In This Sterile Diorama, Life Is but a Theme

By Stephen Bayley – April 9, 1992


LONDON, On his first trip to the United States, Charles Dickens was struck by the temporary nature of all that he saw. In Lowell, Massachusetts, he felt that most of the buildings had been erected the day before he arrived. This sense of urgency and immediacy struck other contemporary visitors, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Fanny Trollope, and still strikes people today. A rootless urgency characterizes American culture, which is why the nation has developed such a complicated modern heraldry: McDonald’s franchises, Hertz bureaus and Coke. In a vast continent with a shallow history, people crave and cling to symbols.

Twenty miles east of Paris may seem an odd place to start brooding on American national characteristics, but it is here that Euro Disney (provenance: California 1955, Florida 1971, Tokyo 1983) has landed, and the Old World is presented with all the confident, big ticket flimflam of painstaking fakery that this bizarre campaign of reverse-engineered cultural imperialism represents. Is Euro Disney a good thing?

Only if you enjoy pseudo-events and have a taste for phantasmagoric kitsch. Euro Disney exists because of two major schisms in contemporary culture. One between travel and tourism. The other, between education and entertainment. Caldern wrote a play “La Vida Es Sueo.” For Euro Disney life is not a dream, but a theme.

Disney stands for tourism and entertainment, which is to say it is not for the high-minded, but it is for people – of whatever nationality – who are pleased to demonstrate their trade or sporting affiliations by means of logos on trucker’s caps. There is a surprising number of these people about.

The statistics of Euro Disney are reminiscent, in their size and horrific suggestiveness, of the awful aggregate of numbers spat out by World War I. With a total projected size of 5,000 acres (about one-fifth the area of Paris), 5,200 hotel rooms already available and an anticipated attendance of 11 million in its first year, Euro Disney and its shows, rides, themed shops and themed restaurants threaten to shift Europe’s center of gravity. Anyway, it’s an ill wind. Maybe the Louvre will be empty after next Sunday.

There is no gainsaying the optimism, commitment and quality of Euro Disney, a brilliantly buffed-up exercise in professional leisure management, but equally the fastidious aesthete is lost for words at the grotesque vulgarity of it all, a vulgarity doubly damaging because it is so effortless to consume. Life is a theme: Camp Davy Crockett, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle (43 meters tall), a hotel got up to look like a Rhode Island clapboard mansion (architect: Robert A. M. Stern), Sequoia Lodge (“for a Rocky Mountain high without leaving Europe”) and Mainstreet USA (from an original idea by Charles Dickens) are demonstrations of the great Disney machine humming mightily on well-lubricated bearings, extruding seamless and inoffensive themes. It is all so undemandingly mindless, the Prince of Wales might have been the master architect. There is no grit in the mechanism, no flies in the soup, no truculent waiters, no exaltation, no boredom. Forget exploration or hazard; Euro Disney offers a version of culture with the effect of intravenous Valium and elevator music.

This is where the travel-tourism and education-entertainment distinction comes to light. The reason why travel is better than tourism andeducationbetter than entertainment is that, ultimately, they are more rewarding for everyone. Such pleasures as there may be in tourism and entertainment are in any case assumed by travel and education. Difficulty enhances pleasure; themed ease may be immediately gratifying, but progressively diminishes the potential for delight. The difference is hard work, risk, effort: the things that distinguish worthwhile experiences from the worthless ones. Euro Disney is kitsch; it is bad art. This is not to say that it will not be immensely popular because, as H. L. Mencken knew, no one ever went bust underestimating the public’s taste. With its roster of postmodern architects and its seductive catalogue of risk-free themes – no Liverpool dockside or Naples back alley here- Euro Disney takes underestimation to new heights.

But wait a minute. Maybe the synthetic and saccharine easy-listening experience will soon acquire a period charm. Euro Disney has plans through to 2017, but I wonder if new technology will make it redundant before then. You don’t have to be a happy-clappy Silicon Valley hippie to see that computer-driven virtual reality is set to upstage Euro Disney before the millennium. The first stage of the separation of tourism from travel may have been to jet in jumbos of credulous, uninquisitive proles to look at synthetic tableaux, board them for the night and jet them back again, but the crucial second stage will be to make them stay at home strapping on virtual-reality body stockings and having a Davy Crockett experience, complete with wood fires, mosquitoes and chipmunk droppingsin the easeful, unthemed comfort of home. All thanks to high definition television and some fiendishly powerful chips.

I like to think that by the turn of the century Euro Disney will have become a deserted city, similar to Angkor Wat or Arc-et-Senans:a haunting reminder of a knowing, but innocent, past age. Those hungry for the tourist experience or avid for entertainment will let the fingers of their virtual-reality gloves do the walking. The rest of us can get back to traveling, and here is Disney’s greatest opportunity yet. With eye-popping professionalism, Euro Disney turns the dirt and danger of the American frontier into a cloying, undemanding, perfectly safe, synthetic, valueless, themed sensation.

By about 2001 only real travelers will be moving around the globe. If only Disney’s nerveless, competent, entirely safe and thoroughly professional expertise could be applied to the dirt and danger of the world’s great airports, then a great service would be done for civilization. Alas, the same cannot be said for Euro Disney.

Stephen Bayley is the author, most recently, of “Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things.”