Is Walt Disney the one to blame for the Disneyfication of the world? Yes is the usual answer to this question. Disney is supposed to have had a dreadful effect on the way the world is perceived, experienced, and travelled. Think of the analogy with the Macdonaldisation of society: ‘would you like fries with that?’ has become the suggestive selling you find everywhere. Food has become fast food – a full dining experience in five minutes. Or think of the Starbuckification of coffee. Everywhere you go in the USA, there’s a bloody Starbucks. In hotels, railway stations, airports, hospitals, prisons, apart from every second corner. And when you go to the shop to buy some coffee beans, all you can get is Starbucks.
Back to Disneyfication: by creating Disneyworld, but above all the Epcot Center, all the different places of the world are supposed to have been turned into cute little consumable experiences. China is rickshaws, junks, silk gowns and humble tea ceremonies in everyone’s home. Africa is safaris, baobab trees and wild-eyed tribesmen. Scandinavia is fjords, blond ponytails, and suggestive blue eyes. And the rest of Europe … is pretty much the same everywhere you go. Or rather, the cities are, since that’s where the airports and major railway stations disgorge their endless stream of nike-shod passengers.
Take Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. ‘Oh, a beautiful place!’ is the immediate word association. ‘It’s very pretty.’ ‘What a wonderful city’. And so on. But what do you get? Rank upon rank of massive outdoor eateries, cafes and cocktail bars line the stream that passes for a river. Trans-national chain stores – clothes, shoes, skategear, and so on – flog off their wares, including the obligatory shops that sell you tourist mementos. There’s cobbles, twisting streets and lanes, fancy bridges, buildings with plaques usefully informing you of their peculiar history, a fake mini steam-train, horses and carriages, museums of national history and whatnot, a boring castle, half a dozen churches with dreadful religious art, hideous statues, wandering minstrels with rigor mortis smiles playing ‘Roll out the Barrel’, and pretend markets. Not to forget those who work at these places, actors who have been to the training college where they learn to behave like locals. The odd idiot in faux national costume only functions to make the rest look ‘real’. Curiously, it’s all restricted to a few streets in the centre of town, an effort to distil the ‘Slovenian experience’ in the cute centre.
An authentic experience of Ljubljana, if not Slovenia as a whole? Hardly. It’s a Disney-like experience, with only a distant relationship to the past of such places. Instead, it is neatly packaged, exotic since they speak a funny language (and they ensure that they put on an accent when they speak English), immediately and cutely consumable. Much like Slavoj Žižek, who hails from these parts. Take away Zižek, add a slight variation for ‘authentic’ local expression, and you have pretty much any city in Europe – Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Vienna, Paris, München, Prague …
So is Disney responsible for all this? Did he and his hangers-on produce a travelling aesthetic so that more and more of these places resemble Disney’s Epcot Center? I don’t think so. It seems to me that he got the idea from them and took it to its logical conclusion. That is, Disney already found a Disneyfied Europe – a kind of Disneyfication before Disney. All he did was add a few touches, intensify it, and then gather them so you can see them all together in one place. Now of course a dialectic sets in, for these places then attempt to outdo Disney, and each other, in a game they invented.
So should you go to Ljubljana? Of course, since it beats Disney’s Epcot Center. But be prepared to leave with ‘Roll out the Barrel’ playing in your head for days afterwards.