Ferdinand Magellan Circumnavigates Disneyland and Las Vegas: World Possession Made Easy

October, 2020
Wenying Wu, Blog Correspondent

Anno Domini 1522: Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s Victoria returns to harbour in Spain after circumnavigating the globe, tying up the world with a golden girdle—which is a necklace, which is a collar, which is a garotte. Magellan himself had so famously expired many months ago on the island of Mactan in the Philippines—speared to death like a fish, by all accounts—but, alas, the flat-earth, anti-Cartographic forces of the universe were too late. Magellan’s will be done: the globe is complete.

Oh, but that was the little ship that could! In his dying moments, could Magellan have imagined the fruits of his labours? That the world, measured and consumed as a whole by human experience, would become bereft of absolute distance? In the words of political theorist Hannah Arendt, “The explorers of yore sought to expand the Earth, not shrink it.”[1] But the shrinking became an inevitable consequence, as they also sought to stake a claim. After all, weren’t the first surveyors discovering the limits of their own territories—and Magellan himself exploring the limits of the conquerable world[2]? Is that desire for ownership really compatible with world-expansion? Doesn’t possession always lead to some dissatisfaction, some sense of smallness?

But let us return to Magellan’s expiry date. Imagine something like this: injured in battle, by the islanders that he sought to conquer, sought to place under the Christian heaven’s hot eye—here arrives Magellan’s implacable appointment with fate, but death be not hasty! Perhaps, if we are allowed to imagine, to extrapolate, Magellan sees in his delirious death vision the final encapsulation of the Ownership the Globe—World Possession—in its infinite ambition: a glittering forest of piercing lights carving out alien-stelar-monolithic signifiers, all coalescing into the final image of a blinding sign which, if only he could read English—for he was born in the wrong century, wrong country, wrong life entire—he would understand this grandeur, this proclamation (and then he dies, never to decipher that auspicious signage)—

Welcome to Las Vegas.”

In Magellan’s day, circumnavigating the globe was an ambition for a very narrow section of the population. In these modern times, planes, trains, and automobiles connect every corner of the world—or, at least, the corners desirable for consumption. In our consumer society, by the very fact that a vacation can be purchased, travel has become the possession of experiences. But with primacy of the 40-hour-or-more week of the modern workplace, rapid consumption is the key. There are so many wonderful, essential travel experiences on our planet, but so little time! Visit as many global landmarks as possible, consume the experience of destinations, and this consumption will enhance and improve the person. Every vacation experience adds another element to the corpus of self.

Popular forms of travel seem to have all the markings of these motivations. Around-the-world cruises attempt to curate a single global path, essentially devising their own Global Locational Canon. Instagram influencers go to the most photogenic locations to enhance their public image, cultivating the sophistication of the well-traveled. Tour groups rapidly travel across continents to check off all of the must-see locales. Travel for pleasure is such a prevalent habit of the modern consumer that even now, in the midst of a global pandemic, we see people itching with wanderlust. Forget conquering, forget empire-building! Vacation constitutes the modern form of World Possession—and a form democratized! It isn’t quite as glamourous as Magellan’s global trek, but the world has already been measured and mapped. All we can do now is see it with our own eyes.

Though the modern world presents many disappointments, one promise it fulfils is the abolishment of nobility. Kings and queens still exist in certain pockets as relics, cultural heritage, but no longer are most societies organized upon the principle of the unattainable royal caste. What the modern world offers in its stead is the upper echelon of wealth—a level that, supposedly, all can reach. While material equality is far from the reality of the West (and neither is equality of opportunity), a certain equality of dreaming exists. The consumerist society doesn’t democratize dreaming by diminishing it to practical attainability—dreams of affordability, dreams of living wages, etcetera. Instead, all dreams at all levels of ambition are labelled attainable. All dreams are, to some extent, for sale. And dreams, of course, are possessed as they are consumed. World Possession—once the realm of kings, queens, and their Magellan proxies—has been democratized with the world itself. This does not mean that ordinary fellows have been elevated to the nobility of royalty; the dream of World Possession is simply no longer so high a calling that only few may dare it. Anyone can dream.  

But it isn’t so easy, really. Travel’s requirement of freedom from labour is something you must purchase. After all, earning your survival in cold hard cash takes so much time away from vacation, and the plane tickets are another extra expense. Money and money alone is necessary to purchase the time and resources that would allow one to engage with the world as a personal pleasure barge. But therein lies the problem with the equality of dreaming: God, who has the money, in this economy?

