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Clearinghouse for reviewing ecotourism issue No. 9:

United States:
- Corporate Takeover and Disneyfication of Nature
- Colonizing the Imagination: Disney’s Wilderness Lodge

If you visit the website of the Travel Industry Association of America (TIAA) at <www.tia.org>, you will find the picture of a colourful TIAA poster that reads “Tourism Works for America” and it shows a landscape plastered with tourist and entertainment facilities and criss-crossed by transportation routes full of motor vehicles, trains and planes. A better headline for the poster would probably be “Tourism Works for American Corporations” because citizens’ groups in the United States have been rigorously fighting corporate attempts to commercialize, privatize and motorize public lands and nature reserves for recreation and tourism purposes. In the first document of today’s Clearinghouse, Scott Silver, co-founder and executive director of the US Wild Wilderness organization, gives an account of the Corporate Takeover and Disneyfication of Nature in his country, which is increasingly provoking public contention and resistance.

Is ecotourism going Disney? Although the totally constructed environments of Disney theme parks are an antithesis to the ecotourism offered as a viable means to strengthen conservation and community development efforts, one can easily come to this conclusion when reading the second article by Cypher and Higgs on Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. It looks as if conservation-cum-tourism planners promoting the eco-lodge concept in attractive nature destinations worldwide, are often - knowingly or unknowingly - following the Disney model to sell wilderness as well as adventurous and entertaining activities to paying visitors. Disney’s construction of nature and its dominating role in generating “industrial ecotourism” is especially worrisome given the corporation’s economic and political power and its extraordinary capability to shape the thinking and culture of the world’s peoples.

Disney is not only the world’s largest entertainment company but also one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. Disney owns America’s most important television network ABC, several TV and radio stations, and shares ownership of 3 cable channels, including America’s top sports station, ESPN. It owns numerous movie production assets, publication companies and professional sports franchises. And most importantly for us, Walt Disney is a rapidly expanding recreation company and heavily involved in international tourism politics. Not surprising, Disney aggressively seeks to protect and advance its position within the recreation and tourism market through participation within a number of special interest associations, such as the American Recreation Coalition (ARC), the Travel Industry Association of America (TIAA) and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). As a sustaining corporate member of the ARC, for example, Disney significantly influences US government policy-making on environmental issues. Unknown to many, and truly astounding, is the fact that US government agencies, including the Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Park Service and the US Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Servicehave even signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Disney that is aimed at fostering information exchange and cooperation in the field of land and natural resource management and environmental education. In the MoU, the Walt Disney Company is described as a body “dedicated to integrating business needs with environmental values and concerns and communicating the need to conserve resources to the public.” (Document 95-MOU-102 available at the US Forest Service). According to forestry expert Borrie from the University of Montana, “It is doubly concerning that Disney may become what people expect things to be,” and, “the standards Disney sets in the management of its park environments have the potential to become the standards against which all environments are judged.”

We have already sufficient experiences on how national parks and other biodiversity-rich areas are being turned into Disneylands by tourism developers, rural and indigenous communities transformed into Hollywood-style “model villages” with local people arranged like in a zoo, and cultural and sacred sites revamped to provide for carnival-like tourist spectacles. Since ecotourism is muddied by the use of imprecise terminology and different interpretations of its meaning, we can expect that Disney’s “industrial ecotourism” model will spread all over, facilitated by globalization and liberalization policies. And sooner or later, nature reserves will look like the constructed touristic landscape on the TIAA poster mentioned above.

As we have repeatedly warned, the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) 2002 is very likely to reinforce this disturbing trend. There is evidence that exactly those American corporations and business networks, which are actively pushing for the commodification and Disneyfication of public lands in the US, are getting involved to take advantage of the UN-initiated programme. So far, however, they are hiding behind the facade of an educational project for elderly tourists initiated by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the largest organization for the older generation in the US with consultative status at the UN. AARP recently organized a Travel Industry Meeting on Ecotourism and the 50+ Traveller in New York in preparation for a project in support of the IYE to encourage the elderly to become “responsible ecotourists” in 2002 and beyond. Participants included representatives from a number of companies and business associations that are members of the much-criticized American Recreation Coalition that promotes industrial recreation and tourism rather than “benign” ecotourism, e.g. the TIAA, the US Tour Operators Association, the Recreation Vehicle Industry, the National Tour Association, the American Hotel and Lodging Association and the American Bus Association. Notably, the biggest polluters in tourismsuch as the motor vehicle industry, car rental companies such as Avis and Hertz and cruise-ship operators,attended this meeting. That the International Ecotourism Society, which is deeply involved in the official IYE process, is also part of the initiative shows just how close this organization is to corporations that have been vilified for environmentally destructive and socially and culturally degrading activities.

