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Posted on February 4, 2018

What happened when our family decided to embark upon a holy pilgrimage to … Orlando? We took a trip into the depths of hell (the shadow of collective human shadow). We cussed each other out with the fireworks above us. We questioned our role in the corporate oligarchy. We were present. We were in it. We freed out bodies and minds. Thank you, Disneyland and Universal Studios, for giving us exactly what we needed and showing us how theme parks are sacred sites — portals of truth.

6 Ways Theme Parks are Sacred Sites

We struggled a bit with making the decision to take our kids to Disneyworld and Universal Studios; it felt like it would be a wasted opportunity to do something “spiritual” as a family. The thought of the gift shops, long lines and crowds was daunting. My husband and I were (are) keen on taking our kids to the Grand Canyon and Machu Picchu for some mystical adventuring. But an opportunity presented itself that felt too good to be true (free lodging and airfare), and most importantly when I looked deep down inside, I realized the kid in me really did want to “do Disney.” So I discussed with my husband and we arranged for a 4 night stay in Orlando to visit Disney’s Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

Instead of an “either/or” scenario (either sacred, mystical adventuring or typical American theme park trip), I chose a both scenario – theme parks as sacred sites.

Here’s what unfolded:

1. Belief in Magic: No expense has been spared in creating a complete immersion into a totally different reality construct at these parks. The practice of shifting consciousness from the mundane to the magical is a difficult practice for many of us to achieve in our day-to-day lives, but Disney and Universal make it easy. You walk in, and you leave absolutely everything else at the gates. This practice of leaving our problems, stories, and identities at the door in order to step into a world where anything is possible is a powerful and important one. Because it’s this very practice that allows us to heal from old wounds and manifest the lives that we want for ourselves.

The Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter at the Universal Parks are nothing short of spectacular. I felt as if I had been transported to an alternate reality. The kids got wands that performed actual spells. The 3D rides were insanely fun and immersive. The creativity was inspiring.

2. Initiations in Fear-Facing: For our family, the parks provided a potent opportunity to face our fears and choose to overcome them. My daughter had to deal with her fear of the Seven Dwarves Mine Train roller coaster and ultimately chose joy and fun over her anxiety. This is no small feat! I joined my stepson on a ride called The Mummy at Universal Studios … and the experience was nothing short of a trip to the depths of hell. Pitch black sudden backwards drops. Fast twists and turns. Flames bursting all around. Faces of demons telling dark tales. It was horrifying. But wat an opportunity to face the fear of the shadow of humanity.

And then, there’s confronting your worst self in the face of fear. Yes, this can happen even at a theme park! My husband and I experienced a real initiation when he had a difficult time processing his growing anxiety as the Disneyworld fireworks crowd became denser and denser, and I didn’t pick up on his cues. We ended up fighting rather passionately and dramatically (like, cussing each other out during the fireworks show) but, hey, sometimes we learn the hard way that we need to communicate our fears/anxieties more clearly and support each other more compassionately through those moments.

3. The Medicine of Allegory: Disneyworld consists of different “lands”: Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, etc. Moving from one space to another (from a vision of the past to a vision of the future to land of voyaging to a land of the imaginary) was a fascinating practice in embodying different dimensions: What does the future feel like? How do I experience adventure in my body? Who am I in a world of fantasy?

A few of the rides and experiences (especially at Universal) were anchored in a central story. While many at Universal were simply good vs evil (an interesting exploration of the light and shadow selves), there were also some reinforcements of timeless, quintessential themes – such as Spaceship Earth (a trip through time on planet Earth) and Space Mountain (speeding and winding through the cosmos). I took these metaphorical journeys in as medicine for the soul.

4. Confrontation of Abundance Issues: Money, money, money! There is no shortage of opportunities to spend it, at a theme park. It’s easy to walk into a place like Disneyworld and be instantly put off by the commercialization and commoditization of joy and hope, which should be free. It’s easy to point a finger at what corporations are doing to the world, and politicize the experience in disgust.

But, too, what an opportunity to explore our relationships with abundance and value.

We made smart choices (packed our lunches from the grocery store), and were happily surprised at the relative lack of “Can I get this?” moments that our kids posed. When they did, though, there was an opportunity to mirror the question back to them “Is that something you truly want?” It was a teachable moment for the kids on spending money on experiences versus things. And a learnable moment for me as I really felt a sense of gratitude for the corporate machines (Disney, Universal, Jet Blue, Whole Foods Market) that made the experience possible. (And made me look in the mirror about some of my values and choices: How do I reconcile my feelings about what the international corporate oligarchy is doing to the planet, with my desire for fun, convenience, quality, and low cost?)

5. Healing Body Sensations: Nothing gets you “out of your head” more quickly than an extreme physical experience. Getting into our bodies and experiencing life on purely physical level is something that connects us to our ‘fight or flight’ animal instincts (underneath rational thought and emotional processing). Kids are pretty good at accessing this mode naturally; but for us adults, it’s usually something we only experience regularly during sex or trauma – unless we are avid runners, surfers, etc. (But I would suggest even then, it can still be difficult to truly mentally disconnect.)

The constant over-the-top sensory stimulation provides a means for the mind to observe and absorb without the incessant analytical interpretation that we can typically find ourselves in, during our day-to-day lives. Roller coasters and thrill rides shake up the body in ways it cannot normally be shaken up. The big drops, the zipping from left to right, and the tricks that the 3D effects play on the brain keep us in a physically experiential mode that feels, to me, very therapeutic in giving the mind a rest. It just feels good – and even somehow healing – to expose the body to a new physical experience … face in the wind, organs jostling around, hands gripping restraint bar, heart rate elevated.

6. Practicing Waiting as Being. Oh my gosh, the lines. Two hours was the longest we waited for one ride. Let’s face it: It’s physically grueling to carry a large backpack around for miles all day, be on your feet in the heat, and spend most of that time just waiting. But what an amazing opportunity to just be together as a family. To be present. To notice the little things. To connect with a line-neighbor. To my delight, we really didn’t have our phones out as much as I thought we would. (See #1 above about leaving your identity at the gates.)

In line on our very first ride line, my daughter’s complaining kicked in right away – then my stepson chimed in with aggravation and annoyance at her complaining. While I spoke with my daughter about how 90% of our time all day would be spent waiting, but that we could use that time to just be together, my husband reminded our son of how we should respond when others are struggling – with compassion, not attacks of frustration. There was plenty of time and space for practicing patience and compassion.

Orlando, please keep our seats warm!