Nobody dies at Disney.
This is what I told myself the first time I visited Disney World as an adult, and in that moment, I believed it. I was riding Space Mountain, and I had been thinking about how my favorite rides at Disney—sorry, my favorite attractions at Disney—were the simple ones, the ones that had grown, conceptually, a little dated, a little frayed around the edges: childhood dreams of another era. I had loved the Enchanted Tiki Room and It’s a Small World, and now Space Mountain: a rollercoaster that plunged me into the darkness, past the stars. It made me feel, pretty much, like I was hurtling through space, severed from the mothership, lost forever and not really minding it, not yet. I was surrounded by white dwarfs and meteor showers, and I was seeing, feeling, what no one on earth had ever seen before. I was also inside a dome in central Florida, on a ridelikely operated by someone making, maybe, minimum wage.
In industry parlance, Space Mountain is a “dark ride”: the building that houses it blocks out all traces of natural light and allows designers (Imagineers, if they work for Disney) to conjure their scenes using only black light for illumination. They have the freedom, in other words, to decide exactly what you can and can’t see. The forced perspective that makes me believe I’m seeing a life-sized ship in the Pirates of the Caribbean’s salt-scented waters is the same forced perspective that your brain needs to see it too. Or, as one theme park scholar put it: such rides “affect a pleasurable and enticing assault on the bodies and minds” of riders.
“A pleasurable and enticing assault” was also how I would have described Space Mountain—except that, about halfway through, it got, I guess, too real. The stars that we were rushing past were projected onto, or shone out from, some solid structure that held their light, and for a moment, I felt sure that structure was going to decapitate me. What else could account for this feeling of danger, of peril? The ride couldn’t be that good.
But then I calmed myself: I found the magic words. Nobody dies at Disney, I thought. And in that moment, it was true.
I. Dark Ride
Sitting in a bathroom stall after the ride ended, trying to find my equilibrium—and listening to kids shouting and pleading and crying—I tried to figure out what I had actually been thinking. I felt safer, I knew, because the park wasn’t some cheap carnival; it was the flagship fantasy of a multibillion-dollar corporation that sometimes seemed to own half the memories in my head. But something else was happening in my mind.
For as long as the ride lasted, I had believed that it was not physically possible for me, or anyone, to die at Disney World. I believed that mortality, injury, worked differently in here. I believed that the park’s particular brand of magic, bought with endless money and constant labor, was somehow powerful enough to make me, for as long as I stayed in its world, for as long as my ticket was still good, incapable of suffering the way other people did—out there.
Only when I got back to my hotel room at the end of my day at Disney did I realize not just that people could die at the park, but that a young child had died there only a few months before. In the summer of 2016—when impossible and inevitable political news flickered across American screens at such a clip that it all seemed to blur together, after a while, into one big story—one of the items that Americans became captivated by, and then just as quickly forgot, concerned a two-year-old boy named Lane Graves.
In June of 2016, the Graves family visited Disney World from their home in Elkhorn, Nebraska. One evening, as Lane played in the sand on the manmade beach at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, an alligator emerged from the water and dragged him in. Lane’s father, Matt, tried to pull the alligator’s jaws apart. The alligator disappeared, taking Lane with him. His body was found the next day, the cause of death ruled traumatic injuries and drowning.
Drowning, a Floridian once told me, is how alligators kill their prey: the two thousand pounds of pressure that their jaws exert per square inch means that they can break your bones, injure you, kill you by force alone—but what their strength means, really, is that they never have to let you go. They can hold you underwater and simply wait for you to drown. Humans call it the death roll.
Following the Lane Graves story over the course of that summer didn’t mean I was following any actual story—the story had already happened, and there was no question, really, of what had taken place—as much as it meant trying to make sense of my own response to it. And what I felt, from the beginning, was this: the Graves family needed to go after Disney for all they were worth. I had never had this response to the news before, but something about this story—this death—left me fantasizing about using the law as a blunt instrument. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Disney’s response to the incident involved little more than putting up signs on the beach ringing the Seven Seas Lagoon, warning families about the presence of alligators. And maybe it had something to do with the fact that all of the signs they were replacing, save one, had simply said “no swimming,” but had not said why.
This vagueness was reminiscent of circumstances surrounding a death at Disneyland in Anaheim, California—that park’s first homicide—in 1981. In a fight that broke out at Tomorrowland, Mel C. Yorba, eighteen years old, was stabbed. Alice Sylvester, a nurse who was visiting the park that day, saw Mel, called for help, took his shirt off, and applied pressure to the two stab wounds on his body with her bare hands. “I kept asking, ‘Where is the ambulance, where are the paramedics? This man needs help,’” she later testified. “They were four security guards, but they just stood around and watched . . . I kept reassuring him that help was on the way.”
It wasn’t. There could be no emergency services because there could be no emergency. Emergencies did not happen at Disneyland. Instead, after twenty minutes, Mel Yorba was bundled and trundled into an unmarked van, attended to by a Disney nurse and two Disney security guards, who had no tools at their disposal aside from oxygen. The van was driven—inconspicuously, obeying all traffic laws, giving no sign of what was happening inside—to a nearby hospital, where Mel was pronounced dead.
