The Second Most Magical Place on Earth

I tell people at Harvard I am from Orlando but, actually, I grew up at Disney World. The important events
By Kristin E. Kitchen

I tell people at Harvard I am from Orlando but, actually, I grew up at Disney World.

The important events of my life thus far can be plotted neatly on a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious timeline. I made my first trip to the Magic Kingdom with my parents at age two. Baptized in pixie dust and reborn a Mouseketeer, I expressed my gratitude and newfound zest for all things Disney by throwing up on my mother during the ride home. By my fourth birthday, we had relocated from Boston to Orlando, where my parents immediately set out to procure Florida driver’s licenses and annual passes to Disney World.

The mouse’s house quickly became my home away from home and many a milestone was celebrated therein. At age seven I began driver’s ed at the Grand Prix Raceway. Because of my short stature, my mom controlled the pedal while I, barely visible, clutched the wheel as the racecar sputtered and jerked along at an exhilarating 10 miles per hour. The following year I had my first brush with television fame—and with a pre-”Felicity” Keri Russell—as I sat in on a taping of “The Mickey Mouse Club.” The festivities at my ninth birthday party included a Polynesian luau at one of the Disney resort hotels. In fifth grade I represented my school as a recipient of a Disney Dreamer and Doer award for displaying Walt’s favorite characteristics of curiosity, courage, constancy and confidence. I survived my first “camping” experience in the oddly unnatural nature of Fort Wilderness at 12 and overcame my fear of roller coasters by finally caving into peer pressure and braving Thunder Mountain Railroad. For four years my high school got away with sending my class on “educational” field trips to Epcot. During my senior year, our competitive cheerleading squad placed ninth in the nation at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex. And after years of aspiring to be Alice in Wonderland or an animator, I got my first job as an Attractions Hostess at Epcot the summer before coming to Harvard.

Humming “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to Harvard I go,” I eventually boarded my magic carpet bound for a whole new world. I had packed some Disney stuffed animals and photographs to brighten my dorm room, but I expected to leave the warmth and happiness of Disney World behind for the cold, cutthroat city of Cambridge. But after nearly three years here, I have come to the startling conclusion that Disney World and Harvard are eerily similar. Allow me to explain.

Disney World is a prosperous entertainment resort boasting four theme parks, 17 hotels and thousands of employees. Harvard is a prosperous educational institution boasting an undergraduate college, 11 graduate schools, 12 Houses and thousands of students. Michael Eisner is the ambitious, intimidating and fabulously wealthy CEO of the Walt Disney Company, infamous for his dispute with former executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. Larry Summers is the ambitious and intimidating University president in charge of Harvard’s fabulously rich endowment, infamous for his dispute with perhaps-soon-to-be-former professor Cornel West. Everything at Disney and the surrounding area costs three times as much as it does anywhere else. A education at Harvard—or any product or service purchased in Harvard Square—costs three times as much as it does anywhere else.

Tourists flock to Disney, much as they flock to Harvard. Families from around the world save up for years to take their children to Disney World or send them to Harvard. Both groups are unable to leave with purchasing souvenirs—from either the Coop or from one of the hundreds of Disney gift shops placed approximately 50 feet apart. Tourists at Disney eagerly snap photos of Cinderella’s Castle and chipmunks Chip and Dale. Tourists at Harvard eagerly snap photos of Widener Library and feisty squirrels that seem to have pranced right out of Snow White’s woodland home. Autograph books are toted here and there in hopes of a Goofy sighting or a close encounter with Natalie Portman ’03. Visitors pose before John Harvard’s statue as they do before Walt Disney’s statue, though I have yet to witness anyone peeing on the latter. Tourists at Disney World watch Disney animators in action from behind glass, while tourists at Harvard watch Harvard first-years chow down from the rafters in Annenberg.

And, of course, tourists at Harvard get lost as much as tourists at Disney do. I often find myself approaching confused visitors in the Yard, armed with a two-finger point in the right direction (so as not to offend those of a foreign culture) and the Vaseline smile I learned while working at Disney. Crimson Key members, with their syrupy pleasantness, would fit in quite well at Disney. Clad in their bright red frocks for Freshman Week, the Crimson Key are as unmistakable as an army of Brazilian tourists in matching fluorescent yellow t-shirts marching through Disney, their leader bouncing a flag as if on a conquest of a newly discovered land.

