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The Happiest Place in the World

After giving a talk in Northern California, I prepared for the long winter in Indiana by going on a trip with family to Disneyland--which advertises itself as the "Happiest Place in the World."You know what--it just well might be.First of all, the weather --Southern California in mid-November. It was 85 degrees, with a cloudless sky, no humidity. I understand why people in Southern California want to live forever--from a visitor's perspective, they're already in paradise.Second, I've never been anyplace that is so, well, spotlessly perfect. Not a piece of trash in sight. The rides don't have any dust on them. As you walk up Downtown Disney to enter the park, late 80s and early 90s soft rock is playing (for the pocketbooks, uh, parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents), and the air is scented with jasmine.Third, it's really diverse. Not merely ethnically diverse--all the announcements are in Spanish and some in Japanese. But I've never seen so many people with disabilities, and Down's Syndrome kids, and people of varying ages, in one place. Disney seamlessly accommodates them--providing strollers for kids, and wheelchairs and scooters for others. All the kiddie rides have stroller parking. But it's more than facilities. I saw a rather large teenage boy with Down's throw his arms around Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and she happily and warmly hugged him right back. He was over the moon. They've trained their people very well.So what about happiness?As far as I could tell, the happiest people were the 8-10 year olds. They had a comparatively large amount of freedom (Cell phones provide constant contact). And the bigger rides were great for them. The unhappiest people were the 1-3 year olds. Alas, most of their time was spent in a stroller; their parents were terrified of losing them, they couldn't really see the point of waiting in line --which there's a lot of at Disneyland -- and were understandably upset when their parents spoke sharply to them for making a break for it.Parents--well, I think there is a spirituality to Disneyland--you need to give up what you think the child should be having fun on, and let the child have fun on what the child wants to have fun on. That can be difficult and you have to draw a line somewhere--half an hour chasing a feather around the parking lot, say. But Disneyland isn't a set of tasks to be accomplishedTwo caveats for the dotcommonweal crowd.1. As my sister observed, there is no irony at Disneyland. Moreover, there is no second naivete--there is only first naivete. Middle aged adults in mouse ears don't see themselves as recapturing their childhood. They've simply reentered it, full stop. And on your third trip to Fantasyland (where the Princesses live) don't try to strike up an adult conversation with a storybook character on the side--they don't break character. If irony is the way you cope with the spectacle of grown-up people dressed like characters from Snow White, well, find another way to cope. And don't say you'd like a beer--there's none in the park.2. It's extremely expensive. There's no getting around it. You can minimize it by not buying every souvenir thrust at you. But Disneyland is expensive --a once in a blue moon treat. And so you think about the disparities of rich and poor in this country as someone tries to get you to buy a picture of a child with Lilo and Stitch. But you push those thoughts out of your head for the day; you can't solve poverty at Disneyland --the happiest place in the world.P.S. I was at Disneyland, once before, briefly, as a graduate student, when the American Academy of Religion met at Anaheim. I remember going on the teacup ride with two now very distinguished theologians. But I won't reveal their names. I don't spin and tell.

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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Hi, Cathleen, some good observations. We've taken our family to both the California and Florida versions, and what you've noticed at -land also holds true at -world. You're right about how well-trained the staff is; the customer service attention to detail is legendary in business circles. Re: the expense: yes, it is expensive. Huge numbers of people just can't afford it. Hence the happiest place in the world perhaps should be billed 'The happiest (middle-class) place in the world'. And in that sense, I find it somewhat troubling. Amazingly perfect, civil, spotless, almost anti-septic - but not many poor people. Happiness happens when the poor are invisible. Disney - the place to escape the poor. Perhaps that's an aspect of the fantasy that Disney wants to plunge us into - a place to escape the cares of everyday life.I know this isn't the aspect of the experience you were commenting on, and I agree there are praiseworthy aspects of the Disney experience. I hope you don't mind the comment.

Jim, you're right--I found the expense/poverty issue remained just below the surface with me during the entire trip. You've made them explicit.

Cathleen, Great post; loved the ending:I don't spin and tell,Leaves one delirious.

What a thought provoking post and comments - as always.When reading of the young man with Down Syndrome and his embrace with Princess Aurora, I was reminded of the beautiful and present dignity of our very best altar server... a teenage boy with Down Syndrome. His attention and presence are remarkable and it was his image that I envisioned in the hug.Oh... and theologically spinning teacups, that is rich indeed. That and your discretion!

