Grumpy takes Magic Kingdom


Grumpy takes Magic Kingdom

A curmudgeon tries her best to lower happiness levels at the most magical place on earth

By Mitali Parekh  September 18th, 2015

I entered with an eye-roll. Magic Kingdom in sunny Florida is the most popular theme park in the world, but it was not really my scene. I didn’t grow up watching Donald Duck and Goofy and I didn’t want to be a princess. All I wanted of Cinderella’s life were her animal friends and I thought Sleeping Beauty had no ambition. I like women who are handy in a crisis, such as the fairy godmother who could magic a cake out of thin air, or the witch who could wreck a party. Now those are skills worth coveting; I can’t admire someone who gives up their voice to get closer to a boy.

To my mind, the world of fairy tales and cartoons lacked something and that was anger. The raw, visceral, childish, imperious, forceful anger that formed the essence of my personality—there was no place for it in the toothless world of children’s entertainment, so I had no time for it. Then as a young adult, I studied the feminist critique of fairy tales. Snow White and her simpering lot didn’t stand a chance after that. Once you’re shown the matrix, you cannot choose the blue pill.

Yet there I was, at the gates of ‘the most magical place on earth’. In line with me were happy families, Mickey and Minnie ears in place. Practical princesses bided their time in strollers, velcro keds under Elsa and Anna costumes. Millennial’s queued up patiently, likely nursing memories of dressing as Ariel and Belle for Halloween, or Disney-themed bachelorettes. Retirees milled about in matching self-made tees with tie-and-dye silhouettes of that famous mouse. Under my feet were memento bricks bought by happy campers to mark their visit, a special date or a memory of their favourite character. The clouds were fluffy with cartoonish accuracy.

I was immune to all of that, but the greeters had me at hello. A crew consisting mostly of the specially abled, those with Down’s syndrome, physical handicaps and other limitations, zip about the 43-hectare park on electronic wheelchairs or mobiles, and guide visitors to restrooms, attractions and refreshments. Sometimes they soothe irate children, drunk on too much excitement and funnel cake. This welcome wagon got my vote.

Our guide was Nicole, a seasoned park employee. She began working here part-time during summers and stayed on for 15 years. It’s through her that the magic found its way to my black, cynical heart. Nicole has a tough job— she’s assigned to groups and families who need help navigating the chaos of one of America’s biggest tourist attractions. All day, she corrals wandering members and mediates consensus among bickering families, while remaining so even-tempered that I ask her what drugs she’s on and if I could have some too.

Nicole never points. When people stop to ask her for directions (which happens irritatingly often), she uses both palms in a gesture of elegance to guide the way. When she sees trash on the floor, Nicole picks it up. When she sees a child who has climbed to a dangerous height on a lamppost, she intervenes before an accident occurs (But without touching the child—that could lead to a lawsuit).

“Safety is a primary concern,” she informed us. A member of our group had recently had eye-surgery and had been advised to avoid water and sudden jerks. To prepare her, Nicole mimicked the motions of each ride with her hand, detailing the effects (‘You could feel queasy’; ‘The splash is as much as that surrounding a fountain’). She then sat next to the girl through the rides to tell her when to shut her eyes to protect them. We all need a Nicole to guide us through life.

Outside, the Florida sun beat down on the Main Street at Magic Kingdom. A tram pulled up and out sprung four pairs of dancers dressed like Eliza Doolittle’s back-up band. It’s a routine they repeat every half hour, throughout the day, enthusiasm never wavering a notch. The evening parade meanders through four kilometres of the park — and the dancers have on high heels, heavy costumes and headdresses, and inches of make-up. But the smiles never falter. The dancers make eye contact with little children, constantly gesturing, bantering and blowing kisses, with some acrobatics thrown in. This is all very admirable to an introvert like me who considers the polite framing of e-mails emotional torture. 

As we progressed through the park, it was apparent that this is the most extroverted place on earth. Disney’s casting process makes sure of it. Not only do the princesses look like the ones from the films, they display a level of enthusiasm that is impossible to fake. Plus, the training ensures they never break character. I asked Queen Elsa, all beautiful and aloof, to help me film a little message for a niece back home who is having trouble with potty training. The Queen obliged, and made her point without using a single un-regal word. For months, I was able to boast to my impressed niece how Elsa, Anna and I hung out.

Cartoon royalty is a huge draw but the star of this kingdom is still Mickey. There are several actors who play him, most of them women who can fit into the suit, but much care is taken to maintain the illusion that there is only one Mickey Mouse. When we met him in his green room, before the show, he communicated with us only through gestures and blinking. When he does speak, it’s in an endearing voice parroting an automated set of phrases, such as ‘Gosh! I was hoping you would come’. It was a little boy’s birthday and Mickey got everyone to sing for him. At the end, he went down on one knee for a hug.

