Courtesy of Disney Parks / The Atlantic

I Went to Disney World

As the coronavirus pandemic ravaged Florida, the Magic Kingdom welcomed back its most loyal subjects—and me.

July 27, 2020

Earlier this month, Walt Disney World began reopening, following almost four months of closure due to the pandemic. I flew to Orlando to experience the magic. The week I arrived, Florida had registered the highest single-day case count of any state thus far. In Orlando’s airport, I felt a vague sense that Floridians considered such statistics a source of secret pride, as if they had set a record for fattest alligator or ugliest serial killer or most senior citizens in a golf cart. The airport where I had started my day, in Connecticut, had required masks, and everyone wore them. Here in Florida, some passengers went totally unmasked, but most wore masks in a defiant fashion, either slung under their chin or with their nostrils gaping out over the top, sucking and spewing potentially viral particles with every breath. A friend who lives a couple of hours away in St. Petersburg likens this latter style to "wearing a condom that covers only the shaft."

Disney World is in Florida only in the sense that Vatican City is in Italy, or the Principality of Monaco is in France. All the land that touches Disney World is Florida, but it is its own polity, with its own infrastructure, its own transportation, and, to a surprising extent, its own laws and regulations. Florida law applies, of course, but on Disney property—which covers more than 25,000 acres, about 50 times the size of Monaco—you can go weeks without seeing an employee of the local, state, or federal government. When you are at the Disney parks and resorts, you see no letter carriers, no police officers, no city bus drivers—just tens of thousands of Disney employees (always called "cast members"), who recognize no authority higher than Walt Disney (1901–66), the eternal líder máximo.

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When you arrive in Orlando, your transit through Florida lasts only minutes. You emerge from the miasma of the airport and reach a check-in counter for the "Magical Express," a free direct bus to Disney World. The counter resembles the passport-control desk of a benevolent and well-run nation, perhaps Norway or Japan. Upon reciting your name and confirmation number, you cease interacting with non-Disney entities for the rest of your stay. The woman who welcomed me—through a properly worn mask and face shield, plus a layer of plexiglass—gave me a pleasant wave as I walked up. On a typical day before the pandemic, I was told by another tourist, thousands of people would pass through this check-in area. Today there was no line at all.

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"Just you?" she asked.

"Just me, a 40-year-old man going to Disney World by himself," I answered. "Is that strange?"

"Not at all," she lied chirpily. (The correct answer, of course, was "Not until you put it that way.") Then she handed me a piece of paper, my laissez-passer, and directed me to an area where a few families were lined up, every one of them already wearing Disney paraphernalia.

One family from Ohio—a dad with graying hair in a military-style brush cut, a mom, and two kids about 8 and 10—arrived after me and sat in a circle on the ground, as families do, munching on snacks while waiting for the bus. One of the kids asked his mom whether they had to wear their masks between bites of sandwich. "Well," she said, and looked around. "Florida," she said, a word instantly understood by the kids to mean Yes, you should, but in this place there is no law.

The dad told me they had planned this Disney vacation, the most recent of several, long in advance, and had waited patiently for the parks to reopen. I told him I had never been to Disney, had made my hotel reservation only yesterday, and hadn’t even gotten a pass to enter a park. (There are four operating theme parks at Disney World: Animal Kingdom, an exhibition of live beasts; Epcot, which blends rides with science, futurism, and an upbeat expo of world cultures; Hollywood Studios, focusing on golden-age cinema, and whatever movies the Disney empire is flogging at present; and the iconic Magic Kingdom.)

He looked at me worriedly. "You know, you need to get a pass. They fill up," he said. "I would do that now." He seemed concerned that I would be subjected to the universe’s ultimate irony, which would be to go to "the most magical place on Earth," only to be barred at the gates, like Moses looking longingly at the land of Israel from across the Jordan. "Get the iPhone app," he told me. "That will be your salvation."

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The bus from the airport to my resort gave me plenty of time to contemplate my life decisions. An air-conditioned trip through a hot zone of the worst disease outbreak in a century will concentrate the mind, even if television screens and the voices of cartoon characters are constantly attempting to break that concentration.

When Disney World reopened, sectors of the elite commentariat ridiculed it for flouting the advice of public-health officials, which discourages unnecessary travel, gathering in large groups, and interaction with strangers. The last of these is what pushes a visit to Disney World into a potentially new category of bad idea. It is one thing to infect your family—at least these are people you see all the time. If you go to a restaurant and infect 25 other people, then in some sense even that disaster is a limited one, since they probably all live near the restaurant, and they may even have other common social characteristics. Disney attracts tourists from everywhere—people who have nothing in common—and a virus that spread there would proliferate madly, falling like fairy dust all over the country.

