The Goof That Won the World


April 02, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

ORLANDO, FLORIDA. — "It's the Goofster,'' shouted the Daddy, scooping up Sam and Sophie and running across the crowded room toward a man in an orangish dog costume. ''Goofy! Goofy!'' the kids shouted.

This is a ''Character Breakfast,'' a $9.95 feature on a fake Mississippi riverboat in an artificial lake in a make-believe universe called Disney World. The Daddy is one of the toughest guys I've ever known, Steven Brill, the founder of The American Lawyer and owner of about half the big law journals in this republic of lawyers.

He is bouncing around Goofy now waving slips of papers, trying to get an autograph for Sophie, who is 6 years old, and Sam, who is 2. The man in the dog suit is stern, though. Following Disney orders, Goofy points Mr. Brill back to his assigned seat with the scrambled eggs. The terror of the Land of the Fee (no r) obeys meekly.

I know all this because I was right behind Mr. Brill, waving paper at the big orange dog for my own 6-year-old, Fiona.

What makes us act this way? I don't know. If I knew the secret of Disney, the corporation that won the world, I'd be rich enough to buy all the lawyers I ever wanted.

I was perfectly willing to be bored by all this, going through the motions to please my daughter.

Or, I was perfectly willing to be cynical, spotting the hidden hands and wires and peepholes of this benevolent police state. Steven Brill and I could have been the Orwell and Huxley of Disney's Utopia -- a private country the size of Paris in what was once scrubby forest and swampland in the middle of no place in the middle of Florida.

Forget that. The place is great. The prices are fair. The 33,000 employees called ''cast members'' are great, too, at least the ones I saw in and out of costume -- including the walkie-talkie, button-in-his-ear, trenchcoat security guy who made me put my shoes back on before entering the Magic Kingdom. We were in the middle of a Florida monsoon, there was water up to my ankles, and he wanted me to put my shoes back on -- undoubtedly because of the dangers of corporate liability and customer (guest) lawsuits.

I did it happily. I'd do most anything with us on one side of the gate and Mickey and Minnie, Cinderella and Mary Poppins on the other side. (I am forever in debt to the young woman who was Cinderella in her castle at the center of the Magic Kingdom when Fiona had a dropped-head shyness fit.)

Columnists are supposed to find meaning in most everything they do, and I know there is a lot to be learned from Disney's management style and almost monomaniacal corporate culture. I'm sure there are ''lessons of Disney World'' as important as the ''lessons of Vietnam'' being peddled up north in Washington.

But the only one that struck me -- other than the fact that fathers are happily willing to make fools of themselves for their children -- involved flags, yellow ribbons and patriotism.

There were fewer American flags (and no yellow ribbons) in Disney World than there were on any street in most of the cities and towns you had to go through to get to it. They don't wave many flags at Disney, or they prefer to wave their own, featuring a Mickey Mouse silhouette.

Why? I think that is because Disney people are trying to universalize, trying to expand their borders, not celebrate or defend them. Disney serves all; Disney speaks all languages, takes all currencies. They could learn something from that up in Bush World.

The most American of our corporations, with all its architectural appeals to nostalgia, looks outward and forward, building Euro Disneyland, which will open outside Paris a year from now. The company is already thinking about sites in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

In Europe, Disney discovered the French and Germans and Italians want the same characters and styles as the people who come to Disneylands and Worlds in Orlando or Anaheim, California, or Tokyo. They want what Americans created, or their idea, or fantasy, of what kind of people Americans are.

In Paris a few months ago, I asked Robert Fitzpatrick, the president of Euro Disneyland, what he thought that was.

''They think we're like Mickey,'' he said. ''Brash. Innocent. Exuberant.''

I liked hearing that. I hope we still are that way. But whether we, or Disney, are still so innocent, it is nice to know that is the way the world would like us to be.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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