Lost in the Magic Kingdom

On being kissed by a chipmunk and other perplexities of travel in Disney World

"Get down to Disney World, in Florida, take your families," President George W. Bush said, urging Americans to return to normal life after September 11. So I went. I took the family, or that part of it (my wife, Susan) that has not flown the nest. First time to Disney World for either of us. It may seem an odd place to go without children along, but Disney World has lately been wooing people like us—people who were there at the creation, as it were, who learned the lyrics to the Mouseketeer song when it was brand-new. Old people. Disney's commercials tend to depict vacationing middle-agers going starry-eyed, but I can't believe that the grown-up set really comes here in search of adventure and romance. (At least, I hope not.) You come because they built it. Perhaps as many as half of all Americans have been here. It's a national institution. And, I discovered, there are certain advantages to bringing some seasoning to the experience.

I'm going to begin my report with a little story that doesn't reflect well on me but may be instructive. We went to breakfast in our Disney "resort hotel," called the Beach Club. In the restaurant's foyer a large Minnie Mouse was posing with children—we had stumbled into what they call a character breakfast. Goofy was wandering around, and he came by our table. A warm smile and a wave for him. Next Chip stopped by. (Remember Chip, of Chip 'n' Dale, the chipmunks? I didn't, actually, but that's his name.) A smile for him, too, but he sought something more. He sat down on the banquette next to Susan, put his arm around her, pointed from himself to her, pantomiming I'm gonna steal your girl. Reader, I could have been much, much better in this situation. I might have rubbed my eyes: boo hoo. Or made a long face and drawn tear lines down my cheeks. Instead I just smiled. Warmly? Gamely? Rictuslike? It's so hard to know from within. In any case, it was an inadequate response, and Chip (I now see) had little choice but to do what he did: lean over my scrambled eggs and propose a nose rub. Still friends. Here things went from bad to worse, and I'm afraid I said the following sentence (quietly, still smiling): "Thanks, old buddy, but I don't think we'll do noses today." Should have done noses, though, because Chip still needed an exit strategy, which he found in tousling my hair and kissing me on the head.

Here's the point: At any other age this encounter would have been trouble. As a little boy I would have been scared, as a teenager mortified. As a young man I would have been (in a way that might have spoiled everybody's fun) verbally abusive and possibly violent. Interesting thought: would Chip just take a punch and retreat, or would he swing back? But now, in mellowness, I was just ... fine. I had come to Disney World at exactly the right age.

We set off for a tour of Epcot, and on the way got our first glimpse of the scope of Disney World. (We had arrived in the middle of the night.) The Beach Club stands right next to the Yacht Club, both of them creations of the nostalgic postmodern architect Robert A.M. Stern, incorporating outsize emblems of New England seaside buildings: gray shingles, widow's walk, windmill. Of course they are not really beach or yacht clubs, at least insofar as such places imply membership, an ocean, boats, and so on; the only water nearby is the artificial lagoon—which is, though, equipped with a lighthouse. On the other side of the lagoon lies the BoardWalk Inn complex. It's as though (if you're literal-minded, like me) you can stare across the "ocean" from Nantucket to Atlantic City. Other hotels loom behind, notably the huge Swan, with its giant rooftop statues of its namesake bird. The Magic Kingdom is nowhere in sight, but you know it's out there, along with the Animal Kingdom and various other realms. The World has some 20,000 hotel rooms altogether, and it occupies forty-seven square miles—twice the size of Manhattan. It is all around you.

Now, as we strolled next to the lagoon in the warm, midwinter Florida sun, a feeling of some pleasure arose. I have felt this way in many parts of the world—at the Great Pyramids, for instance, despite the presence of beggars, touts, and larcenous camel drivers (none of which were a problem at Disney World, of course). Everyone has experienced it: a pleasure that has little to do with fun. It's a tourist's sense of accomplishment: By God, this really must be seen, and I am seeing it.

Epcot began as a model town, a laboratory of futurism (the acronym stands for "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow"). It maintains a few homages to technology, including a ride through the ages, sponsored by AT&T, that manages to suggest that all of human history has culminated in the Internet. But for the most part the park has morphed into a "World Showcase," a series of representations of countries around the world. These resemble movie sets, but they're more substantial, containing shops and restaurants. We started out at the United Kingdom, with its convincing and quite alluring Rose & Crown Pub, back to which I wanted to get for most of the rest of the tour. But the park is big, and when it was time for lunch, we had fetched up on China's shores, only halfway around, having already seen a quiet quarter of a French provincial town, a street in old Marrakesh, the Plaza San Marco, a German beer hall, a Japanese pagoda, a Norwegian stave church, and a place called simply "Outpost," which stands in for the entire Third World and contains artifacts of world trade, chiefly old Coca-Cola shipping cases. (This, with grim appropriateness, is about the only place in the World Showcase where you can't find a meal.)

We visited the Magic Kingdom the next day. What seems to be the unspoken lesson of Epcot is made explicit there, at one of the classic rides, It's a Small World. In this experience (as you may well know) one travels by gondola along a little waterway in a darkened cavern, voyaging past brightly colored dolls that represent the people and the creatures of many lands. Throughout, the Disney tune "It's a Small World After All" plays, and in the end the various symbols merge into a multicultural festival. The lesson, though, is not as easily understood as the lyric suggests. The words argue that we're basically all the same. But what it feels like, as at Epcot, is that the rest of the world is a cartoon.

