Reflections on Going to Disneyland

“Too bad we didn’t know Walt Disney before he was spoiled, isn’t it?”
– C.S. Lewis

“My feeling about animals is just the opposite of Disney’s. He made them dance to his tune. I prefer to dance to their tune.”
– E.B. White

“The cynics are already here and they’re terrifying one another. What Disney is doing is showing the world that there are alternative ways to do things that can make us all happy. If we can borrow some of the concepts of Disneyland and Disney World … then indeed the world can be a better place.”
– Ray Bradbury

The place literally sparkles.

It dazzles in the daytime and glitters in the nighttime.

It’s a fantasy world of the sort you’d usually find only in miniature. Except, this one is magically grown life-size for you to walk around in. If it no longer held the hazy glow of my childhood memories, it at least still possessed its own hospitable, incandescent and melodious atmosphere.

It’s full of architecture that we would now call quaint (in comparison to most of the flat, drab, uniform, and dull modern buildings with which we fill our towns). It’s full of enchanted children and dreamy adults. It’s full of a million tiny little details exquisitely crafted to make the park into one of the most unique places in the world. It’s full of little storybook themed rides that are, each in their own right, elaborately constructed works of art. And, with the heart of a Scrooge, I didn’t appreciate it like I should have.

It may be only those of us who are more cynical or jaded who are familiar with the word “Disneyfication.” It’s a purely pejorative term. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Disneyfication” means “the transformation (as of something real or unsettling) into carefully controlled and safe entertainment or an environment with similar qualities.” According to Collins Dictionary, it means “the act of transforming historical places, local customs, etc into trivial entertainment for tourists.” If you do an online search for “the Disneyfication of,” you will find a whole slew of critics currently bemoaning the Disneyfication … of art, of history, of the church, of God, of New Orleans, of Paris, of culture, of war, and of, well, everything.

It is almost too easy for the sourpuss to criticize the works of Walt Disney as the epitome of everything that is wrong with corporate American consumerism. Richard Schickel, for example, in his book, The Disney Version, griped that Walt Disney created a form of entertainment where “Magic, mystery, individuality – most of all, individuality – were consistently destroyed when a literary work passed through this machine that had been taught there was only one correct way to draw.”

In 1986, Marilou Sorensen wrote how she deplored the Disney take on, for example, Snow White: “The prudish editions of Walt Disney … utilize nothing of the social context from which the Grimms drew the story and Disney makes the jingle ‘some day my prince will come’ the theme of a male savior instead of the power struggle between good and evil that was the original intent of the story. Disney’s concoction of Snow White (and of other tales) actually added superfluous characters and animated creatures reacting to giddy lyrics … Disney also switched the focal point of the Snow White tale to the dwarfs, giving them catchy names with humorous actions … [B]y switching the focus Disney reacted to the chaos then evident in America – a country still in the throes of the Depression. Disney gave the public what it wanted to see – a formula for happiness which included the work ethic incorporated in seven productive workers and a blatant form of conservatism.”

In 1993, author Robert W. Brockway called Disneyland the “cathedral to capitalism.” In 1998, New Internationalist Magazine published a piece entitled “A Reader’s Guide to Disneyfication” where the author wrote:

“Disney’s theme parks in Florida, California, Tokyo and Paris were the first and most successful attempts to meld entertainment with consumerism. They are fantasy worlds cut off from the anxieties and fears of daily life where you can temporarily escape the ‘rat race’ to join Mickey, Donald and Goofy in a clean and carefree land of the imagination. We all need to escape the stress of daily life from time to time. But the Disney theme park idea has metastasized and in the process it’s become a dominant model for both urban and commercial development. Chain eateries, mega shopping malls, redeveloped city centres: all feature the same mix of escapism and consumerism. In the process the values of the market elbow aside the democratic aspirations of civil society. As the public realm shrinks we risk turning the Earth and our unique communities into one big, privatized theme park.”

I’m also quite sure that some grumpy Marxist philosophers somewhere have criticized Walt Disney as a capitalist lackey even more harshly, but I can’t say I’ve ever been too concerned about this sort of thing. I have, however, found persuasive another more appealing critique of Disney. It is the view that asks what Disney could have been if he had a deeper understanding of the rich literary tradition behind the myths and fairy tales from which he drew adaptations. This was the view of J.R.R. Tolkien, who instructed the executors of his estate never ever to allow Disney to adapt his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings tales. It was also the view of C.S. Lewis, who, after seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, wrote:

“But about Snow-White … I thought it almost inconceivably good and bad – I mean, I didn’t know that one human being could be so good and bad. The worst thing of all was the vulgarity of the dwarfs and the winking dove at the beginning, and the next worst the faces of the dwarfs. Dwarfs ought to be ugly, of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music. But all the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving: and the use of shadows (of dwarfs and vultures) was real genius. What might have come of it if the man had been educated – or even brought up in a decent society?”

