Day 6·Q&A

It might not be a religion, but Disney is sacred ground to its own congregation

Whether it’s movies, toys or theme parks, Disney continues to expand its global reach, and for some, is viewed as sacred. Religious studies scholar Hannah McKillop weighs in on Disney's societal impact, and why the terms sacred and religion should be kept separate.

The brand, for many people, has filled a space once left open for things like religion, researcher says

Illuminated Disney mouse ears glow on top of people's heads as lights project from water fountains and fire.
People wear illuminated mouse ears that change colours and blink in sync with images and lights at the Disney California Adventure Park. (David McNew/REUTERS)

A trip to Disney is like a pilgrimage to a sacred place for some people. Sure, many of us think of it merely as a cartoon-themed destination of carousels, castles and cotton candy. But to others it represents something far bigger.

Hannah McKillop, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Ottawa, recently wrote about Disney being treated as sacred and how that relates to religion. McKillop studies the connection between non-religious identity and popular culture. 

She spoke with Day 6 to share how people can find meaning outside of conventional religion, and inside a brand like Disney. 

What caught your attention and made you interested in this topic?

Disney is like a religion for adults who love it — people who go to the parks on a regular basis, they maybe will dress up, sort of looking like the characters, but in a way that's allowed in the park setting. What also caught my eye were events where people were hosting their proposal at a park. There was a couple who opted to have Minnie and Mickey at their wedding instead of catering. I think it just kind of highlighted for me how central Disney is to so many people's lives. From what I could see online, they were mostly framing it using religious language. 

Attendees visit a Disney Plus streaming service booth in Anaheim, Calif. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

When you talk about the pilgrimage, what do you mean? 

I guess it's a little more than just going to a theme park. When you see the character you love in person at a park, you can give them a hug, you can get their autograph, you can say hi to them in person, and especially for children, that's such a magical experience. But what's really, really cool, in my opinion, is adults just like fully embracing that and being like, "yes, I want to go. This is where I want to spend my money. This is special and meaningful to me in my life." So, when I'm considering sacredness and Disney, I'm looking at it within the framework of spending and identity, and what it means to treat Disney as sacred. 

What do you mean when you say people are treating Disney as sacred? 

A really popular, sacred text is the Bible. When you look at the Bible, it is a book. Now we have a whole community globally treating the Bible as sacred. There are beliefs and stories around it that kind of inform how people interact with it. When I'm thinking of sacredness in relation to Disney, I'm just thinking about how people can go and see a Disney movie and like, that's cool and that's fun. And, then they go home.

But then some people go and see a Disney movie and they're like, "oh my goodness — I identify so much with that story and those characters that maybe I cried, maybe I was emotional, maybe I feel compelled to buy merchandise that has those characters on it and wear it. Maybe I want to get a tattoo that expresses my closeness to these characters." I just think that that sort of love and attention and reverence towards Disney is just as legitimate as the love and reverence that people show for religious texts or other sacred practices. 

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What about this element of money? 

The money question is interesting, because often when people are hearing Disney and religion together, they're like, "that is a corporation that seems really exploitative. Disney is manufacturing an experience so that you will spend more money there." I don't want to shy away from that fact. It's kind of scary, the monopoly they've created, especially when you look at how they've taken over other huge cinematic universes with things like Star Wars and Marvel. 

You allude to there being figureheads in religion. Can you explain further? 

Yeah. I guess what's not so scary with Disney is that they aren't promising eternal life by spending your money there. What they are promising is making memories and a "happily ever after" feeling — which, yes, is maybe exploitation. I think what is really [interesting] about Disney is that people have genuine emotional experiences there. And, today less and less people are identifying with a religious tradition. There's less space for people to go and experience that sort of emotion. In a lot of my reading, what comes up is live music and how much of an experience that is and how important that is for individuals to have that space just to be a part of something bigger than themselves. That is something that I'm seeing happening at Disney as well. 

Headshot of Hannah McKillop who is a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Ottawa.
Hannah McKillop is a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Ottawa. (Submitted by Hannah McKillop)

How are major life events in terms of religion and Disney? Where is that crossover, that parallel? 

Yeah, there's a lot of crossover between major life events and Disney. I was doing a little bit of research on having weddings at Disney and, yes, it's expensive. But also, who wouldn't want to be a princess at Disney World and celebrate their wedding in that way? That seems pretty incredible. What I found really interesting is how popular proposals were there, and that the couples had a lot of really special memories together at Disney. So, through those memories, it kind of becomes a special space. I just think about how these moments used to happen in religious settings. 

In terms of finding Disney sacred, but not seeing it as a religion — can you expand on that? 

I think it's important to clarify the difference between religion, and treating something as sacred, because religion has a really problematic history. When people use it in their day-to-day life, we think we have an understanding of what it means. It's a really complicated thing to define. What I'm seeing online is a lot of people making fun of [Disney] as a result of that label. They're saying, "oh, it's religion. Oh, my goodness, that's ridiculous." I think what's important is to highlight what the term "religion" does in the popular discourse. And historically, it hasn't done very good things. I don't want to perpetuate that. It is sacred, though. Treating it as special. As reverent. 

The Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World is seen at the theme park in Florida. (John Raoux/The Associated Press)

What makes Disney something that invites meaning? Why do you think this particular space allows for people to make that kind of really intense connection? 

I think one of the reasons why Disney is such a great manufacturer of meaning is because their whole business is storytelling. There's always some sort of main message you leave the theatre with to ponder. That story element is what fosters nostalgia that keeps the Disney empire going. 

Why should we pay attention to where people are with their relationship with Disney? A sacredness outside of conventional religion, just overall? 

I think this is important because more and more people aren't identifying with traditional religion. What's really interesting is we don't understand that transition as well as we'd like to. I think the big one is that oftentimes people found community in religious settings, but moving away from that, they're looking into other avenues for community, for finding people who understand where they're coming from. I think this is a really cool celebration of nerd culture, of people just loving what they love and not really caring what other people think.

Written by Bob Becken. Radio segment produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke. Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.