Last week, while visiting my father and sister in Florida, I took what I’m quite sure will be my last roller coaster ride, “Expedition Everest,” the latest spectacularly elaborate attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane wrote an essay about the rich and strange art and mindset of Walt Disney, centered around an exhibition of his work at the Grand Palais in Paris, and I thought about it as Alex and I padded through a mock Himalayan base camp on our way to the high speed train that promised to catapult us into the unknown. I also thought of a recent piece by a venerable New York Times food critic who had visited at The Animal Kingdom just after a trip to the real India only to be unexpectedly disarmed by the wit and authenticity in the details of the Indian villages and ruined temples that lead up to the hollow recreation of the snow capped mountain that lead to my mock doom.
“I definitely feel that we cannot do the fanatastic things based on the real unless we first know the real,” Disney once said. What he termed the “plausible impossible” depended on realism and it was a lavish and sophisticated attention to the background details that made masterworks of the films created between 1937 and 1942: “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Dumbo,” and “Bambi.” Disney’s perfectionism was famously unsparing. According to Lane in The New Yorker: “If you added together the man-hours spent on the artwork for ‘Snow White,’ they would total two hundred years.” But so was his willful insistence on a creating a world where unhappiness didn’t really exist, where death is a blip that makes the spring flowers all the more gorgeous….where P.L. Travers’s complex Mary Poppins is transfigured into a pretty, singing Julie Andrews.
As I rocketed up and down a painstakingly fake Everest with Alex (we were finally derailed by a Yeti!) I finally realized that what is so unnerving about all things Disney is not what the name has become an icon for–the denial of reality, the consumerization or kitschification of culture–but its artistry. The New Yorker article made the point that what Disney was brilliant at was not pap but buildup. The sight of a threatened girl tearing through the forest pursued by swirling leaves “is edited with a violent sophistication that chops straight into children’s dreams” writes Lane. It comes as no surprise that it attracted the praise of Chaplin, of the great Russian film director Eisenstein.
“Why do you look so down?” Alex asked as we waited to board the death train. “This is supposed to be a happy place.” Since Alex is now 18 years old and about to start college, I asked her if her love of Disney World wasn’t tinged with nostalgia, with a poignant sense of putting away childish things. No way, she insisted. Look around, she urged me. Didn’t I love the gorgeous quality of everything? “I love that nothing is ever run down or cheap looking,” she said. I told her she probably would have loved Buddha’s pleasure place too, where there was nothing but sensual delight, where the reality of sickness, old age, and death was never allowed to intrude.
We were buckled into our ride and began to move up out of the darkness and into the air on perilously narrow tracks. Asia and finally much of the Animal Kingdom spread out beneath us. Alexandra laughed happily, suggesting that we throw our arms up in the air when we hit a peak. “Leave me alone,” I said. “Do you need to hold my hand?” she asked. “Don’t touch me,” I said, my hands gripping the rail across our laps. Even before we entered a cave and began to slip backwards into darkness, even before we rose up, up, up again, even before the seemingly vertical plunge that inevitably came, a moan rose up from the depths of me. It was nothing like Alexandra’s hysterical laughter. It was nothing like the good-natured squeals and shouts I heard issuing from other cars. It was a groan of rock bottom, no-way-out misery, a hospital groan, a moan as old as humankind.
Was I the only person on that train who realized that death was possible, indeed inevitable. “Nobody dies on these rides,” Alex had assured me earlier. “Except once in a while, and usually just very little kids who shouldn’t be on the ride anyway.” I knew that several years ago, a 22-year-old man was killed and 10 others injured as people spilled from the Disney ride Big Thunder Mountain in California, but I hadn’t wanted to bring it up. Once I was strapped in and falling backwards, I suddenly realized that a person could die just from fright, that a person my age might have a heart attack just from the horrible sensation of plummeting backwards and forwards.
How could anybody enjoy a ride that so realistically simulates a violent and terrifying experience? In another park there was a ride called “Tower of Terror,” featuring an elevator that snaps its cable. Why not a ride called “Suicide Bomber” or “African Famine?” People could sit in the sun without food or clean water. Their wallets and cell phones and most of their clothes could be taken away and they could just…wait…indefinitely. Why not “Blackout in New York?” It was hot enough.
“If something is offered as entertainment, it will be received as entertainment,” I told myself. But the moan welled up from the depths of a body that apparently couldn’t sense that we were hurtling towards happiness and fun. I rocked slightly side to side to comfort myself. Years before, on another visit to Disney World when Alex was much younger, she had persuaded my husband to buy me a fake coon skin cap from a fake general store in Frontier Land. It was a hot miserable day for me (“Why the ‘Night of the Living Dead’ routine?” asked my husband) and she seized on the confession that I had always wanted one when I was a little girl because I had loved Davy Crockett. I put on. It fit almost perfectly.
“I never dreamed of being famous when I was a little girl,” I had said. “I dreamed of being archetypal.”
“What does that mean?” Alex had asked.
I wanted to be connected to deeper truths, deeper powers, I explained. Like people who know their way around the forest like Davy Crockett.
“I don’t want to be famous,” Alex had said. “I want to have magical powers.”
I guess I thought I was beyond the brightly colored illusions of Disney World. I thought I was beyond sappy happy endings. Years later, having lost my mother and others, I realize that facing reality of death and aging with the whole of myself is not what I thought it would be. There might be something to willed optimism after all. What do you think?