The World According to Walt

Photos by Jack GouldCHAPTER 1: MAIN STREET USA

Walt Disney created Abraham Lincoln for the 1964 World's Fair, and not a minute too soon, as Lincoln was badly needed more than 100 years earlier. America was on a collision course with a bloody civil war, not in the good way, and many of Lincoln's top advisers were pleading for him to make one of his Gettysburg Addresses. And so he did, though few people listened, preferring to stay in the lobby and look at early photographs of Walt Disney's office or go next door to shop for novelty hats (Mickey Mouse ears, $5.25). Those who did listen were taken with Lincoln's words, most of which they could not understand because of the swelling music and because they were distracted by the obvious fact that Lincoln's lips didn't move in sync with his voice. “Ya think Lincoln's wearing underwear?” they asked among themselves. Nonetheless, they agreed Lincoln's speech was inspiring up until the time he started crying like a woman and sat down. “What the hell?” they exclaimed and went out and won the Civil War and then defeated the Industrial Revolution. That introduced a Golden Age in American history that many people called the Turn of the Century. It was marked by amazing inventions (Mickey Mouse telephone, $99; joy buzzer, $3.95), as well as innovations in art (handblown crystal elephant, $35) and agriculture (Mickey Roni N Cheese, $2.95; Pooh Tri-Color Pasta, $3.95). It was around this time that Walt Disney invented animation with the production of Steamboat Willie, a raucous cartoon starring a very funny, sometimes violent character named Mickey Mouse who was sly and nutty and was never seen again. There were also many important discoveries at this time, paramount among them the discovery that people will pay $5 for a silhouette that looks like every person who has ever lived and that people will stop for just about anything billed as “entertainment” as long as the performers wear colored vests and bowlers and talk like Robert Preston in The Music Man. When this so-called “Turn of the Century” was over, many people looked toward the future, which looked a lot like a medieval castle redecorated by Jayne Mansfield. This frightened some people, who said, “Let's have another 'Turn of the Century.'” And so they did.

—Steve Lowery


To understand how America got itself into such a fix, it is important to understand where it was coming from. There was a time long before the Americans discovered America that they lived in a far-off land of snowy mountains and flying elephants (Dumbo-ears barrette, $6). You couldn't walk down the street without being swallowed by a whale or having someone come up and tell you to go kiss this princess who's had a spell cast on her (Sorcerer's hat with ears, $22). And you say, “Really? What's she look like?” And they say, “Oh, she's pretty cute.” But later they let it slip that she's been asleep for 100 years, and you say, “Gross!” and they say, “C'mon, I'll give you 5 bucks.” But you refuse because not only is she older than your grandma but that's also got to be the world's worst case of morning breath ever, am I right? And that's not the worst of it, family-wise. Back then, if you had a stepmom, you were totally screwed. And if your stepmom was the queen, you were just fucked. No, really. These people were completely deranged. Fratricide, cannibalism, necrophilia—these were the kind of people who'd hunt down their own kids after talking it over with the furniture. Europeans were really fucked in the head—big news flash there—and even if you didn't get murdered or eaten or swallowed up, some big-ass elephant would fly by and drop a load, and then where were you? Finally, a bunch of people got together and declared, “We are sick and tired of being eaten by shit.” While others added, “Peter Pan—he's gay, right?” And so they left for the New World—or, as they called it, Frontierland, though others called it Adventureland because there was much confusion about where one started and the other ended. Upon seeing their new home, they exclaimed, “You complete me.” And so it did.

—Steve Lowery


When the new settlers arrived in this new land, they were greeted by Native Americans who didn't know they were Native Americans because, frankly, they didn't know where they were. There was some trepidation on the settlers' part that the Native Americans might not welcome them. Their fears were eased when they found that the Indian women, dressed in traditional garb (Indian beaded suede miniskirt and vest, $50), looked and sang like Vanessa Williams. The men were all buff and had that Edward James Olmos cool thing going on. All of them seemed too interested in holding conversations with trees and ground squirrels to be concerned with real estate. At first, the Indians didn't like the looks of these new people (coonskin cap, $10). But soon they were convinced that this so-called “white” man knew best (flintlock pistol, $10; long pistol, $12; double-barrel pistol, $16; Mickey six-shooter, $4.95). The Native Americans soon disappeared, taking with them good memories (cowboy hat with ears, $34). Now the settlers could get down to the serious business of starting a country. But just as soon as they started doing this, disturbing rumors surfaced about slavery. “It's not so much the heat as the humidity,” they resolved, and they took off to find out if any of these rumors were true. They searched their Peaceful Land, from the runaway train to the killer cruise boat. “No slavery here,” they reported. The people rejoiced because not only weren't there any slaves, but there also didn't appear to be many black people. In fact, they seemed to be greatly outnumbered by the Japanese tourists. The settlers knew that to be a Great Country, they needed to build their commercial enterprises. Critical to this was the Mighty Mississippi, the nation's longest—and roundest—river. The Mighty Mississippi—or “The Circle of Life,” as the Native Americans called it—had great possibilities, but there was a problem. The Mississippi was a dangerous river. If one tried to swim across, there was the possibility of being swept under by the current and/or tracks on the river bottom. Fortunately, Mark Twain invented the paddleboat, and soon Americans were free to trade important goods (Mickey cowboy magnet, $4).


