My vacation writeup as sociology, tech, and book review essay!

Disney and How Alternate Reality, Technology, and Sociology Shape Experience

On second leg of flight home from Orlando now. Slept through snack service both times. Thanks to our status as Disney hotel guests, we were at the park until 3 AM last night during Extra Magic Hours. Which means I slept not quite four hours last night and total unconsciousness against the bulkhead of the plane has been inevitable.
Returning from Disney to Real Life invokes a kind of culture shock that was first obvious to me at the Dulles airport while we waited to change planes. I went into a restroom that was less than pristine and thought “what the hell happened here?” To be fair, for an airport restroom, it was quite acceptable. But compared to what we were just used to, a few flushes not working and some stray paper on the floor just seemed shocking.
For the pedants out there, we were at Walt Disney World in Florida, but I’ll just refer to it as “Disney” for the rest of this entry. After all, although each park in the Disney family has its own flavor and uniqueness, they are all part of a continuum as an Alternate Reality, even though not geographically contiguous, and many of the statements I’ll make can be generalized beyond just WDW or the Magic Kingdom in specific, to the other parks that are part of WDW and other Disney parks around the world.
The status of Disney as an Alternate Reality was only emphasized by the ebook I decided to download to my iPhone to read while waiting in line. I chose a book that has had a nice life in print as well as in e-format, Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow.

