Mouse or Multinational?

The Walt Disney Company is a host of contradictions, contradictions which are embodied in almost all of its projects. Starting with Mickey Mouse and working down from there, it seems to always be operating with at least two purposes. Walt Disney, a man of contradictions himself, claimed that Mickey, the company's now ubiquitous corporate symbol, was a "very clean mouse", the complete contradiction of what a mouse really is anyplace but in Disney World.

Perhaps where the contradictions of the Walt Disney Company are most evident, however, is in trying to divine the company's guiding purpose. Is there a separation between the financial goals of this huge company and its crafting of a particular message, or is the message merely a manipulation in its quest for greater and greater profits?

What began as a foundering animation studio in the 1930's, has become today one of the largest entertainment corporations in the world. The Walt Disney Company's holdings are vast, and they are grouped under many corporate names, so that most people do not realize how considerable Disney's resources truly are, and the power that this affords them in crafting and marketing certain types of messages. As Carl Hiaasen wryly notes in his new book Team Rodent, as the owner of Miramax Films it was Disney that produced the film Pulp Fiction. The film, with its focus on crime, violence and drugs, is quite removed from the family oriented fare that Disney usually attaches its name to. Yet because it was produced by a studio that most people do not know is connected with the Walt Disney Company, Disney was able to release it and make a large profit from it without compromising their position as a producer of family films meant to provide alternatives to just that type of movie that Pulp Fiction represents.

Beyond Miramax, the Walt Disney Company also owns four other movie studios, Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone, Caravan, and Hollywood Pictures, six television channels including ABC, ESPN, the Disney Channel, Arts and Entertainment, History Channel, and Lifetime, nine TV stations, eleven AM radio stations, ten FM radio stations, seven daily newspapers, book and music publishing companies, the New Amsterdam theater in Times Square, retails stores in malls and airports worldwide, four theme parks, in Orlando, Anaheim, Tokyo, Paris, as well as a new cruise line. They also have important corporate relationships with such companies as McDonalds which help to market Disney projects through merchandising tie-ins, as well as other companies like General Electric, Kraft, and other who have helped to finance pavilions at EPCOT center in Orlando. These holdings give Disney an enormous amount of power in the producing and then reinforcing a particular set of messages about American culture.

Stephen Fjellman writes of this ability in his book Vinyl Leaves. According to Fjellman, what Disney has done brilliantly is to engineer "cross-referential marketing," so that each product "advertises all the other as part of its content without the need for special commercial interruptions." The merchandise created to accompany films and televisions programs advertise each other, and all the Disney products, from toys to movies to home videos, advertise the parks. And the success has been overwhelming. Disney World in Orlando is the single most popular tourist destination in America, and Disney is the single most trusted name in marketing.

But beyond the parks' cleanliness, their well-ordered lines and sheer ingenuity, there must be something else that draws the crowds. And there is. The Walt Disney Company has long sought to reach beyond the mere financial dealings of a large business enterprise and to take an active role in the crafting of a specific American narrative. There appear to be two somewhat contradictory motives for this desire, one of which is financial and, like Disney's marketing, could be viewed as cross-referential. By providing an intensely appealing version of American life and history, Disney is able to attract a large number of customers. And conversely, to keep those customers and attract even more, Disney has a vested interest in continuing to provide an ever-expanding version of that particular narrative. With growing media and information resources, Disney gains not only more power and a louder voice with which to sell their version of American history, but also a greater need to do so.

Fjellman discusses this in great detail in Vinyl Leaves. A large but significant part of his argument is quoted here:

"A good way to make sure that people police themselves is to get them to believe essentially the same stories about what the world is an why the way it is is good, true, and beautiful...Cultural control requires the invention and dissemination of stories as well as vigilance against counter stories...Disney is not just offering entertainment. The Company is also selling, to those of us who can afford it, an antidote to everyday life. Under the rule of the commodity, our lives have become fragmented and confusing. Our environments are dangerous and threatening. Our sense of powerlessness is fed by institutions of modern life and but the uncontrollable behavior of others. What we buy at Walt Disney World is not just fun and souvenirs but is also a welcome civility on a human scale...In a country in which it is often not wise to be out after dark, this freedom in enormously empowering...In order to feel safe, happy, clean, and civil - to feel what seems the antithesis to their normal lives - people are willing and trusting enough to put themselves into Disney's hands for a time...These hands bear watching, for in their shaping of things lies danger."

What Fjellman writes relates closely to Ralph Ellison's statement quoted earlier that there are two American histories, a false one that has neatly stylized, and the true history which is full of contradictions and discrepancies and is often overlooked. By only offering the public the stylized version, Disney is providing exactly what Americans want to believe about themselves and making a fortune in the offing. And the more money they make, the greater their interest in preserving that series of beliefs which is making that profit possible. So they continue to produce projects and products that reproduce that viewpoint.

