Ross Douthat: What a visit to Disney World reveals about America

What happened to the spirt of Apollo? It’s building the Avatar Flight of Passage simulation.

Walt Disney World is back in the culture-war news this week, thanks to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointment of a new board, filled with his ideological allies, to oversee infrastructure in Disney’s Florida real estate empire. As it happens, I’m now a certified expert on Disney World, as my wife and I recently took our children there for the first time, and let me tell you, there’s a lot to say about the place. Our several days there were intense enough that I could probably get multiple newsletters out of the experience, but I’ll just try to cram a bunch of ideas into this one, much the way I packed my kids into roller coaster cars and sent them hurtling away.

First, to get the explicit culture-war stuff out of the way: To go deep into the temples of the Disney imaginarium is to feel the irrelevance of any merely political assault upon its cultural position. DeSantis’ conflict with Disney matters a great deal for the future of corporate political engagement, which had been trending in a culturally progressive direction and for a time seemed capable of running roughshod over even Republican governors, but seems to have reached the limits of its influence in Florida.

But even if DeSantis’ newly appointed board imagines that it’s going to leverage, say, a sewage dispute to fight wokeness in cartoons, the way ideology generally manifests in Disney’s content just doesn’t seem amenable to that kind of censorious pressure. I’ve written recently that the Great Awokening has arguably had more influence on children’s entertainment — Disney entertainment very much included — than on other aspects of pop culture. But that influence doesn’t usually take the form of overt political propaganda, because the whole Disney enterprise is a vast sublimation machine, where whatever values seem enlightened at a given juncture (Roosevelt-era liberal, 1990s liberal, woke) are subsumed into fairy-tale structures in ways that aren’t explicitly political and are more powerful precisely because they aren’t.

To the extent that a Disney production manifests the sort of obvious and literal-minded progressive messaging that might outrage some Republican official, it is already failing by the Mouse’s own standards, and is destined for obsolescence no matter what. What survives to become fixed in the Disney canon has to feel deeply in tune with its vast and bipartisan audience even when there’s some kind of ideological vision underneath. Politics is welcome in the temple, but never nakedly or openly, never crudely — only clothed in the robes of princesses and filtered through the lyrics of Howard Ashman or Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Now let’s talk about the temple itself, by linking the Disney experience to three of my familiar themes. First, a comment on Disney World and decadence: It’s impossible to spend even a small amount of time in the park system and not be impressed by how well things work; by the efficiency and attention to detail, by the punctiliousness and cleanliness married to a keen sense of what makes streetscapes and architecture pleasing to the eye. There’s no stagnation and decay, no unfashionable eyesores, no dissonance between the care taken with one era or style versus another. The old portions are perfectly preserved, as if by the most NIMBY-ish historical preservation board — and yet right there, in their literal backyard, rise the newer portions, the Star Wars district and the Avatar experience, offering the best of current theme park technologies to match the lovingly maintained anachronisms.

There’s a lot of commentary nowadays about how America struggles to build things, struggles to make use of our human capital and talents, letting our infrastructure decay while new projects are mummified in bureaucratic tape. No such sense of futility exists in Disney World, however, where infrastructure sparkles, the new matches or exceeds the old, there’s no post-COVID hangover and everywhere you have the sense of keen intelligences being put to work. (Just one example I found myself turning over, the safaris in the Animal Kingdom: Think how much effort, planning and zoological and technical know-how must have gone into creating a habitat where you can run crowds of parkgoers through in buses and create the illusion of jungle and savanna with charismatic megafauna visible at every turn.)

What happened to the America that put a man on the moon, you might ask? My friends, that can-do America still exists — it’s busy building rides at Disney. The spirit of the Apollo program lives on in the Avatar Flight of Passage simulation (highly recommended!), a crowning example of genius operating under decadent conditions, building not the Martian colonies we once imagined but the most amazing amusements.

Next, a comment on Disney World and meritocracy: The one thing that isn’t efficient about the parks, for their customers, is the endless-seeming, near-eternal lines in the higher traffic seasons. We were warned by all our fellow overeducated professionals that the only way to cope with this reality was to buy into the park’s app-based “Genie+” and “Lightning Lane” system, where for a relatively modest fee you can schedule a quicker entrance into some number of major rides each day. But nothing about those warnings really prepared us for the reality of that system’s complexity, the demands it places on even the tech-savvy parkgoer to watch and maneuver and strike when the opportunity presents itself — seizing restaurant reservations as well as rides, balancing bus times against Lightning Lane windows against the need for naps and refreshments, the park experience mediated constantly through the iPhone screen. Only the distant, godlike interventions of an old friend and Disney veteran enabled us neophytes to navigate the system, to reach Space Mountain at an acceptable time or collapse, exhausted, at the Tusker House buffet.

And all of this, it occurred to me partway through, was perfectly calibrated to a meritocratic sensibility — the desire to be privileged and yet feel yourself to be constantly earning that privilege, constantly justifying it through your outsize efforts, your stressful overwork. Because what we were doing was living as aristocrats, buying unfair advantages over the sunbaked masses in the standby line. But in making that aristocratic lifestyle so stressful, so dependent on complex navigation and our friend’s remotely dispensed expertise, we were graced with the feeling that maybe we actually deserved this advantage. We weren’t doing anything as crude as cutting the line. Like our college-applicant selves so long ago, we were just passing a test.

Finally, a comment on Disney World and post-Christian religious faith: Last year there was a brief Twitter debate around this thread from Lehigh University professor Jodi Eichler-Levine, in which she took the concept of “Disney adults” — grown-ups who love and return obsessively to the Disney experience in a way that’s independent of any child-rearing obligation — and urged people to stop “pathologizing” them, because they’re getting from Disney the same kinds of things that other people get from traditional forms of religion.

“People don’t just marry at Disney,” she tweeted. “They mourn lost relatives at Disney. They go to Disney to celebrate surviving cancer. They go there for one last trip before they die.” The Magic Kingdom fireworks show is “an altar call if ever there was one.” Measured “not by its truth-claims” but rather by “its power in people’s lives,” the Disney experience “is as much a religion as anything.”

This all seems true without necessarily vindicating her claim that one should withhold judgment on parishioners at the church of Disney: Something can function as a religion without being a particularly healthy form of faith, and maybe it’s OK to worry a little about people who seek ultimate meaning in what is, at bottom, a temple built to separate them from as much of their savings as possible.

But could the church of Disney point beyond itself in some way? Taken on its own, its spirituality and theology are pretty limited — true love, self-fulfillment, lately a dose of the therapeutic style. But we ended our Disney World visit in the Animal Kingdom, going through the Avatar-themed rides (drenched in pantheism, like their source material) and then heading out as dusk fell over the vast (artificial) Tree of Life at the center of that park, its trunk carved with a bestiary and its leaves suffused by colors for the park’s magic-hour light show.

There was a big crowd gathered near its rearing shape, watching both the lights and the images of the natural world projected on the trunk — a show called “Tree of Life Awakenings,” though I didn’t know that at the time. And there was a different vibe there than at the fireworks show; less celebratory and boisterous, more meditative and awe-struck, with people in a lotus position or taking other pious-seeming postures toward the tree, the show, the lights, the visions of the natural world.

It felt a little different from the rest of Disney World — more reverent than the other quasi-religious elements, less nakedly commercial, more distant from Disney’s 20th-century origins, an intimation of a 21st-century paganism or pantheism slowly taking over the Mouse Cult from within.

And then we left the scene and went out, closing the app for the last time, looking for where the bus back to our hotel was waiting — precisely and predictably on time.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.