Emboldened by this, they began to explore the Mighty Mississippi, which, it turned out, was pretty much a pussy. “What'd you say?” the early explorers asked the river. “Nothing,” it said. “That's right,” they said. “Now go make us a sandwich.” And so it did. It turned out you could get across the Mighty Mississippi on a simple raft equipped only with some rope, a pair of Vans sneakers and a high-powered diesel engine. They soon discovered new lands, but disappointment lay ahead. Once in these new lands, they were set upon by fat guys who told them, “Hey, hey, no running!” And, worse, they discovered that the fort no longer sold oversized pickles. This was a devastating blow. But then, in one of those magical moments in this New and Magical Land, the settlers looked across the river and saw the Native Americans waving at them. This gave the settlers a new resolve as they crossed back over the river and set fire to the Native American villages.

—Steve Lowery


The song remains the same, recited incessantly throughout Disneyland's most infamous attraction like the can't-miss-the-point of a culture war's propaganda campaign. And the singsong goes on and on, echoing through my skull for hours after I've climbed out of the too-long boat tour that is It's a Small World.

C'mon, let's all join in:

It's a world of laughter A world of tears It's a world of something-something It's a world of something-that- rhymes-with-tears It's a blah-blah-blah-blah And a dah-dah-dah-dah It's a small world after all. . . .

I don't even know the damn words, and the song terrifies me.

Of course, I'm not alone in my Small World phobia. Generally, this ride is held in the sort of contempt otherwise reserved for street mimes—although, in this case, a street mime who just won't shut up. It's hard to find anybody who'll admit he or she likes it. Even 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban refugee made famous when he was found clinging to an inner tube after the boat carrying him to the United States sank, was terrified at the onset of the ride at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The Los Angeles Times reported that the boy gripped his uncle's knee and asked, “Is the boat going to sink?” And yet, according to the same account, little Elian was soon placated and ended up thoroughly enchanted.

Therein lies the wonder of this double-edged amusement: its ability to re-create the innocent—someone more cynical might say repressed—atmosphere of the Eisenhower-era world-view. Added as an attraction in the 1960s, the boat tour through Walt's “salute to the children of the world” is as globally conscious as Hindu-fearing Buena Park and as disturbingly cheerful as a Stepford Wife.

Because, of course, it's not a small world. It's a big, wide, diverse world, no matter how many times 436 animatronic children—Swedish children, Dutch children, German children, African children, Asian children, a child cowboy and a child Indian standing side by side, as well as mermaid children from beneath the sea—sing otherwise.

And, although it doesn't admit it, the ride knows this.


On the one hand, it presents a world before Babel, before the arrogance of building a tower to heaven splintered the family of man into a thousand separate languages. But even as it delivers this paragon of multiculturalism, It's a Small World filters its e pluribus unum through America's post-World War II arrogance and isolationism. This meandering boat ride, which I've come to refer to as “Heart of Darkness” (as opposed to the Jungle Cruise, which I refer to as “nap time”), is chock-full of negative—someone more cynical would say “derogatory”—stereotypes. To resolve the dichotomy, it portrays these insults as “quaint” or “cute.”

As the boat rounds a bend, the passengers are greeted by an Egyptian display, a sanitized interpretation of Sir Richard Francis Burton's The Arabian Nights: The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, which the great British explorer translated from Arabic in the late 1800s. Devoid of the book's obvious cultural appreciation, violence and blatant erotica, Arab society—one of the oldest surviving on the planet—is reduced to small children soaring on flying carpets and courtesans beckoning suggestively while lounging on a scarf-covered bed. Burton, who was so impressed by the beauty and texture of Middle Eastern culture that he converted to Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, would be thoroughly appalled.

