A woman in her 20s collapses on the floor, and in that moment the spell of the club is broken. She looks terrible. Her eyes have rolled back, and her mouth hangs limply open. Those in the vicinity look shocked as two, visibly shaken male friends grasp her under the shoulders and drag her limp body off the dance floor. As she disappears into the crowd, the group around me shake off their concern, turn to face the DJ and start dancing again. Out of sight and out of mind, the bubble is restored.
“What the hell has Disneyland got to do with taking drugs in Ibiza?” is a question I’ve been asked many times over the last few years. As an ethnographic researcher exploring drug use and dealing amongst British tourists in the wild zones of ‘the white isle’, the idea came to me in the first of three summers I spent time there.
Whether I was caught up in the chaos of San Antonio’s West End, watching the sunset by Café Mambo, or watching dealers weave between sunbeds of a cacophonic beach party on Bora Bora, I was guaranteed an endless, dazzling array of sights there that equal-parts spectacular and bizarre.
In Ibiza – the gloriously hedonistic jewel of the Balearic archipelago – the usual parameters and mundane restrictions of normal life disappear as the plane touches down on the asphalt. And the more immersed I became in this upside-down world, the stronger the sense that I’d been dropped into some kind of surreal carnival – an adult-only ‘drug theme park’.
So, in quieter moments of poolside reflection, I began to dwell on two questions. Firstly, what marketing techniques are used by Disneyland – the ultimate theme park – to subconsciously coerce guests into over-spending? And secondly, if Ibiza feels like a theme park, is it possible these same marketing techniques drive the near-industrial levels of illegal drug use that I was witnessing? And so, amidst techno and trance, I read Alan Bryman’s seminal book The Disneyization of Society (2004) and the chaos around me slowly made more sense.
Disney’s influence on society
Bryman’s influential book explains how the marketing techniques behind Disney’s magic have been copied by a plethora of consumer settings – from daunting mega-malls to theme bars based on everything from Breaking Bad to Peaky Blinders – and hundreds of other copy-cat theme parks. Such Disneyized settings engage three highly successful marketing strategies – theming; hybrid-consumption; and performative labour – to encourage guests to spend money on memorable, wraparound experiences.
In comparison to theme bars and mega-malls, the ’Ibiza Experience’ is for many young tourists defined by atypical intoxication – those I met described the untold pleasures and hidden dangers of a place where it felt ‘normal’ to try drugs for the first time, increase usual dosages, take drugs more frequently, and in more harmful combinations. While numerous drug researchers and journalists have ascribed this to tired narratives of ‘rampaging Brits abroad’ – my research tried to capture the world through the eyes of those partying hard on the island. How then, does the synergy of these three Disney marketing strategies distort tourists’ regular patterns of drug use so rapidly, and so dramatically?
Theming has become such an embedded part of our consumer experience that we hardly notice it. However, it was Walt Disney’s desire to create deeply immersive, memorable experiences that saw the birth of theming as a marketing tool. As guests pass through the gates of the Magic Kingdom, they are plunged into strongly themed spaces such as Adventureland and Tomorrowland. These are defined by carefully choreographed thematic costumes, buildings, food, music, rides, and gifts. As for Ibiza, the island is themed around drug and alcohol-fuelled hedonism, escape, dance, and wild excess. And this theme was consistently threaded in tourists’ narratives.
Ibiza is all about the drugs. Drugs and raving. Some places are about pulling women. I don’t think Ibiza is about that, people are here for the drugs and the music. (George, tourist)
The lads asked me about it back home, and I tell them the truth, you come to Ibiza for the music and the drugs. (Ben, tourist)
Hybrid Consumption, the second marketing technique, describes how Disney Parks weave together multiple, disparate forms of consumer goods into one space, blurring any distinction between them. Wander around any contemporary theme park and feel the cash run through your fingers as you buy snacks, lunches, photographs, and tacky merchandise you would never buy elsewhere. In Ibiza, this Disneyized strategy means that the line between alcohol and drugs like ecstasy and ketamine is blurred to the point of collapse. In the islands’ party zones, this means it feels normal to buy drugs, take, share, and sell them. This means that, for many tourists, “regular” patterns of drug use are rapidly distorted. Sights of hyper-intoxication, like below, are just part of the everyday rhythm.
We’ve been doing pills and ketamine every day. I mean it’s not healthy like; it can’t be good having it every single day. I’d never have more than one pill back home. Over here, the first night, I think I had four. That’s the most I’ve ever had, four or five. (Jed, tourist)
One of the mates I’m with is clean living at home, goes down the gym and all that. He took three pills yesterday afternoon, just sat by the pool. (Rob, tourist)
In addition to tourists, I spent many hours hanging with a tightknit group of British seasonal workers around San Antonio’s bars. Walt Disney was ahead of his time when it came to labour: all Disney employees are defined as ‘cast members’, whether front stage in costumes, or backstage flipping burgers. This Performative Labour is now a major feature of the consumer world. In Ibiza, British seasonal workers – bartenders, dancers, and ticket sellers – were active performing members of the Ibiza scene, placing them centre-stage of the drug market. Consequently, many of the workers I got to know used very high levels of ecstasy, ketamine, and cocaine over entire summer seasons. As Nick (bartender and drug dealer) said: “how many workers use drugs? All of us! Well, at least 90%”.
In contrast to their tourist counterparts, these young seasonal workers were also pivotal members of the drug market, with many selling ecstasy, MDMA, ketamine, and cocaine to tourists to supplement meagre wages in the legal economy. As Kelly, a young bartender from Manchester, told me: “my friends here haven’t got jobs, they just sell drugs”. This widespread ambivalence to drug dealing is exemplified by Nick, a happy-go-lucky 23-year-old from London, in his third season on the island.
Late afternoon and I meet Nick for a drink before he starts work. Before we find a bar, he says he needs to meet a British tourist to sell some pills. He’s carrying 50 rock-stars [ecstasy pills], with half stashed in a take-away Coca-Cola cup and half in an empty cigarette packet. Although carrying this quantity could land Nick in a Spanish prison for 4 years, he seems relaxed and in good humour. As we talk, he sees his man, a British lad in his early 20s, and shakes him by the hand. After a brief conversation, Nick passes him the paper cup and then the cigarette packet, and we say goodbye. A few minutes later, sitting in the sun with a couple of beers, Nick takes a sip and tells me he’s just made €250.
Whether it’s the oceanic super-club dance floors of Ibiza, or the rain-soaked, early-hours surrealism of Shangri-La at Glastonbury, many of us are pulled into punctuating everyday routines with periods of hedonistic, carnivalesque escape. When we cross the threshold of these upside-down worlds, the usual parameters of life are stripped away. And for many young people, atypical illicit drug use is an integral, or even central, part of this experience.
This research breaks open the experience of the ultimate party zone, Ibiza, through the eyes of those involved and shows how atypical patterns of drug use and dealing are wrapped up in a complex interplay between agency, pleasure, risk, and situated meaning. While researchers have often overlooked the relationship between drugs and social context, this research demonstrates that the backdrop to drug use is crucial to the experience.
This article is a brief summary of my book, out this year: Disneyization of Drug Use: Understanding Atypical Intoxication in Party Zones. You can buy it on Routledge.