Anyone who has been following this blog knows I’ve been writing a lot of ebooks lately, and I’ve been experimenting with reading them, but I hadn’t actually sat down and read one all the way through. Until now.
Down and Out was a fitting choice to pop my ebook cherry for a number of reasons. The primary thematic one–for purposes of this trip, of course–is that it takes place in WDW (a future in which not only the government and universities but even Disney World itself have been taken over by people-powered “ad hocs”). The primary logistical one is I wanted a book to read in line that wouldn’t make my tote bag too heavy or be in danger of getting wet, etc… and I carry the iPhone everywhere already. The secondary thematic reason, though, is that the book is about the way future technology shapes our experiences of the world and people around us. I was traveling in a group of four adults, all of whom have iPhones. We were happy to amuse ourselves in our own private universes whenever the “hypermediated” experience of Disney either became too much to handle for a brief period, or became too dull (the few times when long waits for good seats at shows or lines for rides inevitably crept into our day).
Advances in technology have improved our Disney experience immeasurably, both on the entertainment side in the form of gee-whiz cool new rides, 3-D effects, and upgrades to even my most beloved ride, the Haunted Mansion, and on the logistics side, as not only is all travel easier to manage and figure out when one has the Internet and a cell phone, but in the implementation of things like the Disney Dining Plan.
(Disney Dining Details: For $40 per person, per day, we got one table service meal (including drink and either appetizer or dessert), one counter service meal (including drink and dessert), and one “snack” which was a huge list of things available from restaurants all over the parks. A few of the really fancy restaurants required us to use two table service credits, but doing the math as our receipts piled up, we found ourselves coming out ahead over and over. A table service meal rarely ran under $30, and a counter service with drink and dessert was routinely $15, snacks ranged from a $2 bag of nuts to a $6 pineapple whip float. We were probably consuming retail value $53-$58 in food each per day on the plan, yet we’d paid only $40 for it. The implementation couldn’t have been easier. Our room keys for our Disney hotel room were swiped at each cash register and the proper deductions taken. The meals were cumulative, not per day, so we could eat them in any order we wanted. In the end, it not only encouraged us not to rush around and skimp on meals (which leads to cranky adults), it meant carrying less cash (almost none), worrying about money less, and adding to the carefree nature of the experience Disney tries so hard to create. AND we saved money. Win win win.)
It’s things like the smooth and seamless execution of the dining plan which inspire some of the devotion we feel toward Disney. As geeks, we like to reward competence and excellence, especially when a piece of technology is implemented and used well.
But back to Cory Doctorow’s book. The main engine of conflict in the book is over when and how new technologies should be used to update certain rides in the park. The protagonist Julius sees Disney as a kind of enduring continuity of experience — which is indeed how so many park guests do experience it. You compare it constantly to your previous visits, your childhood memories matched against your adult perceptions, and against how your own children experience it, whether the same or different. Plain fact: Disney is an American cultural institution and therefore sacred.
But the Imagineers and managers know that if the park never changed at all, it wouldnt’ flourish. Disney isn’t a museum of itself. How to keep inspiring the same quintessential experience in each visitor, whether for the first time or on repeat visits? The audience keeps changing, Disney has to keep changing, too, and yet still deliver the same reliable and beloved experience.
The changes at the Haunted Mansion really delighted me. This is the ride that made me a goth as a six year old child. I was afraid of everything as a child. Every scary movie kept me from sleeping. I slept with the light on and the radio playing until I was about fourteen. Just the TV commercials for the movie JAWS made me afraid at times to swim with my eyes shut in a SWIMMING POOL. Yeah, I have a very susceptible and active imagination. You never would have guessed, eh? The Haunted Mansion started out scaring me on that very first trip to Disney at age six, mostly while we were waiting in line, but the Stretch Room had a kind of whimsical wonder to its creepiness, the Vincent Price narration uses big vocabulary words which always engaged me as a child (I hated being talked to like a child). I was completely delighted and enchanted by the time I got off the ride. On that first trip to the Magic Kingdom at age 6, Haunted Mansion was the ONLY ride I wanted to do twice.
So you’d think I might be a purist about it. But no. The changes they’ve made not only enhance the essentially same experience, they also seem to have honored the originally Imagineers’ intents, and the ride’s history. (We took a backstage tour in 1999 where we learned a bit of the Mansion’s history and its importance and lore among Disney employees, which was nifty.)
I was a little underwhelmed with my own emotional reaction the first time I rode the new improved mansion six days ago. I liked it, but I actually spent too much time cataloging the things that were different in my head, instead of indulging my inner six-year-old. We went back and rode it at midnight last night (when the park was open until 3 AM for hotel guests, f***ing win) and all my analytical stuff was packed away and my inner child was just like “loooky! ghosts!!” In other words, it worked.
We went back again and rode it at 2 AM when we were good and punchy. Insert big grin here.
Among the things that tech has improved: sound quality on the rides is so much better than it was. My hearing is starting to go compared to how sharp it used to be, but the soundtrack and lyrics were better audible on various revamped rides than ever before, including Pirates of the Caribbean, the Mansion, and It’s A Small World.
And then there’s how people USE technology. FastPass, the system in which you can get a reservation on a ride to re-enter at a specific window (or later), has made doing the parks much less of a standing-in-line experience and more of a strategic planning experience. For those who just can’t handle planning and being places at certain times, you do have the option of doing it the old fashioned way and just queueing up. But by judicious use of FastPass along with Extra Magic Hours, I managed to never stand more than 20 minutes in a line. Considering that it was spring break, and despite the crappy economy (or because of all the recession deals being offered) the parks saw record crowds, extending regular park hours every day we were there, 20 minutes was quite nice.
The good planning meant so little standing in line actually, that I didn’t finishDown and Out until our flight from Dulles was delayed. The book goes right to the heart of one of the central questions that dogged me as a child and even while studying cognitive science in college. If our memories of our experiences make us who we are, what does it say about who we are when we can’t really remember things that well? Even at age six, seven, eight, there were things I had in my memory that I could no longer tell if they were real or something I dreamed. Standing by a water wheel. Shopping malls and airports.
For some reason many of these possibly real, possibly imagined “memories” in my head involve taking trips and traveling. My biggest crisis of identity came during a psychedelic drug experience in college when I started to doubt ALL my memories or that my personality could exist at all. Of course, two hours later I was still there and still “myself” so I pretty much quit worrying about this question after that. Besides, as a writer of fiction, what I imagine is every bit a part of me as my memories.
But back to Disney. Doctorow’s book is relevant because although he sets it in a supposed future (where people live multiple lifetimes by getting their minds backed up and downloaded into new cloned bodies when something bad happens to the old ones), it’s very much a commentary on the modern media experience and how pop culture as an institution in American life is a touchstone. Even as fast as our media is changing–both the kinds of media we experience as new genres of music are created and so on, and the types of media as new formats like ebooks and interactive gaming and who knows what else may be invented come along–there are some icons and institutions that remain the “same.” Some remain the same because they died young and are therefore sainted, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, James Dean, Elvis, John Lennon. Some don’t die but remain the same anyway the longer they go on: the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Buffett, Cher. For some, reinventing themselves is part of the image: Madonna, Johnny Depp. But when it comes to pop culture institutions, there is not much to rival Disney. There is the long continuity of The Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live, and Sesame Street. Major League Baseball. The Olympics maybe, and the Rose Bowl Parade, maybe. Think about the pop culture media that can be discussed between grandchildren, parents, and grandparents and have everyone know what’s being talked about and have their own memories to share. There are not a lot of things that fit that criteria, but Disney does.
So we go back. Every 5-10 years or so. We reboot our brains the way Julius in Down and Out does. We literally get away from “the real world” and let the Disney world, the one that is an amalgam of what is, what once was, and what we imagine, fill us up.
(Postscript: What does it say about how busy my life is that I didn’t finish the writeup of this trip until I was on my next trip? Finished this on the plane to Atlanta and posted it from the hotel.)
(Post-postscript: I quite enjoyed “Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom,” in case that wasn’t clear.)

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