It might make C.S. Lewis sound a little snobbish, but you have to remember all the classic literature that he had devoured and all the works of art that he studied. Walt Disney may not be an evil propagandist for capitalism, but there is truth to the claim that he commercialized, and therefore dumbed down, classic works of literature. The charge, from thinkers who have experienced the richness of imagination that fairy tales can provide us, is that Disney misses most of it. The result is a simplistic and watered-down version of stories that historically have far more depth than any Disney version would ever let on. In a sense, a child, whose first experience with these stories is with Disney, is going to miss out on an imaginative abundance that he or she could have experienced instead. (One of the primary examples of this is, some thirty years after Walt Disney’s death, the 1996 cartoon based on Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It is a horrid little film that reduces the power, mystery, majesty, tragedy and spiritual truths at the heart of the tale into a series of slapstick gags and cartoon dance routines.)

But this is not, when you think about it, primarily a criticism of Walt Disney and his company. Instead, it is a problem within American pop culture in general. There have been a large number of nonDisney films for adults that have spoiled classic works of literature into a jumble of dull cliches. The works of Alexandre Dumas, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Evelyn Waugh are examples whose works have miserably suffered at the hands of Hollywood.) Many a great book has been forever ruined for hundreds of students by a dreary professor with ulterior political motives. Many an astonishingly profound work of art has been exploited into banality by a mob of advertising copycats. Consumerism has never been sensitive to the inner workings of the arts & humanities.

But this doesn’t mean that Disney is without value. Not every literary giant has just summarily dismissed his work. During Evelyn Waugh’s visit to California in 1947, he said that Walt Disney was one of the only two artists in all of Hollywood (the other being Charlie Chaplin). Ray Bradbury personally shared Walt Disney’s enthusiasm for the mythical and astonishing technological possibilities of the future and helped actively promote new Disney projects. Neil Postman even considered Walt Disney as a sort of last bastion within American culture, supporting and protecting the idea of the childlike in a society whose consumerism increasingly treated children as if they were just a “young adult” demographic to be exploited. Postman blamed modern society for wrecking the idea of what it means to be a child and for constantly lowering the age where children are supposed to reach adolescence. In The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman wrote:

“Most of the widely discussed changes in children’s literature have been in the same direction as those of the modern media. The work of Judy Blume has been emulated by many other writers who, like Ms. Blume, have grasped the idea that ‘adolescent literature’ is best received when it simulates in theme and language adult literature, and, in particular, when its characters are presented as miniature adults … [W]e are now undergoing a very rapid reorientation in our popular arts in regard to the image of children. One might put the matter, somewhat crudely, in this way: Our culture is not big enough for both Judy Blume and Walt Disney. One of them will have to go, and as the Disney empire’s falling receipts show, it is the Disney conception of what a child is and needs that is disappearing. We are in the process of exorcizing a two-hundred-year-old image of the young as child and replacing it with the imagery of the young as adult.” (pg. 125)

In his book, Myth from the Ice Age to Mickey Mouse, Robert W. Brockway discussed the appeal that Disney has to us today, and how this appeal relates to the myths and legends that have attracted members of humanity since ancient times. The amazing thing about Disney is how it has commercialized real works of art and made them popular. Disney’s works are “… very seductive, partly because the original cartoon drawings were exquisitely detailed works of art … At Disney Studios, during the 1930s, cartoon art reached a summit it has never reached again.” (pg. 141)

Brockway admits to a certain shallowness to the Disneyland version of things. “There is much that is bowdlerized, much that is false, but even the most critical admit that the show is well produced. It is done well. Disneyland, like the movies, is entertainment. That is its purpose and it does that well.” Is it entertainment that is primarily designed to make a profit? Perhaps. Don’t Disneyfied stories communicate certain Western capitalistic values to the very young? Probably. And doesn’t the Disneyland theme park encourage people to ignore reality? Let’s not be too sure about that. But granted, it “may be a highly subtle and complicated propaganda device, but, while one is wandering about the kingdom, one chooses to suspend judgment and simply enjoy.” (pg. 143) And ultimately, this is why so many people simply love it.

