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Spending time with the Magic Kingdom’s most obsessive fans, who were raised there, marry there, visit every week, and would be buried there if they could
In May Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix and her husband, Tony, took a 14-day Caribbean cruise that included passage through the Panama Canal on board the Disney Magic. There are a handful of cruise ships bigger than the Magic—the Carnival Destiny, for instance, can host as many as 2,600 guests—but the Magic belongs to the largest class of ships allowed through the canal. It is nearly 1,000 feet long, weighs 83,000 tons (not counting its 2,400 well-fed guests), and when it is towed by tugboat through the canal, there is less than a foot between the ship’s hull and the canal’s walls. Sometimes, the ship hits the wall.
That’s what happened on Vincent-Phoenix’s trip—a piece of canal wall broke off and was lodged in a porthole of the Magic. But before the trip ended, Disney personnel had removed the debris, cleaned it up, mounted it on a polished wood stand with a bronze plaque, and auctioned it off at a gala dinner. One vacationing Disney fan paid more than $5,000 for the concrete chunk. “You have to understand,” says Vincent-Phoenix, “that it was Disney magic that knocked it off the Panama Canal.”
As it turns out, Vincent-Phoenix probably understands the magic rock and its owner better than most people. She runs a small collectibles business in Orange County named Charming Shoppe and offers an online service fielding orders from Disneyland fans around the world. They all want the same thing: for Vincent-Phoenix to walk into the resort and buy them a pair of mouse ears or a pound of Disney coffee or a toy monorail. She, in turn, charges a small commission.
Vincent-Phoenix is enthusiastic and dogged. She has a speedy gait, and when she steams up Main Street or into Downtown Disney, a stack of orders clutched in her hand and rippling in the breeze, her black bob bounces in the sunlight. She thinks, and talks, as fast as she moves, and on the day I followed her into the Anaheim park—the only location where certain Disneyland merchandise can be purchased—she ticked off the day’s shopping list: “Wedding bells and ornaments for a Disney-themed wedding, photo albums, posters, personalized name badges, a bunch of shirts. Someone in Australia wants a set of Disney glasses. There’s a couple of books, four cans of Disney coffee, an Indiana Jones toy, a vague description of a watch I’ll see if I can find, a lot of park music, and 26 pairs of mouse ears—each with personalized stitching.”
It was an easy day’s work, nothing like the toy monorail rushes at Christmas, when Vincent-Phoenix backs her van up to the World of Disney’s parking lot in Downtown Disney and shovels in the orders. “Twenty-six ears isn’t a lot,” she said as we wheeled past the store’s $200 Lenox castles, the $700 Bambi statuettes, the $1,500 bejeweled Mickey ears. Almost nothing seemed to faze her. “Look, people want to own a piece of the park. They have an affinity for Disneyland from childhood—these are adults I’m shopping for, by the way, not children—and now that they’re 50 and they can’t be here, they’re trying to recapture that feeling through the merchandise. I even know a guy who purchased the cross-eyed sea serpent when Disney pulled it out of the Submarine Lagoon and auctioned it off. A thing like that is the holy grail of merchandising. I think he’s going to install it in his backyard.”
Suddenly Vincent-Phoenix came to a stop. “Whoa!” she exclaimed. Finally something had fazed her. From a soft pile of clothing she picked out a dainty Fred Segal Disneyland T-shirt and held it against her Rubenesque body.
“This is where it gets crazy,” she announced, suspiciously eyeing the skimpy garment. “These shirts are selling for $125, and they only fit someone who weighs under 130 pounds. I’m not getting any orders for these.”
Just about anyone Vincent-Phoenix shops for, along with almost all her friends, belongs to the same unorganized but loosely affiliated group of people: dyed-in-the-wool Disneyland fans. Like Elvis devotees, Tolkien nuts, Trekkies, and Fantasy Football players, they have watched as a thing—in this case the Anaheim park—entered their lives and took up residence in the way a cause, a religious belief, or a new family can. The nomenclature describing them is varied and colorful and includes “Disney geeks,” “annual pass holders,” Disney enthusiasts (a term considered pretentious by non-self-identifying enthusiasts), and “Disneyana fans.”
