This past weekend, I went to Disneyland with some dear friends. It was my first time ever, at 32 years old.
“Going to Disney” is something that escaped me in my childhood. I grew up with a pretty counter-culture ethos—my parents rejected the consumerism of experiences like Disney, and preferred to take us on trips to go camping or to the beach, to enjoy natural wonders rather than the artificial. Now that I’m older, I realize that part of that may have been growing up without a lot of excess money—the ability to take a family of five to Florida or California was just never a reality on my parents’ income. Regardless of the reason though, I picked up the ethos they engrained in me and prided myself on refusing manufactured fun in favor of real, authentic experiences.
So when it was proposed that we go to Disney, I had a moment of pause. It had become this symbol of all the things wrong in the world, but does it deserve that reputation? In moving to California, I find that I have changed, and the ways I have (or make) fun have changed. I have spend the last few years creating fun for others—building experiences to spark joy and delight, using the vehicles of Burning Man and other art projects to share them with the world. Is Disney really that different?
If you are able to turn a blind eye to to the principles of self-reliance and commodification (you can’t throw a pair of mickey ears and not pass at least 20 articles of branded merch on the way), and maybe also forgot the NO SPECTATORS part, the mechanics around how they create fun are very similar. Immediacy is high and interaction is to be had everywhere you turn. And the perfection to which they have honed and polished their brand of fun is admirable, even downright inspiring. I spent the day marveling at the construction of sets, props and animatronic characters, appreciating that every visual detail of every attraction has been considered. Beyond the stunning level of visual craft, the have dialed the human experience of the place to be absolutely perfect: the place is spotless, employees are kind and smiling, the constant soundtrack is one of playfulness and adventure. They have even made the unavoidable experience of waiting in lines to be bearable, with disorienting snaking that makes you feel close to the front even when you’re 45 minutes out, and entertains you with constantly changing scenery as you slowly creep along. I spent my day in awe of the thoughtfulness and craft of every single aspect of Disneyland.
I think what I’m saying is that, I get it. I get it, and I’m sorry that I had such a misconception of a truly magical place. It is a modern marvel of entertainment, experience and crowd management. I do however recognize that I was able to fully enjoy it from a place of financial stability—one day set me back at least $300 between admission ($179 for a one-day park hopper pass), food and beverage, and a shiny new set of Minnie Ears. I can’t imagine the cost of bringing a family for a multi-day visit that would include travel, room and board. That said, I hope that I am able to bring my someday-children to this magical place to experience the joy I found this weekend.