Chicken: What happens when a 35-year experience designer goes to Disney?

From: "Chicken:" <>
Subject: Chicken: What happens when a 35-year experience designer goes to Disney?
Date: September 18th 2020

What happens when a 35-year experience designer goes to Disney?


I was born in New Jersey. In a little town outside of Newark called Hillside. Population who cares. 20 minutes to NYC at 3:00 AM. Two hours at 9:00 AM. But my biological father had his third heart attack or something and the genius doctor gave my dad a prescription: Florida. “Move to Florida, you’ll be right as rain. It’s the cold weather that’s ailing you.” What was ailing my father was two packs of Kools a day, a diet of shit and the stress of being a terrible businessman. He didn’t need Florida, he needed science. He needed to stop using his body as a filter for carbon monoxide and long chain hydrocarbons. He needed to go jogging or some kind of cardio exercise. He needed to eat something besides endless carbs and meat bought from the absolute cheapest possible source he could find. But that was all inaccessible to him. So we moved to Florida. Where we didn’t know anyone. And had no resources.


Me and my dad 1972


It was kinda ballsy, when you think about it. Two kids, one age 9 and the other 12. Sold his house for $21,000, packed up his 1972 Chevy Impala station wagon and straight up moved to Florida. The year was 1978. There was a construction boom there, and he thought he could “get some work.” What he didn’t count on was the pay cut.


me and my sister Vicky 1975


People were working for basically half of what they would be getting in the NY area. It baffled my dad. He couldn’t wrap his head around it. He had a hard time bidding the work, and with no social resources to tap, he ended up hiring strangers to work with him. He was managing redneck, white trash, Confederate-flag-waving simpleton drug addicts and alcoholics for his painting company. It just broke him. He would never recover.


I spent my young years in South Florida, in West Palm Beach in a planned community called Wellington. Polo fields and all. We totally didn’t belong there. Anywhere, really, in Florida. It didn’t feel like anyone did. I left at my first chance, a teenager with big ideas leaving a depressing and dysfunctional house that didn’t have any idea what to do with an exceptional person. They tried everything they possibly could to get me to spend the rest of my life in the toil of house painting. Until the day he died, my dad tried to get me to quit my life and return to house painting. Even after he retired, too sick to work any longer, living in a semi-assisted living home. He STILL tried to get me to stop everything I was doing, move in with him. And paint. It’s like he got stuck.


I never went back to South Florida, really. Once to visit my sister when we were still speaking. Her kids must be like in their 30’s now, wow. Who knows. I wrote one of them a letter once, on her wedding day. Took six hours to write. Got returned. Moved, no forwarding address. I never thought I’d find myself back in Florida. It’s hard to get there, and it’s a one-way dead end. You really have to want to go. And I didn’t want to, with all the touring I did. So I didn’t. Life went on. And then in 2017, Eileen’s mom was turning 80, and it was decided that Eileen’s whole family was going to surprise her. At the Club Med. In South Florida. Of all the places…


I was kinda shocked how many people I still knew there. Facebook brought us all back together, all the kids I grew up with. I took them out for drinks and greasy apps at a chain restaurant. It was shocking seeing them. 30 years. 30 years!!! I really never thought I’d ever see them again. They are all fine and healthy and happy. A few pounds here and there but they all look the same and their voices just cascaded memories. I was kind of unprepared for the emotional side of it all. It never occurred to me before that I missed them. I just never thought about it like that. Further shocked was I to learn that Harris Pankin, the singer of the scumrock band I started in NYC, Letch Patrol, now LIVES in WPB (if you call a homeless shelter and bumming change on the street living). Whoa. Well, it became a good avenue to get him a copy of one of the books I wrote, that he is in. I do my duty…


old friends I never thought I'd see again... The Fearons, The Steve and Randy LaPierre


Club Med. Wow. Really? How can I even begin to explain. All the employees get $1,000 a month plus room and board. They work some menial task for the resort and ALL of them are in a show 7 nights a week. Everyone goes to the show. The show is off the charts. I’m not saying if it’s good or bad. I’m not saying it’s anything that I can define here. What I’m saying is that whatever it is, there is nothing else like it. The food. The drinks. The million little things. I have no idea if the loose toilet paper holder is loose because of neglect or does that somehow make people feel like they are getting a good deal or something. There is definitely some trickery going on there, I just can’t figure it out. I can see how a person could compare working there with working for me. You work all the time for shitty money and then there is this show that you do, and on paper it makes perfect sense but years later you’re scratching your head wondering what sorcery I used to get you to work 100 hours a week so you could be in a shitty show no one came to…


Five days of Club Med and I was done practicing. I was ready for Disney World. I have a 3 ½ year old and she is wacky for Elsa and Anna (the Frozen characters) and for the love of Dog I will have her meet them and take a photograph with them so that I might prove in a court of law someday that I AM A GOOD PARENT. She’s going to get a childhood, do you understand? To the Abyss with your judgment! The child is going to see the God Dammed Small World After All ride while it still can work on her!!!! I have a feeling she may end up growing up too fast with over-achieving parents like us. So. We took our child to an immersive theme park built on the idea of magic.


Alice goes 1 on 1 with Queen Elsa


As a career, I chose experience design. What advice would I give to another experience designer?

Go to Disneyworld. Play with that scale in your mind. You have unlimited budget. The best minds and hands on the planet to help you. You have an ARMY of people whose lips are purple with Kool Aid ready to implement your genius. You have 1,000,000000 acres. A train. Your own lake. Eight hotels. The full cooperation of local and state agencies. In a place that never rains. You can do: whatever you want. As an experience designer you would have to embrace content that would attract 50,000 idiots a day. Every day. Forever. Your content would have to have a connection to a slew of commercial products. A brand. A theme. From box office to t-shirt to lunch box to stuffed animal to luggage to action figure to downloadable games to beer mugs, hats, books, songs, lighters holy shit the list just keeps on going… anyway. How could you do it? You couldn’t. You can probably do some of it. For a little while. But really, what we have here is just a media empire. There are few if any things like it. It’s girth and gravity are their own cultural category. It’s impressive and terrifying. Because with all that money and power, their message of making the world smaller is the thinnest thread you could ever imagine. It may even work in opposite.


just a couple of consumers consumating consumption 


It's possible that instead of battling xenophobia EPCOT could be encouraging it. By creating an environment so safe and so controlled and so stifled, it’s possible that a person will feel like they “kinda” went to Mexico or Norway or whatever. There is a Norway exhibit at EPCOT. But Norway has a lot more to offer than the costumes from Frozen. Seeing it through that lens could defeat the purpose.


 Prayer wheel made of plastic


I see where Disney was trying to go. I see who he was in his brightest hour. But in the end, he was reduced to the humiliation of cryogenic gossip when faced with death demanding he stand and deliver. Every photograph I’ve ever seen of him he was smoking. He died of lung cancer in 1966.

I saw my life as a failure everywhere in his utopia. I saw myself as the $7.50 per hour handyman trying to fix the turnstile. I saw myself as the $8.50 per hour captain of the boat that takes people from Frontierland to Hotel-land. “All aboard for a three-minute tour!” I saw myself as the security officer sleuthing for pedophiles. I saw my end here. Broke. Living in a trailer. In Orlando. Working at Disney for dead end wages. Fat on carbs and booze. My artistic life only an experiment deemed unsustainable. A lark. I saw myself doing some kind of mediocre magic show 60 times a day for 23 people for $9.25 an hour, but full benefits and I can do the job until my body breaks down. I saw myself as the bus driver, the manager at the café that serves 7 things and the guy pumping grease on all the joints and armatures of the Dumbo ride. I even saw myself as the guy doing the shuck and jive for the time share Disney vacation packages so that you “never have to think about where you are going to vacation ever again”! I saw all those versions of me, all the skills I’ve acquired being put on the table. It’s kinda how I think about things. I try them on. See how they make me feel. Another path, a few bad decisions, had I got caught for some of the crimes I committed or lost a leg or something… if I lost the building 8 years ago when the loan came due or if I had a DUI and Eileen decided to bond to the other guy or really any two big things worked out differently, I could have retreated to a place I knew and traded on ancient relationships for my very survival. I could have ended up back in Florida. I could have traded my time for small money from The Mouse.


