Simulacra and Mimesis in Walt Disney World
By Stacy Cacciatore
The readings and videos couldn’t have been more apropos this week, as I visited Walt Disney World at the same time I was reading Baudrillard, Ulmer, Burroughs and Cage. Walt Disney World is overwhelmingly full of simulacra and mimesis, to the point where the line between reality and fantasy is so blurred one can no longer tell the difference. Mimesis is the representation of the real world in art and literature. Walt Disney World has created an imaginary world based on stories originally created in literature and film. This imaginary world is extraordinarily popular, as each day approximately 52,964 guests visit Walt Disney World which consists of four parks across a 40-square mile radius, staffed with 70,000 Cast Members. In 2017, there were 150 million Disney park visitors globally (Annual Disney Park Attendance and Charts). What has made this fantasy world so popular since 1965? I believe it is because Disney facilitates a hyperreality in an ideological world is represented. Disney re-creates an ideological world that allows adults to reclaim innocence and believe in the signs and simulations that mask the ‘real world’. I believe that most adults spend their entire lives trying to recreate their childhood, either the one they had or the one they wish they had. I believe that is why the lure of Walt Disney World is so strong, as adults can become immersed in an alternate reality that allows them to recapture a time in which there was innocence. Simulacra is something that replaces reality with representation. Disney is in the business of simulacra. Whether it’s their movies, parks or digital technologies, Disney is focused on creating a new reality.
In The Object of Post-Criticism, Ulmer (2002) states the “alternative to ‘mimetologism’ then, does not abandon or deny reference but re-thinks reference in another way: It complicates the boundary line that ought to run between the text and what seems to lie beyond its fringes, what is classified as the real,” (87). When a guest visits Walt Disney World, the line becomes real and illusion becomes so blurry, one can barely recognize it. What I mean by the line becoming blurred between illusion and reality is that items that appear real are simulations and items that appear to be simulations are real. For example, the majority of the trees at Walt Disney World are fake. One can understand that they attractions, characters and designs are fake, but generally, individuals feel as if the items in the perimeter that are not the focus of the simulation area real. Because of the immense quantity of signs and simulations, one even begins to question the items that are indeed real, such as the fruits and vegetables grown in the Living the Land attraction. Disney claims the items planted in this greenhouse are real and served in their restaurants, but the greenhouse itself is part of an attraction that creates an imaginary world. So what is real? Is the set real? The garden? The line is completely blurred.
Baudrillard (1994) speaks specifically about Disney in Signs and Simulations, “Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation” (11). It certainly is entangled, as Disney is created simulations based on simulations (movies), which are based on stimulations of stimulations (stories). We are viewing copies of copies of copies and we no longer know what is real. Think about when you make photocopies of text in a book. The first copy, while not nearly as good as the original, is a fair representation, although you may see some blurriness, blackness at the sides where the book didn’t touch the scanner and warping of words near the book’s spine. But then think of what happens when you make a copy of a copy. Then a copy of that copy. Over time the copy degrades and eventually doesn’t resemble the original product at all.
Baudrillard (1994) states,
The Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real. Whence the debility, the infantile degeneration of this imaginary. It is meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that the real childishness is everywhere, particularly among those adults who go there to act the child in order to foster illusions of their real childishness.
As I pointed out previously, Disney seeks to recreate a world in which the adults can recreate their childhood. They leave their adultness behind in the ‘real’ world and everything that goes with it. Given that the primary goal of Disney is to make money (of course), I believe their vested interest is creating an imaginary world is to make guests lose that sense of reality and therefore spend more money. I think about how I feel when I play a game of Monopoly…I spend freely, building hotels, snatching up properties and not batting an eye at buying Park Avenue. However, it’s a game and the money isn’t real nor are the consequences. Disney seeks to make guests feel the same way. By creating this alternate reality in which what feels real is fake and what feels fake is real, guests are more likely to part with their money. Guests are given a ‘MagicBand’ in which their credit card is linked to further distance the association with money feeling “real”. Guests wander through the parks, glassy-eyed, looking at ‘buildings’ that are really just facades, empty on the other side, meeting characters that aren’t real, riding attractions that make them feel like they are flying through the air or speeding on a race track, all disassociated from reality. The guests continue this delusionary disconnection with reality when spending money. The same ‘MagicBand’ that acts as a hotel key, park admission and photo holder is far removed from the look and feel of money, making it easier to part with hard-earned cash.
