Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Preview: Walt Disney World

For all my readers of under 10, welcome to your winner.

This is Cinderella Castle, of the Magic Kingdom, of Walt Disney World Resorts, Florida, USA, and for children across the world it blows every other Wonder out of the water. The Pyramids are just dusty bits of stone, the Great Wall of China is just a long and broken-down wall, all the greatest Gothic cathedrals are just boring old churches - but Disney World is alive. And it's full of things like this:

Everything pictured above is in the Magic Kingdom, the heart and focal point of Disney World. When you think of Disney World, you think of the Magic Kingdom. A cartoon fantasy spread out over 107 acres, the size of a reasonably big city park, it's big enough to be subdivided into various other "lands" with their own themes (Adventureland, Fantasyland etc), all of which revolve around the iconic 58-metre-high Cinderella Castle. A day isn't enough to properly explore what's on offer, at least a couple of days are needed to appreciate the sense-attacking bombast of Disneymania. The heart and focal point, it is also the origin too. When Disney World opened in 1971, it pretty much was the Magic Kingdom. Everything else that has since appeared is as a consequence of the Magic Kingdom pretty much nailing it when it comes to entering into the popular mythology of children around the world.

We've all, pretty much, grown up with Disney. It's as much as part of childhood as fairytales and candyfloss, and successfully combines the essence of both. It's Walt that we give most credit to for the cartoons, but spare a thought for his older brother, Roy. Together, they formed Disney Brothers Studios in 1923, and while Walt was the creative force, Roy was the business mind who made the jottings and crazy ideas of his brother possible. But "Roy Disney World" doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

With Walt's cartoons and films being a huge success, the brothers branched out into the world of theme parks, building Disneyland in California in 1955. It too was a huge success. But Walt wasn't happy. Disneyland only takes up 85 acres, meaning that immediately around it arose a series of cheap motels and clubs. This took the sheen off his fantasy world. And so, he wanted to create another one, this time much bigger. So big, in fact, that it would be an entirely immersive Disney experience, a resort that the visitor would never have to leave. It wouldn't just be a day trip, it would be a holiday in itself, a self-contained fantasy where the sleazy reality of the word outside could be forgotten.

After several years of scouting, a spot near Orlando, Florida was selected. It was perfect - it was near a growing population centre, linked well by roads, and the land was still cheap. An astonishing 27,258 acres had been bought by June 1965. This has now grown slightly to just over 30,000 acres, or 49 square miles - that's twice the size of Manhattan. Initial work and plans proceeded well, but then, in December 1966, and quite unexpectedly after a rapid illness, Walt died, aged 65, from lung cancer.

It had been Walt's dream, but Roy was determined to keep it alive. He was 73 at the time of Walt's death, but decided to keep going for the good of the company, and because from a simple business perspective he believed it made sense. He unselfishly renamed it "Walt Disney World" so that his brother's name would be intrinsically remembered, and the first incarnation of the resort was opened in 1971 - the Magic Kingdom, some hotels, and a couple of golf courses. Roy died two months later.

So, what is Disney World? Essentially, it's a theme park - or a series of theme parks to be more exact. These days, in addition to the Magic Kingdom, there are three other large-scale theme parks, as well as a couple of water-based swimming parks. But really, it's evolved into more than just theme parks, perhaps a lot more. I would describe Disney World as a juggernaut of entertainment, a colossal and unstoppable machine designed to keep your senses on constant high alert in the nicest possible way. There's a shopping district, two night-time complexes of bars and clubs, over a hundred restaurants, a huge sports complex, a camp ground, eight convention venues, a nature preserve. It's the size of a city, a city devoted to entertainment.

