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Disney and Religion

Picture of the cinderella castle at disney world

For millions of people, Disney theme parks provide connections to fantastic stories and film-inspired fantasies. For 100 years, Disney has also been a place for lifecycle rituals and celebrations and a site of pilgrimage. For religion studies professor Jodi Eichler-Levine, there are parallels between Disney and religion, and her latest book project examines the connections between the two.

As part of her research, Eichler-Levine, Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization and professor of religion studies, examines the fan culture surrounding Disney and the business practices surrounding the corporation. There is an intergenerational connection between fans and the company, which lies at the heart of Disney’s history, she notes.

“Walt Disney described Disneyland as a place where parents and children could have fun together,” says Eichler-Levine, who is also director of the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Jewish Studies. “It was intentionally generationally linking, and it has continued to be that. People, especially really hardcore Disney fans, will have the picture of their kids in front of the castle every year. You see the kids get older, and then they come back with their kids.”

Eichler-Levine posits that Disney is now more of a lingua franca, a common mythology, particularly since the company owns many more mythologies than many world religions.

Spotlight Recipient

Woman with curly brown hair and blue jacket smiling at the camera and sitting in front of a book shelf

Jodi Eichler-Levine

Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization and Religious Studies

Article By:

Robert Nichols

"Disney is so powerful as a myth-making company...those have become more of a common language across the globe than some of these other traditions.”

“This is not to say that traditional religions are going away,” she says. “But, Disney is so powerful as a myth-making company, that between the classic Disney films, Star Wars and Marvel, those have become more of a common language across the globe than some of these other traditions.”

The Disney company is very well aware of this, and it encourages events like Lunar New Year celebrations at Disney World, complete with Mulan and the related merchandise, or Day of the Dead celebrations, she adds. Disney creates links between many different cultural and religious moments. Global calendars are now being celebrated by the Walt Disney Company, but people also celebrate by going to Disney.

“When I talk about this, people say to me, ‘Well, religion is true. Religion was truly revealed by God, and Disney is made up by people.’ From an academic standpoint, I always say, ‘I can’t say if a religion is true or not. That’s above my pay grade. I study what people do.’ We know some things about the human history of religions, and the inspiration is up to people’s own faith,” she says. “We know about the human history of Disney, but the emotional reality for people is just as powerful. Is Disney a religion or not? There’s no real final answer to that. The emotional investments and way people make meaning of their own selves out of Disney is very, very strong.”