Alone in Disneyland
I approached the Big Grizzly Mountain escaped mining cart roller coaster entrance after a pep talk. It looked way too fun to miss, and a friend’s voice in my head reminded me: “There’s usually a line for single riders. You get on quicker, too”. You’ll regret it if you don’t do this, I concurred. Sure enough, there was an entrance for a single rider like myself, and as I passed the long, coiled queue of friends and family groups, I couldn’t help but laugh. Why should I be embarrassed? This is more like it, I thought. Who needs friends when you get to feel very important, pushing the herd of sheeple behind you? I was in Disneyland alone. I like to think of it as a little self-determined joke right back at the cosmos. I seek out my own company often, but over the course of 2014, I found myself wishing I had a flesh sack to accompany me on certain occasions — mostly mealtimes and weekends — whereby a funny quip could be made, some happiness shared. Of course I wasn’t hermetic; I just started doubting my misanthropy. And yet, here I was in Disneyland (Hong Kong), a single rider. Not such a privileged one, either: smart groups of people lined up with me, chatting excitedly together, having realised that the length of time screaming and gasping could be done alone and talked about giddily afterwards. The single riders had to wait, too; first the staff would fill the two-seated carts with plebs, and then we were slotted next to divided groups of three or five. I had a good twenty minutes to posture and reflect on my aloneness. These people didn’t know my story. Maybe my friends were elsewhere in the park and I really wanted to experience Big Grizzly again by myself? Maybe the lone Sikh guy in front of me and I were besties, but just not chatting at the moment, y’know, a guy thing? Maybe my partner waits for me at the exit, their pregnancy/terminal illness/bad back keeping them from any sudden jerks and dances with gravity? “They’re not bored, they love seeing me have fun!” Who knew? I did. So what? I’ll just tell them the truth — though, seriously, no one asked. The whole day went by without anything but polite exchanges. I was ready to tell strangers, though; that I — HA HA — I had come to Disneyland by myself as a kind of challenge — ha ha — a curiosity, an anthropological study — ha ha — something to write about. I imagined people then saying, “Oh, well, I’ll leave you alone then”, and walking off, but no one did, because nobody asked, nobody knew.
Fortunately my mood was light-hearted that morning. I was going to motherfucking Disneyland! Perhaps twenty years too late, but boy, was it scratching a fascination itch — like watching those quasi-documentaries about One Direction. Not going to Disneyland (when it was completely within my means to do so) was akin to never trying a Big Mac. I mean, I’m not saying it has to be done, that your life would be less rich and full without the experience. What I am saying is that your life will be less rich and full without the experience of doing it. Participating in popular culture — no matter how terrible you know it’s going to be — is somewhat important, to me, in order to know what’s really good, to know how zeitgeist affects both the mainstream and the peripheries, to know why people willingly part with money to have what everyone else has. Plus, not all pop culture is of bad quality. I boarded my Big Grizzly cart, the fourth wheel of a Filipino family, and sat there, plastering an Open To Shared Experience grin (probably grimace) across my face. They politely ignored me. I watched the staff pleasantly board people and operate the incoming carts and send new riders off. I took out my phone and started taking pictures. “Just documenting my time here for the article I am going to write” I would say if asked. “It’s all work. People’ll want to see what I’ll describe.” God knows no one takes photos to remember anymore.
The ride was really fun. So much so that it shook my premeditated facial setting to mouth agape with involuntary yelps of excitement. I even managed a selfie of this spontaneity.
After Big Grizzly Mountain I decided to catch one of four performances that day of The Lion King show in Adventureland. I was told it was a “must see” by a Disneyland aficionado I’d met a few days earlier. The park’s shows have no single viewer lines, so I stood in a holding pen in the Hong Kong winter sun with every other person ticking this attraction off their day-pass list. Gotta get the most for your HK$499 (AU$83)! The “Festival Of The Lion King” is a 20 minute show that takes place in the round with the quality but a quarter of the budget of the theatre musical. There’s singing and dancing, but the story is truncated so much to fill the limited run time that I felt like I was witnessing a promotional pitch to a committee:
<<Naaaaaaaaaaants ingonyaamaaaa, bagiithi baba/// ///quick quick quick remember we once told you the story of a lion prince who became a king — a lion king? yep? you bought the merchandise, vhs, blu ray, theatre ticket? yeah, here it is again, quick quick quick///
///dance run dance run, can’t wait to be king etc, why are timon and pumbaa here already? oh well, let’s introduce scar, bet that performer loves hamming it up, but four times a day for the rest of his life? they must be phoning it in by now, wait a minute, mufasa died? glad they didn’t introduce him as a character, run run run run away simba, fuck me, it’s hakuna matata already! quick, throw that styrofoam grub into the pumbaa puppet’s mouth, toute suite! alright, can we feel the love tonight? slow song, include an aerial artist to distract the kids (they’re distracted by pee already), oh simba’s back at pride rock, and, how nice/progressive, nala joins in the fight with scar, and he isn’t killed per se, well, not before a campy reprise of be prepared (with fire!), and then run run run off stage and reprise of circle of life (why are they blowing whistles like it’s carnival?) and then to close, hakuna matata again, so we feel joyful rather than sober, as we’re shepherded out of the theatre>> Phew.
