The Florida Project and Disney’s Broken Circle

The Florida Project | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella
I. Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow

“Everyone who grows up in EPCOT will have skills in pace with today’s world. EPCOT will be a working community, with employment for all…everyone who lives here will have a responsibility to help keep this community an exciting, living blueprint for the future!”

– Disney’s “Florida Film,” 1966

Once upon a time, a man flying through the sky caught a glimpse of something beneath parting clouds. At ground level, local residents perceived only a bubbling cauldron of heat and sinking earth, a mirage on the edge of the interstate. Yet from above, the man saw the potential for his dream world.

During development, it became known as the Florida Project. There are rumors that as the dreamer lay dying in his hospital bed, he ordered the ceiling tiles be replaced with the blueprints for castles and starships. Whether his eyes were opened or closed, he was immersed in this reality he had built for himself—and then he was gone.

But his creation remained, and as this second decade of the 21st century comes to a close, that dream’s dominance appears more powerful than ever. Other national tenets may shift and break, but what could be more comforting than Main Street, USA? To Walt Disney himself, such imaginative urban planning was the key to the future. Before his death in 1966, the mogul went full steam ahead in channeling the corporation’s creative energies toward city building. 

Two months before his passing, Walt and chief Imagineer Marty Sklar recorded what is sometimes called the “Florida Film,” later sent to the state legislature to convince them of the company’s aim. In the film, Walt reveals his plans to build the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, situated as the beating heart of Disney World in the marshlands outside of Orlando. In the years since, Disney executives have often bragged that the park and its partners successfully developed this land without spending a single taxpayer dollar. This statement ignores the fact that Disney pays a not-insignificant amount of tax money directly to local governments that wouldn’t exist without the theme park and to shell companies that immediately reinvest back into Disney property development. 

Yet all that Walt Disney envisioned for this project in those early days was subsidiary to the importance of EPCOT. It was to be filled with idyllic playgrounds, entertainment zones, churches, schools, and suburban divisions all encircling a central business district and linked together by electric monorail. Best of all, it would be completely climate controlled, concealed beneath a huge dome to protect its residents from the outside elements, be it hurricanes or urban decay.

This grand vision never came to pass. But the pitch to the Florida state government never changed: Disney World would have residential property within it, and thus tax breaks and morally dubious shell companies were necessary for future growth and the benefit of all. Surely the legislators could grasp that if only they used a little imagination? 

Disney as a corporation continued to pursue other urban development projects, such as Celebration, Florida, or the recently opened Golden Oaks private community in Lake Buena Vista right outside the park—but neither can be confused for any kind of utopia. Instead, the real legacy left behind by Disney’s original development dream is a systematized strategy for securing corporate tax loopholes and the cultivation of a luxurious retreat from the outside world, hermetically sealed behind copyright law.

It was a hot summer day in 2016 when the usual tidal wave of humanity spilled through Magic Kingdom turnstiles onto that well-known Main Street. Hidden amongst the harried families and franchise cinema superfans, however, a sleeper cell shuffled in unnoticed. With two young girls bounding ahead of them, and only an iPhone raised to capture them, a team of filmmakers went about the covert production of the most memorable and powerful Disney—or, at least, Disney-adjacent—film of the 21st century.

II. Frontier Land

“To what extent is the structure of the fairy tale related to the structure of the ideal success story in culture?…Do children become familiar enough with the general nature of fairy-tale morphology to object to or question a deviation from it by a storyteller?”

– Alan Dundes, Introduction to Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale

Stories are told for many reasons, consciously and unconsciously, and these days the reasoning for their creation is often not personal or social, but economic. Stories surround us at all times, and some of them happen to be much louder than others, the reverberating expression of a creative idea that exploded long ago. We are coated in the radiation of the past, and this is what tells us the future is on its way. We have been changed—we are being changed. Look forward, not around.

But sometimes, we tell stories of what can be lost if we are not careful. From their 2012 debut Starlet to their 2015 breakout Tangerine, every work created by writer/director Sean Baker, co-writer Chris Bergoch, and producers Kevin Chinoy and Francesca Silvestri revolves around marginalized perspectives and the delicate balancing acts within these characters’ lives. They are stories both quotidian and radical—quotidian because their characters’ circumstances don’t change, yet radical due to how close these characters are to one form or another of social oblivion.

In 2016, Baker and his team were drawn to the proximity between the joyous world of Disney and the unseen homeless residents of the Kissimmee motels that orbit it, like a distorted shadow of Walt’s proposed radial city. Although motels are hardly new solutions for the nearly-homeless, such socioeconomic living arrangements skyrocketed in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis.

