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At Home in Potatoland: On Joan Didion, Nostalgia, and Walt Disney

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My default location on is Walt Disney World.

This makes no sense. For one thing, I live in Cambridge, Mass. For another, there are places I visit far more often than I visit Orlando: my hometown in Monterey, Calif., for example. I’ve tried to change my settings on the website to better reflect this. But for some reason, the four trips I’ve taken to Disney World have thrown a wrench into the algorithm, and as a result I’m always cognizant of whether or not it’s warm enough for a spin on the Kali River Rapids. (Today, it’s 89 and cloudy in the Animal Kingdom, so the answer is yes.)

As a result of this little computer glitch, I think about Disney every day. I think about Monterey every day, too. I spent the first 18 years of my life there, although when I go back, I feel like a tourist. Growing up, there was no greater insult. I recall the uncharacteristic vitriol with which my dad (who is usually a jolly and even-tempered fellow) would mutter the epithet at the crowds on Cannery Row or at the drivers of the rental RVs that went way too slow down Highway One.

Intense feelings demand action. We confront them or dull them or change them, or we question ourselves for having felt so strongly in the first place. Reading Joan Didion’s Where I Was From, I get a sense of the latter. The book is, among other things, a late-in-life exploration of her youth in California. I’m not talking Slouching Toward Bethlehem youth or Play It as It Lays youth: I’m talking early years. She was born in Sacramento in 1934, but her family’s tenure in the West stretches back to 1846, when her mother’s ancestors traveled, for a time, alongside the infamous George Donner-James F. Reed party. The depths of Didion’s California roots are troublesome for her. There is a “dissonance,” she says “which has to do with the slippage between the way Californians perceive themselves and the way they were, between what they believed to be their unlimited possibilities and the limitations of their own character and history.” She seems both skeptical of California’s allure and inescapably caught up in it: a contradiction that encapsulates the very nature of nostalgia and its discontents.

Nostalgia is something she shares with Walt Disney, another legendary Californian. Disney, however, did not share Didion’s ambivalence, and his nostalgia wasn’t a product of California. Rather, it was inspired by Marceline, Mo: his home in childhood. It was, to his mind, the perfect example of small-town America. The countryside was lush and welcoming. The downtown was charming and safe but also, because it served as a railroad division point, alive with commerce and community and all sorts of entertainment. The years Disney spent there were short but formative: “more things happened to me in Marceline than have happened since,” he once commented, “or are likely to in the future.” When Walt and his team were planning the layout of Disneyland, Walt would hold forth for hours on the charms of his former home: an exercise that eventually resulted in the Main Street sections of the parks that bear his name. Walking down these faux boulevards is a very strange experience. You get the sense that Walt never questioned the purity of his nostalgia. In fact, his hallucination of yesteryear is so dense and detailed and complete that even the most cynical visitor—myself included—can’t help but feel a weird twinge of homesickness. This twinge isn’t accidental or unique. It is, in the words of one Disney scholar, “a fantasized but nearly pitch-perfect representation of [our] deepest commitments and beliefs.” It is the bedrock of the Disney brand, and it is exploited at every turn. Welcome home! is how all visitors, even first time ones, are greeted by Disney hotel staff.

I’m drawn in by the hallucination but, like any good curmudgeon, I’m also irked by it. I’m always on the lookout for a chink in the armor, a glitch in the matrix. In 2013, the company began making revamped versions of its classic Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts. While the new storylines retain much of the harmless whimsy of the originals, there are times when the themes dig deeper, especially in Potatoland. In this short, Goofy longs to visit Potatoland: a theme park devoted to potatoes. The problem is, Potatoland doesn’t actually exist; it’s just a billboard slogan for Idaho that Goofy, as a child, took literally. Mickey and Donald are so touched by Goofy’s enduring enthusiasm and naiveté that they take it upon themselves to make his boyhood dream come true. They construct a Disney World entirely out of potatoes and guide an enraptured Goofy to each of the potato-centric attractions. As they’re walking down Potatoland’s Main Street, Goofy exclaims, “It feels so…magical!” The accompanying visuals, however, are anything but. We see Goofy peering into a storefront window, imagining the treasures within. The treasures, however, are nothing more than a dirt floor, some scrap lumber, and a potato on a stool: a fact that Goofy, from his perspective, cannot discern but that we, as the audience, can. Disney, in other words, is calling itself out on its own bullshit. But, in so doing, it also reinforces the bullshit’s primal power. You know it and we know it, the cartoon seems to say, and yet…here we are.

What, then, does this imply about the value of the hallucination, especially in relation to the behind-the-scenes mechanisms required to keep it alive?