I also want to point out that Disney uses imagery to further promote their capitalist goals while concealing their true goal under the guise of entertainment and childlike imagery. In Mitchell’s (1987) Iconology, he speaks about the meaning behind images. Images have been an important topic throughout history, even starting wars (English Civil War) and while the stakes may seem lower today, it’s not because images have lost their power. In fact, Mitchell believes that the nature of imagery is only second to the problem of language. Images are not just a sign, but what Foucault would call “the order of things” (11).
Contrary to common belief images “proper” are not stable, static or permanent in any metaphysical sense; they are not perceived in the same way by viewers any more than are dream images; and are not exclusively visual in any important way, but involved multisensory apprehension and interpretation. Real, proper images have more in common with their bastard children than they might like to admit (14).
The Disney corporation uses ‘Mickey Mouse Ears’ image as a simulacrum for an ideological world. Disney is the third largest media conglomerate in the world. In the fiscal year 2018, the Walt Disney Company generated a total revenue of 59.43 billion (The Walt Disney Company Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Financial Report). However, they attempt to soften and infantilize their image by using the Mickey Mouse Ears image. As Mitchell (1987) says, the ‘proper’ image isn’t any more real than the ‘mental’ image. When people see the Mickey Mouse ears, it creates an image in their head of what Disney is what they stand for and who they are as a company. While I cannot posit what image each person connotes with Disney, I venture to say that the image of the Mickey Mouse ears is more infantilized than a corporate logo (such as the logo for ABC, which Disney owns).
Mitchell (1987) outlines the relationship between a real object and mental image. He says that an image can’t be seen as such without a paradoxical trick of consciousness – showing that something is both there and not there at the same time (17). Throughout the parks, Disney has ‘hidden Mickey’s’, which I believe serve as additional subliminal messaging to create the ideological world that encourages adults to spend money. Harking back to the example of the real and illusionary, just as the lines become blurred between reality and fantasy in Disney, the trick of consciousness with the imagery facilitates this process. As guests see (or not see) the ‘hidden Mickey’s” they are receiving constant communication that reinforces the ideology and illusion that they are in an alternate reality. Take, for example, that even in the resorts that are not specifically Disney ‘themed’ there are hidden Mickey’s hidden in the design of the drapes, rugs, bedding and paintings. Disney wants a constant stream of messaging to encourage consumerism.
In Baudrillard’s Signs and Simulations, he states:
The successive phases of the image:
1. Reflection of basic reality
2. Masks and perverts a basic reality
3. It masks the absence of a basic reality
4. It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum
Let’s explore the Mickey Mouse image and how it moves through the successive phases of the image. First, the image is a reflection of basic reality. Walt Disney said, ‘I only hope we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.” The mouse was the original ‘reality’ of the Walt Disney World company. Walt Disney was an animator and he created a cartoon mouse, originally called ‘Mortimer Mouse’, then later named ‘Mickey Mouse’. However, then the image moved into the next phase, which is the making and perverting of basic reality. As the Walt Disney World company grew, the image became to represent more than a mouse and more than a cartoon. It became a brand within itself. It began to mask and pervert the reality of a ‘cartoon for children’ to a multi-media conglomerate. The third phase is that it masks the absence of basic reality. As Disneyland and Walt Disney World were built, the image became to mask a complete absence of reality. The illusionary world portrayed in the parks is a completely alternate reality that does not reflect the real world. The image serves to represent that alternate image where adults and children alike can escape the real world. The fourth stage is that the image bears no relation at all to reality whatsoever. We can see an example of this in much of Disney’s work. One example is the story of The Little Mermaid. The Disney version is based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale, The Little Mermaid, which was published in 1837, as part of a collection of Fairy Tales Told for Children. The original fairy tale is much darker, with the sea witch cutting out the mermaid’s tongue, the prince never realizes that the mermaid saved him and he ends up marrying another princess. The mermaid visits the prince to kill him with a knife, but realizes she can’t. The Disney version is highly sanitized and removal of all murder, darkness and unhappiness. Even though the Hans Christian Anderson version of the story is the original, many do not know the original story. Over time, the story has morphed and changed to the point that it is no longer recognizable.