In the little boy’s eyes, you could see the magic beginning to cast its spell. And that’s the appeal. Once you enter Magic Kingdom, the franchise goes to great lengths to keep the spell alive.

The young, angry feminist in me also breathes a little easier after a trip to the Bippity Boppity Boo-tique. Little girls and boys play dress up here, but they’re free to choose who they want to be: a girl can be a pirate and a boy can be a princess. I am a little disappointed that 35-year-olds can’t get makeovers. It would be nice to have a matronly fairy godmother fuss over me. The children are addressed as Princess XYZ and Sailor ABC by the staff— your boring identity is left at the door with your Old Navy shorts.

Much of the warmth you feel at Magic Kingdom can be traced to a kindly elder nearby. Seniors thrive in jobs that offer interaction with the children, such as in waiting lines and restaurants. The result is a feeling of trust — you are in the hands of seasoned grandparents who know how to pre-empt tantrums. Where lines can be serpentine, theatre or interactive technology is employed to curb impatience. (I have a theory that sugar-laden carnival foods combined with the vocal range of under-10s should generate enough whine to power Orlando. Scientists need to get on this.)

The enrapturing of little ones is a full-time endeavor here. The gaps between rides or activities are filled with distractions. As you near the Enchanted Tales with Belle, birds start chirping to recreate the sounds of her home in the village and there’s lavender in the air. A ‘peasant’ preps you to participate in a re-enacting of the day Belle and the Beast fell in love — you learn to make sounds of rain, howling wind and racing horses, while the cast inside prepares. As you wait to get into a Winnie the Pooh ride, you can make shapes on large touch screens that have honey pouring down them. There’s trivia on the wall, props to play around with—everything, in short, to delay the dreaded: “How much longer?”

Strangely, that question didn’t come from me. I entered Disney’s Magic Kingdom expecting to see that mask of impossible sunniness slip; I tried to peek backstage to see if I could catch Elsa on a smoke-break or Mickey chugging a beer. None of that happened—and given the scale of things, that’s kind of amazing. The grown-up path to suspension of disbelief, it turns out, winds past more prosaic landmarks, like professionalism, stoicism and a manic attention to detail. I found myself charmed not so much by the princesses’ gowns and tiaras, but by their work ethic. I was blown over not by the grandeur of Walt Disney’s vision, but the smoothness with which it functions. As an adult, I saw all the invisible ropes animating this magnificent beast.  And it was a kind of magic.

I entered with an eye-roll. Magic Kingdom in sunny Florida is the most popular theme park in the world, but it was not really my scene. I didn’t grow up watching Donald Duck and Goofy and I didn’t want to be a princess. All I wanted of Cinderella’s life were her animal friends and I thought Sleeping Beauty had no ambition. I like women who are handy in a crisis, such as the fairy godmother who could magic a cake out of thin air, or the witch who could wreck a party. Now those are skills worth coveting; I can’t admire someone who gives up their voice to get closer to a boy.

To my mind, the world of fairy tales and cartoons lacked something and that was anger. The raw, visceral, childish, imperious, forceful anger that formed the essence of my personality—there was no place for it in the toothless world of children’s entertainment, so I had no time for it. Then as a young adult, I studied the feminist critique of fairy tales. Snow White and her simpering lot didn’t stand a chance after that. Once you’re shown the matrix, you cannot choose the blue pill.

Yet there I was, at the gates of ‘the most magical place on earth’. In line with me were happy families, Mickey and Minnie ears in place. Practical princesses bided their time in strollers, velcro keds under Elsa and Anna costumes. Millennial’s queued up patiently, likely nursing memories of dressing as Ariel and Belle for Halloween, or Disney-themed bachelorettes. Retirees milled about in matching self-made tees with tie-and-dye silhouettes of that famous mouse. Under my feet were memento bricks bought by happy campers to mark their visit, a special date or a memory of their favourite character. The clouds were fluffy with cartoonish accuracy.

I was immune to all of that, but the greeters had me at hello. A crew consisting mostly of the specially abled, those with Down’s syndrome, physical handicaps and other limitations, zip about the 43-hectare park on electronic wheelchairs or mobiles, and guide visitors to restrooms, attractions and refreshments. Sometimes they soothe irate children, drunk on too much excitement and funnel cake. This welcome wagon got my vote.

Our guide was Nicole, a seasoned park employee. She began working here part-time during summers and stayed on for 15 years. It’s through her that the magic found its way to my black, cynical heart. Nicole has a tough job— she’s assigned to groups and families who need help navigating the chaos of one of America’s biggest tourist attractions. All day, she corrals wandering members and mediates consensus among bickering families, while remaining so even-tempered that I ask her what drugs she’s on and if I could have some too.

