A visit behind the curtain of the most magical place on earth.
Even before our arrival, the Disney experience was beginning. Instead of heading to claim our luggage, we walked straight to Disney’s Magical Express, a coach service that would take us directly to our hotel in the Disney World resort. A few weeks earlier, we had received special luggage tags to use for our trip, that would allow staff at the airport to automatically route our bags to the hotel on arrival without us having to pick them up. All we had to do was get on the coach.
The customer service difference was already evident here – between the reception desk and our seats on the coach we were warmly greeted by four different sets of cast members (Disney’s term for staff). After the experience of the flight (which by flight standards was not bad), it was like night and day. Maybe it was the sincerity, or possibly our own excitement, but we all were smiling.
We were staying at the Grand Floridian hotel, a period recreation of Victorian era vacationing. Being Christmas season, chestnuts were roasting at the front entrance for guests, a giant tree had been erected in the main atrium, and next to it was a life-sized gingerbread house (made of real gingerbread) which conveniently doubled as a sales kiosk for Christmas sweets. The sounds of a live piano filled the lobby, and the jazz band could be seen setting up for their afternoon concert.
Given the rush to get work done, I only had a second to soak up the atmosphere and the crowds of the legendary Main Street before running into my team, who had been in the park all day (they had been lucky enough to get on the one flight leaving Dallas the previous day). We ducked into the impressively laden candy shop to do our assignment, a 30 second video highlighting an aspect of Disney’s business practices. We chose “attention to detail” as a theme, using the background of the candy being made in store with diligence and attention.
After that it was back home for sleep. At about 1am I woke up to hear my roommate Ram arriving – he had been caught in the Iceocalypse, and had gotten on the late flight out of Dallas that day.
After breakfast we started our lectures for the day. Our instructors for the course were Kendal and Jeff, cast members who had started out working in the parks (Kendal as a singer, Jeff on the Jungle Cruise) and worked their way up to being instructors for the Disney Institute. They had an amazing rapport and enthusiasm for teaching.
The big lesson of the morning was that in observing and learning the Disney approach, it was less important to focus on the questions of what and how, but rather focus on why something had been done a certain way within Disney. If we could see this, then we would have something adaptable to our own endeavours. Mere imitation would likely lead to failure.
Classes finished late afternoon, and we got changed and caught a bus over to another of the parks, the Hollywood Studios. The one ride I wanted to go on was here, the Rock and Rollercoaster featuring Aerosmith (yes, that Aerosmith). It was a wild ride, an indoor rollercoaster that looped around in every direction while classic Aerosmith tunes played through the speakers. Incidentally, riding a rollercoaster while moshing to “Sweet Emotion” is a recipe for queasiness.
A few rides later we then headed back over to the Magic Kingdom for a late night in the park. On certain days hotel guests can stay later in the parks, even as late as 1am, so we took full advantage of it.
For the evening, we headed over to Epcot, and I tagged along with a group who were doing the “around-the-world” pub crawl. Whilst alcohol is not generally a part of the Disney image as a family-oriented organisation (and you won’t find it sold in the Magic Kingdom with the exception of the high-end restaurants), the nations that make up the Epcot World Showcase each have stalls selling a representative beer or spirit of their nation, and people try to go to each in turn. At 11 nations at about $8 a beer it’s an expensive enterprise (which also helps to limit unsavoury behaviour), so I abstained from joining in. That said, my exam results had come out, which was cause for a celebratory beer or two.
After class many of the group went and had a celebratory dinner at one of the other hotels, indulging in all you can eat barbecue.
For the final day of classes, I got to tick off a bucket list item and do something at Disney World that I wanted to do more than any ride, and that was to visit the legendary “utilidors”, the mythical tunnels under the Magic Kingdom that serve to get cast members into their respective regions of the park and shuttle stock to stores. They’re the reason that you never see Buzz Lightyear on Main Street, or Jack Sparrow walking through the castle. Walt Disney knew it would completely shatter the scene. Few people outside of the company ever get to see the utilidors, so it was a real honour to be able to walk through them.
Afterwards, I went and got my graduation cap customised with my name (the parks have embroiderers that can do this), and visited the Magic Kingdom and Epcot for one last time, proudly sporting my graduation cap. Graduating from the Disney Institute is a big thing, even for a short course like ours, and I lost track of the number of times that cast members congratulated me as I walked throughout the park.
The next day Adam and I went over to “Downtown Disney”, a retail and entertainment area at the edge of the Disney World complex, and did some souvenir shopping at the largest Disney store on the planet. It’s also the busiest Disney store on the planet, swarming with customers doing Christmas shopping. Then it was time to hop back on the Magical Express bus to the airport. The week of training allowed us to see other organisations through a new lens, and flying home was in many ways a harsh return to earth.
From an arts perspective, Disney is the biggest arts organisation on the planet, and they’ve managed to impact global culture in a way that entire genres of art have not. In a world where arts organisations face constant challenges to profitability and sustainability, an understanding of why Disney has succeeded where others have failed can provide insights into what strategies may allow the arts to be sustainable into the future.
Next week I’ll go into some of my specific observations from the classes, as well as some of the cool technology I got to play with whilst at the parks.
Until then, I recommend that if you have the chance even just to visit Disney World, go do it. It’s the experience of a lifetime.