Let me preface this by saying, yes, I totally get that Disney Corp is problematic on many levels – they are the world’s largest media conglomerate, thus giving them inordinate sway over what people see and hear in terms of both entertainment and news. They were a key backer of the recently passed law in Florida the makes it illegal for localities to enact mandatory paid sick leave. Disney films and the Disney Princesses – a nearly unavoidable juggernaut for children – teach some distressing gender and other stereotypes. I could go on. And like I said, I get this.
BUT. I have a love of Disney theme parks that is uncharacteristic of my typical left-coast, bleeding-heart-but-also-leaning-towards-classist, pretentious and judgey self – and that this affection is pretty much unwavering. I’d always been a fan of Disneyland – and all the more so after a very brief stint as a toy soldier in the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland (and I do mean brief – my fellow soldiers and I were cut from the parade after the final dress rehearsal. It remains one of the most crushing blows of my life, lo these three decades later…). Despite being cut, I remained a cast member for that summer – meaning I could visit the park whenever I liked. And I learned some of the back story of the park and the way Disney works.
And work it does. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Disney never does anything half-assed. Everything in the park, from the biggest and most elaborately themed rides to the paint scheme on the trash cans is exactly right, never just good enough. Anyone who’s been to one of the parks knows this. But it’s the cast members – be they performing as characters or sweeping up Main Street – who make the Disney experience so great. This is true in all the parks in my experience – though I still have a hypothesis that it’s especially true in OG Disneyland in Anaheim. Those who work there do so largely because they’re into it. In Orlando, it’s a bit more of a company town and I suspect some locals wind up working there simply because it’s the biggest employer around. Thus, Anaheim, for me, always has an extra-special vibe.
Anyway, the whole reason this even crossed my mind was due to a recent Buzzfeed post 14 Reasons The Peter Pans At Disneyland Are The Most Adorable Thing Ever – which borrowed heavily from a charming Tumblr called Pan Fans. Seriously, check them out. Even put a smile on my grouchy ol’ mug.
It’s great seeing how Disney, which has a pretty rigid set of “guidelines” for their cast members in terms of behavior, appearance and how they interact with guests, also allows their cast members to be genuine in those interactions. That is, the guidelines may be strict, but cast members have a certain amount of freedom in their performances as long as they’re enhancing guests’ visit. It’s sort of like the difference between talking to a customer service rep on the phone who is required to read from a script versus one who is allowed to interact with you in a normal way and empowered to make decisions to bring about a satisfactory resolution. Basically, the impression I’ve always gotten is that Disney trusts their cast to act appropriately based on the situation.
Of course, Peter Pan is kind of a troublemaker (I mean that in the best way possible), so I’m sure he gets a bit of extra leeway…
As long as I’m waxing rhapsodic about Disney, probably one of my favorite memories from Disneyland was one evening after the Main Street Electrical Parade. There was a charming little boy, probably around 5, along with his sister and parents, sitting next to me. He was a chatty little fellow and told me all about his adventures that day while we waited for the parade to begin. We “oohed” and “ahhed” over the parade (it’s still my favorite, though SpectroMagic is a pretty close second). Then, as the parade ended and we waited for the fireworks, I asked if he knew who Tinkerbell was. Answer in the affirmative. “Well,” I said to him, “sometimes she actually flies over Disneyland right before the fireworks. I’ve seen her once or twice myself. Of course, she’ll only appear if everybody watching believes in fairies. And you have to really believe.” (For those of you unfamiliar with S.O.P. after the parade, Tinkerbell pops out of the side of the Matterhorn, spotlit, her wings aglow, and “flies” down a cable across the park.)
He took his belief duties very seriously, ensuring that his sis and parents were onboard. “OK, I think this might be the time she gets here. Are you sure you believe?” I asked. “Yes, I believe!” he assured me solmenly. And, lo and behold, from the top of the Matterhorn, Tinkerbell made her appearance and flew across the park. This little kid was saucer-eyed with both astonishment and glee – and I felt like a pretty cool storyteller.
And, on a semi-but-really-not-related note, I always thought this gal from The 49ers was singing, “Peter Pan, P-p-peter Pan…” – when in fact she’s singing “People can’t understand it.” But it’ll always be Peter Pan to me.