Walt Disney World is back in the culture wars news this week, thanks to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ appointment of a new board, packed with his ideological allies, to oversee the infrastructure of Disney’s real estate empire in the state.
I happen to be now a certified Disney expert, as my wife and I recently took our kids there for the first time, and let me tell you, there’s a lot to say about the place.
Our several days there were intense enough that I could write several columns about the experience, but I’ll just try to cram some ideas into this one, the same way I put my kids on roller coaster cars and watched them sprint away.
First, to get the explicit culture war material out of the way: to delve deep into the temples of Disney’s imagination is to feel the irrelevance of any merely political attack on its cultural position.
DeSantis’ conflict with Disney is very important for the future of corporate engagement in politics, which had been trending in a culturally progressive direction and for a while seemed capable of trampling even Republican governors, but seems to have reached the limits of its influence in the Florida.
Even if the newly appointed DeSantis board imagines it will leverage, say, a race to combat social conscience in cartoons, the way ideology often manifests itself in Disney content just doesn’t seem amenable to that kind of censorship pressure.
I recently wrote that Greater Consciousness has arguably had more influence on children’s entertainment — Disney included, of course — than it has on other aspects of pop culture. But that influence usually doesn’t take the form of overt political propaganda, because the entire Disney enterprise is a vast sublimation machine, where whatever values seem enlightened at a given juncture (Roosevelt-era liberal, 1990s liberal, “woke”) they are steeped in fairytale structures in ways that are not explicitly political, and precisely because of this they are more powerful.
To the extent that a Disney production manifests the kind of obvious and literal progressive message that could make some Republican official outraged, it fails by Mickey’s own standards and is destined for obsolescence no matter what.
What survives to stick in the Disney canon needs to be deeply in tune with its vast, bipartisan audience, even when there’s some sort of underlying ideological vision. Politics is welcome in the temple, but never naked or open, never crudely – only dressed like a princess and filtered through the lyrics of Howard Ashman or Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Now let’s talk about the temple itself, linking the Disney experience to three of my familiar themes. First, a comment on Disney World and decay: It’s impossible to spend little time in the park system and not be impressed by how well things work; with efficiency and attention to detail, meticulousness and cleanliness married with a keen sense of what makes cityscapes and architecture pleasing to the eye.
There is no stagnation and decay, no old-fashioned ugliness, no dissonance of one era or style against another. The old parts are perfectly preserved, as if by a reactionary council of historic preservation – and yet there, literally in its backyard, rise the newer parts, the Star Wars neighborhood and the Avatar experience, offering the best current technologies of theme park to match the lovingly preserved anachronisms.
There’s a lot of talk these days about how America struggles to build things, struggles to use our human capital and our talents, letting our infrastructure decay while new projects are mummified in bureaucratic processes.
That sense of uselessness doesn’t exist at Disney World, though, where the infrastructure gleams, the new matches or surpasses the old, there’s no post-Covid hangover, and everywhere you get the sense of sharp wits being put to work.
(Just one example I found myself looking at, the Animal Kingdom safaris: think of how much effort, planning, and zoological and technical know-how it must have taken to create a habitat where you can herd crowds of visitors on a bus and create the illusion of jungle and savannah with charismatic megafauna visible at every turn.)
What happened to America that put a man on the moon, you might ask? My friends, that America still exists – it’s busy building Disney rides. The spirit of the Apollo program lives on in the Avatar Flight of Passage simulation (highly recommended!), a perfect example of genius operating in decaying conditions, building not the Martian colonies we once imagined, but the most incredible diversions.
Finally, a comment on Disney World and post-Christian religious faith: last year, there was a brief discussion on Twitter about a demonstration by Professor Jodi Eichler, from Lehigh University in Levine, on the same network, where she adopted the concept of “Disney adults” – adults who obsessively love and return to the Disney experience regardless of any parenting obligations– and urged people to stop “pathologizing” them, because they are getting the same sorts of things from Disney as others people get from traditional forms of religion.
“People don’t just get married at Disney,” she tweeted. “They mourn the loss of family members at Disney. They go to Disney to celebrate surviving cancer. They go there for one last trip before they die.”
The Magic Kingdom fireworks show is “an altar call if ever there was one.” Measured “not by its claims of truth” but by “its power in people’s lives,” the Disney experience “is as much a religion as anything else.”
All of this rings true even without necessarily justifying Eichler’s assertion that we should refrain from judging parishioners in the Disney church: something can function as a religion without being a particularly healthy form of faith, and perhaps it’s okay to be concerned. a little with people who seek ultimate meaning in what is, at heart, a temple built to separate them as much as possible from their savings.
But could Disney’s church point beyond itself in any way? By itself, its spirituality and theology are quite limited – true love, self-realization, lately a dose of the therapeutic style.
But we ended our visit to Disney at Animal Kingdom, passing by the Avatar-themed rides (soaked in pantheism, like their source material) and then hanging out as night fell on the enormous (artificial) Tree of Life at the center of that park, its trunk carved with a bestiary and its leaves filled with colors for the light show at the park’s magic hour.
It felt a little different from the rest of Disney World — more reverent than the other quasi-religious elements, less overtly commercial, more removed from Disney’s 20th-century origins, a hint of a 21st-century paganism or pantheism slowly taking over the Cult of the Rat. inside out.
So we left the scene and walked away, closing the app one last time, looking for the bus that was waiting to return to our hotel – precisely and predictably on time.
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