December 28, 2001

Celebrating 100 Years of Disney Magic

By Yvette tenBerge

Until my late teens, I traveled to Disneyland at least once each year. Like most park visitors, I didn't mind that admission prices were always rising, or that entering the park was equal to stepping into one of this century's biggest piles of propaganda since the Cold War. I was happy to spend $50 on a tiny stuffed Pooh Bear, and even happier to push my way along the crowded walkways wearing a $40 Mickey Mouse T-shirt while eating a $5 churro. But with age comes wisdom, and those years of excitement and wonder have long since passed - or so I thought.

A few months ago, a nicely packaged invitation landed on my desk. The Walt Disney World Resort was inviting members of the media to their "100 Years of Magic" celebration, an event that would mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of founder Walt Disney. Even though the pages promised an "all-expense paid" trip, the thought of facing beefed-up airport security measures was too much to stand, so I tossed the invitation. Who would want to be micro-managed at a theme park after having to wade through the airports of today anyway?



Eric Finder as Disney's French Santa.

Apparently, my editor thought otherwise. So, after digging the invitation out of the trash, I called Disney and booked my flight. Surprisingly enough, other than having my bags searched in San Diego due to a tiny pair of scissors in my cosmetic case and aside from biting into a rock-hard bagel at the Denver airport, the trip was smooth sailing.

It was at the Orlando airport that Disney's magic began to shine through. A very competent Mears Transportation representative greeted me at the baggage claim, checked my correctly spelled name off her list and waited with me until I located my luggage. She then walked me to another representative, who put me onto a Greyhound-sized bus occupied by only three other journalists who were also headed for Disney's new Animal Kingdom Lodge.

According to a press release on Walt Disney's media website, the 1,293-room Animal Kingdom Resort opened in April of this year and rests on a 33-acre savannah (a flat grassland of tropical or subtropical regions) around which animals roam "freely". The entrance to the Lodge leads to a thatched-roofed main lobby, and the lodge's horseshoe-shape is based on the traditional kraal (pronounced "crawl"), or corral, a design used in African villages to keep homes and livestock safe from harm.

By the time we arrived it was dark and I was hungry, but the seductively lit, six-story African-style lodge caught my attention. My eyes wandered over the lobby's hand-carved furniture, it's huge Christmas tree and "Ogun's Firepit," an open fireplace designed to look like a bonfire. Every aspect of the décor made a statement, and even the set-up of my room made me chuckle: one queen-sized bed and two bunk beds ­ it had "family" written all over it.

I met "Marco" while checking in at the front desk. Like the majority of the "cast members" working in the Animal Kingdom Lodge, Marco was hired through Disney's International Program. Marco told me that he was from Italy, and running through his credentials, he informed me that many of the Lodge's employees, whom I would meet during my stay, were actually Africans who were hired for a year at a time. Importing personnel is one of the many ways in which Disney tries to guarantee their visitors an "authentic" cultural experience.

And an experience is exactly what Disney aims to give each of its visitors. One look into the gift bag that Hospitality had given me, and I knew that Disney was going to hand craft this experience to the hilt. Not only did I have theme park tickets and meal vouchers, but I had a name tag complete with flashing lights, a "100 Years of Magic" wristwatch, tiny containers of jams and an old fashioned coke bottle, each marked with the Disney logo. Despite my journalistic eye, I started to feel like a kid again.



Germany

The "100 Years of Magic" party was held at the Magic Kingdom. After being greeted by a hundred Disney characters, from Cinderella (complete with a horse-drawn pumpkin coach) to Goofy, and having made my way from one food stand to another, I realized that the Magic Kingdom was only open to members of the media. That's when it hit me: all the rides I wanted and no lines. I'll admit, the Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and "It's a Small World" rides aren't the most exciting experiences on the block, but being one of the only people on them sure gave them a boost in my book. One fabulous fireworks display and yet another lavishly wrapped gift later, and I exited the gates of the Magic Kingdom a little starry-eyed.

The next day's agenda was filled with a "Breakfast Expedition," a live taping of the Regis and Kelly show, an interactive game of Who Wants to be a Millionaire at MGM Studios and a "Colossal Cake Event" to celebrate Walt's birthday. I decided to skip all of the glitz in search of a story that would really interest La Prensa readers. I wanted to learn more about the cast members whom Disney brought in from other countries. I wanted to know whether Disney World was really the "place where dreams come true."