“Disnoids” is the name I favor, a word coined by DreamWorks studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg to describe his management cadre when he worked for Disney in the 1980s. No one knows how many Disnoids there are—at least thousands and likely tens of thousands—but what is ultimately so normal about them as a group is the heterogeneity of their interests. They love virtually anything that has to do with Disneyland.
In addition to merchandise collectors, there are Disnoids who obsess over a single attraction, like the Haunted Mansion; who are fascinated by the history of rides that no longer exist, like Adventure Thru Inner Space or the PeopleMover; who dedicate themselves to understanding the infrastructure of the park’s waterways and subterranean vaults; who make it their goal to enter Disneyland every day of the year. Couples get engaged at Disneyland, hold Disney weddings, go on Disney honeymoons, and come home to Disney-decorated bedrooms. (In such marriages kids are optional.) One woman, well recognized among Adventureland employees, recently celebrated her 7,500th ride on the Indiana Jones attraction. A group of Pirates of the Caribbean fans are known to wear the notes of the attraction’s theme song tattooed across their bodies, spiraling calliope fashion down and around their torsos. Online, men peruse the photo collections of women who have exposed their breasts to the digital camera on Splash Mountain’s big flume drop. On one occasion I was led by a Disnoid to what he said was the grave of his dog, whose carbonized remains were sneaked into the park one night and interred on the grounds of Sleeping Beauty Castle. “There are a lot of other people who have done the same thing with their dead pets throughout the park,” he solemnly told me.
The English language has not been kind to fans. The source of the moniker is the word fanatic, and the list of synonyms that follows fan in the thesaurus reads like a string of insults: hound, nut, fiend, addict, junkie, freak. In the movies, fans are portrayed as obsessive loners, like Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, or as obsessive stalkers and would-be assassins, like De Niro’s Gil Renard in The Fan. Even William Shatner took a swipe at his support crew during a Saturday Night Live Trekkie convention sketch, shouting, “Get a life!”
Like all hard-core fans, Disnoids make up an elite fraction of an audience of consumers. Most of us probably think of ourselves as “fans” of Disneyland; Disnoids are that tiny percentage who set their watches to It’s a Small World’s ticking grandfather clock. Like foodies in a favorite restaurant, they are quintessential insiders, self-made experts. They can tell you the size of the ball bearings used on Space Mountain’s rockets. They can lead you to the coldest drinking fountain in the park (it’s in Mickey’s Toontown) and steer you clear of the most fetid bathroom (again, Mickey’s Toontown). Every one of them can point out Walt Disney’s old apartment window on Main Street and expound on his philosophy. And they have a name for the rest of us, the park amateurs, one that crops up in the Harry Potter novels to describe people who aren’t touched by magic: Muggles.
Unlike other fans, however—those enthusiasts who spend their lives attempting to connect with the authentic source of their fandom through an autographed photo of Delta Burke or a vial of Elvis’s sweat—Disnoids can actually enter the self-contained world of their desire. Theoretically; if they have enough money, they could live there at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel. Trekkies cannot beam up to the starship Enterprise—they must settle for a convention at the Pasadena Convention Center—and Tolkien fans are forever denied entrance to Middle-earth (which hasn’t stopped a growing tourist trade in New Zealand, where the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed). But Disneyland fans leave our world daily for their own. They call it “going beyond the berm,” referring to the 15-foot-high slope that surrounds the park and blocks out California, and one of their complaints about Disney’s California Adventure is that its walls let in too much California. From that park’s Paradise Pier you can spy nearby hotels, power lines, and the decidedly unadventurous Anaheim Convention Center.