It had never occurred to me before the similarities betwixt Burning Man and Disney World. There are A LOT. The first thing you notice is when you get to the fucking gate there is some over-enthusiastic douche nozzle saying “Welcome home!” Then you see the strollers literally piled up outside of every attraction, like the bikes at BM.


The “rides” are experiences that are in two different categories: either commercials for their movies or “embrace of the future” bullshit a-la 1987. It’s all so dated at this point it’s comedy. The fact is driverless cars are here, space travel is here and Disney’s vision for the future simply doesn’t live up to the hype. The city he designed is a joke that has no way anticipated our population boom. His transportation ideas are tiny, clunky and break down constantly. Zero regard for any kind of conservation nor any attempt to re-work his message to that end. If you want to see where Disney ripped off some scrappy designers, go no farther than Oakland’s’ own Children’s Fairyland, which pre-dates Disney’s designs by almost ten years. And if you want to see where Disney stole his “City of the Future” ideas, check out Jacque Fresco and his book “The Best Money Can’t Buy”.


Jacque is just two hours south of Orlando in Venus, Florida and his designs and philosophy are really awesome. No mouse though. No cartoons. No Academy Awards. It’s all pretty easy to see that Disney was just a power hungry control guy who wanted to be the hero who made the world smaller, but he didn’t really care about the content as much as getting the credit for thinking it up. He’s Trump, with better penmanship. Disney parlayed a cartoon mouse into a brand and a media empire worth 200 billion dollars. Trump parlayed a few bankrupt casinos, a birth certificate loophole and a mildly successful reality show into the presidency that could become a political dynasty that could reign for a thousand years. Who knows?


Did you know 100 people used to get married every year at Burning Man? Do you know that while you are all waiting in cyberspace to see if you’ve manifested a ticket this year, the Org lets wedding people just buy the tickets they need? Did you know that? Weddings are a big business at Burning Man. And Disney. Wedding parties are like brokers that bring in 50 to 100 guests. All who eat, sleep and need passes to the parks. And will buy stuff animals, balloons, mouse ears, Pirates of the Caribbean fake hook hands, Little Mermaid bath toys and Queen Elsa figurines (guilty as charged!) Isn’t that fascinating?


It’s the same shit as BM, the content is thin and no one really gets it. In the end it’s a giant spectacle with a fireworks show. BM and Disney are similar in they have 100% control over everything, and somehow need all that money to get their message across. And no one really gets it. And when I say “no one” gets it I MEAN NO ONE GETS IT.


I was part of an organization called the Cacophony Society. I read their newsletter. I was five sentences in and “I got it." 20 years later the guy who started it wrote a book about it. About halfway through the epilogue I realized HE didn’t get it. Come on, that’s funny right? Confusing but funny…


Let's keep going…


It’s kind of genius. The attractions are commercials for their movie products and their tchotchkes. You pay $125 a day to sit through commercials then you buy souvenirs of the commercials. Come on, that’s fucking rich. And they take your fingerprint when you come into the park. Huh? Yup. They give you a “magic band” which you keep looking at but it never tells you what time it is. And when you go anywhere, you swipe the band to gain entrance. It’s of course connected to your credit card, so you can buy stuff that way. But when you first go into the park, you swipe AND fingerprint. I refused. So they took a photo of my drivers license instead. Now, why do you think they need my drivers license number? They have the fingerprints of 50,000 a day. Tens of millions of people. And a few idiots DL numbers. Kinda puts a chill in the air, don’t it? You surrender all your privacy and facial recognition to a mouse to go watch commercials and exhibits of the future from two generations ago. It’s weird!!!!


