If Heaven Ain't a Lot Like Disney Theme Parks

  • Squeal of joy, the kind that parents can pay for but not buy. "Oh, Daddy!" the five-year-old said, staring out at the magic monorail, "thank you so much for bringing me here!" The boy's father must have wondered what he or Walt Disney Co. could do for an encore. The family's vacationland adventure had just begun; in fact, they were still at Orlando International Airport, in transit from the arrivals lounge to baggage claim. It is the challenge of any parent accompanying a child to central Florida: making sure rapturous expectations are not soured by the long lines, infant attention spans and high technology on the fritz. Standing at the entrance to Orlando's Sea World, another father tried to tamp his daughter's restless anticipation: "Hyper down, honey--we're only gonna see a lot of fish."

    Theme parks? No: dream parks. Fish never looked more adorably anthropomorphic than they do performing at the three Sea World parks in Orlando, San Diego, and Aurora, Ohio. Appalachian cabins never gleamed so spiffily as at Dolly Parton's new Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Country music rarely sounded so all-fired wholesome as it does at Nashville's Opryland. No city zoo ever boasted rides like the Congo River Rapids, the Stanleyville Falls flume or the vertigo-inducing Scorpion--all to be found at Busch Gardens in Tampa. Early Christians never found accommodations as plush as the ones at the "21st century Christian campground" of Heritage USA near Fort Mill, S.C. As for the twin fountainheads of theme parks--Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and the gigantic Walt Disney World outside Orlando--they offer nothing less than a dream of America as it once or never was: a homogenized, turn-of-the-century village propelled into the future by space- age science and the relentless optimism of its founding dreamer.

    This summer America's theme parks expect their best season ever. Gas prices are stable in the U.S.; the dollar buys less abroad. The dark cloud radiating from Chernobyl is discouraging some tourists: "We postponed a trip to Scandinavia on account of the nuclear fallout," says Jack Arlitt, 66, who chose to see Opryland instead with his wife Oleis. Many others who might have planned a jaunt to Britain or the Continent are scared tripless by visions of Europe as a nightmare fantasyland filled with terrorists.

    And so events have conspired to keep Americans at home, while European and Asian tourists can feel at home abroad visiting Disney World's ersatz Eiffel Tower, Piazza San Marco and Japanese pagoda. Between March and September, U.S. amusement parks and theme attractions will have lured 235 million visitors through the turnstiles (average admission: $10) for a robust brand of professional patriotism. During the show at Florida Cypress Gardens, 30 miles from Disney World, a stunt man gliding high above the crowd effuses, "One thing I can see from here--or from any height--is that America sure is beautiful."

    For more than 100 years, amusement parks have brought no-frills thrills to families in search of a good time at a reasonable cost. But by the early % 1950s, these Coney Islands of the Mind were crumbling along with the cities they served. Then Disney, who had already revolutionized the movie business with his Mickey Mouse short films and feature-length cartoons, conceived a new show-biz hybrid called the theme park. No rickety roller coasters, no sucker- fleecing games of chance, no sideshow tawdriness for Uncle Walt. At his place every path would be as spotless as Formica; every doorway would be scaled to just above kid-size; every "attraction" (not ride) would be sweet enough for "guests" (not customers) of all ages to enjoy, a little. By creating an outdoor family entertainment to complement his family films, Disney might even do something for the fissuring American family unit, while promoting his own movie product. Disneyland was capitalism with a human face --or a smiling rodent's--and its grand opening was set for July 17, 1955.

    Even the mastermind recalled it as "Black Sunday." Everything went wrong. The glut of visitors turned the Santa Ana Freeway into a seven-mile parking lot. Refreshment stands ran out of food and drink for the nearly 30,000 invited guests and thousands more ticket counterfeiters who stormed the gates. Rides broke down almost immediately. A gas leak forced the shuttering of Fantasyland. The day's corrosive heat sent women's spiked heels sinking into the asphalt on Main Street. Nor was this a debacle to be covered over with Tinker Bell dust; the whole sorry spectacle was broadcast on a live TV special co-hosted by Ronald Reagan. WALT'S DREAM A NIGHTMARE, proclaimed the Los Angeles Tidings.

    But Walt, who had sunk his fortune into this $17 million mousehole, was not done wheeling and dreaming. Disney's name, the most trusted in the movie business, reassured visitors. By Labor Day the park had already greeted its millionth paying guest, and after a year the attendance was 3.8 million. Last August, Disneyland recorded its 250 millionth admission. "We were the first theme park," says Frank Wells, Disney's president and chief operating officer. "With the vision of Walt Disney, we brought the standards of the park, our courtesy and cleanliness, to new levels, and we built it on an unprecedented scale. And it's not like a film that you go to only once; you can enjoy the rides a second or third time. All in all, it's a terrific premise for a business."

    And, economically, a premise fraught with risk. A souped-up amusement park, Six Flags over Texas, and its spin-offs in Georgia, New Jersey and California have flourished, but many others have floundered. Freedomland U.S.A., a theme park in the Bronx, N.Y., devoted to American history and shaped like a map of the U.S., opened in 1960 and closed four years later at a loss of $20 million. Houston's Hanna-Barbera Land, a pizazzy play park for children, closed last September after two years. Half a dozen theme attractions, from Stars Hall of Fame to Circus World, have failed within the shadow of Walt Disney World.