Here, we arrive at Magellan’s death vision. For what is Las Vegas but the fastest and most convenient avenue of World Possession, centred upon a literal avenue as well? More importantly than anything else, it’s cheap; just ask all the airline-hotel hybrid ads populating your favourite websites. (If you didn’t know, many airlines collaborate with Vegas hotels to offer cheap package deals.) Take a look down the Las Vegas strip; you can experience the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the indoor canals and gondolas of the Venetian, the ancient pyramid and sphinx of Luxor, the Manhattan skyline of New York-New York, the Polynesian volcano of the Mirage, and more—and all without leaving the ZIP code! Oh Paradise[1], oh Las Vegas! It contracts the distance between the monuments of the world and gathers the marvels of the globe into a single boulevard. For a middle-class American family, Las Vegas is their shortcut to the World Possession dream. In that single place, and in a single trip, all the world is at one’s fingertips. It’s no coincidence that Las Vegas’ synopsis of the geographic dream exists simultaneously with its offering of the wealth dream. Both are fantasies of luxury. The perfect poker hand, the perfect game of blackjack, and the perfect slot machine pull—all these could win you freedom from worry and from labour. 

            But Las Vegas isn’t simply a pure distillation of the world’s flavours. There is a ridiculousness in all its promises, in the exaggerated glamour of the glaring neon lights and bloated cash dreams. Las Vegas tries so desperately to convince its visitors of its own cosmopolitan extravagance (see: The Cosmopolitan hotel) that the very desperation reveals its hollowness, and a sense of inferiority. It’s absolutely caked with make-up, which looks fine on-stage, but up close and personal? You can see the cracks. We all know how gamblers lose, and it only takes depth perception to realize the summery Adriatic sky of the Venetian hotel’s canals are only painted concrete. 

            Illusion sells, and while Las Vegas has perfected the art of bombastic illusion, another vacation destination has mastered the technical aspects. Welcome to Disneyland! Main Street USA, the Matterhorn, Cinderella’s Castle—all manner of Disneyland Attraction uses illusion to trick the viewer into believing the monumentality of Disneyland’s structures. Disney Imagineeers masterfully employ forced perspective, an optical illusion that makes certain objects seem further away than they are in reality, to make the shining towers of Cinderella’s Castle stand so much higher. Forced perspective isn’t Disneyland’s only trick. The authenticity of its various lands is preserved by building sightlines within each land that obscures the incongruous spires of the outer Disney realms. In the newest realm of all, Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, the futuristic towers encircle the visitor in high-tech space—in a galaxy far, far away; no Other disrupts the pure space experience. Perhaps Disney enhances the scope of World Possession, redefining the frontiers of what can or cannot be owned. Even space can be yours. Even magic can be yours. Disneyland is about immersion, about persuasion. Let them sell the fantasy, let them convince you that you can possess Earth and beyond.

            But why overanalyze it? Isn’t Disneyland, unlike Las Vegas’s Sin City, all just innocent fun? Yet Las Vegas and Disneyland both encapsulate the modern world-image. In the distortion that their abridged World Possession creates, the very conception of the world is shrunken and diminished to fit the schedule of the working man. Obliterated are distances in-between the landmarks that house so many of the world’s hidden treasures. Obliterated is the delicacy and subtlety of the world, sacrificed to altars of consumer-friendly neon lights. Obliterated also is difference. All of Las Vegas feels the same, with the same lightshows and the same sensory bombardment. Paris, New York, Luxor all form the same Vegas skyline. Although Luxor is Egypt and the Venetian is Italy, the gaudiness and distorted scale create a shared Las Vegas aesthetic. After all, even with eclectic sources of inspiration, the underlying architectural philosophy of exaggerated luxury creates uniformity. Why should the world ever be possessed, ever be truly experienced? Though mankind populates the world and believes itself to know the world, why should the world be seen with anything other than endless wonder and incomprehension? The most ambitious illusion Las Vegas perpetuates is the illusion that World Possession is a possibility at all.

Perhaps ‘golden girdle’ isn’t the most fitting phrase for the feat of circumnavigation. Common Era 1522, Ferdinand Magellan’s ship returns to harbour, tying up the world with the last ribbon bow on a golden gift wrap, like when you pull a sun-dappled spiderweb spread over on dewy branches—when you pull its silvery lines into a dull, tangled hairball of thread. Voilà, my friends, here is the world—hold her, cherish her, and swallow her whole!


[1] In the prologue of her book, The Human Condition (1958) 

[2]Specifically, the expedition aimed to discover a Western route for the spice trade.

[3] Paradise is the town the Las Vegas strip technically belongs to, as a result of a municipal-tax-avoidance scheme.

The consumerist society doesn’t democratize dreaming by diminishing it to practical attainability—dreams of affordability, dreams of living wages, etcetera. Instead, all dreams at all levels of ambition are labelled attainable. All dreams are, to some extent, for sale. And dreams, of course, are possessed as they are consumed.

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