Photograph by Felipe Dupouy
Elvis fans have their own analogue of Disneyland: Graceland. The annual August pilgrimage that ends there, when tens of thousands take part in a candlelight vigil that winds into the estate on the anniversary of the King’s death, is a ritualistic fusion of our longing for spirituality and our lust for celebrity. While a cult of Walt exists, the love of Disneyland sits a few clicks above the lust for celebrity and somewhere beneath spirituality. This year, though, the park featured its equivalent of “Death Night in Memphis”: its 50th anniversary, which fell on July 17 and had been advertised by Disney for months as a “homecoming.” For Disnoids, who already make Disneyland a second home or who chase after their retreating childhoods in repeat visits to Fantasyland, the idea was dead-on—and a day awaited in anticipation.
Months before the 50th-anniversary celebration, I accompanied a Disnoid named Michael Sandstrom on a trip through the park to take in the state of preparations for July 17. Sandstrom is a thin, 42-year-old interior designer who looks younger than his age, keeps his dark hair short and his beard trimmed, and is fond of wearing Disney apparel; on the day I met him he was dressed in a blue Mickey Mouse T-shirt, snug jeans, white tennis shoes, and wraparound ski-bum sun-glasses. Sandstrom’s life appears to have been transformed by Disneyland in a manner that far surpasses that of any other Disnoid I know. Each morning, upon awakening, he visits a half-dozen Web sites for news about the park. An expanding Disneyland library threatens to take over his Glendale home, and he has written letters of opinion to Disney’s chairmen of the board since the fourth grade—exchanges, he says, that now number more than 40. “I’m not particularly close to my family,” Sandstrom told me as we approached the park’s central hub, “so Disneyland stands in for what a lot of other people might already have—something solid and permanent.”
In 1975, when he was in the sixth grade, Sandstrom got wind of a new Tomorrowland attraction, Space Mountain, set to open in two years. The attraction swept into his life as a whirlwind or a girl can. Like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he began compulsively sketching and redrawing the unrealized mountain’s shape. “That locked things in for me,” Sandstrom says. “The design, the white hurling shape, the interplay and way it’s integrated into Tomorrowland. That’s when my obsession became flatly formed.”
The best way to summarize what then happened to Sandstrom is to imagine Disneyland and the world switching places overnight. “After Space Mountain, Disneyland was a gateway into the rest of the world for me,” he says. Disneyland became his life, and a cause. Like most Disnoids, Sandstrom has sustained a love for Disneyland, the park, while maintaining a deep-seated anger toward Disneyland, the management team. (“Think of us as the wives of alcoholics” is how one Disnoid describes it.)
A lasting crush on Kurt Cobain, a lifelong interest in Middle-earth, a hobby writing songs that explore Chewbacca’s love affairs and inner sorrows (“filking” is fan-based songwriting and performance)—these are paths to expanding meaning in one’s existence, perhaps less noble but in the end little different from daily church attendance or spending one’s life collecting and preserving Mayan relics. But unlike those devoted to high literature or fine art, fans like Sandstrom who dedicate their lives to theme parks, or to movie and rock stars, are often perceived as hysterics.
Generally, however, the realms of fandom—pop culture and sports—are the weekend pursuits of the middle and working classes. A 20-year-old male who waits in line for a month dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi to see the next Star Wars film is an unmoored freak, the kind of person who combs his hair with firecrackers. Should that same individual join a James Joyce reading club, spend his weekends at Joyce gatherings and his vacations exploring Dublin for signs of the author’s life, then no matter what his background, he’s well on his way to being thought of as a highbrow aficionado. (Interestingly, Bob Dylan fans—because of the songwriter’s unsure address on the cultural map—are one group that falls somewhere between low-brow and high; we don’t know if they’re nuts or experts.) Emotional restraint and intelligence are associated with the lofty pursuit of obsessing over a stolen Edvard Munch painting; fevered volatility is attached to rallying around Michael Jackson at a courthouse appearance. What Jackson’s fans demonstrated this summer on national TV, besides their inability to carry a tune, is the moral duty to defend and protect that’s implicit in fandom. The case is no different for the Disnoids.
“Disney is accurate in calling the 50th a homecoming,” Sandstrom said as we rounded our path into Tomorrowland. “But all the ride closures they’ve had coming up to the 50th is an admission that they have let things slip here. Michael Eisner has betrayed all the things Walt did, and it riles me up because I care so much about the park.”
