American Musings #2- It’s A Small World After All…

It’s a sure sign of old age when, whilst wandering around Disney World, you start noting the vastness of its varied workforce (sorry, ‘cast members’) and suddenly think ‘bloody hell, it must be a nightmare working in their HR department’.

I really didn’t know what to think about Disney World. I’d never been before so I felt rather blasé: “Yeah, whatever. I’ve been to Alton Towers. It’s probably the same.” I didn’t really consider the fact that people from all over the world don’t exactly flock to Staffordshire on a daily basis (although judging by the length of some of the queues in good old AT, you’d think they did).

So I showed up with my flip flops on and an air of insouciance on a Saturday morning, and was instantly met by a massive, sweating horde of people. There were queues for EVERYTHING, and I mean everything. I was hungry but every single food provider, be it some kind of fast food wagon, a themed restaurant that looked like Tom Sawyer’s Latrine or just some bloke flogging crisps from a neck-tray had a queue longer than something you’d see at Blackpool Pleasure Beach during a ‘50% off for Hen and Stag parties’ promotional weekend.

WARDLE’S FACT CORNER: Disney World is divided into four parks. There’s the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, the Vegetable Principality and the People’s Democratic Republic of Minerals….

The Vegetable Principality was renamed ‘Epcot’ in 1982 and has been thrilling fans of contorted, minaturised versions of various nations ever since. Epcot’s World Showcase contains pavilions representing eleven countries. ‘Norway’ has a stave church, ‘Japan’ has a pagoda, ‘Canada’ has a totem pole and waterfall etc. However, that description really doesn’t do it justice. Each pavilion is actually a rather industrious and sober attempt to encapsulate the essence of each country.

I was ready to mock, I really was. I’d put on my mocking hat and adjusted it to a jaunty angle, as I knew Americans are traditionally blinkered when it comes to other countries and any attempt to slim down an entire country to a few brushstrokes of detail is just asking for a descent into cliche. But it was actually pretty good. When we got to ‘Wee Britain’ I was practically foaming at the mouth, ready to tear it to pieces. But the closest I came to mirth was the ‘Yorkshire County’ Fish and Chip Shoppe. SILLY AMERICANS! We just call it ‘Yorkshire!’ Ha. But the rest of it came across rather well. It was like a distilled version of a traditional market town with a bit of rural charm thrown in.

There was even a bandstand on a village green with a bewigged Beatles tribute act. It was rather lovely. The shop was pretty amusing though, selling Newcastle Brown Ale and Man United shirts. But still, not by any means ludicrous. (“I wanted Ludicrosity, but all I got was this lousy Union Jack hoody.”)

Each of the four Disney World parks has its own icon, an immediately recognisable RBT- Really Big Thing. Epcot have the big ball with triangular pointy bits all over it (Alucobond tiles, to all you DIY fans out there) otherwise known as Spaceship Earth, as that’s the name of the ride it houses- a rather worthy, slightly plodding 80s offering that takes you on a journey through the history of communication, seemingly to attract ride sponsorship. It was originally supported by AT&T, but now Siemens have taken over and given it a slight revamp. It’s dull though, so I’ll move on to….

Test Track! Woo! Another sponsorship heavy ride: General Motors have their carbon begrimed, smeary fingerprints all over it. It’s fun though, and it goes fast and gives you a whooshy feeling in your bellyhole, unlike many of the rides at Disneyworld. Guests ride in fake cars in a GM “testing facility” and they take you through various simulations of the processes used to make sure the cars they sell don’t make children’s faces explode for no reason or that the seats don’t spontaneously combust the minute they reach 40 miles per hour.

The highlight of the ride is a speed trial around the outside of the Test Track building at 64.8 miles per hour (104.3 km/h) on a 50-degree banked curve, making Test Track the fastest Disney theme park attraction ever built…but still slightly slower than Oblivion at Alton Towers (110km/h).

