As Disney World continues to celebrate its COVID-19-delayed 50th anniversary, criticism of the media and entertainment giant abounds.
In addition to lamenting its new price-gouging strategy, Disney detractors cry that it’s gone woke, removing all “gendered greetings” from parks and vowing to dramatically increase LGBTQ characters.
After the Florida Legislature earlier this year passed what the Left mischaracterized as a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which protects a parent’s right to determine when his or her children learn about sexual orientation and gender identity, Disney responded with a swift rebuke.
Determined to save younger generations from “backwards” thinking, Disney promises to combat similar parental rights legislation in other states.
Strange to hear, coming from what’s supposed to be a family company, is it not?
That’s what Disney’s critics argue, denouncing its hypocrisy and, in some cases, going so far as to lay out plans for the creation of an “alternative” Disney, one that will maintain its original innocent and wholesome vision.
But just how much has Disney actually departed from its original vision? Before turning to alternatives or replacements, it would behoove parents, critics, and media executives alike to recall, on this 51st anniversary of Disney World, what it is, what it’s for, and how it shapes the children—and adults—who visit.
The idea behind Disneyland and especially Disney World was not simply to build a theme park for kids, but to create an immersive world where visitors could escape reality and make all their dreams come true.
“I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the park,” Walt Disney once remarked. “I want them to feel they’re in another world.”
Central to the vision of the “happiest place on earth” is the enjoyment of sensorial pleasure. Upon arriving, one’s senses are stimulated in constantly changing and exciting ways, through thrilling rides, musical parades, and wafting aromas of Dole Whip and Mickey Mouse pretzels. Cutting-edge technology keeps the pleasures novel, allowing for increasingly more realistic levels of simulation and intensity every time you return.
Disney wanted the parks to provide this experience equally to both children and adults, whom he called “kids grown up.” Disneyland would “give meaning to the pleasure of children,” as he put it, “and pleasure to the experience of adults.” The takeaway from a trip to the parks is Peter Pan clear: Never grow up.
Less obvious of a takeaway, however, and what really makes the Disney experience unique, is its subtle inducement to passivity. Amid the sensory overload, parkgoers may not notice how little they are asked to do. Unlike hiking a mountain or reading a book—exercises of leisure that can also provide pleasure and a reprieve—Disney parks require minimal initiative and exertion on the part of guests, who come to be amused and entertained.
Even logistical details seem to take care of themselves. Monorail systems—which Disney introduced to the Western Hemisphere—shuttle visitors from park to park, and now, thanks to the Genie+ app (at $15 per person a day, a driver of park spending), park operators can direct traffic, nudging visitors toward shorter lines to better distribute crowds.
Guests don’t even have to use their imaginations. What need is there to imagine what it would be like to glide from continent to continent, experiencing the world’s most spectacular wonders, when there’s a ride (“Soarin’ Around the World”) to do it for you?
Why conjure up images of what time or space travel might be like when you could ride Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, a “storytelling coaster” that simulates a cosmic journey back to the time of the Big Bang?
The controlled environment and attention to detail for which the parks are known remain the purview of “Imagineers,” park designers whose titles reflect Walt Disney’s desire to unceasingly push the boundaries of imagination. And yet, as Imagineers devise ever more realistic ways to bring fantasy to life, the visitor’s incentive to actually use his imaginative faculties diminishes.
Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, the epitome of his vision for Disney World, showcases the passivity on which his intricate plans must rely.
The unfinished concept he hoped to develop would involve a real city of 20,000 residents, living in neighborhoods complete with playgrounds, parks, and bike paths. But it would be planned and controlled by Disney, who would partner with American industry to implement groundbreaking technology as it emerged. The idea was to model for America what a truly progressive city might look like, offering evolving solutions for evolving problems.
As Disney put it in the film introducing E.P.C.O.T. to Florida legislators and businessmen, “It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing, and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems.”
Conspicuously absent from Disney’s proposal, however, are any plans for political life, an absence he confirmed was intentional in a 1966 interview with The Chicago Tribune.
“There’ll be no landowners, and therefore no voting control,” he said.
Motivated by disgust with city government inefficiency and property owner neglect, he determined to preempt urban blight by maintaining unilateral control over his city.
For centuries, Americans had tackled civic problems through voluntary associations, founding the nation’s first libraries, fire departments, schools, and hospitals through citizen-led initiatives. Firmly rejecting this tradition, Disney proposed trusting the experts, like himself, whose meticulous planning could better produce comfort, health, and safety—what he considered “the happiness of the people.”
There’s nothing inherently vicious about Disney’s desires to bring people pleasure, a break from the mundane, and glimpses of industrial progress. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the philosophy he embraced—one that favored stimulation over subtlety, fantasy over nature, novelty over immutability, and expert planning over political life—might today yield a company that keeps up with the times, promoting evolving categories of identity and sexuality through training programs administered by “diversity, equity, and inclusion” experts.
Given Disney’s overt willingness to undermine parental authority, it’s no wonder parents are looking for alternatives. But rather than simply look for a “conservative” version of Disney’s overstimulating escapism, it might be time for families to reconsider the Disney model altogether.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal