Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Happiest Blog On Earth!

When I was about 10, my family made its first trip to Disneyworld. For three of us, it was a nice vacation. For the fourth (my mother) it was almost akin to a religious experience in its transformative effect on her life since then. She went from someone who casually had fond memories of Disney movies from her childhood, to an absolute Disney fanatic. She started collecting everything she could get her hands on and putting it up everywhere. We went to all the Disney movies in the theaters multiple times, and bought them the minute they came out on VHS. When Fantasia was re-released, a local restaurant held a party with a Disney trivia contest, where you could earn various pieces of Fantasia swag. When everyone at our table had a couple of things in front of us, they barred us from entering the contest again. My mom has Disney collector friends, has joined multiple Disney fan clubs and has virtually every book on the topic.

But for her, the parks have always been the big thing. The rest of the family loves the parks as well, but I didn't love them until recently. We would go in August, when it was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk and the crowds were at their worst. I hated the extreme heat, the long lines, battling all those people. I wanted to do different stuff for vacation: go to Alaska, or Europe, or somewhere I'd never been before.

So I never had too much interest in any of my mom's books. But for some reason, I picked up Mouse Tales and More Mouse Tales (both by David Koenig) a few years ago, and I absolutely love them! Both books give a behind-the-scenes, employee perspective of Disneyland (he apparently has a new one out, about Disneyworld; I'll have to get that from my mother). Koenig conducted many interviews with former and current employees to get the stuff Disney doesn't want you to know about.

The books are alternately hilarious and disturbing. Sprinkled throughout both are actual quotes from guests ("Excuse me, where's Toiletland?" "Do these stairs go both up and down?") as well as funny tales of employee pranks and misbehavior (I personally loved the innocent-looking Storyland guide who had an after-dark, adult-only dirty version of her spiel, where she'd tell all about Cinderella and the ball, Pinocchio and the fairies, etc. At night, there would be hordes of Marines waiting to ride. Boggles the mind, eh?)

But on the disturbing side, there are indications, shocking as they may be, that Disneyland may not actually be the happiest place on earth, not all the time. The chapter on Disney's police was disturbing. As you can imagine, security issues are tremendous at the Disney parks, particularly shoplifting. In the early decades of the park, shoplifters who got caught were either kicked out or arrested, depending on how cooperative they were. But soon, Disney caught on to the fact that businesses could seek up to $500 in damages from a shoplifter, to cover their expenses in handling the case. The security department soon became another profit generator, with them bringing in everyone they caught and seeking money from them whether or not they decided to arrest. When the lid got blown off that story, the park went in the opposite direction, taking such great pains that their security didn't appear over-aggressive that there was almost no point in having a force.

But the ultimate in "disturbing" came at the end of the second book, with a detailing of the perfect storm of mismanagement that led to the death of a visitor. The killer attraction in question, surprisingly, was the river boats. Changes in maintenance led to important things not getting done (such as the replacement of rotted wood around the cleat on the boat). Cost-cutting across the board led to inappropriate equipment (a stronger, cheaper nylon rope to loop around the cleat instead of more expensive hemp that would've snapped under too much tension). Finally, inadequate cross-training and staffing policies meant that the woman working the dock didn't realize the boat was coming in too fast and that she shouldn't throw the rope around the cleat. The rope held, the iron cleat tore loose from the boat, sheared off the dockhand's foot, and struck two tourists in the head. One never regained consciousness and died two days later.

The Disney parks are often held up as the ultimate well-oiled machine. The cast members are generally friendlier than your own family, the landscaping is perfect, and you could eat off the ground you walk on, even at the end of the day when you know it's probably been stepped on by over a million people. When you go there, it's hard to imagine a day when people stop coming and the parks close down. Koenig's extremely unauthorized books hint at how that might happen, how the quest for profit may ultimately be its downfall. At the same time, though, he humanizes this idealized company by describing how its employees, like employees anywhere else, get disgruntled, fail to perform up to standards, disagree with management, etc. His Disneyworld book should be interesting too.

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