Three generations of us, led by our matriarch who was determined to visit Orlando one last time with her family. Her late husband, a Midwest dairy farmer, hated leaving the farm for any vacation except—the fantasy lands where he could truly relax and laugh with characters he loved!
We’re certainly not alone in feeling this way. GodSigns author Suzy Farbman also writes, this week, about her family’s love of Walt’s inspiration. And here’s a fun challenge for you: Suzy shares her favorite quotes from Disney characters—and asks you to share your favorites, too. Add comments to these columns. Or, on Twitter, mention #ReadTheSpirit, or just email us: [email protected]
‘A PILGRIMAGE’ …. REALLY?
You might call our family’s trip—just a typical American “vacation.” As you read my story here and Suzy’s too, you’ll probably recall your own vacation to a Disney park. After all, Walt’s worlds far outshine any other chain of amusement parks with more than 130 million men, women and children walking through Walt’s gates every year. Major League Baseball has been called a kind of American religion, but all teams combined last year drew an attendance that was half of Walt’s crowd. Or, you might ask: What about the size of the world’s bona fide religious pilgrimages? Mecca hosts 2 million Muslims a year; tens of millions of Hindus bathe in sacred waters during Kumbh Mela; but only the total Chinese homecoming migration at the Lunar New Year tops the vast tide of humanity flowing in and out of Walt’s worlds.
But, did our family really make a spiritual pilgrimage?
That’s the question Mark Pinsky asks on the opening page of the defining book on Disney and spirituality, The Gospel According to Disney. Researched and written while Mark was the religion writer for the Orlando newspaper, he wrote:
Mickey Mouse and faith? The world’s most famous rodent and his animated friends say more about faith and values than you might think—they’re not just postage stamps. Peter Pan taught us that “faith, trust, and pixie dust” can help you leave your cares behind. Jiminy Cricket showed Pinocchio—and millions of moviegoers—that “when you wish upon a star” dreams come true. Bambi stimulated baby boomer support for gun control and environmentalism. Cinderella became a syndrome. The Little Mermaid illustrated the challenges of intermarriage. The Lion King hinted at Hindu tradition in the Circle of Life. Walt Disney wanted his theme parks to be a “source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” Some have compared them to shrines to which American families make obligatory pilgrimages, parents reconnecting with their own childhoods while helping their kids experience a cartoon fantasy Mecca. Even Disney’s detractors see tremendous symbolic value in his cartoon characters.
Mark wasn’t kidding! I saw proof of Walt’s inspiration first hand as our matriarch—Joan Weil—led me and my wife (her daughter Amy) and her grandchildren (our daughter and son in law, the Revs. Megan and Joel Walther, and our son Benjamin) on this five-day pilgrimage: a day to arrive, a day to return and then one day each at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Sure, we missed Animal Kingdom—but this was a journey to revisit places where our late patriarch and founder of the family dairy farm, Leo Weil, had grinned broadly, often breaking out into laughter and later reminding us, “Now, that was good!”
Since our matriarch was “Grandma” to three of us, for this trip, she was Grandma to all of us.
PILGRIM BADGES & WRIST BANDS
Before we boarded our flight, a special box arrived with our high-tech equivalent of medieval pilgrim badges.
No, a traveler’s symbol wasn’t one of Walt Disney’s many innovations. Pilgrim badges were mass produced across most of the last millennium in Europe. To this day, more than 200,000 Christian pilgrims annually look for centuries-old, scallop-shaped symbols to guide them to the shrines along the vast Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. John) across Europe.
Here in our American home, we snapped on our chip-equipped Mickey-shaped wrist-bands and headed to our own version of beloved family shrines: It’s a Small World After All, the Hall of Presidents, the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Carousel of Progress, plus Spaceship Earth at Epcot and the Wizard of Oz realms recreated inside the Hollywood Studios ride.
Not spiritual? Then you haven’t stopped to ponder the cultural connections within these rides.
ST. WALT THE CONNECTOR
Our first stop was the often-maligned It’s a Small World After All, a multi-media ride originally designed by Disney for the UNESCO pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. The Orlando version of the show obviously has been updated in many ways—the figurines are squeaky clean and the sets look freshly painted for the most part. And before you deride that song—you know the one you can’t get out of your head—consider this:
I snapped a photo of Grandma looking fondly at the colorful children singing in the show—then I posted that snapshot to social media and I got 24 likes right away. (So there, detractors!)
The notes included University of Michigan campus minister Bob Roth, who told us all that “riding this at Disneyland in California in the 1960s sparked in me some kind of global perspective early on.” The veteran leader of spiritual retreats Dee Chapell called it “one of my favorite rides.” Free Press senior writer Patricia Montemurri added a triumphant: “After all!” The comments kept rolling toward me across the Internet for days—in many forms.
