Disneyland’s church on Main Street

The first house that I remember living in was on Buena Vista Street in Anaheim, California. My grandparents lived close by, and I still remember standing in their driveway with binoculars pointed at Disneyland, just down the street, so we could watch Tinkerbell slide down from the Matterhorn before the fireworks began.

Mom made my sisters and I matching outfits to wear to Disneyland one summer. Even though our home was just a few blocks away, entering those big gates was still a huge treat for our family. We were careful to dress up for a day at Disneyland! I always looked for the young women who served as the Disney guides. They wore plaid skirts, vests, white blouses, and a cute hat. I dreamed of becoming a Disney guide when I grew up so I could visit Disneyland everyday.

I’m almost as old as Disneyland. I watched the television program about the park’s sixtieth birthday celebration. The early photos and scenes brought back some great memories. Walt Disney had a dream of building a park that parents would enjoy as much as their children. He wanted to create a place for families to spend a day together. Many people thought Disney was creating a failure. He spent $17 million dollars in 1955 to buy a large orange grove and build his dream. Opening day was not perfect. People snuck in to the park, making it overcrowded. The water fountains didn’t work, some of the buildings weren’t yet painted, and the ferryboat almost sank.

Disneyland fixed what was wrong and created a place that is almost perfection from start to finish. The financial gurus that warned Walt Disney he would be ruined have been proven wrong. His dream became more real than even he could have imagined. That is both good and bad. While Disneyland has grown into a billion dollar industry, Walt Disney’s vision has been somewhat lost in our changing culture. I watched the sixty-year birthday celebration and wondered what Walt would have thought about the program.

Walt Disney grew up attending a Congregational church in Chicago. He is named after the family’s Congregational pastor, Walter Parr. When Walt Disney opened his park he made certain to have a pastor there to offer a prayer of dedication. But much has been written about the fact that as you walk down Main Street, there is not a church anywhere in sight. The actual Main Street that Walt Disney used for his inspiration was located in his hometown of Marceline, Missouri. That Main Street had two churches located amidst the stores, restaurants, barbershop, and other venues. Why did Disney choose to omit churches from Main Street in Disneyland?

An article in Christianity Today reported, “His father, Elias Disney, was very strict and would beat his children for minor violations of the Sabbath. Interestingly, Walt and his sister snuck out once to see an early silent film projected on a sheet in a church: of Jesus being crucified and resurrected, most likely the 1912 classic, “From the Manger to the Cross.” Disney had an early fascination with filmmaking that became his life’s ambition. He also had early problems with the church his father insisted the family attend.

I won’t speculate on Walt Disney’s faith. In 1949, Disney wrote in Guideposts magazine: “I believe firmly in the efficacy of religion, in its powerful influence on a person’s whole life. It helps immeasurably to meet the storm and stress of life and keep you attuned to the Divine inspiration. Without inspiration, we would perish. All I ask of myself, ‘Live a good Christian life.’ To that objective I bend every effort in shaping my personal, domestic, and professional activities and growth.”

As a person who has been enthralled with everything Disney since I was a young girl, I choose to think of Disneyland’s Main Street a little differently than its critics. I remember entering those huge gates and listening to the joyful music that was playing. The excitement was tangible, the flowers were beautiful, the streets were paved and clean of trash. My favorite characters were waving and welcoming and everyone had a smile on their face. But as my family walked down Main Street enjoying the sights, the focus was at the end of the road. Main Street led to Cinderella’s castle, and I knew we would all be able to go through those gates too. My favorite rides were on the other side of the castle.

You probably know where I am going with that thought! I don’t think Walt Disney had a very good experience with the organized church of his day, and I’m sorry for that. I hope he knew Christ as his Lord, but I know he valued the Christian lifestyle, living with joy, kindness, peace and family.

The memories that I have of Disneyland are just that—and I like Disney’s focus. This earthly life is like a walk down Main Street. Hebrews 13:14 reads, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” I hope earthly life is filled with fun, joy, beauty, happiness, friends, and family. But I hope we keep the true destination always in front of us. As wonderful as Main Street is, the great joy is on the other side of the castle gates. Grab your family and friends and keep walking until you all get there. The best things are on the other side!

Join us at www.christianparenting.org and chime in on this week’s discussion question: Have you ever caught yourself pushing your kids to grow up too quickly? How did you respond afterwards?

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