Monday, April 23, 2012

Laughter and Tears

Our family just returned from a week at Disney World's Animal Kingdom Lodge. Our 5-year-old's first trip to Disney -- and for her a truly magical week. For me, sitting on the balcony with her watching the sun set over a savanna of fairly wild zebras, giraffes, antelopes, and colorful exotic birds -- well, that's magic too.
A good day
Of course, the real world is always around us, even in Disney's 40-square-mile "Girdle of Melian." And I learned long ago that the Flotsam Diaries isn't something I just turn off for a week. So what does Disney look like through the lens of a Flotsam Diarist?

In a word: Schizophrenic.

Walt Disney World heavily touts its green credentials. And given that it's set off 1/3 of its acreage as protected habitat, and was an early adopter of waste-to-energy and zero-emission vehicles, it's at least made an effort to earn them. In fact, Disney holds the State of Florida's "Green Lodging Certification" for all of its resorts.

But a grain of salt is needed. Walt Disney World made Central Florida's economy, and supports it still. Florida has no state income tax. Its coffers depend on tourism, largely Disney tourism. So if the latest buzzword is "green," it behooves the State to shower Disney with green accolades.

This isn't to say that Disney isn't actually trying. It's just that the signs I saw this past week never added up to a coherent story. Take the Mara cafe right at the Lodge. They offer reusable mugs to Lodge guests, and stock paper straws, not plastic.
Both an excellent start
But everything else in the whole cafe is wrapped in single-use plastic. This is what a meal there looks like:
Would you like polymers with that?
Plastic salad, plastic fruit cup, plastic cutlery, plastic coated paper plates, plastic candies. Even the apples were individually plastic-wrapped -- only the bananas & oranges were spared. We tried to cut back, but with limited success;* the healthiest foods were the most plasticized.

And look at that reusable mug. Way too big & bulky to lug through theme parks. In our week I never saw one of them used outside of the Lodge. Instead, vendors were hawking 20oz bottles of Dasani water at $2.75 each. That translates into $17.60/gallon, whereas well-monitored & regulated tap costs about $0.01/gallon! A company that really wants to promote & protect the environment would chill & filter water fountains and encourage re-use of visitors' bottles. But what for-profit entity would turn its back on such a cash cow?

Next, there was the hot & cold with recycling. Some parts of the parks offered obvious recycling bins next to the trash cans, some didn't. Some restaurants used care with their resources (the "Lunching Pad" in Tomorrowland offered cardboard trays and well-marked signs on where to recycle those trays); most didn't. It was literally the luck of the draw. In 2010 Disney claimed that it recycled a full 60% of all the 303,000 tons of waste produced on its properties. From what I saw, I don't know how they get to that number. Perhaps, like Europe, they consider burning trash for energy to be "recycling"?

I ran into still more schizophrenia at the shops. On the one hand, Disney has done something truly impressive -- and rare. Their shopping bags are made of 100% recycled plastic.
This is uneconomic with current technology; a real money loser. But it's good PR. On the other hand, about 0% of these bags will actually get recycled again into anything, so it's dubiously-green good PR. Worse, where were the reusable totes? I don't recall seeing reusable totes at any of the stores we visited; if they were there, they weren't being promoted.

Lastly, a poignant note of self-awareness in the Animal Kingdom Lodge literature. The Lodge is a special place. They've carved a functioning savanna out of the Central Florida jungle, populated it with untamed African animals of grace & beauty, and are very protective of them. As here:
Balloons -- of any kind -- are forbidden at the Lodge. Disney knows that balloons kill animals. They know that balloons escape, and it's usually impossible to track where they've gone until it's too late.

Yet just 3 miles away, vendors sells helium balloons to young, wide-eyed visitors by the hundreds (thousands?). The great folks at Balloons Blow have found Disney balloons on their beach 130 miles away. Who really thinks there are no Disney balloons lurking in the undergrowth on Animal Kingdom property? Disney knows they're there, they have to. But kids love balloons, balloons make money, so balloons are still sold in droves.

Disney's motto is "We Create Happiness." Today, happiness equals convenience. So for all the green talk, Disney caters to a modern throwaway culture, and doesn't do much to curb that culture. It makes nods, it makes efforts. But in the end, it doesn't make waves.

Which, in a way, makes it even worse. Disney property is kept fastidiously clean. But its budget & grounds crew would be the envy of any city treasury in the world. Disney has resources that few places can boast. If people get the belief that they can generate countless tons of waste and it all magically goes "away," what lesson is brought back home? How many visitors see this one sign tucked away in the Animal Kingdom Safari, and remember it two seconds later?
When the millions of tourists leave Disney's carefully crafted fairy tale and return to their lives, wouldn't it be nice if this idea was part of the top tier of good memories & inspiration going forward?

It is a small world, after all.

* The water bottle wasn't my choice. Florida's groundwater runs through soluble limestone -- tap tastes minerally, and can be unpleasant, albeit safe. I'm fine with the taste, my daughter called it "Daddy's gross water."


  1. I hope the Disney folks read your post and realize the opportunity they have to provide their visitors with a better drinking water solution than grossly overpriced Dasani water in single use plastic containers. Your mention of chilled and filtered water fountains for re-filling water containers sounds like a great idea.

  2. Another great post! I've noticed similar contradictions at Zoos and Aquariums... Sigh..

  3. It was striking to see that the airport up here in Portland Maine has chilled bottle-refill stations but Disney doesn't!

    And I agree re zoos, etc. I mean, we know they're meant to make money -- but they've got such a great opportunity to lead & teach about stewardship too.