When I was a little kid, I was afraid that there was quicksand in my backyard. Was it because the soil conditions in my area were especially conducive to the formation of quicksand? Nope! It was because of the scary depictions of quicksand in realistic documentary programs like Gilligan’s Island and the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan films. While I was tiptoeing around the backyard worrying about nonexistent quicksand, my mom was inside worrying that the Roadrunner cartoons would make me drop an anvil on my sister. Our brains seem wired to fear ridiculously improbable things.
It’s even worse if it’s something that’s highly publicized. The abduction and murder of Kimberly Leach in 1978 and Adam Walsh in 1981 made parents during my childhood terrified that their local malls and playgrounds were infested with evil kidnappers ready to snatch their children the second the parents’ back was turned. The Disney parks have always had an excellent reputation for safety and security, and their carefully-crafted atmosphere has usually been pretty good at causing visitors to discard those kind of fears. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, though, had such an overpowering effect on the American psyche that no amount of Disney theming could make park visitors forget about the newfound danger of terrorism. So management had to do something to make their customers feel safe so that Walt Disney World (and Disneyland, too) continued to be a desirable destination. You know what they came up with: bag checks.
X-ray machines and metal detectors would have been too expensive (and it’s not like they stopped the 9/11 hijackers) but the bag check stations outside the park entrances are sufficiently reminiscent of airport security checkpoints to cause vacationers to relax, secure in the knowledge that all those strangers in the Space Mountain line with them have passed through the bag check successfully, and are definitely not terrorists. After all, if they were terrorists, then the security guards at the bag check stations would have found a brick of C-4 or an AK-47 in their backpack, right?
Obviously, Disney has always had security at their parks. Currently, the New York Times story about the Magic Kingdom’s line-monitoring command center is generating some buzz. If Disney puts that much effort into monitoring attraction lines, how much more seriously do you think they take security? After all, a violent incident like a mugging, a rape, or an armed standoff would damage the company a lot more than a long line for Dumbo. (And no, I’m not implying that Disney cares more about its corporate image than the physical safety of its customers) Much like all the other backstage operations that keep the parks running smoothly, security is practically invisible. But it works. The real world doesn’t stop at Disney’s property line, and I’m sure that people have managed to smuggle drugs or even weapons onto the property. But despite the fact that Walt Disney World is visited by something like 17 million people per year, how many violent crimes have happened there? (The Celebration murders don’t count, since Celebration isn’t part of the resort) Despite the fact that, in the Magic Kingdom the number of people per square foot often rivals the busiest parts of New York City, there aren’t problems with pickpockets or muggers.
Ah, but what about terrorists? I’m sorry, but if you seriously think that a retiree in a policeman costume shining a flashlight into a backpack will be any deterrent to someone who’s so determined to kill people that he’s willing to blow himself up to do it, then you’re not just suffering from Vacation Stupidity Disorder, you’re suffering from Full-Time Stupidity Disorder! The only bad guys a bag check is going to thwart are the cartoon villains that menace Mickey Mouse.
After 9/11, our very natural feelings of fear and insecurity were heightened by media people breathlessly imagining all the ways a prospective terrorist could attack. Radioactive dirty bombs and attacks with biological weapons were favorite scenarios. Almost a full decade has gone by, and with the exception of the anthrax mailings (which were not a coordinated Al-Qaeda attack but the work of a lone crazy person in the U.S.) none of that stuff has happened. And even if Disney World were targeted by Al-Qaeda, or just a single psycho acting alone, there are plenty of places they could strike besides the parks. A bomb or biological agent would kill just as many people in a crowded monorail station, a ferryboat, or even in the bottleneck created by the bag-check stations as it would inside the Magic Kingdom.
The bag checks are a show designed to create an illusion. They’re not a real security checkpoint any more than the Astro Orbiter is a real space voyage. Their sole purpose is to quiet the fears of panicky vacationers whose brains have slipped into Reduced Functionality Mode, and ease them into the frame of mind that’s most conducive to consuming mass quantities of twenty-five dollar T-shirts and ten-dollar hamburgers. They’re like a night light to ward off monsters under the bed. So, even though Disney’s Illusion of Security Show is inconvenient and contributes little or nothing to park security, I expect it to stick around forever. Because as old as people get, they never quite stop believing in monsters under the bed. Or quicksand in the backyard.