I should admit that a Disney vacation, even in pre-coronavirus conditions, sounds to me like the most elaborate way to have a miserable time yet invented by humankind. I have enough friends who are parents to have heard the stories of long lines, staggering expense, and (for them, if not the kids) boredom. The whole park is an obstacle course of expensive treats that your children will beg you to buy. Corn dogs cost $11. I do not dislike Disney films, and I am especially fond of Pixar and the Muppets. But my desire to meet Mickey Mouse evaporated around the age of 8, when I asked my mother about this wonderful place called Disney World and she said, in effect, that she loved me very much, but that she would rather die of dysentery than take me to Florida to have her pocket picked by anthropomorphic vermin. I don’t think I asked again. The chance of being struck dead by a mysterious disease has not sweetened the appeal of the park.

I stayed at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. (Everything Disney is "Disney’s," as if you could ever forget that the hotel where you are staying, the restaurant where you are eating, the monorail you are riding, and the theme park whose cartoon characters are beckoning to you are all the property of the same megacorporation.) On arrival, a clerk named Miguel checked me in and outfitted me with a MagicBand, a radio-frequency-emitting wrist strap that would let me wander the Disney microstate without any danger that Disney authorities would lose track of me, or (since it was attached to my credit card) that I would tragically find myself without a means to pay for an ice-cream cone or a T-shirt.

Miguel explained the wonders of this device from behind a layer of plexiglass, a face shield, and a surgical mask, so it was difficult to hear him, or even tell when he had finished speaking. He had a name tag that suggested fluency in American Sign Language, and he confirmed that he had studied it for three years. I knew just enough to sign "thank you" and ask him where my room was. He signed back, and I think we were both relieved to have found a means of communication less disrupted by masks. I had five other conversations unimpeded by masks during the next three days, almost all because the person with whom I was speaking was eating or drinking at the time, and therefore temporarily exempt from hygiene rules.

I dropped my bag at my ground-floor, parking-lot-facing room. At first I was disappointed by the view, then realized my good fortune at not having to take an elevator potentially stagnant with the exhalations of the guest who took it before me. I headed by monorail to the parks.

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"This is how Walt Disney wanted it," a mom chaperoning her grown son told me. (The son had gone off on his own, as grown sons do.) She sounded traumatized by previous trips, and healed by this one. "There are no lines. You can walk around the gardens. You can go on the rides."

At the entrance to the park—by now I had bought my passes for the coming days—the lines to enter were at most two people deep. The wait lasted seconds, not minutes, and would not have existed at all, except that some of the gates were failing to register guests’ MagicBands. Mine elicited a green light, and with the wave of another faceless cast member, I entered the Kingdom.

When you arrive at the Magic Kingdom, you walk through a tunnel and pass under a small plaque that reads HERE YOU LEAVE TODAY AND ENTER THE WORLD OF YESTERDAY, TOMORROW AND FANTASY. You emerge from the tunnel into a town square, the first of several themed sub-parks of the Magic Kingdom, and the only one that is compulsory, because you must pass through it to reach the others. It is designed to look like small-town Middle America roughly 100 years ago, during the heyday of sarsaparillas and the Model T. The square has a train station, then one shop-lined avenue leading to the rest of the park. This sub-park, called Main Street, U.S.A., is unique in that it has no rides—nothing to do at all, really, other than buy merchandise with your MagicBand and, in normal times, enjoy the first of many interactions with beloved cartoon characters, or, rather, sweaty adults entombed in costumes.

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Main Street, U.S.A., is fairly crowded and mirthful compared with a small town in America a century ago, when the country had only about a third of the population it has today. But compared with a normal, pandemic-free day, it is desolate and somber, like a small town hit hard by scarlet fever and bad news about local boys off fighting in the Great War. The music still plays, but every 10 minutes a voice interrupts to instruct us all to "please wear a face covering. Wash your hands often and thoroughly. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and maintain physical distancing." This memento mori is especially grim when it is played between "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "When You Wish Upon a Star."