Hopefully, the study of the issues presented in this Clearinghouse edition will help to sensitise people, who still have good faith in “benign”, “participatory”, “sustainable” ecotourism, before it is too late and transnational corporations have taken over completely!


The campaign coordinating groups:
Third World Network
Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), Thailand
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia
Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia


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The following document is a combination of two articles by Scott Silver, “What would Thoreau say?” and “The Commodification of Nature”. For more information on the subject, you can contact the author at ssilver@wildwilderness.org or visit the Wild Wilderness website at  http://www.wildwilderness.org .

Corporate Takeover and Disneyfication of Nature

For those who accept Thoreau’s famous saying: “In wildness is the Preservation of the World”, these are critical times indeed. America’s wild and natural places are in greater danger than at any time in recent history. Even the most casual observer will appreciate that President Bush has declared war upon the environment and intends to log, mine and drill our national forests for whatever value can be extracted from them.

Unfortunately, consumptive abuse of public lands are not limited to these resource extraction industries. In recent years the commercial value of intensive, high-impact, outdoor recreation and tourism has been added to this list. It is fair to say that the Great Outdoors has itself become a hot commodity now that federal land-managers race to convert leisure into saleable products that can be marketed the way Proctor and Gamble markets toilet tissue or mouthwash. Worse yet, these land managers are being forced to become recreation and tourism entrepreneurs by a Congress determined to withhold necessary funding specifically for the purpose of creating opportunities for private investment and to facilitate the eventual privatization of the management control of those public lands.

Unless we halt this trend, the recreational opportunities upon America’s public lands will soon be transformed into little more than a series of highly structured themed-parks and scripted adventures. Today we find corporate financed Congressmen, cash-strapped land managers, and recreation industry leaders working cooperatively to create an entirely new management paradigm. Their efforts are being directed toward maximal commercialization, privatization and motorization of our natural heritage.

The first task of turning recreation and tourism on public lands into revenue generators will be to find the capital necessary to build the infrastructure to support these enterprises. In these days of tight budgets, Congress is disinclined to provide adequate funding for maintenance of our National Parks and other outdoor “amenities”. Unable to rely upon traditional sources of funding, land managers are being told to develop new funding sources, such as user-fees and private investment.

As the cost of recreation rises toward its free-market potential, private sector investors will be encouraged to develop, through private/public partnerships with federal agencies, an ever-wider array of commercialized recreation products. We, the customers, will be given the opportunity to purchase or to forgo these products in accordance with our willingness and/or our ability to pay. These newly created commodities will encompass not only those nature-based recreational activities that we have traditionally enjoyed on public lands. They will also include entirely new, and far more profitable, forms of ‘eco-tainment’, ‘edu-tainment’ and ‘wreckre-tainment’. The result will be the Corporate Takeover of Nature and the Disneyfication of the wild.

Since the birth of our nation, America’s public lands have been exploited so as to maximize the commodity value that could be extracted from them. Two hundred years later, in 1979 to be exact, a new public lands predator called the “American Recreation Coalition” (ARC) came onto the scene. Unlike earlier profiteers who sought gas, coal, logs or minerals, ARC sought to turn outdoor recreation and tourism on public lands into an extractive industry and to profit handsomely in the process.

ARC, a coalition of some 120 corporations, embraces the traditional extractors such as Chevron, Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute. But to this cadre ARC adds new interests such as Yamaha, American Motorcyclists Association, International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, and the Walt Disney Company. These new interests, not content to extract the resource wealth of the lands, seek to commodify nature itself, for fun and profit. Our mountains, rivers, deserts and woodlands have suddenly taking on new values as profiteers attempt to package, brand, market and ultimately sell America’s Great Outdoors as value-added recreation products.

