Why Disney is like a secular religion for some superfans

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Tapestry53:52Disney adults and questions for dad

Deborah DeGiovine is unapologetic when she describes her household as a “Disney household.”

The mom of 5 estimates she has been to the sprawling Disney World theme park in Orlando 14 instances within the final 11 years. They often drive all the best way from their residence in Allentown, Pa., and lease a home within the metropolis reasonably than keep on the park’s official lodges to maintain journey bills beneath management.

The expertise is “unmatchable” to every other leisure exercise, she says.

“My favorite reminiscences are our children’ faces once they have been two and three and 4 years previous, assembly Mickey Mouse and simply gasping, like, oh, he is actual,” she instructed CBC Radio.

That’s simply certainly one of many life-affirming experiences she’s had on the House of Mouse. Other situations: she and her accomplice taking their triplets to have a good time their first birthday on the park. Their oldest daughter assembly Cinderella for the primary time, “with stars in her eyes.”

And DeGiovine’s spouse celebrating the tip of her first spherical of chemotherapy by taking the plunge down the Magic Kingdom’s Splash Mountain.

A visit down the favored trip Splash Mountain, seen right here in a file photograph from July 2020, was how Deborah DeGiovine’s spouse celebrated the tip of her first spherical of chemotherapy. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel by way of The Associated Press)

To DeGiovine — and others all over the world — visiting a Disney park is not simply a summer season trip. It’s the positioning for vital life occasions, and private that means which will border on the religious, and even spiritual.

“When you stroll into the Magic Kingdom, it is the scent, the colors, the clip-clopping of the horses. It’s the identical feeling you get while you stroll into a acquainted church,” she stated.

Jodi Eichler-Levine, a professor of spiritual research at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., has studied how world religions intersect with Walt Disney’s empire, and the way the model itself features as a sort of secular religion for many individuals.

“The method I method religion is as an space the place folks make deep that means of their lives, a area of group, and a area of the extraordinary. So you may see the ways in which the varied productions of the Walt Disney Company meets that sort of definition, both actually or on the very least … is very religion-adjacent,” she instructed Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

Jodi Eichler-Levine is a professor of spiritual research at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., the place she teaches a number of programs that look at the intersection between religion and popular culture. (Submitted by Jodi Eichler-Levine)

‘Disney adults’

That stage of Disney devotion, so to talk, got here beneath a social media microscope this summer season, when a submit on Reddit stoked the flames of debate on what it means to be a “Disney grownup.”

In it, a girl described having her “dream marriage ceremony” together with her fiance at Disney World in Orlando. The couple paid 1000’s of {dollars} to have Minnie and Mickey Mouse make a private look on the marriage ceremony — at the price of their catering finances, leaving their visitors unfed.

Redditors and others on social media lambasted the newlyweds. The submit was ultimately deleted, with some accusing the poster of fabricating the complete affair.

Eichler-Levine says that if archaeologists unearth the ruins of the Magic Kingdom 1,000 years sooner or later, with out figuring out what it truly was, they could simply conclude that it was a spiritual website, partly due to the central location of the Cinderella Castle. (John Raoux/The Associated Press)

But others introduced their ire not solely upon the couple however the wider group of so-called Disney adults whose fandom is extra akin to religion or fervour.

On Twitter, Eichler-Levine agreed that the marriage couple’s choice to not feed their visitors was a poor one. But she additionally urged folks to “cease pathologizing Disney adults.”

“People do not simply marry at Disney. They mourn misplaced kin at Disney. They go to Disney to have a good time surviving most cancers. They go there for one final journey earlier than they die,” she wrote.

A brand new custom

Hannah McKillop, a doctoral scholar in spiritual research on the University of Ottawa, says that whereas many Disney superfans may not instantly equate their fandom as one thing akin to religion, it may well nonetheless occupy a area of their lives that borders on the sacred.

“What I discovered actually fascinating is how well-liked proposals have been there, and that the {couples} had a lot of actually particular reminiscences collectively at Disney. So, by these reminiscences, it sort of turns into a particular area,” she instructed CBC Radio’s Day 6.