All around us in Tomorrowland were signs that Sandstrom’s homecoming might be as prickly as any Thanksgiving gathering. The Submarine lagoon, drained now for nearly a decade, weathered behind a plywood wall; the derelict tracks of the PeopleMover were shrouded in canvas sheets that billowed in the afternoon breeze and resembled a Christo installation. Innoventions was empty of visitors, the abandoned motorboat pond covered in scum. And towering above the entire scene stood the moribund swoop of Space Mountain, closed to the public for nearly two years during renovations.
Sandstrom’s face hardened. “How is it that Disneyland has been slipping into irrelevance after 50 years?” he angrily asked. “The fact that they’re saying the 50th is going to be great is a sign that it hasn’t been so for a long time. Oh, this is a travesty! Tomorrowland was supposed to be inspiring, but for a long time now it has said, ‘Your future sucks.’”
He paused for a thought that could support his feelings. “Disneyland was meant to be a gateway to a far richer life. This kind of schlock shit is the antithesis of what Walt would have wanted.”
Just then a talking trash can wheeled over to the spot where Sandstrom and I stood.
“Hey, fellas!” said the trash can. “How’s it going?”
Photograph by Felipe Dupouy
There are two competing stories about the state of Disneyland and its 50th-anniversary celebration. One, told in beautifully animated TV commercials, features Dumbo, Stitch, Goofy, and about a dozen other characters returning home to a park that has remained relatively unchanged for half a century. There is a refurbished Sleeping Beauty Castle, a newly reopened Space Mountain, “Walt Disney’s Parade of Dreams” that winds through the park, and a fireworks extravaganza on weekend nights, all of which Disney management would like to see attract tens of millions of visitors during the designated 18-month celebration.
The revisionist history, told and retold by Disnoids, describes a theme park that lost its way in the late ’90s, pushing merchandising over ride production, cutting back on maintenance and attraction hours, and committing the largest sin—dropping the poorly Imagineered California Adventure onto the old parking lot in 2001. (There are Disnoids who still walk the new park nostalgically pointing out where the lot signs once stood—blue Mickey, green Donald, purple Minnie.) In the wake of management decisions viewed as “anti-Walt,” the paint peeled off Main Street; accidents ensued, killing guests; and Adventureland’s untended Tiki Room, with its singing animatronic bird show, went down the tubes.
Almost all was lost, according to this telling, until two men helped bring the park back to life. The first is Matt Ouimet (pronounced WE-met), the former president of Disney Cruise Line who was named president of Disneyland Resort in 2003 and oversaw its restoration and 50th-anniversary preparations. “Who knows how many plans were already in place before Ouimet came in,” says “Dusty Sage,” creator of the MiceChat message board and a business solutions professional who lives in Orange County. (Sage says he prefers to remain anonymous because his company is currently courting a business deal with Disney.) “But he is getting credit for everything by the fans. He is now spoken of in terms people usually use for Walt, and he could easily become one of the most loved figures in Disney history.” The second individual credited with Disneyland’s comeback is a 48-year-old man of almost no apparent consequence who spends much of his time online named Al Lutz.
Most people who know of Al Lutz—the thousands of Disneyland fans and employees who love or hate him, who believe he has helped save the park or done his best to hurt it, who would die to meet him or like to see him disappear—have never met Lutz or have any idea what he looks like. So for clarity’s sake, here is a description: He has the mild, milky countenance of Dick Van Patten, with wide eyes that appear slightly hyperthyroid, a wispy thatch of brown hair, and while not heavy, he does not appear to exercise much. If you have ever ridden California Adventure’s Soarin’ Over California and this description sounds strangely familiar, it may be because many Disnoids believe an homage to Lutz shows up in the ride’s video intro, projected King Kong—size on an 80-foot screen. (Supposedly, he is the animated bumbling figure asked by the narrator to remove his mouse ears.) Disney and Lutz both deny the resemblance, and anyway, the likeness is wrong in one key respect: the size. Lutz’s stature in the world of Disneyana as its most well-known blogger is far vaster. He’s its Walter Winchell.
