questions and more in this three part series:  Selling Happiness?  A Disney Insiders Thoughts on “Escape From Tomorrow”.

Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas …

 

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