tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, January 04, 2008

New Year's Day at Disney World

My family traveled to Disney World in Orlando for the New Year’s break, along with about a million other families from around the world. As we walked the streets of the Magic Kingdom on New Year’s Day, it seemed like everyone was here. I wondered: Why do they all come here?

Maybe it’s the weak dollar. The Euro and other foreign currencies are at historic highs against the American dollar, making it a very opportune time for foreigners to visit the United States. I heard many other languages being spoken by visitors around me.

But I suspect the reason throngs of people flock to Disney World is not so logical. A Disney vacation is clearly an emotional buy. If you thought about it too much, you wouldn’t do it. It’s too expensive, too hectic, and too crowded. When it comes to non-essentials, like winter vacations, people almost always buy with their heart, not their head. Walt Disney figured this out a long time ago.

The Disney experience appeals to the heart. It pushes the emotional hot buttons. We visited four theme parks in four days: Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. We experienced only a fraction of what each venue has to offer, but what we saw was tremendous – from the thrill show at the Hollywood Studios, to the musical version of Finding Nemo at the Animal Kingdom, to the Buzz Lightyear ride in TomorrowLand at the Magic Kingdom. All the buildings and infrastructure looked new and authentic, whether we were in recreated villages from around the world (Epcot), or recreated scenes of classic Americana from a century ago (Magic Kingdom).

The entertainment in the parks is magnificent. The stage shows featuring the various Disney characters are very well done, with music, dancing, amazing costumes, and even fireworks. I liked the stage version of The Little Mermaid we saw at Hollywood Studios, and I liked the behind-the-scenes look they gave us at the soundstage featuring The Chronicles of Narnia.

I am intrigued by Walt Disney who created all this – not bad for a story teller. Sure, he was a businessman and movie maker, but his core ability is telling stories. And people have been attracted to his stories for decades. Often he does not even tell his own stories, but stories written by others. But he chooses good stories and tells them in a compelling fashion.

Essentially, the stories typically involve someone looking for happiness. In those stories, happiness is usually equated with finding the love of your life. Some good-versus-evil conflict often adds depth to the story. In the Disney version of the Hans Christian Andersen story, the Little Mermaid, for example, Ariel puts her soul on the line and gives up her voice for a three-day shot at the love of her life. I think the story is relevant today in a culture that regularly encourages young women to trade a valuable, un-retrievable personal asset for a chance at love.

There is something about the whole Disney experience, however, that has always rubbed me the wrong way. I used to think it was the commercialism, and gross over-exposure of the brand. But watching Mickey, Minnie and others dance on the stage in front of the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom made me realize it is something else. The theme of the 20-minute song-and-dance was “believe in yourself.” At one point, Mickey says:
“All things are possible if you just believe in yourself.” Well, I think I have heard that before, only Mickey changed the last word. All things are possible if you believe in God. Believing in yourself is important, but useless if you don’t believe in God first. The God part of the message is never communicated. That is a sorry omission.

I liked the Disney parks, and my family will probably return at some point. People of any age can have a great time there. Disney tells a great story, whether that’s in the form of a movie, stage play or some kind of roller coaster ride. But it would be a mistake to look to Disney for theology. If you keep in mind that the theme parks are all fantasy, you won’t be misguided.

1 comment:

jackie said...

I agree with you that a Disney vacation is pure fantasy. (Or pure folly.) After all, every employee, from the soda jerk to the parking lot attendant, is called "cast member." It's like falling down the rabbit hole. Disney's dream was to provide a place for families to be together to be entertained. He emerged from Hollywood, recall. Too bad his entertainment "Mecca" totally ignores God; when viewed on this plane, the cost of providing a family with a Disney holiday could far exceed the necessary cash outlay.