Mr. Presslers Wild Ride
On March 25, Cal-OSHA fined Disneyland $12,500 (the maximum allowed), citing misused equipment and improper training in the Dec. 24 accident on the Columbia sailing ship that killed one guest and injured his wife and an employee overseeing the ride. Disney has denied that the employee, Christine Carpenter, was untrained and said it has reviewed safety procedures throughout the park in the wake of the accident.
The report ended three months of investigation and speculation about the cause of the accident, which temporarily put a real damper on the Happiest Place on Earth while employees washed the blood off the dock. But one group of fans online who have been highly critical of the park's direction in recent years lay the blame squarely on just one man: Paul Pressler, the former president of the park who in early December was promoted to oversight of all Disney resorts.
"Empowerment at its finest," wrote one fan about Carpenter's alleged lack of training. "Good job, Mr. Pressler!"
The depth of animosity many Disney fans online hold for Pressler is startling—particularly among a small group of posters on the alt.disney.disneyland (ADD) newsgroup. Home to hardcore park fans, on ADD, you can detect a streak of bitterness a mile wide. Some posters see him as a bean counter obsessed with the bottom line, a man immune to the "magic" of founder Walt Disney's original vision. They accuse him of letting park maintenance lapse, cutting back budgets for attractions, and plotting to get patrons to spend more time in shops purchasing merchandise they see as increasingly shoddy. (I'd like to tell you what Disney has to say in response to all this, but they bounced me off a few PR guys and then didn't call me back—though they seemed darn nice about it).
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That hatred of Pressler runs rampant online isn't new, of course. The complaints really started to ramp up in 1996; it finally got so bad that ADD regular Al Lutz started the well-known Promote Paul Pressler Web site, urging Disney to promote Pressler—away from their beloved park.
"People were getting so frustrated," Lutz said. "At one point, someone put up a post saying that if Pressler took out this one attraction, he was going to take a shotgun and blow his head off. I got really upset because they [Disneyland officials] already think we're a bunch of loonies online. So the next night, I asked, 'How can I steer the conversation on the newsgroup so we're not saying such negative things?' In my other job, if we hate someone, we do our best to promote him and hope we get someone better. So I put up my page."
But the weird thing is that Pressler did get promoted. Someone the ADDers seem to like better replaced him—there's hardly any criticism of Disneyland's new executive vice president, Cynthia Harriss, online. And yet everything that goes wrong—like the Columbia accident—still lands squarely on his head.
"Pressler is a magnet for this kind of stuff," Lutz said. "He's such an obvious scapegoat. It's his era. It's when he came onboard that stuff began to happen.
"[Disneyland executives] are in a tough spot," he added. "They've got a thing that's basically a historical treasure for a lot of people. It's a unique thing to run that place: you have to be show-bizzy, but you also have to be practical. I don't envy that job at all. And people do bitch like hell—I know that exists. But if you have any level of concern about what's going on in the park, they automatically brand you a loony."
Some of the more hardcore Disneyland fans online have suggested that Pressler's main sin is that he betrayed the magic and purity of Walt Disney's vision by focusing on the bottom line. This is richly silly. Walt was unquestionably a man of vision, even if that vision occasionally led him to treat his employees like sweatshop workers and drive his brother Roy close to a nervous breakdown trying to come up with the cash to fund Walt's grandiose schemes. But Disney would not have built Disneyland if he didn't think he could make money from it; he wasn't doing it strictly out of the goodness of his heart. And when folks revile Pressler's "lack of creativity" (pointing, for example, to the much-maligned Light Magic parade), they tend to forget that Disney unveiled his share of clunkers at the park, too.
Lutz is more circumspect in his criticism. He simply feels that Disneyland has an obligation to give good value for the money its fans shell out to visit the park. "What we're saying is, jeez, they're still charging the same ticket price—more, in fact, than ever before," he pointed out. "A family walking in there—it's a crime what they're charged. If you're going to do it, do it right. Make me enjoy what I'm spending my money on." An adult ticket at Disneyland now costs a staggering $39.
But what's really striking about Pressler's online critics is their nostalgia for nostalgia, their longing to return to representation of a past that seems shinier, happier and better than the dirty, noisy, inconvenient present. But Disneyland itself was from the beginning built on that same sense of Weltschmerz. It constructed its internal mythology by creating in its visitors homesickness for a place that never existed: a Main Street wider and cleaner than any main street in any small town; a fairy castle without all the inconvenience of arrow slits and boiling oil poured over ramparts to discourage invaders; a frontier without native genocide, disease, hardship and loneliness.
"It all comes down to performance," Lutz said. "What Disney understood so well is that you have to have a level of showmanship to make you believe things are what they aren't. What galls me most about Pressler and the other executives is that they don't understand they have to be a ringmaster. The hat has to come off with a certain flourish, and the whip has to be cracked. If you don't follow through with the flourishes, all you have is a fake Main Street and a fake castle."
In other words, what makes Disneyland authentic is the effrontery to carry off the deceit—the P.T. Barnumesque ability to wave one hand around in the air so extravagantly and stylishly that no one in the audience notices you're picking their pockets with the other. I love the idea that what's missing from Disneyland today—if you agree with Lutz and his online pals—is authentic fakery. In an era of carefully manicured plants choking out native grasses, Spanish-revival condos replacing old-style architecture, and planned communities substituting for real ones, Disneyland is about as authentic a SoCal landmark as you could ask for. And pity Pressler, who's been cast as Beelzebub for not being as much of a wild charlatan as the man who built it.
Pity Wyn at email@example.com.
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