If there is a problem in visiting Disney World without children, it's that you start getting concerned about things like this. A sticky little hand in each of yours goes a long way toward subduing an overactive mind. You may come here just to notch your traveler's belt. But this is not the Lincoln Memorial or the Louvre. Monuments and museums yield their meanings readily, but Disney World is complicated. You tend to Have Thoughts. Your inner voice begins to sound like one of those hectoring French critics who can find the soul of America in a Happy Meal.

I had brought along the essay of an American critic, Stephen M. Fjellman, from his book Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America, that proposes the word "decontextualization" for what goes on here. Fjellman writes, "Disconnected information passes in front of us at high speed ... pieces of literary tales are retold as if they were the whole story ... history is disaggregated ... geography is mixed up ..." All of this is in the service of creating "legitimations and maps for a Disney version of the world in particular and a US corporate view in general." He's right, he's right, I guess; but talk this way and you abruptly remember that you're shooting at a mouse.

In any case, there's a lot going on in the M.K. To produce an orderly account of the place, with Main Street, U.S.A. and Tomorrowland and the steamboat ride and Cinderella Castle and the Hall of Presidents and Frontierland and all the rest, would be quite a feat. I am left with fragmentary images, scraps of notions. The dining room in Cinderella Castle looks like a dining room at Yale. Debauchery and mayhem dominate the Audio-Animatronic tableaux on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, another dark-cavern venue. I was still puzzling over what this was trying to "say" as we emerged into the Pirates gift shop, where shiny swords and Cap'n Hook prostheses were for sale. (Disney World goes to some trouble to make sure that one's experience, whatever it means, will not be forgotten. The souvenir shops reach their pinnacle in Cinderella Castle, where a cut-crystal replica of the castle can be had for $3,900.) Then, thinking we were heading for The Haunted Mansion, we blundered into the wrong line. An age-mate of ours, also unaccompanied by children, explained that she was in line to get Snow White's autograph. What to make of this? What exactly would you think you had when you had Snow White's autograph?

We felt we ought to take at least one ride that has earned a yellow international warning triangle ("might be intense for children and some adults"), and that's how we chose The Haunted Mansion, in which people travel around in chairs through—you know, an up-market haunted house. This, in fact, produced a moment of intensity, a holiday from confusion, in which I had the following clear thoughts: People die, sometimes suddenly. Suppose I died here. That would be such an irresistibly amusing anecdote for my survivors that what little dignity had accompanied this life would be lost forever. I was very glad to get out of The Haunted Mansion alive.

At one point, shuffling forward in a long line for It's a Small World, looking over at some brave little figures with a view of nothing but grown-up legs, I found myself feeling a pang of sympathy for the children who numbered among my fellow visitors.

I want to proceed carefully here, because I know that many parents—even some who profess to deplore the place—report on how delighted their children have been by Disney World. I saw one little girl who was truly happy on the train ride (my favorite part too) around the Magic Kingdom, because she spotted a mechanical alligator in a swamp and she had been hoping to see an alligator. Her mother looked even happier. But I did not see many children who looked delighted for very long. I saw lots who looked dazed and not a few whom you might call wired. I heard many parents asking variations on the question Wasn't that fun?, which in my experience you don't have to ask a child if it was fun. One little boy, oblivious to all else around him, was, charmingly enough, entranced by a bird, an actual bird, on a bench. A trip here has become such a universal symbol of parental affection that it must be very hard for kids to know what to think. In any case, despite my conviction that the place is fascinating for adults, I can't quite believe it is appropriate for children.

As you travel across the big interior of Disney World by bus, on Disney's own system of divided highways that evoke the barren stretches of interstate America, you are apt to think of the ways in which this place resembles the country that spawned it. It is like us in its love of broad sentiment and bright colors and violent movement—it has helped to teach us those things, hasn't it? It is like America in its celebration of democracy, or at least an aspect of it—democracy as leveler, enemy of pretension. And it is like America in that when, as is so often the case, any one place proves disappointing, you think the best must lie ahead, and so you move on.

But it's not America, as I could tell because of the way I felt when I crossed the border into the real thing. Would "free" be too strong a word?

Disney World aficionados debate whether it's better to choose a hotel inside or outside the park. We did both, moving halfway through our stay to a huge new place called Gaylord Palms, just over the line. Our new hotel did not represent a retreat into overnice refinement or restraint. It, too, is "themed," though here the theme is Florida. There's a four-and-a-half-acre atrium full of rocks and grottoes and waterfalls, some stone ruins meant to recall the city of St. Augustine, a white-columned wedding chapel, and a turquoise body of water of wading-pool depth, home to a sixty-foot ketch with sails set. We had a drink on the deck of the ketch, Gaylord. Still in the grip of that philosophical mode that Disney inspires, we had a brief discussion about how something qualifies as a boat (the stout, handsome Gaylord neither floats nor moves)—a conversation that would have been less diverting had it not been accompanied by an hors d'oeuvre of the absolute best fried calamari I have ever eaten or ever will.

I became devoted to Gaylord Palms, didn't want to leave. Its fantasy architecture would probably not exist without the inspiration of the Disney genius, and yet the feeling is utterly different. I started to launch an inquiry into why that might be, saying something like "In contrast to the utopian decontextualism of Disney ..." But I saw glazed eyes across the table and caught myself: "Waiter? I think we're ready to order."