    Faced with long odds, an entrepreneur must know when to give up and when to adapt. Robert I. Earl owned an Elizabethan "theme restaurant" in Orlando called Shakespeare's of Church Street that provided an evening of light wassailing and big eats; last year he moved his operation closer to Disney World and changed the restaurant's name to King Henry's Feast. Why? "People who come to Orlando want to have fun," he told the International Drive Bulletin, "and too many people thought Shakespeare's was something serious and cultural."

    This is a mistake unlikely to be made by anyone making a theme-park trek across Tennessee. Start at Opryland. "If you're going to be a theme park in Nashville," says Park Flack Tom Adkinson, "you'd better be about music." But not just country music: Opryland's 120 acres embrace doo-wop and Duke Ellington in as many as a dozen simultaneous stage shows. Then it's 20 miles northeast to Hendersonville and a stop at Twitty City, the monument Country Star Conway Twitty has built to himself, including a guided tour conducted by a giant mechanical Twitty Bird. (Just down the road is Johnny Cash's House of Cash, a museum that is proud to display Al Capone's favorite chair.) The next day you'll tool eastward to Dollywood, "the friendliest town in the Smokies," where you can roast pigs over an open hearth, munch on buffalo- burgers and take a mountain trek on a 90-ton steam train. If you're in luck, Dolly will be there to say hi.

    Hank Williams Jr.'s rendition of the red-neck anthem If Heaven Ain't a Lot Like Dixie (Then I Don't Want to Go) should be spitting out of your car radio as you make the more than 150-mile drive from Pigeon Forge to Fort Mill, S.C. It will put you in the mood for Heritage USA, Televangelist Jim Bakker's hotel and convention complex that attracts 5 million of the faithful each year. Cynics call the place Six Flags over Jesus, but you will be disappointed if you come expecting a Holy Roller coaster or a guided walk across the Sea of ! Galilee. Still, Heritage is not your everyday theme park. Now and again, lifeguards shut down the swimming pool to perform a baptism, and at Eastertide the song-and-dance acts are replaced by a Passion play. In a salon of the 500- room hotel, blue-haired grannies sip tea (no alcohol is served) as a harpist plays nearby. "Jim Bakker grew up and asked, 'Why can't everything be nice?' " reports Aide Richard Dortch. The genteel slickness of Heritage USA is Bakker's answer to that question: the triumph of born-again nice.

    Disney had, of course, savored that triumph long before Jim Bakker was born. And having tasted success with Disneyland in California, he looked for a larger playground. His gaze fell on central Florida. Twenty years ago, the region was not much more than scrubland, orange groves, gas stations and $5-a- night motels. It was a place vacationers drove through, as quickly as possible, on their way to Miami or the Gulf Coast. But just before his death in 1966, the Man with the Mouse had bought, secretly and at the fire-sale price of roughly $200 an acre, 43 sq. mi. of Orlando ruburbs (about twice the size of Manhattan and more than 100 times the area of California's Disneyland) on which to build the world's largest theme park. Florida's Governor predicted that the scheme would "bring a new world of entertainment, pleasure and economic development to the state of Florida."

    For once, a politician was guilty of understatement. Today Greater Orlando, with Walt Disney World as its golden profit center, is one of the nation's fastest-growing areas in population, revenue and new-tech industry. The people who live and work in Orlando are there for the same reasons as those who visit: because of its proximity to an all-ages fun-time wonderworld. Here is a metropolis whose success has been erected on the American family's itch for entertainment. Not since Southern California sprang up around the burgeoning Hollywood film colony has a region owed its riches, if not its existence, to show business. Where parents once took their children to Manhattan for a weekend of Broadway and the Rockettes, now they get their fill of live entertainment in Disney World and the clone worlds that have attached themselves to Walt's empire like parasite parks.

    In these satellite attractions, kitsch battles ferociously with schlock, and the two styles often end up married. Kitsch: Medieval Times, a dinner theater that combines the art of knightly jousting with the bloodlust of pro wrestling. As the Red Knight attacks Blue with his mace and Blue responds with his sword, a spectator cries out, "Your mutha wears chain mail!" Schlock: Gatorland Zoo with its Gator Jumparoo show, in which thousand-pound alligators lurch out of the water to snap their jaws around dead chickens suspended from a wire. For connoisseurs of arcane Americana, the Orlando area also offers an Alligatorland Safari Zoo (feed the animals with Purina Monkey Chow), a Reptile World Serpentarium ("Time your visit to be present during one of our three daily venom programs") and an Elvis Presley Museum, with displays of Elvis' high school yearbook (his major was shop), a portrait of Jesus that Elvis gave his parents when he was 15 and, for 50 cents, a photostat of the King's death certificate.

