Sweat dripped off my face as I walked through Disney World last week with my family on one of the hottest days of a humid Florida summer. We were visiting Epcot, the park themed around multiculturalism and a utopian future, and while the food and rides had been great, at that point we all just desperately wanted to be somewhere that had AC. We gratefully dragged our limp and overheated bodies through the door of the nearest show, which happened to be the American Adventure theater — and found ourselves watching a performance that seemed to belong to another era.
The American Adventure, a show that has changed little since its inception in 1982, uses 35 Animatronix figures and an enormous 72-foot screen in a stately colonial-style theater to tell the story of America’s struggles and triumphs. “Feel the spirit that propelled America to greatness in an inspiring retelling of our nation’s history,” its description invites visitors.
Once comfortably seated in the audience, “The Spirits of America” that surrounded us — 12 marble statues emblazoned at their bases with qualities like adventure (a fisherman), compassion (a doctor), self-reliance (a farmer), and freedom (a pilgrim) — provided a hint of what was to come.
Mark Twain’s dialogue with Benjamin Franklin as they sit comfortably in a dated living room formed the endearingly old-fashioned narrative framework for the story: “This nation’s still just a youngster, don’tcha know?” Twain muses. “Why, some countries have been around for 50 centuries. We’re, uh, barely into our third.” Franklin replies, “That’s true, but look what we’ve accomplished in that tiny span of time!”
And indeed, even in 28 short minutes, the show manages to remind viewers of the incredible scope of challenges that the U.S. weathered to become what it is today, starting with its humble beginning on “the Mayflower, carrying pilgrims in search of their dream, a dream of religious freedom.”
America’s growing conflict with Britain is the first major difficulty the colonists face. “First we spoke out with our voices, then we spoke out with action…. Finally, the time had come to speak with one voice, in a Declaration of Independence,” Franklin explains. But this was not to be a document justifying an emotional revolution founded on abstract French philosophy. As Franklin notes while drafting it, “it is difficult to make 13 clocks chime at the same time, but we must carefully justify the separation.”
Soldiers fighting valiantly under General Washington for their new country fill the stage next, gaining victory in the Battle of Valley Forge in the face of almost certain defeat. “In the end, ‘we the people’ prevailed and achieved perhaps our greatest dream,” Franklin declares. “Thirteen very different colonies became the United States of America, and we were free to become an entire nation of dreamers and doers.”
While celebrating America’s remarkable achievements, the performance doesn’t shy away from the dark spots in America’s history. As Twain remarks, “We still had some things to learn the hard way. It seems a whole bunch of folks found out ‘we the people’ didn’t yet mean all the people.”
Frederick Douglas gives an impassioned speech and the violence of the Civil War plays out across the screen. The surrender of Chief Joseph is portrayed as a result of bloody conflict between whites and native Americans. And Susan B. Anthony speaks out for female suffrage, proclaiming, “Woman has shown equal devotion with man to the cause of freedom. Together, they have made this country what it is.”
All of these are part of what Franklin calls the “long painful journey through the frontiers of human liberty,” in a story of a fight marked by determination and grit to achieve and protect America’s founding principles for all people.
Racing towards the finish, the show bounces through some of the most momentous moments in America’s history: the inventions of Thomas Edison, industrialization, the steam engine, planes.
The young nation manages to survive and even provide global leadership through two world wars.
We hear the Apollo 11 radio crackle when man first touched the moon: “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” and we feel the depth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s emotion as he exhorts his nation, “I have a dream this afternoon, that the brotherhood of man will become a reality in this day, with this faith.”
And finally, Franklin’s humorous yet hopeful pronouncement: “I may have invented these bifocals I’m wearing, but I can assure they are not rose-colored. Mr. Twain, the golden age never was the present age, but with human liberty we can fulfill the promise and meaning of America…. to all people regardless of their birth, a right to live, to work, to be themselves, and to become whatever their visions can combine to make them. This is the promise of America!”
As the show came to an end that hot July day, the sun setting behind a faux Statue of Liberty, the auditorium filled with thunderous applause. And let me tell you, this was not the polite golf-clap of tired tourists who have already seen two shows too many. This was the heart-deep enthusiasm of hundreds of Americans who had been gifted anew with a sense of pride in their home and love for their country, even amidst its failings.
In an era when even those who represent our nation to the rest of the world are turning from the flag and spewing hatred for the U.S., the show reminded us of the remarkable things that our nation has accomplished in its short 245 years and how far it has come in overcoming injustice and oppression.
I have my doubts as to how long the show will last at Epcot. Disney has already shown their willingness to capitulate to woke ideology in a number of ways, and the show certainly doesn’t fit the New York Times 1619 Project’s narrative. Affirming that America has done great things and is a unique country despite its flaws simply isn’t popular these days.
But for however long Disney does let the show stick around, I will be more than willing to brave the heat when I return to be inspired and reminded anew to live with gratitude for the country I call home. As the bold, golden letters emblazoned on the roof’s beams declared as I walked out with my family,
Spread your golden wings
Sail on Freedom’s wind
Cross the sky.