From the December 1994 issue of TLD


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Clubbed to death by Mickey Mouse


What adult younger than 50 had a childhood untouched by Walt Disney? A whole generation of men will admit, in unguarded moments, that Annette's budding pulchritude sparked their first erotic fantasies, and for many of us, our most vivid nightmares were haunted by Snow White's stepmother. Though Mortimer Mouse (Walt's first choice of names for his star rodent) was slightly sinister in his initial appearances, by the 1950s he had settled down into the avuncular and cheery character he is today.

The 1950s were, by any standards, Disney's golden years. That was the decade when the magic castle first cast its shadow over the orange groves of Anaheim. Southern California's economy was sun-drenched, and its beaches were kissed by the waves of eternal summer. Moralists mourning the death of American Family Values hold in their minds as the vanished ideal the California 1950s family — Dad in the office; Mom making a molded salad from Jell-O, Miracle Whip, and canned fruit cocktail; and two scrubbed children playing happily in the yard with a cocker spaniel.

Disneyland's Main Street, USA was small-town Iowa (the origin of a surprising number of California residents) in the Gay Nineties as seen through the innocent and prosperous eyes of postwar 1950s America: clean, shiny, painted in bright colors. Barbershop quartets provided the musical backdrop, Elvis and Jerry Lee were unheard and unheard of, ladies wore hats and gloves, and everybody had access to good orthodontia.

As the years wore on, the world outside the gates of the Magic Kingdom saw its spell of eternal sunshine dissipating. Tacky motels and dilapidated trailer parks sprang up to accommodate the hordes of tourists; the orange groves were razed and replaced by taco stands and T-shirt shops. Smog obscured the sun, and sludge covered the beaches. In recent years, roving gangs and crack houses just blocks from Disney's gates make travel on foot hazardous after dark.

Something ominous was happening inside Disney's domain as well. Walt's vision for his theme park was unrealistic and cleaner-than-clean, but it was fairly cohesive. Following his death, there was upheaval behind the scenes, and new ventures and directions that seemed unrelated to the Disney image began to emerge. Asked for a word-association response to "Disneyland in 1956," I'd have blurted out "wholesome" without missing a beat. By the late 1970s, I'd probably have said "slick." And today, it doesn't do to turn the lights on too brightly; the Magic Kingdom is starting to look a little frayed around the edges.

The most noticeable shift in values was revealed when Disney released its first R-rated film, carefully camouflaged behind the Touchstone name. The animated features that continued to be churned out under the Disney signature maintained high artistic standards, but certain flippant characteristics began creeping into the personalities of the heroes and heroines. Granted, strong father figures were never part of the formula: dear old dad always took a back seat to a wicked stepmother if he showed up on screen at all. [1] Later films really took cheap shots at the traditional values: Belle, in "Beauty and the Beast," is an arrogant little snob, and Jasmine of "Aladdin" is affectionately condescending toward her father. Earlier in the era, Geppetto may have been a little ineffectual, but Pinocchio got into serious trouble when he deviated from the paternal directives, and he showed serious remorse and intention to reform once he'd learned his lesson.

There were other troubling clues that settlement cracks might have formed in the foundations of the enchanted castle. EPCOT in Orlando, for example, was crassly commercial, openly pandering to corporate sponsors. Magic doesn't come cheap. At Disney World, in the exclusive park concessions, hot dogs and sodas for an adult and two kids will lighten your wallet by $30, to say nothing of the hefty per-person rates levied to get past the gates in the first place.

Disney also undertook the management of its own resort hotels, which turned out to be a less-than-inspired cross between theme parks and fast-food franchises. Disney's Yacht Club in Orlando is a 1990s interpretation of 1950s Iowa's nostalgic memories of Martha's Vineyard in 1890. Requests for wake-up calls bring the voice of Admiral Goofy chortling into your ear at 6 a.m. with an invitation to join him for morning exercises (almost as revolting a transaction as the desk clerk's cheery admonition to "have a Disney day"). A New England clambake buffet restaurant, staffed by pinafored waitresses who can't speak English, serves up rubbery steam-table clams and Alaskan crab legs with melted dairy spread. The $150-per-day guest rooms sport faded wallpaper, chipped enamel fixtures, and cheery notices assuring the guests that, in the interests of environmentalism, the staff — if you fail to protest — will change your sheets only once every three days, and that untold gallons of water and cleaning compound will be conserved as a result. Guests are also encouraged to sort their trash, although the housekeeping staff is willing to remove the various bags and bundles. The unfortunate inference is that saving the environment is being used as a cover to save a few bucks.

Recently, Disney interests operating at a distance from the transactions bought up significant tracts of land around Manassas, Virginia, and announced plans to open an American Heritage theme park. The idea of a politically correct rendering of the rape and pillage of the Confederacy, interpreted through the squeaky-clean, star-spangled Lincoln-worship of the 1950s, is the stuff that breeds nightmares. Eric Foner of Columbia University was selected as the major historical consultant for the park; I have a hunch that one should not look to him for a favorable representation of the Southern cause, based upon statements in his writings such as, "Long into the twentieth century, the South remained a one-party region under the control of a reactionary ruling elite who used the same violence and fraud that had helped to defeat Reconstruction to stifle internal dissent.... The Solid South helped define the contours of American Politics and weaken the prospects not simply of change in racial matters but of progressive legislation in many other realms." [2] Despite Disney assurances that the park would be a responsible interpretation of history, it seemed unlikely that hard-core Tenth Amendment issues would find articulate expression in Disney's typical syntax, or that their list of American presidents would include Jefferson Davis.

Disney requested Virginians to cough up an amount that varied, depending on who was describing it, from $130 million to $168 million or more for "infrastructure" for the park, assuring the beleaguered taxpayers that the new jobs plus the tourist influx would more than offset the expenditure. The anti-Disney forces countered that most of the new jobs would be for subsistence-level wages, and one leaflet circulated at Ban the Mouse rallies asserted that Disney "cast members" in California and Florida live in crowded, substandard housing where five or more people must pool their minimal paychecks in order to occupy tiny two-bedroom apartments. Questions were also raised about the effect of all those tourist vehicles on Northern Virginia's air quality, which hovers in the hazardous range much of the year already. The opposition took the Disney forces off guard, and within a day or so of winning most of their requested concessions, a Disney spokesman announced that the company was dropping plans for the Manassas park, citing the damage that a continued publicity struggle would do to the corporate image. That development left many Virginians under the misapprehension that Third Manassas was a victory for the free market, tradition, and dignity: before the dust had settled, however, other Virginia locations, as well as sites in the Carolinas, were vying for Disney's attention.

Will General Goofy lead little tourists in calisthenics prior to their tripping off singing, "Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to war we go," or will they queue up to ride the Underground Railroad? Maybe the nightly fireworks/laser show extravaganza will be a re-enactment of the burning of Atlanta, but I wouldn't bet on it. In fact, I'd be willing to wager that, should the forces of Mammon triumph on the green fields once watered by Confederate tears, the one set of Disney characters conspicuous by their absence will be the dramatis personæ of "Song of the South." Zippety-doo-dah, Mousketeers.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, and this month that's all that needs to be said.

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