by John King
Walt Disney World, and the other fingers of the gauntlet of tourist destinations along I-4—Sea World, The Eye, The Wonder Works, Universal Studios and its Islands of Adventure, The Holy Land Experience, Ikea—are like a big, dirty, open secret for most Orlandoans who consider themselves cultured in any way. While the hospitality industry employs more than 200,000 residents on the west of Orlando area, those who live downtown, or north or east of downtown, seldom think of these places at all, unless a visiting friend or relative coerces their host to crawl to the other side of town, and during the summertime this scenario carries with it the dangerous air of a hostage situation.
The heat induces insanity. Your brain starts to boil in your skull, conditioned to know that the brutality of the summer is only beginning with you, and that fun and heatstroke are not interchangeable despite your distant family’s summertime travel demands.
Crowds are filled with people who aren’t watching where they are walking, who are walking like they don’t know where they are walking, who are walking like they don’t care where they are walking, and who are racing around everyone else’s non-patterns, and zooming around a thousand sweating strollers and wheelchairs.
Dense, throbbing mazes of sweating, heaving flesh try to absorb you into a line for an attraction whose air-conditioned interior may be acres away. Asking us to visit the tourist areas in summer is precisely like demanding us to participate in bestiality, incest, or drinking liquor that has touched Red Bull.
Outside of summer I adore Walt Disney World, in part because I want to live in a cartoon. I find its epic scale and complex engagement with the imagination and, yes, reality, to be compelling. With my annual pass as a local, I go there to hang out, do work, read, and listen to audiobooks of literature. Sometimes I ride the attractions, but I loiter in its hotels, too. Walt Disney World is my clean, well-lighted place. The experience is profound to me.
I am confused when I hear tourists gush about visiting Walt Disney World because they are leaving the real world behind and they don’t have a care in the world, and everything is just magical. Even if you believe in magic, magic isn’t simply good, right? Have these people seen an actual Disney movie? Life is not easy in a Disney movie. Try surviving Pinocchio if you are fucking Pinocchio. Try watching Pinocchio on a big screen if you are five years old without shitting your pants. The thrill of watching children indulge so tremendously with their and the Disney Company’s imagination can be dear, but fantasy is not entirely safe. A lot of pathetic fallacy exists in Disney films, but the forest creatures could not protect Snow White.
Walt Disney World exists in the real world. It resides on 43 square miles of Florida swampland, land whose beauty is part of the appeal of this place, a sublime backdrop for the architecture that resembles immaculate movie sets. The single largest vacation destination in the world resides in a complex ecosystem.
On June 14th, on a pure white beach, a toddling boy was wading in a manmade lagoon near a sign that read, “No Swimming” and “Do Not Feed the Wildlife.”
Thirty feet from the shore, a Zen fountain’s basin, a gigantic replica of the Mad Hatter’s hat, splashed fifty gallons of water onto delighted children in a water-play area overseen by a lifeguard, white shirt, long red shorts.
Twenty feet away, the movie Zootopia played. A rabbit wants to be assigned to a case involving the abduction of mammals.
Forty feet behind the father of the toddler, guests of the Grand Floridian Resort enjoyed the large swimming pool, overseen by another uniformed lifeguard.
Unlike the Magic Kingdom, this spot was not crammed with people, or too much noise. As the dusk was creeping across the blue-white sky, the unspeakable weather of the summertime relented, shadows creating a pocket of tolerable space, as a breeze rattled through the fronds of palm trees thirty feet tall. To be still and cool at Walt Disney World in the summertime is the best possible feeling. The Grand Floridian loomed in the background like a just-cleaned Victorian dollhouse with gigantism.
The father was keeping one eye on his two-year-old son playing in Bay Lake while watching the detective story. A fox calls the new policewoman a dumb bunny.
Nothing happens to be more attractive to a hungry alligator than the desultory splashing of a small creature in shallow water.
The next day the sheriff’s office had closed off the beach, and bivouacked at the Wedding Pavilion, which stands daintily next to the Grand Floridian. Four disappointed couples would not recite their vows at that fairy tale spot with a view of Cinderella’s castle, that Tuesday. If they were married in another spot, they knew the excruciating reason why.
That day, five alligators were captured in Bay Lake, and then euthanized and autopsied. The two-year-old’s remains were discovered uneaten, very close to where he was taken.
Fences have sprouted around Bay Lake, large wooden stakes impaled by ropes, with more explicit signs in all caps: “DANGER: ALLIGATORS AND SNAKES IN AREA / STAY AWAY FROM THE WATER / DO NOT FEED THE WILDLIFE.” There is also an icon, with a triangle with an exclamation point in it. And there are silhouettes of alligators and snakes.
There were no movies on the beach for the next two months.
The beaches, besides being fenced off at the water line, were closed at night.
Bay Lake is now on alert, forever.
The truth is that there have always been alligators on Walt Disney World property, since before there was a Disney World. Since before there was a human race.
Normally alligators want nothing to do with people.
When the gators grow large enough to be a threat, Disney has them relocated far from the guest areas. For forty-five years, there had been no serious incident with an alligator.
Years ago, I watched a youtube video of a baby alligator trying to swim its way into Splash Mountain, where it would have been joined by cartoon reproductions of 103 other animated animals. The tiny alligator was relentless in its pursuit of the shelter of the ride.
Five weeks after a child died in the Seven Seas Lagoon, a Disney College Program cast member tweeted a photo of a backstage sign indicating how the company wanted its cast members to respond to questions about alligators in the Magic Kingdom. The sign read,
If a Guest asks if we have gators in the water around Tom Sawyer’s Island (or any other bodies of water), the correct and appropriate response is, “Not that we know of, but if we see one, we will call Pest Management to have it removed.” Please do not say that we have seen them before. We do not want our Guests to be afraid while walking around Frontierland. As a reminder, this is a serious matter. Please do not make jokes with our Guests about this.
This cast member was fired for sharing company information in an unauthorized way, and then, mysteriously, was promptly rehired.
Some tourists will scream at cast members who refuse to let small children who do not meet the height requirements board rides that would be unsafe for them. Some tourists will not read signs, or respect signs. And sometimes it doesn’t matter.
Fabio can swoop in Apollo’s Chariot over the skies of Busch Gardens Williamsburg and end up killing a goose … with his face. A teenage boy can climb over two six-foot-tall security fences to retrieve his hat from the grounds of the Batman roller coaster as Six Flags over Georgia, only to be decapitated when the train caught him at fifty miles an hour.
Undetected medical conditions quicken fatally on thrill rides.
What is unclear about the college program intern incident is if the Disney sign was meant to imply that employees should not volunteer the information about the existence of alligators on property, or if cast members should lie if pressed to divulge this information. If the company needed to remind its employees not to joke about the threat of alligators right after a child died from an alligator, then the more innocent interpretation seems appropriate to me: Try, try not to do the truly stupid thing.
People are hysterical about the existence of alligators and snakes and Muslims and Baptists and Southern Baptists and atheists and bears.
We are all real. We are all here. Until we aren’t.
Away from the beach of The Grand Floridian, at the far end of the giant white buildings, is a dock, where a boat can chug you across the lagoon’s waters to the Magic Kingdom, where my grandparents used to take me, where I once walked around with them on a cool winter’s day, a school day, a day when absolutely anything seemed possible. There are not there now. They are there, but—
About John King
John King is the host of The Drunken Odyssey: A Podcast About the Writing Life. His work has appeared in Gargoyle, Turnrow, The Newer York, and elsewhere. His novel, Guy Psycho and the Ziggurat of Shame, is forthcoming from Beating Windward Press.