The Disneyfication of Edinburgh

By Mike Small

Gordon Robertson, chair of Marketing Edinburgh, elected by nobody, has called for the “Disneyfication of Edinburgh”. This is a process well under way.

As the conflict between highly paid and unelected individuals and the residents of a city (aka citizens) becomes more sharply defined – as the stakes of conflict move beyond just ‘culturally annoying’ to disruptive and undermining of key assets such as housing and open spaces – it’s worth defining some terms of the coming conflict.

What do we mean by Disneyfication?

“Disneyfication implies the internationalisation of the entertainment values of US mass culture. It is the idea of bigger, faster, and better entertainment with an overarching sense of uniformity worldwide….Disneyfication is regarded as spectacle, theming, hybrid consumption, and emotional labour.”

Lucy Wallwork writes: “Disneyfication has been used in some cases as a byword for gentrification, and complaints often focus on the ruthless impact of mass tourism, notably in central Amsterdam. However, more specifically Alan Bryman finds four different themes:

  • Theming — This is the familiar domain of Rainforest Cafes, with their anamatronic bird noises accompanying your break from a day of shopping at the megamall. or the penchant for heavily themed hotels on the Las Vegas strip.
  • Dedifferentiation of consumption — a fancy way of referring to the encroachment of consumption into spaces that serve another purpose. For example, the gift shop you are rerouted through on your way out of a theme park ride.
  • Merchandising — From pens to clothing, books and sweets, merchandising plays an increasing role in the branding of popular tourist cities like Berlin and London.
  • Emotional labor — This focuses on the people who occupy the themed environment. The scripted interactions and ever-smiling park employees, or big-box storehands whose cheerfulness distracts us from the fact we are probably being pitched a sale.

Several of these themes have serious implications for how we shape our cities.”

Anyone who has experienced the festival formally known as “Hogmanay” and now rebranded “We Love You” – a commercial enterprise wholly owned by Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam – will recognise the last strand of emotional labour, but the theming of Edinburgh’s city centre into domains: Harry Potter Land; the Old Bit; the New Posh Bit; and the Stag n Hen Bit will also be familiar to residents or visitors.

The Dedifferentiation of consumption is also conspicuous – note the ‘pop-up’ shops, stalls, markets and concerts which pockmark the city and proliferate at times of ‘festival’ (now approximately 362 days a year). The creation of ‘POPs (“privately owned public spaces’)  – Princes Street Gardens or St Andrew Square being transformed into commercial spaces is another example.

This process is magnified by the “festival” – an amorphous series of events of negligible cultural value, which has completely alienated large sections of the city’s population, but which has achieved a sort of iconic status as an unquestionable good to be built on forever and ever in an endless spiral of growth and within a finite urban space.Edinburgh as a theme-park is well established.

It is nominally ‘Scottish’ but in highly contrived way. It is ‘old’. It is a ‘party’ city. But this comes at a price.The commodification of public space and the endless profiteering far outweighs any culture experience.

This can only be achieved by displacement and this has happened rapidly though the massive growth of Air BnB and temporary accommodation and planning permission for hotels.

This process happens without scrutiny and without consultation.

The division of the city therefore happens at two levels, the quadrants of ‘Festival’ and the quadrants of ‘No Festival’ and within the former zones which are demarcated extra special.

In these zones you will find the high-status consumers of ‘Festival’ and the low-status providers of ‘Festival’.

Famously Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam’s Underbelly festival, with tickets costing £26 per head, was looking-out for unpaid staff to host, supervise, and dance at the event.

Etonians Bartlam & Wood are the directors of Underbelly which boasts on its own website that its festival reach goes way-beyond Edinburgh, Underbelly: “also produces Edinburgh’s Christmas, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, Christmas in Leicester Square, Udderbelly Festival in Hong Kong, West End Live in Trafalgar Square and Pride in London for Westminster City Council”.

It used to be that these demographics could be separated simply by cultural codes and understanding, though increasingly they require physical barriers in streets and parks and squares.

Robertson says: “Having been in Disney this year with my family, I’m not so sure Disneyfication is a bad thing? At least they’ve invested in their sites, they have a plan, it provides thousands of jobs, their well-trained staff provide a fantastic experience and they’re extremely profitable which is used to invest back into the product.”This is a city, nominally your city he’s describing.

It’s not a product.

He goes on: “Those that rail against disneyfication and are generally down on Edinburgh’s increasing popularity seem to want us not to develop, to be preserved in aspic. Look — none of us want to live in a theme park, but I think that with a better conversation and smarter thinking we can decide on the right balance.”

It’s a quaint idea that “we can decide on the right balance”. I wonder what the mechanism for that might be?

As Sean Bradley, a long term resident of the Old Town and Director of the Old Town Community Trust has put it:

“I don’t know if Mr Robertson realises it but the Disneyland he visited with his family is not a real place. Nobody lives there – is that what he wants for Edinburgh? The Disney effect makes every place ‘familiar and comforting’ to the traveller to make them feel at home (and encourage them to spend money), hence the sameness of every pace. You just could not live there!”

