Look, I get why the quarterback for the winning team at the Super Bowl yells “I’m going to Disney World” when he’s asked about what he plans to do after his big win. See, Disney World and organized sports are huge corporate entities that create recognizable brands and strong customer loyalty through a falsified sense of being tied to American cultural values, so it only makes sense that they team up for Super Bowl Sunday. Not to mention, Disney World is billed as being “the happiest place on Earth,” which probably explains why my cynical and generally grumpy self got violently sick within 24 hours of being there two weeks ago: the screeching of children and the uncomfortable feeling of being called “princess” by every park attendant; that goddamn ‘It’s A Small World’ song crammed into my head; that dumb snowman from “Frozen” staring at me from the omnipresent gift shops. It all blurred together in a pastel cluster-fuck that was too much, too quickly, for my hardened Baltimore soul.
Feeling like shit prevented me from getting on any rides for fear that I’d puke on a toddler rocking Mickey Mouse ears (which might’ve made a more interesting column, but I digress), which meant I spent a lot of time ruminating on the parks and the Disney corporation. Perhaps being all hyped up on Tums opened my third eye or something, but until right there and then, I didn’t fully realize the artificiality of everything Disney represents.
For real, it’s a creepy place. There’s never a dead leaf on the ground and the grass is so well-manicured and unnaturally green that at one point I knelt down to make sure it wasn’t all AstroTurf. And despite there being a bajillion dirty little kids, there is never any trash and all the employees are always smiling. This feels less like a vacation from real life than a compulsive, corporate-fueled desire to pretend that real life doesn’t exist. There’s also something super white about the whole endeavor that makes the park ideal for, say, a family from Topeka, Kansas, but had me feeling out of place.
My family stayed in a lodge in the Animal Kingdom called Kidani Village, which Disney calls “African-themed.” Now, I barely passed geography, but I’m pretty sure Africa is a huge-ass place so I had difficulties understanding how a whole continent could be condensed to a “theme.” And what was that theme exactly? Well, the lodge was plastered with nondescript tribal designs, housed African statues and carvings in the lobby, had a thatched roof that made the whole villa look like a grass hut, and was completely surrounded by zebras, giraffes, and all sorts of critters that hang out in “African” backyards all the time. At one point, I was looking at the animals when I started talking to an intern at the lodge who was from Cape Town, South Africa. He explained how many people view Africa as an uncivilized wilderness even though his hometown is twice the size as most U.S. cities. He mentioned that he liked to tell the tourists that a lion once bit off his finger while he was shooing it away from his grasshut. When I asked him if people actually believed that, he nodded solemnly.
This white-washing was all the more prevalent in Epcot, a now hilariously out-of-date park meant to feature “the future” and technology, which features the World Showcase with 11 pavilions that are meant to represent individual countries. In the China section of Epcot, I watched a chubby little kid throw an oversized straw hat on his head, stick out his front teeth, and squint his eyes as his mother took a picture. It only highlighted the fact that every country after that was this horrifying caricature of the country it represented. Mexico had booths selling margaritas and sombreros if you wanted a racist photo-op for your snot-nosed kid or something. One positive, though: seeing disgruntled middle-aged men stuffed into lederhosen in the Germany section.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Disney has always been kind of shady, if not clumsy, with handling other cultures. In 2013, Disney even tried to trademark the phrase “Dia de los Muertos” or “Day of the Dead,” which is a sacred Mexican holiday, in order to, shocker, sell stuff based on the holiday.
This insensitivity shows up whenever it attempts to break away from Euro-centric characters. Although Disney often gets too many points just for feigning diversity, its “ethnic” characters are the same as the ones in its whiter films but with an “ethnic” twist like Jasmine’s bare midriff or Pocahontas’ ability to talk to animals. Which is totally realistic and respectful, right? And I did notice how the princesses on display, in merchandise and in the creepily cheery-face characters, were all whiter than a “Support Darren Wilson” rally. Disney does have some princesses of color, however problematic they may be, but in the Official Princess Merchandise, they are noticeably absent.
Toward the end of the trip, I skipped dinner because my body was still weaker than the plot of a Disney movie and watched two wildebeests hump each other from the safety of my balcony. I don’t speak wildebeest, but if I did, I’d ask them if they miss their home, if they feel as out of place here as I did. Then I tried to imagine that victorious 300-pound quarterback in this place, surrounded by this false cultural erasure and hyper-saccharine happiness, and probably wearing those damned Mickey Mouse ears, too big for the seats of It’s A Small World, and I felt queasy again.