Eileen set us up on the “meal plan.” Just swipe your magic band for your allotment of the worst food you’ve ever eaten. It’s like they partnered with Corn Syrup. We never really figured out how to use the meal plan. She spent hours reading and reading reviews and at the end of the trip we had so much food credits we couldn’t figure out how to use, I tried to buy a bunch of ice cream and give it all away but NO ONE WOULD TAKE ANYTHING FROM ME IT WAS TOO WEIRD FOR THE PEOPLE FROM ‘MERICA.



The Tibetan Flags at the Animal Kingdom were a nice touch. Colored flags with animals on them. Aw. Except the idea behind a Tibetan flag is there is a prayer on it. And as the flag disintegrates, the prayer slowly takes to the wind and dies. I thought about the animals on the flags and I’m just sure it wasn’t the takeaway they were looking for. But that’s the thing with cultural appropriation. No one has any idea of the authenticity of anything . But I guarantee you the handful of Tibetans that have seen it just laughed. They are too happy to let some Disney designer give them anything but another excuse to just laugh. We could all learn that lesson…


prayer flags at Disney


And what’s with everyone calling my kid “princess”? I’ll have you know that her nanny is an early child development specialist Iranian-American who teaches social justice in a non-binary post linear gender elusive “no judgment” scene. She buys my kid books about gay penguins and “I have two mommies.” These greeters calling Alice "princess" would COWER at the finger-pointing speech my super nanny would roll out on these costumed clueless. She would lay them low with statistics and studies talking about taking control of your actions and not counting on magic to save you, but good decision making and being in control -- princesses aren’t in control! They have to wait around to get saved, which is bullshit! I can feel her eye rolling from 3,000 miles away….  


my little princess                                                     


And the Dumbo ride. What the hell? Dumbo’s ears are normal-sized ears. How the flying fuck is Dumbo supposed to fly with regular-sized ears? His ears are, proportionally, SMALLER than the other elephants. Fix that shit, and get back to me.


      ears are too small


The Monorail doesn’t have a rail. And it sucks. I took a $15 cab ride once to avoid it.


God? Is that what I’m not getting? Are they all devout? When you’re devout, is this like a vice? If you can’t drink or whatever, do you get all attached to “safe” things? Is Disney like a vice for the Jesus people? I mean, we’ll never know. It’s all so “Aw shucks” and clean. There is nothing sexy. Nothing risque.



 sugar skull cultural appropriation now complete $45


So what gives? Why so popular? Where is all the magic they promised? I mean, that’s the hard part, right? Delivering the magic moments. They built a machine to make repeatable experience. Using a formula. If you have been hanging around with me and have read my books and know my thesis, you can’t make magic moments repeatable. They can’t be on tap. Right? Isn’t that what I have based my entire life's work on? So can they? Do they? Is it a factory that makes magic moments? Did I, in fact, have a magic moment? Did Alice?


We both did.


When walking past the Cinderella’s castle during the day, I noticed a wire coming off it at a gently angle to some unseen termination point. I said to Eileen: “I’d like to see the person who jams down that zip line!” I was kidding. Later that night, during the pre show to the man burning… wait, I’m sorry the pre show to the big fireworks and dance show with the projections on the castle, the first fireworks go off and Tinkerbell all lit up with LED light goes sliding down the God dammed zip line...

and my heart stops. I point. And like a child I start running toward her, even though she is 500 feet above my head. It’s been a long time since anything got me like that.


And we took Princess Alice to a character breakfast. She was standing and talking to Tigger and she was being so cute the photographer started to cry. The guy does this all day every day and for some reason what she was saying to Tigger, he found totally precious. Go figure.


Alice and Tigger


At the end of the day Alice playing in the pool with the water slide is what made her the most happy. Actual hands-on experience of her 35 pounds, catching air down a 50-foot tall slide with dips and getting spit out into Momma's waiting arms. That’s what did it for her. So who knows, maybe we are doing something right after all. She went down the water slide 50 times. Each time laughing and crying. Delighted and terrified. Brave little soul in her little arm floaties. A billion dollars worth of experience design can’t compete with doing something real with your own body. Go figure.

Tinkerbell joins our family....


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