A certain mouse-themed theme park has always been an object of fascination for me, and the more I read about it, the more strange an imitation of reality it appears to be. The lengths that employees are required to go to create a seamless fantasy experience for their guests seems altogether dystopian, and it didn’t take *too* much tweaking to imagine a world where such a a place was altogether disturbing. I wanted to think about the folks inside the costumes in such a strange place. How far would a person go to become a participant in this fantasyland? More worrisome, how far would the fantasyland go to keep its hold on them?
The Happiest Place
by Kevin Wabaunsee
Everyone knows the edge of the Kingdom of Fun out near the wall is the riskiest place to work. So of course, that’s where they put me on my first day. But it’s OK, I’ve trained for this. I have been thoroughly tested on my knowledge of the rules and the procedures involved. I’m well-equipped to handle a shift in Cartoon Town or the Forests of Delight, or yes, even Magic Mainstreet. But pulling duty on the ‘street my first time out is really throwing me in the deep end. Magic Mainstreet is out on the edge, and one of the biggest draws of the Kingdom of Fun. When the Mainstreet gates swing open, a throng of guests surge through. They’re here to listen to the barbershop-quartet renditions of familiar top-40 hits and eat butterscotch kettle corn or pumpkin roasted walnuts or the legendary buttered marshmallow dumplings, all those sweet aromas filling my nostrils. And, of course, they’re here to see me and my foam-head compatriots bobble and traipse up and down the bright red cobblestones.
No matter how many smiling faces I see, though, I stay on constant alert. Out here, where the razor-wire walls are only a few hundred yards away (artfully disguised, of course, and never within the sightlines of a guest), there are some special considerations. I’m not just weaving a magical amusement experience for the guests. I’m also doing my damnedest to protect the guests from what the Funventors have termed “the unwanted encroachment of reality.”
So, I keep one eye on the guests, and another on the horizon. Out on the edge of the park, there’s always the risk of certain reminders of the outside world. For an hour or two, I bobble to and fro, delighting children and adults alike with my exaggerated pantomime.
In the middle of my shift, midway through an inspired chicken-dance, I catch the faraway sounds of gunfire. No problem; park maintenance quickly mitigates that with a little bump in the ambient volume. Then, larger caliber exchanges trigger the arrival of an impromptu oompah-band parade.
A few minutes later, strange smells arrive on a gentle breeze. Inside my huge foam costume, and at a distance, it’s hard to tell exactly what it is. It might be the scent of cremation from a rabid-dog cull or a tire fire wafting across the walls. Through the cartoon-dog mask, it smells a little like cloves, actually. Nonetheless, the Funventors mask that with a little more clever sensory artistry – hidden nozzles puff out little spritzes of scent – first lilac breeze and cotton candy, then the big guns: fresh-baked cookies.
I’m still wobbling and dancing on the cobblestone street when something more troublesome arrives: a smudge of oily smoke rising on the horizon. Probably from a burning chemical fire out in the broken zone. That sort of thing isn’t really possible to camouflage. Not that there aren’t plans in the works. Confidentially, I’ve been told the Funventors are working on a huge coordinated balloon release, to literally blot out the sky. But that’s still in the planning stages.
Even as the finger of smoke grows higher and darker, neither me nor any of the other performers are worried about anything actually breaching the walls. The razor wire separating the Kingdom of Fun from the broken zone outside is tastefully camouflaged but also lethally electrified. Still, that acrid smoke isn’t part of the carefully-managed guest experience.
Like everything else in the Kingdom, the emergency cue is disguised. But as soon as I hear “Auld Lang Syne,” I know it’s a code-red situation. That means that I’m one of the performers tasked with discreetly evacuating everyone off the cobblestone paths of the Magical Mainstreet.
Trapped inside a giant foam suit, I need to start moving people out of the area. But I mustn’t tell the guests what’s going on, of course. As one of the big-heads – the costumed performers with the big foam heads (the delusional frog, the oversized panda-bear, and in my case, the most beloved of them all, the goofball dog), I never, under any circumstances, say a word. All my performance is through exaggerated pantomime, including shepherding the guests towards another zone.
My minder guides me. All performers are required to have a minder. Mine wears a bright-red circus-ringleader costume, giant oversize mustache, and has a voice that carries for miles. He’s the one giving me cleverly disguised instructions masquerading as conversation with the guests.
“Kids! Does the goofball dog look tired? He looks tired to me! He’s just not his usual boisterous, jubilant self. I hope he feels better! He’d need to be 65 percent peppier to really deliver on the goofball dog promise, don’t you think, kids? Even when he’s guiding this oh-so-fun conga line out of Magical Mainstreet!”
I don’t really mind the indirect instruction I get from my minder. He’s here to watch out for me as much as to watch me. He makes sure I don’t trip over a distracted anklebiter during the parade-cum-evacuation. And he’s the one who steers me away from a crowd of rowdy teenagers, the sort fond of kicking goofball dog in the testicles during a distracted moment or trying to tear his oversized head off.
