Mickey's real lesson for Mandelson: the American dream isn't British

How to fill the dome
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The Independent Online
In the middle of Disneyworld, the most artificial, unauthentic place on earth, there is a diner called L'Originale Alfredo di Roma Ristorante. Think about it.

The menu is Italian going on eclectic. You can eat fettucini and grouper Veneziana. The fish is not caught within three thousand miles of the Adriatic and you can travel from Palermo to Perugia and never once see fettucini on la carta di giorno - nor in Rome since Alfredo, its inventor, never got closer to Italy than Lower Twelfth Street.

His eponymous ristorante, where diners are serenaded by fake opera singers, is in Epcot, the future-oriented twin of Disney's Magic Kingdom, the two fabulous cities making up Walt's Florida world.

It is a world where, to be fair to Disney's corporate bosses, gay employees can now get health insurance and other benefits for their partners, despite the hostility of American Baptists and other apostles of Christ's love on earth. Yet it is also a spick-and-span world where dirt, sex, bad language, drink and most of the other engines of human pleasure are banned or frowned upon. My abiding memory is of the person employed to march along behind the elephant in one of the many precisely timed daily processions armed not just with a bucket instantly to remove elephant muck but also with a giant aerosol can immediately to waft away any hint of unfitting odour.

Epcot is where, this week, our Dome Secretary, Peter Mandelson, is visiting. He needs ideas for filling the Great Space of Greenwich. His trip ought to be public money well spent. The Disney experience is the NEC-plus-ultra of theme parkery, the standard against which your Parc Asterix, Knott's Berry Farm, and Alton Towers have still to be measured.

Epcot's theme was once the Future but now includes the Environment and the World - or at least those images of the future and the external world that can secure corporate sponsorship while fitting the Disney world view.

In the space of a few yards, you can visit the cascades of Norway and a Moroccan casbah, enter a circular cinema showing the national beauties of Canada, witness the Fountain of Nations water ballet, pilot a teenager's brain, get shrunk to the size of a blood cell and watch a film about the developing foetus cut so as not to offend the aforementioned Baptists, and all the while imbibe tons of corporate publicity for Kodak, AT&T and General Motors.

Epcot, in other words, is a palace of polymorphism, syncretism's sacred site - while remaining every inch and every minute as American as apple pie. Epcot is the world as sanitised, packaged and disposable. It is one of the most passive leisure experiences in the world, sitting or standing.

Yet Greenwich, if it is going to get anywhere near succeeding, will have to borrow deeply from Disney. And Walt has much to teach in terms of branding, merchandising and repeat visits. If he is going to learn those lessons Peter Mandelson will have to get closer to America in spirit than sitting close to Paul Johnson - the Americans' apostolic advocate in Britain - at dinner.

What lessons should the Minister without Portfolio carry home with him from semi-tropical Orlando? There is climate, for a start: Greenwich has to be made as weatherproof as possible. If an army marches on its stomach, tourist crowds need to be fed, in gaudy, cheap and above all fast restaurants. The food at Disneyworld may taste the same but you do not have to go far to get it nor wait long for service.

Disney depends on corporate sponsorship and Peter Mandelson's anxiety will surely be whether British capitalism (forever letting socialists down) can hack it in the way American global corporate giants can, when they choose, put on a fine show.

It would be easy to say the Mr Mandelson is going to have to get down and vulgarise. Despite his appearances on the terraces at Hartlepool United, he does not come across as one of nature's lads. The Ministry of Sound is the epitome of cool compared with Disney. Lady Carla Powell and her pals won't approve of some of the crowd-pleasers the minister is going to have to import.

Yet the thing about Disneyworld, and especially Epcot, is the way the experience mixes an almost Reithian desire to educate and inform the masses with relentless pandering to lowest common cultural denominators. It is also, perhaps inevitably, a relentless celebration of the United States of America and all its 20th century works.

Under Epcot's domes you can see characters from The Lion King (a Disney movie, needless to say) roar in a specially made children's film about the environment. There is another film called The Making of Me which has "sensitive footage" - it would need to be in abortion-conscious America - of the developing foetus.

"Spaceship Earth", inside a 180ft-tall silver geosphere, offers visitors the chance to discover "innovative interactive communications" (sponsored by AT&T). In "Honey, I shrunk the audience" - presented by Kodak - visitors can play with cameras and screens and produce their own 3-D adventure. Just as American television advertising is, by and large, unironic, direct and the crudest of selling pitches, so Disney gives you the message straight: this is the greatest country in the world with a greater future ahead of it. People gladly pay for such self-affirmation

There's Peter Mandelson's problem. He does not just lack Mickey's ears or the faith in and love for technology shown by Mickey's countrymen. Without some sheen of British national and nationalistic self-confidence Greenwich will not offer anything like the style, consistency and profitability of the Disney experience.