One of the first things I did in the park was attend “Mickey’s PhilharMagic” 3D cinema experience, which featured several excerpts of famous Disney movie songs around the flimsy narrative of Donald buggering up orchestra conductor duties. The 3D impressed, especially because the theatre was equipped to blow air and throw droplets of water on you as the animation dictated, but the film ended so abruptly, without any insight into the music production or scale of the popularity of the songs, that I felt spat out into broad daylight with nothing gained from the experience. I’m not sure if I’m wrong to have expected Disneyland to be like a museum of the animation studio. Similarly, in the “Art of Animation” gallery, you’re only told a few artists’ names and see the 20th century divided into the high points of the studio’s output. I’m not sure what the other parks around the world are like, but this seemed very DisneyLite. I didn’t want a critique, just more information. I’m not sure if they save all this for the American parks, but I did wonder if there was an element of superficiality just because the majority of visitors in Hong Kong Disneyland weren’t fluent in English or American culture. There were posters around the park using deeply idiosyncratic expressions and puns, and voice overs for particular rides and attractions in character voices, or regional American accents, that were not translated. Elsa and Anna greeted kids and adults in English as their photo was taken both by a professional and every phone camera nearby. During the “Festival Of The Lion King”, two Hong Kong men performed in what looked like marmoset costumes (wrong continent), and only occasionally clarified the progress of the story in Cantonese. It all made me want to visit the American parks just to see the studio’s clusterfucking of cultures in the right context. I wanted to see characters parading around in character, interactions all in the original language. I questioned the ownership of the brand by the non-Americanised world, though in doing so saw the extent of the Americanisation of the world. Chatting with Hong Kong locals during my stay, they bemoaned the city’s “lack of culture”. When questioned further, they made reference to Broadway, publishing houses, and European fashion labels, and it dawned on me how stuck between an English language culture that connects them to the West and an idea of being a “global city”, and an increasingly dominant Chinese culture they are, which is why Hong Kong Disneyland will remain popular among locals and mainlanders irresistibly buying into the safe brand, and EuroDisney in Paris is flailing.
The accumulation of these thoughts and the incessant soundtrack of Disney melodies (and Greensleeves and Christmas Carols) pumped into all corners of the park started to take the sheen off my original child-like enthusiasm for the place. The park is like sugar. Irresistible at first — colourful, whimsical, the promise of high production costs; but after running around like a Ritalin fiend for a couple of hours, the wait-times and sheer number of bodies make the comedown rather instantaneous.
But by this time, I’d gotten over any self-consciousness of being alone, and decided to take selfies of the Worst Day Ever.
I watched the parade “Flights of Fantasy” and enjoyed spotting Eeyore, sulking as he shuffled along, waving half-heartedly at the crowd.
I perused the shops — the final event of the day — and was struck by how simply tacky the merchandise is. I’d always imagined Disneyland was the place kids (and adults) could find whatever character they liked the most from the studio’s plethora of designs in figurine form or branded on t-shirts/stationery, but shop after shop had the same malaise of Mickey ears and Top Sellers — Frozen, Winnie the Pooh, Disney Princesses — emblazoned on everything like a sporting brand. No subtlety or finesse. Heavily gendered. Again, I don’t know why I expected something different. People were still consuming religiously. They lapped it up, an opiate. I saw three guys wearing novelty hats (no doubt >AU$50 each) that they were probably never going to wear again after their day in the park. I bought a small “tsum tsum” version of Eeyore and was done with it.
As I left the park and boarded the MTR train back into “the futuristic city of tomorrow, Hong Kong” (as described by the Disneyland-specific train PA), I thought about whether I’d wasted my money and time by going to the park alone. So I pictured the fractious families, the friends losing each other, the couples bickering, the waiting, the waiting, the waiting, and decided that no harmonious day could be achieved there and felt content with my decision. After all, I was still curious about the brand. The day hadn’t ruined that. Besides, it had given me something to write about, and I’m sharing it with you.
Originally published at anoddgeography.wordpress.com on January 4, 2015.