Hunter S. Thompson went on his famous quest to find the American Dream across the desert and in Las Vegas.
He didn’t seem to find it. 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.
Since Hunter didn’t have any luck in Vegas, I decided to start in the U.S. South by collecting my Dutch partner in crime at the airport in Orlando and meandering for two weeks on the road back to Kentucky.
Unknown to many international visitors, the area of North America lying between New York City and California is actually not a rancid wasteland of feral creatures and zombie tribes. The U.S. has plenty of other interesting regions, the South being a friendly one that people skip for some reason.
When I ask my young niece if she likes a particular vegetable, especially 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. If half of my own countrymen — most of whom haven’t even been on this side of the continent — think they’ll be raped by a barefoot Rush Limbaugh who shouts “Y’all” the entire time, why would international travelers line up for punishment when they can choose from less painful and more intelligent places?
It’s really not that bad.
So what’s the ideal place to provide a tired, jetlagged, culture-shocked Dutchie with a soft landing into Americana? Us being in Orlando, the choice was obvious: Disney World. Cruel? Yes. I felt a little like my old Drill Sergeant back in Oklahoma grinning as I led my uninitiated recruit into the Basic Training gas chamber.
After all, we weren’t visiting something even remotely digestible for adults such as Universal Studios or EPCOT…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 went to 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 eat in at home.
As 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 pot. But instead of the “eeeeeeeeeeee!” something amazing and unexpected happened: we actually enjoyed it.
It’s inexplicable. And If you’ve been reading for years, thank you and goodbye; I’m obviously going to have to shut this blog down now that all credibility has been sacrificed with a single sentence. The headlines will read: ‘Vagabond Admits to Enjoying Disney World: Receives Death Sentence.’
I’m sweating as I type this. Was Disney everything that I despise about an American corporation promoting mass consumerism, materialism, and Chinese-made ‘I Love America’ swag? Yes. Did we pay a ridiculous $90 each to get inside and sweat in lines for the most poisonous food on the planet? Yes. Did we have to navigate around morbidly obese people trying to drive groaning electric scooters while clutching Big Gulp cups? Yes.
But the bottom line? It is what it is. 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.
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.
Sure, all of us adults 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 it didn’t matter. Once we got our gag reflex under control, I dare say that we may have accidentally discovered the American Dream: to keep your eyes closed and live in a dream, 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 it if they didn’t smile a little when the 100th iteration of It’s a Small World was sang by robotic Asian kids.
First-world problems, yes, but the American plan for life can suck. Getting only two weeks of vacation a year sucks. Sacrificing your youth to make politicians and rich people even richer sucks. But some people do 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. Who can hate them for that? If it takes a 40-year-old psychology major sweating in a giant mouse costume to make people happy, who cares?
I’ve observed the same all over the world. From remote villages without electricity in Indonesia to war-torn dungholes, people all want the same: they just want their families to be safe and happy.
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 wasn’t going to be a princess. Best case scenario, she would probably trade that princess dress for a torn prom dress splattered with the varsity football team’s vomit one day.
Life is tough, kid.
The best part of our magic day? 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 to 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 worst part of Disney aside from the obvious? The food.
Disney World is a place where sane people actually pray for a McDonalds to serve up pink-slime burgers. If Disney actually did open a familiar fast-food restaurant, the queue would be longer than the one for Space Mountain. I would have gladly waited and even bought something from the gift shop afterward.
Instead, you can pay $11 for a fatty, viking-sized leg of meat from some unidentified, genetically-modified beast or do as we did and pay $8 for a “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 by health groups or think that a few apples will reverse a mountain of bad food karma, but alongside yesterday’s corn dogs sold at street carts, a plate of apples was always available.
While paying $1.50 for a sun-shriveled 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. 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 swiped into the park.
So, in the end, I received a healthy new perspective, some great memories, and a decent sunburn for my 15-hour, ninety-dollar day at the 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 a sea 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 weren’t completely satisfied and were off to chase the next shiny objects across the South: Savannah, Asheville, and Gatlinburg.