After disdainfully avoiding the place for decades, a return to Florida and an announced "Gay Days" at Disney World pushes Gillian Kendall into seeing if it's a smaller world after all—or just a more consumerist world filled with exclamation points.
© Nicole Clausing
I hate Disney and all its associated theme parks, worlds, animations, and plastic figurines. The last time I did anything Disney it was 1971 and I was eleven. For most of my life, I and everyone else in Florida had been hearing about the stupendous coming attraction: the Wonderful World of Disney! The exclamation point was always part of the name; its opening would be the highlight of our lives.
On my first visit, my emotions surged as I rode through "It's a Small World," where the dolls were singing in English: "It's a small world after all! It's a small, small world." At that time, I had not yet seen a Broadway musical, but the feeling I got from those swaying, big–headed plastic munchkins foreshadowed the generic yet intense emotion I'd later experience watching Phantom of the Opera and Rent. The music expanded my heart and cruelly stuck in my head.
Now I'm 49 ¾, heading back at Disney for my visit #2. I know I'm getting close when I see an atomic–yellow hot–air balloon looming low over the pine trees. There are huge black cartoon silhouettes on the side of the balloon, and teeny human silhouettes inside the suspended basket. It looks harmless and fun. Maybe I'll end up liking Disney!
And I do like checking in to the hotel: my first encounters with Hilton/Disney staff are uplifting. A ridiculously good–looking young man wings open the door of my old Honda, saying with a plausible smile, "Welcome to the Lake Buena Vista Hilton, Miss." (Miss!) His name tag says:
But Dolan's blonde and sounds American. "You're not from Italy, are you?" I ask, shrewdly.
"No, it's just a joke my manager played on me," he admits. Intrigued, I ask if all the staffers are sporting fake places of origin on their nametags. What jolly fun that would be! A bizarre, dark, managerial sense of humor would therefore be revealed. But no—only Dolan has been mislabeled, to my disappointment.
I admit to hoping to discover a seedy side of Disney. Something about all this cheer and cleanliness makes me want to peer into the mouse–eared trash cans and find used needles.
Despite my puerile desire to find the gum stuck to the bottom of Mickey's shiny patent–leather shoe, check–in is moderately delightful. The receptionist uses my name in a normal way, not with every phrase, and the crystalline aquariums behind the reception desk are replete with healthy fish: not one is even listing sideways. They swim happily between neon orange bridges and pink castles, living, like the humans, in a bright plastic fantasy.
Furthermore, the rooms are not remotely tacky. I'd been expecting Dumbo–shaped soaps and Cinderella sheets, but in my suite, red chairs and round red lamps create a Chinese–colonial ambience.
In the muggy, sunlit evening, I venture to the Disney Downtown, Downtown Disney or whatever it's called, a gargantuan outdoor shopping mall. Every few yards there's a multilevel "theme" restaurant, one with live dinosaurs, another with high–tech weaponry, others featuring an active volcano, the Second Coming, and so on. Above the color–coordinated scenery, actual clouds make fantasy–like formations behind the hot–air balloon (tethered on the lake at this late hour, looking like a moon brought to earth). The real, the unreal, and the surreal blend into an ecstatic orgy of consumption.
Desperate, I decide to get ice cream. Yacking people are crammed sun–visor to backpack inside the Ghirardelli "factory," so I have to wait 25 minutes. First I stand in line while perusing a tabloid menu, then I pay about $5, and then I shuffle into the holding pen where gallons of hot fudge flow through industrial piping, and finally my number is called and I get a ball of strawberry sorbet on a sugar cone. It's good.
* * *
The next night, accompanying my friends Melissa and Z, I visit one of the real DisneyWorld "worlds," i.e. one you have to pay to get into. Melissa professes to love Disney because "it lets you be a little kid again." I don't want that, but I'm trying to Disney with an open mind.
Getting to the Magic Kingdom happens in stages, like climbing Everest, and at each one, there are hyped, piped–in messages of coming glee. Outside the Hilton, we stand in a special waiting area for a special shuttle bus, the digitized destination of which reads "All Worlds." Full of wary children and already tired adults, it takes us to a special platform where we board a magical monorail, which tells us how many seconds will pass before it deposits us at the actual entry to the Magic Kingdom. Having paid $45 each for our "discounted" passes at the hotel, we press through the turnstile, and then, our feet on Disney soil at last, we start looking for euphoria. Or at least other gay people.
It's "Gays Days" at DisneyWorld, and the official motto is "Wear red and be seen." We're here, we're queer, but no one else seems to want to be spotted. Not only doesn't anyone look gay; no one even looks pleasant. One woman, burdened with several children and a stroller, is snapping into a cell phone: "You're actually on Main Street itself?" She doesn't seem to be feeling the magic, and her children are blank–faced, as if their souls have been stolen.
Half the visitors in my field of vision are children, usually herded along in small, petulant groups. It's 8.30 p.m. and apparently past their bedtimes: the youngsters look wan and wasted. A few are weeping quietly. Some are sleeping hard in their strollers, while those that are being force–marched from ride to ride appear stoic and overwhelmed. Only babies make eye contact, and they seem starved for it. I gaze back, trying to give them what they need — not another Mickey–shaped sugar–bomb, not another overproduced "experience" featuring robot goons and raucous music, but a moment of human connection.
Books from the Author: