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War on Walt: How to Bring a Little Subversion to the Happiest Place on Earth

Forget Rainbow Gatherings and forget Burning Man and forget any other staple road junky gatherings that you spend the whole year waiting for. As everyone knows, deep down in their soul of souls, the happiest place in the world is, and has always been Disneyland. Why settle for an annual dose of happiness when you can have 365 days of happiness every year?

Ironically, the key to all that Disneyland joy is that it takes itself so seriously. The beloved brainchild of Uncle Walt, the park inherited all of his uptight, perfectionist, authoritarian tendencies. The result was a world in which every minute detail has been specifically arranged to look as clean, pretty and happy as possible. There are no blank walls or dark corners in Disneyland, no gaps or seams in the happy illusion.

I’ve twice redirected my travels to include a visit to Disneyland, to lose myself (and my money) in the happy illusion. The Disney magic has worked both times. The fanatical devotion to customer service, the orderly lines to have your photo taken with Aladdin, the mechanical animals that never break down, the sanitised jokes at the entrance to the Haunted Mansion, the constant reminders – just in case there was any chance of forgetting – to have a nice day: they all add up to a day of very good, very clean fun.

The only problem is that it’s hard to take Disneyland half as seriously as it takes itself. There isn’t space for even the slightest hint of irony or doubt or duplicity in Walt’s perfect vision. Despite all the smiles and gloss and polish, it’s hard not to find the whole thing a bit absurd, especially given the number of skeletons in Disney’s closet.

Walt’s cult of personality is alive and well at Disneyland. All over the park the dear leader is praised for his genius, his warmth, his childlike delight. No mention is made of his bigotry, of his snitching for the FBI, of the film Victory Through Air Power which promoted use of strategic bombing (two years before the Dresden bombings), of the accusations of sexism and racism in films and parks, of the anti-socialism propaganda cartoons in Latin America (a few years before Pinochet’s coup), of the poor treatment of staff, of the army of lawyers, or of the sophisticated surveillance and censorship apparatus. As far as Disney is concerned, none of this stuff ever existed.

As fun as Disneyland is, there are moments in which you just wish the mouse and all his buddies would remove the rods from their non-existent cartoon animal asses. A little satire, a little subversion is the big thing missing from Disneyland. The happiest place on earth would become a whole lot happier if it lightened up a little bit.

Fortunately there are dedicated partisans and freedom fighters prepared to launch their own comic war upon the Disney Bloc. They strike hard and fast and then disappear, slipping like smoke through the fingers of the lawyers and security death squads.

If you’re going to join the underground War on Walt, you’re going to need to know who your allies are…

The John Safran Infiltration

Back in 1997 Australian Gonzo-nerd John Safran rose to notoriety by finding a way to sneak into Disneyland. Once on the inside he began guerrilla operations; on noting the lack of equal representation for some parts of the world in the It’s a Small World ride, he added a Saddam Hussein doll to it. He also waged a propaganda campaign against Disney’s revisionist history by making plaques containing information about Walt that was omitted from the official biography. He also harassed a lot of cartoon animals.

The Banksy Raid

The most famous strike on Disneyland was spearheaded by Banksy himself. In 2006 he ‘smuggled’ an inflatable Guantanamo Bay detainee doll into Disneyland, and left it by the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. There was no need to sneak in as Safran had done; Banksy walked in through the gates, had his bag searched by security, and was waved through. Although Banksy escaped before the Disney paramilitary arrived on the scene, his collaborator was not so lucky and received – appropriately – the Guantanamo treatment; there’s an account of this in the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop.

The Irvine Welsh Preemptive Strike

In The Acid House in 1994 Irvine Welsh published a story (“Disnae Matter:: about a recently-unemployed Scottish guy who decides to use his severance pay to take his wife and bairn to Disneyland. He doesn’t really care for the place, but is happy to do it for the wee one, until some character actor in a ‘bear’ suit jumps out and scares the kid. Fighting back, the guy hits the character in the head. Security and management turn up, but only to fire the actor in the suit; he has violated Disney’s policy of pandering to the customer at all times. All the Disney ingredients are right there: the ever-present security, the shoddy treatment of staff, and the obsessive customer service. In true commando style, Welsh used his opponent’s strength against him (although at the end of the story the Scottish guy tells them to let the kid keep his job; an act of sympathy across front line, from one unemployed guy to another).

The Narcoleptic Insurgency

Inspired by the heroes of the revolution, I tried my own brand of insurgency on my last visit to Disneyland. This campaign, was, to be fair, far smaller than those previously cited, but did result in a crushing victory against the adversary.

I visited Disneyland in June 2007. It was swelteringly hot, and the crowds were out in force for the opening of the new Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. Unwilling to wait three hours to find Nemo, my friend and I went to the Town Hall. I explained that my friend had mild narcolepsy, and became nervous in big crowds, especially if she was out in the sun for long periods (she just sat there looking frail and pale). I was offered sympathetic smiles and a wheelchair; I accepted the former and rejected the latter. In place of the wheelchair I was offered a Special Assistance Pass. With this we were able to avoid lines, using the exits to gain immediate access to every attraction in the park. Admittedly it was a little awkward sharing a submarine with a kid in a wheelchair, who apparently knew a phony narcoleptic when he saw one.

This brave act may not have any direct effect on Disneyland – it cost Disney nothing more than the card it was printed on – but I claim it as a brave strike against the oppressive force of seriousness, and a small but significant victory in the War on Walt. That’ll learn them for being so accommodating


Phil Johnson

Phil Johnson is an editor at Road Junky and more of his work can be read atHe keeps a his blog. You can also enjoy his bountiful wit via Twitter.