Downtown Disney

When I heard about ‘Downtown Disney’, I’d imagined that there would be some streets, many, many hotels, some restaurants. Essentially, a small community geared for tourists in the middle of the Disney World acreage. It would look, I thought, like a strip mall, only perhaps a little Disney-fied. But I was totally wrong.

Downtown Disney is a massive, sanitized outdoor mall. It has restaurants (all themed!), stores (some touristy, some practical), theatres, etc. It is a crushingly Capitalist experience, where every aspect you feel has been commoditized, market-tested and is now being brought to you by the friendly folks at Disney. There is a dull uniformity of the buildings — no two look alike, yet they somehow all blend into each other seemlessly — but not in a pleasant, Old World kind of way. There are 2 lynchpins holding the place together: at one end, the massive, permanent, faux-big-top that houses the Cirque de Soleil’s ‘La Nouba’ production. At the other end, is the ‘World of Disney’, a Wal-Mart sized store that sells nothing bu Disney-branded merchandise. The store itself is divided up into themed rooms (“I’ll meet in you in the Villans Room” (Where they of course sell jewellry, à la Cruelle DeVille), or “Mommy, I want to go to the Pooh Room!” (which of course is full of baby apparel)).

Sequestered in this mall is Pleasure Island, aka ‘Disney for Adults’. It is a collection of nightclubs, each featuring a different genre of music, geared to be safe for middle-class, suburban America. You pay one cover price before entering Pleasure Island, and then can club-hop all night long. Neither Leah nor I had any interest in venturing within, but we could see the buildings all had the same look as theme park themed buildings do: an incredibly designed fake, where if you wanted, you could pretend momentarily you’re somewhere else, without ever losing that safe, I’m-at-home-in-America feeling.

Noticeably, I never once felt unsafe there. It was so … perfect. It was crowded, there were throngs of people milling, I only saw one security guard, and there were no signs anywhere telling me to watch my purse or camera or what have you. There was none of the fear/alertness that comes from wandering around the downtown core of any real city, which while at one level was comforting, I found mostly too disturbing. With Celebration just a few minutes down the road, I realised that I was in the mall/shopping district equivalent of a gated community.

I’d thought that this was perhaps a uniquely Disney thing. But no. On Tuesday night, we went to Universal Studios for a conference do there in the evening. Saddled outside Universal Studios, after a long drive, was yet another one of these weired theme-commerce malls. And it was packed, absolutlely packed. This one featured an Emeril restaurant, the Official Nascar restaurant, a massive Hard Rock Cafe, an NBA restaurant and numerous other things. Again, all very clean and sanitized and safe.

I’m not convinced I can even put into words how and why these places disturbed me so much. Perhaps because of the rampant, crazed commercialism surrounding me. Perhaps because there were simply so many people. Perhaps because they’re so tastefully designed, and absolutely soulless. Perhaps because on one hand, I truly liked that I felt absolutely safe wandering around in them. I knew, immediately, that if I had kids, I wouldn’t worry nearly so much about them hanging out at the mall, if these were the malls that they were hanging out in. Which is sad. Tellingly, the only ‘alt.’-looking kids I saw were a few german punks, who looked as if they were being tailed quite openly by a security guard. Everyone else looked like your average middle-class, conservatively-dressed American.