Hunter S. Thompson went across the desert while on his infamous quest to find the American Dream but he didn’t go to Disney World.
Maybe he should have. Despite trying, he didn’t seem to find his idea of the American Dream. And while the Mazda 6 I hired wasn’t exactly a Caddy convertible with a trunk full of drugs, I did get better gas mileage and didn’t have to worry about consecutive life sentences.
Welcome to the South
Since Hunter found only fear and loathing in Vegas, I decided to start searching for the American Dream in the U.S. South. I collected my Dutch partner in crime at the airport in Orlando, and we planned to meander for two weeks on a road trip back to Kentucky.
Unknown to many international visitors, the area of North America between New York City and California actually isn’t a rancid wasteland of feral creatures and zombie tribes. The United States has plenty of other interesting regions, the South being a friendly one that people skip over for some reason (cough…politics…cough).
When I ask my young niece if she likes a particular vegetable, particularly one laden with vitamins, I get a resounding “no!” with the same enthusiasm of someone just asked to eat a power tool.
When I follow up with “Well, have you ever tried [insert something green here],” the answer is usually no.
For some reason, the same applies to the South. Half of my own countrymen — most of whom haven’t even been on this side of the continent — think they’ll be shot by a barefoot, banjo-wielding Rush Limbaugh. So why would international travelers line up for punishment when they can choose from places they perceive as less dangerous and more intelligent?
It’s really not that bad here. I promise.
Backpackers Visit Disney World
So what’s the ideal place to provide a tired, jetlagged, culture-shocked Dutchie with a real dose of in-your-face Americana? Us being in Orlando, the choice was obvious: Disney World.
Cruel? Maybe. I felt a little like my old Army drill sergeant back in Oklahoma grinning as I led my uninitiated recruit into the Basic Training gas chamber.
I knew what was waiting. She had no idea.
After all, we weren’t visiting somewhere even remotely digestible for adults such as Universal Studios, EPCOT, or Star Wars World.
No…it was going to be full-on Mickey Mouse ears, screaming kids, and the deepest layer of American consumerism hell or nothing for this new recruit.
Amid an armada of baby strollers, we pushed our way through a parking lot larger than many towns and bravely entered Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
So, while I know that somehow Florida is so far south that it isn’t really “the South,” we began our quest among a horde of suburbanites anxious to eat in the same chain restaurants that they visit at home.
What happens when two vagabonding world travelers get dropped into Central Florida’s cultural melting pot?
When we entered the gates early in the morning, I expected us to emit a piercing sound something like a lobster produces when it’s dropped into the boiling water.
But instead of the eeeeeeeeeeee!, something amazing and unexpected happened: we actually enjoyed ourselves.
It’s inexplicable. And If you’ve been reading this blog for years, thank you and goodbye. I’m obviously going to have to pull the plug now that all credibility has been sacrificed with a single sentence. The headlines will read something to the effect of: “Vagabond Admits to Enjoying Disney World: Receives Public Flogging.”
I’m sweating with existentialism as I type this. Everything I thought to be true may be wrong.
Was Disney World everything that I despise about behemoth American corporations? Yes. Was there mass consumerism, materialism, and Chinese-made “I Love America” swag? Yes.
Did we pay a ridiculous $90 each to get inside and sweat in queues for what could be the most poisonous food on the planet? Yes.
Did we have to navigate around morbidly obese people driving groaning electric scooters while clutching 64-ounce cups full of diabetes? Yes.
The bottom line, however, is the final tally. Once we got past the grotesqueness, loosened up, and realized that even if the premise is evil, the end result was the same: people were smiling. Great memories were being made.
We were happy!
What’s more important than being happy for the short time you get on this grimy planet? Besides, it’s not like we were clubbing baby seals to death or something. I’ll leave that task to the board of directors.
The American Dream and Disney World
Maybe the American Dream is less about having a house and a crappy 9-to-5 job and more about just being happy.
Sure, all of us adults at Disney World knew that the trees were made of plastic, and that pneumatic fluid rather than magic made the creatures of the forest come alive. But in the end, none of that mattered.
Once we got our gag reflexes under control, I dare say that we may have accidentally discovered the real American Dream: to keep your eyes closed and live in a dream world, if at least for a little while.
