Saturday, June 18, 2016

An unwanted intruder at Disney




Between flesh eating bacteria, wayward alligators, unwanted pythons and lone gunmen, Florida has had a troubled history of violence, both natural and man made and has become a rather dangerous place to live.  Yet, the state is literally bursting at the seams with nearly 20 million inhabitants plus the endless stream of tourists to mega-amusement parks like Disney World.

This is a state that is constantly being remade anew ever since Henry Flagler ventured southward to establish his railway line along the Atlantic Seaboard, opening up the beaches to the rest of the country.  Gone were the Seminoles and other tribes that once controlled South Florida.  A 40-year Indian War initially led by Andrew Jackson expelled them, leaving only a docile band of Miccosukee behind.  Some Seminole ventured back, claiming land rights in the Everglades, but this was a hybrid tribe that included survivors of other decimated tribes, notably the Creek, and even runaway slaves.  As a result, they spoke a patois of languages and their culture was cobbled together from a wide range of precedents.  Nevertheless, they became emblematic of the state.  Their land was eventually made over into orange groves and sugar plantations.

That was until Disney bought a huge swathe of Central Florida, approximately 45 square miles, and remade it into one of the top tourist destinations in the world.  Unlike Disneyland in California, Disney World was going to be a vision of the future, which he called Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow or Epcot for short.  He unveiled his plan at about the 6:30 minute mark in the video after the long Disneyland promotion.   There would be a huge geodesic globe at its center, which would eventually be named Spaceship Earth.  I assume in honor of Buckminster Fuller who came up with the geodesic concept and coined the term.  There were also going to be planned living communities with all the latest technological innovations.

Florida already had its fair share of roadside attractions, notably gator parks, where you could see these massive reptiles in the flesh and watch men wrestle them.  One of the oldest is Gatorland in Orlando.   You could also see mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs and visit the Ringling Brothers Circus in Sarasota.

Unfortunately, Walt died while his fabled new "world" was still in planning, and the first thing on the block was essentially a clone of Disneyland, with a few more rides and a "Tomorrowland" that offered Disney's  Epcot vision in a nutshell.  Walt Disney World opened in 1971 and I remember going there with my mother in 1975.  It was enormous with a monorail system that took you from the parking area to the park passing through the futuristic Contemporary Hotel along the way.  After all, you have to first give the kids what they want and then worry about the parents.

Epcot was eventually realized but it became less a vision of the future than a showcase of world cultures, kind of a mini United Nations with 11 countries represented replete with "passport."  My daughter wouldn't leave until she had all the pages stamped.  The huge geodesic globe gave it kind of a dated futuristic feel, and itself became nothing more than "It's a Small World" for teenagers.  Since then Epcot has expanded to offer a "Living with the Land" attraction that offers a more sustainable view of the world.  Even Mickey has gotten in on the act, so to speak, but these are more gimmicks than any kind of "future" Walt had imagined.

Orlando and its surroundings grew beyond anyone's control as it mushroomed into an international destination, loaded with hotels, restaurants, and other amusement parks feeding off Disney.  Eventually, it came to have a business center and all the accoutrements one associates with a city, even an NBA basketball team, appropriately called the Magic.  This was less the magic of Disney than it was the greed of developers, the real estate offspring of Henry Flagler, who were desperate to make Orlando competitive with Miami and Tampa.

There have been attempts at planned communities like Celebration, Florida, but this is less a vision of the future than a faux-Caribbean resort designed by the the well-known architect Robert A.M. Stern, who had a penchant for nineteenth-century planned communities, considering them more "vernacular."  Celebration had a hard time getting going.  Like Glenn Curtiss' theme-based Miami area communities of the 1920s, it was done in by recession and has had a difficult time recovering.  You might think of it as the remake of The Stepford Wives gone horribly awry.

It is convenient to blame Michael Eisner for this vapid commercialization of Disney's dream, but dear old Walt was not above commercialization himself.  Walt had simply packaged one of his animator's ideas, after Universal Studios has stolen his Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  He clearly wanted to get back at Charles Mintz and Mickey was going to be his ticket to the big time.  After Walt became more successful he could afford to expand his boundaries, which he did in monumental leaps and bounds.  Eisner wanted to expand them even further, moving beyond a Sunday night Wonderful World of Disney to a Disney Channel and a huge movie company that would truly rival Universal Studios.  However, Walt's son pined for the good old days, feeling the Disney concept had grown too far beyond his father's vision and needed to be scaled back a little.

Disney is still huge and has parks in France and Japan as well, but it is Disney World in Florida that everyone wants to see.  This is Walt's testament.  In fact, many still think Walt is cryogenically frozen and laid in state in Cinderella's Castle to be awoken some day to a world only he might have imagined.  Other than marveling at some of the gadgets today, I think he would be pretty disappointed to see what Disney World and Orlando have become.

What Disney wanted was a place free from all worries, where you could let your children run free and enjoy the fabulous world he imagined for them.  The only reptilian behemoth anyone who came to Disney wanted to see was the crocodile that ate Captain Hook.  No one ever expected to have a close encounter with a real alligator at Disney, and as such the park didn't feel the need to warn anyone that they occasionally popped up in their many ponds.  They felt a "no swimming" sign was enough.

This fairy tale vision was severely disrupted this past week when parents lost their two-year old boy to an alligator.   Say what you will about this being the natural domain of alligators, but these are all man-made ponds and one would think would be more closely monitored for beasts of prey.

There are now so many alligators in South Florida that they often venture into the canals, lagoons and even the swimming pools of residential communities.  So much so that there is even a reality show based on a guy who retrieves these unwanted creatures and returns them to the wild, of which there is not much left in Florida.  Surely, Disney can hire "gator boys" of their own!

One can imagine the enormous law suit that will arise from this.  More devastating is the unwanted publicity that has arisen from this ghastly incident, which will make parents think twice about taking their kids to Disney World.   Of course, the pull is so great it won't be felt for long.  There have been other "freak accidents" at Disney World over the years, which have pretty much been forgotten.  However, a toddler being eaten by an alligator is likely to linger in the imagination much longer.

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