Whereas other pages on the Wild Wilderness web site deal explicitly with the “demonstration recreation fee program”, this article probes the deeper, more hidden, recesses of this issue.

If you oppose recreation fees simply because they represent a new form of taxation, this article might not be of interest. If you’re prepared to consider the possibility that there are external forces shaping the very way in which Americans view ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’, and that the future of public-lands management is being challenged by these forces, then please do read on!

When Disney Defines Nature

Whether you listen to those on the political left, the political right, or those in the middle, it seems that just about everyone shares the belief that ‘America is a nation in flux.’ The topic being discussed might be the sense of alienation experienced by our 'Generation X' . Or it could be the fading away of traditional 'Family Values'. Or possibly the effects of 'Corporate Downsizing' on American workers. There are many examples from which to choose.

Wild Wilderness would like to draw attention to another such issue. An issue that need not have any political spin, but tends to assume one when discussed by those who strongly subscribe to a particular ideology. Defined in the broadest of terms, this is the issue of how future generations of Americans will view, manage and relate to the natural world. Defined in much narrower terms, it is the issue of how we as a people want our federal public lands managed with respect to recreation opportunities, and if trade-offs become necessary, which humanistic values forest management should seek to promote. The following is a quote from Senator Frank Murkowski, speaking on this subject.

As one scans the cross-section of America’s growing population, it’s easy to find support for much of what Senator Murkowski is saying. The recreation industry is indeed booming. Sales of RV’s, personal water craft and snowmobiles (toys that did not exist a mere generation ago) are now at record highs. Many Americans have become less content with their lives. And the great outdoors may well seem irrelevant for many of today’s children, especially those growing up in our cities. If traditional outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, fishing and cross country skiing are losing their relevance, then we would ask: Why has this come to pass, and what must we do to reverse this trend? It is at this point that the views of Wild Wilderness and Senator Murkowski diverge.

Wild Wilderness believes that the incessant commercialization of modern life has fundamentally changed the value system for many Americans. We say the tens of thousands of advertisements seen, watched and heard each year by the average American have created entirely new needs and wants, and have shifted relevance from traditional values, to more crass values; values manufactured and instilled in today’s youth by corporations looking only to increase their bottom line. Wild Wilderness would say that in order to keep the outdoors relevant for today’s children, we must first try to reverse the negative effects our overly materialistic culture have had upon the psyches of our children. And finally, Wild Wilderness would say that preserving and protecting our nation’s untrammeled and unspoiled public lands is of critical importance if we are to stand any hope of rekindling traditional values and respect for the natural world amongst America’s youth. No doubt Senator Murkowski, the ARC, and the many corporate members of ARC would put it differently.

The message extolled by these interests is: if traditional outdoor activities are no longer relevant to today’s children, then we must bring those outdated values into better accord with today’s realities. To do this we will replace skis with snowmobiles and canoes with jet-skis. In the outdoor recreational experience of the 21st century,  action will replace contemplation, domination will replace respect, and thrills will replace awe. If our children clamor for Disney style adventure, then that’s what must be provided. Everyone knows it was big wasteful federal bureaucracy that allowed public recreational facilities to decay. But don’t fret, private industry with its great efficiency will make everything right, just you see.

In the many articles Wild Wilderness has already published, we have repeatedly vilified the American Recreation Coalition as the primary instrument responsible for implementing the new recreation paradigm. But ARC itself is nothing but a tool of the corporations that provide its financial support. No doubt, ARC’s President, Derrick Crandall, believes in the coalition’s mission and 'wise-use' agenda. But when dealing with multi-billion dollar companies in a multi-hundred-billion dollar industry, we find it inconceivable that Mr. Crandall is actually calling the shots.

But if Crandall’s not, then who is?

Please bear with us while we ask you to read two short summaries taken from relevant internet documents. These serve as supporting material, valuable to the continued discussion which follows. Hold that question: 'then who is?', until we return.

The following materials are listed according to their file number in the Wild Wilderness reference collection. All statements are direct quotations from the indicated internet source documents.

L-24 (Bureau of Land Management)

Bringing nature to the city is the concept of Wonderful Outdoor World or WOW a national program designed to urban children the chance to cook on a camp stove, sleep under the stars and learn about the environment all in their own neighborhood parks.

In addition to the national environmental and outdoor education components of the program, special outdoor classroom sessions have been designated by local, regional, and state agencies to present information on wildlife, wilderness, and other natural resources unique to Arizona. Participants also learn about environmental and outdoor ethics.

The WOW program was conceived when a network of public and private partners began recognizing a trend: fewer families are spending free time on family camp-outs -- the traditional means by which most children are introduced to the environment and lifelong activities. WOW was developed as a cost-effective means of bringing camping experiences into the city. Their motto: “If you can’t take kids to the outdoors, bring the outdoors to the kids.”

National Sponsors of Arizona’s WOW program include: the BLM, the Coleman Company {an ARC sustaining member}, the Recreation Roundtable {an ARC project}, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Walt Disney Company {an ARC sustaining member} and Wells Cargo Trailers.

L-196 (Salt Lake Tribune)

"A Golden Arches National Park? Hey, Don't Laugh" (by Tom Wharton, The Salt Lake Tribune)
A few weeks ago, cartoonist Gary Trudeau ridiculed corporate sponsorship of national parks in a series of biting “Doonesbury” cartoons. To American Recreation Coalition president Derrick Crandall, the idea is no laughing matter. His organization represents many companies who benefit from the booming $350 billion-a-year outdoors industry...

