WALT DISNEY WORLD, Fla. - The line snakes from "Space Mountain, presented by Federal Express," doubling, tripling, quadrupling between the metal cattle gates. The sign says the approximate wait is 30 minutes.
Only 30 minutes! I think, and I think again: Where else did I ever see a line this long and say, only 30 minutes? And instantly I know the answer.
Where else did loudspeakers mounted on poles fill the air with joyous, repetitive music and exhortations to greater happiness? Where else was the avuncular, beloved founder remembered and quoted so often, so affectionately, his portrait beaming down from so many walls? Where else were there such cheerful parades, managed by security men muttering discreetly into walkie-talkies? Where else did every plaster frieze, every floor tile, every manhole cover, display the same familiar symbol?
Only now, it is mouse ears. Then, it was hammer and sickle.
I spent a summer as a student in Leningrad in 1976, during a slogan-heavy period of Soviet life that might be called High Brezhnevism, and lived as a journalist in Moscow from 1988 to 1991, as Mikhail Gorbachev, tinkering with the system, inadvertently caused its collapse.
At that first Mayday celebration in 1988, my daughters, then 2 and 4, were thrilled by the flags fluttering everywhere, the bright red bunting, the fireworks, the giant banner we dubbed "Smiling Lenin" (in contrast with the purposeful Lenins everywhere else) draped at the edge of Red Square.
Now they are a decade older. And just as all children in the Land of the Soviets aspired someday to see the magic of Moscow - Lenin's mausoleum, the fantastic architecture of the Kremlin, the rides of Gorky Park, the toy-stocked shelves of the Children's World department store - so our daughters, joined by their
younger brother, wished, like good American children everywhere, someday to visit the Magic Kingdom. If you wish upon a star, and pester your parents long enough, all things are possible.
So, here we are, and as we inch forward through the 102-degree heat toward the next attraction, I realize that the fiercely anti-Communist Walt Disney's theme parks, a capitalist triumph designed to suck the contents from the wallets and purses of every parent, are the most Soviet places in America.
And why not? The Bolsheviks, too, had set out to make everyone happy; things just went a bit awry. Disney learned from their mistakes: Here outside Orlando, there are no prison camps (as far as we know - huge swaths of the 27,500 acres Walt bought remain undeveloped and out of view). No KGB (though there is "Guest Relations," whose minions can be quite, uh, firm with the guests, as we found when we unknowingly broke the rules by trying to use our Park-Hopper ticket to get into Typhoon Lagoon). Clean public restrooms. Less surly gift shop cashiers. And, after Walt died in 1966, no mausoleum (again, as far as we know).
One of the things the Soviets excelled at was rides - the Moscow Metro, each stop a fantasy of stone, bronze and stained-glass mosaic; the cosmonauts, riding into space; the Trans-Siberian railway. The Soviet emphasis, too, was always on the future, the "radiant future" of communism; though it never quite arrived, much like the personal jet-pack transport and video phones of Disney's Tomorrowland.
Call it a fixation - my family does - but once I have this Soviet-Disney notion in my head, I see it everywhere:
* I buy a $3 ice cream from "Kim, St. Louis, Mo.," sweltering behind her cart. (Name tags identify all "Cast Members" - Disney's euphemism for "employees.")
I ask her how long her shift is - 11 hours, she says. I ask her what her pay is - $6 an hour, she says.
I express my sympathy. Kim gathers her face into a smile and replies wanly, "It's fun!"
And I picture Soviet collective farm workers, gathered for foreign visitors in the 1970s, taking turns to describe earnestly their job satisfaction.
* At EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, an acronym worthy of the Soviet government), we visit "The Land, presented by Nestle," and watch a movie, "The Circle of Life."
Simba, Timon and Pumba, from Disney's "The Lion King," have dammed up a stream with the idea of building a big resort. But the wise old baboon, Raffiki, teaches them that their selfish exploitation of nature has produced drought downstream. The movie ends as they diligently destroy their dam.
And then we blink outside into the sunshine and cast our eyes across the sprawling square miles of development, the fake lakes, the hundreds of fountains burbling away amid a Florida drought so severe that brush fires are burning all over the state.
