I woke up in a dingy Super 8 motel, not quite sure where I was. I took a look around, searching my memory for a moment, and realized that no, I hadn’t been double-crossed by a dame in a Chandler novel, I was with my friend, Doug, who was still soundly crashed on the opposite bed. How did we wind up here? I had a vague recollection of being persuaded the night before to drive into Georgia to get tattooed, skin ink being illegal in South Carolina at that time. I had been drunk enough to agree, and crawled into the back seat. This was as much as I could recall.
I checked my arms, and, finding neither the Colonel Sanders head nor the Watchmen smiley face I’d sometimes threaten to have branded there, I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. There had been no trip to the tattoo parlor. As usual, Doug just wanted to get out of town.
He was always looking for some excuse to get in the car and drive. I’d killed many a weekend with Doug, heading into the North Carolina Mountains to search for a rock that looked like Chuck Woolery or some such moronic pretense to skip town and get loaded. I considered that he must be pretty lonely to always choose me as his interstate coconspirator, but I was casting adrift in those days myself, so I was in no position to judge.
This was in 1988. I was 18 years old. In my mind, being that young was license to do anything – and do nothing. I wasn’t especially worried that I had no plans for the future, save to wrestle some brilliant artistic inspiration into submission and hope for glory. These were my aimless, intoxicated years, when Doug and I shared the alcoholic squalor of a firetrap apartment in downtown Charleston. He managed his share of the rent operating a forklift at the Naval Weapons Station, but me, I wasn’t entirely convinced that gainful employment was a philosophy worth embracing. I figured having to find a new job every couple of weeks kept life interesting.
Doug didn’t seem too worried. He just wanted to bring in enough dough to maintain his hippie hovel, full of the mandatory black light posters and 24-hour Hendrix soundtrack. He was pining for Altamont twenty years too late, but that was okay. Sixties culture lives again whenever seeds are being separated on the cover of Atom Heart Mother. Still, part of following the trail of your Height-Ashbury forefathers is to heed the call of Kerouac, leave the bong room behind and get to driving. We didn’t make these rules, Dean Moriarty did.
And so here we were again, the hand-me-down hippie and his doormat pal, hung over with free cable. At least I wasn’t chipping in for any of this. I always made it clear that I didn’t have a dime for these excursions, being perpetually between jobs. “Hey, it’s only money, man,” Doug would say, regurgitating the counterculture ethics he’d gleaned from old Abbie Hoffman books. “I’ll spring for it.” And so Doug paid for the gas, the room, the beer, the cigars, and even provided the tunes: his well-worn cassette featuring Gang of Four and The Fuggs. And we’d be off, going nowhere.
We sat in that Somewhere, Georgia motel room, tattoo-free, having no idea what to do next. My head was throbbing. I would’ve been happy to just drive home. But Doug wanted some purpose to this idiotic outing. He consulted the map and made a lewd suggestion.
“We could be at Disney World by four.”
People find it hard to believe when I tell them I never liked anything about Disney. “I mean when you were just a little kid,” they’ll clarify. “Like a toddler. You liked Mickey Mouse, right?”
No, never. There’s no evidence I ever found any Disney character appealing, even as a diaper-filling imbecile. And I find it hard to believe that everyone finds this so hard to believe. Where I grew up, the kids on my block understood one thing about Disney intrinsically: it was for babies. No self-respecting preschooler would be caught dead coveting Disney product. Disney toys had no rocket launchers, no kung fu grip.
And anyway, Disney was a crumbling empire when I was growing up. Most of our exposure to Disney was in the form of their painfully low-grade feature films of the period – the Shaggy D.A.s and Herbies and Freaky Fridays. Or else it was The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, usually featuring deadly dull nature films or prepackaged Daniel Boone clips. All of this seemed like what it was – a rehash of Disney’s homogenized 1950s fare. It bored us stupid.
Disney cartoons always had that rounded, bulbous, baby-safe quality. Mickey Mouse, prancing around like he’s made of Jello. All those lyrical princesses, pastel and powdered, with their whimsical animal sidekicks. Thumper. Fucking Thumper, with his little baby voice and fluttering eyelashes. And all of them constantly singing peppy show tunes. It’s calculated to advance the idea that childhood is an extension of the womb. Childhood, they say, should be blissfully idyllic, full of cake and toys and dreams of Tinkerbell. Parents should shield their kids from sex, violence or anything else that might be remotely interesting to them, and replace it instead with Dumbo. Sweet little bulbous Dumbo.
We were on to this charade. Our cultural tastes had long before been ruined by wrench-wielding Stooges and giant monster fights. And Popeye. Wonderful, ugly-ass Popeye, with his horrifying voice and questionable code of violent resistance. Snow White and her bumbling little enclave held no interest to those kids who cherished the cathartic rush of Popeye’s eternal ass-kicking. Who could possibly give a damn about wussy little Peter Pan? Only special needs children, we surmised.
