I very rarely get to go to places when they are just opening. In fact, I have a predilection for waiting, call it an overdeveloped sense of delayed gratification. I never go to the movie on opening weekend, will wait months to hit a new restaurant, and am ok with waiting for the end of a play’s run and avoiding all of the premiere messiness that usually occurs around such events. So when we were in Orlando this weekend to visit my step daughter, I was surprised and pretty psyched to find myself going to the newly opened Planet Hollywood in Disney Springs. It was an interesting experience, one that highlighted for me the different ways that people face their Disney experiences. But first, let’s cover the restaurant experience.
We met my stepdaughter and her boyfriend on Friday night, only having a forty minute wait in front of us- which really isn’t bad at a new restaurant. The place is pure Disney, all light and spectacle and sound, although this new incarnation of Planet Hollywood has less memorabilia cluttering the walls and ceilings and more enormous screens bombarding you with pop music videos and canned entertainment content. Shaped like an enormous observatory, the decor lends itself to this multimedia type experience, as the screens are curved to the arch of the walls and stand, it seems, at least thirty feet tall. Our experience with dinner was pretty much what you would expect: a frenetic and loud floor combined with a highly caffeinated server who was pulling a fourteen hour shift, decent but overpriced food (highly salted) endorsed by celebrity chef Guy Fieri, and lots of emphasis on “the show.”
But what really sealed the experience was, after settling the bill and heading downstairs, I failed to mention that there are three floors to this place, we were thanked by no less than eight earpiece wearing, iPad toting, broadly smiling Disney cast members. Reaching the broad stairway down to the foyer, which was decked out with Hollywood memorabilia, too, we were directed by one last smiling cast member down a side stairway into, you guessed it, the gift shop, where you could pick up a Planet Hollywood Tee shirt or two. Pure Disney.
And this is where my wife lost it.
She didn’t lose it in any “huge blowout” way, but she most definitely took a turn. Over saccharined experiences do that to her. Let’s just say that when the security guard- also smiling- offered us a map so we could see where we needed to go to pick up our Uber back to the hotel, which wasn’t really helpful because it was all the way across the park and we were tired, she got that look in her eye that signals it’s time to retreat before something bad is said. So we grabbed our ride, way across the park, and went home. It was a quiet ride, but the conversation that later ensued got me thinking about how people manage their Disney experience.
Full disclosure here, I love Disney. I love everything about it. I love it all, from the grand spectacles of the theme parks, right down to the piped in music you hear along every pathway, big or small. But I recognize that behind every facade in the “happiest place in the world” there are countless workers toiling away at low paying jobs to help insure that I can soak it all up without having this very contrived illusion broken. Hell, I even applaud Disney for it and point it out whenever I see it. You could say that I am willfully ignorant to the illusion, and that I embrace all of the implications of such activity. Yes, I turn a blind eye (as much as you can) to the rampant consumerism. Yes, I recognize the strange, Stepford like smiles and forced happiness of the workers. Yes, I even embrace the whole immersive experience. For the time I spend in its embrace, I allow Disney to create their world for me.
Not everyone can do this, though. My wife has keen, laser like vision when it comes to race and economic disparity. Working in a city school district, she is hyper attuned to the levels of inequality that exist everywhere we go. Disney magnifies this for her. So when our lovely hostess whooshed us along down to the gift shop, it was like a cracking of the facade for her. She had done so well to keep it in all night, because she knows how much both her daughter and I love the Disney experience, but she reached overload and had to leave. She had had enough.
Later that night we talked until late about the different approaches to vacationing in Disney. We dissected each of our views, and finally agreed that it really comes down to your level of tolerance to the glaring inequalities in front of you. On the one side the Disney company is a good company to work for. Salary and benefits seem good, workers don’t seem to be mistreated. On the other side, though, is the forced happiness, the weird cult of smiles that all employees seem to be members of. There’s also the same realities we face everywhere else. Most custodial And food service workers are men and women of color, as are the resort housekeeping and maintenance staff. For those trained to see these things, a trip to the Magic Kingdom doesn’t dust these ugly societal truisms under some illusory rug in Cinderella’s castle, but only serves to make the disparities even more clear. It can be hard to take if you don’t allow yourself to be swept up in it. If you inure yourself to it, though, things go much better. And if you have kids that are hankering for that “dream vacation,” well it can be kind of tricky if you can’t let it just flow. In some ways it makes sense, as hard as it is for me to say, that you have to just allow yourself to be blinded to reality- even for just a bit- and embrace the illusion in order to have a good time. That’s hard, but I certainly do it everytime I go back, and will do it again next time.
The following night we returned to Disney Springs to partake in a kind of sociological experiment. She wanted to see if she could find her happy place, which she did, with the two of us tucked away at the Hole in the Wall Irish bar, sipping Guinnesses and watching the madding crowd bustle by on their way to the next big thing to be seen, eaten, or experienced. We lasted for a good two hours before we got our Uber out, this time going to the right pick up place and avoiding any security guard induced snarkiness. I give her credit for going back. It wasn’t easy. But I think she ultimately reached a state of grace, an agreement struck between two old antagonists.
Which is perfect, because we have grandchildren coming, and we all know how kids feel about the Mouse. We will be returning, but with a survival strategy and an exit plan.
© 2017, Brian Stumbaugh. All rights reserved.