The word ‘magic’ is often associated with time spent at Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World (WDW) in Florida. People define Disney magic differently. It’s about service to some; it’s about quality to others. For me, Disney magic is all about the story. Walt himself was a passionate storyteller and he carried that passion to everything did.
Being both travel agents and big Disney fans, my wife and I took a behind-the-scenes tour at the Magic Kingdom a couple of years ago. One of the first things we learned on that tour is that everything that appears at a Disney property – including cruise ships – starts with a story. To me, that’s magic.
The Story Sets the Stage
Walt believed that stories were an integral part of what made his vision for Disney so special. And why not? He began his career as an animator telling stories with drawings. That evolved into telling stories through films and, eventually, telling stories through theme park attractions, hotels, restaurants, and ships.
The thing to understand is that the story sets the stage. The story is what separates Disney properties from all other theme and amusement parks around the world. No one tells a story like Disney. No one. Not Universal, Six Flags, Legoland, or Sea world.
Disney’s passion for storytelling shines through in all those little details. For example, have you ever spent an hour waiting in line for the Peter Pan attraction at WDW? The standby queue line takes you through the entire story of Peter Pan as you move through it.
You start outside the house where Wendy and her brothers lived, then move through various rooms and eventually on to the attraction itself. Along the way, there are tons of little details that tell the story of how Wendy, John, and Michael actually lived. By the time you exit their house and turn into the attraction, you are ready to be carried away through the open window to Neverland.
Both Sets and Cast Members
Another thing that makes Disney storytelling so magical is that it involves both sets and cast members. One of my favorite venues for illustrating this very thing is the Skipper Canteen restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. It actually involves two stories: one from the Jungle Cruise attraction and the one attached to the restaurant itself.
As the story goes, the Jungle Cruise was originally founded by Dr. Albert Falls to move cargo up and down some of the world’s most famous rivers. When that failed, he turned his cargo boats into cruise ships. Three generations later, granddaughter Alberta Falls converted the company’s headquarters to a restaurant, bringing in extra revenue to make up for falling tourism numbers.
Not only did the canteen bring in that extra money, it also allowed the Falls family to avoid laying off boat skippers. Those who don’t have boats to pilot on any given day end up working in the restaurant as hosts, hostesses, and servers.
None of this may mean anything to you if you’ve never been inside the restaurant. Trust me when I say the story is alive and well in both the sets and cast members. Relocated skippers working as servers tell the same corny jokes as those on the boats. They are more than ready to pass on the story of the Falls family. And sometimes they do – completely unsolicited.
As for the inside of the restaurant, it looks just like a repurposed office straight out of The African Queen. One dining room looks like the original executive office; a second looks like the office lobby; the third is the former skippers’ mess hall converted into a public dining space.
There Are No Words
Unfortunately, there really are no words to describe Disney’s storytelling in a way that truly does it justice. You have to experience it for yourself. To that end, I’d like to offer you a challenge for your next Disney trip.
Whether you go to California, Florida, Hawaii, or on a cruise, make this next trip one in which you don’t run from one thing to the next. Instead, slow down and take your time. Ask cast members to tell you the stories. When you’re in a restaurant, pay attention to all the little details. While you’re waiting in queue lines, see if you can figure out what story is being told.
For me personally, one of the things I most love about Disney is being able to forget real life without even trying. Whenever I’m in one of the parks I seriously do not think of anything else. Just as Walt wanted from the start, my mind and imagination are immediately transported into a whole new world that has nothing to do with paying the bills, meeting deadlines, etc.
Disney creates that magic by developing the story first. Remember that next time you visit a Disney destination or see a Disney film. The story always comes first; everything else is built around it. For me, that’s what makes Disney so magical.