Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Academy of Management Conference in Disney World: ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ or ‘Back in the USSR’?

Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse and Cinderella Castle

Crane and Matten spent the last 5 days in Disney World Orlando. Which had nothing to do with recent fatherhood or anything like that. Who would have guessed: it was the venue of this year’s Academy of Management Annual Meeting – the biggest conference of management academics in the world, which takes place every August – in five of the Disney Hotels in Orlando.

As if this is not ironic enough, listen to the title of this year’s conference: ‘Capitalism in Question’! Whaow. Questioning capitalism in Disneyworld – for some a joke, for others hypocritical, for most of us simply absurd.

But wait a second. Once I arrived there, it took me only a few hours to think that Minnie & Mickey’s world is actually the best place to understand what is wrong with contemporary global capitalism. And, I love to add, nothing like what you would expect to be a capitalist experience; I rather had vivid deja-vu’s to my frequent visits to communist East Germany before the wall came down in 1989.

To begin with, the treatment Disney gives you as a consumer is rather dismal. I did not have a single meal where I did not had to join a long line. Even if you reserve a table, you are still kept waiting for a good half hour. Where i stayed (Coronado Springs) there was not much choice to begin with. Just one restaurant, and one snack bar. The latter had some 15 items on the food menu – but every lunch we could just chose between two types of pre-packed sandwiches. So, by and large, a pretty socialist experience. Bars closed at midnight sharp, and off it was to bed, just in the same way as you had to rush to checkpoints at midnight when visiting relatives in East Berlin back in the day.

The inefficiency was just hilarious. Even my welcome package arrived by UPS just in time on my return back to home…

The GDR claimed to be the worker’s paradise (‘Arbeiterparadies’), just about the same as Disneyland tells us everywhere that we are in the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’. Trained to be happy, wishing you a ‘magical day’ each and every second – the Disney ‘cast members’ (no workers here) have to push that message and play that role 24/7. Of course it’s mostly fake – and with dismal wages most of these actually rather nice people feel more like ‘mouse trapped’.

Slightly spooky is the extreme focus on security: tight controls and ID-ing at every (gated, of course) entrance. One colleague wanted to just walk between the different conference hotels; no such thing: all of them are heavily fenced in. He was warned that stepping off the main paths would immediately call security to the scene – so he joined the lines for the shuttle buses between hotels.

Now, I could rant on like that. The interesting question is what this all has to do with capitalism. It struck me, that at the end of the day, going to Disneyworld for five days of conferencing gives you a flavor of what it would look like if our life would be completely controlled by private corporations.

Its worth looking into the outline of the Conference to understand what we are talking about: Here is what it says:
“Three features differentiate capitalism from previous economic systems in history: (a) market competition among profit-driven firms, (b) wage employment within these firms, and (c) limited government over them.”
 If we look at (a), Disney shows what large corporations have always tried to do: Once you are lured into the resorts, life is controlled by one monopolistic corporation. That’s why ‘choice’, free competition or freedom of movement no longer exists once you are there. This experience meanwhile is rather ubiquitous, certainly in US style capitalism: fewer brands and chains control growing market shares and choice with regard to our IT software, our air travel or our means of commuting is often only symbolic. Yes, we can chose between different 30 different washing powders. But at the end of the day, it’s all the same thing.

The result is rather surprising: the actual ‘capitalist’ experience resembles life in ‘communist’ times. Of course I know that East Germany (or the Soviet block in the cold war) was more a state capitalist system, but still. Disney – once you are there – gave me snippets of a socialist experience.

Including the ‘regime critique’. How I enjoyed ranting about the place with my colleagues – in the flesh, on facebook or in other ways of making fun of the ‘jail’ in which we all felt trapped. Someone even wrote a little manifesto! Anonymously of course, Disney might share it with the NSA maybe?