    In central Florida, Disney, not Presley, is the king of leisure-time attractions. But Sea World is surely prince charming--an inviting and meticulously run theme park dedicated to the proposition that almost any fish or aquatic mammal can be trained to do almost anything. (Not so over at Cypress Gardens, where the host of the Little Critter Show became exasperated when one of his fowl performers, Quack Nicklaus, blew a stunt. Keened the trainer: "There's only so much you can teach a duck.") At Sea World the dolphins do backflips in sync; a walrus sprays his audience on cue; seals eat fish dangled by children; there are even a few humans doing water-ski daredeviltry to pre-Beatles rock in the Beach Blanket Ski Party show. As at Disney World, Sea World works hard to elicit one of two reactions from its visitors: awe ("Isn't that amazing!") and awwww ("Isn't that cute!"). Because Sea World's stars are live animals and not electronic humanoids, the reactions are genuinely effusive.

    The star of stars at Sea World is Shamu, billed, without fear of contradiction, as the "world's most famous performing killer whale." (Actually there are three Shamus, one for each Sea World park.) The Shamu Celebration veers toward the icky, especially when the heavenly choir from a burger commercial sings reverently, "It's what Shamu means to you and to me." And when a trio of the behemoth's trainers present their what-I-love- about-Shamu testimonials, the onlooker half expects one of them to say, "My whale, I think I'll keep her." But it is a thrill to see a 4,000-lb. killer whale balance a human on its nose, or pirouette on point, or just swim protectively with its new offspring, the 8 1/2-month-old Baby Shamu. Several ^ times a day, a child is selected from the crowd to be kissed by Shamu. At one show, the little girl of the day was asked her name. "Erin." "And where are you from, Erin?" "Holiday Inn."

    At Walt Disney World, the snappy patter is left to the guides on the trams that whisk visitors from the car lot to one of the two main parks: the Magic Kingdom--which is basically Disneyland East--and the sprawling Epcot Center. (One-day admission: $23 for adults, $19 for kids.) "No smoking--foreign, domestic or homegrown," one guide sasses near Epcot's 18-story Spaceship Earth geosphere. "You know what Epcot means?" another asks near closing time. "Every Person Comes Out Tired." In fact, the acronym stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was Disney's conceit to create an absolute monarchy, a magic kingdom for real, in which 20,000 people would work and live in a totally controlled futuristic environment: no slums, no landlords, no voting control. Fortunately the plan fizzled, and Epcot became what it has been since its opening in 1982: a combination world's fair and science fair with the Disney touch.

    What remains of the monarchist dream in Disney World is a benign dictatorship of style, a triumph of art over nature. The lightning bugs in the shrubbery by Cinderella's Castle are tiny synchronized bulbs. In a 3-D short called Magic Journeys (to be replaced this September with a Michael Jackson film, Captain Eo), a boy blows milkweed toward the audience, and 586 viewers shiver with delight. There is more magic that the customers never see. A Swedish pneumatic garbage system moves 50 tons of discarded glop a day. The costume room holds l.5 million items of clothing (eight per employee). The huge computer centers under the Magic Kingdom and Epcot control each attraction's speed, music, lights and vocal spiels. In the bakery, Chef Dominic Robertiello can produce 100 pies, 35,000 cookies and 14,400 muffins every day.

    All the visitors behave here, even when waiting in line 45 min. for a Frontierland hot dog. All the employees smile, even the teenagers in French Foreign Legion uniforms sweeping up cigarette butts in front of the imitation- Aztec Mexican pavilion. (Average "life-span" of a piece of street trash before being removed: 4 min.) During the Magic Kingdom's afternoon parade of Disney characters, a sanitation man in old-fashioned vest and black pants materializes to scoop up some horse dung. When the crowd cheers him, he doffs his hat and salutes.

    Virtually all the attractions at Epcot--from the American Adventure pavilion, with its engraved quotations from Wendell Willkie and Ayn Rand, to the Universe of Energy ride through a forest of snarling dinosaurs--celebrate the perfectibility of man through democracy and technology. It can be pretty tedious, one exhortation after another to "Let us dare fulfill our destiny!" Best to relax your brain and go where the fun is: to the Journey into Imagination, a clever ride that honors, with suitable frivolity, man's capacity to spin dreams (awwww); to the enthralling travelogues in the Chinese and French pavilions (awe); to the Teatro di Bologna commedia dell'arte at the Italian pavilion (ha!); to Emil Radok's 8 1/2-min. film as you enter the Energy building (wow). The screen's 100 triangular elements reveal, on a single surface or in multifaceted relief, a gorgeous variety of images relating to natural and man-made energy. Hard not to call it the most astonishing movie of the decade.

    To emerge into the Florida sunlight from one of these nifty experiences is to walk back into the unreal world the Disney "imagineers" have fabricated. In this sanitized sensory bombardment, everything is so clean, so controlled, so world-put-back-in-joint, that the place seems less an Epcot than an Epcoy: an experimental prototype community of yesterday. To return, then, to one's own drab excuse for real life after a trip to a dream park is to realize something important is missing in each of them: order and harmony at home, surprise and funk and compromise in Disney World. In central Florida, though, real life often surrenders with a smile. A tourist stopped at a local Denny's and chatted with the cashier. Asked where he was from, the tourist replied, "New York City." "Oh," the cashier said earnestly, "do they have rides there too?"