In a classic commercial, sports celebrities caught after a contest hear a list of their accomplishments and a question: “Now what are you going to do?” Invariably they respond in what seems to be the only way possible in contemporary, commercial America: “I’m going to Disney World!” (Fjellman 1992, 160). Indeed, how many millions have neither experienced nor dreamed of par-
ticipating in “the middle-class hajj, the compulsory visit to the sunbaked holy city,” Walt Disney World (Ritzer 1996, 4)? It is just one facet of a global corporation that produces movies and television programs, owns part or all of several other theme parks, television studios and networks, sports teams, housing developments, cruise ships, retail outlets, seminar centers, and training facilities that earned more than $20 billion in 1997 (Miles 1999, 15).1 One million people visited the California park, Disneyland, in its ﬁrst seven weeks, and more than four million visited there in 1955-56, its ﬁrst year of operation (Weinstein 1992, 152). In Florida, 10 million visitors in 1971-72 (its ﬁrst year) placed Walt Disney World ahead of the United Kingdom, Austria, and the former West Germany as a vacation destination, and more popular than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (seven million visitors), Gettysburg (ﬁve million), and Yellowstone National Park (two million). By the beginning of the 1980s, more people visited Walt Disney World than the Eiﬀel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Tower of London, or the Pyramids (Fjellman 1992, 136-39). In 1984 alone, the Florida and California parks drew nearly 20 million customers (Lawrence 1986, 65). “Since the number of visitors to both parks together exceeds the number going to Washington, D.C., the oﬃcial capital,” notes Margaret King, the parks could be considered “the popular culture capitals of America” (King 1981, 117).
Appropriately, the Walt Disney World logo depicts the globe as one of three spheres used to silhouette Mickey Mouse’s face; it’s a small world, after all, and Disney covers it completely. The American who can avoid contact with Disney must live in a cave; to reject Disney is to defy a major global force, and challenges much that is synonymous with contemporary American culture. But what has this to do with religion? In contemporary America, many consider all elements of life, even
intangibles, as things that can be bought, and religious leaders now ﬁnd themselves ﬁnancially burdened competing for congregants’ attention. On television or in the pulpit, they oﬀer salvation along with 12-step programs and childcare. They have developed sophisticated attitudes toward money and fundraising, and some have adopted businesslike attitudes toward their congregants. As George Ritzer notes, “religion has been streamlined through such things as drive-in churches and televised religious programs” (Ritzer 1996, 48). Not surprisingly, many people treat salvation like a product, pursue it for selﬁsh reasons, and often purchase it in seemingly nonreligious forms for seemingly religious reasons. Americans can be found pursuing diverse activities-working out, exploring nature, or watching televisionand believing they have obtained the same beneﬁts that they could receive from traditional religious activities. The distinction between religious and commercial activities has blurred, and as one scholar notes, such developments have made “a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who peddled religion door-to-door on a Sunday afternoon much the same as a vacuum cleaner salesman” (R. L. Moore 1994, 256). In other words, whether it is through eternal bliss or clean carpets, salvation for many Americans is a readily available commodity. An odd situation to be sure. But even odder when commercial ventures,
operating for proﬁt rather than piety, create competition for traditional religion. They are not simply providing paraphernalia for religious devotionvotives, Bibles, or “Pope-on-a-Rope” soap-but are competing (if unintentionally) with religious communities by oﬀering similar goods: mythologies, symbols, rituals, and notions of community by which consumers organize their lives. These corporations oﬀer (at a price) salvation from the modern world of twentieth-century American capitalism. And while, as Michael Budde argues, such a situation presents “new and imposing barriers … to the formation of deep religious convictions,” he also recognizes that “[m]ore than any other set of social institutions, these industries collectively inﬂuence how people relate to the processes and products of economic activity.” They are the “vectors and initiators for ideas regarding the valued, the innovative, the normal, the erotic, and the repulsive” (Budde 1997, 1415, 32). In other words, these companies create the environment in which even religious ideas are communicated. The Walt Disney Company is one such business marketing religious
symbolism and meaning and providing strong-if indirect-competition to
traditional religion in the United States. There are others who are also exploring this market, other purveyors of religious symbols and meaning. However, because of its market penetration, its integrated marketing (also known as “synergy”), and its access to many levels of culture through its corporate network, Disney is uniquely suited for the “religiﬁcation” of its commodity. And as Margaret King suggests, because a coincidence of factors unique to post-World War II America makes possible, “even obligatory-for Americans, adults as well as children, at least one pilgrimage to Disney Land [sic] or World as a popular culture ‘mecca’ of nearly religious importance” (King 1981, 117), this corporation is able to capitalize on its commodity in a way that is distinctly suited for this time and place.