This is an insight that illuminates a part of our human nature. Entertainment is a value. There are many different kinds of entertainment, but there is something about it that has the potential to appeal to the heart. Whenever we are nostalgic about our childhood, it is because there are things about being a child that we remember and believe possessed great value and worth. If all this is true, don’t you find it interesting that much of what entertains us is declared to be fake, frivolous and childish?

Brockway continues:

“Nothing in Disneyland is authentic. Nothing mirrors the past as it was. Nor is Disneyland an idealized version of the present or future either. The whole park is Fantasy Land. One climbs aboard the monorail and rides through the life-size model village as though one had shrunk to the lilliputian dimensions of one’s childhood tootsie toys or the H.O. railroads of a slightly later era. Disneyland is a toy, a child’s world big enough to walk around in … As Disney remarked to Bob Thomas on the freeway to Anaheim while Disneyland was being built, ‘When does a person stop being a child?’ He answered probably never.

Because it was designed by Disney himself, and because it opened when it did, Disneyland has deeper and more subtle dimensions. Some of these are not shared by the park in Orlando or those abroad. Disneyland has certain mythic implications, a thought which, at first glance, seems ridiculous. However, as one explores the deeper realms of the human psyche, one discovers that Homo Religiosus has a certain affinity with Homo Ludens. Homo Religiosus refers to the innate spirituality of human beings. Homo Ludens refers to the innate human capacity for fun and play.” (pgs. 142-143)

Disneyland is a place that appeals to millions of human beings. Its characters and theatrics make the average somebody smile and the average snob sneer. You can’t go to the place without a collection of humbling little moments that cause you to pause with just a little bit of wonder. The snowflakes gently tumbling through the night sky as your train cart first rumbles up the Matterhorn … the toddler sitting on his mother’s lap and gazing spellbound up towards the many singing faces on totem poles in the Enchanted Tiki Room … the cannonballs splashing into the water next to you as you drift between the pirate ship firing upon the fortress of an ill-fated town … the ballroom full of dancing colonial ghosts in the Haunted Mansion … the drinking and singing forest animals making merry through the caverns of Splash Mountain … the list could be endless. There is a good reason that this place is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world.

“Disneyland is thus a cathedral to capitalism. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are its saints and its events and attractions attract the way sculpted images and stained glass windows did … Disneyland is where Homo Ludens and Homo Religiosus meet. The Sumerians and Greeks laughed at their gods, so do native people in the Americas. We call these comical gods tricksters, and they abound in all cultures … [T]hose who go willingly pay the admission price for the moments of euphoria which can sometimes be akin to religious experience. Disneyland is more convincing in this respect than nearby churches such as Crystal City precisely because it makes no moralistic or critical demands. It simply is. It is there for Homo Ludens to enjoy, but it is tinged all the same with what people of other cultures would instantly recognize as the numinous. We have not come very far from our Ice Age ancestors except in our technology. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are among our cave paintings and figurines. Very likely the emotions aroused by the paleolithic Venus of Laussel and Minnie Mouse were much the same.” (pgs. 144-145.)

All of this, really, are mere reflections after the fact. I didn’t go to Disneyland with these ideas in mind. I wasn’t gazing philosophically upon Winnie the Pooh or considering the theological import of Donald Duck during the visit. Spending two days in Disneyland was not my idea. I hadn’t been to the place since the 1980s, and it never struck me as an appealing way of spending a holiday.

The fact is that people have different personal tastes. Your tastes depend upon your personality, your upbringing and your experiences. Now, in our modern age, the very idea that the personal tastes of one person can be better than the personal tastes of another person is frowned upon. But, the more I think about it, the more I think this idea is true. Personal tastes are subjective in nature. They are often formed by personality and experience.

Nonetheless, I would heartily argue that there are objective standards regarding those things that we have our personal tastes about.

There is also an obvious corollary to this idea. Your personal tastes change with time. You do not have the same tastes now that you had, oh say, twenty years ago. In other words, as you mature, there are tastes that you have in literature, food, music, clothing and entertainment that can improve … or worsen. As a child, you were able to appreciate things that you have now lost appreciation for. As an adult, you are now able to appreciate things that, as a child, you were incapable of having any appreciation for.

Your personal tastes can get … better.