Unfortunately, there are fewer rides at Harvard than at Disney. The subway, though, comes close. The first time I rode the T, in fact, the Disney-fied part of my brain was expecting a simulator. The spooky Widener of yesteryear could be our Haunted Mansion (hey, they’ve already added a turnstile) and the Quincy House elevators make a convincing Tower of Terror. Tomorrowland is represented by the Science Center and the distant and alluring Quad is Frontierland. The fake brick and simulated history of Liberty Square makes way for the real and dangerously uneven brick sidewalks of truly historical Cambridge. Street entertainment at Disney World abounds, as familiar characters and jovial musicians roam the parks. Harvard Square characters include mysterious brides and punk Pit People; musicians include Beatles cover bands and wandering a cappella groups. (Auditions and applications for such Harvard groups are as demanding and highly selective as Disney performer auditions.)

Tourists gather to see their favorite movies come to life in Disney parades, while Harvard students gather to see their favorite drag queens come out in Hasty Pudding parades. You can try your hand camping at Fort Wilderness or outside Mass. Hall. On Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom, a special vent blows the aroma of freshly baked cookies at passersby, while passing by the Garage on Mount Auburn Street I am usually confronted by a not-as-enticing stench of chowder and beer. Atmospheric music is more common at Disney than at Harvard, but the deafening bass heard (and felt) at any weekend party is appropriate mood music for any college campus. You can top off your day by dressing in your best Pleather and engaging in drunken revelry at Pleasure Island, a nighttime oasis of clubs and bars, or at the Final Club scene. And no theme park or university is complete without long lines. After hours of waiting in line for thrills at Splash Mountain or dinner at Annenberg, you are bound to come out only a few moments later somewhat disappointed, somewhat hungry and probably shrieking.

Those who work at Disney and those who study at Harvard hail from all points on the globe. Before coming to Harvard, my conception of foreign lands was limited to my experiences at Epcot. I could sing you the song from the boat ride at Mexico, critique the cuisine of Italy or identify the music of Saint-Saëns in the film about France, but I had never met anyone from any of these countries. Befriending international students at Harvard, I have learned much more than Disney could teach me. And I can testify that it is, indeed, a small world after all.

A trip to Disney World could easily be substituted for the infamous Core Curriculum. Epcot provides ample instruction in Foreign Cultures and Historical Studies while Animal Kingdom fulfills your Science requirements. Literature and Arts are found in the fairy tales, musical numbers and creative architecture of the Magic Kingdom. A close observation of other tourists counts for Social Analysis and a well thought-out argument for a refund at Guest Relations warrants Moral Reasoning credit. Disney World even has its own special language, on par with Harvard’s unique lingo. While Harvard features “TFs” instead of “TAs,” “concentrations” instead of “majors,” and “proctors” and “tutors” instead of “RAs,” Disney World has “cast members” instead of “employees,” “guests” instead of “customers,” and “costumes” instead of “uniforms.” Cast members also spout cryptic acronyms as easily as any Harvard student.

Like a vacation to Disney World, my time at Harvard will inevitably come to an end. I will leave very poor and very tired—tired of walking everywhere, tired of carrying a backpack and tired of people in general. And after having my share of fun, I will be scared to re-enter what we label “the real world.” And I wonder whether I will look back at Cambridge with the same fondness with which I see Orlando. I will depart with my name on a diploma (to match my old pair of souvenir mouse ears), and though I won’t know the words to our alma mater, I will still remember the words to the songs at every Disney attraction. My children may never rub the foot of John Harvard, but I’ll see to it that they give Mickey Mouse a great big hug.

Kristin E. Kitchen ’03 is a history of art and architecture concentrator in Winthrop House. She has covered numerous funny-named places and things for FM, including Naked Dry Cleaners, Death Wish Piano Movers, the Friendly Eating Place and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.