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The Big Uneasy

Friday, March 26, 2010

It's a strange thing, my relationship with Disney and New Orleans.

On the one hand, I'm uncomfortable with the shiny, well-scrubbed New Orleans that Disney presents to us in such tributes as Disneyland's New Orleans Square, and Walt Disney World's Port Orleans French Quarter, and of course the recent film The Princess and the Frog. I've walked Bourbon Street at night, and it's nothing like the quaint, meandering corridors that Disneyland offers. In fact, when arriving in New Orleans last Monday night, I found myself tweeting, "Just arrived in New Orleans, as in Louisiana, not that namby-pamby Imagineering bullsh*t." (And again on twitter, I was amused to discover just as I arrived home from my trip that D23 members are currently offered a discount at Ralph Brennan Restaurants in New Orleans.)

On the other hand, I know that flying into Louis Armstrong International Airport is no guarantee of seeing the "real" New Orleans, and that in fact despite my several trips there, I'm sure I haven't seen it myself. Most of us are familiar with the French Quarter, with its heavy drinking, great food, eclectic shopping, and nonstop entertainment. Today, the t-shirt shops show the anger that Katrina left behind, along with her many ther lingering effects. In February 2009, an activist friend was kind enough to take me on a drive around the city, and the Lower Ninth Ward was still dotted with houses bearing the spray paint codes to indicate what search and rescue teams found when they finally arrived in the area. If you go, bring tissues.

Now, the New Orleans to which Disney pays tribute is clearly of an earlier time. Still, though, it's not like New Orleans was ever that cleanly-scrubbed. Just go on a French Quarter Phantom Tour to hear the stories of Yellow Fever, or the red light district of the earlier era. It's not as if Katrina was the first to bring hard times to New Orleans. There's a reason that this city brings us the tradition of the Second Line. Sometimes you have to dance so you don't cry.

What does it mean to honor and enjoy a place, and to pay it tribute through Imagineering attractions and spaces? Surely I don't want realism in my Disney Parks -- that's not what I go there for. I don't want to know about what life was *really* like for the Hollywood Starlets of the 1930s. I don't expect Kilamanjaro Safari to make us wait for hours on a long, dusty Jeep ride before catching a glance of a distant giraffe, as I have heard often happens on real safaris. Do these issues not occur to me because I haven't spent time in those places? Or is it that the bittersweet joy of New Orleans feels odd to me when served without the bitter? But couldn't one also say that it's not so exciting to spot the giraffe if one hasn't spent hours in a dusty Jeep?

I don't have the answers to these questions, and I've grown weary of searching for them. I only know that they linger, and make me think, and that at the same time they don't stop me from enjoying these tributes. I will say, though, that when I find myself in New Orleans, Louisiana, I try to support the local businesses, and leave something nice in the tip jar, for the people who bring us the foundations on which some of our Disney favorites are based.