There’s a longstanding divide in the world of Disney fandom, especially in the online realms. The point of contention is a fundamental one: are the Disney parks on the right road, or the wrong one? At the first extreme, these fans see Disney doing nothing wrong and can stomach no criticism of their beloved Disney product. As one Imagineer once put it, such fans are “foamers” because they foam at the mouth with fervent, almost messianic, desire once a new Disney project is announced. These fans feel Disney can do no wrong, no matter how cheap the product looks or how expensive everything becomes. At the opposite extreme, a different set of fans feel the exact reverse; that Walt Disney World has completely jumped the shark, that Universal is pumping out such superior product that any offering Disney puts out is immediately and automatically ridiculed, and that Disney has declined by so much that a broad brush is used to paint their every new initiative and venture. I call these fans “gnashers” because they give the appearance of gnashing their teeth, so upset are they that Disney isn’t meeting their high standards and by definition can’t do so again. The two sets of fans, unfortunately, have a difficult time coexisting online.
First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: I have been both of these types of fans at times. I was definitely a foamer when I first started using the Internet in 1995 (in those days, on the Usenet message board alt.disney.disneyland, but later with my first Disneyland websites and then as one of the co-founders of Mouseplanet). And let’s not forget that I’ve written more than a dozen books about Disney parks, all of them taking the high road and stressing only the positives. I have also been a gnasher. My detractors early on would call me very similar names when I first starting suggesting that WDW was anything other than pristine and perfect, but I’m more guilty than even that. The truth is that familiarity sometimes really does breed contempt, and I went through a process of acclimation when I moved from DL to WDW (I think of it now as acculturation, like culture shock) and it takes a while to work through that toward acceptance. Several years, in fact.
I now like to think there is wisdom to be found in seeing BOTH sides of the coin. This kind of attitude is true in all things in life, of course, and maybe we ARE just talking about being older and wiser in general. Or maybe each of us has our own individual acculturation curve to work through. It’s hard to know what is the right amount of “critical” to be at any given time; there are so many moving parts that it’s difficult to see not only the overview at the moment, but also the entire picture in historical context as well.
And we must also acknowledge that “fans” are, by definition, somewhat heavily invested in their current worldview. The very word implies this; it comes from “fanatic” and denotes a certain mindset, one that is so set in its ways that convincing the owner to fairly judge new information, let alone alter the mindset, is difficult to imagine. After all, how hard it is to convert a Giants fan into a Dodgers fan or vice versa? Can you switch from being a Patriots fan to liking the Dallas Cowboys? We take it as a matter of course that a fan has a position and simply “defends” that position when challenged.
This leads to a lot of friction. Look at the recent example of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. If you look around the comments section of any website (including this one) you will see examples of foamers being foamers and gnashers being gnashers. It’s hard for people, having staked a place in the ground, to be anything other than consistent with their original claims. The reality, if you ask me, is right in the middle of both extremes in this case. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is not a Potter-swatter or an E-Ticket in the vein of Radiator Springs Racers or even Expedition Everest. But neither is it completely dismissable as some kiddie ride unworthy of attention; it’s a serious Disney ride with serious levels of theming that few, if any, companies apart from Disney could ever hope to match. It’s got charm and repeatability. Why not call it what it is?
Foamers fail to see that today’s Walt Disney World does not really match the older vision of this place as a vacation destination, with relaxation foremost on its agenda and the Guest experience trumping the desire for endless profit. Gnashers fail to see that Walt Disney World is (and has always been) a beehive of upkeep, maintenance, and new spending. Currently underway are massive expansions to Downtown Disney and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, plus rumored expansions to come in Epcot and presumably a big Star Wars presence in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. And I think it’s likely that Maelstrom will turn into a Frozen ride.
Yes, the Harry Potter attractions and the Transformers ride at Universal are E-Ticket rides. But not everything at Universal is. Would the Uni backers be so happy if a bare-steel coaster like Rip Ride Rockit (which is frankly mediocre as a coaster) showed up in the Magic Kingdom? I’ve also previously pointed out that Universal isn’t really BALANCED yet; there aren’t enough “singles and doubles” to keep the day balanced. And I think it’s also true that people just don’t CARE about a whole lot of the Universal “intellectual properties”. Does anyone connect with the Toon Lagoon cartoon strips? Half the movies referenced in their great daytime parade are not recognizable by large chunks of the audience.
People are quick to point out their own view if it is the opposing view. They are less quick to add “yes, but” to their contribution. I guess folks are worried that counterarguments will water down the effectiveness of their main point? To my mind, the opposite is true. Someone unwilling to entertain an opposing view is so closed-minded as to warrant dismissal.
The problem is ultimately one of jingoism. People like to reduce their belief set down to a simple set of rules (“Disney is bad” or “Disney has jumped the shark”) and allow those rules to guide their thinking and their reactions to what they see and experience in the parks. There is no room for the entire spectrum and range of options. There is no accounting for the fact that different theme park projects have different managers, different source material to work from, different implementation ideas, and different budgets. A single ideology has little chance of capturing the complexity of it all.
The online medium in general, and discussion boards in particular, have such amazing potential to expose each of us to new ideas and to help us expand our horizons. But it seems to me like it’s hit a glass wall. What will it take for us to go beyond just “defending our borders” and have a REAL conversation? Let’s move each other. I’d like to see us constantly reminding each other of the fringe arguments that end up meaning a lot. For instance, Disney’s status as a publicly-traded company is, and has been for decades, THE prime reason and explanation for almost everything happening in the parks, right down to the way upkeep works. But other elements of the Disney company – from studios to DCL – impact how (and why) the theme parks do business, and this sort of stuff comes out great in conversations. Why does anybody have to be “right”?
After the Los Angeles riots, Rodney King plaintively (and famously) asked on TV: “Can’t we all just get along?” King, no philosopher he, was nonetheless on to something about human nature. Why CAN’T we have a debate online that is academic, intellectual, and driven by a desire to LEARN rather than a desire to DEFEND? Ideological principles have their uses, but they only take you so far. Reality is complex. Let’s embrace that. And let’s learn from each other.
I don’t often use this space for purely personal reflection (I put scholarly ruminations in a different category), but let me wax nostalgic for just a second. The primary reward for doing a weekly article about Disney parks (since 1999!) has been the enriching discussion with you, the readership. I’ve appreciated the opportunity, and I appreciate your attention and support.
I hope we see each other in the parks sometime. Say hi!
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