The “Happiest Place” Myth – Why Disneyland Will Not Make You Happy (And What Will Instead)

“The idea of Disneyland is a simple one. It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge.” – Walt Disney

Friends, fanatics, foamers. We’ve all been had. Remove the rose-colored glasses and brush off the pixie dust, because it’s time to face the truth:

Disneyland will not make you happy. You can be happy at a Disney theme park, or any theme park, or anywhere of course, but the place itself won’t make you happy.

Almost from the very beginning, Disneyland has sold itself as a place so special you can’t possibly enter its gates without some of that magic rubbing off and putting a smile on your face. Starting sometime in the 1960s, its most well known slogan is “The Happiest Place on Earth.” More recent taglines for various marketing purposes include “Just Got Happier” and “Keeps Getting Happier.” Of course everyone wants to be happier. In a country that entitles you to “the pursuit of happiness”, what could be more American than a theme park that promises to deliver that very elusive but highly-sought-after state of being?

But how much do you or anyone else buy into the “Happiest Place” gimmick? The notion that simply visiting a place, no matter how wonderful, can make you happier is very appealing to the emotions but doesn’t make much sense. After all, if this were true, the park’s most frequent guests – Annual Passholders – would be the happiest group of people on Earth! (And chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ll agree that isn’t exactly the case.)

As an AP holder myself, I can tell you my personal happiness has not noticeably increased or decreased compared to the years when I didn’t have it.

If it were true that everyone who has entered the gates of Disneyland “Just Got Happier,” then why on any given day are there so many bawling children, flustered parents, and downright miserable guests?

Mind you, crowd levels and weather do make a difference – it’s hard to have a good time when the park is filled to capacity and it’s 100 degrees and humid. That can test the willpower of even the most patient, good-natured guest. But let’s say for the sake of argument that the weather is perfect and you get the full VIP treatment – you have the park completely to yourself, you have overly cheerful Cast Members attending to your every want and need, you get instant access to as many attractions as you want. It might be fun for a while, but would it make you happy? Look at most celebrities who receive that treatment every day, everywhere  – are they happy?

Here’s my take on the “Happiest Place” tagline. It’s a hyperbole, an exaggeration – descriptive but also intentionally vague. It can’t be proven or disproven. What if you think that your hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, is happier than Disneyland? It doesn’t matter, because happiness cannot be easily defined, and it means something a little different to each individual. Happiness is not easily measurable, either – you can’t get a refund at the end of the day after realizing you did not become happier after visiting the park (but you can certainly join the line at City Hall and try anyway).

As consumers, we want truth in advertising, but we also allow (and even enjoy) a little bit of exaggeration – just a smidge. As long as the exaggeration doesn’t go too far, we buy into it. We buy into the Barnum & Bailey Circus when they claim to be “The Greatest Show on Earth.” We buy into BMWs being “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” We buy into the idea that Red Bull “Gives You Wings.” And as a result, we buy circus tickets, German luxury cars and energy drinks.

Same logic applies when we buy into the “Happiest Place” imagery and book that lavish Disney vacation.

You’ve seen the ads. Families celebrating birthdays/reunions/graduations/etc. and dining without a care. Children staring wide-eyed up at a sky on fire above a fairytale castle. Insanely cheerful guests (actually paid actors) clapping along to a parade and skipping down the sidewalk with Goofy. It’s selling happiness. Pretty intoxicating, isn’t it? Even though most families are dysfunctional and the members probably hate each other’s guts, mommies and daddies see the ads and think wishfully, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if all of us could have a great time together for once?”

This is not a criticism of Disney’s marketing. On the contrary, to market Disney Parks in this way – in effect, “serving up happiness every day” – is a work of genius. From a business perspective, if the marketing gets guests of all ages through the turnstiles and into hotel rooms and they buy food and merchandise and they leave somewhat satisfied and perhaps even want to return again, then the campaign is a success. We must remind ourselves that The Mouse is a business, not a charity giving away happiness for free.

By the way.. I think it has almost reached a point where bringing your kids to a Disney Park has become a moral imperative and to not do so would somehow make you a bad parent. This is unfair, especially as ticket prices continue to “price out” an ever-larger segment of the general population. You can do a fine job raising healthy, happy kids without blinding them with pixie dust. (In this blogger’s opinion, most kids under the age of 4 or 5 would probably have more fun at a community pool or a local park – and kids must be at least age 7 or 8 to really appreciate being at a Disney theme park.)

If any of Disney’s marketing slogans were taken at face value, they’d raise our level of expectations so astronomically high that the reality can’t possibly live up to the fantasy. Let’s examine another marketing slogan: “Where Dreams Come True.” Perfect. So not only will you be in the happiest place on the entire planet – now, all your heart’s desires will be granted as well. The capacity for humans to want more, to wish for more, is unlimited. On such a tall order, it’s almost hard to imagine not leaving disappointed. (It also puts unreasonable expectations on the limits that Cast Members can go to make your stay a “magical” one.)

I also want to point out that “happiness” and “fun” are often used interchangeably, but they are NOT the same thing. Disneyland and other theme parks are “fun” – they provide amusement, a diversion, a brief escape from life’s problems. But “fun” is fleeting. After the party comes the hangover. In fact, studies have shown that most people coming back from vacation return to being just as miserable as before they left!

Our relentless pursuit of fun is driven by the assumption that more fun = happiness, but that equation is flawed. How many of us have attended parties that weren’t even that much fun – let alone made us happier – but we do it because we associate parties with fun and fun must lead to happiness, right? How many of us actually become unhappier during holidays like Christmas and New Year’s because there’s the expectation that we’ll be happy attending all the compulsory activities – and we’ll feel like we’re missing out if we don’t? Will visiting a Disney Park for 24 hours straight and riding the Mad Tea Party 960 times in a row make you 959 times happier than riding it once?

I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t visit Disneyland. Like all forms of entertainment, when used in moderation, theme parks can help us maintain happiness by helping us relax, laugh a little, and take attention away from our problems. But a theme park can’t create happiness. And like any source of amusement, theme parks can be abused, if it gets in the way of your personal life, family and other things that do provide long-lasting happiness.

So what DOES make you happier? I don’t claim to be an expert on happiness, but I know it when I see it – or more precisely, I know it when I feel it. Happiness can be faked, of course, and it happens all the time (if you’ve ever worked in customer service, or as a front-line Cast Member, then you know what I’m talking about). In fact you probably think your friends are happier than you – when you see them check in to a Disney Park on social media, for example – when in fact they aren’t. Facebook in particular, where people focus only on the best parts of their lives and neglect to mention the not-so-good, is a big culprit in making you believe this. People who lived 100 years ago didn’t smile in photographs very often, and they’d probably wonder what the heck is wrong with us when we put on a happy face for the camera just because we want to appear happy to others, regardless of whether we actually are.

In my personal life, I have found great happiness in spending quality time with my family, earning a college education, building a career doing what I enjoy, learning to play a musical instrument, reading a good book, etc. None of those things sound especially “fun,” and they require hard work and diligence, but they do contribute greatly to overall happiness in my life.

I’ll leave you with this: It’s OK to have fun once in a while, but don’t equate fun with happiness because they aren’t the same. Fun is temporary; happiness is ongoing. Devote time first to meaningful pursuits that build a happy life, and then scatter in the remainder on amusements like theme parks which are “just for fun.” (Although I will admit “The Funnest Place on Earth” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

What makes you happy? Add your thoughts to the comment section below!

Thanks for reading! 🙂 -Matt @DLthings