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.
What comprises the rest of Disney World is a huge, sometimes haphazard, assemblage of experiences catering to almost every taste and attitude found in modern America. The Disney Company did eventually build something called EPCOT: It’s a theme park that recreates much of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, with exhibits about science and pavilions of various nations. It has also built a new-urbanist town called Celebration on land ceded from the park.
But there’s a lot more that has nothing to do with anything Walt Disney dreamed up for EPCOT. Disney World, of course, has all of the typical resort amenities—five golf courses, two large spas, lots of boating opportunities, and riding stables. But only a small fraction of visitors take advantage of these amenities. Instead, visitors come mostly for the four theme parks—one of which, Animal Kingdom, is an accredited zoo with animals from all over the world—and the 24 lavish themed resorts with rates ranging from $80 or so for a motel-type room (probably with a giant statute of a Disney character or a Brobdingnagian guitar outside) to over $700 for a “concierge”-level room in the top-of-the-line Grand Floridian. Some of this is self-consciously whimsical. For example, the luxurious Polynesian resort has almost nothing to do with the actual South Seas, but is, rather, a sort of giant 1960s tiki bar. On the other hand, the Wilderness Lodge does accurately evoke the Works Progress Administration-built National Parks lodges of the 1930s. (Disney employees, by the way, are a lot friendlier than park rangers.)
All of the academic literature positioning Disney World as a pilgrimage site makes clear how hard the company and its corps of “imagineers” (the Walt-coined neologism for the people who design the parks) have worked to make Disney a place set apart from the real world. Indeed, the Disney Company has made a hugely elaborate effort to do just this: Visitors following the official direction signs from the Orlando airport to the resort’s hub at the Transportation and Ticket Center outside Magic Kingdom Park will see only a handful of businesses and private houses during the 23-mile journey. The company, thanks to its enormous economic power, has bent a large part of Florida’s built environment to its will.
And yet, while set apart from daily life, Disney World is as diverse and democratic as America itself. There’s no real central theme that might be considered the apotheosis of the park. And while it certainly isn’t accessible to the truly poor—a lot of other things aren’t, either—a vast portion of America’s population can fully partake in everything Disney World offers. Unlike almost all other theme parks, Disney levels people in a peculiar way: Special needs children (my son among them) and the disabled can skip the sometimes-interminable lines whenever they want, but everyone else must either wait or take advantage of Disney’s Fast Pass system.
Even Disney’s governing structure embodies America. While Disney World is a private venture owned by the Disney Company’s stockholders, its size and success owe something to a peculiar deal with the state of Florida that gives the company vast powers over infrastructure and zoning through an entity called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Reedy Creek, Disney’s own government, follows open government laws and even holds elections. Only landowners, all of them affiliated with the company, can vote—but it shows that, even as a largely private venture, Disney World is not wholly independent of the state, and, like much of what Americans create, it can’t be considered either wholly public or wholly private.
For all of its pageantry, Disney World still casts a powerful emotional spell. Some of it is easy to see: The decommissioning of beloved rides has inspired protests more than once. Other things are much subtler: On dozens of visits to the park, I’ve never once heard a voice raised in genuine anger or seen someone deliberately littering. Disney World, quite simply, inspires good behavior. And it’s—really, honestly—a place of beauty. Sure, it’s stagey; but what great monument is not? It’s a real embodiment of American culture. And Disney World has become, perhaps in spite of itself, a real place.
Eli Lehrer is president of R Street.