“They had an opportunity to make this incident less severe by giving adequate medical attention to the boy after the fight,” Mel’s mother said at the time. “But they made a conscious decision long ago that they didn’t want ambulances or flashing sirens around to shatter their image.”
The Disney magic, so disarming in its completeness, becomes somehow even more frightening when you realize it is incomplete—and then realize that, against your will, and in a place somewhere beyond your conscious mind, you have taken its completeness for granted. And how can you resist believing in something that feels so good?
To enter a Disney park is to engage in an act of premeditated surrender, and “surrender” is the word people use, with uncanny repetition, to describe the experience.
Implicit even in the mention of a family trip to Disney World, John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in the New York Times Magazine, is “an implication of surrender to something enormous.” Noting that among the young to “Disney” is a common verb form, Sullivan wrote, “Unless you are very, very strong, the time will come when you Disney, and our [family’s] time had come.”
“As megacorporations gain hold of every dimension of our lives, isn’t Disney . . . the ideal brand to resist?” Heather Havrilesky wrote after a trip to Disneyland with her own family. “Instead, we tell ourselves that this must be what happiness feels like: total surrender.”
Or, as my friend Alex put it, shortly after his own family Disney trip: “Have you ever read that book The Surrender? It’s about anal sex.”
“No,” I said, typing it into Google. A review popped up, titled “The Beauty of Submission.” I was in a bookstore in Miami, two days after Disney World had convinced me, momentarily, that just the right combination of money and corporate power could conquer death itself. When Alex called, I had been thinking, as it happened, a great deal about submission. My day at Disney World had also been the second workday of the new Trump administration, and I suspected that whatever had happened to me in there had something to do with the spell that the newest animatronic patriarch in the Hall of Presidents (closed for remodeling during my visit) had cast over the entire country. And desire for submission, I was beginning to suspect, had a lot to do with them both.
“It’s about how you can’t struggle, you can’t resist,” Alex was saying. “That’s not the point. You have to just let it happen to you. That’s what Disney World is like.”
The whole point of Disney World—the agreement you make simply by stepping through the gates—is that Disney’s fantasy will be your reality. If it is your birthday, and you wear a Disney-provided button announcing this fact, every Disney worker who sees you will call you by your name and wish you happy birthday in the cheeriest and sincerest tone possible. You will be hit by a wave of love, and you will have little choice but to believe that this place really knows you, loves you. The bottom of every receipt tells you to HAVE A MAGICAL DAY, and you’d better do it. When you are smiled at so relentlessly, it is hard not to smile back. Why resist? After all, this is probably why you came here: to make fantasy into reality. And unless you have managed to somehow avoid Disney’s intellectual property for your entire life—to form no attachments to Peter Pan or Cinderella or Luke Skywalker or Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh—the park will wrap itself around you not just as a seamlessly realized fantasy world, but as memory made flesh. You are walking through your own dreams, and realizing they are all copyrighted.
I felt safer, I knew, because the park wasn’t some cheap carnival; it was the flagship fantasy of a multibillion-dollar corporation.
Capitalism, like all abusive relationships, creates a sense of learned helplessness in its victims. We are complicit in what it makes of us: we want so badly for what it tells us to be true. Of course we do. Its logic, if real, would describe a world simple enough for us to comfortably believe in. The good will succeed, and the bad will suffer—justly. It’s a beautiful fairy tale, no more complex, and no less seductive, than any of the stories that animate Disney World. And as with Disney World itself, it is easy for us to accept the story that capitalism, when it is working for us, pressures us to buy: the story where it is an effortlessly self-regulating system, and where all of this simply happens, and happens the way it should, because we asked for it, because we paid for it, and because we earned the right to be here in the castle.
In 1957, writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel made a grand tour of the United States: a six-week-long road trip from New York to Los Angeles. As he traveled west, “interminable highways disappeared into a blue horizon ringing tall mountains embedded in skies of shifting colors. . . . Never before,” he wrote, “had I been so close to nature.” Yet no American vista seemed to inspire a deeper sense of wonder in him than the place he found at the end of his journey.
“I don’t know if a Garden of Eden awaits adults in the hereafter,” Wiesel wrote in Yediot Aharonot. “I do know, though, that there is a Garden of Eden for children here in this life. I know because I myself visited this paradise. I have just returned from there, just passed through its gates, just left the magical kingdom known as Disneyland.”
Disneyland—Walt had not yet created the World—was, Wiesel reflected,
A kingdom unto itself—quite literally. A kingdom all of whose citizens are happy . . . In Disneyland, the land of children’s dreams, everything is simple, beautiful, good. There, no one screams at his fellow, no one is exploited by his fellow, no one’s fortune derives from his fellow’s misfortune. If children had the right to vote, they would vote Disney their president. And the whole world would look different.
When Elie Wiesel met Walt Disney, he had one urgent question. “The whole world loves you,” he said. “Your children’s films have brought you honor, renown, and anything one could wish for. I want to ask you: What is your goal? What do you want—what would you want—to achieve with your film work?”
