To see them all standing together, — the 44 men who have served as President of the United States — is to understand a few things immediately. First is that there are a lot of them. And that some are far more memorable than others. (William Henry Harrison? Really?) The more important realizations take a bit longer to sink in.
I had occasion to check in with the highest office in America a few days before the recent presidential election. I was at Orlando’s Disney World to write something about local attractions and the new Marriott TownePlace Suites (the mouse-shaped waffles at the hotel’s continental buffet are not to be missed). Given the timing, I was less concerned with the nightlife of Disney Springs and the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival than what it felt like to be at the Happiest Place on Earth in such a time of uncertainty. Even before the disaster of the 2016 election was made real, it had been a rough year for the United States. There was some comfort to watching it all unfold from Canada, but to imagine ourselves comfortably insulated from the catastrophe unfolding to the south would be foolish. We are all, to some extent, Americans now. I desperately wanted Disney World to restore my faith in humanity. The Hall of Presidents was perhaps not the best place to start.
On a sweltering afternoon in early November I found myself in a fake neo-classical building on a fake Revolution-era square beside a fake castle built on a Florida swamp. Housed in a replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, The Hall of Presidents consists of a film about the US presidency, followed by a roll call of animatronic Commanders-in-Chief, past and present. The show was personally devised by Walt Disney who, throughout the 1950s and ’60s until his death in 1966, became somewhat obsessed with making realistic, talking animatronic human replicas. During the planning of the new Florida amusement park, his successors vowed to make his dream come to life. When the park first opened in 1971, the show culminated in an address by Abraham Lincoln — one of Disney’s heroes — and in 1993 the stage was updated to include presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. Since then the cast has been amended with every new sitting president. Tradition holds that, upon entering office, each President records a speech to be delivered by his robotic proxy.
One enters through a rotunda designed to look like a room in the White House. On one side is a selection of presidential memorabilia (all real, an attendant in colonial garb tells me) — Reagan’s hat, Bush’s cowboy boots, Hoover’s tackle bag — on another wall a portrait of Ben Franklin peers down sourly. We are herded into a grand theatre bathed in purple light and the show begins. “Almost 250 years ago in Philadelphia, a dream was born,” Morgan Freeman soothingly intones from an array of hidden speakers. What follows is a Ken Burns-esque greatest hits of the American presidency, sprinkled with inspirational quotes from Washington, Jackson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. Towards the end George W. Bush addresses a crowd at ground zero through a bullhorn. “I can hear you!” He says. “The rest of the world hears you!” Orchestral music swells and Freeman concludes, “What once seemed revolutionary now seems profoundly simple— that we should choose our own leaders; that our hopes should be their hopes; our fears their fears; our dreams their dreams.” As the curtain rises to reveal a crowded stage of animatronic figures, my eyes are wet with tears.
Like pretty much everyone else I know, I believed that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election, taking her place on the increasingly packed Hall of Presidents stage shortly thereafter. At that time the idea of a woman joining the ranks of those men seemed a nice coda to this story of democracy and inclusivity, the American experiment marching bravely ever forward. To put it mildly, the thought of Donald Trump standing up there alongside Lincoln, Kennedy and Obama is a disturbing one. At the Hall of Presidents, though, as a spotlight comes up on each man and his name is read in turn, you get a sense of just what a long and crooked road it’s been. Not all of these were good leaders. Some of them were downright bad ones — and that’s just based on the ones whose names I recognize. Such is the nature of letting the people choose their own leaders: sometimes they choose wrong. The exhibit is currently closed while the Imagineers install a life-size robot made in the image of the 45th president.
The Hall of Presidents may have the feel of a museum, but it’s only real in the same way that the nearby castle is: it’s less concerned with reflecting reality than evoking a feeling. That’s why people love this place, children especially: reality kind of sucks a lot of the time, and Disney World floats serenely above it on a cloud of mouse-shaped make believe. The purpose of this place has never been to show us the world as it is, but the world as it could be, if only we imagine hard enough. You can feel it clearly in the kind of deft editing and soundtracking required to make George W. Bush seem like a charismatic leader and also — more significantly — in the constant reminders that the future is still what we make it. Disney’s rosy 1950s optimism about building a brighter tomorrow through American ingenuity and values may seem dated, but the underlying message is perhaps more relevant now than ever.
Things are bad today but they might be better tomorrow, or the day after, or four years from now. An orange-skinned automaton with his tie hanging down to his knees won’t change this. If Disney’s Hall of Presidents can teach us anything it’s not a lesson about the presidency or democracy or diplomacy. The bigger message is the same one that permeates all of Disney World: that it is possible to will into being that which does not exist. A castle springing from a swamp, for instance. Or an entire world built around a talking mouse. Or a non-white president. That might not be the kind of magic you think of when you think of Disney, but it’s magic nonetheless.