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Against Disney World

| Friday, February 21, 2020

I have never been to Disney World.

No, I have never been on Splash Mountain. I have never seen the parade. I have never high-fived Mickey Mouse. My only exposure to that giant castle thing is in the opening sequence of movies.

When I share this information with people, many are stunned. Multiple people have told me I never experienced childhood. But here’s the thing. I wear my lack of Disney World exposure like a badge of honor.

To be honest with you, the Disney World craze perplexes me. It looks hot and crowded. Given the ads I’ve seen over the years, it strikes me as being kind of expensive. Disney World seems to be an oft-repeated experience: of the people I’ve talked to who have been there, very few have gone there just once.

At a more fundamental level, I disagree with the underlying concept. Disney World is often described as “the happiest place on Earth.” But it’s fake. Nothing about it is real. It is — by definition — a fantasyland based on fictional stories.

I don’t think there is any deeper exposure that happens at Disney World. Disney wants you to go there and think “Everything is awesome!” The experience is inherently artificial. Sure, you walk out feeling some sort of happiness. But you haven’t deepened your understanding, you haven’t expanded your horizons. It’s like eating a lotus flower.

There’s a world out there waiting to be discovered. Yes, it’s big. Yes, it can be overwhelming. But it can offer so much more than a week at Disney ever could. The true reason I’ve never been to Disney World is that my parents consciously decided our family would skip the trip to Florida and try to see the world instead.

Travel is one of the great joys of life. In my own experience, for an American kid like me, the act of traveling has deepened my knowledge, my understanding and my empathy more than anything else. It’s why I study another language. It’s why when I give tours for the admissions office I gush about the study abroad opportunities this school offers more than any other subject.

So no, I’ve never been to Disney World. But — largely but not entirely thanks to Notre Dame — I’ve been inside Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. I’ve gotten lost in the breathtaking beauty Spain’s Alhambra Palace. I got a crick in my neck looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. By the same token, I’ve been moved to tears by the speechless sorrow I encountered in Berlin’s incredibly moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I’ve heard a Syrian refugee recount his family’s harrowing escape from the bombs flattening Aleppo. I’ve written a report about each one of Spain’s last medieval synagogues and mosques — buildings that were expropriated when the Spanish monarchy forcibly expelled all non-Catholics from the country in 1492.

Of course, travel isn’t all fun and games. But neither is life. For every good thing that happens, there’s probably something equally bad. If we’re all going to do our bit to save the world, then we have to know what’s out there.

When I studied abroad in Spain, I had an economics professor who point-blank told us we weren’t there to take his class. Everyone sort of giggled — the American study abroad stereotype of the lazy European vacation seemingly confirmed. “No, I’m serious,” he said. “You won’t remember the year Spain entered the European Union. Or what a peseta was. You’re here to see Spain. You’re here to explore Europe. You’re here to become better citizens of the world.”

That’s not something the perpetual happiness of Disney World can ever offer. I hope his call was one that all of us can heed.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tom Naatz

Tom is a senior at University of Notre Dame. He is majoring in Political Science and Spanish and is originally from Rockville, Maryland. Formerly The Observer's Notre Dame News Editor, he's now a proud columnist for the paper.

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