On Tuesday, the Disney Store makes a triumphant official grand opening in Times Square, shutting down the so-called “Crossroads of the World” with an appearance by a rodent that’s huge even by Manhattan standards.
The store has been open to customers for the past few days. I went, and although I’m pleased to see that something is finally taking over that eternally empty Bar Code arcade space, the geek in me found little to hold him in the two huge levels of merchandise.
You wouldn't know it, but Mickey is older than two of those iconic buildings.
When you walk in, you will be reassured by piles of banal New York City stereotypes: tee shirts with yellow cabs, big apples, Minnies who have stolen Lady Liberty’s crown. You can even buy Spider-Man action figures now that the Mouse-Marvel marriage is complete.
How appropriate that there’s a Disney store in Times Square! After all, the neighborhood played a central role in the career of Walt Disney himself (isn’t that how you have to describe the Disney Diety now? “Walt Disney himself”?). After all, Steamboat Willie premiered at the Colony Theatre (now the Broadway, where Promises, Promises is playing) on November 18, 1928. And he World’s Fair of 1964, in Queens, was where “its’s a small world” was born (the original is now at Disneyland) and it was the father of Epcot.
You’ll find nothing at the Disney Store that would tell you any of that. In fact, you won’t even find a single piece of information, not even for sale, about what happened where you are standing. Buzz Lightyear costumes, princess outfits, Vinylmation allowance gobblers… but not a single page in a single book about Disney art, Disney animation, Disney history, Disney biography. I know because I asked three employees if there were any.
“Oh, I have some really great Disney books at home!” chirped a very young woman (everyone who works there is about 21 years ago, which usually tells you something about the wages). “But we don’t have any here.”
Yeah, I know. I’m being crazy. I shouldn’t expect a profit-making enterprise to give up even a foot of floor space to something that may not make much money. The Disney Store is a money machine, not a museum. I’m too sensitive. I demand too much morality from my publicly traded companies.
And I do. The American memory is failing, and we’re standing on the shoulders of previous generations just so we can reach the momentary purchases on the top shelf.
It’s a hot button for me. And it’s the modern Disney company for you. Up until three years ago, there was a single, solitary bookstore in all of Walt Disney World at which you could reliably find books about the great achievements upon which this billion-dollar empire rest. But then the stewards of that empire converted it into a Hanes-sponsored tee-shirt shop.
After it closed, I went to The Emporium, the largest souvenir store on the Florida resort property, and asked a worker (elderly) where I could learn about Disney and how it got that way. She told me I could maybe find some stuff at the Virgin Megatore. I went. I couldn’t.
Now even that store is closed, so there’s truly no dedicated bookstore or even bookstand on Walt Disney World’s 30,000-odd acres to purchase a book about the craft that brought you there.
Walt built this, but don't tell: The new store
I don’t mean to single Disney out. Almost all the major American parks dishonor their own heritage. Many Hollywood studios do, too. I recently took a tour of the Sony Pictures Studios lot, which was once the mighty MGM, and although I begged the guide for background about the things that were shot on the soundstages I visited, I got mostly shrugs. He could barely name anything that Sony didn’t want to sell at the cinemas or on DVD. (“Spider-Man?” he offered.) Then again, in the 1970s, even MGM itself dumped most of the historical evidence of its formative and glory days into a landfill. Entire movies were lost forever. Last week, MGM went bankrupt once and for all, and now there’s no one to play steward to its legacy unless there’s a buck in it.
When Cypress Gardens opened in Winter Haven, Florida, in 1936, it put Central Florida on the map. People came to the godforsaken Florida swamp from thousands of miles away to watch its water ski shows, in which pyramids of pretty girls, bearing flying pennants, soared past gathered crowds snapping Rolleiflexes. My great-grandfather, Tracy W. O’Neal, was a newspaper photographer, and his albums (part of his archive is at Georgia State University) was full of images from Cypress Gardens because the spectacle was so singular.
Cypress Gardens changed the destiny of billions of people, not just who have ever lived around Orlando but also who have ever vacationed there. But when I paid a visit to the park four years ago, there wasn’t a lone historic postcard, book, magnet, brochure, or sign noting it. Not even gathering dust in a corner in the otherwise deserted gift shops.
Cypress Gardens, which so dishonored its place in American culture, closed permanently soon after. Now Legoland is taking over the property. I fervently hope they can find at least six inches of shelf space between the personalized key chains and jelly beans to remember what brought us all to this place.
I’m fond of saying that if the Disney parks ever closed, the National Park service would have to take them over. They are that central to our national identity and our shared experience as Americans. Is there anything else we all have in common, except maybe Pop Tarts and Pringles? And when you are the stewards of such an intensely historic, culturally indelible enterprise, I think you have a moral obligation to honor it and share the history.
Cypress Gardens' famous Florida-shaped pool: They'd rather you never saw this
Sure, Disney has a membership club for fans, D23, but it comes with a steep annual membership fee. Besides, it’s for people who already love the history.
Country music fans, interestingly, are really great at preserving their cultural heritage despite the fact the genre is a commercial enterprise. Sun Studio in Memphis has been meticulously maintained. The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville is gorgeous. You can even visit Jerry Lee Lewis’s house, which I regrettably have, because I saw a dead mouse in a wine glass in the dining room.
Some parks are better than others at honoring their position in the history of American recreation. Many of them, oddly, are in Pennsylvania (Kennywood in Pittsburgh, Knoebels in Elysburg) or Europe (Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen), but all of them have something in common: a devoted local fan base. That may explain why Disneyland in California is the lone Disney property that’s getting good at it. Its guests tend to be more of a hometown crowd and are more likely to spend their money on nostalgia items.
But many of our greatest national entertainment brands are well past nostalgia. They are part of the American fabric. Unfortunately, their bosses are more interested in continuing to capitalize on the product than take a few inches of shelf space to thank the forebears who changed the way the world dreams — and laid the groundwork for their fat paychecks.