Thursday, December 14, 2006

Disney Part II: The Animal Kingdom

Sure, Animal Kingdom is at least as ideologically problematic as Celebration and the Africa stop in the World Showcase (It's Africa, as a gift shop!).

Animal Kingdom is divided into Africa, Asia and DinoLand, places you can happily and "safely" tour through Disney "magic." Why, on the resort channel in our hotel room, our family learned from a perky teen that half of the park is "just like the real Africa, without the malaria shots!" (It's yellow fever shot, malaria pills . . . and what goes unsaid is that it is also "Africa" without African people). Still, we expected our family to love it for its "safari," gorgeous landscapes and landscaping, and a Lion King live performance.

Our visit was anything but magical.

So when a "cast member" conducting research asked if I'd be willing to respond to an emailed survey, I was happy to do so. I'll post the response to the question regarding service/treatment by cast members below:

*We are a multiracial family, and as such, we often attract a bit more attention than other families. In the case of our visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom, this added attention was disproportionately negative:

In the first instance, I was with my daughter and son (my husband had stepped back to observe) near the gorillas. One gorilla pounded on the glass and my son turned to me, intrigued (not having identified this as an aggressive gesture) and "showed" me what the gorilla had done. At this point the staff member said, "Little man, don't use body language. That's probably why he did that." The staff member was clearly concerned by the gorilla's aggressive behaior (natural, it seems to me, to wild animals kept behind glass) but surprisingly, inaccurately assigned responsibility for that behaior to a child (well-supervised by both parents and ery well-behaved). My sensitive five year old son was thrown by the chastisement and was "sad" and "embarrassed" for a good while afterward, not feelings expected by a child visiting Disney. Had she said (to educate) that gorillas respond to our body language he would have been more careful and would have learned something important about the animal world and human interaction with it.

The second and third instances are as follows: Prior to the Lion King our not yet two year old daughter was playing at my feet. We were in the front row as my mother was using a wheel chair, but we planned to seat my daughter with my husband in the second row when the show began, for her safety and for the performance. One staff member approached us and insisted that my daughter be contained. I explained that of course she would not be free, nor would she be in the front row at all, when the show began. She turned to my mother to continue, though she did agree that my daughter was fine where she was for the moment and that the plan was sound. Just moments later a male staff member approached as I was picking my daughter up (to pass her back to her dad), and lectured me, though she was already in my arms. I gritted my teeth and passed her back. The show did not begin for several more minutes.

My children's father, particularly when not right beside them, is not always (or easily) identified as the father of both, and while we do understand the importance of safety and security for animals, performers and audience, we couldn't help but wonder (nor could others around us) whether we were treated differently as a result of our non-traditional family composition (whether consciously or unconsciously). As a family, we were very discouraged that this might happen in a Disney park, and it greatly affected our ability to enjoy what would otherwise have been a beautiful day.*

This was a difficult complaint to write (so please don't tear it apart), and not only because the survey times out if you actually try to provide a coherent, substantive response. It was also difficult because we believed that we were treated differently because of assumptions made about me as the (seemingly unaccompanied) mother of children of two different races. Any wording that relied on our being a two-parent (heterosexual) family, justifying racial difference by mentioning adoption (as in, "it's okay! I'm a good person. This is an international adoption") felt like it would trade on our privilege and deny the rights of other nontraditional families not to be harassed.

No doubt about the connection between fascism and Disney World.
But really -- telling on me to my mother? Crossed a new line.

1 comment:

Third Mom said...

I think I would have interpreted what happened exactly as you did. Sadly, I think the racial composition of our families does cause us to be approached and treated differently.

I had a similar experience in church years ago when our son was two. He was pretty good for about half of the time, but got a little fidgety, so I picked him up and walked to the back. An usher, a real oddball who shared the ushering function with his odder wife, turned to me and said in a very angry voice, "That child is disturbing everyone!" I was dumbfounded - simply could not believe that someone who be that mean to a two-year-old in a CHURCH. I left immediately in tears, and call the priest later that day, still in tears. Although I'm convinced there was a racial overtone to the way we were treated and told the priest so, he didn't see how it could have been, just didn't want to believe that something racist could have happened in his church.

But I believe it did, and I believe it happens everywhere. I'm really sorry you experienced it, too.