The Existentialism of Walt Disney World

by Alice McNutt Miller
AllEars® Feature Writer

Feature Article

This article appeared in the November 8, 2011 Issue #633 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Alice MillerI was listening to a podcast the other day that featured members of the Walt Disney World Moms Panel. One of the Moms reminded listeners that the job that these folks do is not about themselves, but about the guests. Their job is to ensure that they give advice to guests to allow them to feel that they are the only ones in the Parks. The Walt Disney World experience is all about making guests feel like all of the experiences, rides, shows, food, etc. is about them, and not anyone else. This got me thinking about the existential nature of the Disney experience.

At about this same time, I heard from my sister that she was starting a college philosophy class, and that she was a bit worried about how difficult it would be. I then had my own memories of philosophy classes in college. I went to one of those very old-school colleges that required each undergraduate to take a lot of philosophy classes (not just one, but three or four). I actually loved those classes, and the idea of existentialism has stuck with me over the years. It is hard to describe exactly what existentialism is, and the Wikipedia page was no help: "Existentialism refers to a set of ideas about human existence, beyond the terms used in ancient philosophy and objective science." Hmm. If I remember correctly, or maybe incorrectly, the whole idea is that a human being's actual existence creates his or her essence.

So, what, exactly, does this have to do with Walt Disney World? My own interpretation of existentialism is that my own existence creates my own personal reality, which is different from everyone else's own personal reality. I have felt this acutely whenever I have walked through the entrance gate to every Disney Park that I have visited. Simply put, that Park is there for ME. And for you. And for Cousin Orville. Each visitor experiences the Park differently, and the Park is different for each visitor. Existentialism also says that each individual is responsible for his or her interactions with other people. So, while Walt Disney World is there for ME, I need to respect the fact that it is also there for YOU.

Have you ever had the feeling, upon returning to Walt Disney World after a long (or not very long) absence that nothing has changed since you left, and everything is right where you left it? You know, of course, that that is not the case, and that thousands of guests have visited, attractions have closed or opened, menus have been changed and guest areas have been refurbished. You see the trip reports, you know people are visiting right now, but they are not visiting your Disney World. Your Disney World is waiting patiently for your next visit. It is THERE. You take a deep breath as you pass under the welcome sign, and just know that you are back at your happy place, and that that place has been waiting patiently for your return.

This is a feeling that is very hard to explain to people who are not, well, you know, Disney People. (These are generally the same people who cannot believe that you plan to go back to Disney World AGAIN this year, but who have rented the same house in the same beach town for the same two weeks since right about the end of the Cretaceous Period. But I digress.) If you are Disney People, I am guessing you have felt it. It comes to you at small moments: catching a glimpse of classic cartoons playing on a television in the children's waiting area near the check-in desk of your resort, overhearing the delighted screeches of pre-teen girls as they race toward the pool, the smile that is brought to your face by seeing an otherwise surly-looking teenager give up his seat on the bus to the elderly gentleman. These are small glimpses into the temporarily shared reality that you have with other guests. And you know that it has all been waiting for you since your last visit.

This is the genius that Disney has brought to its Parks all over the world. The ability to deliver consistent, but unique, experiences for each guest who passes through the turnstiles. Not only is there something for everyone, but each of those somethings is experienced uniquely by each guest, each time that guest experiences it. This is why people return over and over again to Disney Parks. They have the feeling that the experience has been individually engineered (Imagineered?) to make them happy. Now, there may be attractions or experiences in each Park that are not to your liking (Stitch's Great Escape for me), but there is someone for whom that attraction is his or her favorite (except maybe Stitch's Great Escape — I don't know anyone who likes it!). Not your fave? Skip past it and head into Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor (I love this one — can't get enough of That Guy), or Space Mountain. Not a fan of The American Adventure? You might want to at least stop to hear the beautiful sounds of the Voices of Liberty.

I think I experienced the existential nature of Walt Disney World most keenly when I visited by myself last year. All of my previous visits had been with my family, and I was worried that the experience would not be as enjoyable. When I drove under the entry arch in my rental car, however, I felt the weight of the world fall from my shoulders, and the excitement build. I spent several days touring the Parks in a more leisurely fashion than I was used to, stopping to experience attractions that have not been, well, attractive to my kids. It was a completely different experience, and while I missed sharing the World with my family, I also appreciated the mental boost that I got from being surrounded by Disney Magic and looking at it in a different way. I also paid much more attention to other guests (made easier because I was not constantly warning my kids to "give the nice lady ahead of us in line a little bit more space").

As good guests at Disney Parks, we should not forget the other side of the existential equation. We should be very mindful that as we enjoy our own personal experiences, other guests are also enjoying theirs. We should try to enhance these shared experiences, rather than inhibit them. I think that this goes beyond simple rules of etiquette. While I have visited Walt Disney World many times, this may be the first, or only, visit for you, the other guests sharing the space of my reality. It may be a special anniversary or birthday celebration for you. Or you may just need a dose of magic. That means: no giving away the punchlines, no inserting my child (or my own short self) in front of you after my late arrival at the parade route, no running over your toes with my stroller or ECV, no swearing or offensive language, no line-cutting, no stampeding at the rope drop — and I promise to give up my seat on the bus to the lady with the sleeping 2-year-old in her arms, no matter how tired I am.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alice McNutt Miller is a lifelong Disney fan whose fondest childhood memories include "The Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday nights and her first trip to Disneyland when she was ten years old. Alice and her family are Disney Vacation Club members, and have visited Disney Parks all over the world. They live in Vienna, Virginia.

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Read some of Alice's other writings for AllEars.Net…

… in our Guest Blog:

Northern European Capitals Cruise:

Afternoon Tea at the Grand Floridian:

… and in our Newsletter Archives:

How to Do a 3-Day Weekend:

The Tyranny of the Spreadsheet:


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.