Walt Disney “thought for a bit, fixing his large eyes on a far off, invisible point in space, and answered: ‘Childhood. The goal of my work has always been to awaken a sense of youth in men, in adults. Because—the best part of man’s life is his childhood.’”
At Disneyland, architect Charles Moore wrote, “Everything works, the way it doesn’t seem to any more in the world outside.” And yet: “Curiously, for a public place, Disneyland is not free.” In America, as Moore observed, you have to pay for public life; and in America, as Wiesel did not observe, you have to pay for childhood. We pay, in other words, for the childhood, or infantilization even, that capitalism itself offers.
II. Big Girls
“I feel bad for her,” six-year-old Moonee says in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. “She’s about to cry. I can always tell when adults are about to cry.”
Moonee lives in the Magic Castle, a pay-by-the-week motel whose residents subsist in Disney World’s shadow, on a ragged strip that does its best to snatch up whatever tourist cash it can get from the tens of millions of people who stream into the park each year. Moonee and her friends—kids whose parents are passing through the Magic Castle and the Futureland Inn down the road, or hope they are passing through on the way to something better—spit on cars, scream at the helicopters that take off from the pad next door, and lug tourists’ heavy suitcases into the motel lobby, hoping for a tip.
The adult who Moonee can tell is about to cry is one half of a pair of newlyweds who tried to come to Disney World for their honeymoon, and instead ended up in its shadow. The shadow is too much for this woman to bear. “Why are these stray children rummaging about?” she demands, in Portuguese, when Moonee and her friend Scooty bring the couple’s bags in. “This is a welfare, slum motel . . . I’m not staying here!”
For now, there is a language barrier keeping Moonee from understanding how the rest of the world sees the place that she can only look at as her home. We don’t know how long she and her mother, Halley, have lived here, but they have been at the castle long enough for Moonee to know the rhythms of the place, and to find what delights the nearby foreclosed houses and parking lots and fallen trees have to offer. “This is where we get free ice cream,” she proudly tells her new friend, Jancy, as if she has discovered a magic trick, and who’s to say she hasn’t? The children ask other customers, some of them parents just passing by on their way to a bigger fantasy, for enough nickels and dimes for a single ice cream cone. Then they pass it back and forth, sharing this precious delicacy a lick at a time.
The Florida Project earned rapturous praise from critics on its release in October 2017, and yet, with telling frequency, reviews of the movie describe Moonee and her friends as amateur con artists, engaged in bad behavior that may eventually—maybe inevitably—mature into something criminal.
Moonee, A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times, is “heroically bratty,” and knows that “ice cream tastes so much sweeter when you have conned some tourists into paying for it.” The kids get their ice cream, Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker, with “a pocketful of scams . . . ‘The doctor said we have asthma and we gotta eat ice cream right away,’ Scooty says to a customer, who obligingly hands over cash. As for Moonee, her larks include starting a fire at an abandoned house and turning off the power at the motel. She is six years old.”
Is it really much of a scam to lie with transparent childishness to the grown-ups around you? The way Moonee and Scooty and eventually Jancy go about getting their ice creams is by telling fibs that reveal the simple truth of their lives: they don’t have any money. And what is the alternative, exactly? Where are these six-year-olds supposed to get the money for an ice cream cone? By going out, getting a job, and earning it, like good kids would do? Or is the only alternative—the only thing that could make them good kids—to have been born to mothers who can give them the money they need?
Moonee’s mother, Halley, knows how to get the world to give her what she needs, too: not enough for stability, or to get a deposit on an apartment, or a job that would let her plan for the future farther than a week in advance—but enough for survival, at least for a while. She can lash out when she needs to lash out—or when it seems she needs to—and charm when she needs to charm, her features falling suddenly, startlingly, into the gentle radiance of a Disney princess.
Halley can be dead-eyed and ferocious in one instant and beatific in the next, and though it would be easy to ascribe this mutability to some strategic manipulation on her part—isn’t this what we often tell ourselves about people who know how to mold themselves into whatever the world demands of them in that moment?—The Florida Project also challenges us to see Halley, simply, as a human being, raised up by the world around her into the only thing she can be. She is a survivor, and now Moonee is learning to be a survivor too.
It is strange to describe what Halley and Moonee do as scamming or conning. But if this term describes anyone in the movie, it is the owner of the motel where they live, who has recently sprung for a $20,000 paint job, but won’t bother paying to exterminate bed bugs. He believes in a logic where new paint is an unavoidable expense, but letting mothers and their young children stay for a few days among bed bugs when they have no rent money and no other shelter is not. This is the logic of capitalism, but Halley and Moonee have been so excluded from this world that they have evolved a logic of their own.
Capitalism, like all abusive relationships, creates a sense of learned helplessness in its victims.
