To the axis mundi


On Saturday, March 22, Karen Hellekson and Craig Jacobsen were the hosts for a special lunchtime presentation held at ICFA-29 in Orlando, Florida, entitled “To the Axis Mundi: ICFA in the Pull of the Magic Kingdom.” The hour-long PowerPoint presentation was the first in an ongoing project we’re calling DWORPF: Disney World Ongoing Research Project in the Fantastic. We plan follow-up presentations in the future.

We visited the Magic Kingdom on Tuesday and took about 280 pictures between us. Even these were not enough. In addition to the images below, we found a few on the Internet, mostly of attractions that we were unable to photograph, such as the interior of sets, and of attractions that exist only virtually, such as little green CGI monsters. We were at the park from the time of its opening at 9 a.m. to the time of its closing at about 1 a.m., after which we had an entirely new kind of adventure: that of lost taxi driver desperately trying to pretend he knows where he’s going.

Note: There are many images behind the cut. It may take a while for the full page to load. Because the large images were sucking down the bandwidth to an amazing degree and my Photobucket account was complaining, I have provided 300p previews, plus a link for you to click on to view the beautiful full-size version. If you can’t view the big images, it’s because Photobucket shut me down again. Sorry! Sorry!

Overview: Why we went

We went for enjoyment and research, but our main focus was to view the park through an academic lens. We found ourselves fascinated by things that were not the point of the attraction—for example, we enjoyed the decor of the little shops more than the objects being sold. In short, we viewed the Magic Kingdom as a cultural theme studies park for academics. We cultivated an ironic distance, which permitted us to reframe what we saw around us. In addition, neither of us has children, so most people’s reason for going is moot for us.

Our presentation was organized around four points: empty signifier, ontological flattening, and commodification, and to conclude, the Monsters, Inc., interactive attraction, which we see as the wave of the future.

Empty signifier

By “empty signifier,” we refer to an attraction that has had information removed from the signifier, leaving it a contextless husk.


Carousel of Progress. [View larger image.]

Carousel of Progress tableau

Carousel of Progress tableau showing the kitchen as the site of technological change. [View larger image.]

  • Tomorrowland underwent a retrofuture revision: first it presented a utopian vision of the way life could be or should be, but it was then revised to present a 1920s retrofuture view.
  • Cultural stagnation is evident in the Carousel, perhaps because much of the attraction remains unchanged, with only a new high-tech stage area added that seems to be set in the not-too-distant future.
  • Notions of the future are organized around new technology (each set is placed in a kitchen of a different era) and their uses, and gender roles remain troublingly unqueried.
  • The Carousel articulates a World’s Fair model of possibility and future.
  • Crystal Palace

    The Crystal Palace… [View larger image.]

    Crystal Palace Eatery

    …as an eatery, a symbol of progress reduced to lunch. [View larger image.]

    Brer Rabbit

    Brer Rabbit. [View larger image.]

    Splash Mountain

    Splashing into the briar patch. [View larger image.]

  • The Cherokee and African American influences of Uncle Remus/Brer Rabbit stories have been completely elided, and race has been subsumed by cute cartoon creatures partially based on the Disney property Song of the South (1946).
  • Elements of the time remain in the park that the attraction is in, Frontierland, as well as the props placed in the queue waiting area: barrels, bales of hay, saddles, frontier-type items.
  • Elements of the South remain in the music played while you wait in line (“Dixie” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) and in some aspects of the tableaux that comprise the attraction itself.
  • The queue is where the attraction begins: music sets the stage; props are interspersed among the line’s paths; chambers act as waystations to control the line and group people, and continue/heighten the narrative.
  • These elements don’t contribute to the context of the narrative as much as set a tone.
  • Rasta Mickey

    Rasta Mickey ears (sized for children, or Craig would be the proud owner of this item), with race elided. [View larger image.[

    Tomorrowland entrance

    Retrofuture Tomorrowland entrance, uniting future and past time. [View larger image.]

    Merchant of Venus

    Merchant of Venus entrance. [View larger image.]


    Tomorrowland orrery. [View larger image.]

    Indian village

    A peaceful nonspecific Indian village. [View larger image.]


    Headhunters: culturally marked, stereotypical figures that do not mean anything other than a threat. [View larger image.]


    A realistic elephant on the Jungle Cruise appears next to silly tableaux. [View larger image.]


    Apes destroying an encampment during the Jungle Cruise. [view larger image.]

    Shrunken Neds

    Shrunken Neds outside the Jungle Cruise attraction. [View larger image.]

