Why Does Disney Think Kids Like to be Scared?

I finally took Sophie to Disneyland.

Surprisingly, I liked it. I was fascinated by the clever design decisions that made me actually enjoy standing around in lines. The weird nostalgia for a 1950s version of 1900s smalltown America. The intriguingly diverse crowd-watching, too. Tucked into one far end of Main Street, the discreet baby center / nursing room was, honestly, awe-inspiring in its smart design. I recommend bringing a baby to Disney, or a nursing pump, just so you can gain entry into this peaceful refuge from overstimulation, the one place in all of Disneyland with no pumped-in music and no Disney characters that I noticed, just a tasteful circa-1890s decor (with circa 2012 air conditioning), lithograph photos as if in a Victorian nursery, a pseudo-veranda of rocking-chairs all in a row for undistracted nursing, and a pantry stocked with any modern supplies you might need (diaper cream, toddler food, all for free, as if to make up for the $2.95 bottles of water sold outside). Even Sophie enjoyed it, maybe for the calm, or maybe for the way the fun swinging saloon doors on the potty-training potties gave her just enough privacy, but not too much. This may be the most thoughtful architecture and design I’ve seen in a while.

It was also fascinating to watch how obediently people spontaneously formed lines, to meet each costumed character, and how well each costumed character choreographed a very-brief and yet somehow deeply meaningful interaction.

The customer service! The person clearing crumbs off the table where we sat to eat our corn-dogs said, “Oh, it’s your birthday, Sophie? I need to get you a button. I’ll be right back.” She went through a side-door, then emerged with a large balloon and several buttons. She drew a Micky Mouse on Sophie’s, along with the information that it was Sophie’s 5th birthday. Then, for the rest of our trip, nearly every employee we passed said, “Happy birthday, Sophie! You’re five! A whole hand! How exciting!” They said this with seeming sincerity. Rushing off to their stations, they somehow managed to peer at the small button, decipher the message, and make Sophie feel special, again and again.

I don’t know what kind of training and supervision it takes to get minimum-wage workers to act with such seeming enthusiasm. I don’t think I want to know. But it was impressive theatricality.

At one point, Cinderella was being hustled offstage by her Fairy Godmother. Her shift was over, I assume, some OSHA rule about timing was about to be violated, they were walking as fast as anyone can possibly walk without losing dignity. Sophie saw them and said, “Hi Cinderella!” They kept rushing away. But we happened to be walking in that same direction, so Soph repeated, “Cinderella! Hello! Cinderella!” The Fairy Godmother was trying to explain to others blocking their way that Cinderella just needed to take a little break. And then this woman, wearing a too-hot too-tight Cinderella costume, and undoubtedly exhausted from hours of smiling, turned to us, looked Sophie in the eye, and gushed: “Happy birthday, Sophie!” She sounded just like Marilyn Monroe wishing a happy birthday to Mr. President, only more sincere.

It was truly incredible customer service. The small-world ride and teacup twirl and other rides had their own fascination, too.

But we’re not going back. Want to know why? I made the mistake of taking Sophie into Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. I had already been warned away from the horrifying and claustrophobic Nemo’s submarine ride, but I hadn’t expected that the princess’s castle would also be terrifying. I should have remembered that Sleeping Beauty’s story is disturbing: the first time she does any domestic work, it puts her into a deep sleep that can only be lifted by a prince with necrophiliac tendencies. Soph is smart enough to find the story alone terrifying — but on top of that, Disney designed the castle to resemble a haunted house: dark, twisty, with frightening noises emanating from behind rattling doors.

Why, Disney, why?

During our trip to Disneyland, Sophie kept saying, “Momma, I’m ready to go home now.”

I kept saying, “How about one more ride?” It surprised me that I was having more fun than Sophie. We finally went home at 2 pm.

I suppose I should be happy that Sophie can’t sit through any Disney movie other than Tinkerbell. She doesn’t enjoy being scared. Why should she? Who is Sleeping Beauty’s castle designed for? Every family in there was desperately reassuring their frightened toddlers, trying to get them back into the light.

I am actually grateful that Disney’s smart design somehow turns stupid when it comes to scaring children. I am, ironically, glad that Disney terrifies my daughter. It means that Disney doesn’t have a stranglehold on her imagination.

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2 responses to “Why Does Disney Think Kids Like to be Scared?

  1. Kate

    This is so interesting. My boys are also very scared of Disney movies. In fact, I can’t think of one we have tried (being limited to Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp) that they haven’t had to leave the room for while watching…And we had this reaction for almost EVERY ride when we went on our brief visit to Disney world. I think they haven’t been de-sensitized enough. Other kids who have had a lot of Disney exposure from Day 1 are not phased at all…

    • elewinnek

      Exactly! Our kids aren’t jaded yet and that’s a great thing. I don’t understand why Disney seems to assume that we want to encourage our kids to become anaesthetized to fear.

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