Disney and the Happiness Factor

Walt Disney set an ambitious goal for his parks. Have they happily succeeded or sadly fallen short?

Child in Mickey Mouse hat with ice cream, Disney World, image

Mickey Mouse ears and ice cream add up to a smile.

Teacup ride at Disney World, image

The classic Disney teacups can leave you dizzy with nostalgia.

Child with Grumpy dawrf at Disney World, image

Fear the beard? Not even Grumpy can darken the smile of a young park guest.

Child in dog pound at Disney World's Toontown, image

Joyful kids easily escape the ordinary in Toontown.

Child plays with TNT in Toontown, Disney World, image

Kids get a bang out of Disney.

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If happiness were a state, not a state of mind, you could easily find it on a map. In 1949, the editors of Look magazine thought they had done just that, calling Fort Wayne, Ind., “America’s Happiest Town.” A photo spread displayed the city’s “beautiful lawns,” “well-tended shrubbery,” and “many lakes” in which “fish always bite.” The breathless author wrote: “Fort Wayne teenagers like their hometown. Most teenagers in other U.S. communities want to leave theirs.” At the time, my father was a fatherless 15-year-old living in a trailer in Fort Wayne. He didn’t like his hometown. He would soon leave it.

“Happy” places protest too much. In 1955, Walt Disney realized his proudest achievement in a former orange grove in Anaheim, Calif. From the beginning, he called Disneyland “the happiest place on earth.” And what a beginning it was: On opening day, 28,000 visitors overwhelmed a park built for half that number. A plumbing strike left Disneyland without drinking water on that scorching hot day. According to biographer Neal Gabler, Disney told an overeager security guard who blocked his path: “Either you let me through here or I’m going to hit you right in the face and walk over your body.” Happiest place on earth? Over your dead body.

Walt’s unalienable right to pursue happiness was set forth in our foundational document, the Declaration of Independence, and woe unto the rent-a-cop who impeded him on that quest. The pursuit of happiness was also codified in Disneyland’s own foundational document, drawn up at Walt’s behest in September of 1953 by Disney writer and producer Bill Walsh. “The idea of Disneyland is a simple one,” read Walsh’s memo. “It will be a place for people to find happiness.”

Of course, pursuing happiness and finding it are two very different things. Americans are often better at the former than the latter. In a recent study ranking happiness, the United States finished 20th among 146 nations. The World Database of Happiness—compiled by Dutch researcher Ruut Veenhoven, the Casey Kasem of Contentedness—lists Costa Rica as the happiest nation in our cosmic countdown.

As for the happiest place? “According to various surveys, the happiest place on earth is Aarhus, in Denmark,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who started the first-of-its-kind PhD program in positive psychology at Claremont Graduate University, just down the road from Disneyland. “Of course, Gallup et al. did not sample Disneyland, but the ‘land’ in Disneyland is misleading, since it does not have a permanent population.”

True. Happiness has many chauffeurs, but it is often driven by human relationships, by a network of people we love. Sometimes there is contentedness in crowds (at a ball game, at a concert); sometimes there is contentedness in solitude (alone on a beach, asleep in a hammock). I was going to test these and other notions of happiness by going to Disneyland without my wife and children and then to Disney World with them.

It was with some trepidation that I flew solo to Southern California to revisit one of the happiest places of my childhood. I had last seen Disneyland on a blissful family vacation in 1977, the summer of Star Wars, as a 10-year-old eager to experience the brand-new Space Mountain.

“Studies suggest the occasional detour down memory lane can give your spirits a significant lift,” I’d read in a Psychology Today report summing up several academic studies linking nostalgia and happiness. “Thinking of good memories for just 20 minutes a day can make people more cheerful than they were the week before, and happier than if they think of their current lives.”

By that measure, I was fairly giddy pulling up to Disneyland, feeling a powerful nostalgia (from the Greek nostos, “home,” and algos, “pain”). It was this kind of nostalgia—literally, severe homesickness—that prompted Walt Disney to build Disneyland in the first place. The park’s Main Street U.S.A. was inspired by the Main Street in his hometown of Marceline, Mo. Walt kept an apartment just inside the front gates, above the Disneyland fire station.

But Disneyland was not Walt’s home. It isn’t anybody’s home. Or, put another way, it is everybody’s home. In The Architecture of Happiness, author Alain de Botton considers how buildings make us happy. “Those places whose outlook matches our own we tend to honor with the term home,” he writes. “Our homes do not have to offer us permanent occupancy.”

By de Botton’s definition, the scaled-down buildings on Main Street instantly oozed homeyness. Literally so, in the case of the Main Street confectionery, which smelled like every candy shop that never was, conjured from a past that never existed: Its vanilla bouquet was being piped onto the sidewalk through vents beneath the shopwindow. (During the holiday season, the smells switch to ginger and peppermint.)

Those of us who had come to Disneyland without children were testing one of Disney’s own propositions. Before the park was completed, Walt Disney told his biographer Bob Thomas: “I want Disneyland to be a place where parents can bring their children—or come by themselves and still have a good time.”

As a kid three decades earlier, I had waited two hours to ride Space Mountain. This time there was no line, but I still navigated a five-minute rope line that doubled and trebled back on itself. These snake lines were another innovation refined by Disney, who realized that people-watching was the real attraction here. He wanted the human vista to change constantly as the queue moved. He seemed to have an early instinct of what science would later verify: There can be happiness in crowds.