Perhaps nothing expresses this idea more clearly than the following quote from the US Forest Service’s (USFC) first ever Chief Operating Officer, Francis Pandolfi. Pandolfi came to the Forest Service in 1997 directly from the American Recreation Coalition where he had served as Chairman of their Recreation Roundtable. In 1999 he wrote:
”Have we fully explored our gold mine of recreational opportunities in this country and managed it as if it were consumer product brands? How could it be done? As federal agencies and others transition from providing outdoor recreation at no cost to the consumer to charging for access and services, we can expect to see many changes in the way we operate. Selling a product, even to an eager customer, is very different from giving it away.”

Following this model, outdoor recreation on public lands would cease to be characterized primarily as experiences of physical and spiritual ‘re-creation’ and would instead, through conscious effort, be turned into branded products created for the purpose of being sold to paying customers. It’s much like the difference between the concept of romantic love and paid sex.

Any prostitute could tell you that selling a product is very different than giving it away, but the Forest Service is not just any prostitute. For one hundred years they had been mistress to the timber, mining and grazing industries and had given away America’s collective wealth with wild abandon.

But attitudes have been changing and with the rise of a strong environmental movement, people stopped tolerating the plunder of our nation’s public lands. Suddenly the Forest Service could no longer hide behind its friendly Smokey Bear facade. The public began to demand better management of our National Forests and the Forest Service had no option but to change with the times.

It was under these circumstances that the ARC and the recreation industry made the USFS and other land management agencies an offer they couldn’t refuse. They offered a chance for land managers to get out of an abusive relationship with the extractors. They offered marriage, in the form of long-term, private/public partnerships.

The plan was simple and Pandolfi explained it well when he said:
”… a product or brand could be defined as “Hiking,” “Fishing,” “Camping,” “Skiing,” and other activities. Thinking of outdoor recreation activities as products or brands suggest applying the principles of sound, private-sector marketing as an approach for meeting recreation demands and providing satisfying outdoor recreation products and services.”

ARC’s member corporations include not just the manufacturers of motorized wreckreational toys. It includes resort developers, ski area associations, National Park Concessionaires, campground management providers and the like. The deal they offered was simple. They would provide the expertise and capital required to turn America’s Great Outdoors into a profitable business venture. Congress would, in turn, pass whatever legislation was necessary to allow the formation of those public/private partnerships necessary to permit this development. In return, federal land management agencies would provide these corporate special interests with the access to, and a chance to assume management control of, America’s Great Outdoors.

The plan was inaugurated in 1985 with Ronald Reagan’s President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors. ARC’s President, Derrick Crandall, was more than just one of the commissioners. He controlled the process and established the agenda. This agenda was furthered by President George Bush, the man to whom Derrick Crandall presented ARC’s coveted “Sheldon Coleman Great Outdoors Award” in 1990.

In 1993, ARC’s Recreation Roundtable on behalf of the Chief Executive Officers of the Coleman Company, Yosemite Park and Curry Company, Kampgrounds of America, Walt Disney Attractions and 20 other ‘knights of industry’ presented President Clinton with a slick 30 page document titled; “Outdoor Recreation in America: An Agenda for the Clinton-Gore Administration.” The report proposed many new and innovative government programs with my favorite being the very Disneyesque: “Luring International Visitors to America’s Great Outdoors.” The cover letter under which that report was issued was signed by Richard Nunis, CEO, Walt Disney Attractions.

For the first few years, the recreation industry and the land management agencies enjoyed a happy marriage. The Army Corps was so enamoured that they referred to this union as a “win-win-win” and spoke of it with these words:
”The private developers win because of the excellent opportunities they will have to make a profit. The public wins because of the additional recreation opportunities made available to them and the Corps and the Federal Government win because much needed public recreational facilities are provided at no cost to the Government.”

