The Walt Disney World Resort, located outside of Orlando, has more than twice Manhattan’s land area and about the same number of hotel rooms as Philadelphia. It’s America’s largest single-site employer—over 60,000 people work there—and for many of the 17 million or so who visit each year, it is a place of near-religious significance. (At least one book and more than a dozen peer-reviewed academic articles have considered various aspects of Disney’s status as a secular pilgrimage site.)
Nobody can possibly dispute that Walt Disney World is popular and economically successful. To more than a few elites of the left and right, however, Disney World reeks of inauthenticity, garishness, and just about everything that’s wrong with America. Florida journalist/novelist Carl Hiaasen speaks for many when he accuses Disney of creating massive amounts of “roadside schlock,” and derides the taste and sophistication of nearly every aspect of the corporate entity that “touches virtually every human being in America for a profit.” And, of course, there’s no way to disprove or refute criticisms like this. People who don’t like crowds, who turn their noses up at popular culture, or who believe that the only worthwhile cultural experiences involve opera and molecular gastronomy will never much like Disney World. (Although experiences with both are available to those who seek them in the self-styled “Most Magical Place on Earth.”)
Plenty of others can and will go to Disney World and return disappointed. But none of this means that anybody seeking to understand and appreciate American culture as a whole—its aspirations, its excellences, and its defects—can ignore Disney World. As its existence approaches the half-century mark—the 42nd anniversary of its opening is in October—Disney World has become a vital piece of American culture that’s well worth seeing for its own sake. Disney World, quite simply, isn’t just a place to visit, but, for better and for worse, it is the greatest monument that American culture has built to itself.
Almost every great civilization, by design or accident, builds such a monument at some point. The Egyptians, obsessed with the afterlife and pharaonic power, left us the enormous (though now mostly ruined) temple complex at Karnak. Rome’s powerful imperial state, with the dressings of a republic, left us the Forum. Medieval Europeans built soaring cathedrals and surrounding complexes (which sometimes grew to become cities, in places like Chartres and York) that reflected great technical skill. All of them involved radical alterations of the environment to create synthetic worlds removed, almost as if by magic, from daily experience.
The temple at Karnak had room upon room built on stone and great soaring pillars at a time when most people lived in mud huts. It embodied the absolute power of the pharaoh and a reverence for the gods. The medieval cathedrals, the largest buildings constructed in the West since the fall of Rome in the fifth century, were far more than simple palaces to the divine: They were entire environments surrounded by towns and gardens that offered escape and respite from the humdrum and poverty of medieval daily life while simultaneously serving as a sign of the wealth, power, and social dominance of the church.
The list could go on—the Palace of Versailles embodies the l’état, c’est moi attitude far better than any written document ever could—and that’s a large part of the reason why, hundreds or even thousands of years after these places were built, they are still places that people visit and study in enormous numbers.
And Disney World is such a place.
A brief detour into the complex’s history makes it clear that it was always intended to be a full-scale place, not just a playground. That said, Walter Elias Disney, a terrifically talented animator and organizer with distinct manic-depressive tendencies, can’t really take more than a smidgen of credit for the specifics of today’s Disney World. The land upon which the resort sits was purchased at Disney’s behest to realize his vision for something called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), a true “city of the future” where people would live and work using technologies decades from widespread public use. This vision, whatever its worth, proved far too costly for anybody to execute. Indeed, the greatest reminder of it today is a massive model of the prototype community built at Disney’s behest in the Tomorrowland section of Magic Kingdom Park, which is devoted mostly to past visions of the future, along the lines of Jules Verne.