If you ask people to describe Disney in a few words, you might hear: creative, kitschy, attention to detail, stimulating, commercial, innovative, but it’s unlikely you’ll hear the word transcendent—beyond or above the range of human experience.
I recently read a fascinating account of how Disneyland was conceived and built in Anaheim, California: “Disney’s Land” by Richard Snow, packed with amazing stories and people. There was practically zero spiritual dimension to this chronicle, but beneath everything was a man, albeit imperfect, with a deeply rooted yearning to express the beautiful and the good in his work.
Though Disney was a successful businessman, he often embarked on projects that few, if any, thought would be commercial successes, the film Fantasia and Disneyland prominent among them. In fact, everyone he consulted about the concept of Disneyland, family and business associates alike, thought it was foolish, and certainly a money loser, as “amusement parks” had acquired a reputation for being unprofitable and seedy. When someone suggested Disney had built Disneyland solely to make money, a man who worked on the project responded that at the time it seemed like nothing but a “get poor quick” scheme. Costs kept escalating, Disney kept demanding more attention to detail, and the “audience” for Disneyland was uncertain—would anyone come? In those days, few were clamoring for a new high priced amusement park.
When Augustine said, “My heart is restless and it shall not rest until it rests in Thee,” he wasn’t only referring to himself or to others explicitly seeking God, but all men and women who pursue earthly beauty, truth, and the good, because we’re wired to seek Divine Beauty, Truth, and the Good, and unless we trample it down it will keep calling us. Nothing I’ve read suggests Walt Disney was a religious man but this yearning resided within him too, expressing itself in the beauty, truth, and good he instilled in many of his films and in Disneyland, imperfect as they were. Such works might be called unintentional transcendence.
What was so beautiful and good about Disneyland? Built in the 1950s when progress in America meant more freeways, parking lots, far flung tract suburbs, downtowns decaying and dying, Disney’s Park idealized America’s turn of the century Main Street, a symbol of community and solidarity. Notwithstanding the forced perspective that made it appear taller than it was, his colorful and winsome castle seemed to soar to the heavens. Moreover, the beautiful grounds in the Park that went far beyond mere landscaping contrasted with what was happening in much of 1950s America where concrete, asphalt, and pipes were effacing forests, fields, and streams. What Disney seemed to be asking is why can’t we have both liberty and community, both healthy commerce and natural beauty? “Disney’s Land” suggests that revitalized main streets in many American towns were inspired in part by what people experienced in Disneyland.
In a small way, I helped Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, with Ave Maria University in southwest Florida, and for several years I worked in his vast Domino’s Farms office park in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The beauty and attention to detail that went into Domino’s Farms at Monaghan’s insistence: natural, dynamic beauty, including the grounds and bison, art gallery, chapel, half-mile plus copper roof, Frank Lloyd Wright and other “museums” along “Main Street”, could never have anticipated a commercial payback, but as with Disney he insisted on incorporating beauty and the good that transcended commercial considerations. In Monaghan’s case, Domino’s Farms’ transcendence was intentional, even more so with Ave Maria University and its grand Oratory.
A closing observation about Walt Disney and unintentional transcendence. If he hadn’t been determined to create Disneyland in spite of all the naysayers, if it hadn’t succeeded beyond his wildest imagination prompting the search for a site for a second Disneyland with vastly more acreage, if Walt Disney World in Orlando hadn’t been built, if a small chapel hadn’t been constructed nearby to serve the throngs of visitors, then the beautiful Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe that replaced the small chapel and sits a few miles from the Magic Kingdom would not have come to be, reminding us that unintentional transcendence need not mean purposeless transcendence.
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