The season finale of The Middle aired last week. It took the Heck family to Walt Disney World via a contest that Sue wins, though she thinks she is competing for a car. The trip begins as a nightmare. Frankie (mom) ushers in the trip by failing to read the tickets, which apparently are for Disneyland Resort in Anaheim rather than Walt Disney World. Before long the family is on one long Murphy’s Law of a trip. All along the way, however, the staff at Walt Disney World goes out of their way to make their trip magical. They honor their tickets and upgrade them to a room that makes their original room look like a broom closet. Even so, the Heck family is unhappy. Every plan the family makes fails. Sue carries a binder around convinced that she has the plan for the entire trip. Everyone is grouchy. Everyone is hungry. No one is having a good time. No one gets on any rides.
The first day goes by quickly. They fall asleep in their epic room. The next day they wake up at 3pm, groggy and panicked because they have slept their entire day away. At the park, they bicker and rip themselves apart trying to do too much…trying to consume everything the parks have to offer. The family stands in front of the Partners statue–Walt and Mickey–right in front of the castle arguing. Frankie shouts at them. “What is wrong with us?” she shouts. “Every other family here can figure this out!” “Everyone else can get that ONE good picture for the Christmas card.” Finally Mike (father) tells them “you know why I wanted to go to Epcot? Because never in my life will I be able to afford to tak your mother to Paris. And just once, I wanted to take her to dinner in Paris.” Clearly, he knows it isn’t actually Paris, but he also clearly knows that animating an illusion of life is what Disney does best.
The parents take off to Epcot for dinner and the kids split…and then decide not to split. Before you know it, the kids throw their plans/fears/false annoyances with each other out of the park. Silly faces are made and pictures are willingly taken. In the end, the whole family reconnects for the fireworks. All of the annoyances are gone, and they the fireworks show in awe. Of course, as they drive home, the kids fight just as they always do, but they do so with wry smiles and as the parents give knowing looks from the front seat of the car.
As I watched this episode, I kept thinking about Disney Parks as an American pilgrimage. I questioned, as I always do, what Disney/ABC is on about in this episode. Yes, ABC is NOT Disney, but The Walt Disney Company owns it. This episode was the second episode by an ABC show that took place at one of the Resorts. In 2012, Modern Family did an episode in Disneyland, and one of the central themes of the episode was familial connection and the concept being present in the moment. This episode seemed to convey a similar theme.
The Heck family drives all the way from Indiana to go to WDW. They go to have that moment of connection. Even so, it is difficult for them. I am with Frankie all the way, because when I visit Disneyland, I always notice families who seem disconnected, frantically trying to consume everything…annoyed that they are spending so much money and not getting everything out of the experience.
Some might suggest that is the shadow of Disney–consumption. And they would not be wrong. I would suggest, however, that consumption is actually the shadow of our culture, not just here in America, but as a global American legacy. Whether we are at Disney or at a ball game, at a park or at a museum, our need to consume often trumps our ability to experience the moment in which we are living. We live in constant fear that we will be unable to consume enough to balance what we believe is being taken from us. We cannot balance the amount of money we spend against the experience of the moment.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the monetary cost of a trip to Disney. I appreciate that some families never get to go and some save for years just for one day at the park. But it isn’t just the trip to Disney. It is the commodification of family life in general. It seems as though we feel that “quality family time” must itself meet some sort of acquisition level in order to maintain its value. But the value of these experiences can only be truly measured by how much they make us feel…how they make us connect. That is the point of this episode. The Hecks win the trip, but they must become conscious of the gift of the trip. They must recognize it as a blessing, let go of plans and expectations, and allow the experience to move them. Once they do, they are able to appreciate its true value. They are able to have, as Joseph Campbell once said, “an experience of life rather than the meaning of life.” It’s a message that goes to the heart of Disney, because it speaks to a tension in Disney’s myth: consumption vs. connection.