The Magic of Disney is in the People
Photo courtesy of Adventures by Disney
That’s an easy question for a four-year-old boy whose favorite song is the theme from “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” a six-year-old girl with an Elsa dress or even a surly teen who claims to love “Star Wars” but secretly still harbors a fan-boy level of excitement for Buzz and Woody. It may even be an easy question to answer for longtime fans or those for whom a Disney trip has always been a rite of passage.
For many, though, the question is not as simple.
The mere cost of Disney is prohibitory for some and downright outlandish for others in an economy that highlights the stark difference between needs and wants. Even in terms of putting together a memorable family vacation, the sticker shock of a week at Disney parks, staying at Disney properties, going on Disney cruise ships or heading out on a Disney vacation or adventure can send moms, dads, grandmas or grandpas scrambling for cheaper options. That’s not even mentioning those without kids for whom Disney may not be as naturally first and foremost as a destination.
Yet, the parks stay packed, and Disney’s newer offerings grow year after year.
From a cynical, purely business-minded perspective, I could talk about branding or value vs. cost and probably get a pretty good answer. After spending a week in the park meeting so many of the employees, however, it’s become exceedingly clear that the magic of Disney is not in the iconic Mickey ears, the first glimpse of Cinderella’s castle, or even the original imagination of Walt Disney himself.
The real answer is in the magic of Disney, and the magic of Disney is in the people.
“Look at All the Happy People...Look at All We’ve Accomplished!”
Arriving at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is an adventure all its own. The first magical sight of Cinderella’s castle (often lovingly misidentified as “Mickey’s Castle” by plenty of children) stirs emotions in even the most stalwart. We’re here! This is amazing! It’s even bigger, better and more magical than I imagined! By the halfway point of “Main Street U.S.A.,” you’re hooked and immersed in a world that is as real as the one you left behind.
The adventure doesn’t start there, though. It started long before you even realized.
The approach to Disney is carefully crafted with man-made sand dunes and carefully choreographed palm trees, so people arriving from the Orlando airport can see the “Florida” they expected even though the inner I-4 corridor of Central Florida naturally looks nothing like that. If you checked into a resort property before entering the park, you are told “Welcome Home” by someone who actually means it and will provide first-class service from the moment you meet them to the moment they wave farewell as if they are doing so to an old friend.
You feel a certain way entering the park because it is Disney’s business to make you feel that way. You feel happy because Disney doesn’t sell only park tickets and merchandise. They sell emotion. They sell magnificence. They sell magic. They sell happiness.
Standing before Cinderella’s Castle is a larger-than-life statue of Walt Disney, who is pointing out at the crowd while holding Mickey’s hand and clearly telling his greatest creation something extremely significant. While many have speculated what that might be, Disney Imagineer Gary Landrum said that sculptor Blaine Gibson himself said Walt Disney was looking out at the arriving guests and telling Mickey, “Look at all the happy people...Look at all we’ve accomplished.”
That quote is echoed in the Disney Imagineering motto: “We believe happy people make the world a better place.”
That sort of mindset is ingrained not only in the design of Walt Disney World as well as all of the other Disney offerings, but it’s become so important to the people at Disney that it helps set the company apart (and ahead) of its competitors.
It’s Not What You Do As Much As It’s Who You Are.
Elaine showed me around Walt Disney World and was not only as knowledgeable about the park as any employee, but was as excited to ride the rides and see the sites as any of the Disney fans around us. Elaine was so amazing as a tour guide, it was amazing to me that it wasn’t what she did for Disney. Her day job was behind a desk...at a computer. She was volunteering for this tour guide detail because she loved doing it and because she’s as passionate about Disney as the company hopes all of its guests can one day become.
Then there was the Disney executive that geeked out as much for the “Star Wars” additions as young kids did back when the opening crawl from “A New Hope” and John Williams’ score first entered their lives back in 1977. He wasn’t selling me on Disney’s Star Wars expansions; he was talking to me with the fervor of a full-on, geeked-out ComicCon attendee whose boyhood passions somehow ended up as his full-time adult life. He loved it, and I couldn’t help but reflect some of his shine in the smile on my face as well.
Sitting around the table and hearing the Adventures by Disney executives talk, it was almost as if they simply had been having the most amazing vacation experiences and just wanted to bring more people around so those people could share in and multiply their fun. Their kids had found lifelong friends and first crushes on these trips, and their passion was not in the brand but in the experience itself — like a kid who goes to summer camp every year of childhood only to end up as a counselor and then eventually running the place.
It’s the Imagineer who can’t help but weave story and myth into every sentence as he attempts to talk about design or construction. He’s not just planning a shopping mall, but he’s constructing a narrative that is every bit as important as the brick and mortar.
Maybe it sounds mundane, but there’s magic too in waitresses, bartenders, shopkeepers and ride operators who are not only incredibly talented at what they do, but focused on something more than customer service, like the comforting look a cast member gives to the little girl who took his (purposefully) B-level acting a little too seriously on the walk up to the “Tower of Terror.” It was only a moment before the doors closed, but it spoke volumes: Be scared — that’s the point, but you’re going to be all right.
Perhaps most of all, it’s the understanding that someone who goes to Disney today needs a reason to go to Disney tomorrow. It might start with the first-class service, stirring of emotion and incredible buy in, but it’s also linked to the constant expansion and reimagineering of the park that happens first behind the scenes and then in real time. The Disney that parents went to once upon a time will be new again when they bring the first kid and then the second — not different in any meaningful way as much as refreshed.
It’s the people. It has to be the people. The brand is iconic, and the characters are beloved, but the people bring the magic to Disney — parks, resorts, cruises, vacations and the like — in a living and breathing way. It is the people who ensure the magic of Disney is communicated to each and every visitor and yet is sustained for years upon years by constant renewal.
The hard-working, incredibly talented and passionate people of Disney are what inject magic into the park. Each and every one has a right to stand side-by-side with Mickey, lined up behind Walt and throughout generations looking out upon the many happy people having stepped inside of a dream and left with lifelong memories.
More by Michael Schottey
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