Disney World is not Decadent

Last week I went to Disney World for the first time. The decorations live up to the hype. The whole enterprise down to the efficient parking systems was impressive.

Galaxy’s Edge is a new Star Wars themed area in Hollywood Studios

In his book The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat argues that following the Apollo mission, Americans underwent a period of economic stagnation, demographic decline, and intellectual and cultural repetition. I think he makes good points, and every American should grapple with his proposition.

He specifically mentions Disneyland on page 36-37:

But has anything that fits this description happened since the moon mission? … There has been a growth in what [David] Nye calls “the consumer’s sublime” of Disneyland and Las Vegas. … But the hyperloop is a blueprint, Las Vegas is a simulacrum…

Has Douthat been to Orlando recently? Walt Disney was not complacent, and neither are the Disney employees who continue to carry out his vision. Orlando is a place where Americans have built stuff in the past few decades instead of trying to veto all progress.

Perhaps it is a decadent society that overvalues the Disney World pilgrimage. My parents never took me, so I am proof that you can have a good childhood without it. However, to build this zone and enjoy it seems like a perfectly legitimate peacetime activity for a country. People desire to stroll down a safe, beautiful, clean, walkable street with their families. The problem is that so many Americans can only do that for a few days per decade and empty their savings to Disney for the privilege.  

There is a pernicious idea that respectable Americans live in towns that look just like 1950 and they do tourism at sites that look like 1850. Walt Disney obviously did not think that way. On Twitter, @EliDourado and @mnolangray are agitating every day to build more better stuff. We don’t need Donald Duck on every corner, but we could create cities that serve families better.

One surprise I found inside of the Tomorrowland zone of Magic Kingdom is an old ride called The Carousel of Progress.

An American home circa 1900
Newfangled conveniences

Animatronic characters tell the story of material progress in America. As an economist, this is a story I have already studied closely. This ride could be eye-opening for some families who wander in just because it’s a ride with a short line and a shelter from the outdoor elements. The Carousel of Progress erased my doubt about what Disney World is about. It is an inspiration, whether you like princess parades or not.

Present day American home

An objection to my positive review might be that Disney World has become symbol of inequality. Tyler just posted a link to an article last week about Disney World becoming a destination for the rich as opposed to a broadly accessible American experience.

It is a luxury good. Recall, my parents made the prudent choice of never taking me. My husband’s parents made the pilgrimage, from Northern Virginia in the ‘90s. They drove the whole 850 miles in the family car and stayed in a cheap hotel 10 miles away from the park. A family of 4 today desiring nothing more than to enter a park for one day would pay about $500. They could pack in water bottles and PB&J sandwiches, like we did, if they don’t want to buy expensive park food.

Visitors can choose to add on much more. Families who stay in themed Disney resort hotels and eat at exclusive park restaurants and add Fast Pass to skip lines are spending a lot more than $500 per day. No one should feel like they need all these extras, and no one should feel like they have to go to Disney World at all. It’s just one nice place in a big world, for which no one should run up credit card debt.

While at the park, I spent half the day standing in lines. I was scrolling war Twitter a good deal when my kids were under control. Of course, more of my mental energy in the past month has been directed toward Ukraine than the Mouse. By fighting this war, Ukrainian people are choosing the rules-based order over Russian rule. Putin would like to dictate his philosophies to others, but he has created a bad environment for families. One of the more interesting Twitter threads this week explained how Russian speakers within Ukraine turned against the Russian government, after experiencing what it is like to live under Russian rule. Leaders who create prosperous safe cities are going to have an outsized impact.

This conflict reminds us of what is at stake and why we should not be a decadent society. People around the world are watching how Americans live. Can families build a good life in democracies? Are safe beautiful streets something that people only experience at Disney World after paying admission, or can we build them everywhere?

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