“The other thing Disney does is to take culturally significant stories from all over the globe and trivialise them for cheap sentiment and big profit. What the films do is replicated by Hogmanay becoming a spectacle rather than a festive event run by a community. Burns night is going the same way. The implications of both of these is the erosion of community life, of an engaged and creative citizenship, and of rewarding work. Not to speak of the havoc wreaked on the environment.’

This conception of a city of half a million people, the Athens of the North or the in Reykjavík of the South (take your pick), with human habitation dating back to the Mesolithic era of c.8500 BC, where at some point before the 7th century AD, the Gododdin, presumed descendants of the Votadini, built a hillfort known as Din Eidyn or Etin, the city of Enlightenment as ‘a product’ is telling. A city that brought you the Boards of Canada, Jenny Geddes and the Blue Blanket isn’t a product.

This banal unthinking devotion to growth at all costs isn’t unique to our tourist Tsars, though it’s the bedrock of our failing economy.

In this exchange Councillor Osler, in conversation with Gordon Dewar of Edinburgh Airport agrees that it’s: “Very dangerous to suggest growth, tourism or development is bad”.

Yes it is.

The goal – and it is a specific goal of a specific strategy – is not just growth, but growth to a very specific market. “Middle-east market will only go to six-star hotels” they say.

Some of this stems from the city’s own confusion.

As Jim Johnson (former director of the Edinburgh Old Town Renewal Trust) has written: “Edinburgh has a confused conception of itself. Is the city to be the cultural icon that some aspire to, its architectural beauty and historic associations reinforced by the reputation of its International and other festivals? In which case what of the total disregard for the fate of the Carnegie endowed Central Library at the cultural heart of the city? Planning approval has been given for a 250 bed hotel linking India Buildings in Victoria St. to the Cowgate, with a nine storey bedroom block obscuring the light and views from the library, and the hotel occupying a site earmarked for many years for library expansion.”

He continues:

“Or should Edinburgh be primarily a working city; the seat of government, the national centre for law and religion, together with financial services and local administration? In which case it needs a clearer and more efficient transport system, not medieval roads clogged by service traffic and slow moving tourist buses – and a retail and service sector to support such functions not a plethora of tourist shops.”
“Or is the city to be a down-market tourist catch-all, supplied with budget hotels, tacky Christmas and Hogmanay events, and extremely lax licensing regulations? This is a known pitfall for some other European historic cities such as Prague where historic and cultural attractions are threatened by fly-in stag and hen parties and a kind of day-tripper atmosphere. Certainly Edinburgh falls into that category not only during its ever growing number of festivals: the drift down market is well established and will be difficult to reverse.”

The City as Product

The process of Disnyefication of Scotland’s capital city is enhanced by its location within a country already suffering from Brigadoonism and advanced self-colonisation. Disneyfied Edinburgh happens in the country of the See You Jimmy Hat.

Wallwork again writes: “At the heart of peoples’ discomfort with this wave of sugar-coated artificiality washing over our cities is that sense that the predictability it engenders goes against the grain of what it means to live in a city — great cities are inherently unpredictable.”

There is something perverse about the cultural tourists experience being hollowed-out, commodified, tamed and re-directed. The emptiness of late-capitalist cultural voyeurism is only mitigated by the realisation that the experience is so superficial it doesn’t really matter. Actual culture happens in a different space, in a different city. What matters is the social impact of over tourism

There’s a few myths needing dispelled.

The first is that cultural tourism isn’t really tourism.

The second is that the ‘growth’ the city is experiencing is just (somehow) inevitable.

The third is that we are all beneficiaries somehow.

The fourth is that there is no alternative – “What are you going to do”?

The fifth is that the festival is ours.

Of them all the fourth is perhaps the most pernicious.

This is a strain that runs through Scottish society. Again and again the model we cling to is one that benefits a tiny proportion of people, yet to question those models is to achieve pariah status despite overwhelming evidence that they fail. We find our salmon are infested with lice, yet we use it to as the champion of our Food and Drink Fortnight. We know that oil is part of a fossil fuel industry that is a declining resource that is destroying our planet, yet we cling to is as if it was our salvation. We hold huge tracks of land for hunting and shooting for a tiny percentage of people and think to do anything other would lead to the apocalypse. Some of this is deference. Some of this is milking a cash cow. Some of this is just unthinking.

But the irony is that the people who are preserving the city and the country ‘in aspic’ are the ones who can’t innovate and who rail against any criticism.

A City for Citizens

How could we do things differently?

We could shift the focus of the city to other forms of employment other than temporary, low-paid service economy.

We could respond to the climate crisis by creating a cultural strategy and a de-growth strategy that has some awareness of this and replace a sense of complacency with a sense of urgency.

Anna Pollock suggests:

“Despite the slow but steady increase in the number of enterprises claiming to be responsible or green, the fact remains that the current system of mass international tourism is utterly unsustainable.”

[Gordon Robertson is also the Director of Communications of Edinburgh Airport]

We could create a festival which encourages participation by people from across the whole city and from other parts of Scotland.

We could create a radical plan of public housing and acknowledges the detrimental impact of over-tourism.

The comfortable who run the city are mistaken if they think that the model they present can be defended with their contempt alone and that their lack of accountability is a permanent state of affairs.

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