"There is no irony at Disneyland."This is a great quote, lol... I went to Disneyworld and found the same thing. The one negative to my own experience was the fact that "It's a Small World After All" remained lodged in my head for about two months.

you need to give up what you think the child should be having fun on, and let the child have fun on what the child wants to have fun on.How true that is -- and for any family outing, I think, not just Disneyland. I remember a family trip to Disney World when my little brother was 5 -- his favorite attraction was the "Delta Dreamflight" ride, which was basically a sponsor's advertisement in the middle of Tomorrowland. Extremely tame by Disney standards, but he wanted nothing more than to ride it again and again. (The good news: it was the one ride for which there was never a line!)

(The good news: it was the one ride for which there was never a line!)This can make the trip ordinary. But there is nothing like waiting for and seeing Mickey Mouse at the evening parade. This is la la land to the max. More poor people than we think go there.

BillHow do you mean "poor"? There is something sinister about the idea of la la land to the max. A day without irony is a dreadful thought.

The workers at Disneyland are not employees, but are called Cast Members. They observe strict dress codes, for example no facial hair. When not on duty they don't walk around the park but seem to pop in and out of underground tunnels near the ride where they work. Speaking of the underground at Disneyland it is amazing to visit, and they do have tours. Cast Members have multiple outfits in wardrobe ... one dirty, one to wear on the current day, and a clean one. There are hair stylists for the princesses. And magical waste management facilities to keep the park so clean. It is a city beneath a city.

I guess there's something to admire and to dread about a place where the streets and sidewalks are steam cleaned every night and graffiti is either removed or painted over within an hour of its discovery by the ever vigilant staff. I have a colleague at work who is very anti-Disney...crass consumerism he says, that sort of thing. His parents retired and moved to Orlando. As my colleague and his family made plans to fly to Orlando for a visit over Christmas several years ago, my colleague and his wife made a pact that there would be absolutely no mention of Disney World to their children (ages 5 to 8 or so)during the entire trip. Thinking they had successfully constructed a no-Disney holiday, they confidently flew into Orlando, only to be greeted at the airport by Mickey and Minnie waving at all the hysterically happy kids as they came off the plane.If the photos I saw upon my colleague's return to work were any indication, his kids had a great time on the tea cups. ;)

Thanks, Prof. Kaveny from pulling us away from the next USCCB tidbit of vacuity.A few personal reflections:a) my first visit to Disneyland was on my way to college in California - back then, I could pay my own way with friends who had collected coupons, etc. - that was back when you had tickets for every ride (A through E - E being the expensive rides); my family came out to visit the next year and using coupons again, they actually agreed to do a family trip to Disneyland - I was 18 at the time;b) your comments suggest that you do not have children of your own - that really does change the way you approach the "Disney Experience".....based on my sister's advice, we waited until the kids were in middle school to visit DisneyWorld. Flew free on our Southwest Airlines mileage and did 3 days.2 nites because of a deal we got. Agree with Jim - not sure how else you can afford it. And if you have been to Florida, you know that 3 days barely gets you anywhere but it was a wonderful vacation and helped strengthen the family, memories, etc. without breaking the bank. My daugheter returned a few years later as part of a school science trip and they got to do some experiements via the rides, inside the "land", etc.;c) we have been a vendor for Disney - their internal and external expectations for customer service set the bar extremely high. Many companies could learn a great deal from how Disney approaches not only business but their employees in terms of ongoing education, breaks, job rotation, compliments, awards, etc. Reality is that most jobs are very boring and repetitive in the "lands", HR must truly be creative;d) Disney has also led the way in terms of GREEN environment, use and reuse of water, solar/wind power; and go look at their Florida neighborhood community in terms of small town, oriented to the front porch, use of parks, sidewalks, recycling, you do not need a car. Again, something the nation could benefit from;e) Like Wal-mart, you can find holes and gaps in their business approach (the French Disneyland had to be completely re-tooled - it almost went under - too American). There are some wonderful high tech jobs behind the scenes - Pixar, development of new rides, shows, etc. At least in Florida, Disney is a huge employer of retired and semi-retired folks - common good. In fact, given our earlier blog, the American auto makers could learn a great deal from Disney - I don't think they will need any of the $700 billion bailout.

