Strange Magic: Four Stories About Disney’s Dark Side

As much fun as it is, Disney can be scary. Any corporation of Disney’s magnitude and influence is scary, no matter how superficially benevolent it seems, or how many cartoon characters it employs. I say this as someone who devoured Disney World guidebooks as an 8-year-old, rode her first plane to Orlando, conquered her fear of roller coasters on Space Mountain, and performed with her high school choir in Tomorrowland. There’s an emotional connection. But I haven’t been to the most magical place on Earth in almost a decade, never as an adult. Revisit Disney through the eyes of these authors and see the good, the bad, and the creepy.

1. “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.” (Ross Perlin, Guernica, May 2011)

Rationally, I know Disney’s internships are menial labor with a few seminars thrown in. Somehow, they’re still impressive. The Disney brand carries with it a sort of prestige, one that allows the company to get away with an internship program for literally thousands of college students that provides “no benefits…a captive audience for Disney paraphernalia, Disney rent, and Disney food.” Interns are lucky to break even, financially. So what’s the draw?

2. “Burning Down the Mouse.” (Heather Havrilesky, Matter, September 2014)

Heather Havrilesky’s essay drew me in because I was interested in the comparison between Disney’s theme parks and Dismaland, the Banksy-helmed art installation in a British seaside town that satirized aspects of its namesake.

As our public spaces worldwide are transformed into matching, carefully designed corporate realms dominated by shiny, flashing screens, the filth of Dismaland feels undeniably jarring. We don’t pay money to enter filthy spaces. This grit confuses us.

The author does an excellent job delving into “the Disneyfication of culture”—how we expect corporations to make our passivity feel worthwhile, connected and important; how we shouldn’t be irritated by targeted ads or data mining, but flattered and impressed by our individualized experiences.

3. “No Matter How Your Heart is Grieving: Disney for the Sad.” (Sam Thielman, The Toast, November 2014)

Sam and his wife, Pam, haven’t had it easy. They’ve both lost loved ones. Pam was really, really sick, and Sam was really, really sad. They go to Disney World for their five-year anniversary. (This is a touching contrast to Havrilesky’s piece. The two essays have very different goals, obviously.)

The Disney World project, briefly, is to convince you—yes, you—that, within the space of what employees call The Property, the apathy of a hideously unfair world is suspended. Believe, the company instructs, and you will be rewarded, irrespective of physical infirmity, age, size, or gender. Few negative emotions are permitted in Disney World, and yet the possibility of sadness is admitted in order for the company to undertake the pitiless annihilation thereof. It’s one that many people here want to stop feeling.

4. “Rebecca Coriam: Lost at Sea.” (Jon Ronson, The Guardian, November 2011)

She disappeared from the deck of the Disney cruise ship where she worked and was never seen again. Her parents, friends and coworkers vow she would never commit suicide. What happened to Rebecca Coriam?