Disney, meet McDonald’s

As I’ve been crunching deadlines to meet my Oct. 11 publication date I’ve heard back from people who received advance copies of Renting Dirt, one of whom introduced me to Terence Young and his 2017 book, Heading Out: A History of American Camping. A more scholarly effort than my more personal account, it nevertheless resonates on many of the same frequencies, exemplified by the title of the introduction, “Roughing it Smoothly,” or the title of chapter 4, “The Garage in the Forest.”

But what particularly prompted my reader’s interest was Young’s references to sociologist George Ritzer, perhaps best known for his 1993 publication of The McDonaldization of Society. Succinctly summarized as “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society,” McDonaldization emphasizes efficiency, predictability, control and “calculability,” that last principle meaning an emphasis on quantity as a substitute for quality.

In Renting Dirt, on the other hand, I write about the Disney-fication of camping–the industry-wide push to present nature as essentially benign, much like those scenes of Cinderella attended by doting birds, mice and butterflies. Disney-fying nature means it can be encountered solely on the user’s terms, with absolutely no reason anyone should be uncomfortable doing so. Bugs and bigger critters, rain, darkness–all can and should be vanquished by technology.

The two terms are complementary but distinct: McDonaldization refers to how consumers (campers) are processed through the system, whereas Disney-fication refers to the product they receive. McDonaldization means a fixed menu, speedy delivery and the substitution of self-service for personal attention; Disney-fication means homogenization of the service provided and the sanding down of any rough edges, creating a non-threatening and ultimately bland product.

Both those dynamics are in play in the campground industry, which explains to some significant extent why growing numbers of campers are surly, dissatisfied and demanding–as if to say, “You mean that’s all there is?”

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