The Magic Kingdom.
The Magic Kingdom. Anthony Quintano/CC BY 2.0

At Walt Disney World, the weeks around Christmas are one of the most crowded times of the year: from all over the country and all over the world, families flock to Orlando to be in this special space for just a few days. Most Disney patrons would probably call their trip a vacation, but to anthropologists, religious studies experts, and art historians, a visit to Disney World looks a lot like another, older form of travel—a pilgrimage.

Appetites for direct contact with Disney’s creations have transformed the trek to Disney World into a genuine form of pilgrimage,” writes historian Cheryl Krause Knight, author of Power and Paradise in Walt Disney’s World. In the modern world, a trip to Disney has become a rite of passage that transforms those who make the trek, and the design of the park heightens that experience: Disney World resembles a medieval pilgrimage center, designed to connect pilgrims with the supernatural, represented by Mickey Mouse and company.

Mickey is like a supernatural being.
Mickey is like a supernatural being. Josh Hallett/CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1980, Alexander Moore, an anthropologist at University of Southern California, wrote one of the first critical analyses of Walt Disney’s theme parks. After visiting the park and observing its form and function, Moore concluded that the Disney World “borrowed—quite unconsciously—from the archaic pilgrimage center,” he wrote in Anthropological Quarterly.

In Moore’s description, a pilgrimage center is “a bounded place apart from ordinary settlement, drawing pilgrims from great distances as well as nearby.” (Sounds right so far.) Once pilgrims reach this set-apart space, they undergo transformational, transcendent experiences. After they leave, changed by their visit, they are reintegrated into society.

The monorail transports you.
The monorail transports you. Loadmaster/CC BY-SA 3.0

Pilgrims to Disney World do not have to spend months trekking to Orlando, but the approach to Disney sets the park apart from the space of normal life. To reach the Magic Kingdom requires a journey of many stages. Travelers must pass through private land, on highways owned by Disney, where all signs of the normal world are replaced by signs from Disney World. After parking, visitors make their way, perhaps by tram, across the vast expanse of asphalt to the ticket gates, where they gain entrance to the park. Even after that, though, their journey has one more step: they must take a special form of transportation, either ferry boat or monorail, to the entrance of the Magic Kingdom.

Inside, Disney mimics the sort of European park reserved for royalty. As Moore puts it: “The bounded circular form of the Magic Kingdom is no accident, for it, simplified and quintessential, is the form of the baroque capital, itself derived from a playground, the royal hunting park.” At the center, where in a European city the church would sit, is Cinderella’s castle, the spire of which ascends upwards, towards the heavens, like the church’s spire.

From that center, pathways lead outwards, like “a baroque sundial.” Those paths divide the park into quadrants with contrasting themes—republicanism vs. monarchism (Main Street and the Palace), the past vs. the future (Frontierland and Tomorrowland), and childhood vs. adolescence (Fantasyland and Adventureland).

The Haunted Mansion.
The Haunted Mansion. Jennifer Lynn/CC BY 2.0

By exploring these sections of the park, visitors can symbolically pass through time and enact different parts of the American ideal. “Traditional pilgrimage centers evoke the supernatural, or at least mythic-heroic past. Walt Disney World does both,” Moore wrote. When pilgrims enter individual rides, they travel along defined paths, exploring themes of journey, danger, or even, in the Haunted Mansion, death and rebirth. They never leave a ride from the same place they started—these are journeys of transformation. On each ride, the pilgrims must face some danger, which is defeated, as the architectural critic Charles Moore puts it, by “that curious Disney touch that so hams up and thereby emasculates evil.”

But how far can the comparison to a religious pilgrimage really go? The counterargument is that Disney is a commercial place, a brand extension of one of the most powerful companies in America, selling an experience that will lead people to buy more of its products. To the extent that it acts like a religious space, that aura is only a screen to mask its true purpose.

Pirates of the Caribbean.
Pirates of the Caribbean. Mttbme/CC BY-SA 3.0

“If you think of how the sacred is treated in many religions, there’s a tendency to create a space that’s demarcated from profane space. Disneyland mimics that,” says Debra Parr, an associate professor of art and design history at Columbia College Chicago. “But what happens inside Disneyland is this microcosm of capitalism and all kinds of profane activities.”

In 1989, Parr, with her then-husband Chris Parr, undertook an analysis of Disneyland using the framework of cultural and religious studies, in particular the ideas of Jean Baudrillard, the French critical theorist, and of Mircea Eliade, a theorist of religion. Baudrillard was skeptical of Disneyland: he wrote that it was, essentially, a hollow copy of historical systems that let people create meaning in their lives.

But although the two young scholars cast a critical eye on the space, ultimately, Debra Parr says, they were moved by the power it had. Like Moore, they saw how it traded in older religious tropes. “Disneyland was created on an orange grove, out in the desert, as a walled garden,” says Chris Parr. “That’s our idea of paradise.” As in Disney World, in the middle of the park, a castle draws the eye up towards the sky. “The spire is the key thing that marks the sacred axis. As the altar has the cross on it, the spire goes up toward the heavens.”

There’s also the power of Disney’s symbolism. “Disney has come to dominate both the narrative world and the symbolic imagination of the western world’s children for over half a century now ,” says Chris Parr. “It’s the shared child world of toddlers and kids. When you go to Disneyland, you are given the opportunity to actually meet Mickey. He’s walking right along the street. Minnie’s right behind him. Main Street is always sparking.” In the sacred space of Disney, the fantastical is made real. Visitors can see and touch these unreal and magical symbols, just as a medieval pilgrim could see a relic, perhaps touch the reliquary that contained it. Commercialism aside, “You can’t avoid recognizing that’s mirroring the religious activity of pilgrimage,” say Parr.

Cinderella's Castle.
Cinderella’s Castle. Jedi94/CC BY-SA 3.0

Since the 1980s, both Disney parks and Disney scholarship have expanded. But though scholars have expanded on the symbolic power of Disney, the basic analysis remains the same, only stronger: Disney operates as pilgrimage site, creating sacred space where people can transcend the ordinary. Even as the number of parks has proliferated and a select group of people have dedicated themselves to visiting every one, Disney World remains the primary site of pilgrimage. “Disneyland and the foreign parks are satellite shrines,” writes Knight in Power and Paradise in Walt Disney’s World. “Disney World is the seat of power.” For a true believer, a journey to Disney World is the truest expression of devotion.