There was, however, one extremely large obstacle that had to be overcome. That obstacle was a 35-year-old federal law that specifically prohibited charging the public for recreating upon America’s public lands. Similarly it prohibited charging for access to those lands. The law provided but a handful of exceptions, notably entrance fees for National Parks, campground fees for developed facilities, and access fees for a handful of visitor centers. A separate law permitted charging for the use of ski areas, but that was the extent for which fees could be charged to the public for recreational use of public lands.

With these restrictions in place, there was no way in which to turn outdoor recreation into the branded products that Pandolfi envisioned simply because there was no way to make money. Without the ability to make money, there was no interest for the private sector to be part of the marriage. And without the financial backing and expertise of the private sector, federal land managers would be literally out of business. Were it not for one specific Recreation Roundtable Agenda item given to Clinton/Gore in 1993, the entire marriage could have faltered. It was that item which saved the day for some, and may prove to forever change the way the public gets to interact with their public lands.

In 1996 Congress enacted, and President Clinton signed, legislation authorizing a new program called the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program. That same year, the US Forest Service signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the American Recreation Coalition making ARC the official “Challenge Cost Share” partner for this program.

With passage of that law, Congress granted unprecedented new authority to charge and collect fees for a virtually limitless variety of public land recreation products, goods and services. The fee demonstration program was implemented as only a “test”, originally scheduled to end in 1999, but twice extended in order to give the program more time in which to be proved successful. Fee-Demo is currently authorized until September, 2002.

From now until the expiration of this test, land management agencies, with the help of their private partners and the support of free-market policy advocated in Washington DC, will be doing absolutely everything in their power to have Congress grant permanent recreation user fee authority. It is anticipated that President George W. Bush will be extremely responsive to this program and will actively encourage passage of any legislation that will more effectively commercialize, privatize or motorize recreational opportunities on America’s public lands. There is a reason why it now costs $5 to walk on public lands or to stop your car long enough to watch the sun set. The reason is to create the financial incentives necessary to implement the recreation industry’s intended Corporate Takeover of Nature and the Disneyfication of the Wild.

For those who believe the official propaganda saying recreation user fees are about funding much needed maintenance of decaying infrastructure, think again. In the words of the Army Corps, here is the true reason for this program:
”The intent of the program is to encourage private development of public recreation facilities such as: marinas, hotel/motel/restaurant complexes, conference centers, RV camping areas, golf courses, theme parks, and entertainment areas with shops, etc. “

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This is a shortened version of an article by Jennifer Cypher (Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University) & Eric Higgs (Department of Anthropology /Department of Sociology, University of Alberta), published in the journal ‘Capitalism, Nature, Socialism’. The full article is posted at  http://www.ethics.ubc.ca/papers/invited/cypher-higgs.html

Colonizing the Imagination: Disney’s Wilderness Lodge

Journey into the Imagination
Disney’s Wilderness Lodge in Orlando, Florida is one of thirteen themed resort hotels located on the Disney World property which claim to offer guests a seamless themed experience; the chosen theme is constructed into the hotel and its environs and is highlighted at every possible level. The Wilderness Lodge offers guests an experience similar to one they might have in a National Park Lodge.

But, there is more. Disney wants to offer its guests the opportunity to stay in a hyperreal National Park Lodge setting; the real thing only better, wilderness without dirt or danger. While other Disney hotels offer guests an “authentic” Polynesian experience, or a taste of turn-of-the-century Floridian elegance, the Wilderness Lodge is billed as a “tribute to the great lodges of the early 20th century” with the motto “don’t just stay, explore”. As a part of Walt Disney World, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge takes its place as another attraction in a theme park which deals largely in the world of fantasy achieved through the “careful screening out of undesirable elements and the staging of special activities expressing archetypal ideals.”

Like the tourist industry in general, Disney is in the business of constructing, organizing and selling experience; in doing this Disney is intimately involved in the production of landscapes and the selling of stories about nature. Disney World uses space to create and reinforce ideologies, particularly ideologies which are supportive of capitalism and consumption. Disney World is “a kind of spatial analogy of a monopoly capitalism that incessantly produces rhetoric about free enterprise. While it is significant that we are physically bounded and directed within Walt’s World, what is more “important is that our thoughts are constrained. They are channeled in the interest of Disney itself but also in the interest of the larger corporations with which Disney has allied itself, the system of power they maintain, and the world of commodities that is their life’s blood. This need on Disney’s part to continue to constrain their guest’s thoughts is part of their overall interest in selling as much as possible. In the end, is nature just one more commodity, another aspect of life to be brought under Disney’s corporate control?