The gall! The chutzpah, somehow grander than mere hypocrisy! And I remember the same breathless astonishment I felt at mandatory lectures, back at Leningrad State University in 1976, on the wonders of Scientific Communism and the prosperity and freedom it had delivered to every Soviet republic and Soviet citizen.
* I'm reading "The Unofficial Guide to Disney," our irreverent, useful bible in negotiating tickets, meals, lines. The guide is explaining how difficult it was to get advance information on the latest Disney World park, Animal Kingdom, and I come across the following: "Some of the secrecy, no doubt, stems from Disney's obsession with controlling information ..." Whoa, I think. This is getting eerie. I wrote an entire book on the Soviet obsession with controlling information and how Gorbachev's relaxation of that control led to the Soviet collapse.
* At Animal Kingdom, which opened just weeks ago, a game warden appears on a TV screen in the line for the safari ride, and tells us, "I was born here ..." Back at our hotel, a 1990s Disney re-creation of a Louisiana plantation called Dixie Landings, I find an entire ersatz newspaper, the Sassagoula Times, packed with fictions about how the plantation was built in 1853 by "the outgoing and ambitious Colonel J.C.," whose existence is proved by a sepia-toned photograph of the colonel and his family.
I get in the rental car and have to remind myself that this is not, repeat not, the Spaceship Earth ride, the Splash Mountain ride or Toad's Wild Ride. I look at the other guests in line for breakfast coffee and wonder, idly, whether some might actually be Animatronic figures, programmed to encourage a cheery atmosphere.
As we await the evening parade in the Magic Kingdom, a comforting male voice comes over the ubiquitous loudspeakers and tells us that "Walt himself" liked to visit the park in the cool of the evening.
Well, actually, Walt himself had been dead five years when Disney World opened. But the thought was nonetheless somehow comforting - dear, mustachioed Walt, walking Main Street with a friendly smile, patting the heads of the happy children, exchanging pleasantries with their parents.
This was the Walt we want to believe in, the Walt created by Disney's "Imagineers," a guy not unlike "dear Vladimir Ilyich," the wise, kind socialist saint whom every Soviet toddler was taught zTC to revere. There was another Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, of course, the one who ordered the execution of the czar's family, coolly demanded the slaughter of priests and built the foundation of the Gulag. And there was another Disney, too - "Hollywood's Dark Prince" of Marc Eliot's iconoclastic 1993 biography, an anti-Semitic, alcoholic, paranoid agent of J. Edgar Hoover, that most Soviet of American political figures.
Enough of that. Listen up, kids: confession time. I had a terrific time at Disney World. There, I said it.
But I had a terrific time in the old Soviet Union, too. When I would express such glowing feelings to Russian friends in private, they would roll their eyes and say: "That's because you can leave."
Probably so. Somewhat to my surprise, I found I could leave Walt Disney World, too. But I remember it with the same mixture of horror and nostalgia brought back by that other Magic Kingdom, overseen by the Communist Party.
Cast Members of Walt Disney World, unite! It is a small world, after all.
Wish upon a star, or sickle
Change the tense and a few words, and a sober, hostile account of Soviet ideological control is magically transformed into a cheery account of the Disney way:
"Communist propaganda strove, and to a surprising extent succeeded, in creating a fictitious world side by side with that of everyday experience and in stark contradiction to it, which Soviet citizens were required to pretend to believe. ... The effort was undertaken on so vast a scale, with such ingenuity and determination, that in time the imaginary world it projected eclipsed for many Soviet citizens the living reality."
- Richard Pipes, "Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime" (Knopf, 1994)
Now, sprinkle a little stardust, and ...
"Disney magic strives, and to a surprising extent succeeds, in creating a fictitious world side by side with that of everyday experience and in stark contradiction to it, which visitors are encouraged to pretend to believe. ... The effort is undertaken on so vast a scale, with such ingenuity and determination, that in time the imaginary world it projects eclipses for many delighted guests the living reality."
Pub Date: 6/28/98