    Pistol kid

    A kid with a pistol prepares to lift the white man’s burden. [View larger image.]

    Ontological Flattening

    By “ontological flattening,” we mean the closing in of landscape and distance, where hierarchy is irrelevant, where subject and object conflate. We found the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland to be the best example of this. In this attraction, you take a ride on all the great rivers of the world, wending through Asia, Africa, and South America in a mere 9 minutes. The queue features 1930s-era props that evoke a sense of adventure commingled with dread, and jokes about dismemberment by big cats and death by disease abound.

    Metal trees

    The metal trees in Tomorrowland combine the realistic and the constructed. [View larger image.]


    A realistically bucolic yet wholly constructed scene of wildlife on the train ride around the park… [View larger image.]


    …contrasts with real wildlife in the park, such as this bird. [View larger image.]


    A steamboat plies the waters… [View larger image.]


    …with extra spray provided by judicious application of dried ice. [View larger image.]

    Totems, view 1

    Conflation of landscape: American Southwest right next to Indian totems (view is of back of totems). [View larger image.]

    Totems, view 2

    Conflation of landscape: American Southwest right next to Indian totems (view is of front of totem, which is to the far right). [View larger image.]

    Sedona Miss

    Steaming through the Southwest. [View larger image.]


    Temple ruins in Cambodia during the Jungle Cruise in a serious tableau, right after passing through Africa and South America. [View larger image.]

    Congo map

    Congo map in the Jungle Cruise queue, indicating contraction of geography and time. [View larger image.]

    Adventureland totems

    These Adventureland totems evoke a far-away place… [View larger image.]

    Squirting totems

    …and then squirt cooling water on a hot day. [View larger image.]

    Swiss Family Treehouse

    The Swiss Family Treehouse has the same level of reality as… [View larger image.]

    Hall of Presidents

    …the Hall of Presidents, where all presidents are in existence at the same time, as well as… [View larger image.]

    Liberty Bell

    …this Liberty Bell reproduction, cast from the same mold as the real Liberty Bell and with a faux crack sketched on. [View larger image.]

    Ariel statue

    This statue of the Little Mermaid, Ariel, is presented on the same level as… [View larger image.]

    Cinderella statue

    …this statue of Cinderella, which is presented as… [View larger image.]

    Cinderella plaque

    …a story that is simultaneously both antique and Disney, with both given the same weight. [View larger image.]

    Space Mountain control

    The Space Mountain Cargo Control Center features modern flat-panel displays juxtaposed against a retrofuture robot (formerly, if Craig’s memory serves, a regular man) wearing a baseball cap. [View larger image.]


    We found the commodification at the Magic Kingdom intriguing. Most items were geared to children and would not appeal to (or fit) adults. Disney-owned properties, such as Lilo & Stitch, were ubiquitous. Many attractions exited into a related shop. We liked the way all the shops were uniquely decorated. Although the kiosks and shops around most attractions were related to the attraction, we found pirate gear everywhere, the result of commodification of the popular Pirates of the Caribbean films, which are based on a Disney attraction. The stock in shops was usually limited and targeted around a theme; a larger selection was available near the park’s entrance, on Main Street. Similarly, the Magic Kingdom uses extreme specialization for food service: kiosks sell only a single food item (French fries, turkey legs, waffles and funnel cakes), which helps keeps the lines moving.

    How to wash hands

    “How to wash your hands” plaques in the bathrooms, sponsored by Sparkle paper towels, commodify the going-to-the-bathroom experience. [View larger image.]


    Rank upon rank of guns, tying into the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. [View larger image.]

    Pink cowboy hats

    Pink snakeskin cowboy hats for girls have a pirate theme (note that the eye patch on the skull is a Mickey). [View larger image.]

    Star Tours

    Star Tours gear is still on sale (Goofy as Darth Vader!), although this is no longer an attraction. [View larger image.]


    Commodification of the self and of the child: a little girl with a princess makeover, complete with hair, makeup, tiara, and dress. [View larger image.]

    Karen by the ladies room

    Karen outside the ladies room, with the sign tailored to the Tomorrowland theme; Tomorrowland was originally a future-utopia progress-based attraction, but it has been replaced with media tie-ins. [View larger image.]

    Snow globe

    Shop display with a metanarrative of the park itself: the Magic Kingdom in a bubble, like a snow globe, untouchable by the outside real world. [View larger image]

    Monsters, Inc.

