In 1886, a young unmarried mailman, frustrated with his fruitless toil in the Midwest, moved to the woolly wilderness of Central Florida to make a better go of life. The land was angry. Summers were oppressively hot, the lightning relentless, and the tough earth, sodden and scrubby, defied clearing. The only domestic creatures that thrived there, it seemed, were the cattle, and even they turned out stringy and chewy. Undaunted, the young man planted a grove of citrus trees and waited for things to get better. They didn’t. His trees died in a freeze. Now penniless, he was forced to return to delivering mail, the very thing he had tried so hard to escape. By 1890, he gave up, defeated, and moved to Chicago to seek other work. The American dream appeared to fail Elias Disney.
The story could have ended there. But he was joined by his new bride, whose own father had died trying to tame Florida land. Back in the smoke of the Midwest, they had children and settled for an anonymous urban existence. One day, eight decades later, long after the young man and woman had lived full lives and passed away, two of their sons, now in the sunset of their own lives, would return to Central Florida, to the land that broke their father, and together they would transform the recalcitrant swamp into the most famous fantasy land the world has even known.
Little did Elias know that the dream was only skipping a generation and that his sons Walt and Roy would become synonymous with the same land that rejected him. Had he known that the Disney name would in due time define Central Florida, would he have been so despondent? Even if he had been granted a fleeting vision of what was to be, and what his family would mean to this place—and, indeed, to the United States—would he have believed it?
The Disney brothers turned a place of toil into a realm of pleasure, a place where hardworking people can put their struggles aside. The English have Blackpool; Canadians have Niagara Falls. Orlando rose to become the preeminent resort for the working and middle classes of America, and the ingenuity of its inventions inspires visitors from everywhere. Although other countries segregate their holiday destinations by income or some other petty quality, Orlando, in classic American egalitarian style, is all things to all people, from all countries and backgrounds. Orlando has had its share of tragedy, yet its tale is one of optimism and in classic American egalitarian style, it’s all things to all people, from all countries and backgrounds, rich or poor, young or old.
So Orlando represents something more powerful to American culture and history than merely being the fruit of a dream. It’s something shared. No matter who you are, no matter your politics or upbringing, when you were a kid, you probably went at least once to Walt Disney World and Orlando—or, if you didn’t, you desperately wanted to. Which other aspect of culture can we all claim to share? What else has given children such sweet dreams? I’ve often said that if somehow Walt Disney World went out of business tomorrow, the U.S. National Park Service would have to take it over—it means that much to the fabric of the nation.
Don’t think of the amusements of Orlando as big business. Of course they are, and the incessant reminder of that often threatens to shatter the fantasy. But Walt Disney World, and by extension Orlando, is Americana incarnate. The flair for showmanship and fantasy that they crystallize, now coined as the term “Disneyfication,” is the defining mind-set of our culture, in which even grocery stores are dressed like film sets and the “story” of your local burger joint is retold on the side of its beverage cups.
Orlando tells us about who we dream of being. Virtually nothing about it is natural or authentic, and yet there may be no more perfect embodiment of American culture. To understand this invented landscape is to understand the values of its civilization and our generation. And if you observe Orlando with a long view—starting with young Elias Disney cutting his hands trying to budge a tough Florida pine—you will be a part of the explosive, unexpected powers of the American dream.
And one more thing: If you can buck the system and relax, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.