And seeing those crowds—"Rodriguez Family Reunion 2010" stamped across a dozen T-shirts—made this solitary member of the crowd happy, the mood spreading like a benevolent virus. “[Walt] never seemed to tire of striding through the park and watching the people and their reactions to Disneyland,” Bob Thomas wrote. “‘Look at them!’ he enthused to a companion. ‘Did you ever see so many happy people? So many people just enjoying themselves?’”

By midafternoon, children were crying or sleeping, snoozing on stuffed animals as if someone had both literally and figuratively slipped them a Mickey. This was happiness at Disneyland—exhaustion—and by that measure, people looked manifestly happy. Depletion was completion.

I spent the afternoon and early evening on a Gilligan’s Island–style three-hour tour called A Walk in Walt’s Footsteps, with two other forty­somethings: Ray, from Washington, and Marie, from Texas, both of them Disneyphiles. We were all on safari going upriver in search of our pasts, soothed by the corny jokes of the Jungle Cruise river captain. “It’s OK to take pictures,” she said of the bathing elephants. “They’re wearing their trunks.” I’m certain I’d heard the same joke when I was 10, and that made me strangely happy.

When I left for the airport at 4 a.m. the next day, I drove bleary-eyed past Disneyland and smiled involuntarily at what I saw: a full moon over the Matterhorn, neither one looking completely authentic.

Having two places called “the Happiest Place on Earth” would imply a wrinkle in the space-time continuum that is hard to square with physics. Perhaps for this reason, the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., is billed as “the Most Magical Place on Earth.”

Ten days after visiting Disneyland solo, I took my pregnant wife and three children (ages 5, 3, and 1) plus my father (75 and long exiled from Fort Wayne) to Orlando’s Walt Disney World, which embraces the Magic Kingdom and three other theme parks. The park’s gates are nearly identical to Disneyland’s, but I instantly saw them from a different perspective. “Why is Mickey only wearing underpants?” said my frightened 3-year-old as she clung to my leg. She brightened on seeing soap bubbles.

The Disney empire famously does so many things well: lines, courtesy, cleanliness. Disney himself believed that if he gave his guests a nice place, they would help maintain it. Suffice to say he would not be disappointed if he were to return today. (And he won’t. It’s a myth that Walt is cryogenically frozen.)

Disney understood that sunshine was integral to his visitors’ happiness. When planning a park for the eastern United States, at a time when two-thirds of the population lived east of the Mississippi, he considered the New York metropolitan area, Niagara Falls, Kansas City, and St. Louis. But none could compete with Florida and its weather. Disneyland and Disney World are in the two states most associated with sunshine—both in Orange counties, the name itself suggestive of sunshine, which Webster tells us can mean “something that radiates happiness.”

Prescient as he was, even Disney could not have imagined—could not have Imagineered—the cultural reach of his parks. Waiting for the gates to open, a group of teenage girls from Spain sang every Disney song piped over the PA system—in Spanish—finally serenading the crowd with Yo Soy Tu Amigo Fiel (“You’ve Got a Friend in Me”) before spotting the mouse and shouting, “Mee-kee!” It really is a small world after all.

The gates opened and we flooded in. This was happiness in a crowd (or in the case of the Spanish girls, in a crowd within a crowd). A 2008 study in BMJ (originally the British Medical Journal) emphasized the importance of social networks to one’s happiness. “People who are surrounded by many happy people . . . are more likely to become happy in the future,” it concluded, noting that our happiness, like our health, is a collective phenomenon. Indeed, happiness is now a factor in the World Health Organization’s assessments of human health. Bhutan, in fact, famously calculates Gross National Happiness.

Someone snatched our 5-year-old daughter’s park map from her hand and said, “Where are we going today?” It was Princess Jasmine from Aladdin, and she walked and chatted with our daughter for two full minutes.

Our kids were alternately ecstatic (on spotting Mary Poppins) and despondent (it was 91 degrees), shrieking with laughter one second, in blubbering tears the next. After a few hours of rides—Pooh’s Adventures, Peter Pan’s Flight, Aladdin’s Carpets, the spinning teacups, and It’s a Small World over and over and over—Dad and I wanted to find Mickey’s Air-Conditioned Room Full of Sofas.

Sundown came as a relief at Disney World. From our hotel balcony, we could see the nightly fireworks above the park. They looked like a constellation of birthday candles and I thought of Buddha: “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” On the contrary, I was eminently happier at the Disney parks when I shared them with my family.

A partition divided our balcony from the one next door, with a foot of open space at the bottom. Each night, I saw two pairs of bare feet beneath it. When my 1-year-old son crawled under the divider one evening, I pulled him back and apologized to the feet. The feet laughed in reply. A man’s voice told me through the partition: “We’re here celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary.” Then a woman’s voice: “Cherish these kids and these memories. They’ll be everything to you when you’re our age.”

The night before we left Orlando, our 5-year-old insisted on waiting 90 minutes on Main Street so we could see the parade. We passed time eating ice cream and chatting with our neighbors. The minute the parade started, at 9 o’clock on the dot, our daughter fell asleep in her stroller.

So she missed the part where the dwarfs marched by. I recognized Grumpy. Both my daughters were Sleepy. And I, full of allergy meds, was at once Dopey and Sneezy. But say this, and make no mistake: Each of us, in our own way, was Happy.

Photography courtesy Disney World/Garth Vaughan (Grumpy and child); all other photography by David Zaitz

This article was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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