We refer to the pattern that connects all of the diverse attempts to manufacture experience as “colonization of the imagination.” By shaping people’s experiences and interpretations of popular cultural events and symbols, Disney and other thematic engineers are not merely regulating impressions of those things, they are reconfiguring people’s imaginative capacities. The Wilderness Lodge is literally changing what people understand wilderness or nature to be, and this in turns shapes their views of the real thing. Lest it seem that we are exposing some sinister mind control conspiracy, it is more accurate and less distracting to rest an interpretation of what is happening in Orlando and elsewhere on a material base. First, the Disney corporation is a massive commercial empire that is vastly successful because it has both responded to a consumer impulses and created other impulses. It is worthy of study simply from the standpoint of its contributions to the redefinitions of capital economies at the close of the millennium. Second, related directly to the first point, the pervasiveness of Disney commerce has created a well-coated marketplace: Disney theme parks, Disney stores, Disney films and videos, Disney television, and constant secondary references in popular culture to Disney symbols. However, to comprehend the Wilderness Lodge simply as a crass commercial operation is to ignore Disney’s highest ideological intentions, and to misinterpret the influence that it and other attractions is having on our understanding of reality. After all, Disney is not alone in commodifying nature.

More important for our argument in this paper is the changing character of reality. In colonizing the imagination what the Lodge and similar projects are accomplishing is a non-hostile takeover of the reality that underlies themed experience. Disney is successful at turning wilderness into a conceptual product - one that is adaptable, delimitable, endlessly pliable and available - and then creating a new reality in which to experience it. Moreover, the experience of this consumption conditions our understanding of the real thing, that is natural places which have not yet fallen under the empire.

Disney’s Vacation Kingdom
The development of tourism in the United States over the last forty years and the development of the Disney empire go hand in hand. Walt Elias Disney’s original intent in building his first theme park, Disneyland, was to offer families a safe and happy place in which to holiday together. Disney sanitized the forms of the carnival and the amusement park, turning them into the first three dimensional Disney-version; “Disney’s park was a cleaned-up version, aimed at a middle-class family audience.”

While Disneyland may have had more innocent beginnings as strictly an amusement park, Disney World has no such naivete. Stephen Fjellman reminds us that Disney World, underneath the glamour and the fun, is a business, and a very big business at that. This business is based on selling commodities, and the more things that can be made into commodities, the more things there are to sell; “(t)he corporate project is to bring everything associated with human life into the market and thus under control.” This success of this project at Disney World is phenomenal, no matter how you measure it; visitation keeps increasing and the money keeps rolling in. Over 30 million people visit Disney World every year, this figure alone indicates Disney’s far reaching cultural and economic influence.

The Wilderness Lodge: The Great Indoors
Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is the latest attempt by Disney to sell nature, wilderness and the experience of the great outdoors. Earlier representations of nature and wilderness brought to you by Disney were largely achieved on the big screen; Disney’s own nature films dominated this genre of film for almost twenty years.

Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is one of Disney’s Premium Resorts, the equivalent to a four-star hotel. The Lodge has 725 rooms, four restaurants and lounges, heated swimming pool, bike and boat rentals, laundry facilities and a small store. The in-house description reads: “Disney’s Wilderness Lodge Resort is based upon a romantic vision that returns the visitor to the era of the Early West; the stage for the American epic where the sky was always blue, Indians were noble warriors, wild game roamed freely over wondrous landscapes, and the pioneer and the frontier were given heroic proportions...”

It is apparent that Disney consciously chooses to represent certain kinds of thought and expression about nature, wilderness and the culture of nature in the Wilderness Lodge. Disney takes the information which it has chosen to represent very seriously, and has carefully constructed a narrative about and for the Lodge which uncovers, enhances, highlights, illuminates and demonstrates the Disney culture of nature at every opportunity. Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is also a part of the nature-as-meta-theme project of the Walt Disney Company, and it reflects the values of progress, exploration, control and individualism evident in other Disney representations of nature and wilderness.