You could call it Cinderella grifting: the act of making yourself appear lovable enough, worthy enough of care and attention, to get the world to offer you a little kindness. Disney’s Cinderella is where generation after generation of girls have learned that “a dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep.” Anything more active than dreaming, it seems—even wishing for something when you are awake, and conscious enough to witness the strength of your own desires—disqualifies you from getting what you want. It makes you greedy. It makes you bad. All you can do is be lovable enough for the creatures around you, the birds and mice and Disney tourists, to take pity, understand your lovability, and reach out to help.
The problem arises when we import this logic to the world beyond cartoons, where pain and poverty and trauma do not, as it turns out, make their victims passive, pretty, and gentle. We would like to believe that need is always legible and appealing: that the people who most need love and care will always be immediately lovable to us, and that the more love you need, the more love your very presence will cause to well up in the hearts of others.
It is hard for human beings to accept that it does not really work this way: that if you grow up getting hit, you will learn to hit back; that if you grow up in a world where there is no one to protect you, you will learn to protect yourself whichever way you can. In America, we have learned to unthinkingly apply the terms con artist and criminal and even psychopath to people who are, likely as not, behaving in the only way the world has taught or even allowed them to behave. The word that might be more useful to us than all of the above is survivor. Sometimes being a survivor means play-acting the kind of innocent, passive suffering that people who have been able to be safe for their whole lives need in order to believe that you deserve their help. And sometimes, it means something else altogether.
Looking at the people surging around me as I enter the Magic Kingdom—a father saying to his son, “You have to keep moving. You have to keep moving” as they hustle toward an attraction; a girl saying “I don’t want to go on there!” and her father barking “Yes, you do”—it is easy to think of them as money walking, money talking, money flowing torrentially, like water, into a reservoir that will never dry up. In the days leading up to Trump’s inauguration, I had been reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy—the book Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is based on—and both seemed equally relevant.
“At the age of twelve,” Henry Hill tells Pileggi, “my ambition was to be a gangster. To be a wiseguy. To me being a wiseguy was better than being president of the United Sates. It meant power among people who had no power. It meant perks in a working-class neighborhood that had no privileges. To be a wiseguy was to own the world.”
In America, we are raised to believe that there is something intrinsically sick about criminal behavior. It is always wrong to steal, because what we own makes us who we are, because—the logic goes—we have earned it. To steal what belongs to someone else is to steal their virtue, to defraud them of their very identity. But the logic of this belief system begins to fall apart in a world where money makes more money, where how much wealth you amass has very little to do with how hard you work, and where there are few things more expensive than being poor.
And when so much money is all around you—just outside Idlewild, where Henry Hill came of age; just beyond the frayed strip malls and cracked highways that make up the entrance wound surrounding Disney World—you can also see it as passive to the point of insanity to not reach out and take some of the wealth that passes you by. And if just a little of the money that is flowing and surging and leaping its banks all around you is money that could save you and your child from hunger, from homelessness, from danger you cannot imagine and danger you know all too well—it is difficult to see the immorality in reaching out and taking what you need. Respecting ownership and property the way you were taught to, as a good American, may mean allowing your child to suffer. There are millions of Americans who seem to see no contradiction in this. There are millions more who are wondering, now, how we got to be this way, and beginning also to wonder if we were ever anything else.
Sean Baker found Bria Vinaite, the Lithuanian-American actress who plays Halley in The Florida Project, on Instagram, where her username is @chronicflowers. The first time I saw the movie, I left the theater astonished by her performance, and was both surprised and somehow not surprised at all when I found out she had never acted before. (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, who played Moonee, already has a longer CV.) There was something about Vinaite’s performance that seemed to tap the marrow of a deep and near-universal experience of life as a girl: the ability, necessary for survival in almost every stratum of American life, to sense what the people around you want you to be, and be it.
The nuance in the performance, its human complexity and contradiction, is Halley’s temper, and her sudden escalations to violence and rage. It seems fundamentally wrong to call this toughness because we watch her aggression tear through her like fire, hurting her just as much as it hurts the people around her, and in the end damaging her far more. In one scene, we watch her confront a neighbor, then watch her escalate, in the space of a breath, from zero to sixty: she is standing still, and then she is pummeling another woman with unrestrained force, hitting her and hitting her with sickening thuds. Trauma and violence live inside Halley’s body, as surely and as permanently as it is tattooed with spreading flowers and crescent moons; without knowing where she has come from, or how she has lived until now, we know that she has not spent her life in a world that has allowed her to find safety through submission.
To be capable of anything that could rightly be called a con job means being able to keep yourself under control while watching the people you are conning wilt and succumb to their own impulses and desires. And maybe this is what the Guardian’s Mark Kermode means when he describes Halley “stealing theme park entry passes from wide-eyed tourists”—except that the only “wide-eyed tourist” the audience sees is a john who Halley solicits online when she can’t find a job, and needs some way to pay another week’s rent at the Magic Castle. That the man who is buying sex from a poor young mother is a wide-eyed innocent seems impossible to imagine, unless this is what he becomes, by necessity, when Halley steals from him—when she sees $1,700 worth of MagicBands in his luggage and snatches them to sell at a cut rate to another tourist father. Does his status as a victim of theft make him, automatically, an innocent party? And is this enough to make him innocent of all he has taken from her?
