Hidden Kingdom: Disney's Political Blueprint

William Sterner, mayor of Lake Buena Vista, Florida, says he's "like any small-town mayor." But Lake Buena Vista isn't quite like any small town. It has about 40 citizens, some 30 million visitors a year, and one business that owns virtually all its land.

The big landowner is the Walt Disney World Company, the tourist attraction is Disney World, and Mayor Sterner, who is a computer-operations supervisor in Disney World's corporate offices, governs at the company's pleasure. Were he fired, he could be evicted from the trailer park where he lives; the same goes for the roughly 40 other employees who live there, all of whom are nonunion. Lake Buena Vista's council executes only one order of consequence each year: turning over control of roads, utilities, inspections, and licensing to an entity called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which in turn is a creature of the Disney Company. Is this any way to run a theme park? You bet. Disney World's structure enables the company to act with the power of a government and the freedom of a private corporation to control every aspect of its property.

Walt Disney dubbed one of Disney World's attractions the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), but the name might better describe Disney's design for private government. Today, variations on the same blueprint abound not only in entertainment complexes but also in shopping malls and urban development districts where special tax arrangements and exemptions are increasingly popular means for extricating property from government oversight. In suburbs across the country, perhaps one-third of new developments are gated, with security, utilities, and other traditionally public services routinely delegated to private authorities.

For Disney, this approach clearly has worked. Total control has enabled Disney to isolate its Magic Kingdom from outside social, political, and intellectual currents. Tourists come from all over the world to enjoy the make-believe worlds that Disney sustains by banishing inconsistent influences.

But in carving out its own political jurisdiction, Disney has done more than simply pioneer a savvy marketing technique; it has redefined the boundaries between private and public space. The obvious appeal of this political experiment and its adaptability to other contexts raise a disturbing question. Disney's civic design may be an acceptable framework for operating a fantasy-based theme park, but should it really be, as Walt apparently intended, a blueprint for the public spaces of tomorrow?


A Better Mouse Trap

When Walt Disney began planning his theme parks in the 1950s, he had already established himself not only as a successful entrepreneur but also as the patriarch of American childhood and the tycoon of the American imagination. What he still longed for was something beyond the two dimensions of celluloid film, books, or television. He wanted to entertain all the senses--in his own space, in his own way. He wanted to create not a virtual reality but an alternate reality that conceded no element of its environment to chance or outside influence. Political insulation was hardly incidental to this vision. It was a central part.

Disney's legendary lust for control first found expression in California's Disneyland. "I don't want the public to see the real world they live in while they're in the park," he said as the park opened in July 1955. "I want them to feel they are in another world." The 244 acres in Anaheim were encompassed by an enormous earth embankment, appropriately landscaped, to achieve this illusion. The whole park was structured as a show and all employees, from ticket takers to custodians to dancing Mickeys, were called cast members. Disney saw his park as the future of entertainment and even as a model of cities to come: clean, efficient, safe, and controlled. He built himself an apartment above Main Street U.S.A., the park's central thoroughfare, to view the ongoing production.

But despite the park's success, Disney remained unsettled about the one element he could not control. Drawn by the millions of Disney customers, non-Disney hotels, hamburger stands and--worst of all--tawdry nightclubs and strip-joints sprang up on the park's border. The outside development, Disney thought, choked the magic illusion and threatened the artistic and commercial essence of the park. He would not make the same mistake again.

From the start, the project in central Florida dwarfed its predecessor in scale. To avoid a burst of land speculation, Disney used various dummy corporations and cooperative individuals to acquire 27,400 acres of land. (The company used the same trick when it bought the land for its recently scuttled project in Virginia.) Once the property was secure, he initiated a vast lobbying campaign, which continued after his death in December 1966, to win exemption from state, county, and local regulatory authority. For the same reason he wanted an embankment around the Anaheim park, he now sought a multi-layered buffer zone, with borders both physical and political.

To reach the attractions, guests would travel through thousands of acres of swamp and brush designed with wildlife preserves, rivers and lakes, hills and valleys. The Magic Kingdom itself would be surrounded by an enormous moat, to be crossed by ferry or a futuristic monorail. Plans were drawn for a Disney airport, a 1,000 acre industrial park, and a community with 20,000 residents. Disney World would be its own autonomous civic unit, providing its own energy, water, police, and fire protection. It would set its own building codes and its own zoning authority; it would tax and issue tax-free bonds.


Subscribe to The American Prospect


When the Florida legislature convened in early 1967, Walt Disney himself, by then deceased, appeared on film to testify. Here he explained plans for a residential development, the original EPCOT, that would justify such vast delegation of authority. "It will be a planned, controlled community," he said, "a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities." In the last year of his life, in great pain from cancer, Walt had secluded himself to map out what Steven Fjellman, author of Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America, calls "the culmination of a life that led from illustrator to animator to movie-maker to global fame as the voice of childhood." The natural next role, Fjellman suggests, was that of social planner and utopian philosopher. "In EPCOT," Walt promised, "there will be no slum areas because we won't let them develop."

