Greetings from Disneyland! In order to keep our parenting license in good standing, we must take our kids here at least once each year. Last week, while fulfilling this requirement, I took notes of my impressions, little reminders to myself that I remained a sentient being in this animatronic land. I had planned to turn these notes into something coherent but the memories are too painful to revisit, so I'll just reprint them below.
We don't do enough for our kids. They need this multi-billion dollar homage to childhood because, well, we just ignore the little gutter-snipes the rest of the year, forcing them to live by their wits in the alleys and on the docks, begging coins from passers-by and scrounging for scraps in garbage bins. This is the least we can do for them.
If hell is company for breakfast, what is Goofy's Kitchen? Breaking one's fast in a large room filled with screaming kids and strolling characters while trying to find something edible amidst heaping piles of highly-processed sugary snack food is, well, mere words cannot describe the agony. Then all the characters come together in the center of the room and bang on pots and pans while gyrating to some loudly amplified sounds and you wonder (1) how did I die? and (2) what level of hell am I on? and (3) what did I ever do to deserve this? The day's just begun and my nerves are already shot.
Main Street U.S.A. on a sunny day surrounded by sunny people either having a good time or paid to pretend they're having a good time and I'm just slouching under the shadow of my own little black rain cloud. If this is the Happiest Place on Earth, there's no hope for me.
Sex is immensely pleasurable. And that's a good thing. For without the pleasures of sex, would any of us intentionally engage in an act so calculated to catapult us one day into the world's slowest-moving line under the world's most sweltering sun while waiting for the world's most aptly-titled ride? I refer, of course, to "Dumbo."
I have to hand it to Disney's imagineers: They've engineered all our imagination out of this place, creating the perfect environment for the passive absorption of pre-digested morsels of branded entertainment pap. The 45 minute line prepares us to be properly receptive. Then they strap us into a suitably submissive position to absorb their message. Then the ride administers a carefully-calibrated jolt of stimulation that effectively binds every fiber of our being to the branded theme. Then, almost before it's begun, the ride ends, leaving us craving more just as it deposits us into the middle of a gift shop that sells branded merchandise tied to the ride. Oh, and did I mention we pay them for this? Genius.
I've just escaped from Tomorrowland, that horrific dystopian vision of an inhuman robotic plastic video game action hero future, looking in vain for Yesterdayland, that fabled place where children were seen but not heard. Instead I ended up in Toon Town, a surrealist landscape blending the Great Depression, film noir and talking animals into something very unsettling.
Remember those I Love Lucy episodes when they traveled to Hollywood and Lucy went berserk everytime she saw a celebrity? I always hated those episodes because Lucy was either mocking us, the little people, for our celebrity-crazed ways or teaching us to behave like crazed idiots when in the presence of celebrities. I detect a similar dynamic behind the roving characters, as the cute and cuddly pied pipers wander the park imprinting impressionable minds with their character catechism, conditioning the kids to clamor for them in a most unseemly Lucy-like way: mobbing them when they're strolling by, patiently queueing for them when they're standing still, shamelessly collecting their autographs in Disney-supplied autograph books, posing for group pictures for power walls at home, seeking mute and momentary exchanges of scripted love from costumed strangers. All this prepares them for Paris Hilton, I suppose.
It figures that my two favorite rides -- Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion -- celebrate rape, pillage, plunder and death.
The only thing more painful than fake enthusiasm is forced enthusiasm, as in "I can't hear you, shout a little louder!" or "It's time to stand and dance!" You're sitting on the floor in the Club Disney studio watching everyone around you demonstrate the ease with which a smiling teenage emcee, wielding nothing more than a few seconds of scripted bubbliness, can subjugate their free will and get them to stand and sway and wobble in unison to some horrifically repetitive jingle-jangle string of notes scientifically formulated to worm deep into their crania, rooting out and destroying their individuality and turning them into one writhing mass of pod people. It suddenly dawns on you: This is how it happened.
Despite the 10mg of Claritin coursing through my system, my allergies are overwhelming me. Claritin is effective against my grass allergy, my pollen allergy and my dog allergy, but the Claritin scientists failed to formulate it for my manufactured amusement allergy. The Disney store only stocked the children's version of Benadryl, so I'm staggering through the park alternately swilling cherry-flavored Benadryl, which makes me sleepy and dopey, and sipping coffee, which makes me happy. Then I get sneezy again, which makes me grumpy. I suppose I'm finally getting into the spirit of the place as I wildly veer in and out of various dwarf personae.
I'm seeing too many childless couples. Some even in mouse ears. What brings them here? A yearning to revisit a wonderful childhood? That suggests they peaked early, a sad fate. Or a need to relive a terrible childhood, righting wrongs long ago inflicted? An even sadder fate. One that, if left unchecked, leads to a permanent state of infantilism. Which might explain our cultural obsession with youth. I've blocked my own childhood from my memory, preferring not to disinter it, which leaves me safely moored in adulthood. Which might explain why I'm so alienated from this Neverland.
Dinner at the Rainforest Cafe. Elaborate jungle setting, animatronic gorillas and elephants, and simulated thunder storms fail to work their magic, for I am not distracted from the crappy food. It's well understood that a theme restaurant utilizes the theme to mask indifferent food. I'm beginning to appreciate that this phenomenon also applies to theme parks. Meanwhile, my nerves, sorely strained by Goofy's Kitchen and the demands of the day, are on the verge of shattering when the waitress brings the first of many lime Margarillas. Blended with cherry-flavored children's Benadryl, the Margarillas work their momentary magic, dulling my senses in order to shield them from further theme restaurant- and theme park-inflicted damage.
It is a small world, after all, when we reduce the world's multitudinous diversity to a few skin tones and some colorful native costumes. Oddly, the United States is nowhere to be seen in the cavalcade of countries, owing perhaps to our lack of a distinctive native costume. But then surveying the sea of branded t-shirts encasing the bodies sitting in front of me in the boat, the cotton billboards advertising everything from Mickey Mouse to Budweiser to Motley Crue, I realize we do have a native costume, after all.
It's all too much. My kids don't need this. They're perfectly capable of playing for hours with nothing more than a few pipe cleaners, or that cardboard tube in the center of a toilet paper roll, or a few sheets of paper and some crayons, for with a little imagination of your own anything is possible and you're never bored. Of course, there's no money to be made from kids who play for hours with pipe cleaners and are never bored, so the Disney culture industriously extracts the native imagination from our kids, leaving them empty receptacles dependent on constant and costly infusions of rapidly-dissolving manufactured imagination to stave off their brand-new boredom.
We drive home, the kids soundly asleep in the back, and I'm reminded that tomorrow I will rise and realize that it was all just a dream, a terrible horrible nightmare of a dream. At least that what I'll tell myself. If I could only just believe.