Of course, the “wide-eyed tourist” notices the theft, and of course he comes back to the motel to pound on Halley’s door, and this is when Bobby, the motel manager—played by Willem Dafoe, whose performance garnered the movie’s sole Oscar nomination—steps in to protect her, and then to protect the kingdom he has been charged with maintaining by telling her, in no uncertain terms, that she cannot keep making a living this way.
Bobby runs the motel, but he doesn’t own it: he can’t decide to spend $20,000 on an exterminator instead of a paint job, or to let a church van distributing free bread stay in the parking lot, instead of sending it away for fear of alienating the tourists, as the Magic Castle’s owner does. He has a job fit for a saint or a tyrant, but tyranny gives him no pleasure and sainthood is too far beyond his reach.
The best Bobby can do is maintain what order he can in this world. He is powerless to make anyone’s life better, to change the circumstances—mental illness, unemployment, poverty, and a whole history of trauma, hidden in the body and waiting to be awakened—that brought them to his kingdom. He is powerless to change much of anything. Or else he believes he is powerless, which amounts, in the end, to the same thing. It seems possible that, in a movie whose driving narrative is not driving at all, but all about the proneness of poverty, Willem Dafoe’s performance won an Oscar nomination because his is the only character who is able to rise to a legible form of heroism. But this was still not enough, perhaps, to translate into an Oscar win. Dafoe’s performance in The Florida Project is a study in the reactions and responses—a grimace here, a fond look at Moonee there; rage rising up beneath the surface and transforming, by subtle degrees, into passive regret—available to a man whose highest goal is to impose a little order, because to truly engage with the human reality around him would be too much.
Bobby’s moment comes when a man wanders into the motel parking lot and heads straight for the scuffed picnic tables that have become one of the makeshift playgrounds for the children who call the Magic Castle home. Bobby spots the man, identifies him as a threat, and leads him away from the children, scaring him off and sending him running without making a violent scene. What this sequence makes most plain, far beyond the satisfaction that comes from witnessing Bobby’s rare chance to act as an unambiguous protector, is how little stability this world is capable of offering, and how much it is still possible to lose when you have almost nothing.
This is the drama of The Florida Project: not a quest moving forward, but a period of safety falling apart. We start at a moment when things are OK, or as OK as they can be: Moonee roams the grounds around the Futureland Inn and the Magic Castle, shares free ice cream with her friends, and delights in the attraction of Bobby trying to persuade a tenant to put her bathing suit top back on; and Halley and her own friend—Scooty’s mother, Ashley—walk, arms around each other, into the Orlando night. Watching them leave the Magic Castle, you fear for them as much as you fear for their children when they run alongside the highway: they are just as vulnerable, and just as adrift in a world where there is little room for them, a world that was not made with their safety in mind.
And then things begin to unravel. It takes so little. Moonee and Scooty and their new friend Jancy wander into an abandoned house—one of many in a state with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country—and try to set a fire in the fireplace but accidentally burn the house down. The children scatter, Ashley finds out, and, terrified—“Do you want the fuckin’ DCF down here, Scooty?”—refuses to let her son see Moonee anymore. The friendship Halley and Ashley had, the traces of stability it offered, the support and shared childcare and free waffles every day from Ashley’s work, disappear. Halley, already unable to find a job, is selling wholesale perfume in resort parking lots, which works until she has to abandon it to escape a hotel rent-a-cop. This perfume is the only thing standing between Halley and eviction, but fleeing is her only choice.
You could call it Cinderella grifting: the act of making yourself appear lovable enough to get the world to offer you a little kindness.
Yet there is a stubborn beauty in this place, tough as the unrestrainable Florida flora that is even capable, sometimes, of overtaking the controlled, concrete kingdom of Disney World. At the Magic Castle, a patch of grass and a picnic table can, for a moment, become a scene of harmony, of children alone and safely at play: as long as there are a few resources, a little food, a little stability, a paycheck through next week, this can be enough. That this world suddenly wobbles, falls apart when a little security is lost—a stranger in the parking lot; a friendship broken; a bag of perfume confiscated—is not a matter of weakness in the people doing their best to hold their home together. It is a testament to how little they really need, and just how much is denied them.
“I can’t get arrested again,” Halley tells Moonee when she asks why they had to let the resort security guard take their perfume. And then, wordlessly, carrying the world on her back, she kneels so she can carry her daughter there too.
I loved Halley, when I saw The Florida Project, the way I loved the Disney princesses of my girlhood: watching Sean Baker’s film, we can see both the world that has filled Halley with a tide of sudden rages and flights and also her ability, more astounding than any of the corporate magic of the world just beyond hers, to never unleash this rage or terror on her child—and to make their dangerous world feel like a harmless game.
“I’ve failed as a mother, Moonee, you’ve disgraced me!” Halley tells Moonee when Bobby reprimands her after Moonee shuts off the motel’s power and upends the fragile order that is his own mission in life. But Halley is already smiling, and Moonee knows this scolding is all imaginary, another kind of prank. “Yeah, Mom,” she says with a laugh. “You’re disgraced!” In the doorway of their room in the Magic Castle, in the tiny, ratty kingdom-within-a-kingdom that is theirs until the end of the week—and maybe even through the next—Halley, standing between her daughter and the adult world, will always take her daughter’s side.