Walt knew how to inspire. Walt also knew how to connect.
Everyone we met inside Walt’s worlds was happy to share inspirational moments: A family from Louisiana holds its reunion in Orlando every year and, this year, 16 men, women and children were in the parks for a week. “When I think of our children growing up and our parents growing older—I think of them here,” a Mom in that family told us, becoming quite emotional as she described their many pilgrimages.
Want to talk more about this? Come follow me on Twitter. I have devoted my adult life to exploring the cutting edge of media that lets us connect our diverse cultures to build healthier communities.
Every year, I give talks to groups with titles like, “500 Years after Gutenberg—Still Revolutionizing Media.” So, as we started our day at Epcot, I snapped a photo of the animatronic Gutenberg checking over a proof page from his famous Bible, produced with the world’s first moveable type five centuries ago. I Tweeted it out with this message: “Epcot’s Spaceship Earth shows us Gutenberg starting our modern cycle of innovation, which we’re part of right now.”
Tarcher-Penguin Editor in Chief Mitch Horowitz immediately made that Tweet a “favorite” and I returned my appreciation: “Thanks Mitch! It really is true: We are Gutenberg’s grandchildren and need to dream big.”
And so it went. Our pilgrimage connected with a national conversation.
THE FINAL SHRINES
After their long journeys across Europe, the strongest and luckiest of pilgrims along the Way of St. James reach the thousand-year-old shrine of St. James the Great in northwest Spain. Our little band of pilgrims reached two final shrines—and watched our matriarch visibly light up at both.
One was the Carousel of Progress—the other exhibition Disney helped design for the 1964 World’s Fair. An animatronic American history lesson, the Carousel of Progress also has a catchy theme song written by the Sherman brothers—the same guys who wrote the Small World tune and music for Mary Poppins, the Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well. The brothers knew Walt very well and described their Carousel song as “Walt’s theme song, because he was very positive about the future. He really felt that there was a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.” Other Disney associates called it simply, “Walt’s anthem.”
There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day.
There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow’s just a dream away.
The Carousel theater moves in a circle around four animatronic panoramas of everyday family life in a typical American home in 1904, on July 4 in the 1920s, Halloween in the 1940s and, in the current rendition of the Carousel, Christmas around the year 2000.
Grandma’s face glowed. She grinned. This was a time machine, whisking her back, back, back. As we toured the 1940s, she exclaimed: “That refrigerator! That’s the same refrigerator my mother ordered for us from an ad in the newspaper when they first became available. That was the first time we ever had an electric refrigerator.” That exhibit and its jaunty music was like a tonic, connecting her with a whole circle of lives now long gone from our visible world.
Overall at 88, Grandma is in good health, but her increasing fragility is obvious. She still can walk, but usually she waivers, needs a cane and only walks short distances. In Disney World, we pushed her in a wheelchair.
She planned for this journey as a last big, daring adventure—and a reconnection with her fondest family memories. As we took our journey through Disney realms and family heritage, we wheeled her into every shrine she had hoped to revisit.
Only one eluded us for a couple of days. She kept saying, “I do hope we see Mickey.” And the elusive Mickey never was within our grasp.
But good always triumphs in the Disney cosmos if we only wish steadfastly enough—and she certainly did! Late on our last afternoon, we learned that Mickey was appearing in a kind of Oz-like throne room, minus an actual throne. He simply was standing there, wearing his blue hat from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, grinning and waving at a long line of families queued up to greet him.
My adult children simply pushed their Grandma’s wheelchair into the throng, taking a place at the end of the ropes. At first, Grandma didn’t realize what was happening, but finally she caught on that this throng was patiently awaiting an audience with Mickey.
“Oh, I don’t need to be here,” she said. She looked at other parents and grandparents, most of them with children in strollers or in hand. “Let’s leave. Can we? I’m going to take up someone else’s time. I shouldn’t do that.”
Then, someone else’s Mom leaned across the ropes and touched her shoulder. “You stay put. You belong here. Take as much time as you want.”
I could argue that she had a kind of healing in Orlando. With family around her for five straight days, more well-balanced meals than she normally makes herself at home, exercise in the sun and of course Walt’s relentless inspiration—it was a healing.
Then, after our return flight landed and we decided to have one last meal together at a nearby restaurant before driving to our separate homes—this woman who previously would totter as she walked slowly across a room suddenly stood up. She strode confidently along a sidewalk, strolled into the restaurant and ordered another great big wonderful dinner!
Tomorrow? It’s going to be beautiful.