Disney’s Main Street: Model for America?
It's a world of laughter
A world of tears
It's a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There's so much that we share
That it's time we're aware
It's a small world after all
This past week, Disney’s theme parks have been in the news. My friend, Abby Disney, recently raised concerns over pay equity for their workers (Cast Members). My firm is deeply committed to policies that address barriers to opportunity and economic mobility, and we are actively working with the right and the left on federal paid leave. But in the highly polarized world in which we live, I wanted to share some insights into our family’s visit to Walt Disney World just a few weeks ago that reminded us of what we can be as a nation, rather than what we are not.
My four-year old granddaughter, her mother and I were waiting in line for a picture with Ariel, when we struck up a conversation with the heavily tattooed, goth-inspired mother in front of us. She was in line with her 18-gauge-earring husband and four-year old daughter. They were from Ohio, and thanks to the 45-minute wait for the photo, we discovered we had much in common, not the least of which was, to the chagrin of the goth-clothed parents, the Disney princess dresses that the two girls were wearing.
Disney World’s Main Street is America’s Main Street, reflecting our best aspirations, even when we face fundamental challenges to realize them.
What stuck out to us the most at the park was that, at a time in which Americans are being pitted against each other, Disney World was, at least at a surface level, a place where all races, ethnicities, religions, creeds, gender-identities and social-economic backgrounds could walk, play, eat, wait, laugh and (in our case with exhausted four-year-olds) melt down together. It was a respite from the polarization of Washington, a reminder of our shared humanity, and a unique opportunity to reflect on how we would be better off as a nation if we looked at each other as sojourners together in this great American ride that we are on.
Despite the personal and economic challenges that Disney’s Cast Members may be individually experiencing, we encountered only kindness and civility from them throughout the park. One Cast Member, seeing our two grandchildren melting down in the heat, brought them complementary ice cream. The generosity of spirit was contagious: visitors were offering words of encouragement when needed, letting others borrow umbrellas, each watching their own language, and apologizing when inevitably bumping into one another. Not only did the employees set the standard, but the park’s order and cleanliness affirmed the “broken windows” theory to me. We were living out “our better angels” because it appeared everyone else was as well.
We know that minimum wage is tough to make ends meet on, and I supported my former boss, Rick Santorum’s position to increase it. This is we why we especially appreciated the excellence and pride in hard work we saw from the Cast Members, from young to old. No matter what their grievances are, all that we as guests saw on display was hard work and a positive attitude towards us. Knowing now that some may have slept in their cars the night before, makes their interaction with us all the more admirable.
America has never been perfect, but our aspirations certainly are close. I know that Disney is not perfect either, but we appreciated the celebration of the American ideal, an unapologetic defense of our American identity and history. Disney World is one of the most visited international tourist sites, which means that every visitor encounters our founding principles at the Hall of Presidents, our independent and adventurous spirit on Tom Sawyer’s’ Island, and sees on display our innovation through the Carousel of Progress -- which was Walt Disney’s favorite attraction.
While celebrating what America offers the world, there was also a celebration at Disney of what other cultures offer us. The nod to the different cultures in Disney’s stories from Lion King to Mulan are integrated throughout the park, with Epcot being fully dedicated to this proposition. However, no ride expresses our universal humanity more than It’s a Small World, one of the few rides found at all of Disney’s theme parks. According to TIME Magazine, the theme song for the ride is the most publicly performed song of all time.
Our trip to Disney also reminded us of the power of myth, or story, to give us shared narratives and experiences. Standing in line with such diversity and laughing together at Mike Wisniewski’s (Monsters, Inc.) jokes, or crying together at the remarkable Finding Nemo live performance, was an antidote to the tribal and niche narratives we receive that pit us against each other.
At Clapham, we are committed to telling stories to help guide and unite our society through a common narrative. In contrast to messages promoting self-actualization and self-gratification, we are committed to the stories that inspire us to live better lives on behalf of others.
Finally, throughout the park, there was a celebration of the centrality of family -- multi-generational, multi-ethnic, and families of all types. For me, this may be one of Disney’s most important societal contributions. I appreciate any institution willing to celebrate marriage and family at a time when marriage is being deferred, delayed and disregarded, and when the US birthrate has hit an all-time low. It takes a family for a nation to flourish.
I started to write these reflections before Abby raised her concerns over pay equity at the park. Ironically, while we were at the park, President Trump announced his bid for reelection from nearby Orlando. The impact of this political event never penetrated the boundaries of the park and the people continued to enjoy their respite from outside influences. We were also in the “happiest place on earth” when a Disney heir began to raise her concerns over the wellbeing of its workers. Paradoxes in the park abound.
We are all “bent”, as C. S. Lewis called our human nature, and this is reflected in our individual and our institutional lives. In the current cultural context of incivility and polarization, more of us need to visit Disney to bend us in the right direction. In the same token, Disney has a unique opportunity to live up to its ideals, and address any legitimate issues related to Cast Members’ pay and treatment.
I have friends who will not step a foot in Disney’s parks due to the “artificial world” they create. I beg to differ. The world we live in is a world we choose to create. I know we, and Disney, can create a better one for us all.