Nicole never points. When people stop to ask her for directions (which happens irritatingly often), she uses both palms in a gesture of elegance to guide the way. When she sees trash on the floor, Nicole picks it up. When she sees a child who has climbed to a dangerous height on a lamppost, she intervenes before an accident occurs (But without touching the child—that could lead to a lawsuit).

“Safety is a primary concern,” she informed us. A member of our group had recently had eye-surgery and had been advised to avoid water and sudden jerks. To prepare her, Nicole mimicked the motions of each ride with her hand, detailing the effects (‘You could feel queasy’; ‘The splash is as much as that surrounding a fountain’). She then sat next to the girl through the rides to tell her when to shut her eyes to protect them. We all need a Nicole to guide us through life.

Outside, the Florida sun beat down on the Main Street at Magic Kingdom. A tram pulled up and out sprung four pairs of dancers dressed like Eliza Doolittle’s back-up band. It’s a routine they repeat every half hour, throughout the day, enthusiasm never wavering a notch. The evening parade meanders through four kilometres of the park — and the dancers have on high heels, heavy costumes and headdresses, and inches of make-up. But the smiles never falter. The dancers make eye contact with little children, constantly gesturing, bantering and blowing kisses, with some acrobatics thrown in. This is all very admirable to an introvert like me who considers the polite framing of e-mails emotional torture. 

As we progressed through the park, it was apparent that this is the most extroverted place on earth. Disney’s casting process makes sure of it. Not only do the princesses look like the ones from the films, they display a level of enthusiasm that is impossible to fake. Plus, the training ensures they never break character. I asked Queen Elsa, all beautiful and aloof, to help me film a little message for a niece back home who is having trouble with potty training. The Queen obliged, and made her point without using a single un-regal word. For months, I was able to boast to my impressed niece how Elsa, Anna and I hung out.

Cartoon royalty is a huge draw but the star of this kingdom is still Mickey. There are several actors who play him, most of them women who can fit into the suit, but much care is taken to maintain the illusion that there is only one Mickey Mouse. When we met him in his green room, before the show, he communicated with us only through gestures and blinking. When he does speak, it’s in an endearing voice parroting an automated set of phrases, such as ‘Gosh! I was hoping you would come’. It was a little boy’s birthday and Mickey got everyone to sing for him. At the end, he went down on one knee for a hug.

In the little boy’s eyes, you could see the magic beginning to cast its spell. And that’s the appeal. Once you enter Magic Kingdom, the franchise goes to great lengths to keep the spell alive.

The young, angry feminist in me also breathes a little easier after a trip to the Bippity Boppity Boo-tique. Little girls and boys play dress up here, but they’re free to choose who they want to be: a girl can be a pirate and a boy can be a princess. I am a little disappointed that 35-year-olds can’t get makeovers. It would be nice to have a matronly fairy godmother fuss over me. The children are addressed as Princess XYZ and Sailor ABC by the staff— your boring identity is left at the door with your Old Navy shorts.

Much of the warmth you feel at Magic Kingdom can be traced to a kindly elder nearby. Seniors thrive in jobs that offer interaction with the children, such as in waiting lines and restaurants. The result is a feeling of trust — you are in the hands of seasoned grandparents who know how to pre-empt tantrums. Where lines can be serpentine, theatre or interactive technology is employed to curb impatience. (I have a theory that sugar-laden carnival foods combined with the vocal range of under-10s should generate enough whine to power Orlando. Scientists need to get on this.)

The enrapturing of little ones is a full-time endeavor here. The gaps between rides or activities are filled with distractions. As you near the Enchanted Tales with Belle, birds start chirping to recreate the sounds of her home in the village and there’s lavender in the air. A ‘peasant’ preps you to participate in a re-enacting of the day Belle and the Beast fell in love — you learn to make sounds of rain, howling wind and racing horses, while the cast inside prepares. As you wait to get into a Winnie the Pooh ride, you can make shapes on large touch screens that have honey pouring down them. There’s trivia on the wall, props to play around with—everything, in short, to delay the dreaded: “How much longer?”

Strangely, that question didn’t come from me. I entered Disney’s Magic Kingdom expecting to see that mask of impossible sunniness slip; I tried to peek backstage to see if I could catch Elsa on a smoke-break or Mickey chugging a beer. None of that happened—and given the scale of things, that’s kind of amazing. The grown-up path to suspension of disbelief, it turns out, winds past more prosaic landmarks, like professionalism, stoicism and a manic attention to detail. I found myself charmed not so much by the princesses’ gowns and tiaras, but by their work ethic. I was blown over not by the grandeur of Walt Disney’s vision, but the smoothness with which it functions. As an adult, I saw all the invisible ropes animating this magnificent beast.  And it was a kind of magic.