Therefore, they can also get worse.

These deductions are significant when we consider the tastes of grown-ups compared to the tastes of children. One of the truths at the very heart of Christianity is the truth that there is great wisdom to be found in the childlike. Christ Himself particularly speaks very highly of children.

“At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children …’” (Matthew 11:25, ESV.) “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me …” (Matthew 18:5, ESV.) “And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the son of David; they were sore displeased, And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?” (Matthew 21:15-16, KJV.) “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.” (Mark 10:15, KJV.) “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16, KJV.)

So I spent two days in Disneyland with three other friends. It was the girls’ idea. Given a choice between the nearby beach and Disneyland, most guys would probably choose the beach. The beach is relaxing. You can swim or surf, take a nap, read a book, and have peaceful conversations. It involves less clothing and usually a warm sun. It was, during our trip however, quite cool and overcast. The second day was going to be the Fourth of July. And, perhaps most importantly, the organizer’s birthday was on the first day of the trip. So to Disneyland it was.

It may be useful to explain a little about the group before going into the effects that this place had on us all.

The trip’s organizer (we’ll call her the Joan of Arc type) has a job that requires a significant amount of intensive organizational skill. Such inherent skills, when practically applied to something like Disneyland, can result in a regimented and magnificent efficiency. By sheer force of willpower, she maximized every second that we paid for in Disneyland. At her guidance, it felt like we went on every single ride in the park, and then back on some of them twice for good measure. Joan of Arc is also the type of person who has no trouble at all yelling instructive remarks to police officers who are engaged in blocking traffic and therefore standing between her and her fireworks. Apparently, any expedition to Disneyland needs someone like her.

The other girl with us (we’ll call her the Hypatia of Alexandria type) is a serious thinker with a college background in psychology. Thus, she can simultaneously cheer with glee on Snow White’s Scary Adventures while also expounding upon the theological and exegetical implications of the fiery ending of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. She also must have been exposed to sociologists at some point because she has no hesitation whatsoever in referring, casually as you please, to patriarchal power constructs, “good and evil binaries,” and the social convention restrictions inherent within a culture. Going to Disneyland with Hypatia, one is reminded of those earnest conversations in Whit Stillman’s movies, where Lady and the Tramp suddenly can have more social implications on the human psyche and the nature of romantic relationships than you ever would have guessed.

The other guy in the group was my friend, drinking buddy, former fellow teammate in city softball leagues, and fellow serious NFL fan. He’s always quick to laugh and to make others laugh (we’ll call him the St. Nicolas type). The advantage of his joining us on the trip included his delightful habit of making off-color quips or dirty jokes while utterly oblivious to the group of ten year olds standing directly behind us in line. He has a talent for recognizing irony, even at his own expense. Since we generally see eye-to-eye on a number of questions, he’d occasionally actually say what I was thinking, like the fact that there was at least something wrong with two guys being stuck (like we ended up) alone together in the little boat for the Peter Pan ride. There are disparaging terms for that sort of thing and he’s my friend because he has no trouble expressing them bluntly.

Then there’s myself. Suffice to say, I’ve been desensitized, and probably a little hardened, by three years of law school combined with service in the U.S. Army Reserves (including a year long deployment to Iraq). Law school is not good for the soul, and I wouldn’t claim that war, in any form, is either. My capacity for empathy has been suppressed and my childlikeness has been, for the most part, lost. The end result has been the encouragement of a personality that regards the emotions as the sorts of things you might experience, once in a while, in Timbuktu. These are things about myself I can recognize in the abstract, but it occasionally takes something like a trip to Disneyland to understand them for what they are.

Thus, it was a trip worth taking, not just because I need to go to places like this once in a while, but because the unique makeup of our friendly group was a study in human contrasts. Every trip you take with your friends, you learn something new. That’s part of the fun.

I also have to say that, every once in a while, women suddenly demonstrate innate natural abilities that surprise me.

One of the girls, for example, exhibited an astonishing amount of flexibility. If we were on a ride where, oh say, a wave of water was about to splash over us, she would somehow manage to duck down inside of her own little seat on the ride (I couldn’t do that without breaking something) so as to ensure that the incoming wave of water would smack me, and not her, directly in the face. (There is photographic evidence laying around somewhere proving this.) The other girl, as another example, demonstrated an uncanny instinctual spidey-sense for cameras that I didn’t know existed. She’s naturally photogenic to begin with and was unfazed by being photographed even while in the middle of plummeting down five stories or so. If there was a single camera pointed in her direction (no matter whether it was a roller coaster camera or a phone camera), she was one hundred percent certain to be (a) looking at it, and (b) smiling sweetly.

