Fun for the whole family

Did you know there’s a grown-up side to the Walt Disney World resort? Maybe you didn’t, maybe you did. But once you know, it probably evokes this question: How do parents join in on the fun? The answer? Walt Disney World kid’s activity centers.

This is the opening narration to the “Walt Disney World: Grown Ups” chapter of this Disney Parks DVD I sent for. It goes on to explain that there are opportunities for parents staying at WDW to send their kids off for arts and crafts while they have dinner alone. Try to ignore how poorly written it is while I get upset for you.

Walt Disney was sitting on a bench, watching his kids on a carousel and thinking about why they couldn’t all have fun together, when he first imagined Disneyland. That disconnect between kids and their parents was the core of the place: an entire family would be able to share an experience and each enjoy it in their own way.

The Jungle Cruise, one of the few rides available in Disneyland on opening day, is a strong example of this idea. While the ride is visually exciting, there’s also the consistently funny skipper’s spiel for the adults and older kids who might not get a lot out of an animatronic hippo. Not everyone on the boat will be focused on the same thing, but they’re all having a good time together.

The focus seems to have drifted since then. More recent offerings include the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where little girls can dress up like princesses (there’s a similar place for boys to be pirates). While the two are glorified gift shops, they’re being offered as attractions with, it seems, no thought given to what the rest of the family might want to do while the little ones roleplay.

Pixar is carrying on many of the traditions that the Disney company left behind, and this is certainly one of them. Pixar does not make kiddie movies; they make family films, which might sound like marketing pedantry but is actually a very important distinction. With the average Dreamworks face picture, parents are tolerating something because their kids like it. But everyone can enjoy a Pixar film because it’s merely well-made; the works may seem childish at first only because they don’t solely appeal to adults1.

Many of the newer attractions in the Disney parks are more Shark Tale than Finding Nemo (even the, uh, ones based on Finding Nemo), but we still have lots of the old stuff, and it’s still good, and it still appeals to everyone. The Jungle Cruise is still there, unchanged5. The Haunted Mansion is stil around too, and as appealing as ever2, but Disney tourism describes it as just a haunted house ride that isn’t too scary for the little ones. Even these experiences that do uphold that conceptual foundation are not described as such. There’s a place in Animal Kingdom that is basically a big sandbox, and the host suggests that parents find some valuable rest there. Why are you tired?3

Certainly not everything can be enjoyed by everyone all the time, and sometimes kids just want to dig in the sand while their parents drink alcohol on their own, but at least in the Disney parks, this separation should be the exception. Luckily, in practice, it often is, but the promotional materials wouldn’t be pushing the divide so hard if it wasn’t making them money, and that’s a shame.

  1. I could link to many other TVTropes articles here; I’ll just give you this one which, coincidentally, opens with a quote about Toy Story 3, which does not exactly help my point but is also not totally relevant anyway. 

  2. The very first version of the Jungle Cruise actually didn’t include the comedic spiel, but rather a more conventional narration as if the riders were on a regular sightseeing cruise in the jungle, but that was quickly changed, early on, when skippers started cracking jokes and guests started laughing. 

  3. I have lots to say about the Haunted Mansion but, again, trying to show restraint. Maybe another time. 

  4. This actually leads to another point about how guests to Disney parks tend to feel pressured to see everything and often wear themselves out in the process (usually without succeeding anyway), but that is a trickier problem that deserves more than just a footnote.

    I’ve never written so many footnotes in my life. Theme parks are important to me.