Disney World is the ultimate showcase for postmodernism and postmodern society because of the way it uses simulation to create the illusion we can overcome the limits of time and space, self and society. But many of the ideas it conveys are false, making it a realm of illusion in more than one sense.


Disney World: Cities of Simulation
as Postmodern Utopias


What is the essence of Disney World?

Much of it revolves around Disney's effort to create the illusion for visitors that they have entered a perfect world, which more closely conforms to their desires. It creates this "perfect world" in various ways. For example, it encourages visitors to see the park through the eyes of a child and defines itself as a place that "brings dreams to life." But most essentially it creates a fictionalized version of a perfect world by inviting visitors to escape their containment in physical reality so they are no longer limited by time, distance, size and physical laws. In various attractions, visitors seem to float through the human body and through DNA; they travel to the past and future, and leave the earth. On the thrill rides, they defy gravity, moving at speeds and in ways that seem to violate what common sense tells them should be possible.

Disney World also invites visitors to escape the fallen state of society and the self. It creates idealized visions of American capitalism and political history, and draws visitors into a world of perpetual celebration, full of parades and fireworks, with costumed performers and endless invitations to fun. The effect is not unlike participating in a 365-day-a-year holiday, in which negative emotions are banished from life.

When you put all this together, it becomes obvious that Disney World offers visitors the fictionalized realization of humanity's deepest dream: transcendence. In Disney World, we transcend the mundane. In place of the world we normally find ourselves in, in which most opportunities are closed to us and most human motives are concealed, we go on a journey through symbolic worlds that are objective and material, but seemingly as weightless, carefree and fantastic as the imagination.

In all this, Disney undoes the dry "scientism" of the world view of contemporary societies. It was the German sociologist Max Weber who said that in the modern age we are witnessing the disenchantment of the world with the rise of science and the declining influence of religion. The creations of simulation culture, such as Disney, seem to be re-enchanting it for us with the new promise that art and technology can re-create our surroundings in the form of an updated version of contemporary romance stories, with mythologies of space flight, aliens, time travel and lost worlds.

But Disney World doesn't only offer objectified fantasies. Through the power of simulation, it also shows us the way technology will give us power over, and freedom from, the world. Disney takes the various possibilities of technology -- that one day we will go into outer space or travel freely across the globe or evolve a perfect society -- and it creates the simulation of these things so we can enjoy in fictional form, now, the powers we hope to enjoy, later, in reality.

These qualities make Disney World the ultimate showcase for the way technology will lead to transcendence of the mundane world. In place of the promise of modernism, which told us that we could realistically hope that technology would usher in an age of affluence, power over nature, and rationality, it reveals a "postmodern" promise that has emerged out of modernism, in which we are told that technology will allow us to escape the conditions of society and the physical world.

We can thus see in Disney, two trends that define the age: the desire to escape the constraints of life through the new magic wand of technology and the desire to pretend that we have done so in invented worlds of simulation. One might say that if the great myth or "meta-story" of America is the story of progress, then Disney World is a place that masquerades as the happy ending, in which progress culminates in a utopia of transcendence that undoes the fallen state of nature, society and ourselves.

These characteristics place Disney World in a long line of utopias invented by Western civilization. But unlike most others, which were rendered in fiction or put into practice in small communities, in Disney, a perfect world is seemingly brought to life with simulation and offered as a vacation paradise.

One of the ironies in all this is that Disney World falsifies our desire for a better world, even as it expresses it. On the one hand, it expresses our desire for an idealized existence that is innocent of evil and imperfection. But it does so by inviting us to regress to a state of happiness before the fall from childhood, with simplified visions of life that filter out the difficult truths of the self and society.

The contradictions inherent in Disney World are deepened by the fact that it is only able to show us its vision of utopia by turning us into passive consumers who are taken for rides. In Disney World, we can thus see a danger that is at the essence of our relationship to technology. In the way it does everything for us and encourages us to both think of ourselves as children and lose ourselves in images and fantasy, Disney reveals the way technology can promote narcissistic personality traits in those who use it.

Disney World is a cautionary tale that shows us, not only the wonders of the future, but the danger that progress might cause humanity to regress, allowing it to lose itself in an environment of automation, simulation and reassuring intellectual illusions. In Disney, we see the ultimate attempt to rely on technology, in which even experiences are manufactured for us by machines.

The Age of Simulation