Religious Studies 4812: Religion in Disney Parks

Disney theme parks have attracted millions of visitors since the opening of Disneyland in California in 1955.  To date, there are Disney parks in California, Florida, France, Japan, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, China (opening 2016).  This course will explore the explicit and implicit religious dimensions of one of these parks – Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Florida.  On campus, students will explore a variety of theoretical frameworks useful for understanding religion in contemporary contexts.  Concepts to be explored include civil religion, hyper-real religions, and religious consumerism. Students will also study the ideological history of Disney theme parks, including an emphasis on the religious dimensions of dimensions of Disney’s constructed pasts (the frontier, the antebellum), futures (the retro-futurism of Tomorrowland, the corporate R&D of EPCOT’s Innoventions) and the global village as represented in EPCOT and Animal Kingdom.
This course also contains a fieldwork component.  Students will travel to Orlando, Florida, to stay at least 6 days at Walt Disney World.  While at Walt Disney World, students will visit all four WDW theme parks, ride every major attraction, attend every live-action theatrical event, and explore every themed area of the parks.  Students will meet daily with the instructor to discuss the religious dimensions of Disney ideology as experienced at the theme parks.  A valid passport is required for this course.
Upon return to St. John’s, students will work with the instructor in small groups to prepare and present the results of their field observations.  Presentations will be open to the larger university community through a ‘Religion in Disney Parks’ colloquium.

Five written assignments                                                      

Field Journal                                                                                                  

Religion in Disney Parks Colloquium (Presentation and written analysis)   

Participation in field trip   


Students must read the assigned weekly readings, and come to class prepared to discuss the key points of each reading.  A written assignment, noting key points, strengths, weakness, and questions arising from the readings must be handed in at the end of each class.   Assignments must demonstrate a  clear understanding of the theoretical and ideological concepts presented by each reading. All assignments must be completed prior to the fieldtrip component of the course.  Five assignments worth 10% each = 50%


Students must keep a daily journal during the field trip to Walt Disney World, in which they record their insights and analysis of primary field experience.  These journals will provide data for the presentation/analysis assignment below. Students must also meet with the instructor at a set time each day of the field trip (usually over breakfast.)  A copy of the field journal will be submitted to the instructor at the conclusion of the fieldtrip component.  Field Journal – 10%



Students will work collaboratively with 2-3 other students (depending on enrollment) to prepare a presentation on various dimensions of religion in Disney theme parks.  Topics might include: Civil religion in Disney Theme Parks – How Disney constructs a sacred America Disney eschatology: Where did we come from and where are we going, Disney theme park style. Disney Parks and cultural evolution – It's a great big beautiful religion-free tomorrow?. Disney’s Implicit Religion – the meaning, nature, and purpose of life according to Disney. Death and the afterlife in Disney Parks Good and Evil in Disney Parks The Sacralization of Nature in Disney Parks Other topics as approved by the instructor.  Students must present the results of their research and analysis in a colloquium open to members of the university community.  This colloquium will be publicized through posters and through announcement via the Arts email list.  Student presentations will take the form of media-rich presentation on one of the topics listed above, or on a topic approved by the instructor.  Photographs, video clips, merchandise, park maps, etc. will be used to bring the topic to life.  Presentations must be made using presentation software (powerpoint, keynote, presi, etc.)  Students must present visual evidence gained during the fieldtrip component to enrich the academic analysis of the topic chosen.  Each group of students will meet regularly with the instructor to discuss the topic, how the material will be organized, how the work will be divided, the proposed schedule of results, etc.  Within one week of the presentation, students will submit a written summary of the research, specifying the contributions of each student, and addressing any questions raised by classmates and members of the university community during the presentation stage.  This document is to be signed by all students working on the assignment.  Grades will be assigned based on both the presentation and the written summary.  Presentation/analysis = 40%


  • Describe the history of the Walt Disney Company as it relates to Theme Parks, particularly the Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California and the Walt Disney World theme park in Orlando, Florida.  
  • Describe in detail concepts of civil religion, hyper-real religion, and religious consumerism.
  • Identify key elements of Disney theme parks that exemplify aspects of each theoretical concept.  
  • Recognize the implications, strengths and weaknesses of the theoretical concepts explored in class.
  • Understand the interconnectedness of religion to other aspects of human endeavor, including nationalism, science and technology (futurism), history and identity construction.
  • Recognize religious elements outside of institutionalized religious structures.
  • Apply theoretical models of religion as studied in class to a fieldwork case study - namely, to the Walt Disney World theme park in Orlando, Florida.
  • Discover implicit religious elements, civil religious elements, hyper-real religious elements, and consumerist religious elements within the Disney theme park.
  • Recognize the strategies employed by the Walt Disney Company in constructing religious ideologies in their theme parks.
  • Show how and why data collected during the field trip constitute evidence of religious expressions in Disney theme parks.
  • Compare and contrast the applicability of various theoretical concepts to the data collected during the fieldtrip.
  • Evaluate the utility of the theoretical concepts explored in class for understanding religion in Disney theme parks.
  • Argue for the relevance and inclusion of data collected during the field trip for illustrating one or more theoretical concepts explored in class.
  • Modify or supplement theoretical concepts to best account for the data collected.
  • Argue for the relevance, or lack thereof, of using Religious Studies models more generally for the study of popular culture topics.
  • Present the results of the research and analysis to an audience in a persuasive and engaging fashion.
  • Recommend further or alternate avenues for inquiry in the study of religion and popular culture topics.