Why Disney is like a secular religion for some superfans
Visiting Disney World in Orlando is akin to a pilgrimage for Deborah DeGiovine and her family
Originally published on October 9, 2022.
Deborah DeGiovine is unapologetic when she describes her family as a "Disney family."
The mother of five estimates she has been to the sprawling Disney World theme park in Orlando 14 times in the last 11 years. They usually drive all the way from their home in Allentown, Pa., and rent a house in the city rather than stay at the park's official hotels to keep travel expenses under control.
The experience is "unmatchable" to any other leisure activity, she says.
"My favourite memories are our kids' faces when they were two and three and four years old, meeting Mickey Mouse and just gasping, like, oh, he's real," she told CBC Radio.
That's just one of many life-affirming experiences she's had at the House of Mouse. Other instances: she and her partner taking their triplets to celebrate their first birthday at the park. Their oldest daughter meeting Cinderella for the first time, "with stars in her eyes."
And DeGiovine's wife celebrating the end of her first round of chemotherapy by taking the plunge down the Magic Kingdom's Splash Mountain.
To DeGiovine — and others around the world — visiting a Disney park isn't just a summer vacation. It's the site for important life events, and personal meaning that may border on the spiritual, or even religious.
"When you walk into the Magic Kingdom, it's the smell, the colours, the clip-clopping of the horses. It's the same feeling you get when you walk into a familiar church," she said.
Jodi Eichler-Levine, a professor of religious studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., has studied how world religions intersect with Walt Disney's empire, and how the brand itself functions as a kind of secular religion for many people.
"The way I approach religion is as an area where people make deep meaning in their lives, a space of community, and a space of the extraordinary. So you can see the ways that the various productions of the Walt Disney Company meets that kind of definition, either literally or at the very least ... is very religion-adjacent," she told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.
That level of Disney devotion, so to speak, came under a social media microscope this summer, when a post on Reddit stoked the flames of debate on what it means to be a "Disney adult."
In it, a woman described having her "dream wedding" with her fiance at Disney World in Orlando. The couple paid thousands of dollars to have Minnie and Mickey Mouse make a personal appearance at the wedding — at the cost of their catering budget, leaving their guests unfed.
Redditors and others on social media lambasted the newlyweds. The post was eventually deleted, with some accusing the poster of fabricating the entire affair.
But others brought their ire not only upon the couple but the wider community of so-called Disney adults whose fandom is more akin to faith or fervour.
On Twitter, Eichler-Levine agreed that the wedding couple's decision not to feed their guests was a poor one. But she also urged people to "stop pathologizing Disney adults."
"People don't just marry at Disney. They mourn lost relatives at Disney. They go to Disney to celebrate surviving cancer. They go there for one last trip before they die," she wrote.
A new tradition
Hannah McKillop, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Ottawa, says that while many Disney superfans might not directly equate their fandom as something akin to faith, it can still occupy a space in their lives that borders on the sacred.
"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," she told CBC Radio's Day 6.
McKillop says that fewer people are identifying as members of a religious tradition than in years past. Some people are finding other communities or settings to fill in the rituals that are lost along the way — including at a Disney theme park.
DeGiovine grew up in the Lutheran church, and her wife was raised Catholic. But as a queer couple, she said they found themselves instead unwelcome, or even "persecuted," by their own communities.
Now their regular pilgrimages to Disney World offer an alternative — complete with rituals, community gatherings, and musical performances.
"If you were to talk to religious people who have made a trek to holy lands, I feel like they would tell you the same things. Like they talk about what they're expecting, they talk about what they're going to pray for, why it's important they're going," she said.
It's not lost on fans like McKillop or DeGiovine that the very place they ascribe personal meaning to is also a multi-billion-dollar company.
McKillop noted that this shouldn't disqualify Disney from the spirituality discussion: after all, many religions have "a really unfortunate history of exploitation," she said.
She pointed to the Catholic Church's use of monetary indulgences — donations that would supposedly guarantee a member's entry into heaven. Martin Luther's opposition to indulgences eventually led to the Protestant Reformation.
And more recently, so-called prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen have been criticized for accruing vast wealth at the expense of their congregations.
Hannah McKillop's sister, Caitlin McKillop, has seen both sides of the magic mirror, at least insofar as what it takes to provide the Disney magic that delights thousands of park-goers every day.
Caitlin, who also makes videos on YouTube about Disney and her fandom, spent four months in 2018 working at Disney World as part of a college exchange program.
Her time was spent working at a gift shop in the Animal Kingdom park, where she was instructed to "give someone that Disney magic, as they would say," by interacting with guests, complimenting any Disney swag they're already carrying, and encouraging them to buy more merchandise.
"You don't get paid very much, and most of your payment goes to your living expenses and stuff like that. And then when you're not working, you're probably at the park because you get a free pass into the park. And so you're giving all your money back to Disney once again," she said.
"I mean, it was a great experience.... But the payment and the hours that you're working were insane."
Carys Craig, an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, says it's never a bad idea to take a cautious approach when interacting with a brand as pervasive and profitable as Disney.
At the same time, she notes that it's not entirely up to the company to define what its stories and characters mean to its most devoted fans.
"I think it's important for us to recognize that ... the corporation doesn't get to define the significance of what it has created or what it owns, that it's actually that the consumer and the culture and each of us that make the meaning of the thing," she said.
What you make of it
Deborah DeGiovine says she's well aware of the contradictions inherent in making Disney World the destination for her family's regular pilgrimages.
Recent changes at the parks have given her some pause, such as newer attractions that demand an additional charge on top of regular admission. (She's also less enthusiastic by its recent acquisition of other major brands such as Marvel and Star Wars).
But she says it's helped her learn — and teach her children — important life lessons about making the best out of any situation, despite the occasional bump in the road.
They're planning their next visit for early November. She hopes her wife, who will likely be on and off cancer treatment for the foreseeable future, will be in good enough health for the trip.
"My kids have said, like, 'Are we going to go to Disney with Mommy again?' And I said, 'Yeah, we're always going to go do Disney.'"
Interview with Jodi Eichler-Levine produced by Rosie Fernandez. Interview with Hannah McKillop produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke.