Over shepherd's pie at the Rose & Crown, the ersatz English pub at Epcot, it is impressed on me that every single body of water in Florida might contain an alligator in it at any time. "Alligators are ambush predators," one of the Floridians I'm with informs me; a rampaging gator even killed a kid at Disney World a few years ago. I learn that I should keep my distance from lakes and to never turn my back on them, and also that if an alligator is charging at me I should flee by zigzagging, the same way one runs to evade bullets. (Though the internet tells me that actually you should just run straight, and as fast as possible, away from both of these things.) It occurs to me that Florida is one of those places that should come with a warning.
Like most everyone who is afraid of getting COVID, I had, as of late May, not been anywhere for more than a year. And like almost everyone I know who's gotten vaccinated, I booked a flight a little more than two weeks after my second dose. This is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why I spent most of June in Florida. And yet while I was there I couldn't help wondering: how on earth did I end up here—in, like, a cosmic sense?
“Here” includes, say, the line at the Hog's Head in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™, in which we stood for 45 minutes for two cups of frozen butterbeer to smuggle home in various thermoses. Frozen butterbeer is basically fizzy cream soda with slushy ice in it and some foam on top, and it's extremely mediocre. (It's way worse than hot butterbeer, for one thing, which is both way more canon and much better tasting, though also something no one wants to drink when the air feels like it's actively trying to boil you alive.) If it were up to me, we wouldn't have waited any amount of time—especially not at the end of the day, when whatever youthful excitement I'm still capable of feeling had long since fled. But it wasn't up to me. So we stood in this line and I stared at all the other people in line, wondering what combination of bad taste and bovine instinct had led them all to remain in line 20 minutes after the park had officially closed—and then it was our turn and the bartender exhaustedly took our order, which was the exact same order she'd been filling by herself for at least an hour.
I am thrust, very briefly, into a Florida high school social group. They are loud and excitable and seem to revert to their teenage selves around each other, even though they're all about thirty years old. Next to them, I feel both extremely beside the point and terrified of drawing attention to myself. But later, I feel guilty about my discomfort. Oh god, I think, I'm such a coastal elite, with my expensive private schooling and penchant for going to classical music concerts. But then I remember that I'm also just very, very uncool.
Apparently, you are more likely to get struck by lightning in Florida than to get attacked by an alligator. This is not that comforting, as Orlando is also the fifth thunderstormiest city in the U.S. I see some impressive thunderstorms while I'm there: lightning crackling down every ten seconds beside the freeway as we drive to a Disney resort (all the Floridians assure me on the drive that the interior of a car is very safe in a thunderstorm), literal waves of water rushing down the streets in a "rain river." The house I'm staying in has an oasis of a pool, all lizards and palm fronds and flourishing pink- and yellow-veined crotons, plus a hot tub. But I'm forever craning my head up to stare at the clouds, because if you hear thunder you basically have to get out of the pool immediately. I'm a true Californian: cheerful when the sun is out, gloomy when it's not. Every day in Florida is an emotional roller coaster.
I read—and almost finish—David Halberstam's The Fifties in a house filled with faded floral curtains and dusty knickknacks, and can't shake the feeling that I've somehow stumbled into someone else's past. To be fair, the house's walls are also covered with photos of family memories that aren't my own, and I spend what feels like the entire trip attempting to fall asleep in someone else's incredibly uncomfortable childhood bed.
Long past the point when jet lag is a valid excuse, I get up way later than everyone else in the house. Once, I am even congratulated for making it to breakfast before noon. Another day, at around 4 p.m., someone wonders downstairs, "Is Chelsea up yet?" Chelsea was up, thank you very much. But every morning at around 8 a.m. I am woken by a televised crowd whooping it up for Stephen Colbert. It's supposed to be The LATE Show with Stephen Colbert, I groan to myself, and flop into a different but equally uncomfortable position in bed.
A lot of time in this household is spent around the dinner table shaking heads over the follies of organized religion, Republicans, and the unvaccinated people my companions know personally. I listen with a fascinated, vaguely anthropological sense: so this is what it's like to be a beleaguered lefty in a swing state, where the barbarians are always at the gate—or rather, on the back patio, because they're your friends but now you can only interact with them outside because they refuse to get vaccinated.
