Disney in the City

Culturebox went to a party in the new Times Square the other night. Not a real party, with people she knew, but a Party party, the kind with spotlights outside that shuts a neighborhood down. It was opening night for Disney’s ESPN Zone, a shiny new theme restaurant suggestively located on the ground floor of the shiny new Condé Nast building. Disney CEO Michael Eisner was there, and tennis player Martina Navratilova and hockey player Wayne Gretzky and basketball player Bill Russell–though Culturebox only learned of their attendance from the press release she picked up as she left. The stars, having allowed themselves to be interviewed on the way in and broadcast on giant screens to the crowds in the streets below, floated past in their bubbles of protective personnel so quickly that Culturebox never saw their faces.

Some fun was had, though fun was not the point. (The point is reading about everyone else’s fun the next day.) There was the curiosity of being part of the first and last group of adults–as opposed to children at birthday parties–likely ever to pack this dining-establishment-cum-gaming-center again. There were the excellent sushi and crab legs and lushly lit vegetables at the “Studio Grill,” a food court modeled on a TV sports center, which will surely not serve such fare in the future. There were bass fishing and skateboarding and parachuting against computers. On the way home, as Culturebox pushed past the Day of the Locust­-like throng lining 42nd Street and the uniformed New York City policemen troublingly acting as Disney’s bouncers, there was the towering new entertainment complex that is Times Square, with all the other theme restaurants and studio stores and the latest soon-to-open tourist attractions, such as the Broadway theater that offers neither plays nor musicals but brief medleys of each and Disney-owned ABC’s new studio for Good Morning America. And there was Culturebox’s urge to get out of there as fast as she could.

The economic value to New York of having Disney renovate Times Square may be indisputable, but when you get right down to it, or rather down in it, the place is no fun. Disney entertainment products (this party included) belong on television, in movie theaters, in kids’ books, on the computer, even in amusement parks, where there is no comparative sense of scale, such parks being perfect, self-enclosed worlds. This is the paradox of mass culture: The more impersonal and unreal the form, the more of a sense of direct connection you feel. Beauty may be merely a cartoon character who exists on a variety of so-called “platforms,” but her charisma affects you as intimately as it does her Beast. (It affects Culturebox that way, anyway.) Project her image onto a billboard or looming screen in a predefined geographical space, however, such as the crowded heart of one of America’s oldest urban centers, where passersby will just have come from and will immediately go back to neighborhoods scaled to their height and humanity, and you reveal her to be a virtual monster rather than a girl full of moxie. In the war between the old Times Square street and the new Disney-style monumentalism, Culturebox predicts, monumentalism may triumph in the short run, but street size will win out in the end. A body just doesn’t like to feel so small.