Tag Archives: theme parks

Becoming Complicit: How I Got Sucked into the Disney Racket

About a year ago, I wrote about the reflexive, layered marketing endemic to theme parks. Well last night, I tentatively entered into the “magical” world of the master of all self-promotion: Disney. It was quite the moral struggle, and I’m fairly certain I sold out by going, as will soon be revealed. Consider this post a penance; a form of reparation, inadequate as it may be. Words are cheap, but at least critique offers some substance, however meager.

As I walked with the endless flow of consumers people toward the sounds of the big band, I tried to console myself by saying that I was only entering the periphery of this evil empire, and it was for a swing dance (my rebel base, if you will), and it was free. But alas, I was still complicit in the well oiled money-making machine. As one of my dance partners remarked, we were the entertainment at Downtown Disney that evening. We had played right into the promoters’ nefarious plan: Disney had us working for free to keep the non-dancing crowds there longer. We captured their attention for a few minutes or more with our performance of a bygone era’s social scene, complete with pseudo-costumes. In delaying their journey from one end of the shopping area to another, we helped to break them down so they’d empty their pocket-books at some food stand, overpriced theme restaurant, or over-blown souvenir shop.

The novelty of our dancing to the 1940s music was buttering them up, providing a free service to both the watchers and to Disney by making these consumers think they could afford to spend more at the retail and dining outlets because they’d just experienced a free show. Not that these folks wouldn’t have spent money without us: visitors of Disney come prepared to do so. It’s part of the deal: you know you’re going to drop a couple hundred, especially if you’re there with the kids. But the genius of Disney is that once you’ve done that and you’re inside their cocoon of nonstop entertainment, you feel like you’re getting it all for free.*

Aside from the incessant marketing and consumerism (and the odd sensation of being entertainment in/for a place I object to on principle) the other thing that struck me about the whole experience was the way people dress at the Disney resort. Even on the edges, in this themed outdoor mall, people wore the trappings of the brand. It’s part of the experience of visiting this carefully constructed space: wearing mouse ears on a hat or made out of inflatables, sweatshirts with the Disney name or Mickey’s face on them…the many souvenir outlets make the possibilities of being a walking advertisement endless.

This is all done proudly and arguably to excess. Hats and glasses and clothes and balloons, all can be anchored on one individual! Who dresses like this is “real life”?!! But here, being over-the-top is sanctioned, encouraged. The more branded swag the better! It shows that you are a loyal consumer, a real lover of Disney and its many lands and cartoon inhabitants. And it is understood that this is the way one should be. The little girls wear princess hats and the little boys wear Woody cowboy hats or Indiana Jones fedoras and the grown-ups wear anything and everything with the Disney name on it. And you just know that most of it was purchased here, in the ill-defined confines of this sprawling resort. The hat-wearers may only be here for the day, but the people with the branded clothing are in it for a multi-day Vacation: they are the ones staying in the themed hotels, making a destination out of this glorified retail establishment.

I have no real conclusion. Just a sense of amazement, mild disgust, and guilt at having participated. Because in spite of understanding the mechanics of what was going on and objecting to what dancing there meant, it was still enjoyable. I may not have given them any of my money, but I did (in a sense) give them my labor in return for the pleasure of live music and the space to engage in the best form of exercise ever invented. I didn’t stay away. And that’s why Disney always comes out on top. Damn it.


*This idea is not mine, but Dan O’Brien’s.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Nostalgia

Theme Parks and You: How to Consume Efficiently and Be Your Own Advertisement

As I stumbled around in 100 degree heat toward the next ride, futilely adding another layer of sunscreen to my saturated-yet-sun-dried skin, I was struck by an idea that doubtlessly countless others have had before*:

Amusement parks are a study in infinitely fractal, self-referential marketing and cross-promotion. Our presence as the willing public is their greatest opportunity, for we are a captive audience. Captives who have paid to be trapped in an endless barrage of merchandising. (A barrage made up of attempts clever, clumsy, and blatant alike. Often within what could be isolated as a single “pitch.”) It really is extraordinary (and also perhaps expected or mundane, which itself says a lot about our culture) the different levels on which this marketing happens.

The imitated voice of a famous rabbit Muzaks its way into our somewhat offended ears, telling us that now is the perfect time to upgrade to a season pass…so we can come back and keep hearing him give us these little tips and spend more time awash in a sea of themed advertising. Stores sell all sorts of products with the park’s logo on it, characters that the park is affiliated with, merchandise with the names of various rides, comic book character capes: everything you could ever want and very little you “need.” The rides are named after current, recent, or upcoming movies, reminding the public to go see them and be part of the national summer blockbuster conversation.

Perhaps this isn’t as extraordinary or complex as all that, and others have analyzed this phenomenon in more depth and with more care**, but when you start pulling back the layers, it certainly seems to be. Even while entering and exiting rides, patrons are reminded to go eat a turkey leg at a nearby snack bar, or visit a different ride or attraction. Everything is designed to remind the visitor about different aspects of the theme park’s financial interests so that they can support these interests by buying commodities that have been fetishized nearly beyond recognition and functionality.

Is that post-modern punk kid wearing that super-hero cape ironically, or seriously, or because it struck him as the appropriate thing to don while experiencing the corresponding ride? Are we playing these carnival games because we like that it involves hitting a representation of that pesky cat who always tried to kill the bird on the Saturday mornings of our youth, or because it involves the chance of winning an oversized plush doll that represents an entirely different cartoon character? Are we just pawns in several large, incestuous companies’ schemes to make sartorial advertisements out of us–soon all we’ll have to do is look in the mirror, and our shirts will subconsciously remind us that we really do need to go see that new super-hero movie. And then go buy a ticket and pay for parking so we can go ride the ride, and then buy a pen or hat or coffee mug to commemorate all of this.

Maybe none of this matters. It is what we’re paying for, after all.

Thoughts? Further unpacking? Anyone want to call “shenanigans”?



*Therefore, all of this could, indeed, be a product of sun-stroke.
**See, for example, a discussion of Disneyland in Postmodernism: a reader by Thomas Docherty; Satisfaction Guaranteed by Susan Strasser; Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World by Jane Kuenz; and Advertising the American Dream by Rolland Marchand.


Filed under Commodification, Contemporary