Disney seem to put more emphasis on detailed, immersive theming rather than thrills, which I was a bit apprehensive about beforehand as I like to be thoroughly exhilarated and nauseated by theme parks. However once I got there I soon discovered that the themeing is what sets Disney apart from all the other contenders, and it’s well worth the speed-sacrifice. The sheer richness of a ride like the Brer Rabbit log flume (Splash Mountain) in the Magic Kingdom – the oldest of the parks and the most iconic with it’s multi-tiered blue and white Cinderella castle-  is truly entrancing.

You travel through glades and woodland, looking at perfectly rendered animatronic models of cartoon bears, foxes, possums etc, accompanied by a song which I was convinced went ‘doo doo doo, show us your balls’ (but which after googling I’ve discovered goes ‘Pretty good sure as you’re born’. Which was disappointing).

After the final, large drop I assumed the treats were at an end. Every other log flume I’d ever been on simply booted you off after the main wetifying, but not Splash Mountain. We rounded another curve and went back inside the structure again, into a huge underground cavern featuring a replica of a turn of the century paddleboat filled with singing geese, all holding a banner that said ‘Welcome Home’. It was at that moment that I decided my heart will forevermore belong to Disneyworld… I’m sorry, Alton Towers. I’ve loved you for a long, long time. But you don’t have ANY animatronic singing waterfowl.

Other ride-highlights included the wonderful Pirates of the Caribbean, with it’s infectious ‘Yo Ho, Yo, Ho a Pirate’s Life For Me’ theme tune. It’s a dark ride, meaning it takes place inside a closed structure, and again you travel by boat through a variety of underground lagoons, including a huge one in which you sail between a full-size pirate galleon locked in combat with a large portion of some kind of colonial/spanish fort type thingummybob (sorry, I was never a student of architecture). Even the recently inserted Jack Sparrow puppet/robot looked like him:

The scale was astounding and the animatronics were perfect. It was like being in a film. Nothing at Alton Towers ever prepared me for the technology and detail lavished on Disney rides (although Alton Towers still beats the dubiously-named Pleasureland at Southport hands down. Their version would have been sitting on a lilo in an old bath while some Liverpool-accented carny in a pound-shop pirate hat waved an inflatable parrot at you).

The least inspiring of the theme parks for me was Disney’s Hollywood Studios (aka the People’s Democratic Republic of Minerals). It couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be. It’s RBT is a giant version of Mickey’s Wizard hat from Fantasia, which was a bit random (although slightly less random than the big tiled Epcotball, I suppose). There was an old ride called Star Tours, which was set in an amazing Endor/Return of the Jedi themed area with a life-size AT-AT and an intricate, R2 droid engineering department themed queue. Sady, the ride itself was just a simulator similar to the type you used to get at large shopping centres.

Another disappointment was The Great Movie Ride, set inside a perfect replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  The highlight was the old movie trailers they played in the queue area (which was also a cinema), then you got into some clunky trains with a cast member who took you on a fake backlot tour with terrible marionette versions of key Hollywood films, including a haunted, blank eyed Mary Poppins and a version of Ripley from Alien that looked like Kathy Bates holding a gun.

However, there was one excellent ride: the Hollywood Tower of Terror:

I went on it 10 times and even bought the T-shirt ($20 and it’s thinner than Posh Spice after 3 weeks on the egg and grapefruit diet, but hey). You enter a haunted, decaying 1930s hotel, and after watching a Twilight Zone-style video in a cobwebbed library you’re ushered into the lift by a cast member dressed as a bellhop.

There are holographic, Shining-like apparitions and other whizzy, spooky special effects culminating in a trundly trip to the front of the building where, after a door opens to show you how high you are, you’re dropped 13 storeys. It’s ACE, and one of only three rides at Disney with a truly exhilarating semi-scary ‘whoosh’ factor (the others are the lamentably themed, very cheesy Aerosmith Rock and Rollercoaster also at Hollywood Studios, and the marvellous Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom).

