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Taking a Ride on Disney's Dark Side

August 26, 2004|Jonathan Turley | Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University.

Here's a question: Is Walt Disney Co. a marvelous Southern California economic engine or ... the Spawn of Satan? I spent a week in August grappling with just this question, on vacation with my wife, my three boys and my brother and his family at Disneyland.

Even the biggest fan of the Happiest Place on Earth has to admit that there is something slightly unnatural about the "Disney Experience." For me, it began with the reservation. My phone call was answered by a "cast member" named Cathy. All Disneyland employees are "cast members," so when you think you're talking to a reservations clerk you're actually talking to someone who is playing a reservations clerk.

No matter what I asked her, the answer was always a delighted, robotic "I am glad you asked that question." Had I asked "Is Michael Eisner the Dark Prince and are you one of his evil minions?" she would have responded, "I am glad you asked that question, no, Mr. Eisner is not the Dark Prince but the CEO of Disney Co. and I am cast member Cathy." Even when I inquired about an overcharge of a few hundred bucks, Cathy happily said, "I am glad you asked that question, yes, you have been overcharged."

But it wasn't Cathy's preternatural cheer or even spending $250 a night for a Disneyland hotel room that sent me to the Bible for a quick refresher on Satan. It was standing before the giant gates of the Magic Kingdom with the kids, waiting to get my hand stamped. Revelations 13 became reality: "And [the Antichrist] causeth all ... to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark...."

We observed one man attempting to make a sale without the mark. He was dressed as Captain Hook and offering to pose for pictures. He disappeared "backstage" in a sea of cheerful Disney security men.

Once marked ourselves and inside the gate, things only got creepier. Ben, 6, Jack, 4, and Aidan, 2, as if compelled by some inexorable hidden force, pulled me gently and effortlessly toward insolvency. Is it a coincidence, I wondered, that Disney, Mickey and Eisner all have six letters?

Back to Revelations: "Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast ... [666]."

There were other portents. Who but the biblical Beast would sell bottled water in August in Anaheim for $2.75 each? And the surveillance -- I've heard there are more security cameras at Disneyland than at the Pentagon. When my wife accidentally spilled a drop of milk in the lobby of our hotel, I bent down to wipe it up only to suddenly see the feet of a maid. She had a towel at the ready. We slowly backed away. John Ashcroft might want a lifetime Disneyland pass: thousands of people under constant watch, rapid disappearances of troublemakers "backstage" and mandated smiling from all employees.

On his last day, my brother, Chris, a thoroughly logical architect from Chicago, went to the front desk to note that he had been mistakenly charged $18 for six bottles of water from the refrigerator in his room. The cast member behind the counter calmly assured him that the charge was correct because the bottles had been moved; a sensor on each bottle immediately registered the shift on Disneyland's computer system. (It turns out that a leftover pizza, pushed into the fridge, was the culprit.)

"I guess it must be a lot of trouble keeping track of things in hundreds of rooms," Chris said.

"No, it is no trouble at all," came the reply.

For the Disney Co. and for Eisner, Disneyland and its clones are a cash machine. They yielded a hefty profit this year, with every bottled water sale offsetting the hundreds of millions of dollars that a shareholder lawsuit led by Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew, accuses Eisner of wasting. The suit, however, steers clear of the possibility that Eisner's reign is not just financially wasteful but biblically evil.

When the day finally arrived for our departure, my wife and I packed up a roomful of Disney products into bulging bags. We then realized that we had no money to give the bellhop. Gathering every quarter and dime we could find, we put together a $4.85 tip. When I handed over the small change, I explained that this was all that was left -- Big Mouse had literally taken my last nickel.

The bellhop smiled knowingly and released us back into the world. But as we drove away, Jack piped up from the rear seat: "When," he asked, "are we coming back to Disneyland?"

Evil, pure evil.

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