Disney has been very clever. Not only have they created environments of such complexity and totality, they seem so absolutely detailed and realistic that they are taken for the truth, but they have also played on the desires, wants, and fears of the American public in producing a vision of American history that they crave to believe is the truth. Celebration is the perfect example. Who does not want to believe that life could be sweet and simple, crime and dirt free?

In the 1995 edition of Reinventing Real Estate, the annual report of the Urban Land Institute, which is underwritten in part by Disney Design and Development, there appeared an article entitled "Rethinking Master-Planned Communities." The article pointed out several steps that developers needed to take in planning new communities, steps that one can only assume were taken into consideration in the construction of Celebration. The first is heightened focus on consumer research, to learn what potential buyers are looking for in an ideal community, what qualities would most attract them to a new settlement. More interesting is the author's suggested emphasis on "Easing Consumer Fears." Security, the author states, is "the most prominent concern for most Americans." He is surely correct, and it is hard to object to the desire and right of Americans to feel safe and the desire of developers to craft communities where they will be.

But the social engineering element becomes very plain at this juncture. As Walt Disney himself announced in his original plans for EPCOT, there would be no slum areas because they would not be allowed to develop. As most people would surely admit, they would rather not live in a place that included slums or criminals, they are sadly part of life. The prospect of doing away entirely with them seems to be an understandable position, and yet it is also part of the "neatly stylized" version of life of which Ellison speaks. Most people lives are not simple or stylized. They revolve around a much more complicated set of problems and choices that Disney does not want to admit exist, and which they give their visitors and now residents an excuse to believe should not exist. They have brilliantly convinced thousands of people to take the easy way out and to feel good doing it.

While the financial component is a strong one, there is something else operating at Disney, and that is a true belief in what they are doing. Stephen Fjellman recently told me that the Imagineers and executives are Disney are, he believes, "utterly and totally sincere" in packaging their version of American life for public consumption. While he believes them to be "extremely predatory in the interest of the company name," they truly believe that they are doing a great service to America. Even Carl Hiaasen, vocal Disney critic, seems to believe that Michael Eisner, Disney's chairman, believes that Disney is doing the world a great service.

This is all a long way of saying that Disney has taken great pains to craft a particular narrative and to sell that narrative to the American people. One good way of illustrating just how far they have gone, and in so doing to get some idea of just how vested their interest in all this story telling must be, is an exploration of the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

 

The Reedy Creek Improvement District

The Reedy Creek Improvement District is the name of the 40 square miles of central Florida land that Walt Disney was secretly able to buy during the first half of the 1960's. These miles encompass an area twice the size of Manhattan. Until recently, less than fifty people were residents of this District, and they consisted almost entirely of Disney executives and their families. This fact is important because the governing board of the District is elected solely by these inhabitants, which ensures that Disney retains complete control of this area.

According to the official statement of the District, its incorporation by the Florida Legislature in 1967 provided it with official and far-reaching powers which consist of the following: the District has the "authority to provide essential public services such a drainage and flood control, solid waste collection, wastewater treatment, pest control, fire protection, and the regulation of building codes and land use within the District. It also gives the District authority to issue bonds to finance these improvements and services. The charter also sets forth a number of responsibilities and opportunities for the District, ranging from the promotion of conservation and resources...to the promotion and creation of favorable conditions for the development and practical application of advanced concepts and designs for a recreation oriented community...to the establishment of reclamation, drainage and irrigation of land...to construction and maintenance of essential infrastructure. As a special taxing district, the Reedy Creek Improvement District must operate in accordance with state laws governing such districts. Just as any city or county, the income is derived from taxes and fees imposed within its boundaries."

Hidden in this benign sounding beauracratic language is a unprecedented amount of power for a company, unprecedented because it gives the company the right to function as a government. The rights bestowed upon the Walt Disney Company through the Reedy Creek Improvement District include the right to levy and collect taxes, to control totally the planning and zoning of anything built on the property, with its own building codes and inspectors, the right to run its own utilities and fire department and to control the infrastructure. It maintains its own security force, and has the right as yet unused to build its own airport, schools, cemeteries, police department and nuclear power plant.

This kind of power was necessary to Walt Disney's plans for Florida for two reasons, reasons that point to the underlying dichotomy that exists in much of what Disney does today and has done all along. First, Disney had a vision of what he wanted to create, a vision which must be seen on some level as a genuine desire to bring to the American public a particular vision of the American story. But to make this vision a reality, he needed to have total control over the environment, both natural and built, as well as good deal of control over the lives of the people that would inhabit this area.

