Anika Goes to Florida: The Danger of the Aesthetic

Quick Review: Three and a half stars to Florida, the new wild, wild west of the United States-There was fun, there were crazy people, there was chocolate, and there was Disney merchandise everywhere. The freeways are like California on an acid trip, because Florida is a lake punctuated by land.

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I am sitting on the balcony of my hotel room in Orlando, Florida as I type this up with a travel mug purchased at Epcot full of sweet ginger tea, so take this post for what it’s worth.

My husband and I received a free week long stay at the hotel and since we have six children we decided it was high time, over a decade now, to get a little space and time together. This week we’ve been to Universal- both parks, Epcot, the Kennedy Space Center, Clearwater beach, The World of Chocolate Museum, and Cocoa beach. It’s been a massive amount of fun, but it’s also been a little sad and occasionally I’ve found myself really angry.

Everyone knows that when you head to a theme park you are in a very, very limited amount of danger, and most of that comes from the possibility of losing your cell phone or having your wallet stolen. There is no risk that you will get on the Finding Nemo ride and never be seen again.  Does the occasional mishap on the most intense rides and rollercoasters add to the adrenaline of being flipped upside down while doing fifty or so miles per hour? Sure. But there’s nothing really dangerous happening if you follow the directions, stay buckled, and keep your hands and legs in the vehicle at all times.

This pseudo danger, however, is hard to distinguish for our tiny human brains, thus the rush. And it’s not just the scary bits that tend towards the appearance of things unrealized. As everyone who has spent three minutes with me knows, I am a massive Potterhead and proud Hufflepuff. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal almost made me cry, and not the happy tears of “Oh my gosh, it’s Hogwarts and I’m here and this is amazing.”

It started as we wandered past King’s Cross through the re-creation of Grimauld Place where number 13 is perfectly visible. It shouldn’t be. Here on the muggle side of Diagon alley we shouldn’t be able to perceive the magical world. The absence of number thirteen should be a nod to those who know it’s there, without having to see it. A minor detail really, nothing too egregious. But it was the first fudged opportunity that pulled me into critical brain, rather than deliriously-happy-to-be-fooled brain.

We entered Diagon Alley and were immediately delighted with Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. And then we were completely disappointed by the fact that though the decor goes three stories up, customers must remain on the bottom floor, and it’s one room. ONE ROOM! What makes the prospect of Fred and George’s iconic shop tantalizing is the slap-dash way it comes together, the winding stairways, the nooks, the crannies. All things that a cultivated experience like a Universal theme park simply cannot have. Too much risk of things like theft, missing children, and customer dissatisfaction.

Lunch at the Leaky Cauldron was little better. Some of the food was good, some was just salty, some plain bland, and all of it happened in an atmosphere where as I noted to my husband, “Wizards wouldn’t hang out here.” Is there a giant cracked cauldron where you can photo op? Of course. Is there any magic in ordering an over priced, mass produced meal and then being seated by an attendant who looks about as frazzled as one would expect of someone trying to seat several hundred patrons a day? No, not really.

The actors are mostly focused on helping tiny persons with interactive wands stand in just the right spot and gesture with their wands in just the right way so as to trigger the predetermined responses from fountains, window displays, and statues. Celestina Warbeck does have a lovely voice. The wand maker who orchestrated our wand choosing was delightful, a little like a cross between Olivander and Madame Trelawney. They were pleasant exceptions to the rule of mediocrity.

We wandered down Nocturn Alley and it happened. In Borgin and Burkes there is a tee shirt that reads, “Neither can live while the other survives.” The words that sent Lily and James Potter underground, that led to their deaths, and that sentenced Harry to a struggle that never should have been his, is a t-shirt. A freaking t-shirt! I burst into tears and my husband promptly grabbed my elbow, guided me outside, and hugged me in a relatively quiet corner whispering, ” I know, I know. They don’t understand.”

And yet, I still bought a Hufflepuff hoodie at exorbitant markup. Because I, like all the other mortals on the planet, am not immune to the silkily crafted exit-through-the-gift-shop strategy that preys on our greatest moment of weakness- riding high on overly sugared butterbeer and endorphins of having “survived” an adventure through Gringott’s.

