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Disney World and Criminology

Happiest place on Earth, you say?

Image courtesy of Orlando Weekly

Even the seemingly definitive tagline, "The Happiest Place on Earth" is conditional, once we swap the Mickey Mouse ears for our thinking caps.

After publishing several of my old academic papers, I have decided to make better use of the knowledge and ideas I acquired and developed in university and turn this into a recurring series of sorts—by analysing literally anything I can possibly find in popular culture.

And judging by this particular topic, you can pretty much tell I am really not kidding.

So, how does every child's dreamland fit into criminology and politics? Simple: Michel Foucault's notion of disciplinary power.

Alright, maybe I should put the brakes on this magic carpet of wonders for a second and explain what I mean to those of you who have not had the privilege of sitting in a theories lecture with semiotics savant Professor Anita Lam.

For starters, Foucault was a French postmodernist who believed there is a hierarchical aspect to disciplining deviant individuals, including the individuals themselves, which was a shift from the more punitive approach of sovereign power. Specifically, he proposed several techniques whereby certain behaviors are controlled during a period of confinement in order to produce obedient persons.

One of these techniques is the normalisation of judgment, which is not meant to be punitive, but rather corrective in nature. It does indeed punish any deviations from the norm in an effort to induce conformity, but by way of assessment in relation to a set standard. This method measures each performance on assessments, whether through examination or surveillance, and assigns additional exercises as punishment to correct subpar performances.

We can understand it as a form of distribution that operates on gratification not to preserve sovereign power, but to either reward or punish subjects based on possible outcomes in a given assessment. Distribution parallels with the idea that people's performance falls on a continuum of two extremes: success and failure. As a result, the aforementioned hierarchy is one that promotes the development of skills and aptitudes. Using this model as the norm symbolises the minimal threshold for training failures to become successes and continually expanding on this effort.

The technique should sound familiar, as it is the same one schools use for class averages based on how closely performance corresponds to criteria.

Speaking of schools, the next technique also should not come as a surprise: examination. Needless to say, it goes hand in hand with normalising judgment, as it closely observes and differentiates between subjects relative to the norm. It also identifies any failures to conformity.

While the initial performance cannot be altered, examination enables ways to bolster improvement in subsequent performances. Examination also allows for hierarchical observation to occur, which is the third technique exercised through visibility. The people conducting surveillance remain invisible, while the subjects being disciplined are under constant scrutiny. The ideal structure originating from this concept would be English utilitarianist Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, although I'll talk about that in detail in a future article.

For now, I think I have provided enough background. Let's talk about Disney World.

The resort's contemporary sense of order is manufactured through a combination of all three techniques mentioned above. One of the ways order is established is through routine—and regimented—instruction, so that visitor safety is always ensured. Employees are responsible for maintaining order and representing "the visitor's best interest" by way of constant surveillance and construction. Spatial arrangements are made into physical barriers to limit the choice of actions available to visitors. This, of course, is so the visitors do not wander off course.

This type of social control is consensual because control is exerted with the voluntary cooperation of the visitors. The aim is to train visitors to practice self-discipline, since they know they can be expelled from Disney or have their benefits denied if they refuse to follow the rules.

Another way we can analyse Disney World as a crime controller is through the implementation of situational crime prevention, as conceptualized by criminologist Ronald Clarke. This approach has a micro focus on individual situations, as opposed to societal conditions as a whole, to reduce opportunities as well as benefits of committing crime. Rather than investigating the root causes of crime, it rationalises casual crime sequences as means for intervention. It assumes that anyone can choose to commit crimes at one time, and be completely idle the next, because opportunities arise within particular contexts. According to this approach, victimisation rates are highly concentrated and support the idea that crime is situational, and thus perpetuates criminogenic environments.

Target removal, which is the act of reducing risks by reducing criminal opportunities themselves, is a primary goal of Disney World through the use of human and technical surveillance. This practice is exemplified by the use of Disney character mascots. They are not just there to entertain children and sign autographs; they also survey visitors and identify potential problems brought along with them.

As for technological measures, there are fenced yards that can be found all throughout the various theme parks, as well as burglar alarms. Visitors are required to register their vehicles and social insurance numbers, as well as identifying their property. Gender-neutral telephone listings are put in place to prevent obscene phone calls that potentially target female visitors. All of this is done to reduce the temptation to commit any possible crime problem, or at least existing ones.

The last element of this entire hierarchy is the inspector's role. Yes, even auditors are subject to evaluation for accountability and credibility, both in their jobs as well as track records. Something that Disney World does to incorporate this in a similar fashion is by database fingerprinting all their employees. Since Disney World is an entertainment complex and the crown jewel of Disney's corporate empire, the stakes are a lot higher and extreme measures are taken to tightly secure its properties and assets.

Now, I love Disney World and Disney in general. I have even stayed at the resort with my parents for my fourth birthday. But even I am aware of its corporate mentality. Its mandate to protect visitors may not necessarily come from a place of genuine morality, but rather to avoid controversy as best as it can while keeping us coming back for more magic and wonder.

Its regulation over its staff can be a positive attribute, but it gets to a point where it becomes more about maximising profit with as fewer setbacks as possible as opposed to any actual oversight of procedures and policies. 

Almost, if not all major corporations have adopted this sort of ideology. But I nevertheless chose Disney as the focus here. After all, everyone loves Disney, right?

With files from York University Professor Anita Lam and her lecture "CRIM 2560: Foucault pt. 2" and Professor James Williams and his lecture "CRIM 3654: Situational Crime Prevention".  

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