A Mickey Mouse Regime

Surprisingly, many seminal events in American popular culture this year have emanated from a single corporation, and no, it's not Microsoft. It's Disney. Most people recognize that The Lion King, a huge artistic and commercial success on Broadway, is a Disney product, But fewer are aware that the upcoming film version of Beloved, Toni Morrison's celebrated novel, was financed with Disney money, or that Tina Brown, late of The New Yorker, recently made a development deal with Miramax, which is owned by--you guessed it--Disney.

Sick of hearing about such projects, many cultural critics are beginning to fear Disney's cavalier and ultra-capitalistic attitude. Most notable among the dissenters is Carl Hiaasen, a writer of zany South Florida mystery novels and celebrated columnist for The Miami Herald. His new book, Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World, reads like a marriage of the opinionated, highly personal journalism of Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion and the rants of Dennis Miller. One hesitates to apply the word "book" to Hiaasen's project-the slim volume bears a greater resemblance to a modern-day muckraking pamphlet, complete with attacks on the nefarious consequences of unchecked big business.

Hiaasen's ire stems mostly from the creation of Disney World, virtually right in his own backyard. He hates what the theme park has done to his home town of Orlando, attracting people to a purely synthetic, artificially reassuring fairyland while treating the neighboring real world of South Florida as an offensive trash heap.

This claim seems labored for one reason: most families don't live in Disney World. Whatever escapism the theme park provides, people ultimately go home and face life outside the Magic Kingdom. Disney World is a private enterprise that has but a passing influence on most families' lives. But one of Disney's newest ventures attempts to extend its brand of corporate manufactured reassurance into public, not private, spaces, a concept that has made critics more temperate than Hiaasen cringe in dismay.

About two years ago, the folks at Disney founded the town of Celebration, Fla.-a town of everyday people, in their everyday homes, living everyday lives-after it realized that it had no other use for land that it purchased as a possible extension of Disney World. From the beginning it saw Celebration as a noble social experiment, a model community for the next century. Disney contacted some of the world's leading architects to design the town. Educational experts planned a progressive school system that would largely do away with a formal curriculum and assessment of student performance through grades. All houses would be within a five minute walk of downtown, and the perfectly paved streets would be lined with trees.

Considering their approach, it's surprising that Disney officials didn't call the place "Utopialand" and be done with it. But in choosing the tamer name of "Celebration," perhaps they sensed that the community would eventually have to make a transition from a town planner's dream to a regular suburban society, with real pitfalls and real problems. But can a place like Celebration, designed by the designers of fantasy worlds, truly succeed as a free-standing community?

The answer, for now, is no. The town government (mostly Disney officials) won't immediately let the residents take charge of certain aspects of their lives-everything from decorating rules to educational policy has been carefully determined by the town's founders. There's something disturbing when such uniformity results from a single corporation's vision. According to a recent New York Times report, one woman in Celebration had to remove red curtains from her window, since the only approved colors for curtains are white and off-white--pure, clean and uninvigorating. Eventually, if the people of Celebration are to establish roots there, they will have to make some changes.

Visually, the town embodies the '50s ideals of community and common values, which, on first thought, might be a comforting environment in which to settle down and raise a family. But it's not real- at least not yet-and at some point the children of Celebration will have to enter the real, non-Disney world, which will most likely seem both strange and scary. Celebration is a more extreme example of what Disney has done to Times Square in New York: it uses its own cultural power and prestige to turn public spaces into cartoonish playgrounds. Disney may have changed sordid Times Square for the better, but Celebration is taking it too far.

These invasions of public spaces show that Disney aspires to dominate more than just the world of entertainment. Their projects are a kind of corporate imperialism, with Mickey Mouse and, especially, Goofy at the helm. And if Disney keeps up its conquests, it may soon prove what a small world it is after all.

Erwin R. Rosinberg'00 is an English concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.