Epcot is a whole different animal. It is, of course, meant to be a world’s fair of sorts. For some, as one t-shirt I saw declared, it is an opportunity to “Drink your way around the world.” For those of us less into liquid inebriation it is a chance to eat our way around the world, sort of. Most of the mass-produced mediocrity we had was mostly salt or sugar in the form of cultural cuisine. Even the quiche loraine I had for lunch in the French section, while creamy and flaky of crust, was bland without any of the savory herbs and subtle finishes one expects from French comfort food.

Africa is represented by one merchandise stall. The whole continent gets a trading booth. A market stall for all the nations of diverse and politically significant CONTINENT, that mostly sold Lion King merch. We did talk to a gentleman there who was carving some of the wooden offerings by hand. He told us that one of the smaller elephants, which are his favorites, takes about three hours to carve.

China’s film presentation says things like, “The history of China is the history of water,” with no mention of the Three Gorges Dam and the ancient sites lost beneath its massive volume of water, or the tens of thousands of people who had to be relocated. It shows the majesty of the great wall with no mention that large swaths of the wall are being neglected and allowed to crumble. It mentions the southern portion of the country is home to many of China’s ethnic minorities without noting how the Chinese government has made life difficult and at times impossible for those minorities. It makes the claim that to stand in Tienenamin Square is to stand “In the heart of China.” What the what what huh?!?!?!?

I understand that for many of the children coming to Epcot with their families this is their first exposure to a culture other than their own. Do I expect Disney to unpack the complicated histories and problematic geopolitical positions of the nations they are depicting in a fifteen minute film? Of course not.

But there is a danger in believing that those facades are windows into that which is real. They may depict some truths. The Great Wall is a majestic sight, but it took the lives of thousands to build it. Bastille Day may indeed be the start of the founding of France, and a day that is celebrated by the French people as the day they threw off Monarchy, but it also ushered in the Reign of Terror that took the lives of hundreds, even children, often for no greater a crime than having the wrong lineage. Partial truths told in a spirit of togetherness can be dangerous when they mask our ability to honestly engage with the world.

How many times as children do we learn that what had once been a cherished ideal, object, or individual was tarnished by truths withheld due to our age? There is a painful reckoning that takes place as we must readjust what we think about that person or idea and what part they will play in our view of the world.

Will there be people who walk away from Universal thinking that they understand Harry Potter because they have been on the Flight of the Hyppogriff rollercoaster? Yes, there will. Will they see it as just another brand of entertainment like the toons and shows offered alongside it? Probably. And they will not understand the experience of growing with the Boy Who Lived, as he rose from trauma to look evil in the face and defeat it. The aforementioned shirt will be of no bother to them. It’s a shirt. No big deal.

I do not condemn those that go into the strange world of theme park culture simply looking to enjoy themselves, to bask in a small corner of the world where the only problems are the price tags. But in the end this trip has taught me that , perhaps as a function of age or maturity or even healthy cynicism, I want to live in the real.

I want stories that cannot be passively absorbed but must be wrestled with, processed, and understood so as to impact my daily life. I want experiences that teach me something and require me to really participate.

It turns out our favorite parts of this trip were the Kennedy Space Center, where the tech was real and the boundaries of the possible are really being pushed and redesigned- albeit with overpriced merchandise in the gift shop all the same, Cocoa beach- which we preferred the rambling nature of the town around Cocoa to the resort style feel of Clearwater beach near Tampa, the hole-in-the-wall pizza, Chinese, and Caribbean restaurants we found around town, and the surprisingly vibrant chocolate scene here in Florida including the museum we toured where we got to try a mild form of Aztec chocolatl and a chili truffle I would probably give away one of my children for.

Even within Epcot, the best moments we had were spent talking to the people who work there, all of whom are from their respective countries. My husband had fun engaging the Spanish speakers in Mexico, and was the one who struck up the conversation with the wood carver, something I would have been far too shy to do. Their reasons for being here in the states varied, their experiences leant a subtle note of authenticity to the veneer of Disney on everything, and it was nice to connect with people who (seemed to) enjoy their work.

Do I think it’s right to reduce a country down to an object it happens to produce? No. Did I purchase way more Studio Ghibli merchandise than is good for our budget? Yeah. So I’m not saying I’m above the allure of the shiny thing and our consumeristic culture. Far from it, but I am learning to recognize when I am being played by aesthetic and when I am really interested in something.

And the humidity was awful so if you are going to do Florida, do it in fall or spring.

Til next time, enjoy your summer!

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