Religious politics fall to wayside at Disney World

www.bethyam.orgJuly 19, 2013 

Disney world ILLUS.jpg

At Disney World, people from all different faiths are able to enjoy their vacations as one.

KRT

I spent a family vacation in Disney World, which is one of the few places on Earth where families from the major religions of the world can coexist -- relaxing, eating, going on rides, learning about other cultures, marveling at the free enterprise system and spending huge sums of money without feeling too guilty about it.

Whatever conflicts of religious ideology people might have with their traditional adversaries, Disney World is neutral ground, where people can take a break and focus on having fun and keeping an eye on excited children. In Disney World, faith and religion are background subjects that have been transformed into a secular dogma of individual self-improvement and self-esteem. The cult of Disney comes down to belief in the power of imagination and magic, which began with the high priest himself, Walt Disney.

The Disney culture might sidestep religion, but it does not ignore the religious needs of its customers -- for example, it will make accommodations for any dietary restrictions that certain religions require. I cannot say how many times I saw observant Muslim families sitting near Israelis, or orthodox Jews standing in the same lines as Christians, sweaty and tired but patiently waiting their turn for rides like Mission: Space, Soaring California or even Space Mountain. Yes, Disney succeeds at overcoming barriers that the real world has no chance of bringing down between traditional antagonists -- whether it is nations, ethnic groups or religions.

Of course, EPCOT is of particular interest because here the Disney Corporation created a new model for their world cultures center. EPCOT means Experimental Prototype of Tomorrow. EPCOT was dedicated in 1982, and its purpose was to showcase American industry's ingenuity to produce a vision of how technology and research could better the communities we live in. The original vision, intended as a tribute to the free enterprise system, was to create a brand new kind of urban community, but that never panned out. The EPCOT concept ended up focusing on the pavilions -- each sponsored by America's great industrial giants like General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T and the list goes on.

Actually one can learn a great deal about world religions by touring the amazing pavilions because the architecture of some structures often include religious symbolism. But Disney will not go that far in teaching those kinds of lessons. They have their own wall of separation between church and corporation.

I wish I could see one more pavilion created at EPCOT. It might be their greatest challenge for the free enterprise system in achieving the hope for a better world. If there is one thing we have learned about technology it is that it does not stop humans from fearing each other. Religion, we know, is one of those topics, like politics, that Disney planners understandably stay away from. One could only imagine the discussions of how a pavilion on the world's major religions might rile up the people and cause more controversy or dissension, rather than promote education and unity around the world. And so I'm sure my idea would be a nonstarter from the get-go.

Is there no creative way to connect the world's religions to the heritage of world culture and imagine a Peace Pavilion at Disney World's EPCOT center? Is there no way that businesses or the nonprofit sector could sponsor a pavilion that could trace the very beginnings of the human quest for understanding their world and the great religious leaders of the major faiths who defined civilizations? What would our world be like if we did not have the Bible -- whether it was Moses or Jesus? What would the Asian world be like if not for the presence of Buddha or Confucius? And then there is the prophet Mohammed and Islam.

Surely there could be a way of taking out the political side of these issues as Disney has done in so many other aspects of their special exhibits and films on the environment and the land? Is there no way to employ the genius of Disney to teach how religion was a light to our past and, conversely, how it could be a light to our future?

Religious diversity in America has increased dramatically. Can Disney be daring again to tell an ancient story about our roots as humans seeking to answer the eternal questions of why are we here, what our purpose of being here on this planet is and how all religions imagined different responses to these questions? Such a pavilion could create a bit more tolerance in the world today as well.

If a Disney EPCOT Peace Pavilion on the world's religions could bypass the ideological conflicts and show how religions might work together even in future space colonies, then it would provide a breakthrough dimension in cultural entertainment.

Hope is alive for humanity; in fact, it can make religion work as a cause that unites us despite our differences. Isn't hope -- and imagination to do the impossible -- what makes Disney so appealing to all ages and compels us to visit this unique institution of American life, as if it were a pilgrimage, too?

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.

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