In Disney World, reality is kept firmly in its place

ROGER SIMON

November 30, 1990|By ROGER SIMON

ORLANDO -- I am sitting by a fantasy lake at Walt Disney World trying to figure why so many people bother clinging to reality.

The perfect aquamarine lake sits inside something called "Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort," which is supposed to be a replica of several Caribbean islands.

Having been to several real Caribbean islands, however, I much prefer these fantasy ones. For one thing, everybody smiles at you here when they take your money and they often say, "Thank you."

If this happens in the real Caribbean, I must have missed it. I don't wish to be an Ugly American, but if I wanted to deal with surly people who resented my presence, I wouldn't go on vacation. I would just stay home with my editors.

Today the sun is shining and a gentle breeze is blowing on this 42-acre fantasy lake, and there are a variety of sail and paddle boats and big inner tubes with small motors called Toobies.

I am watching two teen-agers, 14 or maybe 15, riding around in their Toobies and going a little nuts, which is what is expected of you when you are a teen-ager.

They are cutting back and forth across each other's wakes and calling out to each other and disturbing the people around them when out of a hidden cove suddenly comes . . . fantasy to the rescue!

A large speedboat hurtles into view. Sitting on a raised platform at the wheel is a tall, handsome, clean-cut young man with a red shirt and white shorts. He zooms around the two teen-agers in a tight circle as they look at him in awe.

He cuts his motor and speaks to them in a gentle but firm voice. "Say, kids," he says, "this isn't how we have fun at Disney."

And the two kids nod their heads and mumble apologies and spend the rest of the afternoon playing much more safely and much more quietly in their Toobies.

And the thought strikes me: Wouldn't you like to have this guy at home? Wouldn't you like to have him pop out of a closet and deal with your kids?

OK, so it wouldn't work at your house. Your kids would have the guy hogtied and stuffed in a garbage bag before he could draw a second breath.

But at Disney World it does work. It works because almost everything you see here is firmly grounded in fantasy and, after just a few hours of it, you get with the program.

Fantasy is actually the only thing that Disney sells (at very high, very real prices). I am guessing that the foreign countries that built the little villages in Disney's World Showcase in EPCOT Center imagined they would encourage people to visit France, Morocco, Canada, China, Mexico, etc.

But I don't think they do. I think what happened when I went to see the French exhibit is typical. There, one sees the movie "Impressions de France" which "celebrates the French countryside with classical music."

If that description makes it sound dull, I'm sorry. Because it's a terrific film. It is breathtakingly beautiful, lyrical and joyful.

And after I saw it, a woman near me asked her companion, "Doesn't that make you want to go to France?"

And her companion replied, "Oh, I've been. And the movie is better."

Of course it's better. That is the whole point. Fantasy is supposed to be better than reality. Disney's France is wonderful without exception. After the movie you go outside the theater and sit in a Parisian cafe and order French food and watch strolling street musicians. And then you can go across the cobblestone street and buy real French wine.

And you know what? They take American money in this France. And they speak English. And you don't have to know about liters or centimeters or all that other foreign junk.

And the same is true in all the foreign exhibits. It is Europe and Asia and Africa without the hassle of going to Europe and Asia and Africa.

It is not meant to make you want to go. It is meant to satisfy you without having to go. And if it is fantasy instead of reality, well, so what?

Reality is what Disney does worst. The American Adventure exhibit is supposed to make us feel good about our own country and to show off America to foreign tourists.

You go into a replica of Philadelphia's Liberty Hall and watch a movie about American history. But the Disney people have a problem with history. It is too real for them.

Take World War II. During the movie, you hear about the attack on Pearl Harbor and then you hear the actual voice of Franklin Roosevelt in his famous War Message to Congress.

He says: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked. . . ."

And then you are supposed to hear FDR go on to say ". . . by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."

But in the Disney version, FDR's voice fades out at that point, and the stirring music comes up, and you never hear just who it was who attacked Pearl Harbor.

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