How Far Behind is the US in General, and Disney in Particular?

Culture Shock

With apparently ever-increasing globalisation most of us have an expectation that we can travel to other Western countries and find facilities and a culture similar to our own – after all, a McDonald’s Big Mac bought in Paris is recognisably the same as one from New York.

Occasionally, though, we find things to be suddenly different from what we expect. The difference is marked because it is not just a different food or architecture. It is marked – a culture shock – because it arises from very different assumptions about how a culture should be. I had such a feeling twenty-five years ago when, as a member of the British armed forces, I moved into married quarters in Germany. For the first time ever I encountered a culture with sustainability as a core value – we found recycling facilities all along our street, and were given full instructions on how to recycle our waste as part of moving in.

Such an approach was entirely absent in the UK, there we were still wondering whether we should consider starting to recycle some waste, and so returning to the UK felt like going back in time. Of course, since then the UK has caught up, at least to a large extent. For example, there are weekly collections of plastic and metal/can containers, of paper and cardboard, of glass, and of food waste, plus fortnightly collections of garden waste.

I write this as I approach the end of a vacation in Disney World and Florida, having experienced another such step back in time. Things are so far behind here it has been another culture shock. We last visited twenty-five years ago and it seems that the culture in general and Disney World in particular are virtually unchanged over that time.

Conspicuous Consumption and Pollution

It began with our accommodation – a lovely rented villa in a community estate in Davenport, half an hour outside Orlando. It’s huge and well-appointed with a very nice small pool and patio. However, it feels like living in a ‘consumption machine’. I write this in the open-plan kitchen/lounge area. Behind me upstairs the air conditioning system rattles away providing welcome cooling throughout the house – but it seems to be on permanently, 24/7, set to a temperature of 76°F (24°C). The energy consumption must be enormous, but its controls are locked away so we don’t have the choice to turn it off and save energy.

Behind me just outside the wall is the monstrous pump and filter system for the pool, whirring away. In front of me is a massive fridge which almost never goes quiet. Later today we’ll have men coming round making noise along the road (strimmers, leaf blowers, etc.). This evening we’ll have the sprinklers coming on to disturb our sleep. Not just carbon pollution, but noise pollution seems to be an accepted part of life here.

Even the cars of our neighbours coming and going seem inordinately loud, and why must they beep their horns every time they lock the doors? Everything is just so noisy (in this house we even watch TV in the same large living space as the dishwasher, washing machine and tumble dryer). The whole concept of noise pollution seems alien here, as though it were something to be embraced rather than avoided. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to try and get some peace and quiet. Yet in the UK people put a premium on quietness whether it’s buying a quiet car (such as an electric) or a house in the country – here the preference seems to be for cars and houses that are as big and noisy as possible.

The big irony, of course, is that the massive carbon footprint of this house is entirely unnecessary. A big chunk of it is for air conditioning because of the powerful sunshine here, yet it is precisely that excess of solar power that could be powering the house with solar energy for free. Instead, it is using fossil fuels and their associated carbon emissions to try and offset the energy being dissipated on the roof. I’ve only seen one house in the area with solar panels, and I noticed that precisely because it was an isolated example in a sea of blank rooftops.

Part of that irony is that we have solar panels on our home in England, even though we are at a much higher latitude than Florida and so get correspondingly less solar energy. Nonetheless, even with our supposedly cloudy and rainy climate the panels produce more than half the energy used by the house over the course of a year. In Florida a similar setup could potentially power the entire house, and with some left over going into the grid to reduce its overall footprint, or used to fuel an electric car.

It was good to see that our housing estate had a weekly recycling collection, even if it was just a mixed box (and many of our neighbours’ wheelie bins were overflowing with cardboard boxes and other items that could have gone in recycling).

No Leadership From Disney

So on to Disney. Over the last two weeks we have visited Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studio and Animal Kingdom twice each, and Epcot and the Typhoon Lagoon water park once each. We had a good time on the roller-coaster and other rides, and at the various shows. However, it felt like very little had changed in the last quarter century.

A tram with its diesel exhaust just a few feet from waiting passengers (Image: T. Larkum)

After parking up we were transferred to the park entrances via vehicles referred to as ‘trams’. While in Europe that name implies electric trolley buses, and given their workload and fixed routes these vehicles could have been electric, it was immediately obvious they were not. You didn’t have to get very close to them to hear the roar and smell the nauseous and toxic fumes that gave away that they were powered by massive diesel engines. And this, in the 21st century, and with half the passengers being young children.