Another time, around the same dinner table, I'm treated to a feast of takeout Cracker Barrel. I've never been to a Cracker Barrel, and so over grits and chicken and fried apples everyone regales me with all of the things I'm missing: the gift shop filled with clothes, toys and old-timey stick candy, rocking chairs on the porch, singing fish and guns mounted on the walls. I privately think that eating surrounded by these people at home, telling me about their fond Cracker Barrel-related memories, seems much nicer than actually going to a Cracker Barrel.
But it's only on our trip to Epcot close to the end of my stay that I get a full taste of the American enthusiasm for sanitized "themed experiences." Epcot is pleasant enough, but it is also, I discovered, a weird-ass place. If you're not familiar with the conceit of what is somehow the 7th most visited amusement park in the world, it’s basically a utopian vision of our entire planet crammed into 300 acres. There are sections of the park called "The Land" and "The Seas," with sedate, mildly interesting rides in each. In "The Land," we go on a fake hang-glider ride over the sweeping landscapes of various countries, and are misted with scents depending on the landscape we're "flying" over. Spaceship Earth, the ride housed in the iconic dome, motors you through the greatest technological achievements of human civilization, portrayed through animatronic figures and narrated by Dame Judi Dench. Then there's the "World Showcase" Epcot is famous for, sections of the park dedicated to the general vibe of 11 countries from Japan to Morocco. Even the grammar of Epcot is bizarre. My companions say sentences like, "Let's head over to Norway for some rice cream,” or “The line for Mexico is way too long,” and it takes me a while to realize that I should be imagining scare quotes around basically all of the nouns.
That's the thing, though. Whether I was gazing at a smaller-than-life model of the Doge's Palace or watching a short "Circle-Vision 360°" documentary about China narrated by an English-speaking but accented actor playing Li Bai (for the authenticity!), I couldn't shake the sense that I was having a subtle but definite break with reality. Obviously, the point of all of Epcot is to get us to imagine, however briefly, that we're actually in Italy or China or a hang-glider that defies the laws of space and time. But that's what was so weird about the place: all the experiences felt like they were trying to conjure up a different experience, one that we were by definition not having. Which left the whole thing feeling oddly secondhand—even though the experiences we were having were, by definition, firsthand!! I found it all very destabilizing.
I did end up hearing a lot about Disney the corporation from the Floridians I was with, because it seems to employ one out of every two Orlando-area teenagers (a purely anecdotal statistic) in its sprawling parks and resorts operation. I’m told that Disney has "cast members" in the parks instead of employees so they can discriminate in their hiring based on how you look. (One of our party was in fact hired as a resort lifeguard in high school, but was also ordered to cut off his long ponytail, which his brother describes as "one of the best things that's ever happened to him.") Disney, they tell me, somehow secretly buys land for miles around on the cheap and then goes to great lengths to eliminate mosquitoes from that land, no mean feat in Florida. And later in my Florida trip, I'm powerfully struck by the lobby of the Disney resort we visit, with its polished floors and air of restrained sumptuousness. Maybe it was just the lobby’s subtle but total commitment to theme (in this case, "beach club"); maybe it was just how "nice" it was, in an artificial way. It just all felt so…controlled, the same way the rides and exhibits at Epcot presented carefully manicured images of entire countries and the grand arc of history itself.
Obviously, I found this all pretty ominous. But I can also see why the Disney experience might be a comforting escape from the chaos of real life. Don't think of it as a break with reality—think of it as a vacation from reality! Maybe it's not a coincidence that there are so many elaborate theme parks in Florida, a state that seemed to me, by the end of my trip, to be so thoroughly steeped in chaos that even I wanted to flee to some happy, imagined paradise (like California). Still, reality will always find a way to creep into even the most defended of areas. You can't keep all the alligators out of Disney World.
Shameless self-promotion/sponsored content/advertising section
Did you know that meteorologists classify clouds by genus and species? Neither did I, until I spent a ton of time in Florida feeling personally attacked by clouds and on the World Meteorological Organization's website in order to write an article about clouds in this past Sunday's New York Times for Kids! I have not yet acquired a readable pdf, so all I have are these tweets.
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