Yesterday, the world’s biggest movie studio, the Walt Disney Company, announced a leadership change. Bob Chapek takes over from Bob Iger. But the truth is that nobody really knows the larger effects that their company has on everyone – not Iger, not Chapek, not Walt Disney, not Abigail Disney, not John Lasseter, and certainly not my son Dar.
I mused about this as I walked around the Orlando theme parks over President’s Day weekend. We might say that “Disneyfication” has influenced everything from balloonish curves in cafeterias to blockbuster tentpole strategies to overweening princess fantasy packages. But as I get older, I realize no one knows the full effect of Disney on our lives and world.
We have anecdotal evidence. I’ve mentioned Ron Suskind on this blog before. He was already a very successful writer before Disney videos taught his nonverbal, autistic son to speak. After reading Suskind’s book about it, I was delighted that they turned it into a movie. I love stories like those. And I will be the first and last to tell you that they almost certainly have nothing to do with Dar.
It’s a little too easy to sit back and say that Disney is cloying and insipid and materialistic, or that a story like that of Ron Suskind and his kid represents one in a million. From a 30,000-foot perspective, Disney can be very moral and very positive. I say this as someone who raised my neuro-typical son on Warner Bros. cartoons. I defend their anarchic, anti-establishment humor. But I have to admit that Disney represents a more deeply ethical worldview.
The other day, I was deeply impressed while watching the day-ending fireworks show at the main castle at Orlando’s Magic Kingdom. I mean, it’s not just “when you wish upon a star.” It’s also about following your dreams and making your imagination become reality.
I doubt that Dar absorbed too much of that 18 months ago, when we brought him to Disneyland in Anaheim. I’d love to imagine otherwise, but if you know Dar, you’d have to doubt it. Blog readers may remember that on the day we arrived, we had no idea we’d be able to bypass the queues. We went to the guest information kiosk and asked, explained that Dar freaks out in queues (this really is true), someone waved a magic wand, and lo and behold the eight of us we were magically let in to the back side of each ride.
This year, the same cousins prepared to meet in Orlando. Would I try to bring Dar? Well, nah. We would just suck it up on the queues. Because Dar has changed in eighteen months. I no longer trust him on flights. His outbursts have become more violent. And who knows if he even gets anything out of the Disney theme park experience?
Does my neurotypical son get anything out of a place like Disneyworld? I think so, yes, even though he’s scared of most of the rides. I like to think that when I’m long dead and buried, Dar’s brother will still enjoy looking at photos taken of us in Disney parks. In my mind, these will represent continuity between generations, presenting opportunities for him to photograph him with his kids in the same places. And there’s another reason that I hope these photos exude a certain warmth.
A book called it Mouse Morality. (I was once paid to review this book; wow, that seems like a long time ago.) Disney mostly presents structures of meaning and scaffoldings of feeling for an ethical life (if you put aside all the crass materialism). I’m talking in a general way about the specific life lessons learned by characters like Pinocchio, Snow White, Aladdin, Moana, Simba, Belle, Woody, Ariel, Remy, Cinderella, Bob Parr, Joy, and others. (I’m not really talking about Aurora or Peter Pan; I’m not sure they learned anything.) Somehow, Dar’s brother should be absorbing some of that, even if just by osmosis. That will hopefully help guide him when wifey and I are dead and he has to make decisions about Dar’s life.
Is this all an elaborate way of justifying myself that I didn’t take Dar to Disney World? That’s possible.
When Dar wakes me up at 4 in the morning, I resent him. When I woke up in Orlando at 7 in the morning, which is 4:00 California time, I felt no resentment at all, only relief that I would get a Dar-free day.
Maybe it’s good to pivot from Dar to swerve back to help Dar?
Or maybe I’m the one who needs Mouse Morality Most.