Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Big, Bigger, BEST

Everything about this adventure just keeps getting bigger, well beyond the point of being larger than life. Making a stop in Savannah was a stroke of genius on our part, mainly because it gave me a fantastic set of grounds on which to compare Disney World and Epcot to the real world, and has helped me come to the realization that the biggest thing that sets this parallel universe of amusement apart from reality is it's totally distorted sense of scale.

Walking around the historic center of Savannah was fantastic; the city and it's architecture were beautiful, and were ultimately a perfectly romanticized version of the American south, without being patronizing or kitschy. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, is Main Street USA in Disney's Magic Kingdom. This was my first time at Disney World, and immediately after we got off the monorail from the parking lots, I felt like I had left the real world altogether, but not quite in the way that Walt Disney may have originally intended. Instead of feeling like I had entered a perfected, conflict-free version of America, I felt like I had been transported into some sick nightmare. As I stood in the town's center square looking up towards the Magic Kingdom's most recognizable landmark, the Enchanted Castle, classic Disney showtunes were piped into the area, adding to the completely surreal nature of the space. A trolley car full of actors in total Music Man costumes rode by, waving at us from their perfect America, their creepy smiles indicating just how great everything was over there.

But as I looked around, I didn't see anything that came close to the near aesthetic perfection achieved in Savannah. A good 50% of the children around me were either crying or screaming, and every parent looked entirely put upon, as though they were only here in this bizarro-world out of obligation to their children (who at this point, weren't even enjoying themselves). The buildings on Main Street USA attempt to replicate the gabled architecture of the south, but they get it wrong. The exaggerated colors and proportions ended up adding to their falseness; it looked like they had gotten pretty close until you took a step closer. I didn't see the fantastic proportions that I had in the architecture in Savannah, and all the wrong things were simply made...bigger.

The most telling characteristic that gives everything in the Magic Kingdom as being a big fake is scale. Everything about the place is bigger than reality, with the intention of appearing larger than life. Instead, it creates a kind of hyper-reality, where everything ends up looking cartoony. Food is bigger (regrettably, I had an entire turkey leg for lunch), buildings meant to imitate an aesthetic that is beautiful in real life are bigger (to their own detriment), and even the people are bigger. For dinner, we headed to Downtown Disney, a big waterfront shopping mall, and ate at a restaurant called T-Rex. Out front was a huge artificial skeleton of an Argentinosaurus (the largest of all known dinosaurs), and upon walking into the restaurant, guests are greeted by a huge, roaring, animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex. The space seats 945.

This starts to beg the question, when did bigger become better? What is gained from blowing up the scale of everything? Is it more entertaining? Is it more satisfying? It is clear to me that any sense of authenticity is lost in this explosion of scale, even though the intention is to present visitors with the sense that they are experiencing something real.

My suspicions were basically proven today by our visit to Epcot's shrunken representations of a variety of different countries. Each stop along this world tour added up to an edited, watered down, and basically reductive version of everything these countries have to offer. The proportions and coloring of each landmark are pumped up in a way that make them more friendly looking and accessible. Does this mean that making things bigger basically makes them easier? Disney advertises Epcot as a world tour that doesn't require a passport; God forbid you have to go through the hassle of customs to see a landmark. Why not just go where you can see the Eiffel tower and eat in a Moroccan open air market, just feet from one another?

Blowing up and cartoonifying all of these things makes it so much easier to consume them. On Mainstreet USA, one didn't have to deal with seeing the occasional block of urban blight as we had in Savannah. In Epcot Norway, you don't even have to deal with the cold, although you do have to deal with trolls. All parts of the world are represented in a totally idealized and reductive way that does away with their visual complexities to the end that their cultural complexities are taken away, too.

Disney and Epcot have made something as exciting as a vacation entirely risk free and safe thanks to the huge scale of things. The reductive vision of the world that both of these parks present turn huge individual nations into neatly consumable goods, all without the possible risks that go along with actually visiting them. Instead of being able to create a fully informed critical judgment of a place for oneself, guests of Disney World are encouraged to absorb only the happy, cartoon vision of the world that it presents. The reason this felt to me like a nightmare is the fact that people are not encouraged to make their own judgments and are instead implored to passively consume someone else's entirely artificial creation as a substitute for the real thing. Just because it is easier, it is perceived as being better which is where the real danger lies.

The morning before we entered the Magic Kingdom, we got coffee and supplies for the day at the local Super Target, which is ultimately a regular Target store writ large. It contained a vast multitude of consumable goods, all under one roof. If people can get everything they want out of one place in a short period of time, they'll have more leisure time, which is always good. But if leisure time is spent in a place like Epcot or the Magic Kingdom, what happens to critical thought?

This complex makes me wonder if the easiness that comes along with size leads people to want the same thing out of a church. The ideal for pretty much everything at this point has to do with convenience, accessibility, and ease. Why not apply this logic to religion and spaces of worship? The megachurches we're visiting have vast resources, and are essentially a one-stop shop for all the needs of a faithful Christian. But it also implies a certain passivity that I don't think should be in any way affiliated with faith, especially if a church has designs on influencing policy in Washington. Looking at the influence of scale on people's actions and thought processes makes me wonder about what is gained from going to a church because it is the biggest and easiest, perhaps just because a lot of other people are doing it, too. The Magic Kingdom and Epcot essentially do the critical thinking for their visitors, and I hope to find out (with further evidence) if megachurches end up doing the same thing.

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