“You’re going to Disney World – again?”
Anyone who visits Walt Disney World with any frequency has probably heard this from well-meaning family and friends. Those of us who make yearly pilgrimages to the Walt Disney World Resort simply smile, shrug our shoulders, and think, “Who wouldn’t want to go to Disney World again?”
Not everyone agrees.
In an editorial in USA Today, author Paul Labadie wrote that theme park-focused travel “isn’t enough” for children—or adults, for that matter. He argued that the cultivation of imagination, an interest in history, or a life-long love of travel “cannot be accomplished at a theme amusement park, where the fascinations are shallow and the amusements fleeting.”
This might apply to Six Flags, but not to Walt Disney World.
Those who criticize Walt Disney World for somehow stunting our collective cultural growth are ignorant of the philosophy behind Disney parks. Of course Walt Disney World is not enough to meet all the intellectual needs of its guests nor can it replace the experience of visiting historically significant sights, national parks, or the great cities of the world. But it is utterly unfair to dismiss the joys of Walt Disney World as “shallow and fleeting.”
We know that each Disney visit is unique, depending upon our choice of resort, our age, the ages of our children, the time of year, or our traveling party. To imply that Disney vacations are generic is a baseless claim. Disney vacations provide a wonderful balance between familiar favorites (be they attractions, restaurants, or even background music) and new, unexpected surprises. After all, much of the intrinsic enjoyment of travel—any kind of travel—is found in discovery. What better place to visit (or revisit) the sheer joy of adventure than the Magic Kingdom? As our children grow and mature each year, we discover (or rediscover) the many layers of imaginative wonder found in the attractions, shows, landscaping, and architecture of Walt Disney World.
Walt Disney once said, “We believed in our idea [for Disneyland]—a family park where parents and children could have fun—together.” Look no further than the classic attractions of the Magic Kingdom to see the result of Walt’s dictum. Attractions are designed to delight on various levels.
Take, for example, the Swiss Family Treehouse. Children thrill at the discovery of a wondrous treehouse and with just a little encouragement from adults, can imagine living there. (Of course, those adults who’ve retained a bit of childhood wonder can do the same.) The technical achievement of the tree itself is another level of discovery, as is the attention to detail and the imaginative landscaping that infuses this man-made structure with live plants and water. For those of us who’ve grown up with the classic Johann Wyss novel or have fond memories of Walt Disney’s wonderful live-action film, there’s an added layer of nostalgia and comfort.
Discovery and imagination work together to create meaningful experiences. As Jean Piaget wrote in his analysis of memory, it’s the connections between the old and the new that create lasting impressions, especially for children. By providing experiences before a Magic Kingdom visit, such as reading a book, studying a historical time period, or viewing a film, the actual theme park experience is heightened. By extending that memory with experiences after vacatio, with additional reading or travel to historically related sights, the memory is enhanced yet again. Piaget believed that “reconstruction at successive levels of similar or convergent [experiences] extends and enriches the preceding experience.” As a result, the impression—or memory—endures.
Walt Disney’s Imagineers are able to capture the essense of a time or place by carefully constructing environments free of what John Hench called “visual clutter” or “contradictory statements.” Guests who are able or willing to “suspend their disbelief” and truly surrender to the pleasures of discovery reap exponential rewards. The rewards are not temporal; they have lasting value. By extending these impressions with further experiences, those Disney connections become even more important in our memories. With a little imagination and a willingness to look beyond the parks, guests can take inspiration from Walt Disney World locations as a starting point for further travel.
The adventure of Frontierland’s Tom Sawyer Island can be extended by reading Mark Twain’s classic novels or by a visit to picturesque Hannibal, Missouri. If the Disney version of the Wild West was fun, plan a trip to Tombstone, Arizona to experience the historic American West. Was Big Thunder Mountain more your style? How about planning a visit to Monument Valley, Yosemite, or one of the other National Parks? Love the Walt Disney World Railroad? Durango, Colorado offers an amazing train ride through gorgeous mountains. A stroll through Liberty Square and a meal at the Liberty Tree Tavern might provide that little spark of interest that leads to Colonial Williamsburg. Was Space Mountain a favorite? Extend this interest with a visit to the Kennedy Space Center. Fantasyland adventures might lead to London, Germany’s Black Forest, or the Loire Valley of France
With a little effort, Magic Kingdom experiences can become natural gateways to a life long love of travel, an interest in history, and a fascination with the wonders of the world.
Walt Disney World Again? Yes!
While I empathically agree that nothing can replace the experience of visiting historically significant sights, the thrill of visiting a world-class city, or the wonder and awe of nature’s beauty, it is utterly unfair, to describe Walt Disney World as “shallow” or trivial. Disney parks offer wonderful springboards for in-depth explorations of literature, art, history, music, film, and world travel. By supplementing Disney travel with other life experiences, it is quite possible to make memories that have great meaning and resonance.
In response to my perplexed, but well-meaning friends (and to Mr. Paul Labadie of the USA Today), “We are going to Walt Disney World again.”
And if people need proof that Disney World does, in fact, cultivate imagination, encourage an interest in history, and inspire a life long love of travel, they might take some time to revisit the World. Talk with international students at Epcot Center, learn about conservation at Animal Kingdom, or watch a Main Street parade with a child to see that Walt Disney World stirs minds, encourages imagination, and touches hearts.
(Send an email to Tom Richards)
Tom Richards is a life-long admirer of Walt Disney, something of a Disney historian, and a free-lance writer. His Disney interests include but are not limited to: Walt Disney World, classic Disney animation, live-action films made during Walt's lifetime, and Disney-related music and art.