Nov 26, 2014

    Disney's theme parks far from monolithic

    SOME people loathe Disney World and I understand why. The artificiality, all those people gnawing on turkey legs, the standing in line, that infernal It's A Small World song looping and looping - I get it.

    The opposite extreme was always more of a mystery. Some people love Disney theme parks so much that routine visits to Disneyland in California or the Magic Kingdom in Florida are simply not enough. Some people also make it a mission to visit Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland, Epcot and Typhoon Lagoon and California Adventure. There are 13 Disney parks worldwide and the hardest of the hardcore Disneyphiles have visited them all.

    What motivates men and women (usually travelling without children) to spend their time and money this way? It can't just be that they really, really love Pirates Of The Caribbean and the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. What kind of person, having already ridden Space Mountain a few dozen times in Florida, flies to Paris and spends an afternoon riding Space Mountain? Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Deranged.

    Or so I thought. Confession: Having visited all 13 parks, I am now a full-fledged member of this obsessive Mickey Mouse Club.

    Like many people, I visited Disney parks as a boy. I had the time of my little life, but I also never completely bought in. Mouse ears? Over my dead body. When I was in fifth grade, I wrote a persnickety letter to Disneyland complaining that my pair of purple 3D glasses at Captain EO had been missing a stem. Pout.

    By 2007, when The New York Times hired me to professionally scrutinise the Walt Disney Company, I had not laid eyes on Cinderella's Castle in about a decade. But assignments quickly took me inside Disney parks on both coasts, and I began to notice a rabid breed of visitor: people like Tony Spittell and his son, Andrew, who visited all six of Disney's major North American parks in a single jet-setting day, or Roger Yamashita, a California engineer who had been to all 13 properties.

    Mr Yamashita, 53, cited completion anxiety. "Once I had done California, Florida and Japan, I started to really want to finish my dance card," he told me. "It was like, 'Well, I've come this far'." A gold member of D23, the official Disney fan club, he added: "Disney is also very good at keeping you hooked."

    Ah, yes. Good old-fashioned marketing. Nobody does it better than Disney. Attendance at the company's 13 parks last year totalled 132.6 million, a 5 per cent increase from 2012, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

    I relate to Mr Yamashita's addict-like thinking - more, more, more - but my 13-park adventure was primarily rooted in reportorial curiosity. Disney haters have long criticised the company's overseas parks as products of cultural imperialism: the evil Mickey Mousification of the globe. But Disney has aggressively dismissed that criticism as unfair and outdated.

    "We made some mistakes early on, but we learnt from them," a senior Disney executive once said to me. "How can you judge us without seeing for yourself?"

    So on a 2011 trip to Paris, I persuaded my partner, Joe, to skip Sacre-Coeur and instead go to Marne-la-Vallee, a suburb of Paris where two Disney parks now sprawl across former sugar beet fields. I wanted to see if Buzz Lightyear had really learnt to blast off with a proper French accent.

    The place certainly smelled French. Arriving around lunchtime, we decided to have a glass of champagne at the ornate Disneyland Hotel, which is perched near the park gates like a pink and white Victorian bauble. Lovely. But the interior smelled as if it had been hosed down with Jean Patou perfume. "I think I'm getting a chemical burn inside my nose," I whispered to Joe, who rolled his eyes. (A Disney spokesman said the hotel no longer uses that scent.)

    We were slack-jawed upon entering the main park. To compete with the splendour of Paris, Disney spent lavishly to open the resort in 1992, and its ornate landscaping has only improved with age: Austrian black pines, endless rhododendrons, pathways that hug serpentine streams. Of all the Disney castles, the one here is the most extravagant. "Even I thought that was pretty cool," a normally nonplussed Joe said after a peek at an animatronic dragon residing in the dungeon.

    I hauled him to Hong Kong Disneyland by way of Tokyo Disneyland. At the end of a long trip to Japan last fall, I slipped in a day at the seaside Tokyo Disney Resort, which comprises two parks and a half-dozen hotels connected by monorail. The excursion turned out to be a surprise highlight of our time in Tokyo.

    Tokyo Disneyland may have the single best attraction in the entire Disney empire, but you won't find it on a park map. Disneyphiles privately call it the Running of the Bulls, and it takes place every morning on the entrance plaza. When the 20 gates open, roughly 40,000 people stampede through them in the 11/2 hours (at least according to a Tokyo Disneyland employee) in an effort to beat the lines. And I do mean stampede.

    Joe was nearly mowed down by two young women in Chip and Dale costumes. "Retreat!" he shouted, taking refuge behind a pillar. I was too busy happily soaking up the mania to offer a response. (If you stay at a Disney hotel, you can enter the park 15 minutes early and secure a good observation spot.)

    Hong Kong Disneyland was next. It was at this point that I started to wonder if I had gone too far. But the lines were short as a result of pouring rain, and we took cover inside the "enchanted" Mystic Manor, a twist on Disney's Haunted Mansion that leaves out the ghosts (because the supernatural is viewed differently in Chinese culture, we were told). We loved it so much we rode it twice and picked up T-shirts adorned with the ride's mascot, a fez-wearing monkey named Albert, on the way out.

    On the subway ride back to Wan Chai, the bustling neighbourhood where we were staying, I thought about what visiting the 13 parks had taught me about how Disney operates, particularly overseas.

    Far from monolithic, the company's theme park empire is full of quirky surprises. Yes, the notion of Disney as a cultural bulldozer needs to be retired - especially as it builds a 14th park in Shanghai that will be the first to do away with a Main Street-style entrance. (Instead, there will be a vast garden that will accommodate Chinese cultural festivals.)

    But Disney is Disney is Disney: Dumbo and Pinocchio and the Frozen princesses will always be there. At the end of the day, what makes a Disney park unique are the people who occupy it.