These motels, including the real Magic Castle Inn & Suites utilized in The Florida Project, are designed to act as simulacra of the accommodations contained within Disney World—which itself is simulacra of fantastical worlds and a past that never existed. An air of capitalist disenchantment hangs over Route 92 like a fairytale gone bad in the hot sun, with colors overripe and landscapes overgrown. 

The contrast is so glaringly obvious that some audiences recoiled. With an unflinching eye, Baker immersed the filmmaking team and his audience in a world of poverty. Critiques of this method emerged, sometimes even accusing the film of being little more than poverty tourism. Why send postcards from so dire an address, especially if the sender is yet another NYU-educated tourist with a camera?

One could open with the salvo that all cinema is exploitation. It must capture, and it must contain, and it must tell us something coherent about our world, even if it is a lie. If this is so, The Florida Project is far from the most egregious offender. Couldn’t the same charge be thrown against Disney itself, perhaps even against their hallowed Marvel Cinematic Universe and its indebtedness to the United States military? But surely this is too obvious a counter these days.

Perhaps, more generously, one could make a materialist argument. Baker and his team strove to cast inexperienced actors; outside of Willem Dafoe and small cameos from Caleb Landry Jones and Macon Blair, there is not a name on screen that audiences would recognize. Young Christopher Rivera, who plays Scooty, lived a life not so different from his character’s. With his family, he resided in a small motel room and wanted to take the role in order to help his mother pay the rent. Following the film’s success, Rollins College offered Rivera a full scholarship should he choose to attend when he graduates high school. But does an occurrence like this only worsen the charges of liberal pandering? Is holding this up as an example of the film’s power doing little more than showing just how absurd our national stance on poverty remains? Here, the industry says, another disadvantaged youth to pull at your heart strings, before you forget about it all over again next week.

That would hardly be an incomprehensible response. But here is a far simpler argument: The Florida Project is a worthy film because it understands these perceptual risks and moves ahead anyway. While most modern Disney films may play politics, appealing to the best and most woke within us all, there remains a simple, material truth that outside the walls of both its studios and its theme parks (and outside the homes of all blessed with secure housing) a huge swath of people have been forgotten by mainstream culture.

The Florida Project realizes this context with grace, humor, and innate humanity. Consider those trademark Disney fireworks: As Dafoe’s motel manager Bobby enjoys an end-of-shift cigarette on the upper balcony of the Magic Castle, the nightly show is taking place just off-screen. We see him watch, along with hints of exploding color against the fading daylight. This moment is pure reflection. There is commentary in the image, undeniable and stark, but outside of the Hollywood actor’s presence, nothing else has been engineered. Each night, people watch these fireworks from places just like the Magic Castle Inn, and every night, other people watch the same show at a much closer vantage point. Yet in that simultaneous instance, these groups live in completely separate realities.

As the shadowy contours of Bobby’s face are briefly illuminated by faraway fire, one cannot help but think that if there is power in cinema, this must be it. It echoes and resonates, stirring beneath the surface of a consumerist, American swampland like a summoning prayer.

III. The Magic Kingdom

“Let them have a good time…you think they’re gonna get along if they’re not gonna, like, socialize?”

– Halley, The Florida Project

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) hide in the shade of a stairwell at the Magic Castle Inn. Another child bursts toward them, full of excitement: “Freshies at the Future!” A spark ignites in the humid air, and all three kids run off to greet the new ones at another motel across the road. Through a child’s eyes, this landscape is born again beneath awe-inspiring, sherbet sky. The strip malls, abandoned homes, and high grass take on a mystical bent as Moonee explores in pursuit of  self-discovery. When the film frames this girl and her friends against an average store that happens to be shaped like a giant orange or a looming wizard, a fairytale is momentarily conjured. Maybe a wonderland can be brought forth. Maybe Moonee is a lot like all those other rebellious Disney princesses, after all. 

Of course, this child has time on her hands due to her very challenging circumstances. Although it is indeterminate how long Moonee has lived at the Magic Castle, we get the sense that it has been long enough for this to become the primary lens through which she sees everyday life. Friends come and go, blown by the economic winds. Bobby knows the girl well enough to spot her antics from miles away, and Moonee weaves through every nook and cranny as if the motel is hers by royal, mythological decree.

Moonee owes both her cherished freedom and unseen limitations to her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, in an under-recognized performance). Although Halley is irresponsible in every sense of the word, barely more than a child herself, she has bestowed upon Moonee the gift of living in the present tense. There is no money, no forward momentum, and no true rhythm to their days, but life is won in moments for these two—both as mother and daughter, and as big and little sister.

Baker has made a similarly present tense film. Although unstructured at first glance, in the vein of other recent social realist films such as the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, Baker’s story creates an important distinction of perspective between the adult world and the child world. Bobby stands across the line on one side, and with exasperation and love faces down Moonee on the other. Halley sits between them, unwilling and unable to make herself choose a direction. In the adult world, storytime is over. One may glimpse the fireworks at night, but that’s not going to bring them any closer. In the children’s world, the fact that the sky explodes each night, as if just for them, is still enough.

