The Ballards - USA Disneyworld Florida


We took the girls to Disneyworld Florida over Easter 2004.
They were the right age: Lucy not yet too cynical about these things, and Alice finally old enough to appreciate foreign travel and the cultural differences between nationalities.

This was a “once in a generation” visit: Nessie and I had no intention of going back until Lucy and Alice have families of their own, and by the end of the 10 days we were all thoroughly Disney’d out……

Walt Disney opened Disneyland in California in 1955 and whilst that is a huge and spectacularly successful theme park in its own right, because he didn’t own the neighbouring land he found other commercial operators cashing in on his success by building attractions and hotels.

Determined not to repeat his mistake on the East Coast, he secretly bought up a huge parcel of land outside the moribund Orlando, previously home of orange farms, rundown swampland and alligators, and with the additions of air-conditioning and DDT taming the climate and the mosquitoes, he started to build the world’s biggest theme park. Sadly he didn’t live to see it open, dying in 1966.

Since 1971 his Florida dream has expanded to include 5 parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, MGM Studios and World of Sports) plus several “extras” including 2 water parks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon.

It is fashionable in the UK to knock Disney as too plastic, too All-American, too sanitised and too cynical an exploitation of childrens’ dreams, and until I went I shared this view. But now I’ve seen it and I’m not so sure.

The whole thing is a leviathan, ‘tis true. Yes it can be very plastic, and yes, especially Epcot is a tribute to the versatility of reinforced concrete and plastic moulds, but the place is spotlessly clean, the “cast”, as the employees are known, are universally pleasant and helpful without being wooden.
We saw many examples of hilarious cast spontaneity, and you genuinely got the impression even the most menial employee enjoyed working there.
Perhaps I’m just easily fooled.

Yes, it’s expensive, relative to many attractions, but the dollar is weak against the pound, which dilutes the effect, and the extra money is there to provide a universal and seamlessly high-class product.

The Magic Kingdom is my least favourite, because it is all about young children’s cartoon characters, and being older I’m cynical about this.

The characters are a blend of the ancient (Mickey Mouse was “born” in 1928) and modern (Finding Nemo, Aladdin), and constantly added to by Disney’s new releases, although now that Pixar is no longer part of Disney, quite what will happen to Pixar characters such as Monsters Inc is anyone’s guess….).

The parades (what is it with Americans and parades….?) are noisy and extremely well done but the rides are short, uninspiring and the queues for these are way out of all proportion to their value.

Having said that, it’s an adult’s view, and the girls saw them entirely differently as I would have at that age (had my parents been able to afford to fly me out there in 1970).

Epcot is a peculiar beast: it started out as an experimental community to “live the future” but by the time it was completed the future had caught up with it and it became, and remains, somewhat directionless.
The main golf ball “history of communications” ride was interesting but hardly futuristic, it’s main theory being that in the future we will have large flat screens (hmmm, let me see, my computer screen looks suspiciously flat…) with full-motion videoconferencing applications running on them (er... Skype?) with instant 2-way translation facilities (er... Google?).
So that needs revising.

I can think of a few new more futuristic examples – implanted phones, implanted video cameras, downloadable memories, implanted clocks (I mean internally referenceable clocks, not just digital readouts under the skin), telepathy amplifiers (let’s face it, we’re all telepathic, it’s just too weak to be quantifiable at the moment), DNA morphing for adaptability to extreme environments such as heat or cold, and so on.
Maybe they should just give me $100m and I'll sort out Epcot for them....

Other attractions include little things like a proper moon statue showing where all the landings had been (and so depressing to see that last date of December 1972, Eugene Cerman).
What the bloody hell have we been doing for the last 32 years?

The Exxon “World of Energy” exhibition was full of dinosaurs and how oil and gas were laid down during prehistoric times and how new sources of energy are now available (because we’ve nearly used all the fossil fuels up), but that’s not really very futuristic and needs updating with info on solar and wind power, hydrogen fuelled transport and so on.

Innoventions is a confused mix of Green “save the forest” mumbo jumbo and cod explanations of current technologies: nothing very futuristic there.

Some of these exhibits were very obviously corporate-sponsored but for example the Lutron home cinema stuff was an advert for light-dimmers. Huh?

I would have liked to have seen more cutting-edge stuff, and frankly Disney could do it very well, but you get the feeling they’ve rather given up on Epcot.

The World Showcase is a huge mistake: pseudo-versions of the different countries, genuine English pub and all, cor blimey luv a duck..... Come back, Dick Van Dyke, e's a Diamond Geezer.....

Between The Magic Kingdom and Epcot runs the Disney monorail, a legacy of Epcot’s futuristic er..... past, which has never been extended due to the operational complexities and price of monorail track switches (the fact is roads and buses are cheaper to build and maintain).
This is fun, but nothing special and there aren’t enough trains. A bit of a gimmick.
Note to Disney Execs: build a maglev and run it at 350mph like the Chinese in Shanghai: that's futuristic....

