Essay
Culture
6 min read

Disney at 100: The Magic Kingdom's simulation of modern life

Disney is more than a mouse and entertainment. Theologian Jared Stacy dissects how the Liturgy of Disney reflects modern America in all its contradictions.

Jared Stacy holds a Theological Ethics PhD from the University of Aberdeen. His research focuses conspiracy theory, politics, and evangelicalism.

A statue of Walt Disney holding hands with Mickey Mouse in front of Cinderella's Castle
The Magic Kingdom of Disney.

Walt Disney once said, “remember, it all started with a Mouse.” An incredible fact considering that after a century of Disney, it is impossible to describe and interpret our modern world without mentioning Disney, the Christian church included. Once, Disney came up during an interview I took for a pastoral role at an American megachurch. Those with experience in low church American contexts won’t be surprised at what comes next.

During the interview, the church’s creative director casually mentioned taking his entire creative team to Disney World. It hadn’t been a pleasure trip; church employees toured Disney’s backstage creative department for inspiration they could bring back to the church. For this church, the Disney company – its vision and practices – was an index for its own. 

Now, my hunch is this little anecdote will offend the sensibilities of readers who are practicing Christians in high church traditions. I might also guess it will equally offend secular readers who see Disney as the archetype of corporate greed, pushing glib, crass sentimentalism as art. Christian readers might share some of these criticisms as well. Together this is what, back in 2001, sociologist Alan Bryman recognized as the ‘Disneyization’ of society.

Disney... is not a purveyor of morality, but of product that must (like any good neoliberal agent) sail with the prevailing winds of market-based morality.

Disney In the crosshairs  

Bryman’s work demonstrates how most criticism of Disney tends to expand into criticism of modern life itself. . Walt Disney himself dedicated Disneyland at its opening in 1955 with the words: 

 “this park is dedicated to the hard facts that made America.”  

To talk about Disney and the modern world is ironically enough to talk Walt at his word. It means reflecting on modern America and globalization, and the economics, aesthetics, ethics, and politics which characterize it. 

I have more to say about this. But first, we need to tackle just where Disney sits today in the social and political moment.  

Disney today finds itself in a familiar position: fixed in the crosshairs of US conservatives waging the culture war. (Ironically, both culture war and Disney are some of America’s prime exports.) But Disney today is as wise to the market as it’s ever been. It is not a purveyor of morality, but of products that must (like any good neoliberal agent) sail with the prevailing winds of market-based morality. 

Disney promotes prevailing values domestically and does the same for values of the Chinese Communist Party internationally. For example, in its Stateside parks, Disney recently decolonized or altered some of its attractions. It re-themed Splash Mountain attraction, a water ride based on Walt Disney’s Song of the South film. The 1949 film is banned on Disney’s streaming platform. It traded in racist tropes and revisionist historical propaganda (often called the 'Lost Cause') which originated in the American South after the Civil War. Disney also altered a scene from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride which depicted women as victims of sex trafficking.  

These are surely good changes. But conservatives tend to categorize these changes, together with LGBTQ inclusivity efforts, under the appropriated phrase ‘woke’. Armed with a weaponized slogan, vapid reactionaries continue to influence popular sentiment on Disney. Meanwhile, Disney CEO Bob Iger met with the US Government’s House select committee on China. To discuss Disney’s censorship practices and production in the Chinese market.  

To talk about Disney in the present, immediate sense is to (among other things) grapple with the political power of corporations, the moralities that sustain market practices, and the formative power of binge-watching on human beings. But what about Disney in the broader sense? The Disney that is a window into the (failed) promises of modernity? These are promises and possibilities that continue to haunt us as well as shape us.

I can find no better word to describe Disney’s parks. Liturgy, both in the Greek and Christian sense, speaks to how the parks provide a public service and fuel a religious experience.

The “Liturgy” of Walt Disney  

At the end of his life, Walt Disney had more in common with Elon Musk than JK Rowling. He was more obsessed with harnessing technology in service of “progress”. His ultimate dream (called EPCOT or Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow) was envisioned as the sum total expression of his theme parks. Disney wanted to take all the lessons of Disneyland and redirect them towards the construction of a permanent, liveable World’s Fair expo in the backwater of Florida’s swamps.  

But EPCOT today is something of a simulacrum. It houses a World Showcase where you can stroll the streets of Paris, Piazza San Marco, or a Mayan pyramid that houses a water ride. Disney even hosts student worker programs to ensure that if you order fish and chips in its England, you will be served by someone from York, Surrey, or Manchester. But this is not what EPCOT was supposed to be. Walt envisioned it as a real time, fully functioning “city of tomorrow” where all the best and brightest of American Post-War technological might and efficiency would make the human society something called “better”. In short, EPCOT was Disney’s public works project.  

The ancient Greeks had a word for projects like this: “liturgy”. The English word comes to us from combining the Greek noun for “people” leitos or laos with the Greek verb for “working” ergos. Nowadays, we tend to associate liturgy with Christian tradition, particularly the external rites and forms of worship for the church. But the idea of Christian liturgy emerged from this Ancient Greek practice of private financing of public projects. George Tridimas  shows how these “works for the people” were originally a Greek form of politics. To the Athenians, liturgies were a symbiotic practice: the wealthy elite competing for the honor and power associated with a project, while each project served everyday citizens of Athens.  

I can find no better word to describe Disney’s parks. Liturgy, both in the Greek and Christian sense, speaks to how the parks provide a public service and fuel a religious experience. They are a public works project that continue to shape the American consciousness, directing its worship, which is inevitably exported too, through the medium of culture. If you doubt the religious factor of the parks, ask again why a church might find itself believing a tour of Disney serves its task of Christian proclamation and formation. This isn’t just crass entertainment, but a profound (yet often uninterrogated) influence.  

The parks exist as an inhabitable space that suspends the contradictions of modern life and actually resolves them in a simulated fashion. 

This is why I think Disney biography Neal Gabler puts his finger on the essence of Disney’s parks. He argued that the parks aren’t successful because they provide an 'escape' from reality, but because they provide a ‘better' reality than the one outside. In this sense, the Disney imagineers don’t just tell good stories, they master physical space. The parks continue to attract guests the world over not because of popular franchises, but because,as a public works project, the entire parks experience is a high-control, surveiled effort to provide public efficiency, thematic immersion, crowd control, transportation—all of it.  

The parks exist as an inhabitable space that suspends the contradictions of modern life and actually resolves them in a simulated fashion. To treat the parks as a tasteless venture into plastic sentimentalism obscures how the parks attempt to satisfy, at nearly every turn, the modern contradictions that shape our human experience. To say this experience is a religious one would not be far from the truth, the Athenian liturgy and Christian liturgy converging into one.  

This is one reason why, however tragic it may be, churches in America continue to emulate Imagineers. The architecure of churches constructed within and without Christendom have communicated transcendence. And in spite of America’s embrace of Protestantism, we should not be surprised that American Christian traditions continue to emulate Disney’s mastery of physical space in the key of modernity. I understand criticisms of all things Disney, from parks and art to economics and adult Disney fans. But the parks are a liturgical experience, both in a religious sense and in a public sense. To understanding the staying power and influence of Disney means grappling, at a human level, with the park experience as a simulated resolution of modern life, rather than an escape. 

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.