Peaceable Man Files #25: A Chilly Trip to Orlando, Without the Mouse Ears
Random musings on my gypsy existence at my cabin in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania and wherever else life takes me.
Last week Rachael and I got out of the cold, damp Northeast for a winter getaway to Florida. Her parents booked a two-bedroom Marriott condo in Orlando and had an extra room available.
Orlando isn’t my favorite place in Florida—a bit too crowded and touristy for my tastes—but it’s a heck of a lot warmer than Pennsylvania in mid-January, so we figured, why not?
When we arrived mid-day on Thursday, the weather was perfect—sunny and warm, temperatures in the 70s, low humidity. We got in some pool time before dinner and headed off to bed.
Then, overnight a front moved through. After torrential rains on Friday morning, the weather took a decided winter-like turn. That night, the temperatures dropped down into the thirties. The next day, it barely made it above fifty, and with the wind whipping up, it felt even colder.
Forget the pool—we stayed in our rooms and watched playoff football. Sunday was a few degrees warmer, but still too chilly to go into the pool, so we stuck to the hot tub, which was heavenly, at least until you stepped out.
At one point that weekend, we checked the weather app and saw that it was warmer back home in Pennsylvania than it was here in sunny Orlando. I joked that maybe we should think about getting out of the cold and going to Florida. No one laughed.
I have to give Rachael and her parents credit. They were determined to get to at least one Disney park while in Orlando and they spent a frigid afternoon at Animal Kingdom. The highlight of their afternoon was going on the "Avatar Flight of Passage" ride after waiting two hours in line.
Me? I stayed back at the condo and did some writing. The only thing more unappealing to me than going to a Disney park is going to a Disney park on a fifty-degree day.
The time alone gave me a chance to think about why it is that I dislike Disney theme parks so much. It’s not that I’ve never enjoyed them. My first trip to Disney World, in my twenties with friends, was actually a lot of fun, although even then I remember feeling like a sardine in a can as we squeezed our way through thick crowds and waited in hour-long queue lines for rides that lasted maybe six minutes.
I also remember how empty my pockets felt when I finished the day, not just from the price of admission, but from buying food and souvenirs. If this was the happiest place on earth, it was also a very crowded and expensive one, and one that, to my analytical mind, didn’t offer the greatest value for dollars spent.
I came away from that first experience with no great desire to go back. But go back I did, several times over the years. I did it for my kids, so that they could have the experience of going to the Magic Kingdom to see Cinderella Castle and take a magical boat ride through seven continents while cute little animatronic figures danced and sang “It’s a Small World” in perpetuity.
Yes, I did my duty, took out my wallet, and spent the $600 it costs on average to take a family of four to a day at a Disney park (not including air travel, lodging, and other incidentals). We went because it’s Disney, and there’s no experience like it.
Disney is an experience-making machine on a size and scale never seen before in human history. It’s a machine expressly designed to attract the masses to its properties and maximize their spending once it has them there.
Everything at a Disney park is engineered for the purpose of separating the captive customer from his or her money. Get off a ride after waiting for an hour and you are conveyed, production-line style, into a store where you’re presented with pricey themed paraphernalia based on the attraction you just saw. How can you not buy the stuff with your kids bugging you to?
Is there anything wrong with this? Absolutely not.
In fact, as a former corporate marketer myself, I can only look in awe at the genius of Walt Disney and the people who have followed him over the years. They’ve turned a creative idea into a money-making colossus that reaches millions of people and brings in billions of dollars every year. In the process, they’ve changed the world.
This fact struck me with newfound clarity while I spent an unseasonably cold weekend in Orlando. Everything I was seeing—the beautiful palm trees, the manicured golf courses, the gorgeous luxury resorts, the sparkling lakes and pools, the restaurants and shopping malls—all of it is due to Disney’s creative and commercial genius.
Before Walt Disney set eyes on it in the 1960s as the future home for his park, Orlando was nothing but flat, marshy pine barrens. Landowners were happy to sell their useless marshland for a few hundred bucks an acre to have someone develop it. (Disney bought the land through shell companies so that people didn’t know it was him and thereby raise their asking prices.)
Prior to Disney World being built fifty years ago, Orlando was a military town with a population of about fifty thousand people. Today, it is a bustling, densely crowded metropolis of parks, resorts, hotels, golf courses, and shopping centers that draws tens of millions of visitors each year from around the world.
That is the power of creative vision combined with modern mass-marketing tactics.
All of which brings me back to the question of why I hold such resistance to the Disney experience when so many people love it.
Part of it, I’ve determined, is the thrifty Scot in me that feels compelled to question every expenditure and the value I’m getting out of it.
Part of it is my intense dislike of crowds and the tourist traps that draw those crowds.
Part of it is the nagging feeling I get whenever I step into a Disney park that I’m being manipulated—which, while true, is not a bad thing if you’re enjoying the ride.
But mostly, I think, I dislike Disney experiences because they feel so darn … manufactured. I prefer experiences that feel more natural and authentic, ones that take place off the beaten path, in nature or surrounded by beautiful, natural settings. Think hiking or biking or walking through a Colorado mountain town with the snow-capped Rockies in the distance.
The thing about being in nature is that every time you set foot in it, it’s different. A different day, a different season, different weather, different conditions, different colors and creatures.
That’s not what you get with Disney. Everything you get at a Disney park—the attractions, the rides, the characters, the food—is designed to be uniform, so that you know what you’re getting. Even the palm trees and the flowers at Disney parks have been trucked in from somewhere else.
If I’m going to go to Florida, I want to experience things that are uniquely Floridian—like the beaches or the Everglades or those gorgeous Florida Keys.
None of this is to take away from the week I had in Orlando. Despite the winter chill, we had a wonderful time at the Marriott property where we stayed. We played cards, had some lovely meals, and made frequent forays to the hot tub.
The weather warmed up at the beginning of the week—Tuesday was especially divine—and we had a chance to get some sun by the pool.
Would I do it again?
Would I do it again without Disney?
All the better, in my book.
But that’s just me. I’d love to hear your views on Disney. Love it, hate it, or somewhere in between?