That thought sends shivers down my spine. A head-removal, would of course, be the most unthinkable occurrence. From day one of foam-head bootcamp, it was drilled into me – the guests must never see a performer out of costume, especially not one of the more fantastical creatures with the giant foam heads. Such a trauma would be indelibly burned into the psyches of the impressionable guests.
I know the stakes.
As I guide my improvised conga-line parade-slash-evacuation, I think about what these guests have given up to visit the Kingdom of Fun. How each of them has traveled long and far. How they’ve braved overland routes through territories rent and broken, where nothing grows and no one lives, and the fabric of reality itself is torn and shredded. In their armor-plated RVs, the guests have journeyed to make their pilgrimage inside the unshakeable fantasy-reality that the Kingdom of Fun promises. Many of them are veterans of those constant nameless wars. Shattered by guilt, of course, but also by the weapons that break apart soldiers’ bodies and the ever-thinning fabric of reality alike. I know how desperate those poor souls must be for a wholesome, joyful, innocent escape, untainted by even the hint of the real world.
I know how these guests, even as they’re dancing-slash-evacuating, are still recovering from the indignity of strip searches and x-rays, back-scatter imaging, thorough background checks and – only occasionally, they assure me – explorations of a more personal nature visited upon those moderate risk individuals who fall under the suspicion of Kingdom of Fun risk management.
It’s true that, under the watchful eye of the Kingdom of Fun security detail, some of these very guests I’m guiding stood shivering and naked, forcefully deloused and exfoliated. You can tell from the scattered handful of shaved heads in the crowd. But it’s for a greater purpose. The horrors that have been visited upon the outside world must never be allowed to infect, to contaminate the most joyful place on earth.
Trailing behind us, never far away, are the Kingdom of Fun’s elite security forces, the Fun Patrol. They’re probably the best-trained fighting force in the world, but they aren’t performers. Nor, contrary to their name, are they particularly friendly. Their facemasks are a blank expanse of reflective black plastic. The giant rabbit ears are their only nod towards theatricality. And they use live ammo.
So, given all the guests have been through, I remain faithful to the precious – nay, sacred – duty of presenting the most complete, comprehensive and unbroken experience: total immersion in the joyous innocent fantasy land of the Kingdom of Fun, even while I’m gently pushing guests inwards from Magic Mainstreet to the shaded lanes of the Forests of Delight.
It’s hard work, but I love this place. Where else in the world do sugar-plum fairies dance across mossy paths, and princesses in white-and-blue layer-cake castles beckon from the highest tower? Every sight and smell and sound in the Kingdom of Fun is carefully crafted to bring guests, young and old, to a fever pitch of delight and amusement. Including, of course, the charming antics of the goofball dog. And they don’t even know I’m protecting them from the outside world.
It’s hot inside the suit – stifling, really – but I never even think of removing the foam head, or even breaking the seal around to let in a little cooler air, even after the evacuation-slash-parade is finished. I know why I must never remove my head in front of a guest. What could be more the antithesis of the perfectly immersive journey into fantasyland, than a goofball dog who decapitates himself in front of toddlers and preschoolers? Or even those adults with a more rudimentary understanding of the blurred border between fantasy and reality. I must not take off any part of my costume, including and especially the head, under any circumstances.
I think back to my foam-head orientation session. I can still remember that smug fellow, a college graduate from one of the stable provinces, who sneeringly asked about the head-removal policy. He posed a hypothetical regurgitation scenario. If in the unlikely event that there was imminent vomit, that smug fellow said, surely then we would be allowed to remove our heads? I remember the head Funventor’s response was immediate, forceful, and unambiguous. There were no circumstances – vomit-inclusive – that would be grounds for de-heading within the park areas. That the smug fellow washed out of foam-head bootcamp pretty quickly.
But I didn’t. The Funventors have total faith in me. I’ve prepared. I, of all people, know what’s at stake. I came from outside the walls. I grew up smelling the lilac breeze and cookie-dough smells only when they happened to waft outwards when the winds shifted. I picked up the torn pamphlets and discarded memorabilia from the midden-heaps outside the security zone with trembling four-year-old hands. Throughout my childhood, I stared with slack-jawed awe at the pictures of the fairytale kingdom and the smiling faces and more than anything else, at those perfectly sculpted cartoon faces of the foam-headed performers.
After a ten-minute conga parade, we cross the border into the overhanging boughs of the Forests of Delight. Only once all my guests are in the shade can I finally relax. The sight and smell of the looming chemical fire can’t reach the guests here, in the filtered air and artificial canopy of the Most Delightful Forest on Earth. I don’t stop performing, but it’s no longer a code-red situation. Even my minder seems to relax a little bit.
Growing up out there, of course I longed to visit. Doesn’t everyone? But it was different for me; I didn’t just want to experience the fantasy. No, I longed to become a part of the Kingdom of Fun, to meld into the walls, live my life inside the fantasy. Who wouldn’t trade the reality outside for this perfect fantasy?