The idea of corporate sponsorship of national parks resulted in satirists joking that Yellowstone National Park would soon turn into McDonald’s National Park or the Grand Canyon would be renamed Disney’s Grand Canyon {Disney is an ARC Sustaining Member}.

Crandall suggested that private industry could play several roles in helping public-land managers. For example, the Coleman Company {an ARC sustaining member} could sponsor a weekend of free entry to a popular national or state park, allowing those struggling to enjoy a vacation a way to save money. Kodak could put together a detailed book on how to take great pictures in the national forest that would be distributed free at ranger stations. A major sporting-goods dealer such as R.E.I. {represented on ARC’s Recreation Roundtable} might sell required permits to urban forest areas while providing environmental-education materials on protecting the land...

Corporations realize investing in the outdoors and lobbying Congress for increased funding of trails, campgrounds and parks will ultimately increase their bottom lines. Besides, it is the right thing to do.


Disney's America

Who is really setting America’s public lands recreation agenda?

With combined (1996) revenues of some $21.2 billion, Walt Disney is the world’s largest entertainment company. Unknown to many, Disney is also the world’s second largest media conglomerate (after Times Warner) and has an enormous capability to influence the thinking of the American public. Disney owns America’s #1 TV 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 (including Buena Vista Television, The Disney Channel, Miramax Film Corp., and Touchstone pictures). It owns theme parks (including Disneyland, Disneyland Paris and Epcot). It owns publication companies (Disney Hachette Presse, Disney Press, Hyperion Press and Mouse Works). And it owns professional sports franchises (the Mighty Ducks and part of the California Angels).

Depending upon how one defines 'recreation', Walt Disney is very possibly the world’s largest recreation company. However, Disney’s recreation earnings are relatively small potatoes compared to the $100 billion per year contributed to America’s Gross Domestic Product by recreation on U.S. Forest Service managed public lands. There’s lots more money still to be made from recreation, and Disney knows it.

As one would expect for a company of this size, Walt Disney Co. seeks to protect and advance its position within the recreation market through active participation within a number of special interest associations. Three of these are of particular interest to Wild Wilderness because of the active role these interests are now taking to “commercialize, privatize and motorize” opportunities for recreation on our nation’s federally managed public lands. The groups and associations are: the American Recreation Coalition, the Recreation Exchange, and the Recreation Roundtable.

Walt Disney is a sustaining corporate member of the American Recreation Company  “a non-profit federation that provides a unified voice for recreation interests to ensure their full and active participation in government policy-making on issues such as public land management, energy and liability.”

Walt Disney is a sponsor of the Recreation Exchange,“a monthly forum during which lobbyists and executives representing Corporate Recreation Interests informally exchange ideas and information with top Officials of the United States Government.” The Recreation Exchange is a project of the American Recreation Coalition.

Kym Murphy, Walt Disney Corporate Vice President for Environmental Policy, is Senior Vice President of the Recreation Roundtable. “The Recreation Roundtable was formed in 1989 to provide a key group of creative outdoor recreation industry CEOs with a forum for discussion regarding public policies affecting recreation and to serve as a catalyst for partnership actions which enhance recreation opportunities in America.”

The fact that Disney is willing to publicly associate itself with such a blatantly 'wise-use' group as ARC is extremely surprising, considering the extra-ordinary importance of keeping the Disney name and image spotlessly clean. The stakes must be enormously high for Disney to accept such a risk. What would our children say if they suspected that 'Tinker Bell’s pixie dust' was nothing but corporate propaganda falling from Disney’s magic-media wand.

Let there be no mistake, Wild Wilderness does not pretend to know what transpires between ARC and Disney (or any other ARC member company) behind the closed doors of their private meetings. We know only what we learn from public information channels. However, no company as large as Disney can escape public scrutiny. And no company as successful and important in shaping American culture, as is Disney, can go without academic analysis.

What follows is a seminal academic paper written by Jennifer Cypher (Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University) and Eric Higgs (Department of Anthropology/ Department of Sociology, University of Alberta). I have shortened their article from 8000 to less than 3000 words, without changing the order of presentation or adding a single word to the original text. These authors have done a brilliant job of explaining how the Disney Company has affected our views of nature, of wildernes’ and of reality itself.

Is Disney really shaping recreation policies for the American Recreation Coalition? Are Disney’s ideas those to which Senator Murkowski is referring when he speaks of “making the outdoors more relevant to our youth”? Do you wish your children to learn “traditional outdoor values” from Disney? And should Disney assume a greater role in governmental policy making as related to the management of our national forests, lakes, and wilderness areas?

Please read this most illuminating article, and then answer these questions for yourself ...

L-146 (J. Cypher and E. Higgs)

Journey into the Imagination

By Jennifer Cypher and Eric Higgs, soon to be published in the journal: "Capitalism, Nature, Socialism."     (condensed from the original by Scott Silver)

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 naiveté. 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

In 1995 The Disney Corporation and the Public Land Managing Agencies of the United States Federal Government entered into a very important " Memorandum of Understanding." In the future, Disney will not only 'define nature' it will also be the environmental mouthpiece of the U.S. Government.

To further explore the not so Wonderful World of Disney, click here.

This document was prepared by Wild Wilderness. To learn more about ongoing industry-backed congressional efforts to motorize, commercialize, and privatize America's public lands, contact:

Scott Silver, Executive Director
248 NW Wilmington Avenue,  Bend  OR 97701
Phone (541) 385-5261    E-mail: ssilver@wildwilderness.org