Baudrillard states, “When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity,” (171). We see this throughout Walt Disney World, as the real is no longer what it used to be. As I mentioned earlier about the ‘copy of the copy’, the proliferation of myths throughout Disney remove us from the original meaning. Walt Disney World is a mimesis of the real world, stripped and sanitized of all of the real-life inconveniences. Epcot is an excellent example of the ‘sanitized’ version of the real world, as they have ‘re-created’ the countries around the world, including serving authentic food from that country, re-creating iconic statues and even employing Cast Members from that specific region. The danger in this is when the individual is not aware of the original meaning and mistakes the copy for the original. In the Italy pavilion at Walt Disney World, there is a ‘re-creation’ of the Trevvi Fountain, St. Mark’s Campanile and Doge’s Palace. These simulations are not the original and they do not have the same history and deeper cultural meanings. There is danger in losing the meaning and importance of iconic history if society begins to view the copy as the original. What we see over time is such a removal from reality that we no longer know what is real.
I want to compare and contrast this to the work of John Cage (1912-1992). Cage was an American composer, considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Jonathan Cott interviewed Cage (1963) in a fascinating portrayal of Cage and his work. In this interview, Cage said, “I’m not making objects, I’m involved in showing processes” (14:17). Disney is the complete opposite, as they are involved in making objects and not showing process. We can see this with their concept of ‘backstage’ and ‘on stage’, as Cast Members are instructed to be ‘on show’ when ‘on stage’, which is in front of guests. The guests, on the other hand, are not allowed to ever see the backstage. Disney wants to keep this ‘magic’ (aka process) veiled. When one enters Walt Disney World, they actually enter on the second floor, as the first floor is entirely made of tunnels, corridors and offices for Walt Disney World Cast Members. Even the name of their employees, “Cast Members” is determined because they are considered part of a ‘show’, part of a ‘cast’. Disney instructs the Cast Members to act in a certain manner when ‘On Stage’, meaning in front of guests. In contrast, Cage shows the readers his process and the process is more important to him than the ‘object’. Take, for example, Cage’s (1972) work, Mushrooms, in which he exposes the reader to the process of deconstructing the topic of mushrooms. In the work, the form tells more than the words. He uses various fonts, emphasis on specific letters and stanzas to write the essay. As a musician, his writings were written in musical form. Cage exposes to the reader to the process, rather than veiling it, which adds to the meaning and understanding.
In conclusion, this essay makes several correlations between Walt Disney World, signs, simulacra and mimesis. Walt Disney World is in the simulacra business, recreating illusions of reality through a variety of mediums.
Annual Disney Park Attendance and Charts. Disney News. Retrieved from https://disneynews.us/disney-parks-attendance/ on February 25, 2019.
Baudrillard, J. Simulacra and simulation. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1994.
Cage, John. M Writings ’67-’72. Mushroom Book. Wesleyan University Press, 1972.
Mitchell, W.J.T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. University of Chicago Press, 1987.
The Walt Disney Company. Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Financial Report. Burbank, California. Retrieved from https://www.thewaltdisneycompany.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2018-Annual-Report.pdf on February 25, 2019.
Ulmer, Greg. The Object of Post-Criticism. In The Anti-Aesthetic, editor: Foster, Hal. The New Press, 1998.