On Friday, February 27, I traveled to New Orleans with my Disney-themed Honors English class in order to study the “Disneyfication” of the city and provide a basis for the comparison of its commercialization and representation in recent Disney films. The following is a quick summary of the things I saw, did, and learned during my short stay.
Despite living in the Deep South for the majority of my 19 years, I have never ventured as far south as New Orleans.I’ve heard many things about “The Crescent City,” and I’ve read many books and seen many films that depict its rich culture and history – but prior to Friday, I had never actually set foot in the original “City of Sin” itself.
Bearing this in mind, it should come as no surprise that my first impressions were largely based on the mundane, sensory aspects of the city and its late winter manifestation. Biting cold wind, constant sirens, hoards of pedestrians, and cracked cobblestone streets were just some of the things that awaited me. However, it was the size of the city, the boisterous and entitled residents, the sheer number of tourists who littered every street corner as far as the eye could see, the way the music seemed to lilt through the very cracks in the sidewalks, and the sickly sweet and mingled scent of gumbo and beignets that astounded me above anything else in a profound moment that lasted for mere seconds and that I am nevertheless incapable of describing in words – because it was so intense and unexpected that to do so would surely be akin to blasphemy.
I will venture, instead, to describe:
– The way the sunlight glinted on the turrets of St. Louis Cathedral, eerily resembling Cinderella’s castle in Magic Kingdom:
– The way the commercialization of the city and the exploitation of tourism were on prominent display at every street corner we passed and how the vendors’ and tourists’ sole purposes at every site seemed to be to buy and sell things at exorbitant prices:
The disparity between Disney’s representation and the real-life New Orleans were glaring obvious. The people I met during our short stay were nothing like those portrayed in The Princess and the Frog. The Tremé neighborhood was nowhere near as dapper and cheerful. Voodoo, though dark and made to seem somewhat sinister in most of the shops we passed, was grossly misrepresented. And the very nightlife of New Orleans and all its facets – the creepy shadows, the stark scent of cheap alcohol in musty and crowded bars, the homeless and the drunks who walked beside our groups – were completely glazed over and disregarded.
“Link arms,” our tour guide told us before taking us through Bourbon Street, just before she explained the terrible catch-22 in which New Orleans’s tourism industry had ensnared the common people.
“As New Orleanians embraced tourism, they reinforced, as the city’s vocal point, the Vieux Carré… in the meantime, the rest of the city suffered white flight, rising crime and unemployment rates, and shrinking municipal coffers.” J. Mark Souther explains in his article “The Disneyfication of New Orleans.”
Although I was cognizant of these facts before, their impact was much heavier in the midst of the French quarter and from the mouth of our tour guide.
She even went as far as to say that the tour company wouldn’t approve of her disclosure of such facts, but she felt they were necessary for our purposes.
This little detail about our visit made it somewhat difficult to enjoy the sights and sounds New Orleans had to offer without feeling guilty. I felt as though many of my classmates were disturbed and wished they hadn’t heard some of the darker aspects of the culture and history. It was immensely disheartening to have the illusion of enchanted grandeur soiled in this way, and I felt that Disney was at least partly to blame for our high and inevitably disappointing expectations.
Thankfully, there was at least one thing portrayed accurately in The Princess and the Frog, both for its distinctive quality and its power to bring people of all walks of life in the city together: Food.
The cuisine in New Orleans was sublime. Our dinner reservations at Dooky Chase were handled with meticulous consideration and humbling respect, and as we ate, we bonded over our mutual love for home-cooked comfort food. I was struck by the sheer togetherness that was palpable in every corner of the brightly lit, and yet somehow soft, room in which we dined. The food was plentiful; the smiles even more so. It was, to put it bluntly, magical. I could definitely see and feel the striking resemblance to Tiana’s dream restaurant – highlighted especially by the presence of Mrs. Leah Chase, the chef and owner and real-life counterpart to Tiara – and at the end of the day, it made the trip more than worthwhile.
Although there were some undoubtedly less-than-magical moments in our travels, the trip itself was still enjoyable and informative. It forced me to reconsider much of what I know about tourism in America – never again will I be able to travel without at least attempting to understand the darker aspects of corporate greed and its propensity for malevolence – but it in no way made me less likely to want to travel. Rather, much like my studies with Disney and all its multifaceted and complicated charms, it instilled within me a desire to learn more about the hidden aspects of this industry and to attempt to bring them to light so that future generations can enjoy more of the positive things without the guilt and burden of having the negative.