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View from the USA: Not-so-Magic-Kingdom

The cult-like world of Disney means queues and costs, but the parades, fireworks and Mickey ears are so infectious you might find yourself joining in

View from the USA: Not-so-Magic-Kingdom
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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I’m a Disney cynic. There’s just something about the combination of a cappella singing and fake Mickey ears that makes me want to do unspeakable things with mousetraps. Surely in this great country of pristine mountains and golden beaches there are better things to do than queue and bleed money? Apparently not. Disney is still one of America’s most popular travel destinations and I have a theory why: it’s not a theme park, it’s a religion. I call it the cult of the mouse.

But my kids disagree, which is exactly how I ended up here in the first place. They cuddled, cried, begged and bribed, and eventually, for the mere price of a peaceful Saturday afternoon on the sofa, the entire family was going to Disney. This is how the evil works. 

There were, admittedly, nice moments. The parades are like raves for primary school kids; the shows are fluffy and surreal, and walking around Disneyland with a three-year-old girl dressed as a princess is like being part of Taylor Swift’s entourage — I’ve never high-fived so many people in all my life. 

But then there’s the other side. The major activity is standing in line. “It builds anticipation,” said one season-ticket holder. Does it? Unless you’re rolling around in bed, waiting 60 minutes for 30 seconds of screaming just isn’t worth it. And everything costs money. Where’s the magic in a kingdom built on overpriced junk food and useless tat? “It’s a fairytale,” my wife said. “Get over it.” 

But if it really was a fairytale, what would the moral be? The Seven Dwarfs would’ve charged Snow White rent and Prince Charming would’ve had to queue for hours to kiss Sleeping Beauty. If it was a fairytale, Disneyworld would be the Ball, and Cinderella could go all right, but only if she scrubbed those floors all year to cover the ticket prices.

And that’s the thing: Disneyland is a caricature of American happiness. There’s the good — walking into the park is like double-dropping Prozac. You don’t have to work at it at all; everyone’s smiling, brass bands are playing, there is, literally, dancing in the streets. It’s infectious.

America can be like that too. Where I live in Colorado, strangers smile and say hello. For a reserved Brit like me, it was unnerving at first, like walking into a scene from The Stepford Wives; the only way I could cope was by imagining all the hideous things these people must do behind closed doors. But now I love it. Happiness, I’ve since realised, isn’t so much a state of mind as a piece of real estate. Your world becomes you; make it a happy one. 

But then there’s the bad. American society is utterly phobic of negativity. Where the British have embraced the art of being miserable, if you’re not smiling in America something’s gone horribly wrong. But the pressure to pursue happiness is counterproductive. Americans spend a billion dollars on self-help books a year and take more antidepressants than any other country in the world — 11% of people over the age of 12 are on them — yet according to the latest World Happiness Index, the country is more miserable than ever. That idyll of American life — an unattainable, perpetual state of happiness where everything you could ever need is right at hand and joy can be bought as easily as chewing gum, is like a fart of the American dream; it might make you smile at first, but eventually it smells bad. 

But this doesn’t apply to kids. On our last night, we went to The Parade of Lights — a spectacular stream of glitzy dancers and sparkle-covered cartoon mascots. My daughter, Elise, screamed like a Belieber throughout; every character she’d ever watched, read about and loved was there. And then, as fireworks exploded in the sky and songs filled the air, inexplicably, I joined in. I boogied to The Jungle Book, belted out ballads from The Lion King and felt genuine chills as Princess Elsa took to her throne.

“Thanks for bringing us, daddy,” Elise said. It was the first time she’d properly thanked me for anything; I was overcome with emotion. “Of course,” I blurted out. “We’ll come back every year!” I couldn’t believe the words had left my lips. They might be selling manufactured happiness, but perhaps there’s some magic in the cult of the mouse after all. Or maybe that’s just how the evil works.

British travel writer Aaron Millar ran away from London in 2013 and has been hiding out in Colorado ever since. His latest book 50 Greatest Wonders of the World is published by Icon Books (RRP: £8.99).

Published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)