Pop Culture & the Universalization of Religion through Disney: An Emic Perspective

About the Author:  Lizabeth Lyon-Brown is a Religious Studies major (philosophy minor) at Georgia State University.  Her focus is on ethics, pre-Christian, and early-Christian Europe (500 bce to 500 ce).  She plans to pursue a Master’s and Ph.D. in Religious Studies, possibly in Europe.

By Lizabeth Lyon-Brown, Georgia State University

Is it possible to have a new religious symbol in the 21st Century?  How about this Image:  Take three circles, two are the same size but smaller than the third.  A circle is a clean and even symbol that translates into every language, nationality, and religion.  Now take those three circles and place the two smaller ones on top of the third at the 10 and 2 positions of a clock.  Those three circles together, in this new symbol, now bring to mind Mickey Mouse, Disney, and all that goes with it.  Other ‘legitimate religions’ would balk at the thought of a new secular religion and religious symbol.  They would denounce Disney as an illegitimate religion.  But even the three most populous religions have their detractors.  David Chidester defines religion as: an arena of human activity marked by the concerns of the transcendent, the sacred, the ultimate – concerns that enable people to experiment with what it means to be human. [i]   Using this definition of religion, I will show the many ways Disney functions, for millions of people around the world, as a religion.  Universalizing many stories taken from all walks-of-life.  Making this a human story.

The date is the end of the Twentieth Century and the beginning of the next.  The place is Anywhere, America and the home belongs to the average Joe.  The father comes home and prepares to watch college basketball, he checks CNN on his laptop for pre-game news and reads an article about the “Cinderella Story” player that is going to “The Ball.”[ii]   He watches the game and “Cinderella” wins.  Afterwards, the player is interviewed.  When asked what he plans to do next, he answers, “I’m going to Disney World!”  The father jumps up and down with joy and excitement.

Disney has so permeated every part of American life that it seems natural for it to be included in a national news article about a college sports team.  Disney becomes an expected response to the question: what comes after an achievement?  Americans go and pay homage.  They go to Mecca.  They go to their religion’s holy ground.  They go to Disney World.

From the top please!

How did this new religion start?  Well, let us take a step back in time, and start at the beginning.  Mickey Mouse made his 1928 debut in Steamboat Willie.  It was the beginning of a love affair that has endured to this day.  In 1937, the first of the European fairytales followed in the form of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  Before Walt Disney died in 1967, he had produced seventeen feature length animated cartoons.  Of those seventeen, fourteen were based on European fairy or folk tales.  These stories were not told in their original forms.  They were homogenized, or universalized to make them simpler for the children, less frightening.

While these stories were simpler, they had one common theme: the triumph of good over evil.  These fairytales, from Snow White, to Cinderella, to Sleeping Beauty, all paint a picture of fantasy.  They are part of what is sacred in the world of Disney.  They help tell the Disney myth.  These original animations are a part of Disney religious texts.  Of course, these texts are a bit different from the usual books written about “thou shalt not”, as the Disney mythos is “written” in the movies. 

The Disney narratives have similarities; they are all stories of being true to yourself, good triumphing over evil, and being good, kind, and forgiving.  All values American’s would want to instill in their children in the 1940s and 1950s, the timeline in which these movies were made.

The narratives were made available to the public at large, in a way that might not have happened had Walt Disney not made his films.  The public acquired a familiarity with the stories, albeit in a simpler version, and because of this, a completely new world opened to the public.  These stories played over-and-over at the movie theater and they were incorporated into books, allowing parents to read the narratives to their children at night.  And, in case the movies and books were not enough, Walt Disney had the first park built in southern California, which opened in 1955.  With the second, larger and more expansive park built in central Florida in 1971.

I’ve got some swampland for sale, cheap!

With the land purchase in central Florida, Walt Disney was able to make Disney World just as he had always imagined.  The transformation began with swampland and through the magic of Walt Disney’s creative vision, “the popular culture capital of America”[iii] materialized. 

Like Mecca and other sacred pilgrimage sites, Disney World is separate, set apart from the rest of the world.  You have to travel to get there.  When entering the property, there is a liminal transition, allowing you entrance into the beginning of the magic.  You leave your car, the last part of your original self, in the parking lot and board a tram that takes you to either a monorail, which travels around the lake or a boat that traverses the lake.  Both forms of transportation moves you through liminal space and toward your final destination—the entrance to the main park.  It was a pilgrimage just to get this far and once through the last stage of liminal transition, there is now only one-way to walk: straight down Main Street, USA.

One thing you will notice while walking down Main Street, USA (in any one of the parks) is that you will see every possible building except a church.[iv]  This was done on purpose.  According to Bob Thomas, “Walt considered himself religious, but he still admired and respected every religion.”[v]  That meant leaving overtly religious symbols out of the parks and the movies.  While visitors may not encounter a Christian cross, Jewish Star of David, or any other popular religious symbol, they will see, if they look closely, the hidden Mickey’s[vi]

Throughout the park, visitors will find the religious symbol of Disney–Mickey Mouse.  The flowers are arranged to bloom in that shape; the fences along the pathways proudly display Mickey’s familiar face; the artwork found on many walls and buildings include hidden Mickey images; the signs outside the stores and restaurants all include the iconic Mickey Mouse form.  Some are easy to spot, while others tease passersby with their implied presence. 

If this were a church or a synagogue, would it be that unusual to see religious icons everywhere?  To see it’s mythos displayed on the walls in story forms for the masses to read about?  In many churches, visitors encounter important biblical stories artistically displayed on the walls or in the form of stained glass windows.  These visual sacred narratives help people to learn, from an early age, the important stories of that particular tradition. 

