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Walt Disney and unintentional transcendence

We’re wired to seek Divine Beauty, Truth, and the Good, and unless we trample it down it will keep calling us.

(Image: Glenn Haertlein | Unsplash.com)

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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About Thomas M. Doran 65 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), and its 2018 sequel, The Lucifer Ego. He has worked on hundreds of environmental projects for four decades. He’s a Fellow of The Engineering Society of Detroit and was an adjunct professor of civil/environmental engineering at Lawrence Technological University.

8 Comments

  1. These days, giving my hard earned money to an outfit like Disney tends to go against my principles but I do have to admit that the attention to detail & landscaping at Disney World is pretty amazing.
    Imagine what a better experience it would be if Walt Disney were still in charge of things.

  2. She said she can’t wait to revisit Disneyland in response to where she liked to get away. She was curious as to where I was headed with all the fishing gear supplies told her San Diego. A young supermarket check out girl opened my mind to Disneyland having value rather than writing it off. I like Doran’s insight on unintended transcendence summing it up with our National Basilica. The blue lit castle appeals to lost beauty. A good reminder.

    • My thought not expressed regards the young lady was that if Disneyland as she exclaimed made her happy, filled with good will about life [what the Disney concept conveys] however playful and cartoonish in a depraved world [the Phoenix neighborhood there was depraved] it has value. It’s certainly not The Rings Nordic based fantasy with moral overtones as Sol suggests should be the case. Like Roger Scruton says in the Elegy article laughter is an important dynamic for social integration. I would add emotional well being.

  3. Artificial developments made possible by cheap energy, having no connection to the local people or culture. Tolkien and the distributists would be rightly critical of this essay.

    • “Artificial developments made possible by cheap energy, having no connection to the local people or culture.”

      *********

      For better or worse, that’s pretty much been Florida’s story for the last century & more. Air conditioning really sped up the process.

  4. Having read a while ago, how there is an underlying theme of scorn being conveyed through the characters – a mouse to scorn the power of a powerful Archangel , a red clad rather silly character , to serve as a mockery of the warmth and love in the tender wounded Heart of The Mother ..and hiding the truth as to how life can become meaningless , when only viewed for the cookie jar of empty pleasures alone ..
    https://atxcatholic.com/index.php/2017/09/angels-dragons-iii-st-michael-relic-stone/#.XicmhMhKiUk
    Hope many would use the help given us all in these times , through His powerful friends , the holy angels too , to thus be vigilant against the beast like the leopard , there to bite off chunks of truth of what sacredness is all about , in the grace and strength given us all , to also take up and offer up sufferings , the wounds that harbor the spirits , to be set free , in Him .
    May the prayers of St.Agnes help us all, so that the gift of purity of hearts is desired for , offering same , to bring its lasting peace and joy and blessings , free of all scorn for what God can do with same . That , in turn to help with more wisdom in choices such that , desire for visits to places of ‘fun ‘ do not become idols , instead to even become occasions of deliverance prayers too , that there would be sort of an aversion , as was the case for the Israelites who cried for the meats of Egypt , for places of gambling too , that instead , families would yearn for good pilgrimages and such .
    Same thus to help avoid or bring speedy resolutions for the
    unasked for ‘entertainments ‘ being played out , from the capital on down .

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