The Forest for the Trees: Nature and Reality
Disney’s vast material re-organization of landscapes have some impact on our ideas of reality and nature. In the construction and the presentation of the Wilderness Lodge, the Disney Company consciously chooses a story to tell about nature, and the relationship humans have with nature. The story it chooses is tied to Disney’s need to conduct its business, and it reflects values and ideologies which serve these purposes first, make us feel warm and good about nature second. While the Wilderness Lodge has a story to tell about Disney as a company and a cultural icon, it also has things to say about North American ideological trends regarding wilderness, nature, culture and consumption.

Through elaborate design and commercial intention, concepts and experiences that are deeply imbedded in North American life - national parks, the image of the frontier, indians, wood burning fireplaces - are transformed into marketable goods. We procure these at the cost only of money. To experience a national park fully, for example, would involve a suite of skills, hardships, ecstatic experiences, and long term commitment to a place. To consume something typically requires little experience. A visitor to the Wilderness Lodge need not have any prior experience with such phenomena in order to have a pleasant visit. Depth of experience with frontier living is replaced by a mythic view of the frontier, distilled in the form of gift stores, design features, in-house newspapers, and promotional materials.

While the public may wish to maintain their ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy in every day life (and this is itself debatable), they come to Disney World with the intent of living out fantasy and experiencing illusion. To their credit, the Disney people never deny that they are in the business of selling dreams. Most approach the Wilderness Lodge for entertainment, escape, and wish fulfillment. Cloaked in this fashion, it is easy both to overlook (or become fascinated by) flaws in the presentation and to marvel at the technological capability.

Louis Marin looks at Disney’s representation of reality in terms of what he calls a “degenerate utopia (which) is ideology changed into the form of a myth.” Marin sees ideology as “the representation of the imaginary relationship individuals maintain with their real conditions of existence”; when this ideology is placed in an utopian setting and presented in a narrative format it is given mythical status, and becomes understood as something natural and common-sensical. In order to accomplish this, Disney replaces the real world with an imaginary one. Guests to Disney’s properties are complicit in this, and a willing suspension of disbelief is undertaken. This suspension of disbelief is taken very seriously by visitors to Disney World, and it is not uncommon to observe people who would ordinarily be unwilling to participate in make-believe play along with such things as people dressed up as larger than life size Dwarfs, going so far as to ask for Dopey’s autograph, delighted when they receive it.

Once ushered into this new reality, visitors are bombarded with information which will make it coherent and acceptable. Disney has actually already started this process in the outside world through their massive distribution of films, other media products and merchandise, which tell the stories that are retold at Disney World, and stimulate the desire to live these stories by experiencing them at Disney World.

Not only is Disney World creating a new reality, it is saying something about the very nature of reality. Through the use of hyperreality, reality is seemingly flexible, easily constructed by those with the right kind of imagination and the right amount of money. Disney’s hyperreal island expands beyond the park, backing up their version of hyperreality with a context created through various media and shown almost around the globe; Disney is able to present their version of things and call it reality, blurring the lines between the real and hyperreal.

Does Disney do this deliberately to undermine the value of reality, or are they responding to an existing erosion of reality’s value? They would probably argue that they are providing a place for people to live out their fantasies, sidestepping the fact that the fantasies Disney caters to are those that they themselves have created. Disney has perceived the richness of the hyperreal when compared to the real and found it very profitable indeed. Whether they are marketing Disney character halloween costumes or wilderness, the reality is, hyperreality sells. Given the attraction of hyperreality, and its apparent success for the Disney Company, this question becomes virtually meaningless, for Disney’s mass marketing of the hyperreal will surely continue to undermine the value of reality, whether or not other forces also contribute to its devaluation. Remarkably, relatively little attention has been given to the question of why it is that we should care about real nature (or more generally, reality). Borgmann has risen to the challenge in a recent essay, but one is left wondering whether such an argument matters ultimately in a rising sea of artificiality.

