The Happiest Place in the World
Cathleen Kaveny November 17, 2008 - 8:52am
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.