I watched Super Bowl XLVI at Disney World—first at the EPSN Club in Downtown Disney, and later, because the ESPN Club was mobbed with people who had claimed their seats eight hours before kick-off, at a smaller bar on the Disney boardwalk. It will surprise no one that I found the experience surreal and a bit overwhelming.
The trip came about because my sister works for Disney. Specifically she works for a video game developer in California that falls under the Disney corporate umbrella. But like all Disney employees, my sister is considered a “cast member” at Disney World in Florida, with all the privileges of a full-time employee of the park. She, her husband, my girlfriend, and I could enter the parks for free. And we happened to go on Super Bowl weekend.
Is there anything as slick, lucrative, inescapable, and stereotypically American as the Super Bowl? Only Disney World. The Super Bowl is America’s most-watched event. Disney World has made Orlando its most-visited city. And ESPN is their love child, a Disney property that airs NFL games. Standing beneath a hundred TV screens blasting the Super Bowl at the ESPN Club in Disney World, I felt like a red blood cell winging through the cardiovascular system of the American body. Captain America came on TV, plugging his next blockbuster movie, and for a second it all made perfect sense.
Two slogans show up everywhere at Disney World, on banners, sweatshirts, ice cream sandwich wrappers, and charter buses: Where dreams come true and Let the memories begin. Where dreams come true is a promise, to kids, that all their wishes will be fulfilled at some hazy point in the future. Let the memories begin is a word of caution, to adults, that their best moments are in the past, or soon will be. From the start Disney World is playing with time, urging us to idealize the past and defer our dreams to the future. This makes sense, because if there is joy to be found at Disney World it won’t be found in the present, where the line for a single ride can set you back an eye-glazing 80 minutes, and rollercoasters end in a blink.
Football abhors the here-and-now, too. During the NFC Championship Game I shouted to my girlfriend that she had just missed an amazing Vernon Davis reception. She emerged from another room slowly, saying, “Maybe there’ll be replay.” Sarcasm. There were six replays. With each one, the original sensation of watching the catch felt more distant and obscure. The replays became the real thing. The pre-Super Bowl chatter was all about dynasties, record books, Hall of Fame careers. One team, the commentators assured us, would leave the field with the taste of defeat in their mouths. Viewers were encouraged to imagine and savor that taste. And then to imagine the taste of victory. To enjoy football is to anticipate and, later, wallow in these two flavors. We understand the game before it happens, and after it happens. But during the game, the action on the field is a kind of barely contained chaos. We can’t settle on its meaning until the final whistle.
Expectations for the Super Bowl and a trip to Disney World can be impossibly high. Rather than meet those expectations in the present moment, Disney World and the Super Bowl deflect our attention to the past and future. For example, by telling us how sacred and wholesome our family memories are, or by vowing that the next game—no, the next one—is when our champions will face their true test. In order to maintain this perpetual deferment, Disney World and the Super Bowl keep us occupied with stories. They are expert storytellers.
The NFL keeps a godlike eye on the field, with cameras to capture every angle, replay, close-up, and audio clip. These are turned, by its NFL Films division, into everything from up-to-the-moment highlight reels to feature-length hagiographies of classic games. NFL stories created by NFL Films can be delivered to consumers on the NFL Network, which shares some of its content with Disney’s ESPN. The key plotlines are about hope, hype, failure, redemption, and legacy. Even if the action on the field is disappointing in a given year, the Super Bowl is the climactic final chapter of an annual story that invariably ends in fireworks.
So does a day at Disney World. The parks use of every type of media I can imagine. In addition to the cartoonish architecture and nostalgia-inducing costumes, I saw bespoke typefaces, fake newspaper clips, tile mosaics, and petroglyphs. Disney World has what I’ll wager is one of the most expensive examples of shadow puppetry in the world (at the climax of the Expedition Everest rollercoaster). All manner of storytelling is deployed, all at once, in the service of a single vision. The visitor is immersed. On a boat ride between our resort and Downtown Disney, my sister looked at the night sky and said, “Is that the moon or a Disney moon?” It was an honest question. (It was the moon.)
Even the people are a form of media. Like my sister, every dancer, cook, and janitor at Disney World is considered a “cast member.” I saw a boy with a broom and a pail follow a parade down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, sweeping up the horse shit. He was in full costume. Disney employees are, first and foremost, actors. NFL players are coached to speak in the evasive, optimistic jargon of SportsCenter sound bites (SportsCenter is owned by Disney) and they can be fined if their antics conflict with the NFL’s image.
For every NFL pre-game reel, we can dig a similar movie out of the Disney vaults. Tom Brady, the gifted leader faced with the possibility of his own decline, is Woody from Toy Story. Eli Manning, the unappreciated sibling who finally goes all the way, is Cinderella. If these connections are too easy to find, it’s only because the stories are so primal and easily reworked. They can go on forever, episodes in a grand narrative that never fully arrives, and never really ends. There is always next season. You can ride the rollercoaster again.
The grand narrative at Disney World is the myth of the ideal community. Like it or not, your fellow Disney “guests” are, if not the main attraction, perhaps the heart and soul of Disney World. Yes, even the father with burst capillaries who is spitting tobacco into a commemorative Disney mug. Even the mother who barges into the men’s room to teach her toddler son how to pee. (Is Disney World primarily an obstacle course for parents to teach their kids to go potty?) Even the girl in line for the Himalayas-themed rollercoaster who says, “Daddy, what country are we in—Egypt?” and her father says, “Asia, stupid. We’re in Asia.” Disney World throws you together with strangers—in lines, on rides, at snack huts, at your resort—as if to force-feed the lesson that it’s a small world after all. When the grand narrative works, and the park does, in fact, feel like an ideal community, it’s because of self-selection. Aside from a few goth-looking teenagers whose costumed rebellion is the exception that proves the rule, people at Disney World have chosen to be there. They pay for it, set aside vacation days for it, rent cars and buy rain ponchos and pack lunches for it. They have an interest in making sure it’s as picture-perfect as they were told it will be.
The grand narrative of the Super Bowl is the idea that personal excellence can be won through sports. We’ve made up rules that say go 10 yards for a first down, go to the end zone for 6 points, score the most points and win, win the most points and you’re a person of character, a person to be feared and respected. These are arbitrary goals. But we treat them as if they’re important, so they become important. We use the Super Bowl to confer an arbitrary greatness of those who win it, and, by extension, on those who follow it.
Is there anything as hokey, commercialized, and patronizing as the Super Bowl? Only Disney World. But it could be worse. They could be telling us to sit on our asses all day, clicking the mouse and giving our private data to corporations, all while demanding that life get easier and videos stream faster. At least Disney World gets us to walk around and look at each other. At least the Super Bowl tells us that hard work and exercise ought to be rewarded.
Anyway, I left at halftime.
I didn’t need to see the Super Bowl-winning quarterback greet the cameras with “I’m going to Disney World!” The highlights would be at my fingertips for the rest of eternity, eclipsing any insights I might have during the game. But a walk in the drizzling rain with my girlfriend on a warm Florida night….
We settled up with Rolando, our bartender in Orlando, and then we did what Meursault would have done, what Zidane did do—look the game in the eye and say fuck this.
At halftime Epcot Center was a kingdom of women and children. I shared a soggy crepe in a fake France with a real person I love. We found an imaginary Canada where a boy beneath a synthetic pine tree was watching the game on a cell phone. The story never fully arrives and it never really ends.
– Brian Hurley