But the flip side of this desire and the other reason for this amount of power was Walt's thirst for profit. Walt was dismayed by the cottage industries that had built up around Disneyland in Anaheim. The cheap motels and restaurants that had closed in around his park offended him and spoiled his vision of the park as a place that was clean and well kept. But he was equally offended by the amount of money that they were making. In the first 10 years that Disneyland was under operation in California, it grossed 273 million dollars, an impressive sum. But the businesses that surrounded Disneyland grosses a collective 555 million dollars in the same period of time. This was profit that Walt realized could be his alone, and when he set his plans in motion for another theme park in central Florida, he decided that he would buy up all the land surrounding his site so that he could control it all. Knowing that his name attached to this project would draw attention and raise the price of land, the company set up dummy corporations for the purpose of buying up the land cheaply and without generating unwanted attention.

Alexander Wilson highlights a situation created by Reedy Creek that underscores the way that the District plays into Disney's willingness to sacrifice reality for the appearance of it. In his book The Culture of Nature, Wilson writes of the damage that Disney has done to the natural environment of Reedy Creek. "The park itself is built on a recharge area for the Floridan Aquifer, and the regional development it has encouraged has done irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystem of most of the central and southern part of the state. The wetlands now slated for development are home to may rare and endangered species, among them the...bald eagle. The EPA has fined Disney for contaminating these wetlands with toxic waste. The park's sewage effluent exceeds state guidelines, and has been found as far away as the Everglades. Disney had found it cheaper to pay fines that redesign its 'state of the art' engineering systems, much of them funded with public money." What fascinates me is that Disney should be willing to further endanger the life of this country's actual symbolic bird, the bald eagle, in order to market to the public its own virtual interpretation of American history.

Celebration has its roots in the complicated real estate situation in which Disney has involved itself with Reedy Creek Improvement District. First, Disney was a takeover target in the early eighties in part because of the large amount of undeveloped land that it owned surrounding Disney World in Orlando, land now worth more than 10,000 times what Walt paid for it in the early 1960's. By creating a community of 10,000 acres of land and deannexing that land from the District, they provided themselves with protection from corporate raiders, provided the county government with a new set of taxpayers that both smoothed Disney's relationship with the county government and divested itself of residents whose status as Reedy Creek citizen would have made them eligible to vote on Reedy Creek issues, a situation that was unappealing to Disney (Pollen 59).

It is important to remember that Disney has a highly vested, financial motivation for telling a certain kind of story in Celebration, for offering a particular vision of the past and selling a vision that they market on a daily basis to the millions of visitors and consumers the patronize Disney parks, movies, and stores. It is also necessary to keep in mind while listening to the philosophical arguments that they make about the good of Celebration, that while they may believe it, is still operating hand in hand with their financial motivations.

Multiple examples of Disney's attempts to tightly control every aspect of information surrounding their holdings and properties exist. While some may seem small, others are more pointed, and they all suggest a some what unconstitutional and anti-American desire to control and limit information. For example, they refused my request for more information about Celebration. Responding to an article that I read about Celebration in House and Garden magazine which included a number to call for more information, I requested the promotional information to which the article alluded. Several months after I placed my request, I received a letter explaining to me that information about celebration could not be mailed across Florida state lines. Another web site about Celebration was forced of the web after Disney threatened to sue its creators over copyright issues. Even the town's public seal has been trademarked by Disney to protect it from being used without their permission. At first consideration these may seem like reasonable steps to protect their property, it is important to keep in mind that while Celebration is Disney's creation, that it is also being supported by Florida state taxpayers and is a public community that must operate under the same laws that govern all others.

Once created, it is no longer Disney's sole property. Disney controls even the images of the environment that they have created. In Variations on a Theme Park, editor Michael Sorkin explains that Disney has created the first copyrighted urban environment, and only allows photographs of that environment to be used with prior approval. Not surprisingly, they did not grant Sorkin the right to use any images, just as they threatened to sue Fjellman if he included any photographs in his book. His cover carries a impressionistic rendering of Cinderella's castle, while Sorkin's includes just a photograph of the sky above Disney World. But Disney's desire to control every aspect of the town is perhaps most apparent in the recent school crisis that griped the community. As Michael Pollen documents in his New York Times article, after a series of squabbles over the quality of education at the school that Disney established in Celebration, several families wanted to be let out of their homeowner's agreement, which stated that they were not allowed to make a profit on the sale of their homes if held for less than a year. Disney said that they would only allow them to leave if they signed confidentiality agreements barring them form publicly discussing the reasons for leaving.