“You find me thirty hours,” Halley tells a social worker early in The Florida Project. “I have applications in at every shithole up and down the strip, and the parks ain’t gonna hire me.”
From the beginning of Baker’s film, it is clear to us that Halley has lived too long in the real world to ever be able to blend into the fantasy of Disney. But even on the surface, Halley—lip pierced, hair dyed, luminous skin tattooed with lush pink flora and cannabis leaves—doesn’t have, and never will have, what Ross Perlin calls “the Disney look,” which “a College Program recruiter [describes as] a ‘clean, classic, timeless look, [that] goes back to Walt Disney himself,’ where ‘timeless’ apparently means 1950s suburban America.”
The “Disney Look” is about not just appearance but performance: about molding your emotions to the fantasy world you must help conjure. “Good ‘stage presence’ means no chewing gum, no smoking on the job, no sleepiness, no moodiness, and no eating or drinking. Along with the Disney Look, there is Disneyspeak. Customers are ‘guests,’ positions are ‘roles,’ and a crowd is ‘an audience.’ Vomit is a ‘protein spill.’”
There are no workers at Disney World. Everyone, from Alice in Wonderland to the costumer who bleaches her pinafore, is a cast member, and they are all so happy to be here. And everyone is a cast member, as far as I can tell, because the performance of pretending there is no work happening here at all is just as important as whatever job you are doing.
But visitors to Disney World who insist on exerting a “non-magical influence,” as Calvin Trillin described his wife Alice’s reaction during a trip to the park shortly after it opened, are often able to sense some shadow of the unmagical reality that the park works so relentlessly to hide. Trillin attempted to surrender to the park as well as he could, but Alice had other ideas. During their visit to Disney World with their daughter, Abigail, “My wife,” Trillin wrote,
insisted on analyzing the [park’s] hiring policy. She wanted to know, for instance, why an enterprise that had seven thousand new jobs available in central Florida hadn’t tried to retrain some underemployed black migrant workers instead of soaking up every clean-cut middle-class kid between Key West and Philadelphia. As she went on about how hot it must be inside a Mickey Mouse suit, I suddenly realized what she was thinking. Knowing that Disney would have to hire a certain percentage of blacks to avoid trouble, and being acquainted with the theory that too many black faces would spoil the fantasy of escape into the safe old days, she had figured out the logical place to put any black migrant worker who actually was hired: in the Mickey Mouse suit.
When Disney World opened in 1971, it was not only accessible to working-class families but was run by union workers who earned a living wage. The first signs of change came in 1980 when Disney launched the Magic Kingdom College Program, hiring two hundred interns to live in a mobile home park called Snow White Village and apprentice in the art of theme park management. At the time, Ross Perlin reported in Guernica, “unions made a handshake agreement over the tiny pilot program, understanding that it would relieve full-timers during the year’s busiest periods. But they have been powerless to stop the program’s massive, year-round expansion.”
Until recently, Disney’s college program interns were required to live in Disney housing, which they were also required to pay for, meaning it was not unusual for young cast members to find themselves unable to afford food and basic living expenses with whatever pay they had left, which could amount to significantly less than minimum wage. Disney World, then, is also a company town not much different in some ways from those owned by softwood sawmills of the South in the 1910s. In Disney’s hands, this system is sustainable in large part because the company relies on its interns’ parents being able to help them make ends meet. The upshot of all this is that the largest single-site employer in the country is run on the premise that the backbone of its workforce doesn’t need to be paid a living wage. And yet the college program workers—sorry, cast members—seem fundamentally unlike the truck drivers and security guards and airport employees so easily bought out by Henry Hill and his fellow wiseguys. The deal their boss has cut with them is even more humiliating, but it doesn’t matter: their boss is Mickey Mouse.
Many of Perlin’s sources agree that Disney World “changed in the decades after Michael Eisner became CEO [of Disney] in 1984. Free family healthcare disappeared,” while the unions found themselves “powerless to stop the imposition of a new two-tier wage system, which has meant much lower pay raises for all new workers. After five years at Disney World, a typical worker would now be lucky to make $9 an hour, and even twenty-year veterans are likely to have their salaries ‘top out’ below $13 an hour.” That was in 2011; only in the last few years did labor arrangements turn in a more favorable direction. The six affiliated unions that represent thirty-eight thousand of Disney’s sixty-two thousand workers negotiated a raise in minimum pay from $8 an hour to $10 in 2014. Last September they agreed to a contract that raises minimum pay to $12 an hour this spring and ultimately to $15 by October of 2021. The college program interns, however, remain unprotected by any union.