The characters keep their distance. In fact, I do not think I saw a proper Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, or Jiminy Cricket during my entire visit. On the balconies of certain buildings, occasionally a princess dances around and calls out to visitors. And at intervals, a parade of characters passes—but preceding it there are surgical-masked, uniformed cast members, clearing the streets like Secret Service agents to make sure the princesses have a path forward and perhaps to intercept any overly enthusiastic children who want to run up to give them a hug. Among the most American elements of Disney magic is that it lets kids imagine princesses as accessible and pure-hearted, rather than as aristocrats worried they might be coughed on by proles. That particular magical spell is temporarily broken.

From the July/August 2020 issue: The dark soul of the Sunshine State

Main Street leads, majestically, to Cinderella Castle—the iconic structure that you and your children imagine when you close your eyes and think not only of Disney, but of storybook castles in general. It is one of the few parts of Disney World that is wholly undiminished by the coronavirus, because it can be seen from everywhere.

A cast member offered to take my photo in front of the castle, and she extended to me an electronic device on which I could tap my MagicBand, so copies would automatically upload to my Disney account. "Smile," she commanded, and before I could ask her how she could tell through my mask whether I was smiling, she added, "With your eyes. Smile with your eyes." She was referring to the "Duchenne smile," named for the 19th-century French neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne, who discovered that if you electrocute someone’s face just right, you can jolt him into smiling, but you can still tell the smile is a fake because a real one makes crow’s feet beside your eyes. I crinkled my eyes hard. The results look somewhat convincing, but I can’t say for sure, because Disney has watermarked the photos, and will charge my MagicBand $69.99 for clean copies. In one photo, to increase the fun, Disney digitally added a snowman named Olaf, a bucktoothed simpleton from the Frozen franchise, to prance next to me.

From the castle, roads radiate to a handful of other sub-parks and what would normally be an inexhaustible source of amusement for a young family. In these other sub-parks, you can experience rides focusing on characters including Winnie the Pooh, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Others are tie-ins to more recent Disney films; Pirates of the Caribbean is a clear favorite. (Some restaurants and attractions are still closed. Most are open.) Another corner, Tomorrowland, presents a vision of the future as seen from the not-so-distant past. The park has wisely decided to update that vision only slightly, so the future you see is Kennedy-esque in its optimism (peaceful conquest of outer space, the ingenuity of American-made kitchen appliances), with not a whisper about the rising tide of nationalism in central Europe, or the countrywide dementia induced by social media.

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The amusement would be inexhaustible; your own exhaustion would be assured. That is because in normal times you must choose perhaps four or five big rides, each lasting mere minutes, and spend hours waiting in line to be admitted to each. That was then. On a single day that weekend, I went to every available attraction in the park. I neglected nothing, rode my favorite rides more than once, and had a leisurely chicken-and-waffles lunch in the middle of it all. Normally to accomplish this feat a person would need almost a week in the Magic Kingdom.

(Getty / The Atlantic)

I could see signs of the frustration that visitors who came to the park in years past might have experienced. To enter every attraction, I first had to traverse a set of switchbacks usually packed with families putting in their hours before being ushered into a mine car, jolly boat, or spaceship and sent off on their adventure. To walk past the haggard ghosts of these families felt like cheating—which is to say it felt like a magnificent relief, almost enough to make me forget that the cost of this convenience might be a permanent loss of some lung capacity.

Disney has, in case the crowds return, marked queues with floor tape, to remind you where to stop to avoid impinging on the space of your fellow guests. But I rarely encountered a serious line. To go on Splash Mountain, one of the more popular rides in the Kingdom, I waited exactly eight minutes before I was loaded into a hollowed-out log and sent downstream.

One irony is that, in pre-pandemic times, you had to wait in line outside in the heat and breathe with relief upon entering a cool, dark building (a dungeon for Pirates of the Caribbean, a Gold Rush mining house for Big Thunder Mountain), where you boarded the ride. Now the outdoors feels safe, and when you get indoors you start wondering whether the air is circulating fast enough for you to inhale safely. On some rides, like Epcot’s Mission: SPACE, announcements dating from before the pandemic warn you that you should skip the ride if you dislike "enclosed dark space." Now the fear of enclosed spaces applies to all sane people, not just claustrophobes. Epcot also warns that the ride can induce vomiting. As it whirred into motion, I considered what it might be like to puke up $11 worth of corn dog into a mask strapped to my face, and I thought: At least I didn’t have to wait in line for this.