For Disney, it is no different.  They display their myths on their walls.  Their religious symbols are incorporated into the overall landscape of the park.  These symbols, like the artist’s renderings in churches and synagogues, transmit Disney’s mythos—sacred narratives—to children and adults alike.  This transmission is not done through marble, stone, or stained glass but through the modern medium of animation.  But are they really that different?

The participants in the rituals that take place around Disney World are fully enveloped in the Disney religion.  They have transcended the everyday hustle and bustle of the world, and are living every moment within the fantasy created by Disney.  They are surrounded by the symbols and the myths of the religion.  They have entered into sacred space.  These participants come from, as I said earlier, Anywhere, America.  Nobody knows which participant is a bank president, a landscaper, a stay-at-home mother of three, or a university professor working on her fourth book.  Everyone who journeys to Disney is treated as a prince or princess, no matter their age.  This universalizing aspect helps the participants to relax into their ‘roles’ and helps sustain the fantasy for everyone.

Cher Krause Knight, in her article on Disney World and pilgrimage, discusses how the movements of Disney visitors are controlled and how that optimizes the pilgrimage experience.  She continues with,

There is an intellectual and moral uniformity of conduct and thought among the pilgrims, whose goals and moral ideals are higher than in the everyday world.  At Disney, these goals and ideals are nothing short of universal niceness and total world peace, in a Disneyfied context, of course[vii] (page 34).

The pilgrims want to follow the rules set forth by Disney; rules that, time-and-again, play out and are experienced in and through Disney movies.  Follow the rules, as the characters do, and you too can live happily ever after, at least for as long as you are here—in sacred Disney space.

Eventually all pilgrims must return home.  Slowly retracing the steps outward, passing through the same transitions that now, reintroduce them back into the ordinary world.  They reemerge, changed in some way.  The average American family takes with them fond memories of their Disney experience and commemorates their visit with their own “everyone must have their picture taken from here” family photo.  Families are changed through their Disney experience.  They retain, forever, those cherished memories and will reminisce about the time they spent there.

Where to now?

EuroDisney opened in 1992 to mixed reviews but after many behind the scene changes, including a name change, Disneyland Paris found firm footing on the road to success.  It is here that Walt Disney returns the reimagined European castle—a Disneyfied castle—complete with narratives, myths, and the Disney religion.  A new European Disney Mecca.

European pilgrims are akin to American pilgrims.  Disney was not new to Europe, as many Europeans had journeyed to Florida in search of the Disney experience.  The creation of Disneyland Paris was, in some ways, a homecoming—a return to the land where the stories began—where the inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle is just a day’s drive away.[viii] Visitors still have the pilgrimage-like experience.  They negotiate liminal space through different transitions.  They move from profane space to sacred space and ultimately end up at Main Street, USA.  The icons are the same, Mickey’s face still smiles on all visitors, and the myths are unchanged.  Yet the visitor is in another country, another continent.  The experience is pure Disney, as it is in California or Florida.  Time and space seem to stop and yet bend at the same time.  Time exists only through the change of seasons and the seasonal Disney parades that follow the march of the calendar.  The uniqueness, the sameness that pilgrims encounter, regardless of which park they visit, unifies the feelings of all those that choose to experience the religious overtones of Disney.  Yes, the stories that were originally told by the Europeans are coming back to them in a different form, but for the pilgrims at Disneyland Paris, there doesn’t seem to be a negative care about it.

A new religion?

Since its inception, Disney has given immense joy and happiness to children and families from all over the world.  It has done so through its theme parks and movies—movies that offer a type of mythos to its audience, with leading characters such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White all portraying images of people following the rules and ultimately triumphing over evil.  Disney is a Mecca to which pilgrims travel but it is not a single sacred place.  The varied locations allow pilgrims to choose their destination, but in all, they are sure to encounter the three simple circles that form the now famous Mickey head and the possibility of a new religious icon. 

Almost 15 million pilgrims traveled to California in 2009 to visit Mickey Mouse.  That same year more than 41 million visited the various Disney themed parks in Florida, with over 17 million visiting Mickey Mouse specifically.  Tokyo Disney saw 13.5 million visitors in 2009, and Disneyland Paris welcomed just under 13 million, while Hong Kong received 4.6 million.[ix]  These numbers are interesting in light of the world’s economy.  There are always certain things that people cannot live without.  Religion is one of those.  These numbers seem to indicate that many find joy and comfort in the Disney stories, myths, and movies.

Forty-five years after his death in 1966, Walt Disney’s company, his dreams of magical cities, and his beloved Mickey Mouse have endured.  Mickey Mouse seems stronger than ever these days, as visitors to Disney parks are expected to reach 100 million in the very near future.  Walt Disney dreamed of bringing happiness to children;[x] most anyone would say he has succeeded. 

Disney’s success has transcended the simple animated stories with which it began.  Disney has become so much more; it has grown into a myth of its own making, reaching people worldwide.  Pilgrims travel to the parks to experience and participate in a special fantasy, one that escapes the bounds of time and space, and pay homage to Mickey: the Mouse that started it all.  The pilgrims wait patiently in long lines, entertained along the way by classic movies, to have their individual photos taken with the iconic Mickey Mouse.  These photos are taken home, framed, and looked back upon with fond memories.  Future visits produce more photos, which are hung next to the first ones, recording the physical changes of the pilgrims and noting the unchanged, timelessness of Mickey who is forever joyful and welcoming.  Time stands still for Mickey.

In the end, it is up to the reader to decide.  Does Disney have the attributes of a religion?  Does it function like a religion?  Would a churchgoer see it as a religion?  The pilgrims who visit the parks year-after-year, do they see it?  Or, is Disney just another corporation?  Maybe the answer is a little of both?


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