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    Trevor Larkum

    Culture Shock With apparently ever-increasing globalisation most of us have an expectation that we can travel to other Western countries and find faci
    [See the full post at: How Far Behind is the US in General, and Disney in Particular?]



    We had a similar experience some years ago. Our son was working in Nashville and his daughter attended the local school and almost all the children were delivered to and collected from school in massive SUV’s and RV’s etc, plus the famous yellow school buses, all mostly diesel, engines running with aircons blasting away, forming long lines (queues) as they waited. Our son lived close to to the school so our granddaughter and other local children were able to walk to school, but had to “run the gauntlet” of all the fumes and noise from the vehicles.
    I guess things haven’t changed much although EV ownership is increasing I understand.



    I think that you can put this down to the influence in government of big oil in the USA and to a lesser extent of big coal in Australia.

    Our relatives in oz are amazed at the extremely slow uptake of renewable energy production in one of the most sun drenched countries on the planet and that a large portion of the nations electricity is produced in coal fired power stations!

    just imagine if Australia left the coal in the ground and turned a minute section of the infinite outback to solar power generation?

    The Aussies could supply the domestic market with cheap electricity ten times over and keep the lights burning in most of south east Asia!

    And yes my expat Brummie sister in-law’s house is about the only house to have solar panels on the roof in her Adelaide street.

    Correct me if I am wrong but It is interesting to note that the USA and Australia are the only two nations on the
    planet that decided not to ratify the Kyoto agreement, I wonder why and one can only hope that things change 😉



    It seems like many Americans still think, for whatever reason, that using less will impact their way of life in a negative way. And it seems almost impossible to have them understand that there are ways to not be wasteful and still lead the same life.

    I too have always been amazed at the amount of waste going on over there. They just do things way less efficient without better results.

    When I go there, I usually go shopping at Whole Foods as they are slightly greener and sell mostly (not only) organic. You still have to pay attention though as they do carry some products that don’t fit their image.
    They also have a salad bar with a large variety of options (not only salads but also prepared pastas and stuff) so for a quick bite with good vegetarian options we went there regularly.

    As for places to eat, as vegetarians we usually stuck to Italian and Indian restaurants as the American ones seem to find ways to include meat in EVERYTHING, including blueberry muffins and ice cream. Ugh.
    We once went to the Waffle House as we where doing a long drive and there where no other options in the small town we passed by. They had 3 non meat containing waffles on the menu, most items on the menu where burgers and steak. Weird, for something called the Waffle House, no?

    Anyway, fascinating country, love to travel there, but I wouldn’t want to live there.


    Trevor Larkum

    Thanks for the comments, guys! If you want to add a comment to the original article (it looks like no-one’s prepared to be first!) it’s here:

    That might start an interesting discussion.



    Good article, if a little long,I live in the Kingdom of Mourne, S.Down, beautiful clean air, rolling hills, red kites,etc Why won’t the TransLink bus company ask their drivers to switch off the massive diesel while they sit for ages in the depot?
    On a more serious note relating to th American experience, Bing sings, but Walt Disney. (Sorry Trevor)



    I did the same Disney trip this year in July, also staying in Davenport. Was your Appebees the same one next to IHOP, near to Publix in Davenport?
    We had a great time there for the whole two weeks, but could not help noticing, just like yourself, the lack of renewables there. Our villa was the same as yours, everything on 24/7. With so much sun there you would expect to see solar panels on every roof.
    My observations were that the reason they have not taken off is because energy is so cheap there in comparison. My medium sized hire car (large by UK standards) cost me $17 to fill. I think the Americans get and expect to get cheap energy, and as long as that happens they will not bother to look at cost saving renewables.
    All the same, Disney and Orlando was a wickedly great place!


    Trevor Larkum

    Good article, if a little long,

    Fair enough – I just felt I had to get it off my chest!

    Was your Appebees the same one next to IHOP, near to Publix in Davenport?

    Actually it was – did you have a better experience there?



    Yes, we used that Applebees about four times and found the food really good each time, although one of the evenings we hit it at busy time and had to wait about half an hour.
    As for the IHOP we had 13 out of 14 of our breakfasts there and got on first name terms with the staff. Thankfully due to the heat and exercise i am not about four stone heavier, in fact lost two pounds whilst i was there…….still not able to work that one out.
    Great article, it took my mind back to our trip whilst reading it



    Perhaps the US, made a little mistake halving the mains voltage, hence doubling the current, and using twice the amount of copper? I noticed on several visits the appearance of 230v sockets for high inductive loads.Not to mention 60 hz.Anyone seen Nikola Tesla?

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