Photograph courtesy davelandweb.com
Disnoids had begun assembling on the night of July 16 in a queue that, depending on the estimate, numbered 10,000 or 17,000 or 22,000 souls by daybreak. Because the park handed out gilt mouse ears to tens of thousands of arriving guests, the surge of humanity streaming up Main Street during the early hours resembled a swirling, anticipatory current of gold. Laughing Place, a fan Web site based in Florida, had held a ball the night before in the Disneyland Hotel, and Disnoid clubs and chat boards were staging small anniversary parties throughout the park that morning.
Lutz put in an appearance at the MiceChat gathering near the park’s Plaza Pavilion. There are dozens of chat boards similar to MiceChat, which claims to have 3,500 members, but none has grown as fast and none is as raucous. “We’re the Wild West of message boards,” Sage says. “There are plenty of boards filled with fans who think Disney can do no wrong and not a bad word can be spoken. On our site, anything goes.”
Lutz likes to soft-pedal his love of Disneyland and his fraternizing with Disnoids. “We’re just people with a common interest,” says Lutz, who grew up thinking of Disneyland as his personal park. “Kind of like Pez collectors.” About 50 members of MiceChat, most in their twenties and thirties, milled about him in the shade of a single tree. Lutz, who had not slept in nearly three nights because he was updating his own site, MiceAge, looked like he was wilting in the heat. He was dressed in blue jeans and a teal shirt, but he might as well have been holding a scepter and trailing a vermilion robe. One by one, a steady procession of MiceChat admirers nervously approached Lutz, extending words of praise or thanks. “You’re Al!” a fifty-something man gushed. “I! Love! Your! Column! So! Much!” Lutz received each supplicant the same way—with a whispery voice and the gracious deference of a Southern matriarch that implies “I’m no different from you.” “Thank you,” he told each one.
At other meetings that day Lutz might have been booed if he’d shown up. A sizable number of Disnoids believe Disneyland is sacrosanct and above criticism. For them, someone like Lutz, who professes a love of the park but is famous for his columns damning management, is an infidel. “Al’s rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” says one Disney blogger, “and there are huge feelings of animosity on both sides of that relationship. It’s a scary soap opera.”
Before Disneyland had any significant presence on the Web, Lutz was already running a Disneyland FAQ site. It consisted of hundreds of pages about the park—every show time, every restaurant, what was on the menu, what the prices were. In essence, Lutz’s Web site was Disneyland’s Web site.
By the late ’90s, when Disnoids believe maintenance began falling off at the park, Lutz’s online focus had shifted. He started posting photos of peeling paint and shuttered rides along with commentary about the effect he believed Disneyland’s then president, Paul Pressler, was having on the park. Disney’s Imagineers, who design the rides and attractions, began e-mailing information about the company to Lutz. “They were being downsized and were unhappy,” says Sage, a former roommate of Lutz’s. “At times he would have hundreds of Disneyland employees all the way down to the trash sweepers sending off insider knowledge about the park—anything and everything.” Lutz, by now a self-made journalist with a single beat, owned the largest Disneyland source list in American publishing. His columns critical of park management appeared weekly.
As a gadfly; Lutz wasn’t alone. A gentleman named Jim Hill, who lives in a cabin at the end of a lonely New Hampshire dirt road and calls himself the “Unabomber” of Disneyana, runs a site whose focus is the Disney company. And there is David Koenig, the author of a group of books about the park, who built up a list of sources similar to Lutz’s in the ’90s and found himself one of the go-to commentators for papers like The Wall Street Journal whenever there was a death or accident at Disneyland. “When a tree falls in Disneyland,” Koenig jokes, “my phone starts ringing off the hook.” But Lutz was insistent and raw, an electric figure who drew or repelled readers. “He’s the guy with the extreme preservationist mentality,” says Koenig. When Walt Disney’s son, Roy, began his bid in 2003 to oust CEO Michael Eisner from the company, he made sure he featured a link to Lutz’s blog on his own site, SaveDisney.com. (Eisner, who supposedly was already reading Lutz’s columns, was replaced this month by Robert Iger.) Once I told Lutz that he reminded me of Matt Drudge, and he replied, “I’m not like Drudge—Drudge doesn’t break news.”
