I recently visited Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. As someone who generally dislikes theme parks, I gotta say they do an incredible job making that place quite pleasant. From the cheerful customer service to the impeccable gardens in front of the castle, there’s not an unhappy moment to be had. Even the experience of lining up for rides was as enjoyable as can be — they give you an overblown wait time to manage your expectations, then keep it moving so you don’t get bored. Honestly, queuing up for Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid was my favorite part of the day! The wending line led us deeper into a cavern that became more mysterious with every turn. The ride itself (a glorious, colorful, musical retelling of the movie with dancing animatronic fish) was certainly more impressive than the line. But I appreciated the spectacle even more because the lead-up built my anticipation instead of aggravating me. Rarely have my emotions been better managed.
Later as I strolled past the quaint storefronts of Main Street USA, I couldn’t help wondering “How fun would it be to live in a place this cute all the time?” Then it hit me, that’s the dream gentrification sells to yuppies – a Disneyfied urban experience where there’s no graffiti, homelessness, crime, or any of the other sad things that might sully the sweetness of a perfectly maintained Main Street. A Disneyfied neighborhood eliminates urban sadness not by solving poverty but by reserving that delightful experience for those who can afford it.
Disney is all about creating fabulous experiences — the rides, the storybook architecture, and getting selfies with costumed character is what it’s all about. For true fanatics there’s an endless supply of expensive, character-themed tchotchkes available at a variety of themed gift shops. But after a while all that stuff starts to look the same. The food is fine, but also extremely expensive. Nobody goes to Disney for the just-okay $17 turkey sandwich. You go for the sense of magic and wonder. And I think that’s also what a typical gentrified downtown experience is. Yuppies wanna know there are galleries, spas, yoga studios, boutiques, dog parks, bike trails, and sidewalk cafes just footsteps away (even if they don’t partake of all those things) because they wanna feel like they’re in a vibrant and walkable urban setting. It doesn’t matter that the mediocre sandwiches at the sidewalk cafe costs $17. Atmosphere and proximity trump quality and value. If it looks clean and pretty, that matters more than if it tastes good or works well.
But back to Disney World, how does one get by in a place where necessities like bottled water cost $3.50 a pop? The answer is simple — you show up expecting to spend a lot of money. Throughout my Magic Kingdom day I kept seeing families in matching Mickey Mouse t-shirts that said “Best Day Ever.” I saw one tired-looking dad wearing a shirt that said “Most Expensive Day Ever.” It’s true. The hefty gate charge covers your rides, but those just-okay sandwiches, tchotchkes, and t-shirts add up. Plus you’re always being reminded of ways your experience could be even more magical if you spring for pricy extras, like the fast pass that gets you to the front of the line or that costume that’ll match your toddler with their favorite princess. Of those who can afford to get through the gates, most of us can’t spring for ALL the magic. But you quickly spot the rich people who can afford it, and see less-moneyed children gape at wealthy kids with unmasked envy.
Just as most of us cannot afford the VIP Disney experience, most of us cannot afford to live in our gentrifying downtowns. Maybe we can commute in to wander those whimsical, walkable streets, browse the boutiques, and eat appetizers at the sidewalk cafe. We can daydream about having all that fun within footsteps of our front door. Perhaps at the end of the day we have to get ourselves back to our neighborhoods on the fringes, where rent isn’t exactly affordable, but also isn’t prohibitive. And if you cannot afford to live in those fringes, then you probably aren’t welcome to visit the Disneyfied urban core. Maybe you used to live there, before it was the happiest place in town. But there’s no room for your sadness now.