Walt Disney’s Theology of Hope, pt. 1

He had an intensely religious youth. He’d been brought up in a strictly regimented church atmosphere. His father was a deacon at one time. [Knowing this] I can understand why he had such a free attitude towards our religion. He wanted us to have religion. He definitely believed in God. Very definitely. But I think he’d had it with organized religion as a child.

– Diane Disney Miller, 11 June 1968

Last summer, I went to Disney World with my mother and little brother. Not exactly an important thing to make note of, except that I live in Los Angeles. Disneyland is less than an hour away from where I live, but I chose to drive all the way across the country, pick up my family in Louisiana, and keep driving the rest of the way to Florida so that we could finally have our decade-and-a-half delayed vacation.

As a thirty-something guy in Los Angeles, I’ve had a few people ask me about the Mouseketeer button on my laptop satchel. It’s not exactly “professional” to see Mickey’s smiling face before I sit down with a client to discuss blogging metrics or a public relations campaign, but for me that button is meaningful. Having just left the park, I went into the gift shop and bought one button for each of us – my mother, my brother and me – so that I could have some proof of my own that we had, indeed, had at least one day of fun as a family. As I sit now at a coffeeshop in Los Angeles, I can see that button still attached to the satchel at my feet and every time I see it, it symbolizes my family, happiness, and hope in something better tomorrow.

I grew up poor. So did my little brother. And it had been a 16 year dream of my mother’s to take us to Disney World – a dream that kept getting put off by doctor bills, car repairs, and living the American Dream of overwork and underpay. After my grandfather died, my mother inherited a bit of money and determined, come hell or high water, that we were going to Disney so we could have some photographic proof that our lives were not wasted on toil and trouble.

When we got back, I found myself slipping into a depressed state. I had been caught up in “magic” of Walt’s world and it was difficult to re-acclimate. In some sense, it had been a religious experience. I had cast off my “old self” of workaholism and familial neglect for a “new self” which reorganized my priorities towards family, happiness, and hope. Even now, over a year later, every time I look at the button on my satchel, I think of my family but I also think about the life I am working towards. Is it creating a better world? Inspiring people? Instilling hope? Maybe these are questions that everyone who has visited the Disney parks experiences. The world Walt built was intended to disorient us, to hug us and make us feel respite before returning to the mundane quotidian. We were meant to feel special, suspended in time as if a happy eternity could stretch before us without end if only we recaptured and held the wonder of childhood.

For Walt, the preservation of childhood from the perils of adulthood became his all-consuming passion. But more than that, he wanted to create a park where adults and children could share time and space together. His designs of what would later become Disneyland make note that visitors were to be greeted at the gates with turn-of-the-century architecture. As visitors made their way to the main area of the park, their experience shifted to the increasingly visionary – trains to rockets and underwater worlds. His fascination with travel, or “escaping” this world, was prevalent in both Disneyland and the sprawling, more advanced Disneyworld in Florida. As part of his instructions, all buildings were to be 5/8 their real size. It was a calculated choice. Walt had done studies which determined people feel “comforted” when they fit into the world around them but do not feel crowded. Temple Grandin would use these same studies in her research, as do fashion designers when they make form-fitting clothing. There is something, Walt determined, comforting about being “hugged” by the world around us.

While I am not yet ready to convert to the religion of Disney, to pray to our holy father Walt in Heaven, I have spent a great deal of time over the last year meditating and reflecting on those questions, reading about his life, reading what those who worked with him have said about him, and how he built an empire of hope. I have come to appreciate the power of his imagination to create a world similar to ours while also distinct from the one we live every other day. When I’ve talked with friends and coworkers – you’d be surprised how great of a conversation-starter that button has been – almost everyone I have talked to feels the same way. Disney is not just a nice little vacation spot. It can, for some, become an all-encompassing way of life. I suppose this is why shows like Once Upon A Time are so popular with the 18-to-49 crowd – because Walt Disney somehow captured the hopes of a generation, then created the hopes of their children and grandchildren. Walt set in motion a chain of events we are still in the shadow of. For many, this is benignly unappealing. For some, it is something that should be actively and consciously rejected. But in a world which is so often hostile to our dreams, harsh towards our inner child, many feel that the world of Disney provides them a reprieve, a temporary opiate, a sense of community and “belonging”, a vision of the future… very much like a religion.

As a theologian, I cannot help but wonder whether we recognize these qualities. That is, there are serious questions we must attend to, long-term implications in the lives of congregants as they are swaddled “from womb to tomb” on a steady diet of Disney. And what of the commercialization of the House of Mouse? Or the “hidden” messages in their films (which I would argue are always presented front-and-center)? Do we causally dismiss the creative force of the Imagineers, underestimate a revitalized corporation whose properties now include Marvel Comics, Star Wars, and heavy investments in both Apple and Microsoft? Like the wooden horses of Troy, it is easy to dismiss cartoon characters until we see the hatch open.

But more than all of this, what does this say about the inability of religion to offer an alternative? Disney offers a homogenized “small world” for all peoples. The theme parks are a haven from a world overflowing with filled trash cans, unhappiness, schedules, and broken families. You can even walk around drinking beer in the middle of the day singing Oliver Wallace and Randy Newman’s hymns, if that’s your thing. It is the embodiment of Heaven On Earth we preach and teach and uphold to our congregations every week, only except a Star of David or Crescent or Cross, Walt held up Mouseketeer ears for any who would wish to wear them.

However, much of religion today focuses on the terribleness of the Earth. We are each trying to get away from our mortal coils and the post-Edenic non-nirvana to a spiritual Elsewhere where we are promised that we will reach our full potential, know one another as we are known, and get away from everything familiar. Which feels so strange, doesn’t it? Our idea of a good afterlife is either simply ending this life or going somewhere else where nothing is “like this.” What about the churros?

Cont. in part 2

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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