But, no doubt, the essence is the theme parks. All four have their own distinctive themes, and have a large definitive structure as a centrepiece. The aformentioned Magic Kingdom is devoted to the fantasy of cartoons and childhood, and is packed full of Mickey Mouses (Mickey Mice?), Donald Ducks, and attractions for all ages. The centrepiece is Cinderella Castle. The Magic Kingdom itself is bigger in area than most of the Wonders on my list, but yet it's only half the size of Epcot. Epcot opened in 1982 and had originally been envisioned by Walt as a kind of futuristic model city, but for all its posturing, it's just a big theme park. It's a little more serious and "adult" than the Magic Kingdom, although still packed with rides and attractions, and is split into a futuritic spacey part and a kind of world showcase, featuring various areas representing different countries around the world. The France part has the Eiffel Tower, the Italy part has Venice, and the British part has... a pub! You can bet I'll be headed there. The centrepiece of Epcot is Spaceship Earth, a colossal 55-metre-high geodesic sphere, inspired by one of my favourte crazy visionary architects, Buckminster Fuller.

There's also the Disney Hollywood Studios, a film-based theme park, opened in 1989. It has the tallest attraction in Disney World, the 61-metre-high Twilight Zone "Tower of Terror" (although the park's icon is "The Sorcerer's Hat", a ride based on Mickey Mouse's hat on Fantasia). Less terrifying is the"Tree of Life", the centrepiece of the newest theme park, Animal Kingdom, which as the name suggests is full of animals in their natural habitat. That natural habitat being a mass-entertainment theme park, evidently.

There is a lot to take in with Disney World. All the numbers surrounding it are staggering. The Magic Kingdom alone attracts over 17 million people a year. That's a mind-bending number, and higher than just about anything else on my list by around a factor of five. When it opened, Disney World had a staff force of around 5500 - it now has over 66,000. As such, Florida has given it the powers and autonomy of a city. Indeed, since the 1990s, it even has its own specially built model community, an actual town called "Celebration".

This all has implications for my Wonder mission, because modern cities do not fit into my definition of what a Wonder is. New York isn't a Wonder, London isn't a Wonder, Paris isn't a Wonder; they certainly contain Wonders, but they are too vast and varied both in terms of structure and experience to count as a single Wonder. Ruined cities can fit into the category as an ensemble piece, but living cities cannot. Disney World, however, is a special case, and until I've visited it, I'm not going to jump to any conclusions. It does have the single focal point of experience: entertainment. It has been built with a unity of purpose. Probably, I'll have to choose what I regard to be the focal point of Disney World, which is surely the Magic Kingdom. Because one theme park, yes, that has the potential to be a Wonder. But four? No. That's too much for a single Wonder.

Visiting Disney World also has some personal meaning for me. I've never been, but as a child, along with my younger brother and sister, my father promised we would go on a family holiday there before I was 12 years old. But it wasn't to be. Throughout my childhood, my father had cancer and was in hospital for lengthy spells. As a self-employed solicitor, this played havoc with our financial situation, and by the time I was 12 it was very clear that a hugely expensive family holiday to Florida was out of the question. In the end, when I was around 15 - and by that time too much of an awkward and jaded teenager - we went to Eurodisney for a day, kind of like a consolation prize. My father died many years ago, but this visit to Disney World will be my way of fulfilling his promise to me.

I'll be visiting Disney World some time next year, and will give and fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions. I'm terrified of people wearing cartoon suits with giant cartoon heads, but I vow to get a photo of myself with Mickey such is my dedication to this mission.


  1. I have to admit I was a bit surprised to see this listed as a potential world wonder. But then again you have another entertainment venue, the Coliseum, in your list, so why not - perhaps in the future people will visit Disneyland not just for entertainment but in order to visit a site that epitomised the entertainment of a certain era.

    Only time will tell!

    1. It's certainly one of my more esoteric choices. I'm not really sure that it's a place that will span the aeons of civilisation, but right now it has a pretty massive cultural impact.

      It's a bit like pop music. The chart stuff is often called superficial, cheap, and disposable, and regarded as being of the moment rather than with the substance to last. Yet decades on, stuff like Abba and Wham continue to enjoy massive popularity and, dare I say it, influence. Prog rock and freestyle jazz might enjoy cult acclaim, but they're dated. Of course, that doesn't mean all pop music will endure the ages, but some of it does. Disney might not be highbrow, but as a juggernaut of mass entertainment it seems likely to have years or centuries left.

      As you say, time will tell. A thousand year on, it would fascinating to know what was regarded as the greatest constructions of this era.


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