Travers, Disney and Jollymore

Posted: December 28, 2013 by Jollymore in Uncategorized

Disneyland ~  A California Adventure

I won’t  denigrate Carol’s generosity or sweet naïveté. For my 65th birthday celebration she took me to Disney in Anaheim. That we both taught at the high school that fostered Tom Hanks – currently playing Walt Disney against Emma Thompson’s P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins – had little to do with it, but the film did emphasize my thoughts on our visit. It was more Carol’s enthusiasm for whisking off on adventures of the packaged kind than anything Disney.  I have to admit, I would never have done this on my own.

So, I am going to have a good time. I renounce cynicism and grouchiness for the trip – a full day at the theme park. I will be open to charm, should there be any, and will not just act but be the good sport. After all, this is a special day.

This is not to say I kept my eyes shut. No, I wanted to see everything that was going on.  And this is what I found:

  • The complex (Hotels, Downtown Disney, California Adventure Park and Disneyland) is tidy. For every person tossing his trash around (and there are few), there are two more picking it up and sweeping the spot.
  • It is white. Not the color, the race. Visitors resemble suburban demographics of America in general (from 1960)  more than they do those of California, especially, Los Angeles County.  Employees, excluding housekeepers, are nearly as white as the visitors.
  • It is controlled. Rules like passive restraints abound. Order is kept whether of the pool towels, of merchandise, or of ride-goers in or out of line. A feeling of free passage belies the regimentation that is formed by structures, routing, and limited offerings. There is a palpable sense of “in here” versus “out there” that is beyond the resort.
  • It is promotional. Everything is Disney with exception for the Disney partners (brand names appear here and there: Starbucks and Peets, Fossil, Sephora et alius).  Mickey’s head and ears silhouette is woven into the carpet, is found on wall sconces and lampshades; his smiling face beams from the axis of his Ferris wheel and appears on two million different pieces of merchandise offer throughout the park. One could play a version of “Where’s Waldo Now” substituting the mouse for Waldo.
  • Disney is costly. “Don’t ask. Don’t tell” was our tacit agreement, but extravagant is not close enough to be descriptive.  Call it the House of the Five Dollar Bagel, if bagels are even allowed.

So what does cost + promotion + tidiness + control + whiteness add up to? They say, “The Happiest Place on Earth.” I say, “gated communities, colleges priced out of reach, mega-malls sporting and supporting private security firms, and NSA-like surveillance camera corporations.”  Even if all Americans, all the world’s people, could enjoy these things, maybe “these things” are not good for them.

Incidentally, the film Saving Mr. Banks belied nothing I saw or claim for the trip. It was as faithful to the illusion of happy as Disneyland et alia themselves, perhaps just a little bit more by contrast with P. L. Travers character as interpreted, of course, by Disney (Inc.).

Is this what America aspires to? Or is it a reflection of the direction we move in? Yes, it is, both, but only as long as it (our aspirations and accomplishments) can be controlled and “properly” channeled.  Of the big five (cost, promotion, tidiness, whiteness and control), control is the most important. It keeps them out; it contains the happiness, that it might be commodified; it perfects branding, hence, promotion; and being exclusive, or at least selective, is easily kept clean.

It isn’t just right wing, but it is right wing. Disney – not the kindly middle-aged gentleman Tom Hanks portrays (a man, after all, who suffered the strictures of his 500 delivery paper route – “oh, the frozen feet” – but still saw his tyrannical, route-owning father as a “good man”) – testified before McCarthy commission and publically, righteously,  gave names. I wonder how many more lists of names were handed over in private. No, this world, this tidy kingdom is not for us all.  Like the process of saving Tinkerbell, we all have to believe, believe very hard before the miraculous can happen, before we ALL can live in the happiest place on earth.

The film, and perhaps the real-life, version of P. L. Travers could be all right. Yes, she openly vilified the Disney model – hated cartoons – and fought bitterly to preserve the Britishness of her story, but she is fine (if you ignore her real-life oddities, like studying yoga and Buddhism, and real-life foible like loving women – odd and foibily only from a Disneyesque or right-wing view) because she is just like kindly uncle Walt. She fights to preserve an illusion she deeply believes in: the goodness of her father, Travers Goff, from whom she penned her own name.

Can’t say he wasn’t good, wonderful even, or loving. But no one is that good except through the eyes of a child. Like Disney, Travers would transform the world into a place safe for children, a world where make-believe has to be real. That gets the Disney stamp of approval.  But for most of the world’s children believing does not make it so. To believe in a source of potable water does not make it flow, at least for most kids.

So, what did I like? Well, everything in both the place and the movie. It is enchanting:

  • The Disney Grand California was an adult dream. The same dream the Gambles of Pasadena fulfilled in their Green and Green designed home, an artisan home crafted with warm detail on a human scale. Very nice. We rented a piece of that 1905 dream.
  • It was my birthday; I wore a Disney birthday button. Each “cast member” (employee to you) wished me “Happy Birthday, Tim” when they saw the button. Never mind that I didn’t know a one of them, after nearly a hundred people celebrate you (for what? Being born?) you begin to feel pretty good, somewhat special. Never mind that anyone can get a button: no ID or proof of age necessary.
  • I like clean. I like cute. I like clean-rustic.  I’ve been depositing trash properly for over a half century (mine and others, too).
  • When I lived far away in dark and cold Minnesota, the newly opened Disneyland – promoted by kindly old uncle Walt himself through the television and the Mickey Mouse Club – charmed my eight-year-old self, leaving sleeper cells of commercial wonder and delight. You might say I had been programmed. (No one told me Disney was bad. How could that be said?) Now in the palmy verdure of Southern California those cells activate, exude wonder and delight.


If that sounds like excuse, it’s because it is. We knew, we have known, and we know the picture isn’t real, cannot be sustained, and is not a picture of health. No matter what it looks like, illusion plaited against the human reality such as it is cannot stand. One’s own belief in fairies make them real only for one’s self, for no one else. Sorry Walt, sorry Ms. Travers. Sorry, Carol. And, most of all, sorry, Timmy, but “Happy Birthday.”

Tell it like it is!

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