Deliberate ignorance can be bliss. The tired-looking parents I observed knew the tsunami of cash they were sending to Disney’s board room was ridiculous, but damn if they didn’t smile a little when the 100th iteration of It’s a Small World was sang by robotic Asian kids.
Selling your time to make politicians and billionaires even wealthier sucks. But people are often doing it for a reason. They do it for their family and loved ones. I observed many of these people from all walks of life at the Magic Kingdom.
While you could criticize them (as I often did), these people flocked to Orlando for the purpose of making their loved ones happy, if not just for a short while.
If it takes some poor bastard sweating in a giant mouse costume to make people happy, who cares?
We are all sentient creatures who want to be happy. Even the guy in the mouse suit.
I have observed the same all over the world. No matter how far you travel, people all want the same: they just want their families to be safe and happy.
The Disney Princess
But before I paint the goggles a little too rose-colored for the Magic Kingdom, we did see some heinous train wrecks.
More than once I was bumped out of the way by a princess-dressed terror followed by yuppie mom with wallet in hand. The little monster was already clad in sixty-dollar princess dress, plastic tiara, magic wand, ruby slippers, and any other available accessory her mom could find to thicken the lie that this 12-year-old was going to grow up to be a princess one day.
The little brat, with pouty lip and teary eyes, pushed me out of the way while grumbling some complaint because her dream day wasn’t going according to promise.
I wanted so badly to tell Her Highness that she probably wasn’t going to be a princess unless her father was rich.
But I kept my mouth shut. The next time she gets to wear a fancy dress like that will probably be on her way to prom alongside some primate who made the varsity football team.
Disney World: The Good
The best part of our magic day at Disney World in Orlando? The otherwise-terrible wait times averaged only around 15 minutes — an incredibly nice surprise! Prior trips to Disney with family years ago consisted of waiting an hour or more in the sun with three young children, all for rides that literally last 4 – 8 minutes. No joke.
You would finally reach the front of the queue, climb inside a car or boat to be hauled into the darkness for some robotic magic, enjoy the super air conditioning, then five minutes later you were excreted through an overpriced gift shop back into the Central Florida sun.
Find a new attraction, repeat.
The Food at Disney World
The worst part of Disney aside from the obvious? The food.
I should have given them a mention in my worst travel foods list.
Disney World is a place where sane people actually pray for a McDonalds to open and serve up some pink-slime burgers.
If Disney actually did allow familiar fast-food restaurants, the queues would be longer than the one for Space Mountain. I generally don’t eat that stuff, but inside Disney World in Orlando, I would have gladly waited an hour for Taco Bell’s interpretation of meat. I would have even bought something from the gift shop afterward (you know they would have one).
Instead, since you are virtually the Mouse’s prisoner while inside the park, you must eat what they offer.
You can pay $11 for a fatty, viking-sized leg of meat from some unidentified, genetically-modified fowl, or do as we did and pay $8 for a single “taco” that would send any sensible Mexican running proactively to the toilet.
To Disney’s credit, however, I did observe a completely new trend: fresh fruit was available everywhere. Maybe they’ve been criticized or think that a few apples will reverse a mountain of bad food karma. Alongside yesterday’s corn dogs sold at street carts, a bowl of plastic-wrapped apples was always available.
While paying $1.50 for a sweaty apple isn’t exactly a bargain, at least the option is there.
Another new development? Fingerprinting.
Yes, we were fingerprinted when we entered and our credit-card-style tickets were swiped. For a privacy advocate such as myself, this was alarming.
I half expected a tracking device to be inserted into our arms. Somewhere in a database (undoubtedly shared by the FBI, Satan, and Disney) our fingerprints sit quietly awaiting whatever New World Order the Mouse decides to enact.
Perhaps we will be spared during Mousepocalypse since I am now — ahem — included among the followers who have contributed money in the park.
A Happy Exit
So, in the end, I received a healthy new perspective, some great memories, and a decent sunburn for my 15-hour, ninety-dollar adventure at Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
My Dutch friend survived with only a small brain tumor and a big taste of American culture. To my horror, she loved it.
Among the masses of unconscious kids and tired parents, we stumbled wearily out of the park at closing time to find the Mazda.
Even though the elusive American Dream reared its head, like the Princess Brat, we still weren’t completely satisfied.
We were off to chase the next shiny objects across the South: Savannah, Asheville, and then Gatlinburg.