Live Active Cultures 

After a half-dozen columns focusing on downtown, I thought it was time for another trip down I-4 to see the new American Idol Experience at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Sure, it's an untimely exploitation franchise past its peak; you'd think they'd have learned from the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Play It! flameout. But the Idol attraction — where park guests battle it out in a mock version of the TV competition (of which I'm not an avid viewer) — turns out to be much less painful than I feared. The state-of-the-art set and lighting is so dazzling you barely notice the subliminal Coca-Cola adverts swimming in the video backdrop. And they've cast some of their best talent as hosts and judges: I've seen A. Ali Flores, Philip Nolen, Jim Braswell, Lisa Glaze and Jeff Lindberg there. I was planning to applaud the often-maligned Mouse for reopening a long-shuttered attraction (raise your hand if you remember Superstar Television) and filling it with decently paid actors instead of cardboard cutouts and video games. But I'm just not feeling it.

I came to Orlando in the mid-1990s hoping my mostly useless theater degree could at least get me backstage work at Walt Disney World. I've had an unreasonable affection for the place since childhood, but "Casting" strung me along with round after round of interviews while Universal offered me a job on the spot. So I never fulfilled my fantasy of being a Disney "cast member," and if they read this paper I likely never will. Still, I haven't managed to wipe all the pixie dust from my eyes. But after last week's trio of World-shaking events there's less mouse shit clouding my vision.

Of the three eye-openers, only one made national news: WDW laid off approximately 450 nonunion employees, largely "back of house" middle management. With 62,000-plus on the payroll, the cuts were a drop in the bucket, but bloodletting was severe in departments like entertainment, training and merchandise. The pink-slipped weren't front-liners, so the average guest won't notice much difference, at least at first. But many of the folks let go were key to upholding whatever remains of WDW's once-spotless reputation for quality customer service. Talent veterans like master sommelier John Blazon (one of only 100 on the continent) and historian Jim Korkis (who Mouse Tales author David Koenig called "hands down the company's greatest historical source outside of California") can't easily be replaced when the economy heats back up.

Mouse management's cry of recession-related poverty is somewhat disingenuous: While per-cap spending has been depressed by generous discounts (free birthday tickets and buy four/get three free hotel nights), attendance is so strong that the Magic Kingdom has recently had to extend hours and add parades to accommodate the crowds. The culling is a consequence of Disney resorts chairman Jay Rasulo's campaign to unify their worldwide properties under the insipid "Disney Parks" brand, centralizing operations in Anaheim and eroding Orlando's individual identity. Expect an acceleration of the trend to move away from unique shopping and dining experiences and toward familiar franchises.

Event No. 2 was the one-night-only premiere of Rat Race: The Secret Lives of Theme Park Workers at the Cameo Theater (short-lived home of Greater Orlando Actors Theatre). The one-man play starring Eric Paul Jakobsen (developed with Margaret Eginton) incorporates interviews with employees of a certain attraction (unnamed to forestall lawsuits), who related amusingly awful anecdotes that echo in the infamous "utilidor" tunnels under the Happiest Place on Earth. Between laughs about being encased in a giant fuzzy head with a face full of mucus, there's real heart: a dancer risks lasting injury for a stable paycheck; an actor (an obvious analogue for Epcot originator Ron Schneider, in attendance) makes an eloquent case for "themed entertainment" as a legitimate art form. Jakobsen is a young performer with potential, and this production showcases his talent for comedic physicality. But the second half derails into a deconstructive discourse on ethnography that's uncomfortably self-conscious. He's planning to tour the play to Chicago and New York; maybe it'll keep a few Disney-crazed potential transplants up north.

Finally, my third tale has a happy ending. The Florida Film Festival, which ends April 5, featured celebrities Cat Cora, Glenn Close and Ken Russell (whose bone-dry wit was in full flower at the Crimes of Passion Q&A), but the real star was Nina Paley's instant-classic cartoon Sita Sings the Blues (reviewed in "FFF: Narrative features," March 26). It retells the Hindu myth of warrior-king Rama and his virtuous long-suffering wife, Sita (as interpreted by a bickering trio of shadow-puppet narrators), intercut with the autobiographical tale of Paley's disintegrating relationship. Paley animated this full-length musical by herself — a Herculean task — using a range of eye-popping artistic styles and a flawless soundtrack of 1920s Annette Hanshaw jazz tunes.

Those license-restricted songs mired Paley in copyright purgatory; legal loopholes recently allowed her to freely distribute the self-financed film under Creative Commons via, meaning she'll likely never recoup her costs. You can thank Disney, whose tireless lobbying for the decade-old Sonny Bono Term Extension Act keeps under lock and key creations (like Mickey Mouse) that should rightfully be public domain. I admire Paley's efforts to advance open-source culture; I only wish she had the same rights to profit from artistic recycling that Uncle Walt exercised while getting rich off the Brothers Grimm.


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