A while back I was talking about my affinity for The Magic Kingdom when I outlined that I had three distinct theories about what it is that draws me in to this hyper-real park. I had it brought to my attention recently that I am two parts behind on my discourse, thus we have part two.
In the first part of my personal theory I talked about the idea of place, the magic of treasure maps. This time around, it’s all about this idea of strangely familiar.
What is it about a place, a face, a smell, a laugh, what is it that triggers the neuro pathways in the brain to react the way they do? Could there be something more than a mere connection, something less visible than the flipping of switches in the brain? And if so, how does Disney’s land-of-lands trigger those responses?
I was a senior in high school when I went on the Pirates of Caribbean ride for the umpteenth time. I had been on the ride so many times I could practically narrate the ride blindfolded, down to the turns in the path and the details in the treasure rooms. But this one time it was nearly dusk outside and the transition through the ride and brought the overall light down to the same level as inside the queue area. When we boarded the boats it was as if the transition between outside and inside had been a long, seemless fade not only in light but in time. As the boats left the docks and we floated aimlessly through the faux bayous of New Orleans before the first drop into the underworld I had a strange thought: I’ve been here before.
I’m not talking about the ride, but that sense of deja vu where you find yourself in a place you know you’ve never been to before but is perfectly familiar. Had Disney’s magic pixie dust finally convinced me from previous visits that this was an authentic recreation of the real deal, was my deja vu an unearthed memory of having been on the ride as a child come back to haunt like the ghost of my childhood?
Okay, I’m talking about reincarnation and past life resonance.
Most of the time I find the word reincarnation tends to make people think of coming back in another life as a bug, or people who think Shirley MacLaine and people who claim to have once been African priestesses, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. It’s also a little more mundane and perhaps a little more commonplace than most people might think.
For a moment, imagine that we do come around on this earth more than once. Whether its in your belief system or not, just do the old ‘what if?’ game for a moment. What is the point of reincarnation, of returning to this world, if not to have gained some sort of wisdom or perspective from the past? And what better way to kindle the embers of that perspective than through this sense of deja vu, the familiarity of feeling and place?
Disneyland contains jungles and savannas, trees and animals out of place in Southern California but placed within their carefully planned and landscaped contexts. If you could see through the walls of the rides you’d find dinosaurs mere feet away from pirates, turn-of-the-century America facing frontier America, Abe Lincoln speaking (or at least he used to) yards away from the Grand Canyon and a rocket on its way ito space. Look around. Gothic cottages are within eyesight of alpine chateaux. The cobblestones of a castle lead to the Gold Rush and, just ab it further, a Polynesian shack. There are plants from all over the world, details taken from cultures and centuries, carefully orchestrated so as not to stand out so jarringly when juxtaposed. In Disnesyland, the world slips in and out of time, in and out of location, turning the modern visitor into a time traveler.
Every once in a while the traveler stumbles. It’s the color of the stone painted just-so, or maybe the fake fireflies darting above the water on wires. Suddenly a door is opened and the fake becomes the real, the memory of the old flushes forward into the new, and body pumps adrenaline in response. We recognize the moment but we don’t know how or why.
And how do we respond? A nervous laugh. We shake it off. Weird, we say, I just had a moment of deja vu. We don’t investigate further, but we are suddenly more aware of our surroundings.
What Disneyland does is provide for an optimum of opportunity to revisit pasts, both real and imagined, in a coccoon of safety. Some would call it sanitized, as much of what Disney tackles in its films is a sanitized version of something else in the guise of being family-friendly.
In a familiar parlor game, if you could visit any time in the history of the planet — and come back home unharmed and without having altered history in the visit — what would it feel like? Would it feel as engaging as if those times were our very own, or would there be a calculated distance in our approach? Could we imagine ourselves fitting seamlessly among the people, settling in among the villages and towns as comfortably as if they were old favorite clothes in the closet?
Would it feel, maybe a little, like you were at Disneyland?