Both beauty and beast, Disney owns America The Mouse King

September 02, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

Wake up, sleepy heads! Time to shed those Mickey Mouse sheets, that Mickey Mouse nightshirt, and grab the Mickey Mouse soap. Everybody neat and pretty? Then on with the show!

Put on the $100 Mickey Mouse tea kettle and check the newspaper. Looks like Disney has its eye on the CBS network. Hmm, the house the mouse built plans to join three Baby Bells to deliver movies-on-demand and home shopping to 50 million customers. And clever Disney will pull "The Lion King" until late November, just in time to snag another pride of acolytes during the holiday movie rush.

It's a small world after all. The small, wonderful world of Walt Disney. More than a mind-boggling exercise in popular culture, Disney is a popular cult that's everywhere you turn.

The die was cast when Mickey Mouse was born, Nov. 18, 1928. He came of age with baby boomers' parents, who cemented their middle-class status as they bought coon-skin hats for the kids or took them to Disneyland, that gloriously sanitary and safe precursor to the indoor mall. The boomers responded in kind, faithfully watching the "Wonderful World of Color" on television and every Disney feature film. For a while, there was silence.

In the mid-1980s, under company head Michael D. Eisner and the recently deposed Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Disney dream machine went full tilt once again, manufacturing the mythical -- and pricey -- aura of childhood.

"Disney to me is everything good," gushes Jeff Watson over the Internet. A Canadian whose firsthand experience of the United States consists of seven trips to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and one visit to Las Vegas, Mr. Watson says, "It's not perfect, but it strives to bring happiness to many people, including shareholders. It is the combination of make-believe and real-life commerce that enthralls me. . . . To me it's like a religion. They take my money but at least you're getting something for it."

This from a 20-something comptroller for a home building firm, an MBA candidate who plays golf and hikes in the mountains surrounding his Edmonton home. In other words, a normal, nice guy married to a woman who happens to share his passion for all things Disney.

Once, it was the ultimate insult to be likened to Mickey Mouse. Now, it appears to be the ultimate compliment. Untold millions seek to identify with this universal icon for personal and financial gain. In June, 20,000 lesbians and gay men rallied in Orlando for "Gay Day at Disney." In a "Dream Express" campaign, Japan Airlines will paint Disney characters on three jets flying domestic routes. And Microsoft is launching a line of children's games featuring Mickey Mouse and friends.

We all want to be like Annette, Bobby and Cubby, charter members of the club that's made for you and me: Mickey Mouse!

It is only natural to identify with the chipper rodent, says Dave Smith, archivist for the Disney company. "We see something of ourselves in Mickey Mouse," he says. "He's trying to make a go in a world that wasn't always favorable to him. A lot of us want to do the same thing."

"We can't understand American culture without understanding Disney," says Margaret King, a Philadelphia-based Disney scholar and consultant for its controversial theme park, Disney's America near Manassas, Va. "He's an energizer, the one who puts everything into code. He communicates it all like a shaman or the priest."

The pantheon of Disney characters and their foibles comprise our nation's "mythopoeia, the way in which we tell stories," says Larry Mintz, a popular culture specialist at the University of Maryland College Park who has studied Disney attractions at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va. "Mickey Mouse is a part [of that]. So is 'Aladdin,' 'The Lion King' and so will be Disney's America if they ever build it."

'Mickey and me'

As our foremost storyteller, Disney has insinuated itself into every aspect of our lives, from meticulously engineered public spaces like Disneyland to the bedroom. Promotional material for a line of licensed Disney apparel purrs: "What a week. A quiet night at home sounds perfect. The hottest video rental, some popcorn and a warm, snugly Mickey Unlimited nightshirt. Ah, just Mickey and me."

With the Disney Channel, Disney stores, Disney art and cartoon cel galleries, an educational materials division, video sales, Team Mickey, Mickey Unlimited, M.Mouse (an upscale clothing line for adults), Disney promotions and fast-food giveaways and countless other commercial outlets, the Disney company has invaded every conceivable business sector. At the Magic Empire's high end, it is patron to acclaimed architects such as postmodernists Michael Graves and Robert A.M. Stern.

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