My Disney pilgrimage

Image of Gillian Tett

This Easter, my family has been on a pilgrimage. Not to Lourdes, the Vatican or any other beacon of the Christian faith. Instead, like thousands of other Americans and Europeans (not to mention nations of other hues), I have been visiting another modern temple: the Disney World parks in Florida. And there, to the delight of my two girls, we have watched assorted Disney characters dance, ridden heart-stopping rides, gobbled hotdogs and emerged with a pile of modern plastic relics, including some wildly overpriced – and entirely useless – sparkling silver mouse ears.

To be sure, this is not “religion” as most Americans consider it. Indeed, the very idea might make many recoil in horror. But, after rubbing shoulders with thousands of other over-excited kids (and parents), I have come to the conclusion that the Disney theme parks are one of the most unifying shrines found in America today.

Never mind the eye-popping crowds who pass through them each year (in 2010 these totalled some 120 million for all of the global Disney parks, with more than 30 million in the top two parks in America alone, or six times the number of pilgrims who visit the Vatican each year).

What is perhaps most startling is the sheer variety of visitors: last week all accents, ages, colours and body shapes thronged the sidewalks of the Magic Kingdom. To be sure, not everyone was visiting on quite the same terms. Families with connections - or plenty of money - could skip the lines with VIP passes (and those who cannot afford the $85 ticket for admission do not get to attend at all).

And yet somehow America’s economic polarisation feels less brutal – or more subtle – when it is on display on Disney Main Street. In a country that is becoming ever more fragmented and angry, the theme parks are perhaps one of the last great levellers and unifiers. They are a common rite of passage that few dare to hate – except, of course, parents shelling out hard cash for those useless plastic mouse ears.

This sensation of communal ritual is not, of course, an accident. Ever since Disney parks first emerged six decades ago, anthropologists and sociologists have been examining the Disney “magic” as a cultural phenomenon.

Most have echoed the point that hit me last weekend, namely that there is something quasi-shrine-like about the whole experience. As Alexander Moore, an anthropologist, notes: “In our postmodern world, play seems to be gaining importance at the expense of organised religion”. To him, these Disney parks are now at the centre of a “playful pilgrimage”.

And the devices used to create that sense of communal journey are fascinating. Stephen Fjellman, another anthropologist, conducted a major research project two decades ago that analysed every single ride and theatre show of Walt Disney World. This work, which he published in an absorbing book, Vinyl Leaves, shows how the parks engage in subtle mood and crowd control. This starts with the communal experience of taking bus, boat and train rides from the carparks, continues through busy streets, then places visitors on rides where they are emotionally stretched but physically passive – until, that is, they are finally deposited into a shop after the ride where they can “act” by spending (more) money. And throughout the parks there are “cinematically structured stories” that treat “pieces of American and world culture as ideological tokens”, while “exhaustion and cognitive overload encourage a sense of Commodity Zen”. In other words, after a few hours, we enter an almost trance-like state. Our cognitive map has been subtly redrawn, in communal manner, until it seems almost normal to buy plastic silver mouse ears.

Unsurprisingly, that horrifies some observers. Henry Giroux, a left-wing polemical sociologist, is one of those who deplores the economic exploitation at the heart of the Disney parks. Worse still, he adds, Disney is dangerous since it tends to depict women in passive roles, and ethnic minorities as the baddies. Far from being innocent, to Giroux the Magic Kingdom exudes a sense of dehumanising public control that keeps American consumers docile and passive, while succumbing to the fiction of permanent “happiness”.

Having just emerged from my own pilgrimage, I find it hard to summon up so much anger. Yes, Disney is profoundly manipulative and profoundly commercial; and it certainly does project some patronising, crass images. But in a world where most other religious shrines have even darker undertones, the underbelly of Disney still looks relatively innocent and happy. And, if nothing else, it is cheering to find something that Americans of all backgrounds can still rally round as a common meeting place (other than sports venues). Even if that sense of community is a carefully created mouse-inspired fantasy, gift-wrapped in a shop – at a hefty price.

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