Photograph by Felipe Dupouy
Until Lutz began posting his criticisms on the Web, the only option offered to an unhappy Disneyland visitor was to fill out a complaint form. Perhaps he told his wife, but basically the communication stayed between two parties. The Web changed that interface. By 2002, more than half of American households were connected to the Internet, and any family planning a trip to Anaheim who entered “Disneyland” into Google found Lutz’s MiceAge site on the first results page. Lutz’s complaints were not between him and the park; they were between him and hundreds of thousands of American families on their way to Disneyland.
“Absolutely I think people like Al changed park management’s decision making,” says Koenig. “For years they said nothing was going wrong inside the park to the media. And then a couple of years ago everything comes to a grinding halt. They rush out and fix everything wrong, and then make a big deal to the media about how clean the park is again. Well? That stuff wasn’t even on the radar for the media. It only was for guys like Al.”
At the MiceChat meeting an excited middle-aged woman with a tangle of red hair stood up on a bench next to Lutz, held aloft a blue flag, and shouted, “Where are we going?”
“To the castle!” replied 50 Disnoids.
“What are we going to do there?”
“Take it over!”
In single file the MiceChat members marched to the drawbridge of Sleeping Beauty Castle where, in unison, they cried out, “Open up the Fantasyland castle in the name of the children of the world!” and then charged over the bridge.
Nearby, a little girl peeking out from behind her mother’s dress asked, “Mommy, who are those people?”
“Oh, my God,” said Sage, following after his members. “Are we geeks today.”
Matt Ouimet, the president of the Disneyland Resort, is fond of relating the story about the $5,000 Panama Canal rock that was auctioned off on Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix’s cruise. On the day I brought up the story in his office, which sits in a Frank Gehry-designed building on the north side of the Disneyland property, there were Disney PR employees gathered in the room who were familiar with it from Ouimet’s telling. Ouimet, who is 47, wears his graying hair close-cropped like George Clooney’s, has a laid-back manner, and is one of the better-dressed figures on the Disney management team. He spent 15 years working in senior executive positions throughout the company—in Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney’s Wide World of Sports, and Vacation Club—before being appointed president of Disney Cruise Line in 1999. Once there, Ouimet believed he was helping to graft the relatively young culture of the company onto a maritime culture that dated back several hundred years—all within the hold of a ten-story passenger ship. After arriving at Disneyland two years ago, he lived for eight months in a hotel room on the resort property, walking the park each night and never watching television—an experience that has to be akin to several months at sea. He came to realize that a fan culture associated with the park preceded him by several decades, and he would have to adapt.
“The reality of it,” says Ouimet, “is that there is a disproportionate amount of passionate guests here compared to any other park in the world. There is an emotional attachment, and Disneyland—because it is the original—has a heritage. I don’t think you’ll find people that passionate about Walt Disney World. These people grew up with it, and what they can explain to me about the history I can only get from a few guys up in the archives here. When I spent those nights wandering through the park, I realized this is the fabric of these people’s lives. The intensity of it sometimes surprises me. They are obviously extremely loyal.”
Ouimet says the turnaround in the park that the Disnoids see as his doing was already planned far in advance of his arrival. “A lot of what these groups are focused on,” he says, “I would call fundamentals that were on our plate for a long time. The idea of the 50th being important for the company was one that had been out there for a decade.” He also says there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the bloggers and his staff’s decision making. “For years, though,” he says, “they have had a debate with us, the company—‘We’d like you to do this’ or ‘We’d like you to do that.’ I think we try to be good listeners for every angle we get.” Only on the park’s unraveling in the ’90s, which the Disnoids so often talk about, does Ouimet withhold comment. “I can’t speak to the history,” he says. “But I can tell you that from the very first day, whenever our team walks the park we see something that needs painting or something we want to change.”