I can't stand Disney and all its works and all its pomps. It's typified for me by its desire to build a theme park on American history in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in fact on some of the historic battlegrounds of the Civil War. This is one of the few battles they have lost, thank God. Did you know that EPCOT was the acronym of Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Here is Walt Disney's vision for it: "It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities. In EPCOT, there will be no slum areas because we won't let them develop. There will be no landowners and therefore no voting control. People will rent houses instead of buying them, and at modest rentals. There will be no retirees; everyone must be employed." They were upset when the local Catholic diocese would not build a church within Celebration on the grounds that needs were met by two nearby parishes. "But the people of Celebration are different," the Disneyites complained in vain. Someone told me that there is no funeral parlor in Celebration; apparently people are not allowed to die there.Fascism with a smile button, I've heard it described. Everything is planned; nothing may be left to chance; and it must all be suffused with what we used to call "forced fun": You vill be happy!

EPCOT sounds a lot like Monaghan's Ave Maria-Land, all cookie-cutter wholesome, happy and smug.My beef with Disney is the fact that just about every time I saw a Disney movie as a kid with a dog or cat in it, it would be dead by the end of the picture with some poor kid crying over the corpse. I can't even look at the DVD cover for "Old Yeller" without choking up.

Joe K,Leave it up to you be Scrooge. Who would have thunk it?Back to terrible reality. Who are these educated Catholics?

That rules out Father Komonchak as having been on the teacup ride at Disneyland. ;)The mind boggles at what the Imagineers might have made of a Catholic church in Celebration. Pirates of the Catacombs? Animatronic popes? (Definitely time to change the subject.)

As I said, Fr. K., you can find holes and gaps in their approach or "ideology" if you want to call it that. I sure would not choose to live their full time and now that my kids are older, I doubt I will ever visit the "lands" again unless I have grandkids in tow.But, we can all learn something - even from Celebration. Its small town concept and GREEN approach is now being copied around the nation. Like the comparison to Ave Maria land or we could suggest the telephonic version, EWTN.

Father Komonchak,I am relieved to see that there was at least one dissenting voice in that chorus of apparently brainwashed Disney lovers. In that brave new world place where everything is so conspicuously perfect, how come they don't feel out of place? I personally need a little bit of trash to feel at home, as well as some chaos and disorganization! The opposite of Disney happiness: maybe New Orleans as it used to be during Mardi Gras.

Come on, guys. Does there always have to be such analysis? I suspect the happiness of heaven has a strong 9 to 10 year old approach to falling into God for one never ending ride full of surprises and wonderment after a long wait in line in the heat. The kids visiting Disney Land/World are just getting a foretaste. Cathleen's article was delightful.

Fr. K:Word. :)

I'm with you, JAK. I think that Disneyland would require an impossible suspension of disbelief -- no dust . Indeed! And who needs no dust.I'm with you too, Claire. Al least Marde Gras is realistic about human nature, which is a lot more interesting than Mickey Moise.. Marci Gras even has -- or had -- a sinister side. (I haven't been in 50 years.) Still, ai Mardi Gras optimism prevails, at least for a day. I suspect that's one reason writers like New Orleans.Furthermore, Mickey Mouse doesn't throw you pretty beads.

Kathleen--I woke up to snow this morning and a two-hour delay from school. Your post was mesmerizing, transporting me to another world! I also liked your ending, and your comments on poverty. California is a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there, thinking about the natural disasters that occur there on a regular basis. Happiness is made anywhere we, with our human minds, want to make it so! Thanks for this momentary upper!

Fr. KomonchakWell said!

Say it aint so, Joe!Well, I think we're attending the same conference at USC this February--there goes that field trip idea!How do you feel about the Universal Studios tour?

After this weekend's fires in SoCal I suspect that those who are delirious about living there might be thinking of a change.I live in NoCal and will take the possibility of earthquake versus the probability of firestorms that visit our southern brethern on an annual basis anytime.

Glad to se both (true) sides of the Disney phenomenon.But, personally, I'd take the Audobon camps or simple trips to Bryce (or Shenandoah and great smokies in the East) 2ith th3e great Skyline Drive ride.

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