Animal Kingdom comes closes to being truly impressive, because it is genuinely educational, very interesting, uses real animals that you can get extremely close to, and has a less confused Green message about pollution, humanity’s effect upon the natural world and what real wildlife is about.
Actually seeing gorillas close up was something of a shock, I was expecting them to be much more shy, or animatronic, or something.

The pseudo-steam train runs for all of 150 yards in an endless loop, which seems a little pointless as it is the only way to get you the 75 yards from the main part of the park to the other side.
Yes, OK, but it’s 75 yards...... Even fat Americans can walk that far.

The park is divided up in to Continents, and they are done very well. A great deal of attention to detail (and money) has gone in to doing the backgrounds, but they are blowing its integrity by building a "Himalaya roller-coaster" at one end of the park. Oh, dear....

The entire Disneyworld infrastructure is built with ruthless American efficiency. There are 4 separate motorways leading in, car parks you could land 747s on, and efficient people-moving machines.
We never once waited to get in to or out of the car parks, and we went at a busy time.

We spent two days at Typhoon Lagoon, which was great fun if a little crowded. I felt the waterslides were tame and oversubscribed, but then I was a great fan of the (sadly now closed) Richmond waterslides which had, amongst other attractions, a 20ft vertical drop in the middle of a closed tube in the dark. Hard core stuff I suspect the American insurers wouldn't allow.
But the wave machine was effective, and the First Aid people were the best I’d ever seen. I loved the “stranded” steamboat that intermittently ejected a fountain of water followed by the saddest sounding steam hooter ever: great fun.

I also went to see the Warbirds at Kissimmee Airport, and was struck once again by how comfortable Americans are with aviation, although I don't know why I should be surprised, as they did invent flying.
The aircraft: an eclectic mixture of WW2 props, ex-USN props and jets and even a Valmet-built Fouga Magister (huh?) were there, being worked on, and you could just wander in, touch and climb on the aircraft and ask questions. So relaxed.
You could fly in a Harvard or a B-25 (I didn’t) and the staff were obviously all ex-USAF or USN flyers, as were all the visitors.
Heady stuff, but it’s interesting that basic aircraft construction hasn’t changed much since WW2. OK, there are more wires and black boxes inside, but the physical construction is very similar – stressed aluminium riveted and folded, plus bits of Plexiglas to see through.

They had an extremely rare (and very beaten-up) F9F8 Panther (see the film “The Bridges at Toko Ri”), an A-6, a MIG-21, a very old Piasecki helicopter they said they weren’t going to rebuild (fools) and an A-1 Skyraider in mint condition that they were flying, machine-guns and all, called “Naked Fanny”.
Funnier if you’re British, that one.
Even Mohammed Atta can’t put a crimp in America’s love of the aeroplane…

We visited Celebration, the Disney-designed community near Kissimmee. It is supposed to be the ideal community, with just the right mix of suburban family values and community spirit, but from what we saw it looked pretty much like any other American commuter suburbia: perhaps a little tidier than some, but pretty average.
Nice houses, though.

We also went to Seaworld, which is a much more realistic experience than anything Disney can do.

Seaworld is owned by Anheuser Busch (infamous makers of weak, gassy, too-cold lager), and for some unknown and historically uninteresting reason, their advertising logo is that of Clydesdale horses.
Quite what relationship this has with the beer I don't know (unless it's a tongue-in-cheek reference to horse pee...) as it's all delivered by diesel-powered truck nowadays, but it does mean that Seaworld (aquatic life, you know....?.) has a stable full of the bloody things looking incongruous and pointless.
Note to A-B Execs: Get a life, get a redesigned logo and get rid of the poor old Clydesdales...

It's the little things that remain in the consciousness after the visit: the “tree” woman who appeared, as if from nowhere on a path, entwined around the real trees, the comedy turns from the cast.
I watched a security guard checking bags at 6pm who burst spontaneously in to a song about “checking those bags with pride, oh he was checking those bags with pride….”, the ticket clerk who, when asked what would happen if we wanted to leave the park in the middle of the day, replied “absolutely nothing, ma’am, this is a Free country after all…”, the free-roaming talking recycling bin, the amazing plasters the First Aiders dished out at Typhoon Lagoon, and many, many more.

I came away with the feeling “well, so what?”
I suppose the point is that it’s for kids and if the kids enjoy it, well isn’t that enough?

Eventually, even cynical Brits get caught up in the hoop-la, and I have to admit to rather enjoying the trip, maybe because this time round I went with the girls and their faces were a picture: they spent the whole holiday sporting huge smiles and proclaimed at the end that it was the best holiday they had ever been on.

So that was nice.