While people will certainly continue to attend real parks and wilderness areas, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge will stand as a testament to the imagineering potential of the hyperreal to transform continuous reality into themed experience. The themed experience of nature will certainly have an influence on perceptions of the reality of nature and wilderness, particularly as things which make America, and Americans, unique. At a material level, we ought to be concerned about the implications this has for commodification. The traditional notion of commodities as material objects are being supplanted significantly by hyperreal experiences. There is, indeed, much more money to be made from hyperreality, and much more work required to comprehend its cultural and ecological effects.

Journey’s End: Conclusions
What Disney attempts with the Wilderness Lodge is nothing short of a re-colonization of nature as a conceptual product. Disney commodifies and markets the concepts of nature and wilderness, and creates natural spaces in which to experience these concepts. Not only does Disney create this physical and conceptual simulacrum, it has generated its own referents for its creation by continually representing nature and wilderness in the popular media, especially television, over a forty year period. The viewers of Disney’s nature specials on television are also those people who will visit the Wilderness Lodge and the messages of the Lodge make sense, they seem real, in light of the context which the visitor has received of Disney’s version of nature. With this context intact, and the representations of nature and wilderness at the Wilderness Lodge, Disney is able to impart its ideological message to the viewer as seemingly part of the natural order of things.

We have suggested that the creation of such places and the selling of the experiences designed for them is problematic, for it replaces actual experience with virtual experience and creates a form of hyperreality. Also, this hyperreal experience of nature is what the Wilderness Lodge provides that a trip to a real wilderness area does not. Hyperreality and other artificial forms of experience are fast overtaking reality, replacing more immediate experience and perhaps, the immediate experience of reality itself. From an environmental standpoint, this replacement places people at a greater distance from a nature which requires their intimate involvement for its survival; Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is another high-tech component of that distancing. By making nature a theme (Nature, The Great Outdoors) which can be experienced outside of a setting which most people would call natural, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge becomes an example of the widespread character of artificiality in North American culture, and highlights the extent to which the world is constructed by humans for human interests.

If themed experience is, as we have suggested, a device, it is a part of a technological paradigm which privileges means over ends. When themed experience encompasses nature in such an immediate way as it does at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, nature, too, becomes part of an artificial reality and a device paradigm.

This argument assumes that nature and wilderness are real, tangible places that do matter to us, that we care about them in ways that are both concrete and abstract, and that we can and will continue to distinguish them from artificial nature. Artificial realities do not cause difficulties until they colonize reality and imagination, and confuse the traditional relation between mean and ends. With the increase in the artificial, particularly artificial nature however, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between the real and the artificial.” One of these consequences may be an increasing difficulty to value things as authentic and therefore unique.” “Who cares about authenticity with respect to an imaginary origin?” Once authenticity is no longer needed to make a representation meaningful, simulacra are all that may be left, nature remains only “of interest as spectacle.” At a deeper level, artificial nature implies that the value of real nature is negligible. “Plastic trees? They are more than a practical simulation. They are the message that the trees which they represent are themselves but surfaces.” The depth and value of things and places loses meaning in a world of infinite artificial possibilities.

Nature has been a subject of intense commodification throughout the industrial revolution as every conceivable thing was transformed into a product. Trees have multidimensional meaning, but in the books of economic rationalists and capitalists, they are forest products. Disney has moved this conversion one step further through the construction and marketing of themes. Experience has its own commercial value, and is evident with the Wilderness Lodge, it is remarkable how consistent and coherent such themes can be. However, the value we place on these conceptual products is changing in response to new, hyperrealities. What we are willing to pay, and what we expect in return, are increasingly structured the by themes themselves (i.e. the hyperrealities) instead of grounded in real trees, experiences, and so on. From a political perspective, this lends enormous authority to those in control of the themes.

Please address correspondence to:
Eric Higgs, Associate Professor, Departments of Anthropology and Sociology
13-6 HM Tory Building, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2H4 , PHONE (403) 492-5469, FAX (403) 492-5273, e-mail: Eric.Higgs@ualberta.ca

 


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