Consumer vs. Conscience: The Schadenfreude of Disney World

By Sophie Steinberg

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A side view of the Magic Kingdom Castle.

Cold and exhausted after going on soaking river rapids, I began to make my way over a to another part of the Animal Kingdom park. I had just waited over an hour for a 10-minute ride that left me drenched. My trip to Disney World had been thrilling in theory, but I had no idea how much of my time here would be spent simply waiting. While crossing a mostly-plaster “wooden” bridge, I noticed a little button sitting on the railing. I pushed the button immediately, hoping for a “Disney surprise” (maybe Cinderella would pop out of tree) when suddenly, a giant water cannon turned on and sprayed various line-waiters and riders beneath the bridge. I was stunned. Then I pressed the button again. And again. When my father caught up to me and saw me soaking tourists, all of whom were unaware of the angsty teenager behind the water raining down on them, he uttered one word: “Schadenfreude.”

Have you ever felt excited when the know-it-all in your class gets a bad grade or when your least favorite teacher falls ill, and wondered why?

Here I was, staying in the “most magical place on earth,” and I couldn’t help but act like a villain. Simply put, it was schadenfreude: according to Merriam-Webster, schadenfreude is the “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” The prefix, “schaden,” means harm and the suffix, “freude,” means joy. The word literally translates “harm-joy.”

As my time in Disney World continued, I began to notice the feeling more frequently. When I had Fastpass, a special ticket that allows you to go on an expedited line for a ride, I found myself vindictively looking down upon those in the regular line. Yet when forced to wait in the regular line myself as savvier park-goers went ahead, I felt demeaned. I also envied the people staying at fancier resorts when their bus stops were conveniently located right outside the park, and mine was a quarter of a mile away. I constantly craved a sense of superiority. And the more I analyzed every guest’s status, itinerary, and hotel, the more I came to see Disney World as a microcosm of the class rivalry beyond the park’s walls.

On Disney World’s website, one finds four types of resorts: Value Resorts, Moderate Resort, Deluxe Resorts, Deluxe Villa Resorts. The Value Resorts range from $110-$180 dollars a night, while the Deluxe Villas range from $503-$1,420 a night. Resorts often categorize visitors by designating the type and location of their theme park transportation. Resorts are also used to make dinner and theater reservations, occasionally determining your seating in these locations.

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Left: A view of Cinderella’s castle in Magic Kingdom.

Right: A statue of Disney’s founder, Walt Disney, and his creation, Mickey Mouse.

Disney World also attracts visitors from across the country and globe. During my stay, I encountered millennials from London, families from Arkansas and West Virginia, and high school class trips from Springfield, Illinois to northern Florida. An international phenomenon, the theme park welcomes people of many different backgrounds, which leaves room for ethnocentric judgement. When asked to describe Disney’s social atmosphere, one of my friends said, “You [have] people from North Dakota with eight kids, and normal families from London or New York that think, what the f**k?” I immediately recalled how upon arrival at Disney World, the staff asked families where they were from. Following everyone’s response, some of the staff shared covert expressions. People judged both each other and each other’s proximity to the park. Disney World’s accessibility is an asset in Hollywood, but in Central Florida it seemed to breed a schadenfreudic response.  

However, Disney World’s financial influence and strategy is not limited to its guests. The theme park dominates industry and employment in Orlando, Florida and surrounding towns. Disney World is the largest “single-site” employer in the country with over 49,000 employees; this translates into 12.1% of the Florida state workforce. The company’s economic reign, like its theme park, has both benefits and downsides for local residents. While boosting the Central Florida economy, Disney also forces Florida to accommodate its needs. Constant construction and road renovations are needed to manage the millions of tourists that pass through Disney each year. Local airports and other important stores are also forced to expand their staff and services to sustain the number of park visitors.

My mother described showing me and my siblings Disney movies like “buying into a product” or a “contract.” Now, I can understand her point. Disney toys, experiences, and theme parks are packaged into a child’s love for a movie. My favorite princess, Tiana, was a staple in our childhood home. I had figurine sets, kitchenware, and video games modeled after the 2010 movie “Princess and the Frog,” one of the last cartoon-animated movies that Disney produced. My love for the movie fueled new consumerism; my family was on the hook for whatever Disney could make.

As a child, I praised and exalted every Disney creation, but when I went to Disney World as a teenager, I saw manipulation in every attraction. It upset me that my childhood memories could be part of such malevolent marketing. Every experience in the park was tainted: Were the cartoon villains really bad or just misunderstood? Was I awful for cheering when they failed? Maybe corporate Disney was looking down, from its ivory tower, upon consumers spending thousands of dollars to feel like “the good guy,” while they stood laughing like “the bad.” I realized that the schadenfreude of Disney went beyond Ursula taking over Ariel’s wedding to Prince Eric in “The Little Mermaid.” I was too happy to see the waiting time for the river rapids ride extend to 120 minutes for those behind me.

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A stained glass window depicting Belle and her Prince from the movie, “Beauty and the Beast.”

Back in the Animal Kingdom on the “wooden” bridge, my father had a turn pushing the button and promptly decided that spraying the people below “was a little too funny.” As we walked away, I saw a little girl discover the button and the tourists were faced again with the unrelenting water cannon. She too, looked overcome with schadenfreude.