About halfway through the ride—that is, if one can maintain one's senses amidst the incessant droning of that damn song—the astute boater usually makes a disturbing discovery: “Hey! All these kids are honkies!”

Yes, all the white Arabs, the white Latinos in mid-fiesta, the white Indians (Native American and Asian-subcontinental varieties), the white Eskimos ice fishing while surrounded by happy, dancing penguins—all of the honkies are here, in all their white/off-white/just-a-different-shade-of-white glory. Even the blacks are white. All three of them. There they are—the same bodies and heads of the other robots, with a different color of paint dumped on them—wearing Witch Doctor masks and grass loincloths covering their privates. And then there's the Australian aborigine, playing with his boomerang, jerking it up and down, up and down, in slow, steady repetition.

Frighteningly, what purports to be a celebration of diversity in fact (and perhaps inadvertently) disputes it, the thousands of years of cultural and religious distinction that make up the world's richly textured tapestry laughed off on cheap bigotries masquerading as cultural perception. Is this an accurate portrayal of Walt's perception of the world? Or anybody's perception? I don't know. I can't concentrate for the song playing over and over in my head: “It's a smaaaaallll, whiiiiiiite worrrrrrrld.”

—Victor Infante


After the Civil War, Americans were firm in the knowledge that they had solved their nation's problems forever. Yet they were hungry for new challenges and frontiers. “Whatcha wanna do?” was a familiar slogan of the time—as was “I dunno” and “C'mon, I'll give you 5 bucks.”

It was at this time that Americans became interested in the land that lay just over the rise: Africa. Americans were intrigued by tales of this land's strange customs (Tigger in pith helmet with straw through head drinking cup, $12) and charmed by its native dress (pith helmet with ears, $9). What they found was even more wondrous: split-level treehouses with indoor plumbing, pineapple slushies, and creaky talking birds who sounded a lot like the cast from TV's Hogan's Heroes.

After looking at all this wonder, Americans knew they had a lot of work ahead of them to save the Africans. Quickly they jumped into boats, taking special care to avoid any eye contact with the ship captain who was so desperate for attention it was just pathetic, plus everybody knows that stuff is scripted. Oh, yes, please, please, another take on shrunken heads, could you?

Anyway, the Americans finally got to the natives and convinced them (rifle, $16; repeating rifle, $16) that the American way was the best way.

“Thanks a lot, Americans, we don't know what we were thinking,” said the natives in one of those cute, cartoonish languages of theirs.

“That was the problem—you weren't thinking,” said the Americans in a stern though loving tone. “Now let's not have any of that again.”

With their job done, the Americans prepared to leave, but then, wouldn't you know it, here come the Nazis. They wanted to steal something. Damned Nazis. So the Americans had to go back in with their enormous Jeeps equipped with netting to store their personal items (Piglet doll in pith helmet, $40) and give those Nazis what for. And boy did they. Pretty soon the Nazis were crying uncle, but the Americans told them to “Tell it to the Czar!” “Czar? What? We're German.” “Oh, yeah?” The Americans wittily countered. “Then say 'buenos dias' to my little friend (double-barrel pistol, $12.)” And that's how America won the war with Mexico.

—Steve Lowery


The future started like most times, though somehow ahead of it. In fact, many people in the future weren't even aware they were there. “Where are we?” they'd ask. “In the future!” would come the happy retort. And then they'd ask, “Why are we all wearing this stretchy stuff that comes in just two styles?” Again: “It's the future, man, the future! HAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Soon, even the stupidest of these future people could not deny that it was the time it was. Yes, even these numb-nut, rocks for brains, frigging falling-down drunk with the crotch of their pants all wet had to recognize that technological advancements (pulsating phaser, $10; blasters, $5; laser light blade, $4.95; x-ray fazer, $4.95; space visor with flashing lights, battery included, $7.95) made it obvious that people had become much more enlightened in the future and would not need the ways of the past.

Soon Americans were flying into the farthest reaches of outer space, whether that was space mountains, space deserts or space time shares located just off the lake not more than a stone's throw, really very charming.

“The future kicks ass!” Americans yelled while waiting in long lines for rapid-transit cars that frequently broke down and never really went anywhere.

“I love the future!” they proclaimed while getting nauseated flying in circles in machines far too slim for anyone with hips.

“The future can slap my bottom and call me Betty!” they said, just because they liked saying it.

And with that, Americans at last realized their dream of making everything okay.

“Mission accomplished,” they said to one another, driving around in their teeny, plastic cars. “This is the best future ever!”

And then they all just started gettin' it on.

—Steve Lowery

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