They were also both able to move, just below light speed, when the “schedule” demanded it. I would follow in a deadly sprint, and somehow miraculously manage not to kick over a single baby stroller. (By the way, parents with baby strollers at Disneyland these days are not shy about asserting themselves. If you wanted to aggressively turn into an incoming lane of pedestrian traffic, apparently using a stroller & accompanying two-year-old to make a sharp and violent left turn is one of the most successful ways of accomplishing this.)

Good friends and good conversation in “the happiest place on earth” … what could be the problem? The problem was what I gradually began to realize. After thinking it over, it is now apparent that I have lost something.

The effect that Disneyland had on my friends was noticeable because it contrasted with the effect that it had upon me. Simply because she was there, Hypatia would occasionally just break out into song. There were times when Joan of Arc would literally jump up and down and clap her hands for joy. The excitement level may have been at a slightly lower register for St. Nick, but there was a downright jovialness that the theme park could bring out in him – even he had something that I didn’t. Each of them, no matter how stressful their jobs in the real world might be, were capable of experiencing an excitement. This is what I have lost. I didn’t find the place as exciting as they did, and I sometimes wonder if my capacity for excitement has been damaged.

The narcissist, when around other human beings who are experiencing joy that he isn’t, is naturally predisposed towards the view that there is something inferior about their ability to be easily or emotionally manipulated by the trivial. The jaded view is that happiness, that others possess but you don’t, is the result of being simple-minded. The pessimist looks down upon the stupidity of optimism because he knows better. He’s better than they are because he sees the world like it really is. And so he stands there in his own little world of miserable and detached superiority.

But there is another way of looking at it. It may just be that joy in other people is something good and healthy for the soul. If other people can experience joy that you cannot, then another perfectly reasonable conclusion is that there is something wrong with you … that there is something good that they have that you do not have. Instead of looking down your nose at happiness that you are not experiencing, perhaps the mere fact of their happiness alone should strike you as very humbling.

I’m not complaining; neither am I saying that I didn’t enjoy Disneyland.

Most importantly, if the fireworks and the water colored-light show didn’t excite me, it was still very much worth seeing these things bring joy to my friends. There are a decent amount of little pleasures in life that I can still enjoy. Good friends, good conversation, a good book, a good meal, a glass of fine wine or of strong Scotch … I think that a roller-coaster is still a fine thing. It is also a fine thing to take happiness in your friends’ taking happiness in things that you may personally find uninteresting.

The same principle applies to music. There is quite a bit of really poor quality music out there. But if my friends can delight in what my own little personal tastes tell me is bad music, then I ought to be able to appreciate the fact that they might just simply love it. (Save the musical aesthetics discussion for later.)

All this to say that if other people take pleasure in things that you do not, that doesn’t necessarily mean either that they ought not to take pleasure in such things or that their tastes are inferior to yours. On the contrary, it could mean that there is something wrong with you or with your tastes. And, I can’t help but feel that there is something wrong with you if you can’t enjoy Disneyland. It is entirely possible to affirm objective standards in arts and entertainment without becoming a snob.

If some personal tastes are better than other personal tastes, then there will be times when your tastes are better than those of others.

But, there will also be times when other people’s tastes are really much better than your own.

Distinguishing between the two, one will always be tempted to conclude that oneself is always in the right. But such conclusions are those of the self-centered. It is conducive to maturity to be willing to consider the possibility that other people are capable of influencing your tastes for the better.

I remember William F. Buckley, Jr. once telling the story of a military general who, in an effort to be friendly with the lower ranks, asked a paratrooper, “Why do you like to do an insane thing like jumping out of airplanes?” The paratrooper replied, “I don’t like to, sir. I just like to be around the kind of people who like to jump out of airplanes.” There are some things I may not like but that I suspect I still ought to like. When this is the case, one can at least rest easy in the fact that one can still prefer being around the kind of people who can … for example, still take joy from a place like Disneyland.

We’re not going to feel full of joy all of the time. At those times when we’re not, it is still a fine and pleasant thing to be around others who are joyful. The person who is truly joyful is the person who is engaged in an activity that is healthy for the soul. And engaging with what is healthy for the soul is contagious.