Don’t expect a reasoned deconstruction of Disney as cultural artificer; do expect a provocative overview of how Walt and his successors have turned a swath of Central Florida into a candy-coated Orwellian state in an account spiced by comical salvos fired at Michael Eisner.
Hiaasen, author of “Striptease,” is a Florida native. His bone of contention is that Disney World is an ongoing crime of cultural, political and environmental pollution against his beloved home state. His complaint serves as a point of departure for a broader critique of Disney’s twin obsessions: secrecy and control.
Folks who equate such qualities with the Eisner era are in for a history lesson. Back in 1965, the publisher of the Orlando Sentinel learned that Disney was secretly snapping up land for a giant theme park. Walt threatened to nix the venture if word got out, so the Sentinel sat on the story until the purchases were complete — guaranteeing for Disney rock-bottom land costs and minimal public scrutiny.
That 43-square mile area is legally constituted as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, governed by a board selected by Disney. Florida law requires that municipalities conduct their business in public, but since Disney would rather not do so, Reedy Creek claims to be a separate entity from the company that runs it.
This legal two-step has afforded Disney World both privacy and immense autonomy: It has the right to implement its own schools, justice system, even its own nuclear power plant.
So far, Disney is doing without such things. But it does employ 800 security personnel, who, Hiaasen observes, dress “just like real cops. Legally they’re not, although sometimes they forget.”
Hiaasen details several cases of overzealous policing, refusals to report crimes to law enforcement authorities, and unwillingness to comply with Florida’s public records statutes during lawsuits and trials. He also attacks Florida lawmakers and judges for their complicity.
Hiaasen’s point is that in Florida there’s one legal code for Disney and another for everyone else. This is a little disingenuous. Florida has a long and colorful history as a haven for con-artist Realtors and graft-hungry politicians willing to play along. The state tree of Florida is, after all, the greased palm.
While Disney’s secrecy tends to be grimly disturbing, the author gets good comic mileage from Mouse House concerns with control.
Disney World’s new fourth gate, the ultra-calculated pseudo-safari Animal Kingdom, comes in for some nice skewering.
Hiaasen’s verdict on the landscaping: “Typical Disney: Honey, I shrunk the Serengeti!”
To Disney, “raw Nature doesn’t fit because it doesn’t measure up,” a contention that leads Hiaasen to flights of macabre imagination. He dreams of teaming with his crocodile-handling buddies to slip a horde of hungry ‘gators into Disney World’s Bay Lake; he envisions tennis pros attacked by cottonmouth snakes while guesting at the Wide World of Sports.
In the context of Hiaasen’s “deranged rant,” such fantasies are infectious. But Hiaasen saves his funniest lampoons for Disney chairman Eisner.
He witnesses the chief exec hoist by his own petard in an annual report preamble: After quoting the text at length, Hiaasen opines, “Obviously, Eisner wrote the letter himself — no PR flack in his right mind would’ve sent out such hyperbolic twaddle.”
And the author comes up with a novel hypothesis about the Insane Clown Posse, a Disney-signed rap group whose obscenity-filled debut was yanked from shelves on its day of release last summer. Hiaasen suggests Eisner concocted the whole episode, to reassure Middle America — troubled by “Ellen” and Disney World’s annual Gay Day promotion — that the company’s heart was still in the right place. Through the rest of his tract, Hiaasen thus refers to Eisner as Insane Clown Michael.
Concluding his diatribe, the author imagines the lions of Animal Kingdom escaping their handlers and envisions “Insane Clown Eisner himself, dragged down from behind as he hotfoots it across the phony savannah.”
Hiaasen says his dream is to be banned for life from Disney World. This book may do the trick.