The keynote attraction of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, listed first on the park brochure, is something they call the Great Movie Ride. This ride purports to trace the history of American cinema. “Travel through classic film scenes and Hollywood moments,” the pamphlet promises.
Eager to see what sort of curatorial stamp the Disney imagineers might put on this topic, I line up, wait my turn, and hop aboard a conveyor pod. Soon, I’m rolling along past various iconic movie stuff. There’s Jimmy Cagney cracking wise. There’s Humphrey Bogart wooing Ingrid Bergman. And oh, look, it’s Sigourney Weaver battling an alien. (To my great disappointment, we at no point pass Debbie doing Dallas.)
There are two big problems with this ride (besides there being no Debbie). First, as best I can tell, the kids sitting all around me have no idea who any of these actors are. Never seen any of these movies. They perk up solely at references to films that were released after 2005.
Second, these aren’t video clips we’re watching: Those famous scenes are being performed by animatronic robots. They have waxy faces and whirring pneumatic limbs. Frankly, they’re weird. And they, too, leave the kids completely cold.
I’m sure “audio-animatronic” creatures were nifty when Disney pioneered them in the 1960s. They became possible after Wernher von Braun lent his pal Walt Disney some magnetic computer tape—the same kind that was used by NASA to synchronize its launches. (Pause to contemplate: Wernher von freaking Braun! He gave the world not only the V-2 rocket and the Saturn V superbooster, but also the means to create an android Sigourney Weaver. Perhaps the greatest innovation of all!)
In 1964, an animatronic Abe Lincoln wowed the crowds at the New York World’s Fair. People were convinced he was a live actor. Impressive achievement. Four decades later, though, who’s impressed when a mannequin blinks and raises its eyebrows?
Sadly for Disney, many well-known rides throughout all the parks—even the famed Pirates of the Caribbean—still rely on animatronics as a central selling point. I’m guessing that within a decade all these robot performers will get phased out. Robot Humphrey and Robot Sigourney will get powered down one final time, then tossed on a pile in some dark, archival closet. A few classics—maybe android Abe—will be left out on display to appease the nostalgists.
However dated, it’s still very Disney—this notion that the ultimate entertainment is to watch a machine impersonate a human. It hints at Disney’s core philosophy. If I had to choose a single word to describe the Disney theme parks, that word would be inorganic. Or, as a cultural studies post-doc might put it: “Blah blah simulacra blah blah Baudrillard.” As has been noted in many a dissertation, we visit Disney World to savor the meticulous construction—physical, mythical, and emotional—of a universe that’s completely fake and soulless.
But oh, how beautifully soulless it is. Upon leaving the Great Movie Ride, I walk down a facsimile of Sunset Boulevard. Here, I notice the asphalt under my feet has rubbed away in spots, revealing the old streetcar tracks beneath. Of course, there never was a streetcar. And its tracks were never paved over to make way for the automobile age. And that pavement was never subsequently eaten away by the ravages of time. In fact, this entire fake history came into being all at once, fully formed, plopped on top of some Florida scrub land. As famed Baudrillard scholar Michael Eisner announced at the opening of the park in 1989: “Welcome to the Hollywood that never was and always will be.”
I think it’s these interstitial moments—the seamlessness and the attention to detail—that really stun Disney visitors and stay with them long after they’ve left. The rides are great, sure, but every amusement park has rides. Disney creates fully realized narratives.
Consider the Tower of Terror, located at the end of Sunset Boulevard. It’s just a classic drop tower, where the goal is to send your stomach up into your sinuses. A regular amusement park would put you in a windowed gondola, crank it up high, and drop it. But here the complicated back story is that we’re visiting a haunted, 1930s-era Hollywood hotel. The hotel lobby contains accurate period furnishings—battered velvet chairs, musty lampshades.
As I wait in line, shuffling forward, I eavesdrop on the couple behind me. The woman (I’ve gathered she’s from a show-business background) is marveling at Disney’s set design. “Look at the distressing on all the surfaces,” she says with real admiration. “That’s not easy to do. You can’t just let the set hang around and age for 50 years.” She’s right: The place is yellowed, stained, and cobwebbed to a perfect patina. You’d never guess the whole thing was built in 1994.
After passing through the lobby, we’re shown an expensively produced film about the hotel’s haunted past. Then “bellhops” in Barton Fink-ish costumes lead us to our seats. And then, at last, the actual ride happens. It’s about 45 seconds of screaming our tonsils out as we plummet down an elevator shaft. All that effort and ingenuity wrapped around such a simple thrill. But this is precisely what draws folks all the way to Disney World instead of to their local Six Flags.
When the ride’s done, I go back outside and watch people strolling down Hollywood Boulevard. It turns out that the most far-fetched fantasy in Disney World isn’t the magic spells, the haunted buildings, or the talking animals. It’s the fact that there aren’t any cars.
For the mostly suburban Americans visiting here, this whole pedestrianism concept is at once liberating and bewildering. People don’t seem ready for it. On the one hand, they adore walking with their children in a totally safe environment (one that’s outside and is not explicitly a shopping mall). On the other hand, they’re getting extremely winded.
It’s pretty far to walk the whole park. “Slow down! Stop walking so fast,” I hear over and over—sometimes from fat adults, other times from their chubby children. They sweat through oversize T-shirts. They breathe heavily with every step. Their plump calves go pink in the sunshine, contrasting with their bright white sneakers and socks. Self-propulsion appears to be a wholly unfamiliar challenge.
Still, the rewards for their efforts are many. Around any given corner there might lurk Power Rangers, mugging for photographs. Sometimes a troupe of fresh-faced teens will suddenly materialize and perform dance numbers from High School Musical. Later, you can buy a multipack of High School Musical socks at one of the sidewalk souvenir stores. (OK, I actually bought some of these socks. They were for my 26-year-old sister. We share a refined sense of humor.)
As the afternoon wanes, and I grow tired of the masses, I duck into the least-attended attraction I can find. It’s called “Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream.” Inside, there’s a small museum dedicated to Walt’s life and a theater screening a short biographical film. There are about 12 people in the auditorium when the film begins. One family leaves halfway through because their toddler is cranky.
Poor Walt, I think to myself. One day you’re chilling with Wernher von Braun, inventing lifelike robots. The next day you’re just some dude who drew a mouse.
(Hey, let this be a lesson to you, High School Musical brats. There will come a time when no one will be buying your licensed hosiery anymore. Who will sing and dance with you then? Allow me to answer: You will sing and dance alone.)