The unions noted with optimism that the raises will “benefit everyone in Central Florida.” It’s an old company-town dream, not far from Walt Disney’s original hopes. Disney selected Central Florida as the site of his utopia largely, John Jeremiah Sullivan writes, because it was not just warm and flat, but “Virgin: that was the word he used in a 1967 promotional film, made right before he died. Walt Disney died dreaming about Disney World; it’s said that while lying on his back, in his hospital room, he turned the tiles on the ceiling into a map of his precious ‘Florida project.’” Yet Disney World would be built, Sullivan continues,
on the soil where the very first North American utopias, the forgotten Franciscan missions of Spanish Florida, had been destroyed, when the South Carolina colonists burned them at the start of the 18th century, murdering their priests and enslaving their Native American populations. The Disney developers had to clear orange groves left over from those missions. Such is the virginity of the New World.
If you spend time in Orlando today, you may still feel a strange, ahistorical sense of emptiness: the city can feel like an enormous backstage area, a cluttered storage room, meant solely to facilitate the profitable realization of theme park after theme park, dream after dream. Today, Orlando is home not just to Disney World, but also Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and the Holy Land Experience—where, if you are tired of dolphins and princesses, you can watch the Passion instead.
Yet Disney World is still the heart of the city, and perhaps the city itself: in Orlando, reality can begin to feel like a kind of imitation, and you can begin to see, too, the benefits of finding some way to call a theme park your home.
Moving between the paint-flaking soundstages of Orlando proper and the cartoon-colored world of its lucid dreamscapes, you can also begin to wonder what being a citizen really means today—or, more to the point, what it is worth. Maybe, as Americans, we would really rather be customers than citizens. Maybe this is all we know how to be. If things don’t work at Disney World—if a ride stalls, if a street jams, if a child is threatened—something happens. Someone is fired. These are paying customers, after all: someone has to take care of them. Even a murder in Celebration, Florida—the planned community meant to emulate Walt Disney’s own vision of a perfect American town—can still make Disney seem better than the world outside.
“One murder in 14 years!” real estate agent Jodi Meyers told the Guardian in the aftermath of a violent homicide in 2010. “Where can you go in this entire planet and find this type of statistic? Tell me.” In Celebration, children ride their bikes down the street, unsupervised by adults because they are already watched over by a corporate panopticon. This is what we think of when we think of safety, when we think of childhood. This is the childhood available for purchase. And if we can’t afford it?
Meyers had, she continued, gotten a call from a potential buyer because the murder made national news. “He said: ‘That’s a great little town,’” she recalled. “‘One murder in 14 years, that’s a good record. I want to buy a condo down there.’”
Even if Halley could somehow get hired at Disney World, her chances of earning a wage that would let her save enough money for a deposit on an apartment, or of just breaking even on the cost of childcare and transportation, would be slim, and they are growing slimmer all the time.
Slightly higher park wages are easily offset by rising ticket costs. The bigger and more powerful the fantasy grows, the more it must take from the reality around it. The more a perfect, purchased childhood slips from the grasp of American children, the more this fantasy childhood seems the only one they can have.
III. The Death Roll
“The semi-hypnotic state of learned helplessness you enter is central to the purgatorial nature of Disney,” Heather Havrilesky writes, “because all of your membranes are porous; the terrors and the sadness around you can enter your bloodstream directly”—and I am less thinking this than feeling it as I wait in line to ride Dumbo. I cannot—will not—watch Dumbo again. No one can make me. Try it. You’ll lose. The scene where Dumbo visits his mother in elephant jail—she has been imprisoned, remember, after trying to protect him when Dumbo, already mocked even by the other elephants in the circus, is bullied and attacked by a group of children—is just too sad for me to bear. I would rather watch teenagers chased by chainsaw-wielding maniacs for an hour and a half. I would rather watch almost anything. Though I have long believed that my preference for violence over blunt-force childhood sadness makes me an outlier, I recently put this question to my friends: Would you rather watch Dumbo visiting his mother—his eyes filling with bright blue tears as she reaches her trunk out between the bars of her cage to cradle him for a moment, because this is all the love that is allowed to them, all they can hope for, all they can have—or that part in Casino where Joe Pesci’s character squeezes a wiseguy’s skull in a vise until he pops his eyeball right out of his head?
Joe Pesci won. He won by a mile. And I began to think I might not be so alone.
And why is it, I begin to wonder, that the grand motif of the Disney movie empire is stories of mothers taken away from their children, children taken away from their mothers, children lost in an unkind world and forced to fend for themselves? The magic and the triumph that follows such trauma must, I guess, be made that much more magical by comparison; the light can be brighter if we have been lost in the darkness, just as in Space Mountain. The whole story, then, can be that much more emotional, that much more captivating—that much more impossible to remain unmoved by. At a certain point, you are simply not allowed.
This is exactly why I want never to watch Dumbo again: it gives you no choice but to be overwhelmed. If your adult self can resist the experience, the child still within you cannot—and realizing this may also make you realize, in a way little else can, how little of your child self, your child fear, has ever left you. The fact that the park works to create only good trips—wonder, excitement, hope, nostalgia, and a little fun fear from time to time—demonstrates not the limits of Disney’s abilities, but its willingness to practice some form of restraint.
