My children, Andrew and Grace, are now ages 7 and 4. According to my wife, they have been prime candidates for a trip to Disney World for some time now. I have held back because I tend not to be enthusiastic about vacations for reasons other than visiting family (because that’s how I grew up) and because I have believed I would end up dragging tired children across a crowded theme park. We compromised on a Disney cruise to the Bahamas and Disney’s own island Castaway Cay and spent the last week on the trip.
Disney is obviously a hugely important cultural institution. They own ABC, ESPN, Pixar, and Marvel comics in addition to their own massive empire of Disney-branded properties. So, I took care to observe the way they did things, the messages they sent, etc.
Some of it was obvious. ”You can do it! Your dreams can come true! Never give up!” Some of the messages were a little more mature. ”Always maintain an appreciation for the sublime in life. Never lose the best part of your childlike nature. Maintain hope even until the end. Good things can . . . will happen to you.”
Those were traditional parts of the Disney message. I appreciated them.
The part that was less edifying was the evolution of all the Disney characters, including the famed princesses, into celebrities. At various points in the day, Disney characters stand in the grand foyer of the ship and pose with a long line of kids and adults. Some of the kids get autographs. Even my son, Andrew, who is usually dismissive (in a way I don’t like) of “a guy in a suit” was captured by it. We got lots of photos of our kids posing. Of course, there is no shortage of that in other parts of the culture. How many have been to offices filled with “grip and grin” photos of the occupant with various famed personages? Standing next to a famous person = joy.
But I want to praise Disney for something special. What I saw on this cruise was a company incredibly solicitous of children and adults with special needs. My dinner table was surrounded on both sides by tables filled with adults and/or teens with Down Syndrome or other forms of retardation. They seemed to enjoy the cruise immensely. One young woman wore a pink princess gown most times I saw her with her mother. Her outfit seemed entirely appropriate in the grand dining rooms of the ship.
My pleasure at this state of affairs was lessened somewhat by the dawning realization that everyone I saw with Down Syndrome was a teenager or older. That reminded me of the startling statistics revealing the very high incidence of abortion when parents discover an unborn child might have the disorder. The last number I saw was over 80%. Eugenics is far from dead. Voluntary destruction of babies who might have Down Syndrome is likely to prove far more effective than government plans ever did. The church must do a better job of preparing adults for the gut-check moments of that type. Escape is always easier.
On another front, I felt Disney did an excellent job providing for families with children in wheelchairs. There were many of them, too. My son Andrew has very little social reticence. Sighting a boy with no hair in a reclining wheelchair-like apparatus, I pointed him out to Andrew and suggested he might like to say hello. Andrew, predictably for his nature, walked right up to the boy and offered a greeting. Usually, though, Andrew would begin rattling on without paying attention to the other person at all. This time, Andrew was a little in awe. He looked at the little boy and didn’t say anything. The parents and I began talking. We discovered their boy was eight. Close in age to Andrew. ”Did you hear that, Andrew? He might be in second grade just like you.” The parents told me their boy was being held back in second grade. Their weary smiles made think about saints. Andrew and I went on after wishing them well. I hoped to see them again, but we didn’t.
Now, I know that Disney is a giant corporation churning out content as part of the relentless steamroller of the international commercial system. But for those children with special needs (a good turn of phrase, so much better than its predecessors) whom I saw on the cruise, the Disney/Pixar message probably resonates like a sonic boom. ”Good things can and will happen to you. Never give up. Somewhere inside you there is a prince or princess who deserves respect even though you’ve had none until now.”