    Mike Wazowski

    Mike Wazowski, your Monsters, Inc., host and star of the Disney-owned film. [View larger image.]

    The Monsters, Inc., attraction, which opened in April 2007, features digital puppetry and is part of Disney’s Living Character initiative. We had a while before the park was going to close, and we decided to go through it because there was no line. It ended up being the most interesting attraction. Monsters, Inc., is a 2001 Disney-owned film.

    Laugh Floor

    The Laugh Floor; to the right is the yellow canister that the audience must fill with gigglewatts of laughter to provide power for the monsters’ city—a new mode of power that replaces the hideous screams of terror formerly used to power Monstropolis, and a continuation of the narrative of the film. [View larger image.]

    The attraction is an interactive experience, where cartoons on a big screen interact with audience members. Audience members are targeted by a pinpoint spotlight, and a crew member hurries over to hold a mike up while herself remaining completely hidden. The chosen audience member is shown on the large middle screen. Also on the screen, computer-generated cartoon characters move and speak. We saw Mac and Jeeves, a two-headed monster; different names are used for different comedians’ voices. It was clear that they could see us and that was happening was done on the fly; it was not precisely scripted, like every other event in the Magic Kingdom. The oohs and the aahs were generated by the interactivity and the seamless way live action meshed with the CGI. It has a definite “how do they do that?” flavor that definitely impressed an audience all too used to animatronics.

    During the long wait to get into the attraction, we were held in a room and entertained with a cartoon story told on monitors. During this long wait, I noticed that we were under video surveillance. We theorize that some of the jokes used were decided on during this wait. One joke involved two people wearing the same T-shirt, for example. We think that there is a limited palette of jokes or scenarios that are chosen during surveillance by the team, with only some of it done on the fly. Spontaneous responses from audience members tap into a repertoire of jokes and references where jokes can be slotted in as needed. Interactive moments interspersed with canned moments, where we watched prerecorded things on big monitors. In addition, big signs in the waiting area invited audience members to text jokes, and three of these were read. We don’t know if these were three from our audience or whether they used old ones.

    Monsters, Inc., like the Carousel of Progress that began our tale, is a Tomorrowland attraction. Disney abandoned the tenet of progress and the future 15 years ago. Now, the focus is not the story of progress that the Carousel tells, but rather the technology used to tell individual stories related to Disney properties. Monsters, Inc., draws attention to itself as being different, and its interest lies in precisely its contrast with the other attractions, which look static, even irrelevant. However, some older attractions are still really good: we enjoyed the Haunted Mansion, an attraction that premiered at Disney Land in 1969, even though it’s been basically unchanged (it has been slightly freshened over the years) and we both saw it as children.

    We sketched the implications of the Living Character initiative: instead of totally controllable attractions, there will be interactive ones, and with it comes a need for talented employees (such as comedians) who can handle the complex tasks required to entertain audiences widely mixed in age, including lots of children. We plan to follow up on this initiative. Disney plans a Muppet attraction featuring Dr. Benson Honeydew and his assistant, Beaker.


    While we were walking through the park, I noticed what could only be stasis or cryonics pods. Craig foolishly thought that they were lights. I had to talk him around.


    Stasis pods. [View larger image.]

    Cryonics close-up

    If you look closely, can you see Walt himself inside one of them? Or is the story of Walt freezing himself simply an urban myth? [View larger image.]


    2 thoughts on “To the axis mundi

    1. Karen,
      Thanks for posting the great stills. They remind us that IAFA was missing the boat (or jungle cruise)by not running several special sessions on Disney. By the way, Star Tours is still running where it always did, in Disney Hollywood Studios park (formerly Disney-MGM). There is also another Monsters, Inc.-like attraction; in EPCOT you’ll find Turtle Talk with Crush that uses the same interactive technology as The Laugh Floor. I agree, this is a clear path of development for Disney, and one that, as you note, actually involves human talent. Whether it proves cost effective–human talent is more expensive than audioanimatronics in the long run–remains to be seen. And yes, Walt’s “freezing” is just a nasty cultural myth. In any case, I’m looking forward to next year so that I can do more on-site research for my next Disney book.–JPT

    2. Really interesting. I missed the presentation at ICFA but this truly a really nice reading of the semiotics of Disney. I’ve been interested for awhile in the semiotics of space. In a note of slight connection, I had a section about “reading” space in a comp class I taught a few years ago. I had a student choose to write a research paper about the semiotics of Celebration Florida, the town that Disney owns. It was a pretty fascinating (if disturbing) paper.

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