An editor from New Jersey and I decided to make our way to the World Showcase at Epcot Center where you can visit 11 countries and four continents as fast as your tired legs can carry you. The journey begins around a 40-acre lagoon where replicas of landmark architecture and other historic scenes line the shores. The various villages along the water represent Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Morocco, Japan, Italy, Germany, China, Norway, Mexico and America. Each site has buildings, streets, gardens and monuments designed to give guests an "authentic" visual experience of each country (although I have to wonder how Germans would feel about being represented by beer-serving people in knickers and funny hats).

My quest for the truth started in Canada, where a friendly Canadian cast member dressed in a crisp white shirt and suspenders politely told me that she needed the approval of her supervisor to speak with me. She also informed me that cast members weren't allowed to speak with the press unless they were in the presence of these same supervisors. This was going to be difficult. I decided to soothe her nerves (and mine) by buying a hokey dream catcher and continuing on to other countries. Hopefully, things would look up.

It wasn't until I reached France that I met anyone willing to stop and chat. I watched a French Santa Claus in a long white beard and a red, hooded cloak wow visitors with his thick accent and Christmas tales. After his 15-minute presentation, though, I discovered that Santa's real name was Eric Finder, and he was actually an American entertainer who just happened to speak French. The name "cast member" was now starting to make more sense.



An Aztec temple in Disney World's "Mexico."

It was in Morocco, though, that I learned more about what life must be like for these workers. At one of the restaurants there I met "Chelsea," an exotic, curly-haired beauty. Between customers she told me that she was originally from Casablanca and that most of the people hired to work in Disney's International program are in the hospitality field in their home countries. When asked if Disney's Morocco is at all like the Morocco she calls home, she laughed and rolled her eyes.

"This is not like Morocco. This food is not even Moroccan; it's Mediterranean. Actually, it is awful where I live." Eager to talk further, she handed me her number (although attempts to reach her after my return home were not successful, it gave me the sense that there was more than meets the eye to this program). That's when the "Moroccan Santa" caught my attention. "Yusef" was dressed in white and wore a small, red cap trimmed with white. After a few questions, he dropped his sultry accent and confessed that his name was actually Peter and that he was an entertainer from Chicago.

"This is the first year that Disney went outside of the International Program to hire their Santa Clauses. They found that it was like going to a brick layer for a loaf of bread," says Peter, explaining that it didn't pay to stick to tradition in this case. "Many people are fasting during this time of year, and you are asking them to tell a story that they know in a
language other than their own. Entertainers can put a little more into it, and we are used to dealing with the unexpected."

After confessing that he had been nervous about playing a Middle Eastern role in the wake of the September 11 attacks, he added that visitor response to him had thus far been positive. With a gracious smile, Peter picked up his basket and disappeared into one of the many stucco structures decorated with blue and white mosaic tiles. By the time I had watched a powerful Japanese drum show, an awe-inspiring Circle-Vision 360 degree film in China and had embarked on an unimpressive voyage through a 10th century Viking village in Norway, I was about out of energy, but when I got to Mexico, I couldn't help but notice that it looked nothing like the Mexico that I knew. Without the stray dogs, food vendors and pollution, I barely recognized the place. At least "Maggie," who manned a novelty shop, was actually from Mexico.

We made it back the Animal Kingdom Lodge just in time for "storytelling at Arusha firepit." Translated, this means that, along with a few dozen children and parents, we gathered around a large firepit located directly behind the Lodge while Thabo Pheto, a native of Johannesburg, South Africa, told a story about the tortoise and the monkey. Afterward, it was back for another night of "Disney Magic." This time, we attended the "Celebration of a Century" party, a farewell finale complete with a walk down a long, red carpet that spilled between two rows of hired "fans" holding signs that read "I dream about you at night" and "#1 Fan," free neck massages and a mini-concert by Kool and the Gang.

Although I had come to the "happiest place on earth" skeptical about the power of "Disney Magic," I went to bed that night realizing that there was one thing I could not deny: at least on the surface, nobody does it like Disney. As for their recent decision to hire seasoned entertainers to play roles normally filled by citizens of countries like Morocco and France, visitors to Disney aren't spending their hard earned dollars for a slice of something truly real. Instead, Americans want to experience their reality with a healthy amount of the imaginary tossed in. Vacationing becomes an exercise in trying to see the "real world" just as you once knew it: a happy, wonderous place where anything is possible. A big "Happy Birthday" to the man with the genius to capitalize on this aspect of our culture.

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