As our politics invade the amusement park, is Disney World even a vacation destination any longer?
The only time I went to Disney World was in November 2001. My family hadn’t been planning on going, but after 9/11, my father rightly assumed we’d be able to get cheap airplane tickets from Newark, New Jersey, to Orlando. I was 11 years old and hadn’t done much flying until then, so I couldn’t really comprehend that, one, everything was different—the security, the boarding process, the level of palpable fear—and, two, my dad had seen an opportunity to capitalize on a national tragedy.
September 11 was a cataclysmic moment. It was, perhaps, the first instance in which the harshness of reality broke the fantasy of Walt Disney’s imagination, when what John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in the New York Times Magazine, once called “the double hallucination” of the place likely faded away. A reporter at the Huffington Post, who interviewed Disney employees after that tragic day, revealed management had informed staffers not to tell patrons why the park was closing early that morning unless they explicitly asked. And, in order to get people to leave, the Mickeys and Minnies and Goofys joined hands and, forming a human wall, drove the customers toward the exit. Apparently, there was concern that “Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts might also be on the terrorists’ target list.”
That whole affair bordered on absurdity—that the illusion must be protected, at all costs, from the infiltration of anything beyond its walls. To the outsider, Disney World is a version of America as paradise. It’s a tourist attraction that exemplifies the nation’s control, and influence, as a pop-culture behemoth, as well as its Protestant insistence that people can be anything they want if they just try hard enough. “When Disney World was built,” Sullivan wrote, “it embodied a shared idea of America as pure capitalist fantasy.” Later on, he continued, “No matter where you travel in the world, you run into a startling number of people for whom Orlando is America.” But to read about the history of Disney World, as Walt constructed it, is to understand that the premise might have been shady, in an almost Trumpian manner, from the start. The businessman had skirted some ethical and moral lines to see it all through—his plan loosely involved shell companies and deceiving the locals about who, exactly, was purchasing the land around them. (He couldn’t have real estate prices skyrocketing.)
I had been thinking about that trip recently, not out of nostalgic longing, but because the Orlando Sentinel reported that someone had hung a banner in the Magic Kingdom this past September that read "Re-elect Trump 2020." (According to the newspaper, the sign received a relatively split reaction before security took it down: “Some cheered, some booed.”) Trump’s ascent to the presidency has seeped into Disney’s gates. Up until now, not much had broken the façade other than society-altering events. It’s more permeable, however, than one might initially believe. Since Trump took office, he has directed some of his infamous semiliterate tweets at Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO, who resigned from the White House advisory council after the president withdrew from the Paris climate agreement in the summer of 2017. Last December, an animatronic Trump was added to the Hall of Presidents. Many criticized the choice to include the controversial leader, and then promptly critiqued the verisimilitude of his face. “Do you see Donald Trump?” asked NPR. “Or Jon Voight playing Donald Trump? Or a certain doll from a horror franchise?” The Washington Post had its political animator weigh in: “Besides the obvious complexion inconsistency, his hairline—or how it’s coiffed—isn’t low enough.” Elle called it “the scariest best thing.” The media, then, in no way insignificantly, debated how fake the robot-Trump was, and how they failed to render the Donald real-looking. We’ve crossed a meta-threshold I never thought I’d be trying to explain—about the shortcomings of a massive corporation in portraying the physical characteristics of a hard-to-believe man who rose through the ranks of public life by galvanizing a population through sheer narcissism. (There has been other news, too: This past March, a Planned Parenthood branch tweeted about creating a Disney princess “who’s had an abortion”—and then promptly deleted it after an onslaught of criticism about shoehorning adult problems into a childlike context. Meanwhile, in August, Disney workers reached an agreement for a $15 an hour minimum wage by 2021.)
We’ve entered a moment, our so-called post-truth era, in which we’ve become ever more aware of the blatant discrepancies that divide us—economically, philosophically, socially. Our entertainment and politics have merged to such an extent that it’s impossible to separate them. Donald Trump has stepped right off the set of his reality show into the Oval Office—and the idea of Disney World as America’s version of Eden, where anyone can apply whatever meaning they want to it, seems to be bracing for a fall. In a rather convenient way metaphorically, the amusement park sits between a western coast ravaged by Hurricane Michael this past October and an eastern one that houses Mar-a-Lago, the “Winter White House”—a fading dream stuck in the middle of a disaster area and a nearly mythical country club frequented by the powerful.
It was in this semi-ironic context, in this particularly charged environment, that we sent the photographer Chris Maggio to Disney World during the week of the midterm elections, as millions of Americans were flocking to the polls. (As this issue went to press, both Florida’s senate and governor races were heading for a recount.) What Maggio saw was Orlando as a surreal dystopia, as Trump supporters have co-opted the imagery of Disney World and used it in their own bootleg products to rally their base. What may have signified one thing in the past (like a Donald Duck spoof T-shirt mocking the host of The Apprentice) signifies something else entirely today. They’ve used cartoons to further our cartoon-like climate. It’s a portfolio of the times and for the times—that asks you to consider if we’ve reached a point where there’s nowhere left to escape. —Alex Norcia
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