It was great for the spirit. Back to the cold, free world out there, I kind of miss it already. Just in the same way ‘Ostalgie’ crept up to many of my fellow countrymen after the fall of the iron curtain…

Photo by gwaar, reproduced under the Creative Commons License


  1. Great post! A most useful excerpt: "going to Disneyworld for five days of conferencing gives you a flavor of what it would look like if our life would be completely controlled by private corporations." Keep up the great blog, gentlemen. -- Robert Strand

  2. Interesting.. If all our experiences are controlled by the corporations...does it make it more socialist than capitalist?

  3. While at least this critical of my experience in Orlando, I still hold the AoM more responsible than Disney. Disney just did what they do...and we fed it. Every child knows what happens "If you give a mouse a cookie."

    Plus, three Disney cities in less than ten years (2008, 2013, 2016)…I’m not given to conspiracy theories, but this feels a bit [ahem] goofy.


  4. Good post. I felt pretty much the same way. Although, coming from East Germany, I should note that, back in the old days, we were at least not verbally slapped in the face with sentences like 'I wish you a magical day' after standing in line for 30 minutes. And we did not expect many choices to begin with. So less cynicism. And compared to Disney World, the GDR truly WAS a paradise for most workers, given relatively little stress at work, low living costs, and job security... So, I would rather return to the GDR than to Disney World Colorado! :)

    1. Stephan, thanks for adding this. It is one of the few blogs signed by one author, as it is admittedly a very subjective perspective, from a 'Wessi'-German at that! I also agree that the lack of choice has some beauty - at Disney-AoM it was always clear in which bar you would find your friends, as there was only one. All that texting and fixing appointments in a downtown location was unnecessary. What a bliss... But I disagree with the 'worker's paradise'. I guess there were reasons for the wall coming down, and - often overlooked - none other than the 'workers' of the GDR deserve credit for that. But that is a long story of course, I know.

  5. Great post: for me the uneasy feeling began immediately; from Orlando airport we boarded the "Disney Magical Express" (which in the UK we call a "bus") and a video showing the apparently genuine excitement of children being told that "We are going to Disney World!" Just didn't feel right for 8000 business academics, average age 50(?), and confirmed the view that any attempts to create or even imagine a utopia (for adults) only results in the opposite...

  6. I don't believe Disney provides an immersion into communism as portrayed by this blog. It is instead what one feels like living in a semi benevolent dictatorship. Communism is really different especially along the dimensions of social control and the overlay of worker 'ownership'. Not that either makes for a good experience.

    1. Kwanghui, thanks for highlighting that. Of course, the soviet bloc was not real 'communism'. It turns out by hindsight, just a different form of capitalism. We in the West always thought we had the better system, but now it has been thriving for 2+ decades, we discover that the corporate life is just the same dictatorship, 'benevolent' or otherwise...

  7. It certainly was a strange place for the conference, but I do believe that it drove home the point of "Capitalism in Question" which I thought was facile when I first heard it, but once there, it was super-hard to ignore the inequalities of our capitalist system.

    In particular, being at Disney did show how "competitive advantage" of a monopoly is why a real citizenship and civic engagement in the accompanying democracy is necessary. The problem is the apathy (including my own) of the privileged. Therefore, in many ways I'm glad that so many of the Academy attendees felt uncomfortable to be there (as I did). Disney's economy of jobs exists because of our lack of civic engagement in the topics of living wages and unconstrained profits, no?

    And it seems that the experience at The Coronado was the worst because there wasn't even the mirage of choice that we had in our area (Dolphin/Swan/Yacht/Beach/Boardwalk)

    I'll be glad not to go back, but in many ways, I'm glad that the Academy was there. I just wish more people academically engaged with the situation and what it means for their MBA instruction. Resenting the experience and blaming the Academy for showing us the realities of unconstrained capitalism just seems a bit misguided.

    My 2¢,

  8. I did manage to walk the two miles between my hotel (Caribbean Beach) and the main conference area no fewer than 10 times. No security arrived but I was warned away from walking by the hotel staff who told me that it would take...wait for it...2 hours and was probably "really possibly unsafe and just not a good idea." I was the only person walking on all 10 trips. No sidewalk for half the trip, but still the most liberating experience(s) that I had in Orlando. Oh, and there was a glorious Hess station (rebel outpost?) along the way that sold necessities at real-world prices.


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