I am back from a three-day junket to Walt Disney World, visiting the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom with my Ukrainian wife and little girl. Perhaps this theme park tryptic could not offer a greater juxtaposition to most people’s lives in Ukraine, which are typically gritty and austere. There is no fantasyland in Ukraine; only millions of people trying to survive on an average salary of about $170.00 per month. In Ukraine fantasy is for children, and creativity is best exemplified by those gifted practitioners of artful corruption.
To experience The Magic Kingdom through the lens of my wife and seven-year-old girl produced a range of opinions like shrapnel from a split atom. I could not leave the park with a definitive statement of its intent. There is enough critical scholarship examining The Magic Kingdom as postmodern escapism, where a bricolage of real world symbols and artifacts are reconstituted in realms of alternative reality. But, at face value, what is wrong with this? For comparison, Eastern Orthodox iconography purposely represented the holy as straddling earthbound and divine planes. The brilliance of Orthodox art rested in its creativity to imagine existence beyond our mortal realm, and, like The Magic Kingdom, invites one into exploring the potential of dreams. The essence of faith is to imagine realms beyond us, and for billions of people it is their earthly work to move towards that realm.
Yet, this is largely where the comparison ends. Disney brands itself as “the place where dreams come true,” but is this correct? With perhaps with exception of schools and prisons, The Magic Kingdom is arguably the most mediated and hegemonic experience in America, where visitors are to perceive happiness in every crevice of the park. The extraordinary sequencing and detailing of every event, in combination with stringent employee training, leaves little room for personal expression or creative exploration. Yet contrary to the Disney’s theme, actualizing one’s dreams requires creativity, risk, and often feelings of perturbation as we challenge our stasis. We cannot decouple personal growth from manifesting our dreams, nor should we try. Yet, upon reflection we often see growth often as a gift of hardship, not the false pleasantries dictated at Disney.
Of course, the sleight-of-hand Disney makes is to mask whose dreams we are talking about. They are not helping us to manifest our dreams, rather for us to consume theirs, and in line with all corporate ethos, space is determined to maximize consumer spending. All narratives and attractions are beholden to a shopping experience that deserves scrutiny for how healthy it is for us. For example, while maybe we can tolerate endless numbers of little girls dressed up as princesses (maybe), do we really feel such behavior is healthy for adults?
Upon reaching the promised land of an attraction after long waits in line, my little girl often penetrated the veil of fantasy by noting, “Ted, this is not real.” She said this with a smile on her face and with no regret, a statement one would expect from a person many years beyond her age. My immediate reaction at first was to dispel her claim, believing we all deserve to feel the power of belief. But, I came to admire her insight; it is part of our journey to see truth and live from a place of truth.
“Are you having a good time?” I asked. She grabbed my hand, smiling, and proclaimed yes. And so, at the risk of sounding tawdry, the prize of the day truly ended up boiling down to the most simple and real thing of all: The joy of just being together, whatever we were doing.