Listen: ‘The Most Magical Place on Earth’

Inside the quasi-authoritarian city-state in Florida where people are happily complying with the rules

On this episode of the podcast Social Distance, staff writer Graeme Wood makes his first visit to Walt Disney World in the midst of a pandemic.

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: Why did you go to Disney World?

Graeme Wood: One reason is that I’d never been there before. And I was never gonna go there. I had no interest in going to Disney World. But right now it is a really fascinating place, because it’s where a lot of people get together and have to deal with the effects of a pandemic and decide that it’s worth the risk.

Wells: Walk us through your experience there a little bit.

Wood: The Disney experience is an all-encompassing one. When you arrive at Orlando Airport, you get sent into the Disney bubble and you don’t really emerge until almost the moment you get on your flight to go home. That’s what happened with me. I got onto the Disney bus at the Disney area of the airport, went to a Disney resort, and all I did during the day was eat at Disney restaurants and go to Disney parks. My experience was full Disney for four days.

Wells: Was it crowded?

Wood: I have to adjust my priors a bit because I’ve never been to Disney World before. I know lots of people who have, and what they always talk about are the crowds and the expense. If you go there now, the crowds are relatively thin. You can walk down the street without bumping into people, and you can go on rides and attractions without having to wait for hours and hours. I think a normal person who knew Disney World and was going there for the second or third time would say it looks like a neutron bomb has hit the place and it’s being repopulated slowly by a trickle of visitors.

Wells: What did the people who were there think about it? Did they find it eerie?

Wood I think that most of them were having a really good time. It’s a little bit hard to tell because you’re looking at people in masks, which is weird. This is a place where everybody is supposed to be having a good time at all times. It’s compulsory. But you don’t see a human face, let alone a human smile, the whole time.

James Hamblin: Who was there?

Wood: To me, a shocking range of people. I wore a button at the park that they give you if it’s your first time there and it says first-time visitor. I’m sure I was the only one at the park wearing that, because not many other people were thinking, Disney is opening after a pandemic that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people in this country, so I think I’ll go for the first time. It was the people who have wanted to go to Disney World for months who have been prevented from it. And who feel like it’s that important to go, because they love it so much.

Wells: How were the rules enforced? If you were to get really close to someone or take off your mask, what happens?

Wood: There are Disney employees, always referred to by Disney as “cast members,” who will come up to you and say, Oh, could you please put on your mask or Could you please raise your mask over your nose? They’ll say it in the nicest possible way. But in truth, I almost never in my whole time there—four days—saw someone who had to be reminded of that. What was really shocking and actually gratifying and pleasing to see was the level of compliance of guests. Everybody was just following the rules. And they were doing it, I think, in a spirit of harmony and goodwill and also respect for the authority of Disney World. It’s hard to exaggerate the difference being in that bubble and the rest of the world. Or the rest of America. Or even the rest of the famously unruly state of Florida, which literally surrounds Disney World.

When you get to Disney World, you immediately find yourself in something that just doesn’t feel like America. It has a really good public-transportation system. It has a level of invasion of your privacy that Americans wouldn’t abide in other contexts. That is, you put on what’s called a Magic Band, kind of a Fitbit-like thing around your wrist, and anytime you walk past a sensor, Disney knows you were there. And they don’t hesitate to tell you that later by showing you a photograph of yourself there.

Wells: Wait, so they’re tracking you and photographing you the whole time.

Wood: All the time. And they’re doing that with your consent, I suppose. I put that band on and I was able to pay for things. You don’t even have to bring your credit card with you! You just tap your wrist against the sensor. And then when you get on one of the rides, they take a picture of you and they send you a copy of it because your Magic Band was on your wrist when you walked past a turnstile and they recognized that you were there. This is the kind of thing that if the federal government of the United States said, We’re going to watch you everywhere and take pictures of you—even if they offered me copies of those photographs, I would be pretty upset by that. But in Disney World, it felt more like having a contract-tracing app, like they have in Singapore. Now, Disney World is not actually using it that way, yet. But when I say that Disney World feels like another country, that’s what I mean. It feels like you’ve entered a space where the authorities have a huge amount of credibility. And in some ways, it resembles a quasi-benevolent authoritarian state rather than the malfunctioning anarchy that we have in this country.

Wells: You have traveled the world and seen many different kinds of governments at work. What does it mean that inside the walls of Disney there was a more functional government than there is on the outside?

Wood: I’m depressed by what I think are the inferences that we should gather from that. My understanding from this trip is that we had a lot of people who in other contexts just wouldn’t have trusted the authorities to manage the pandemic and wouldn’t do what they were told to do. And in this context, they have a huge amount of confidence in Disney to manage things. I think that’s a dark thought because with the loss of confidence in public institutions, private institutions rise to take that place.