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Many of the attractions take place in theaters, including two of my favorites, Muppet*Vision 3D (a part-filmed, part-animatronic, part-live performance at the Hollywood Studios park) and the Hall of Presidents. For those, every other row—and every other block of four seats in the remaining rows—has been restricted. If you are a lone visitor like me, you get four seats to yourself. On most rides, I got my own conveyance, or shared it with a couple of other people at a distance of six feet or more.

Many of the rides take your photo and, having detected your MagicBand, send you images of yourself at climactic moments—when your mine car on the Seven Dwarfs ride hits its top speed, say, or Space Mountain sends you into negative g’s. I examine the photos of myself and see a most improbable image: a man in early middle age, his face concealed by a surgical mask, riding a roller coaster alone.

The experience of Disney World under these circumstances is one of unsettling solitude. It reminded me of a Swedish film project, Experiment Ensam ("Experiment Alone"), in which the director, Anders Helgeson, filmed people doing alone what they would typically do in a crowd. The most famous of these was a Bob Dylan concert, performed for one fan in an otherwise empty theater. Another was going to an amusement park. The Magic Kingdom is not, of course, empty—just emptier than usual. But social distancing has rendered even the minimal density lonely, and not only because I visited without company. The masks worn by everyone at the park (with the exception of babies, people in the act of eating, and princesses in the course of their duties) make it hard to hear what people are saying, unless you lean in close—which, if you did, would surely get you admonished by whoever’s space you had impinged upon. The result is little to no interpersonal contact all day, except when you walk past Miguel on your way back to your room at the Contemporary and get flashed a greeting in sign language.

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In fact, the isolation is even greater. The uncanny experience of the Magic Kingdom without Mickey and Pluto running up to shake your hand is nothing compared with the uncanny experience of the Magic Kingdom—where many visitors wear T-shirts that read the Happiest Place on Earth—without even a glimpse of a human face. Mask compliance at the parks was nearly perfect. For that I was grateful. There was not even a trace of the freak-out behavior one sometimes sees in videos of lines at Costco or Piggly Wiggly, of customers who demand the right to go unmasked and threaten to assault cashiers and fellow customers who object. Everyone visiting Disney World just wore masks, and if some dad resented having to do so, he endured his chagrin stoically, like a grown-ass man, scowling privately behind his mask on the Winnie the Pooh ride.

What is an amusement park in which visible smiles are forbidden, and laughter and screams of delight are muffled to the point of inaudibility? If you think it is like watching sitcoms without a laugh track (they seem quiet at first, but you get used it, and realize Curb Your Enthusiasm was better than Seinfeld all along), you do not fully appreciate the inhumanity of this situation, the strangeness of being in a place that exists to elicit joy—wiped clean of all legible emotion.

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The psychologist Paul Bloom has noted that the pandemic is unlike other catastrophes, because our suffering and collective response are solitary. To be a hero during the Blitz, you pulled neighbors from rubble; you commiserated with friends and encouraged them, in person, to buck up. To be a pandemic hero, you stay home and binge-watch Project Runway in your underpants. In Disney World more than anywhere else, this odd and psychically depleting fact about the pandemic—that it robs us of shared emotional space—haunts you. It may still be the happiest place on Earth, but you can’t tell by looking at anyone. If you want a freaky experience, I invite you to ride "It’s a Small World" under these conditions: You are surrounded by chanting dolls—their intentions unclear—while every live human around you is expressionless. The dolls repeat "It’s a small world after all" with slightly varying pitch about 200 times in 10 to 15 minutes. I have not seen the world for months. What are they telling me about it? That whole nations have been replaced by these relentless, diminutive automatons—and they are pleased by these events, and we large people must accept this new reality?

But I also caught glimpses of humanity. I had seen little of that in person, outside my own household, since March. The Disney photographers strictly forbade me from removing my mask for photos. Occasionally, though, I saw moms and dads look around furtively and tell their kids to tug down their masks for just long enough to get a photo. Once, I saw a girl of about 8, a safe distance from anyone other than her parents, do this in front of Cinderella Castle. The mask went down under her chin, and she revealed a huge smile and flashed a peace sign to her parents. It lasted about a second, enough time for a phone photo. Cynicism withers when subjected to happiness like that, even when the child is not yours. It grows back quickly, but Disney is a romantic place again for just a moment.