This lifelong dismissal of the Disney cuteness machine might be considered sour grapes when I reveal this sad detail of my impoverished childhood: my parents never took me to Disney World. This wasn’t out of character - my father is agoraphobic and never took the kids on vacations of any kind (I was in my teens before I ventured beyond the borders of South Carolina, and I had to drive myself to make it happen). This reality came into sharp relief when my wife and I were first dating and she showed me her family photo albums. There she was as a little girl, waving in front of the Grand Canyon, waving in front of Mount Rushmore, waving in front of innumerable Stuckey’s. I showed her my family albums: hundreds of photos of the living room in various states of décor. We never left the house.
Six years after taking the Disney World exit, Doug and I arrived at the front gate. Here it was, the Magic Kingdom, fabled in story and brochure for generations. It was off-season, with fewer patrons, and the weather was pretty dreary. This suited me, as I was hoping for a slow, overcast evening to match my mental state. I couldn’t take this candy-coated nightmare at full throttle. Unfortunately, we were informed at the ticket office that the park was closing early for a private function.
My tiny mind cannot fathom how much money you’d have to pony up, even in 1988, to essentially buy Disney World for the night. But bought it was, leaving us with only three hours to race through the whole damn Potemkin Candyland. And as any Disney World visitor might guess, most of those three hours would be spent standing in line.
The first line slowly herded us to the abattoir known as Pirates of the Caribbean. I remember nothing about this attraction except for the clouds projected on the domed ceiling. I just kept focusing drowsily on those clouds, while animatronic pirates sang and fired cannons. We must have made it through the Hall of Presidents after that, because I have a strong memory of watching the robot Lincoln speak and actually feeling sorry for it. Poor, tired, robot Lincoln, I thought, twitching through the Gettysburg Address all day for decades. Take that miserable bastard over to Ford’s Theater and put him to rest.
Space Mountain, which had been mythologized as a life-altering experience by my classmates in elementary school, was closed for repairs. I accepted this as an appropriate metaphor for my Disney World experience: “This is closed to you now. The time for you to enjoy anything about this experience came and went long ago.” But truthfully, I don’t think there was ever a time in my bitter boyhood that I wouldn’t have seen Disney World for what it is: Myrtle Beach with mouse ears. Just as the legendary Hollywood turned out to be a few postcard stores and the world’s shittiest wax museum, just as the renowned Smithsonian was revealed to be two dozen gift shops and Warren G. Harding’s favorite pencil, the Most Magical Place on Earth ™ is just another prefabricated vacation spot for tourists with uncultivated interests. An Elvis convention is full of people who love Elvis. A UFO convention is full of people who love Elvis who are also fascinated by UFOs. Disney World is full of people who had no idea what to do on their vacation and worried they’d be considered bad parents if their kids didn’t make it to Splash Mountain. Disney is America’s biggest success in the industry of manufactured desire.
And I wanted to desire it, I really did. Somewhere under the cynical surface with the alcohol finish, there was part of me that would have loved to have been swept away in the Disney Magic. I would have loved for something – anything at that point - to actually live up to its own hype. Some spectacular act of showmanship that might prove that the American Dream is real, that the glittering attractions we’ve been sold all these years are just what they say they are: a reason to live. I wanted some part of Disney World to be worth the 18 years I’d been denied the privilege. So, with the sun quickly setting on our misadventure, we hauled ass to one last attraction.
Everyone had said the Haunted Mansion was great. I wanted the Haunted Mansion to be great. The Haunted Mansion wanted to be great. It sang and danced and tossed us around like infants, practically dunking our heads into hysterical jocularity until we couldn’t breathe. Or maybe Doug’s cigar was the reason we couldn’t breathe – he’d chosen this as the perfect time to fire one up, much to the irritation of our fellow passengers. All this was just noise to me. I could admire the ingenuity pulling the strings of all that complicated stagecraft, but pure entertainment just doesn’t mean anything to me. There was no there there in the Magic Kingdom.
A “cast member” hustled us out angrily. Time to clear the riff raff out of Tomorrowland to make way for whatever Saudi Prince had rented the hall. We lumbered out past the magic shops and street musicians. At least I got it over with, I thought. Like finally losing my virginity to a grizzled old whore.
On the ride home, we tuned in to a Florida radio station playing the Beatles’ recording of “Twist and Shout.” When the song ended, they played it again. And then again. Some weird promotional gimmick, we figured. Or some coked up DJ locking himself in the control room, Alan Freed-style, refusing to play anything else until the demons give back his toaster oven. We never knew for sure. We just laughed more and more hysterically every time the opening guitar lick started again, singing along to “Twist and Shout” about twenty times until the station faded out.
Doug popped in the Fuggs tape and adjusted his tie-dye headband. I sat in the backseat, doodling pornographic portraits of Mickey Mouse in my sketchbook.
“When we get home,” I said, “I think I’m going to quit my job.”