by Randall Frederick
Last week, I got back from Disneyworld and, virtually as soon I set my bags down and saw my laptop on the desk, knew what my next article would be about – the Gospel of Walt. Finding myself with a fever somewhere between 1 and 6, I was well on my way to becoming a fully-fledged Mouseketeer when my friends reminded me of how pessimistic I had been previously. Where had this new-found happiness come from?, they asked. Don’t you remember how you hated everything? Come to your senses!
Days later, I still find myself wishing I had spent a few more days down in Orlando. Questioning why, since I live just an hour away from the original Disneyland, I have never gone. Why did I travel across the country to Florida for the World when the Land is in my back yard? Even now, writing this, I am trying to do the accounting work in my head necessary to tuck away the funds for another venture on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and, I confess, am periodically checking on the status of my Old Navy order for a Mickey-themed shirt.
My friends are right – I need to come to my senses, but I don’t think we share the same sense of “senses.” The idea of becoming the person I was just a few weeks ago fills me with anxiety. In some sense, I have had a religious experience. I want to cast off my “old self” and put on the new. I want to be happy. To stay happy. To forget. And to walk from land to land like the stations of the cross with the assurance that I am never lost. In some sense, this is the journey of most believers, whatever our faith. We feel at odds with “the world” around us. Different. A unique and chosen people. Some of us speak of a wellspring of unexplainable joy in our hearts in contrast to the circumstances of our lives. A spring from which we draw strength for the circumstances of our lives. And while I am not yet ready to convert to the religion of Disney, to pray to our Father Walt, I certainly appreciate the heaven-like world where his signature is on every piece of creation. I appreciate the simplicity, the wholesomeness, the insulated entertainment where I am not bombarded by explosions and expletives demanding my attention and escalating my pulse, where I can look to my left and see a carriage of babyish innocence then turn to my right and see newlyweds cooing over each other. Simply put, my recent visit made me aware of how beat down I had been. Seeing goodness all around reminded me of how far away – literally, the other side of the country; metaphorically, miles more – I had been.
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In the mid-fifties, Walt Disney oversaw the construction of the world’s first real theme park. He had gotten the idea during a lazy daddy/daughter visit to a local park, wondering why there wasn’t a large park where parents could take their children and enjoy adult-friendly entertainment like shows, concerts, and dining. In the following days, he began making notes and assembling the pieces of what would later become California’s Disneyland. For Walt, the preservation of his childhood was important and so he made sure that the entrance to the park was designed with turn-of-the-century appearance as visitors made their way to area of the park that were first modern, then progressively visionary. The tension between Walt’s nostalgia for trains and fascination with the possibility of tomorrow – travel, living, technology – is prevalent in both Disneyland in California and the more advanced Disney World in Florida. As part of his instructions, he wanted all buildings to be 5/8 their real size – a calculated choice. Walt had done studies which determined that people feel “comforted” when they fit into the world around them but do not feel crowded. Temple Grandin would also use these studies in her research, and fashion designers use the same determinations when they make form-fitting clothing. There is something comforting about being “hugged” by the world around us.
Walt sought to reproduce not only his own childhood, but to preserve the naivete of a world devoid of conflict – personal, local, domestic, international, even cosmological. In an interview with his daughter after his death, Diane Disney Miller said that her father was religious even though he never attended church.
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, interview by Richard Hubler, 11 June 1968
The Disney children attended a Christian Science congregation as frequently as Walt had attended the Congregationalist church of his own childhood – which is to say frequently. But as he grew older, his faith expressed itself as an optimistic humanism with a vocalized confidence in the inherent goodness of humanity rather than a focus on depravity or original sin. It is this belief that prevails throughout his work and the parks. People are good. But traumatized by and stressed from the world they live in, told from the pulpits and platforms how wicked and incompetent they are, and feeling the entire time how deeply they want to be different, Disney offers an alternative narrative that affirms and celebrates the inherent dignity of human life, the innocence of childhood, and the romance of new love. It is a reconstructive kind of belief, formed by pieces that were missing previously.
Ward Kimball, a friend and employee of Walt’s during the boom years of both the studio and Disneyland, said that he believed Walt built the entire Disney Corporation out of what he never had growing up. “[Walt] had this craving for ice cream sodas and candy bars because as a kid he couldn’t afford them.” Biographer Steven Watts in his book The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (1997) writes
Walt had colorful hars of candy all over his studio office and constantly offered them to visitors. At home, he built a huge soda fountain in his club room, complete with all the attachments and extras. According to a friend… “He loved having that soda fountain because as a kid he couldn’t spend money on ice cream. His youth was scratching for pennies and nickels and tossing whatever he earned into the kitty at home.” (13)
But Walt was not just fascinated with ice cream sodas. His lifelong love for railroads stems from a job he had as a newspaper caddy aboard a train and a symbol of wealth when we remember the railroad titans Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Hopkins. Railroads were a symbol of phenomenal wealth – and the importance of having a railroad in the Disney park is no mystery. It was a reminder to Walt that he was building something worth remembering. Another example would be Walt’s fascination with space exploration. He helped secure funding for N.A.S.A. and with the very positive relations between the Disney Corp. and NASA, Cape Canaveral (later Cape Kennedy) was built a short distance away from the Disney property in south Florida. Walt’s exploratory sense of adventure has ties to his childhood as well as his belief in the potential of humanity, for it is indeed a small world that we are called to share with one another.
But what kind of gospel/”good news” is this if there is no explicit mention of God, deity, divinity, celestial beings, or any other kind of religious staple?