OpEd Columns

Escape To Disney World Offers No Reprieve From Fear (Indianapolis Star 6/12/04)

I recently took a week long vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando with my wife and two boys (Joel, age 4 and Riley, 2). I did my research. I read the guides. I scoured the internet.
Some things you can’t prepare for.
Before hopping on the plane, I watched the airport security officials perform litmus tests on our six bags of luggage. An alarm sounded. Riley’s bag, with his name proudly printed in large letters on the outside flap, tested positive for explosives.
With spiffy uniforms and TSA badges, they stared at my two-year old’s “Traveling to Grandma’s” plastic carry-on bag. The other passengers stranded behind me stared too.
“Is Riley the brand of luggage?” “Uh, no, that’s the name of my two-year old.”
It sounds absurd. The other passengers stared. No one laughed.
My asthma inhaler set off the metal detector on the way to the gate. Meanwhile Riley’s stroller was x-rayed over the conveyor belt. Riley himself was having much more fun than his parents, frolicking around the gate area. We eventually made it on the plane.
As I inched my way through the narrow aisle toward seat 29B, I did a quick scan for guys who looked like their name might be Mohammed. It sounds absurd, I bet half the plane did the same.
We made it to Disney World safely. But not without fear.
Fear. Most of the time, it’s not justified. But it exists.
To my surprise, fear plays a significant role in many attractions at the happiest place in the fifty states….Disney World. Disney, the company America identifies with quality family entertainment, seems content on scaring little ones silly once they’ve made the arduous trek to the amusement capitol of the country.
Just in case Americans don’t have enough things to fear these days, Disney laces rides and attractions, like many of their animated films, with un-entertaining, unnecessary fear.
Sure. Thrill rides for teens are necessary. Ten foot cowering crustaceans sneering in the darkness at the Voyage of the Little Mermaid show, are not.
Fear is not fun. Kids want to laugh.
Of course, adults need an escapist rush of goosebumps every now and then. But hey Mickey, lighten up on the tots. Tell your animators to quit drawing so many lightning bolts and evil eyed monsters in films and rides designed for the enjoyment of those under a decade old.
I realize scaring a youth, or an adult for that matter, is one of the easiest tricks in show business. (Silently walk up behind a stranger, scream in their left ear, and you’ll see what I mean.) But what’s the point?
The thrill factor doesn’t apply to children. Young children. Children who see flying on a plane as the wondrous journey through the clouds that it really is. Children who can’t comprehend the reality of terrorism that we adults have bludgeoned into our brains by the fear inducing media.
If Disney World’s creative brain trust took a few lessons from the wonderful programming the company purchases to air on its Disney Channel, they might truly entertain children instead of forcing them to close their eyes until the ride is over.
Australian imports The Wiggles, French-Canadian produced Rolie Polie Olie or even the Jim Henson Company creation Bear in the Big Blue House, all teach and entertain joyfully without scare tactics. Unfortunately, these gems get very little play at Disney World.
Instead Disney produces needlessly scary rides like Maelstrom at Epcot, intended to be a ride back into Norway’s history, where creepy Cyclops characters warn of traveling into the mystical past. There’s “Mickey’s Philarmagic” 3-D attraction at the Magic Kingdom or “It’s Tough To Be a Bug” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, or Epcot’s “Honey I Shrunk the Audience”. All inventive and creative, filled with technical wizardry. All injected with a dose of the Disney fear factor.
“When will this be over?” asked Joel, peeking through the five fingers covering his face.
His thoughts were duplicated by my wife as we boarded our plane back home, fresh from a daily local news update on the government’s “most wanted” terrorists and their plans to attack somewhere in the US.
Fear is not fun.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell

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