McKillop says that fewer individuals are figuring out as members of a spiritual custom than in years previous. Some individuals are discovering different communities or settings to fill within the rituals which can be misplaced alongside the best way — together with at a Disney theme park.

DeGiovine grew up within the Lutheran church, and her spouse was raised Catholic. But as a queer couple, she stated they discovered themselves as an alternative unwelcome, and even “persecuted,” by their very own communities.

Headshot of Hannah McKillop who is a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Ottawa.
Hannah McKillop is a doctoral scholar in spiritual research on the University of Ottawa who seems to be on the connection between identification and popular culture. (Submitted by Hannah McKillop)

Now their common pilgrimages to Disney World provide an alternate — full with rituals, group gatherings, and musical performances.

“If you have been to speak to non secular individuals who have made a trek to holy lands, I really feel like they might inform you a similar issues. Like they discuss what they’re anticipating, they discuss what they are going to pray for, why it is vital they are going,” she stated.

Capitalist congregation

It’s not misplaced on followers like McKillop or DeGiovine that the very place they ascribe private that means to is additionally a multi-billion-dollar firm.

McKillop famous that this should not disqualify Disney from the spirituality dialogue: in spite of everything, many religions have “a actually unlucky historical past of exploitation,” she stated.

She pointed to the Catholic Church’s use of financial indulgences — donations that may supposedly assure a member’s entry into heaven. Martin Luther’s opposition to indulgences ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation.

And extra not too long ago, so-called prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen have been criticized for accruing huge wealth on the expense of their congregations.

Hannah McKillop’s sister, Caitlin McKillop, has seen either side of the magic mirror, not less than insofar as what it takes to offer the Disney magic that delights 1000’s of park-goers day-after-day.

Caitlin, who additionally makes movies on YouTube about Disney and her fandom, spent 4 months in 2018 working at Disney World as a part of a school change program.

profile shot of a young woman with short blonde-ish hair and glasses in front of a background with several photographs and screenshots of Disney movies and live-action television shows.
Caitlin McKillop talks about Disney movies, Disney Channel packages and different media on her YouTube channel. She has almost 300,000 subscribers. (Caitlin McKillop/YouTube)

Her time was spent working at a reward store within the Animal Kingdom park, the place she was instructed to “give somebody that Disney magic, as they might say,” by interacting with visitors, complimenting any Disney swag they’re already carrying, and inspiring them to purchase extra merchandise.

“You do not receives a commission very a lot, and most of your fee goes to your dwelling bills and stuff like that. And then while you’re not working, you are in all probability on the park since you get a free go into the park. And so that you’re getting all of your a refund to Disney as soon as once more,” she stated.

“I imply, it was a nice expertise…. But the fee and the hours that you just’re working have been insane.”

Carys Craig, an affiliate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, says it is by no means a unhealthy concept to take a cautious method when interacting with a model as pervasive and worthwhile as Disney.

At the identical time, she notes that it isn’t totally as much as the corporate to outline what its tales and characters imply to its most devoted followers.

“I believe it is vital for us to acknowledge that … the company would not get to outline the importance of what it has created or what it owns, that it is truly that the buyer and the tradition and every of us that make the that means of the factor,” she stated.

What you make of it

Deborah DeGiovine says she’s effectively conscious of the contradictions inherent in making Disney World the vacation spot for her household’s common pilgrimages.

Recent modifications on the parks have given her some pause, corresponding to newer points of interest that demand a further cost on prime of normal admission. (She’s additionally much less enthusiastic by its latest acquisition of different main manufacturers corresponding to Marvel and Star Wars).

People attend the Happily Ever After fireworks show on the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom theme park in Orlando on July 30, 2022. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

But she says it is helped her be taught — and educate her kids — vital life classes about making the very best out of any state of affairs, regardless of the occasional bump within the street.

They’re planning their subsequent go to for early November. She hopes her spouse, who will probably be on and off most cancers therapy for the foreseeable future, will probably be in adequate well being for the journey.

“My youngsters have stated, like, ‘Are we going to go to Disney with Mommy once more?’ And I stated, ‘Yeah, we’re all the time going to go do Disney.'”


Interview with Jodi Eichler-Levine produced by Rosie Fernandez. Interview with Hannah McKillop produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke.

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