Perhaps for others this illusion remains the dominant experience of Disney. I am, as I warned earlier, not the ideal Disney customer. I am nonetheless forced to admit, having observed Disney’s most fervent fans—the ones willing to court infection for one of Snow White’s royal waves—that their decision to visit at this moment is not, as it first appeared to me, made out of ignorance or stupidity. Almost all seemed to accept that the coronavirus is real, or real enough that it would be churlish to object when others ask you nicely to keep your distance. Disney just matters more to them than it does to me, because to me it is a corporation that makes children’s entertainment, and to them, it is something worth risking their life for.

On Sunday, I saw a family boarding a monorail car for the Magic Kingdom, and I noticed that both the mom and the dad had crucifix tattoos. (Tattoos are common these days among Disney parents.) I looked online to see whether the Disney micronation had any chapels or scheduled services, and an unofficial website declared that "there are no religious services held on Disney property." I don’t think that statement is as straightforward or accurate as it appears, unless you suppose, naively, that religion is just a set of things you believe—that Jesus rose from the dead; that Muhammad is the final prophet of God; that the Buddha achieved Enlightenment under a fig tree; that one day Zeus had a migraine, and then Athena popped out of his head. Another view of religion is that it is more subtle and pervasive. It is the base layer of our imagination and consists of stories and ideas so deeply imprinted on our minds that we do not realize that our realities are formed by them. By that standard—authorship of the imagination—Disney is a religion and going to Disney World is a pilgrimage.

Of course, few visitors to the park describe it that way, and I am confident that the family with cross tattoos believe that Jesus and not Donald Duck is their redeemer. But if you ask them about love, they will tell you about Beauty and the Beast. If you ask them about growing old, they will tell you about Up. If you want to know about overcoming adversity, they will ask if you have heard the good news about Aladdin. If enough of your imagination consists of stories like these, authored by (or filtered through) the Disney corporation, then what else is Disney World—where these narratives are ubiquitous and glorified—but a place to nourish your soul in a time of famine?

Many attractions are designed explicitly to boost morale, and to advance your belief in the improvement of all things. On Saturday I visited the Hall of Presidents, which is a tonic for the American civic religion. It is a pageant of progress, an uncomplicated history of America that begins with a quest for freedom, stumbles over slavery and Jim Crow, and emerges in a new birth of freedom. The show encourages awe for the presidents of the United States and ends with a dramatic curtain-raise, revealing Barack Obama and 43 white men in animatronic form, breathing and moving their heads and limbs with a level of realism tantalizingly close to Westworld’s. (It’s not there yet, but give it time: I hope someday my grandchildren will be able to return to this spot and murder a realistic robot version of Rutherford B. Hayes in a duel.) This exhibition is, according to the introduction, "reverent," and even an extended oration by a robot Donald Trump does not diminish the effect. (It helps that the presentation treats Martin Luther King Jr. as a kind of unofficial president and makes multiple moving references to John Lewis, who died the day before I saw the exhibit.)

At the hotel bar that night, I met a schoolteacher from New York City who had come to Disney World secretly, to avoid scandalizing her friends and neighbors. She said Disney was her "paradise," and she loved the holiday from the rancor of New York. "Black lives matter here because all lives matter here," she told me. "New York is a war zone. We have a mayor who doesn’t support the police, police who don’t care about the mayor, 1-year-olds getting shot on the street." She said the only other time Disney World had short lines was after 9/11, when no one was quite sure whether terrorists would massacre everyone, or whether the funnel cakes would be dusted with anthrax spores. "This is like that," she said. "A wonderful time to be here."

From the May 2002 issue: Lost in the Magic Kingdom

Here is the point in the story when I tell you that she should wise up and realize that Disney is problematic—that maybe she would consider the Magic Kingdom less of a paradise if she weren’t white, took the Jungle Cruise (a lighthearted boat ride through savage country), and saw spear-wagging natives with bones through their noses dancing on the shores; or if she were Chinese, and saw one of the shops in the Frontierland section marked in big letters as CHINESE LAUNDRY. But the truth is that I saw lots of nonwhite families in the park, and they all seemed to be having such a good time that I would have felt awful disturbing their holiday to ask whether they cared to join me in scolding the park management for this or that transgression. (Disney has revised certain relics of insensitivity, and has announced that it will renovate Splash Mountain to replace characters from the racist embarrassment Song of the South with characters from The Princess and the Frog, which featured Disney’s first African American princess. Still, whenever I boarded any ride more than 20 years old, I prepared to wince at least once.)

