Which Magic Kingdom are you talking about, comrade?

Colorful parades, happy music, pictures of the founder and the familiar symbol everywhere - it's Disney World, but it feels like the old Soviet Union.

Popular Culture

June 28, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

WALT DISNEY WORLD, Fla. - The line snakes from "Space Mountain, presented by Federal Express," doubling, tripling, quadrupling between the metal cattle gates. The sign says the approximate wait is 30 minutes.

Only 30 minutes! I think, and I think again: Where else did I ever see a line this long and say, only 30 minutes? And instantly I know the answer.

Where else did loudspeakers mounted on poles fill the air with joyous, repetitive music and exhortations to greater happiness? Where else was the avuncular, beloved founder remembered and quoted so often, so affectionately, his portrait beaming down from so many walls? Where else were there such cheerful parades, managed by security men muttering discreetly into walkie-talkies? Where else did every plaster frieze, every floor tile, every manhole cover, display the same familiar symbol?

Only now, it is mouse ears. Then, it was hammer and sickle.

I spent a summer as a student in Leningrad in 1976, during a slogan-heavy period of Soviet life that might be called High Brezhnevism, and lived as a journalist in Moscow from 1988 to 1991, as Mikhail Gorbachev, tinkering with the system, inadvertently caused its collapse.

At that first Mayday celebration in 1988, my daughters, then 2 and 4, were thrilled by the flags fluttering everywhere, the bright red bunting, the fireworks, the giant banner we dubbed "Smiling Lenin" (in contrast with the purposeful Lenins everywhere else) draped at the edge of Red Square.

Now they are a decade older. And just as all children in the Land of the Soviets aspired someday to see the magic of Moscow - Lenin's mausoleum, the fantastic architecture of the Kremlin, the rides of Gorky Park, the toy-stocked shelves of the Children's World department store - so our daughters, joined by their

younger brother, wished, like good American children everywhere, someday to visit the Magic Kingdom. If you wish upon a star, and pester your parents long enough, all things are possible.

So, here we are, and as we inch forward through the 102-degree heat toward the next attraction, I realize that the fiercely anti-Communist Walt Disney's theme parks, a capitalist triumph designed to suck the contents from the wallets and purses of every parent, are the most Soviet places in America.

And why not? The Bolsheviks, too, had set out to make everyone happy; things just went a bit awry. Disney learned from their mistakes: Here outside Orlando, there are no prison camps (as far as we know - huge swaths of the 27,500 acres Walt bought remain undeveloped and out of view). No KGB (though there is "Guest Relations," whose minions can be quite, uh, firm with the guests, as we found when we unknowingly broke the rules by trying to use our Park-Hopper ticket to get into Typhoon Lagoon). Clean public restrooms. Less surly gift shop cashiers. And, after Walt died in 1966, no mausoleum (again, as far as we know).

One of the things the Soviets excelled at was rides - the Moscow Metro, each stop a fantasy of stone, bronze and stained-glass mosaic; the cosmonauts, riding into space; the Trans-Siberian railway. The Soviet emphasis, too, was always on the future, the "radiant future" of communism; though it never quite arrived, much like the personal jet-pack transport and video phones of Disney's Tomorrowland.

Call it a fixation - my family does - but once I have this Soviet-Disney notion in my head, I see it everywhere:

* I buy a $3 ice cream from "Kim, St. Louis, Mo.," sweltering behind her cart. (Name tags identify all "Cast Members" - Disney's euphemism for "employees.")

I ask her how long her shift is - 11 hours, she says. I ask her what her pay is - $6 an hour, she says.

I express my sympathy. Kim gathers her face into a smile and replies wanly, "It's fun!"

And I picture Soviet collective farm workers, gathered for foreign visitors in the 1970s, taking turns to describe earnestly their job satisfaction.

* At EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, an acronym worthy of the Soviet government), we visit "The Land, presented by Nestle," and watch a movie, "The Circle of Life."

Simba, Timon and Pumba, from Disney's "The Lion King," have dammed up a stream with the idea of building a big resort. But the wise old baboon, Raffiki, teaches them that their selfish exploitation of nature has produced drought downstream. The movie ends as they diligently destroy their dam.

And then we blink outside into the sunshine and cast our eyes across the sprawling square miles of development, the fake lakes, the hundreds of fountains burbling away amid a Florida drought so severe that brush fires are burning all over the state.

The gall! The chutzpah, somehow grander than mere hypocrisy! And I remember the same breathless astonishment I felt at mandatory lectures, back at Leningrad State University in 1976, on the wonders of Scientific Communism and the prosperity and freedom it had delivered to every Soviet republic and Soviet citizen.

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