LAKE BUENA VISTA — Next time you're at the Magic Kingdom, walk up Main Street USA and hang a left at Cinderella's castle.
Enter the faux colonial Liberty Square, with its exact replica Liberty Bell and "liberty tree" adorned with 13 lanterns for 13 colonies.
Enter the Hall of Presidents, past Gerald Ford's ski boots, the arrowheads Jimmy Carter found in the Georgia woods and the essay a 12-year-old Richard Nixon wrote in grade school.
Sit in the long, dark theater with the panoramic screen and the superb sound system and the Hollywood-level production on a new opening film, The Idea of a President. Watch Bill Clinton speak in front of the bombed-out Oklahoma City federal building and George W. Bush with a bullhorn at ground zero and Barack Obama crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge. Watch a sky full of WWII paratroopers, after a robot Abraham Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address, but before a robot Donald Trump says he solemnly swears to "faithfully execute the office of the president."
Sit for the Hall of Presidents show five times in a row, like I did a few weeks back. Yes, five times. This is important. The first time, try, just try, not to feel an unexpected stir in your chest or a tear in your eye.
Times two through five, feel the rest. The need to text. Or giggle. Or fall asleep and start snoring. Or cheer. Or boo. These are all normal reactions here.
It's not one of the park's most popular attractions. Len Testa from travel planning site touringplans.com has extensive data that ranks it 77th overall, just below the Move It! Shake It! Dance & Play It! Street Party and just above the Barnstormer child-friendly coaster. And, Testa noted, that hasn't really changed since before or after Trump's addition.
But the Hall of Presidents, one of the park's original attractions, is essential, old-school, Disney-Americana pop culture. It's also kitschy, over-the-top patriotic and from a bygone era when a robotic anything seemed miraculous and there was reverence for the presidency regardless of politics. Its stiff earnestness, and therefore nerdiness, has made it a funny target for parodies on The Simpsons, on which Bart destroys robo-George Washington through the sheer disrespect of pulling down its pants, and Saturday Night Live, on which Debbie Downer called it her favorite ride.
When the attraction closed in January 2017 so the Trump figure could be installed, tradition with every sitting president since Clinton, Disney was forced to silence rumors that Trump would be the first since Reagan to not have a speaking part. After months, and news stories, Disney issued a news release. The park had, in fact, scheduled a time for Trump to record his robot's speech.
When the Trump robot did finally debut in December, the figure was roasted mercilessly for looking "melty," or like Jon Voight. A far-fetched conspiracy theory that the robot looked even more like Hillary Clinton, supposed proof that Disney's Imagineers had expected her to win, proliferated online. (Disney will not respond to questions about this, or really anything at all about the Hall of Presidents right now.)
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Videos surfaced of people interrupting the Trump robot's speech and booing it, though it should be noted that people sometimes booed robot Obama, too.
The new movie was slicker than the old one, too, replacing Morgan Freeman's narration with an unknown woman. Asked why, Freeman's publicist said, "Ask Disney." Disney did not respond. And the segment celebrating Trump's favorite ex-president, Andrew Jackson, cementing his status as a non-aristocrat and "one of us," has been cut completely.
Disney news blogs pointed out what appear to be security spikes near the stage and uniformed security guards who stand in the theater during every show. Disney won't confirm if those are new, or why they were added, but they're definitely there.
Is the Hall of Presidents really getting out of hand?
• • •
Not long after I started my marathon, a manager named Scott cornered me and asked what I was up to and why I was writing things down on my "journalist pad." I said I was a journalist and that I just wanted to experience the Hall of Presidents like everyone else.
He made it clear that I wasn't doing anything wrong, but also that I could not interview the guests. So I just listened.
On the way to Liberty Square, one kid in a group of teenage boys in football team T-shirts, playing a game that involved shoving each other toward other guests and narrowly avoiding them, shouted at another kid.
"You see Trump yet?"
"No! Nobody wants to go with me!"
There was buzz!
Arriving at the Hall of Presidents, you realize quickly that this is for history geeks, the people who'd pick a museum over a roller coaster, trivia-loving parents and grandparents who enjoy seeming wise.