However, I’d suspect the majority of Disney patrons couldn’t go on any exciting rides due to a variety of obesity-related heart conditions. Perhaps that’s why they don’t have many zippy adrenaline-fests. There were huge, wobbly people everywhere. Hordes of them, many wearing highly ill advised, skimpy outfits that made them look like a sock full of hammers. Some of them were so large they had their own postcodes, in fact I think I’ve seen several of them geotagged on Flickr. I’m pretty sure electric scooter rental alone would cover most of Disney World’s running costs.

Animal Kingdom seemed to attract the podgier visitors by the bucketload, perhaps because there were more accessible rides, such as the fake Safari (or the Safauxri as I renamed it), where you’re taken round a recreation of the fictional Harambe wildlife preserve in a very bouncy, very large jeep-type-all terrain bus thing by a cast member who pretends to be a game warden. It’s all very Disneylicious, with the cast member asking which way people want to go, commenting on the animals and having well timed pretend conversations with an African warden over the radio. And at the end you get to stop nasty poachers stealing a baby Ellyfunt! Ahhh! (Like they wouldn’t just kill it and gouge out it’s stubby little tusks, but hey).

Luckily some of the Disney sticky gooeyness was alleviated by a party of 20 year old, slightly drunk Summer-break jock types in the back, who answered the guide’s preppy, squeaky questions as follows;

Cast member: “Ooh look everybody! A Rhino! What should we do?!”

Jocks: “Shoot it!”

Etc.

Animal Kingdom also features a world showcase style ‘areas themed like countries’ aspect, however unlike the World Showcase, which tries so very hard (bless it), Animal Kingdom doesn’t just embrace cliché so much as fondle, molest and gently hump it. And rather than countries, AK mashes up whole continents into a sort of rich, lumpy goo. ‘Asia’, for example, is an indigestion inducing mixture of chai vendors, randomly placed rickshaws, ruins of forgotten temples, fluttering prayer flags, a replica Everest (which is also a rather superb rollercoaster), shrines to the goddess Kali, stalls selling Chinese food and, at one point, a parade of saffron clad monks. I’m not sure if they were cast members or actual Tibetan Buddhist monks on holiday. I hope it’s the latter, and that they travelled thousands of miles to take photos of a miniature (yet still rather large) fibreglass version of their mountainous Saint-Mother, Chomolungma.

I could just imagine them all on the It’s a Small World ride in the shadow of Cinderella’s Castle, sitting in a row in their billowing robes, trundling past nightmarish, animatronic, jerky woodentop children in various kinds of national dress inside what to me seemed like a conference centre. It even had those square polystyrene tiles on the roof high above. It was like a psychotic version of the United Nations as envisioned by Superhans from Peep Show after a handful of LSD washed down with lighter fluid.

It’s A Small World really summed up the whole Disney experience for me. Amongst many other things, it tries to put other countries in a nutshell for the benefit of the geographically challenged US natives. According to government statistics, only 21.7% of American citizens own a passport. But who needs one when you can go to Epcot, visit a pagoda, take a tour of a replica Aztec temple before sampling some Authentic British Chippes from Ye Olde Yorkshire County Fyshe Shoppe and eating them on the village green whilst listening to the Beatles? It’s certainly better than flying thousands of miles to Bradford…although to be fair, most things are.

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About Hilary Wardle
Hilary is a freelance journalist and copywriter who writes for a wide range of websites, magazines and newspapers, including Buzzfeed, MSN, The Poke, Chortle, the Guardian and the Independent. She specialises in arts and entertainment, comedy, video games and viral content. Contact her at Hilary3@gmail.com.

3 Responses to American Musings #2- It’s A Small World After All…

  1. Amy Haynes says:

    Oh, Hilary. Your blog post made my Monday night. Long live the wonders (and cultural embarrassments) of Disneyworld!

  2. Simon says:

    My Google Reader went haywire and resurrected this article from the depths. Great read by the way!

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