Rare is the Disney protagonist who has not lost their mother. Snow White and Cinderella are abused by wicked stepmothers; Belle and Jasmine and Ariel and Pocahontas have bumbling or authoritarian fathers, but no mothers in sight, and no parents who can really help them on their journeys. Animals are no safer. Simba watches his father die, Dumbo watches his mother taken from him, and Bambi—well, we all know what happens to Bambi.
At the end of the movie, Dumbo uses his big ears to fly, becomes a star, earns the circus money, and earns the right to be loved. His ears are insured for $1 million; World War II bomber planes are modeled after him and renamed “Dumbombers.” (I swear I am not making this up.) The last thing we see is Dumbo settling happily into his mother’s arms: he has freed her because he is now a million-dollar elephant, but the world around him is no kinder than before.
I wonder, as I stand in line, if the Dumbo ride will be too much for me—if this decades-old feeling of utter devastation and loss will suddenly be unearthed, in time-capsule form, and do me in. This is yet another of Disney’s powers: it touches caches of emotion that you may not even have known lived within you, and touches you more powerfully, at times, than memories from your actual life.
There are no workers at Disney World. Everyone is a cast member, and they are all so happy to be here.
In this kingdom we are customers whose consumption is studied as relentlessly as lab rats’, and we are, as Havrilesky wrote of Disneyland, in a space that “requires nothing of the participants . . . You are never asked to move or speak or sing or do a single thing. You are treated like a valuable person, but you’re never asked to demonstrate your value.” All this is true of what I observe, and makes me wonder whether we have lost the ability, as Americans, to take part in any community that has not been built and controlled for us this way; if we crave not just submission, but such profound passivity that we are no longer interested in talking to each other, or sometimes even able to. And yet, the other side is true, too: you are treated like a valuable person. Children are treated kindly, and with care. You have to buy a day of childhood, at a $109 minimum, but the thing is: $109 amortizes out pretty well, if you get to the park when it opens, and cling on until Tinkerbell puts the Magic Kingdom to bed. You have to buy a day of childhood at Disney World, and this is not remotely right. But on the other hand, where else can you go, in America today, to buy such a thing?
Disney World is a perfect realization of one man’s will, and it seems, in this way, to be a perfect distillation of what America has become on the morning I enter its gates—and seems, even more than that, to be the corporate principality on which we have come to model our entire nation. Buy your way into security, into value, into innocence, and don’t ask what happens to the people trapped outside, the people who did not work hard enough, were not deserving enough, to be here. You are here and they are not. And if the price goes up, work harder.
In the same way that hunter enters the forest in Bambi, cops and social workers enter the Magic Castle in The Florida Project, and this is where the kingdom of Moonee’s childhood collapses altogether. There has been danger, and fear, and signs of things already shifting, cracking; but as DCF employees appear to take her away—temporarily, she is asked to believe—to a foster family, Moonee resists with all her might. “I don’t want to go,” she tells them, because in the world as she has known it, what she wants has always mattered. Now, things are different.
At Disney World, in the first days of the Trump administration, “Colors of the Wind” plays over the speakers. The news breaks that construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline is soon to resume, the suffragists from Mary Poppins are organizing to demand their rights, and I believe, for a moment, that the plastic sword in a little boy’s hand is real.
I am at the center of the national enchantment that I tried to escape by entering another. Ultimately, I will find that this day at Disney guides my entire year: no matter what I search for in the months to come, no matter what stories I try to unravel and understand, I find myself looking, again and again, at mothers and children, and at the fact that America is no longer meant for them—that in truth it never was. I try to research recent cases of inmate abuse at Milwaukee County Jail, and find myself looking at a class-action lawsuit brought for women who have been forced to undergo childbirth in shackles in the jail’s custody, often as they await trials or hearings for their alleged roles in nonviolent offenses. I go to a pro-life conference to learn about the newest tactics being used to deny women access to reproductive rights, and find myself driving through Milwaukee’s North Side—a neighborhood with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country—to get there. I read about housing inequality in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and find that this story is so often a story of mothers and children. These are the people our society claims to love and support above all others, and yet their suffering is endless and untenable, and the reason is simple, really: they are not good workers. Often, they are not workers at all. What good are they? What do they produce? Why should our country take care of them, if they cannot buy their way into safety? Isn’t the inability to purchase safety proof that you deserve whatever harm befalls you?
This is the story Americans have been sold: the one that pardons the powerful and makes us pay for our own numbness. We submit to a story that tells us we will be good—that we will be made good, and therefore safe—as long as we follow the rules, as long as we forget that there are rules. We enter the castle gates because there can be no danger here, no cruelty, and no adulthood, for as long as we believe: we will be saved not just from the harm that comes to those who are of no value here, but from the knowledge that they even exist. The dream still works, and it will work for at least a little longer. Buy a ticket. See if it’s worth the price.
 Though he may have died dreaming of a park he would never see, Walt Disney’s last words—rivaling the enduring mysteries of “Croatoan” carved into a tree near a Lost Colony or Fermat’s scribble about his Last Theorem—were “Kurt Russell.”