"Do you know who's fourth in line to become president?" a dad said to his preteen son while waiting to go in. "It's the secretary of state."
Unimpressed, the son replied, "Yeah, but who's 10th?"
"Tenth? How the heck am I supposed to know?"
It's also for anyone who wants a place with comfy seats, air conditioning and a short line.
A younger dad with four young kids conked out with his head back and his mouth wide open the second the lights went down. His family didn't wake him when he started snoring.
The Disney employees who work the attraction are impressively knowledgeable on presidents. Did you know that 10th president John Tyler, born in 1790, had a grandson who's still living?
They're also highly adept at dealing with … situations.
When one posed the trivia question to the crowd, "Which vice president was not born in a U.S. state?" (It's Al Gore, born in Washington, D.C.), the teenage girl with braces in front of me sarcastically whispered to her dad: "Obama."
The dad found this hilarious, which made the daughter laugh even more. It was pretty clear they were bonding over the fact that some people actually believe the 44th president was not born in the United States, but at this exact moment, an older man in a red satin Corvette jacket beelined to the front of the room.
"Barack Obama was not born in a U.S. state," this man said.
With zero condescension, but total authority, the employee looked at the man from under his tri-corner hat and clearly explained that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, and that Hawaii had joined the union in 1959.
"Oh, well, okay," the man said, accepting this new information pretty easily.
It's not clear if employees at the hall are specifically trained for this kind of thing, or if it happens all the time — it's another thing Disney won't talk about — but this guy was ready.
The Hall of Presidents is amazingly apolitical, which is quite a feat considering it's a shrine to 44 politicians. There are no references to party, or controversial legislation, or wars post World War II. The closest it gets is saying that the Civil War was fought over slavery, a reference added in the '90s.
But even in this fantasy world where there's nothing but reverence for presidents, people bring the real world in with them, and the real world is pretty divided right now.
"What if they see this, and they come out loving Donald Trump?" a woman in the lobby asked the man she was with, truly concerned about the toddlers they were holding.
"He won, and they are just going to have to deal with it," another guy said to his group after taking their seats.
During the long segment in which every president's name is read, I heard a little girl ask her grandfather which president was the best. Clearly savoring his authority on the matter, he told her, "I liked Bill Clinton."
The worst, Grandpa?
"Ronald Reagan. That man destroyed the working class."
Two teenage girls looked down at their phones texting until the moment near the end when the Trump robot started talking. Then they pointed their phones up and Snapchatted it. A couple of people wiped their eyes at the most emotional points, myself included on the first go-around. A few more slept.
People applauded after every single show. One whistled loudly for Trump. There weren't any boos, though someone did make a raspberry sound when Clinton was introduced.
"I don't know why everyone's saying Trump looks so bad," said a woman in an Iowa T-shirt. "They all look kind of weird. I only knew Obama by his ears."
"Who can even remember what Lyndon Johnson looked like?" asked her companion.
Even if Trump's face doesn't look spot-on, his body language rings true. Trump is mostly motionless during the presidential roll call. When Lincoln's name is read, he does a little hand gesture, as if to say, "Yes, fantastic president, that guy, I'm always saying that." It repeatedly drew giggles.
It's hard to believe that if Disney World, the ultimate, magical, controversy-free zone, was being built today, that they'd include an attraction so tethered to the real world. Maybe it made more sense when Walt Disney himself dreamt it up in the early 1960s, but even by 1971, when the Hall of Presidents debuted as one of the park's original attractions, Nixon was in office and Watergate was less than a year away.
Or maybe, like everything else at Disney, the Hall of Presidents is for the children, those young enough to see the presidency with nothing but wonder and respect and fascination, the ones we tell, anyone can be the president, even you. And maybe it's for the adults, who want to recapture some of that innocence.
Before I left, an older man exited the Hall of Presidents after the show holding hands with a girl who was holding a little American flag.
"Make America Great again — with ice cream," the older man announced to nobody in particular, and walked toward a snack cart.
Contact Christopher Spata at (727) 893-0789 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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