I’m a childless adult who loves Disney theme parks and I am not ashamed. Anymore. At least, not as much as I used to be.
Okay, I might be backsliding.
I know how inordinately privileged it sounds to say that one of the things I’ve missed the most during the quarantine is regularly traveling to a massively expensive fun park resort that most families would be lucky to ever afford—one that’s run by a company that many find to be politically and culturally toxic, to boot. I’m not necessarily proud of this, but I also don’t deny it: Disney’s parks bring me a joy and serenity I can’t really find anywhere else. Despite the large swarms of people, I feel at peace there. I’m frightened to go through a drive-through during this stuff but will probably be at Disney World on whatever day it finally reopens, wearing however many masks, gloves and full-body Hazmat suits it’ll take to make me comfortable.
Since that’s still who knows how far away, I’ve resorted to the next best / saddest thing: playing Disneyland Adventures. Originally released for the Kinect in 2011, and available now through Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s sandbox is a dismal mess as a game; as a virtual recreation of the original Disney park, though, it’s probably the best way to feel that unique sense of joy during the lockdown. Walking around this version of Disneyland, hearing the park’s music and distinctive sounds, retracing paths I’ve followed many times in my real life, reminds me of what there is to look forward to once all of this is over.
It also captures the weirdness and discomfort inherent to a place like Disneyland, in a way that I can only assume is unintentional.
The most disappointing thing about Disneyland Adventures is that you can’t actually ride most of the rides. Major attractions like Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean are turned into minigames based around the themes of the rides. Smaller carnival-style rides, like Dumbo or King Arthur’s Carousel, can be experienced as short first-person scenes where your character spins around for a minute or so. One of those rides is the Mad Tea Party—or, as almost everybody calls it, the spinning teacups. It’s one of the oldest and most iconic Disney rides, and for many the one most likely to just wreck your day with vertigo and vomiting. I haven’t ridden the damn things in over 30 years, since before I even started to get dizzy on extreme spinning rides. But I rode them in Disneyland Adventures, and it was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen in a videogame.
When I ride the teacups this is what I see.
I have no idea who this man is. There are only a few characters in the game that aren’t Disney characters, and he is not one of them. He’s just some guy with a mustache who shares a teacup with me, sitting way too close and without completely blinking, and taking up way too much of my screen—for an entire minute. It’s just creepy.
It doesn’t matter how many times I get off the teacups and get back on. He ‘s always there. I can walk around the park, find some dishware for Sleeping Beauty, and then ride the cups again. HE’S THERE. This mustache man is stalking me, clinging to me like a sweater but just out of sight, until I sit down in a spinning teacup. Then he and his mustache pounce, crowding up my personal space with his whiskers and lifeless eyes.
This makes absolutely no sense.
It also captures something intrinsic to the theme park experience—something that understandably causes many people to hate them. This unknown loner and his mustache is a stand-in for all the people who surround you at a theme park—the masses of strangers who are always right on top of you throughout the day, no matter where you go. Whether you’re in line for a ride, or waiting to order food, or sitting in a theater, or watching a parade, you will be immediately next to multiple people you have never met before. The crowds can be as dizzying as the teacups, and as overwhelming as the emotion I feel during the big climax of the Enchanted Tiki Room. More than the inherent unreality of the parks—which can range from absurd cartoonishness to movie set verisimilitude—it’s this crush of humanity that makes these places feel so weird, the forced closeness to random people you’ll never see again. The worst case scenario, before the pandemic, is what you see in this game: a stranger sitting inches in front of your face, staring at you without saying a word.
The best case scenario is the sixtysomething couple my wife and I shared a table with at Epcot’s Biergarten a few years ago, who apparently made millions in Silicon Valley in the ‘80s, and would interrupt us within seconds whenever we tried to get a few words in. Sure, the constant one-sided chatter made it hard to enjoy the food and oom-pah music, but at least they didn’t have four kids running about the table and three strollers clogging up the walkway.
This man’s eternal presence, and what it signifies, also reinforces how difficult it’ll be for these parks to reopen during the pandemic. Shanghai Disneyland has already reopened with significantly reduced capacity, and although all other parks are still closed and don’t have timelines for a return, it’s expected the measures seen in China will be replicated elsewhere. Reducing Disneyland to 30% of its capacity will obviously cut into the crowds, but it’s hard to see how distancting will be enforced, and how awkward face-to-faces like the ones I’ve endured with this guy will be entirely eliminated.
I’m not sure if the mustache man always appears in that teacup for everybody who plays this game. I know he does for me. Perhaps he’s my own personal poltergeist, vengefully following me throughout the park. If he is a constant for all players, then it’s either one of the most baffling decisions I’ve ever seen in a videogame, or a clever and surprising critique of how theme parks eliminate the concept of personal space. Either way his mere existence disorients me more than the actual teacups ever have.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.