It didn't take long for Disney and his lawyers to realize the fatal flaw of this original vision--that permanent residents of Disney World would threaten the company's control. But while they tabled the plan, publicly they continued to tout EPCOT as the most compelling political and practical argument for permanent, unrestricted authority. Disney promised vast benefits for the residents in the form of quality homes, good schools, and generous public services. Besides, they argued, the constant improvement and experimentation required by such a futuristic community would be crippled by regulatory oversight.

The strategy paid off. The charter legislation for the Reedy Creek Improvement District--bolstered by the promise of EPCOT, but not requiring it--passed the Florida Senate unanimously and the House with one dissenting vote. In 1968 the state Supreme Court confirmed that Reedy Creek could issue tax-free bonds for internal improvements. This power, the court said, would "greatly aid Disney interests" but would carry commensurate benefits to the "numerous inhabitants of the district."

The inhabitants never came; nary another word was said about building permanent residences on Disney property. EPCOT, planned as an urban utopia, was built in the early 1980s as part world's fair and part corporate showcase, a potent symbol that for Disney, utopian ideals and complete corporate control are intricately intertwined. Today, Disney officials deny having practiced deception with EPCOT, arguing that the residential com munity was always only one of a number of options.

Not much is made of this episode anymore. And though town-mouse relations have not always been smooth--in 1989, Reedy Creek gobbled up $57 million in tax-free bonds that nearby Orange County had wanted for low-income housing--the company now kicks in for local road improvements and other related expenses, satisfying any lingering skepticism. An editorial in Orlando's major daily paper in 1965, titled "Walt Disney to Wave His Magic Wand Over Us," still resonates today: Disney's illusions draw winks and chuckles; the company pays just enough attention to the way its governmental control looks in order to preserve the way it is.


Citizen Mickey

Discerning the political skeleton beneath Disney World is a task roughly equivalent to mapping out the design of Cinderella's castle from the view on Main Street, U.S.A. A trained eye might see the steel supports underneath the paint and plaster, but then there are the hidden rooms above, the network of tunnels below, the stuff Disney prefers to keep to itself.

The centerpiece of Disney's political blueprint, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, is an independent government entity created by Lake Buena Vista (and its sister city Bay Lake) to carry out most normal municipal functions. According to Disney World Vice President Diana Morgan, the district's board of supervisors "is not associated [with] nor do they work for our company in any way." District administrator Tom Moses maintains that "we are basically doing what any good government does, trying to guarantee the health of its citizens and businesses." Well, at least one business.

If anything, Disney officials say, outsiders should be grateful Disney was able to create such an empire without tapping into public resources. "Walt had a dream, and he didn't want local taxpayers to have to pay for it," says Morgan. "In 27 years, not a dime of federal or state tax money has been spent within these 27,000 acres. We've built our own roads and sewers and water plant. And we're the largest taxpayer in Florida ($46 million annually to Orange and Osceola counties) and we ask for essentially no services in return."

Disney is glad to show off its benefits. For several hours one afternoon, Jane Adams, Disney's public relations director, drove me around the property in her Mazda 626, pointing out elements of the massive infrastructure Disney created: the energy facility, the horticultural center, the service areas. I saw greenhouses, wildlife preserves, and the launching pad for the evening fireworks show. Ted McKim, manager of water and waste resources for Reedy Creek Energy Services, explained to me the intricacies of the water and waste treatment. Just what is Reedy Creek Energy Services? "It's a wholly owned subsidiary of Walt Disney World. And we are contracted by the Reedy Creek Improvement District to provide these services." In other words, Disney pays taxes to Reedy Creek, which gives the money straight back to Disney, and the circle is closed.

Such arrangements allow Disney an unparalleled ability to shape the park environment without government oversight. As Rollins College professor Richard Foglesong writes in the Washington Post:

It's legal magic. The Reedy Creek government can regulate land use, provide police and fire services, license the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, build roads, lay sewer lines, construct waste-treatment plants, carry out flood projects--even build an airport or nuclear plant, all without local or state approval.

With freedom from regulatory oversight, Disney could shape the land like so much clay. Take those creeks and streams--they're mostly man-made, landscaped to look natural. In fact, just about anything that's wet inside this district was made or altered by man. The 450-acre Bay Lake is pre-Disney, but it was drained, scoured, and filled with clean water. Five million cubic yards of earth were dug to construct the World Showcase Lagoon at EPCOT. Water flow throughout the park is regulated by radio telemetry and electronic sensors via a satellite in stationary orbit over the equator.


Glimpses of Tomorrowland

Glimpses of Tomorrowland

As far as tourists are concerned, most of those details are irrelevant. In fact, the area is meticulously designed to eliminate curiosity about backstage labor. Except for access roads in and out, movement is strictly by Disney transportation. Walking among attractions, while not prohibited, is about as appealing as walking the shoulder of a highway. Most of the backstage is carefully concealed; what is visible is usually impossible to reach. And for the rare spots that might draw too-curious guests, Disney uses subtle landscaping: Walk through the grass and you'll likely find yourself in a drainage ditch.

