Disneyland as Sacred Landscape

This month’s Myth Café prompt is to consider a sacred landscape either around us or that we have visited. The catch to the prompt is that it is supposed to be a natural landscape. Because if it were just any old landscape, then I could write about Disneyland and call it a day. I’ve been sitting on this question now for a few weeks, and realize that I need to tackle this prompt before the end of the month. So, here it is: Disneyland as Sacred Landscape.

The first question to the validity of this claim lies in the word “sacred,” which evokes a particular connotation in scholars depending on how they relate to sacred traditions. My inner post-modernist holds the opinion that there are some definitions (okay, many definitions) of terms that have gotten outmoded in the modern American world. “Sacred” is one of them. The traditional definition is specific: that to be “sacred” something has to have a divine/religious connotation, and that nothing outside of this connotation can be ascribed with “sacred” meaning. But there are some situations that manifest and are ascribed as “sacred” by the person holding the experience. This understanding of “sacred” is not a generic blanket term for all experiences, but is housed entirely in the individual experience.

Going a step further, there are certain experiences of the numinous that some people claim to have from non-religious modes of the “sacred.” This does not diminish the experience as something mis-guided, etc. Rather, it begs a redefinition of terms to acknowledge the individual experience.

Disneyland is one such place that evokes a sense of the sacred” in some people. You can see it in their eyes and in the reverence they hold for the place, drinking up all of its offerings, not just running from shop to attraction to shop to lunch (i.e., consuming the park). Sure, they are sometimes hard to find in a typical Disneyland visit, when everyone in the immediate vicinity is tired, hot, thirsty, and looking overall grumpy. It’s easy to claim that no one is happy in Disneyland, because so many children are crying and so many adults are yelling at each other or their kids. But for every 10 unhappy families, you can find a couple or two (perhaps they have kids) who are drinking the environment of Disneyland as though they were drinking from the Cup of Life. A churro becomes a sacrament. The fireworks becomes a display of the gods.

But there is nothing natural about Disneyland. In fact, almost the entire landscape is unnatural – either constructed or imported from regions beyond Southern California. I attempt to allude to the unnaturalness of Disneyland in this essay, while also arguing that it is through this unnaturalness that the experience is to be had:

Tamara Andrews suggests a new perspective of  nature mythology that is especially apropos to a discussion of psyche and nature as they play out at Disneyland: “Most people are familiar with the phenomenon of the mirage, an illusion that appears where images are displaced or distorted under specific atmospheric conditions. The mind’s eye takes over. Perhaps such vision is what is necessary to understand nature mythology from a modern perspective” (xiii). The Disney park is not itself an illusion, but that design of the park at play with the senses is. Through the efforts of the Imagineers, Disney’s design engineers, it sometimes appears as though magic really does happen, that birds can talk and sing, or that a little fairy dust can make one fly to Never Land. It is, thus, necessary to read Disneyland as a fairy tale, with all of its psychological implications, not just as an abomination of nature, as critics are wont to proclaim. Disneyland may embody capitalism, but the park is a playground for the imagination. It allows people to interact with the stories and characters they love, and thus embody the closest thing to a mythological canon American has to offer, á la fairy tales and the Western frontier.

The new directions that myth is taking appears to be pointing us toward the importance of the individual experience in conjunction with the collective. Discourse for the last 100 years (at least) has explored these as unique from each other, but really they work in symbiosis. What happens in the collective shapes the individual, who then contributes to the collective. So to write off something that a small percentage of the population holds, perhaps unconsciously, as sacred, is to overlook both the impact of that experience and what is has to suggest about the collective that such an experience could exist. On the collective level, Disneyland bespeaks to America’s consumerist behavior. On the individual level, Disneyland offers an outlet for domestic pilgrimage and ritual, celebrating not a god – one of the few sacred landscapes to do so – not even celebrating a mouse. Disneyland celebrates the American Dream, from Manifest Destiny to Innoventions. The American Dream, I suggest, is America’s religion. It’s the only common belief held by all of her citizens. Perhaps this Dream has gotten tarnished in the last few years, but only because the reality of our situation is falling very short of the Dream.

Going in a different direction, Disneyland once had an attraction that projected images of America in a 360-degree theater. It disappeared long before I first visited Disneyland, but this film was used in the 1950s at a World’s Fair to sell America to the rest of the world. The scenes used were landscape scenes from the Rockies, Mount Rushmore, and others. The emphasis was on the land not the people. Through this film (and it’s children and grandchildren, such as Soarin’), Disney reinforced a long-standing American mytheme that connects our identity with the land of the country or our region. Broadcast at Disneyland, this Circarama film was the ultimate meta-myth of American sacred tradition.

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