Ouimet’s predecessor in the ’90s, Paul Pressler, was a former head of the Disney Store who was 38 when he took over the park in 1994. Pressler had a background in marketing and was the first president of Disneyland who hadn’t been a protege of Walt Disney. (In 2000, when he was promoted to chairman of Disney’s Parks & Resorts division, he became Ouimet’s boss; today he is president of Gap Inc.) After Pressler’s appointment—and unrelated to his presence—Disney’s stock dropped nearly 60 percent in a year’s time, and targeted earnings growth by 1998 had slowed from 20 percent to 3 percent. Although Disneyland makes up a small share of the company’s theme park business, which itself provides one-third of Disney’s overall profits, changes in the park’s operations and management followed.
For the first time in Disneyland’s 43-year history, rides began shutting down before the park closed or opening later in the day to save operating costs. Shops were kept open well after official closing hours to increase merchandising profits. The management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, hired to reorganize the park’s facilities, engineering, and construction division, recommended a budget cut of nearly 25 percent and the elimination of 317 of the division’s 738 jobs. Half of maintenance’s supervisors, McKinsey concluded, should be transferred out or let go. (While workforce changes did occur, Disney will not say how many of the company’s recommendations were adopted by the park.)
“The first thing I noticed,” says Lutz, “was that the lightbulbs burning out on Main Street were not being replaced. That’s when I knew Pressler was trouble and that I wanted him out.” As fate would have it, Lutz had already experienced this kind of company reorganization when he worked in RCA’s A&R division during the early ’90s. “RCA brought in efficiency experts trying to tell us what our jobs were,” says Lutz. “They brought in a guy from Procter & Gamble, but the efficiency organizing at Procter & Gamble doesn’t work in the recording business. An overnight call from an artist suffering an overdose doesn’t fit into a flowchart.” Unhappy, Lutz left RCA, only to find that the same reorganization was now taking place at his second home. (Today he makes his living mostly by working for his parents’ real estate appraisal business.) He created a Web site named PromotePaulPressler, whose goal was to elevate the president right out of the park. “Someone had put up an inane post about going after them with a shotgun,” says Lutz. “I thought, ‘We can’t be violent—we have to be creative.’”
Photograph by Felipe Dupouy
Before the Internet, if you nurtured a love of Disneyland that set you apart from your friends, you were basically alone. There was a group called the National Fantasy Fan Club that convened yearly for a short convention and merchandise auction in Anaheim, but just knowing about it took a certain amount of effort. Lutz belonged to a circle that met every Sunday for lunch in the park’s hub. Dusty Sage, who’d left Kansas for Orange County, found his first new friends at those meetings. “I’d say at that time my conception of the Disneyland fan world was maybe 50 or 100 people chatting on a message board,” says Sage. “But that initial hub group became the Internet’s big bang. MiceAge, MiceChat, MousePlanet, Laughing Place, Jim Hill Media, Yesterland—all those Web sites were built by that first group in the hub.”
As pieces of Tarzan’s Treehouse fell out of the sky and gouges appeared on the Haunted Mansion’s clapboard exterior, Disnoids discovered one another online and rallied around the imperiled homeland. Once park management, in its new merchandising drive, had converted Main Street’s Penny Arcade into a stuffed-animal shop, the lid was off and anything seemed possible. Rumors circulated online of the Carnation Cafe becoming a Starbucks, and suggestions were made of storming Tom Sawyer Island to “Take it back!”
“Remember, the average tourist may not have noticed that kind of stuff,” says Koenig, “but the Disneyland-obsessed guy, seeing a piece of trash on the pavement, is going to set up a little partition and start yelling, ‘Help! Custodian! A banana peel is on the ground!’”
Then on Christmas Eve, 1998, a Microsoft employee named Luan Phi Dawson became the first person to be killed at Disneyland owing to park negligence when a metal cleat—used to tie down the still-moving Columbia ship—broke loose from the dock and struck Dawson in the head.
