Ascending to Disney World: Making Sense of a Modern Religious Pilgrimage
Two years ago, my wife, Ali, and I put a down payment on season passes to Disney instead of getting each other Christmas presents. Now, for the monthly price of less than a third of a single trip, we can go to any Disney park whenever we want. Most of these trips are either to EPCOT or the most visited park of all, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
Before having passes, I had visited Magic Kingdom twice. First in 1989 and then again in 1994. Like many families who lived in middle class America in the ‘90s, we came to Florida for a week of Disney and SeaWorld. Because we were Christians, and Baptists at that, we certainly didn’t think of it as a particularly religious experience. But on closer examination, this particularly American rite of passage looks more and more like a religious pilgrimage than many would care to admit.
As one recent article notes, “Disney operates as pilgrimage site, creating sacred space where people can transcend the ordinary.” Americans who might scoff at the idea of a medieval pilgrimage won’t think twice about traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to visit Magic Kingdom and see cartoon characters incarnated right before their ecstatic children’s eyes.Traveling to Disney World looks more and more like a religious pilgrimage than many would care to admit.
We live in Orlando, but getting to Magic Kingdom still requires a journey. Once you exit the interstate and pass through the Disney welcome sign, you still have to drive several more miles before coming to the parking gate. After crossing that threshold, you’re directed to the largest asphalt prairie you’ve ever seen, where you leave your own transportation behind so that Disney can take you across the Seven Seas Lagoon.
Most people do this by ascending a ramp and taking the Monorail, Disney’s “Highway in the Sky,” to the front of Magic Kingdom. After exiting, you end up at the base of another ascent, this time to the actual Magic Kingdom entrance. Once you’re in the park, you continue a gradual ascent toward Main Street U.S.A., and as you walk, you continue further up and further in as you approach the park’s focal point: Cinderella Castle.
In addition to all of this ascending, it’s worth noting that Magic Kingdom’s major thrill rides are all mountains: Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Mountains, in both Scripture and other ancient Near Eastern writings, are places where one can meet and interact with the divine. Moses had Mount Sinai, Elijah had Mount Carmel, and both of them joined Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.
In a more mundane though still religious sense, Jerusalem is situated on a mountain. Or it’s at least elevated in such a way that one can only “go up” to Jerusalem, regardless of the direction traveled. As people gathered to make the pilgrimage to worship at the Temple or celebrate one of the many feasts, they would sing the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120–134).
The songs of Disney (in the park at least) are its own secular Psalms of Ascent. Like the biblical Psalms, they celebrate goodness and joy, but while the Bible celebrates the goodness of God, Disney celebrates the inherent goodness of man. In either case, both sets of songs are sung by groups of people having a collective experience of religious significance that was achieved only through a journey.
Part of the reason why Walt Disney World even exists is that Walt Disney wanted more than a utopian park; he also wanted to control the context around it. He was disappointed with the built-up environment that had come to surround California’s Disneyland. After Disneyland’s opening, all kinds of less-than-visually appealing suburbia had sprung up around it in the ensuing years. As it turns out, Walt didn’t just want a land; he wanted a world, as one article puts it.
As a result, one really is entering another world in their pilgrimage to Disney World. It’s one with its own religion, a kind of full blown Pelagianism (man is inherently good and salvation is believing in yourself) with hints of Gnosticism (fantasy supersedes reality). Each one of Disney World’s parks tells part of that story with Magic Kingdom as the focal point. It’s there that the ascent is most obvious and the environment pulls together nostalgia, hope, and fantasy. It’s packaged together to produce transcendence, and if it didn’t keep hitting the mark, we wouldn’t keep seeing so many pilgrims along the way.
Reflecting on this has helped me explain what feels like a religious intensity surrounding Magic Kingdom. Because my wife and I can come and go as we please, we rarely spend a full day there. If it happens to be too crowded on the day we decided to go, we’ll just craft an exit strategy and try again the next weekend. For most people, though, that would be unthinkable. This is in part because many of Disney’s visitors have had their hive switch flipped by the combination of music, spectacular visuals, and large groups of like-minded people.
In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt lays out his hypothesis that human beings are conditional hive creatures. He explains:
We have the ability (under special circumstances) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves. I called this ability the hive switch. The hive switch is another way of stating Durkheim’s idea that we are Homo duplex; we live most of our lives in the ordinary (profane) world, but we achieve our greatest joys in those brief moments of transit to the sacred world, in which we become “simply part of a whole.”
This hive switch explanation has been helpful to us as we enjoy being in the world of Disney but not of it. And not just Disney but many other parts of our modern culture that also possess an informal religious aspect (e.g., the Super Bowl).
To withdraw from participation in every such part of culture would mean withdrawing from culture altogether. A better strategy is learning how to read cultural liturgies to be aware of what you’re participating in. This subject occupies the second chapter of James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (#16 in this list). A key point with cultural liturgies is recognizing they are not just something we do, but something done to us. What’s more, they are ways of discovering what we truly love. As Smith puts it:
If you think of love-shaping practices as “liturgies,” this means you could be worshiping other gods without even knowing it. That’s because such cultural liturgies are not just one-off events that you unwittingly do; more significantly, they are formative practices that do something to you, unconsciously but effectively tuning your heart to the songs of Babylon rather than the songs of Zion (Ps. 137).
It is very much because of this shaping that Smith concludes that “Christian discipleship that is going to be intentional and formative needs to be attentive to all the rival formations we are immersed in.” He never fully advocates retreat, but rather, conscious reflection with eyes ready to see what’s really going on. The result is a kind of “apocalyptic” unveiling of culture.
With this perspective in mind, my wife and I are pilgrims of a different sort when we visit Magic Kingdom. We enjoy our time together and entering into Disney’s stories, but we do so in a way that’s attentive to how those stories shape Disney’s visitors. We come and we go, and sing a different kind of song along the way.
I bet you also warned everyone not to go see “The Shack”
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