I’ve never been behind-the-scenes at a Disney park. I have, however, worked at The Monterey Bay Aquarium: a tourist destination that, although it welcomes far fewer visitors than the Disneyland or Disney World, is extremely popular in its own right. Its popularity is due to the fact that it is a distinctly beautiful aquarium experience. The tanks are flawlessly curated and maintained, the viewing corridors are spotless and thoughtfully lit and, where appropriate, full of haunting ambient music. When people describe their visits, it is often in borderline spiritual terms. Over the course of my tenure there, I had ample opportunity to see the fallacy of this. I could have seen a seamy underbelly. I could have witnessed corners cut or animals mistreated. I could have glimpsed the potato on the stool, so to speak. But I never did. If anything, the private spaces of the Monterey Bay Aquarium are even more magical that the public ones. The exact same aesthetic sensibility that pervades the viewing galleries—clean, calm, scientifically sound, technologically advanced—also characterizes the service corridors, which is nice because it appeals to my sense of symmetry. But does it actually matter? Does it change the intended visitor experience? Does it make the enacting of the touristic ritual any more blameless? If the hallucination doesn’t evaporate when you peek through the fake storefront window, is it replicated into infinity thereby becoming an even more convincing—and potentially insidious—performance of substance?

Unlike my Dad, I’m not interested in condemning tourists. I’ve been a tourist myself on countless occasions, and there are few things more maddening than someone bemoaning a phenomenon in which she is complicit. Like everyone else, I’ve spent money at places designed to meet the needs of the transient as opposed to the permanent. The fact remains, however, that the Monterey of 2016 is nothing like the Monterey in which I was born and raised. It has, in our culture’s parlance for something commercialized and sanitized to the point of self-parody, been “Disneyfied.” I’m sad about this but, like Didion, I question the validity of the sadness. I recognize that the aquarium—an institution I love and respect—is largely responsible for the town’s transformation. I also recognize that the sturdy structure of my childhood impressions is someone else’s (John Steinbeck’s, maybe?) flimsy façade. In Didion’s words:
Discussion of how California has ‘changed’…tends locally to define the more ideal California as that which existed at whatever past point the speaker first saw it: Gilroy as it was in the 1960s and Gilroy as it was fifteen years ago and Gilroy as it was when my father and I ate short ribs at the Milias Hotel are three pictures with virtually no overlap, a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it.
I have similarly non-overlapping holograms, or hallucinations, of Cannery Row, the street on which the aquarium now resides. First, as the site of suspiciously well-contained warehouse fires; second, on the aquarium’s opening day; and third, as Monterey’s faux Main Street cum Times Square: a place where the crowds are bad, the commerce is frivolous, the prices are high, and where locals almost never go unless they’re entertaining someone who lives elsewhere.

At the turn of the prior century, when Monterey was experiencing its first burst of attention from the leisure class, this onstage/offstage friction reached a literal flash point. The proprietors of the luxurious Hotel Del Monte were convinced its well-heeled patrons would not abide the aesthetic shortcomings of the town’s thriving fishing industry, so they did everything in their power—including arson, some say—to push the blue-collar undesirables out of both sight and mind.

And even though my love of the Monterey Bay Aquarium makes me once again hesitant to proclaim as much, there is evidence of the same sort of culling in terms of both their exhibit design and visitor demographics. Aquarium tanks are highly curated situations, and for a good reason. Few people would actually care to witness the true brutality and barrenness of life in the ocean. So the aquarists—the men and women who care for the fish and design their habitats—are tasked with presenting a highly edited and beautified version of life in the bay. In a sense, it’s a Disney World for fish: a place where the ugliness of reality is replaced by reality’s pleasantly circumscribed doppelgänger. It’s a considerable achievement, and it costs a lot to maintain, which is why the ticket prices are so high. Which, in turn, is why, when you roam the aquarium’s galleries, you often see more diversity inside the tanks than in front of them.

From all accounts, Walt Disney never became disenchanted with Marceline, Mo. As Disneyland grew into a bona fide phenomenon, its founder’s ambitions became extraordinarily wide-ranging. In addition to considering Disney-branded golf courses, bowling alleys, cocktail bars, and childcare centers, Walt also had grand plans for his childhood homestead in Marceline. For a time in the late-1960s, he wanted to turn it into a model farm: a tourist-friendly version of the real thing. This particular vision was never realized, but that didn’t stop Disney from conducting other experiments in the forcible redefinition of home. To wit, Celebration, Fla: a master-planned community adjacent to Disney World that allows its residents to live the dream not just on vacation, but year-round.

Joan Didion ended up in New York. There are so many questions that, given the chance, I’d love to ask her. In spite of everything she’s come to realize about home and its limitations, does she still consider herself a Californian? Has she made her peace with the collective delusion on which the state was built and continues to operate? Does she still experience “a lightening of the spirit” when she flies west, or has that mellowed and darkened with time? Like Didion, I flew back to Monterey to bury my mother, and it’s hard to imagine a day when the sight of that coastline will be anything other than shattering.

Unlike Didion, however, I’ll try not to beat myself up about this. I won’t speak ill of nostalgia: mine or anyone else’s. I won’t condemn those who spend their hard-earned money and fast-vanishing time on hallucinations, convincing or otherwise. Most of all, I’ll try not to pass judgment on Disney’s latest trick. To find inspiration for the setting of Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, Disney animators visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They examined the viewing galleries and the service corridors. They made sketches that beautified the already beautiful, that condensed the already condensed. The final result is, of course, gorgeous: a hologram within a hologram in which viewers from every corner of the globe will feel instantly, inexplicably at home.

Image Credit: Flickr/harshlight.

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