Where is the outrage? My best guess is that it is in the same hiding place where one would look to find the mask tantrums, also so conspicuously absent in the park (and, I should add, completely indefensible, unlike the complaints above). The guests have willingly submitted to the authority of the microstate of Disney World, and their submission is total, because they have judged Disney to be a trustworthy custodian of that authority.

Consider the anarchy of Florida, the state that surrounds it. Roughly one in 10 citizens has filed paperwork to carry a gun concealed on his person. The state song until recently still used the word darkies. The people are so ornery that they cannot be persuaded to wrap bandannas around their faces to save their own lives. Mosquitoes are large enough to engage in dogfights with hummingbirds. The state lizard is Roger Stone.

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And then there is Disney World—a little bit of Singapore in the midst of America’s Yemen. Walt Disney is its Lee Kuan Yew. It is nothing if not competently administered. It has a public-transportation system far exceeding the capacity of the systems of the hometowns of many of the visitors. Those who enforce the law are trusted and proportionate: If you refuse to wear a mask, a cast member will find you and correct you, gently. The list of incidents at the park reads like the police blotter of a sedate New England town, not of a fantasyland surrounded by quarrelsome, armed eccentrics. Even the natural world at Disney appears to have been harnessed and controlled. When a white ibis, a bird typical of Florida swampland, approached me while I ate lunch one day in Sleepy Hollow, it had been so long since I had seen a wild animal that I had to examine it carefully to be sure it was not animatronic. I saw only one mosquito during my entire visit. Nothing lives in the park without Disney’s dispensation.

The visitors to Disney World reciprocate with a docility that would be the envy of any authoritarian regime. When offered a MagicBand, I gladly submitted to tagging and monitoring—an encroachment on my privacy I would never permit to the federal government of the United States. Indeed, I hoped Disney would track me more closely, so it could tell me if a guest who had been in line near me reported coming down with COVID-19. (Disney told me it is not using the MagicBands for contact tracing.) I accepted high levels of authoritarian intervention as long as the tyrant in question was wearing those ridiculous mouse ears at the time. If the penalty for obstinate refusal to wear a mask were public whipping, I would have cheered the administration of justice in Main Street, U.S.A.’s town square. If the same thing happened in the city where I live in Connecticut, I would probably donate to the ACLU and lament my city’s regression to 17th-century Puritanism.

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The lessons of this hypocrisy are weird and profound. For months, the world has wondered what happened to the United States—why we are so lacking in decency and public-spiritedness that we refuse to take simple measures to make coronavirus case numbers sink, as all evidence suggests they would if we all wore masks. One theory is that we are just imbeciles, or that enough of us are imbeciles to foil public-health measures. That is a pessimistic theory, because imbecility is generally incurable.

But at Disney I saw many Americans (the park is usually cosmopolitan; on this trip the only languages I heard spoken by guests were English and Spanish) and no obvious imbeciles. Some were surely the type to be suspicious of the government. If so, that suspicion somehow coexisted with total confidence in a $212 billion company whose profit margins rely on novelty-T-shirt sales. I cannot say that suspicion and that confidence are misplaced. The demise of public institutions has caused Americans to turn to private institutions, and we should probably brace ourselves for more of this trend. If you cannot trust the police, get ready to pay for private security. Don’t trust the public-health policies of the president? Instead listen to a talking mouse. The catch is that the replacement of these public goods (law enforcement, health care, infrastructure) by private ones is available only to those able to pay for them. A long weekend at Disney World cost about $2,500, which is more than I have ever paid for a vacation twice that long.

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On the way home, however, I was reminded of what that money bought, and how serene a weekend in the American Singapore could be, compared with the alternatives. The Magical Express deposited me back at the Orlando airport, and the hour I spent waiting for my flight home was among my most uncomfortable since the dawn of the pandemic. Orlando’s airport isn’t a connection hub, so most of us in the terminal had been in central Florida for days at least, at the peak of the peak of the pandemic. We were all enemies to each other. The attitude toward masking was insouciant at best, and I passed bench after bench of men and women with bare faces, or with their masks hanging low over their chins, like beard nets worn by cooks.

I boarded my flight, and the passenger next to me—a man with an Orlando Police cap—promptly passed out and began snoring in my direction, his nose poking over the top of his mask. I adjusted the overhead vent to blow the air from his nostrils out into the aisle. A Disney cast member would have corrected the issue, and I am sure the guy would have accepted the correction. Instead the flight attendant who saw me messing with the vent just shrugged sympathetically, with an expression that said, Florida.

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Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.
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