So, I don’t worry. The Funventors have total faith in me. But I can’t take it for granted. Even after I’ve delivered my guests to the Forests of Delight, I’m still under the watchful eye of the Fun Patrol. Sure, they prevent contraband from entering the kingdom walls, and precious Enchanted Souvenirs from being pilfered, but most importantly, they ensure no performers ever transgress, break character, or endanger the guests’ willing suspension of disbelief.
I’m still technically performing the entire time I’m coming off-shift after the Magic Mainstreet evacuation – bouncing and bobbling through empty hallways, flapping my arms and gamboling around, until I’m safely inside the staff dressing room. The all-clear light switches from red to green, and it’s only then that can I finally peel off the gigantic novelty gloves, an exaggerated parody of a dog’s paw, and hook my fingers under the collar to pull off the giant foam head of goofball dog and –
I hear the voice of my foam-head bootcamp sergeant in my memory. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come off right away, he’d said. It takes a little practice to get the movement just right. My fellow performers in the dressing room try to help. They suggest various ways to get the foam head off. Twist, one of them says. Just pull, another says. One of them wonders aloud if the goofball dog suit is made differently, because they’ve never had any problem getting their shark head off, and right about then, yeah, I start to panic a little. I’m pretty sure my actual head is stuck, actually stuck, inside this oversized novelty dog head. It’s getting really stuffy in there, in fact.
They call in an apprentice Funventor to help out, and he’s even more befuddled than the rest of the staff, who have all stripped out of their costumes, but are watching the apprentice Funventor frown and scowl and harrumph at the goofball dog head, none of which actually gets it any closer to coming off my sweating head.
The apprentice Funventor – I can’t see him past the giant oversized novelty dog snout, is poking and prodding with his fingers and isn’t being terribly gentle about it. I ask him to please be more careful when he’s poking me in the neck, and he skitters away from me, and he asks me to repeat myself and I do, and he goes pale. He says he wasn’t poking me. His fingers weren’t even on my skin –
He stops there and grabs the big red emergency phone on the wall of the staff dressing room. I try to tell him that the red phone isn’t necessary – it’s not an emergency, that sort of drastic action isn’t needed – but I stop myself, because I worry that I’m starting to sound unbalanced. But who wouldn’t, with their head stuck in an oversized foam goofball dog mask?
A pair of senior Funventors march into the staff dressing room, and order all the other gawking staff out, and then it’s just me and the three Funventors, all of whom are staring at me like I’m not even there. They poke and they prod, and eventually their probing fingers start to hurt, and one of them jambs his thumb into a tender spot between my collarbone and my voice box, and I tell him to keep his goddamn hands to himself. They all back away, and I start to sputter an apology. That’s not how a diligent Kingdom of Fun employee would react. That’s certainly not in keeping with the Head Funventor’s dictates for fantasy-making and general decorum.
The junior Funventor whispers into the ear of one of his superiors, and I don’t catch all of what he says, but I hear “happening again,” and maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that means they’ve dealt with this before, that there’s an easy solution –
Then the Fun Patrol arrives. At gunpoint, I’m encouraged to submit to a calming injection and lie down on a stretcher they’ve brought with them. I’m strapped down, and with no warning, I’m wheeled – rushed, it seems like – through the bowels of the Kingdom of Fun. All I see is unmarked hallways and overhead lights flickering past until they blend together into a smear of light. We take an endless elevator ride down – so very far down. I didn’t even know the Kingdom of Fun had sublevels this deep below the ground.
The sedative starts to take effect as they wheel me through an endless stretch of bare concrete hallway. I turn my head and see we’re passing by dozens of rooms honeycombed into the earth. Storage, it looks like. Dozens of foam-head suits in cold storage, hanging from the ceiling. At first, it’s all the familiar characters that I’ve loved and adored since childhood. Multiple copies of each costume.
But then in the depths of those shrouded rooms, I see characters I’ve never seen, never even heard of. A rat with spiral eyeballs. A googly-eyed plant with row after row of thorns and endless flytrap mouths. Something like a squid with adorable doe-eyes and a mouthful of glistening cartoon-tentacles idly twitching and twirling.
As I drift into unconsciousness, I finally feel calm. The Kingdom of Fun is going to take care of me. I just know it. I trust the Funventors. The Kingdom has faith in me, and I have faith in the Kingdom.
About the Author
Kevin Wabaunsee is a speculative fiction writer living in Chicago. He is a graduate of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop, and his fiction has previously appeared in Escape Pod, where he is also an associate editor. He is a Prairie Band Potawatomi. Find him on Twitter @lethophobe and at kevinwabaunsee.com.
About the Narrator
Voiced by John Bell, a former radio guy who has extensive experience in writing/voicing/producing commercials, audiobooks, video game characters, and so on. Currently, he writes/voices/produces the comedy podcast, “Bell’s in the Batfry“, available at iTunes, various other sources, and at http://thebatfry.com.