Moonee soon recruits the newly arrived “freshie,” Jancey (Valeria Cotto), into the de-facto Our Gang in which Moonee assumes the role of Spanky. This melding of social realism with genre throwback is similar to what Baker did in Tangerine with screwball comedy. In an interview during the Savannah Film Festival, Baker made his intention clear: “If you think about what [the Little Rascals] were, they were basically comic shorts set against the Great Depression. Most of the characters…were actually living in poverty, but the focus was the joy of childhood.” 

Old school Hollywood, where both the Disney fairy tale and the Little Rascals were forged, was plagued with abhorrent racial, gender, and class representation. By throwing such story structures up against modern America’s crumbling communal consciousness, The Florida Project presents the discrepancy between filmic dreams and reality. It can be deeply felt without the need to actually preach its values. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, that other spokesman for the disenfranchised whose work obscures his own privileges, the film just stands back and lets it all be.

Yet, as Moonee pulls her fellow princess Jancey away from the castle for adventure, we are never allowed to lose track of the adult realm either. Halley and Bobby are not easy archetypes. They may have shades of the kindly guardian wizard, or the neglectful caretaker, but they are not reducible or cartoonish. Bobby has the qualities of a former dreamer; despite his thankless work, there is an indomitable sense of optimism to the man. 

Slowly, though, we see that he has adopted this transient family because he has exiled himself from his biological one. Through his interactions with his son (Caleb Landry Jones, in one of the aforementioned rare scenes featuring a recognizable actor), Bobby exposes the wounded pride and broken dreams that plague him whenever he cannot bury himself in work. While he acts as the Magic Castle’s saint and savior, it is truly the other way around—these people, and children like Moonee most of all, keep him alive.

In opposition, Halley wants nothing more than to be young and wild and free. With her friend and fellow single mother Ashley (Mela Murder), a night out is a hard-won pleasure. The price of Halley’s desire rises to a boil over the course of the film. Unequipped to deal with the pressure, she smokes herself into various oblivions and resorts to desperate Backpage ads to make the meager amount needed to keep herself and Moonee in the Magic Castle.

Although the adult world represented by Halley and Bobby is shown as a fallen one, unable to provide for the future of its children, Baker and the filmmakers do not place blame solely at these characters’ feet. In the face of such a great failure, we are all complicit, whether we admit or not. This is an unimpeachable truth that fills the world of former dreamers with anxiety and shame. There is an end to what we can conceive for those following in our footsteps, and we are left useless in the face of this existential sundown. 

No matter how grand Moonee’s spirit grows—perhaps as large as the fallen tree that acts as both cradle and throne to these young princesses—the chain of command will always lead somewhere higher, up beyond the clouds. It’s hard to imagine she will  grow up to rule this kingdom, or profit from its splendor. This fact hovers over the parents of The Florida Project, and ultimately alienates them from their children. They struggle to insulate them from hardship, drugs, and predators; there is no EPCOT on the horizon. And as Halley tells Bobby at the film’s climax, he is not her father—they are not a family. As for Moonee? The terrible truth is that she may soon be completely on her own.

IV. Tomorrow Land

“We are not even on Disney property!”

– Angry Tourist, The Florida Project

Disappointment abounds, as much for the Magic Castle’s vagabond children as for the lost tourists of Osceola County. As adults know and children learn, the boundary between the two realms is thin, but once you pass through it the illusion will never be the same, and the energy it takes to sustain it becomes more and more of a burden. By the film’s end, the tension between these worlds reaches the expected, tragic crux. A slow train wreck spills out across the Magic Castle lot as CPS descends on Halley and Moonee’s kingdom. Bobby, their great protector, can only step aside for a cigarette, grasping for goodwill and coming up empty handed. We settle in with him, prepared for our idealistic hopes to die alongside his own. In Bobby’s defeat, and Halley’s useless defiance, and Moonee’s tears, the moral lesson waits, or so it has been foretold by years, if not centuries, of storytelling.

We suddenly realize something: Moonee understands more about her precarious state than the adults around her—and the audience—care to admit. In desperation, she breaks free from CPS and heads back to Futureland. Standing before Jancey, Moonee’s persona has been stripped away. Vulnerable, she shoves her fingers into her mouth, unable to vocalize a truth she has long suppressed. We brace ourselves for the reckoning of our hero, and the end of the fairy tale. After all, one cannot be a responsible filmmaker and steer away from the truth of the matter, right? The system is broken, and children are the human currency of exchange in this profit-loss scenario. Moonee exists to break our hearts.

The next—and final—moments have become highly controversial. Some, who had loved the story so far, feel betrayed. Others think it justifies their opinion that this is a work without any ultimate depth. But to those who embrace the final reversal, this exchange between Moonee and Jancey justifies the entire enterprise. Moonee prepares to submit to powers beyond her control, but Jancey will not let her. Over the course of the story, she’s learned enough from Moonee to understand the meaning of this loss. Instead, one heroic princess takes the other’s hand and pulls her out of this film—and into another one entirely.

Baker marks this narrative shift with a drastic stylistic one that calls back to his career-defining film Tangerine. The deeply textured 35mm gives way to the shaky grain of an iPhone. Along with this break in style comes a fracture in time and space. Impossibly, magically, the adult perspective is subsumed by the child’s. All social realism is erased and replaced with a kind of digital transcendentalism. The physical, social, and economic barriers across this landscape suddenly vanish. The two girls flee across a field, and behind them rises that unmistakable iconography. What before was constrained is unleashed. No wristbands will be required for entry.

As if into the dream that has been aggressively out of reach all along, Moonee and Jancey bound directly through the gates of Disney World. Baker’s iPhone captures them in contrast with the thousands of other families, similarly recording their own kids for posterity. This anonymity allowed them to bypass Disney’s security and copyright stronghold, but it also protects them after the fact. If Disney denies, or condemns, or litigates such an action, the inherent contradiction at the heart of their corporate politics will be exposed to the light of day. As it does with other American social issues throughout, The Florida Project takes aim at the heart of our great lies—but instead of a trigger, all that must be pressed is the record button. Jancey and Moonee still believe the dream to be free. It must be. The cost, otherwise, would be far too high to pay. 

V. Main Street, USA

“In EPCOT, there will be no slum areas, because we will not let them develop.”

– Walt Disney, Disney’s Florida Film, 1966

Look around in a crowd and it’s easy to feel both physically confined and personally alienated. Environments like Disneyland and Disney World, along with so many of the stories produced by the entertainment giant, strive to give us the illusion of being one happy, global family. This is not inherently insidious, but it’s time to accept that it’s not completely innocent either. It’s quite easy to lose one’s bearings these days, and in a world drowned by information, cultural safety rafts can be excused as necessary evils.

A few months ago, I stepped out of the Los Angeles home I am privileged enough to rent and ordered a ride share that I am lucky enough to afford (and perhaps, given certain open secrets about the implications of these services, careless enough to patronize). On the way to my friend’s apartment, the driver and I struck up a conversation, and I soon learned that she was one of the first female security guards at Disneyland, back in the days of Walt. Decades gone from that halcyon time, she still cherishes her memories of the work. She said it was the best part of her life. There was a community amongst the employees, and all their families knew one another. In fact, her daughter still works for Disney, as one of the princess cast members who spend their days wholeheartedly giving themselves over to the great dream of Walt’s world.

But a new tone entered her voice as we kept talking about her daughter. She told me Walt wouldn’t be happy about the way things were being run now. It wasn’t the same place. It wasn’t the same dream. Perhaps she was referring to the 2018 report by the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions outlining the fact that one-tenth of Disneyland employees had “been homeless in the last two years…[and that] nearly three-quarters [said] they don’t bring in enough money to cover their monthly basic expenses.” Average hourly wages have dropped since the turn of the 21st century even as the workforce ages up into the myriad responsibilities of American adulthood. All the while, corporate profits continue to rise.

Was my driver correct? Would Walt be disappointed with the direction of his company? In 2019, Walt’s grand-niece Abigail Disney spoke out at the first annual Fast Company Impact Council against the monumental bonus Disney CEO Bob Iger received in the wake of the Fox merger. This put his pay at over a thousand times more than the average Disney employee. According to Abigail: “I did the math, and I figured out that he could have given personally, out of pocket, a 15% raise to everyone who worked at Disneyland, and still walked away with $10 million.”

As my ride share moved across the nightscape of Los Angeles, that factory of national illusion and delusion, the conversation with my driver soon shifted into a different gear. The hardships and inequities placed upon her family by this new, bold Disney had politically reactivated her. Now, she believes in a new dream, spoken by a new “visionary” business leader. Certainly, this billionaire can save America. Either way, come 2020, he’ll certainly get her family’s vote once again.

On that dire note, I was dropped off on a busy street corner in Hollywood. Walking to my friend’s apartment, I passed club goers in expensive clothes, street vendors sheened with sweat beneath midnight stove light, and homeless Angelenos catching a few moments’ rest before an enforced migration to another Main Street, on another night, in another reality. A sky-high neon sign blasted into radiance like fireworks above the Magic Kingdom, but in that moment we all felt like strangers to one another.