For the Disnoids, the impact of the Columbia accident was analogous to that of Ruby Ridge or Waco on the fringe right during the same period. The root of Disnoid mistrust expressed on the Internet in the ’90s—fears of a threatened land hijacked by an undemocratic power—is similar to the central story line around which the right’s paranoid fantasies swirled during that decade: The Constitution and America’s populist promise were being betrayed by the federal government under the Clinton administration.
The fear of internal treachery is longstanding and has animated Americans for more than a century, from the anti-Catholic Know-Nothings in the 19th century to the anti-Communist McCarthy brigades in the 1950s. Where else but inside a theme park designed to be a concentration of the American experience could such paranoia become full-blown over the appearance of a stuffed-animal store? And when else but in a period that gave us the New World Order, the Militia of Montana, the Unabomber, and presidential candidate Ross Perot rambling on about Fed-backed Black Panthers storming his house? Replace the Founding Fathers with Walt Disney and Revolutionary America with Disneyland’s mythmaking boom of the 1960s—when attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion gave promise to a park narrative that would remain unconnected to a Pixar character or a George Lucas movie—and you have a historical model for the us-versus-them polarity that shaped the average Disnoid in the past ten years.
Part of what makes the Disnoids so suspect to the rest of us is that they’re so serious about something so fun. At the nadir of America’s pop-culture irony boom, they share an unironic love for the last remaining fortress of straight, buttoned-down, “middle-class” values, for the only unironic 85 acres left in America. As a group they’re generally optimistic, wholesome people who believe in magic and think a good Saturday night includes a little Dixieland and maybe some swing dancing. They are men and women who still marvel at the conceit behind It’s a Small World, basically flesh-and-blood, sentimentalized versions of our grandparents. They long for an America—and it once truly existed—where families dressed up in Sunday suits and dresses for a visit to Disneyland. It skeeves us out. They’re so unhip.
You have only to visit Disneyland on a Saturday to realize how far L.A. has drifted from Walt Disney’s vision. One jostles with fathers showing off gang tattoos on their necks, mothers outfitted in terry-cloth hot pants with the word JUICY embroidered across their butts, sullen kids dressed in Nine Inch Nails and ASK ME IF I CARE T-shirts. (No one does.) The sarcasm aimed at the park and others is devastating: Adults waiting in train stations and on boat docks caustically yell, “Wave at me!” Teenagers traveling through the now-hokey animatronics of the Disneyland Railroad’s once nerve-racking Primeval World “scream” in derision.
We live today in the negative image of Walt Disney’s theme park. Disnoids now shock us the way the beats, hippies, and punks once did, not because they have pushed ahead in the grand nonconformist tradition but because they have dropped behind. They’re America’s radical laggard fringe. In a certain sense they’re also ex-pats. Disneyland is their native country.
“The professional Disneyland fan,” says Koenig, “isn’t thrilled at the fact that a new ride has opened. We care that a new attraction has made Disneyland expand in size, improve, and that our own lives are better because of it. The casual visitor seeing half the park in rehab and boarded up recently may have been upset, but the Disneyland fan, spotting a new plywood wall going up, would have cried out, ‘Oh, my gosh! They’re fixing Disneyland!’”
A rehabilitated park, however, isn’t necessarily beneficial to someone who made his bones online as Disneyland’s savior. “No disrespect to Al,” says Koenig, “because he’s a wonderful guy, but people just don’t talk about him as much anymore. There’s no big rallying cry now.” Lutz isn’t about to disappear. He still has his pet peeve, Disney’s California Adventure, to rail against. “They’ve been so worried trying to save California Adventure,” said Lutz on the last occasion I saw him, “that they failed at producing what they should have—a major new ride for the park’s 50th celebration. Instead what we get are things like California Adventure’s Superstar Limo, where you would come out stupider than you were before you went in.”
But without Pressler, Lutz is a little like Rush Limbaugh missing a Clinton in the White House. Koenig has felt the same chill. “When I would do a story about a death there,” he says, “or about the Tiki Room falling apart, I’d get a hundred emails overnight. Now I write pieces about the old park tour-guide programs and get three e-mails thanking me for mentioning someone’s grandfather.”
This feature appears in the November 2005 issue of Los Angeles magazine.