Yet what goes on behind-the-scenes has more to do with the park experience than most patrons realize. The loops of Disney's self-government, where complexities mask the real transaction of power, find eerie parallels inside the parks, where the company manufactures everything from employee emotions to historical legend. The raw materials of the Magic Kingdom are not just earth, concrete, and paint but people and ideas as well.

Consider Disney's management of its employees' demeanor. Not only does Disney have strict rules about how employees look--no jewelry, no long hair for men--but it regulates how they act, too. In The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild introduces the idea of "emotional labor" to describe the work required of many service employees to produce the moods, facial expressions, and body language that their employers require. Donna Lynn Dalton, 30 years old and a full-time character at Disney World, knows this con cept all too well. "You do get hit on a daily basis," says Dalton, whose repertoire includes Roger Rabbit, Bert, Ernie, Honkers, Grover, and Oscar. "You obviously try to get away. But you cannot in any way reprimand or retaliate." Wes Robinson, otherwise known as Goofy, Tigger, or the Sheriff of Nottingham, explains it this way. "It would be unbecoming for a Disney character to retaliate no matter what's happened to you--and believe me we get it."

Of course, Disney's charm--the stuff pilgrims tell the folks back home--is the feel of the place, its cleanliness, efficiency, and safety. Undesirables are kept outside the gates and, if they slip through, are monitored by security guards camouflaged as ordinary cast members or as tourists. For many visitors, this controlled community offers a freedom from the fear and distrust they feel outside. In line, a family from Tennessee chat amicably with a young couple from New York or an elderly gentleman from Tallahassee they might not otherwise ever meet: "Line's not too bad," they offer. "Whereabouts you from?"

All around us, meanwhile, is an environment in which the boundaries of the genuine and the illusory are collapsed, defined, and erased all over again. On Huck Finn's island, speakers hidden in fake tree stumps project real recorded bird calls. The Hall of Presidents features a robotic Bill Clinton, speaking a made-up speech with the president's real voice, while a robotic Abraham Lincoln delivers a real address with a fake voice.

No corner of history, architecture, politics, or geography is allowed to stand in the way of good family fun. Mark Twain is scrubbed clean of his cynicism; the World Showcase reduces the world to an afternoon of cultural platitudes and gift shops. With its myriad corporate-sponsored pavilions ("Horizons," by General Electric; "Universe of Energy," by Exxon; "The Living Seas," by United Technologies), EPCOT's Future World is, in essence, a series of arguments for placing our trust in corporate ingenuity. In spots such as Disney World, writes Ada Louise Huxtable in the New York Review of Books, "the ostensible purpose of the reproduction, to make one want the original, has been supplanted by the feeling that the original is no longer necessary. The copy is considered just as good and, in some cases, better."

For sure, Walt Disney was a visionary and a utopian. But most of all he was a salesman. The Walt Disney empire is more about profits than politics, and this includes its relentless tampering with reality. No one is forced to enter the park. And civil libertarians in central Florida have no horror stories of abuses in this corporate-controlled enclave. But this is little comfort. Whether inspired by pure capitalism or grander social designs, the triumph of private ownership over public space in Disney World has set a dangerous precedent.

Just last year, H. Wayne Huizienga, Blockbuster Entertainment Corporation's founder, won wide authority to collect taxes and condemn land on 2,500 acres in southern Florida that he planned to turn into a sprawling sports and entertainment complex--an idea he consciously modeled on the Disney blueprint. Although Viacom, which bought Blockbuster last year, pulled the plug on Huizienga's project, it's a safe bet other such developments will follow, in other states and from other companies, with similarly enthusiastic support from both the authorities and local voters.

At stake is the control of public space. Americans may have so despaired of government that they are ready to concede authority over whole communities to private corporations. But, then, who insures democratic accountability? And where does corporate power end? If the concern sounds apocalyptic, talk to the residents of Columbia, Maryland. When the Rouse Corporation built the community in the 1960s, it meticulously planned everything from the location of street signs to the composition of the population. Thirty years later, the community's citizens are staging a minor revolution in an effort to wrest control over zoning, taxes, and other issues from the corporation's puppet development council.

What's most disturbing, of course, is that the upstart residents of Columbia may be the exception--and that only the most blatant usurpation of public space is likely to provoke such a reaction. The "secession of the affluent," as Robert Reich has called the growth of private communities and private governments, is an acceptable solution to our problems only if democracy is irredeemable. In Variations on a Theme Park, Michael Sorkin argues that "effort to reclaim the city is the struggle of democracy itself," sounding a battle cry against the private usurpation of public space that few Americans seem interested in heeding. That democracies produced these lost places in the first place only makes the struggle to save them all the more complicated, but no less important.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement