Monday, August 31, 2009

Knapsack 9-5-09

Faith Works 9-5-09

Jeff Gill


Learning From a Mouse, In a Goofy Way



Did you know that Cinderella's Castle is made of sheetrock?


Seriously. The iconic, amazing structure we all know from television, towering over cypress swamps west of Orlando, Florida, is built on a fortress-like concrete foundation that goes up to the first level, and the fairytale pinnacles are mostly fiberglass, but the rest of what you see is treated, steel-reinforced gypsum board.


In many ways, it's the same as my own house, except I don't have Tinker Bell flying off the uppermost gable to touch off a fireworks display every night.


As everyone who knows me on Facebook is tired of seeing, 1,200 uploaded pictures later, my family went last month to Walt Disney World.


The Lovely Wife had been there three times with her parents and once for a conference, but neither the Lad nor myself had ever been to the Magic Kingdom. Before going, I'll admit I was a mix of studied indifference and mild curiosity, and our son was a little apprehensive over his first (that he could recall) airplane trip.


We came back almost equally amazed, delighted, and impressed. The main difference being that my points of interest are much geekier to recount than those of my son, who met and got "signatures" of just about everyone but Oswald the Rabbit – didn't see him, but there's always the next time.


Can a church learn anything from Disney? When "Mickey Mouse" has become a term of derision, and "Disneyfied" is not used as a compliment, you might wonder.


Before I went, and after I had spent three weeks doing church and Scout camps, I was talking to a pastor who also works with youth activities, and mentioning where I was heading to the next week, added with a laugh "I'll see if I can learn anything worth bringing back."


His response was a grim "it's amazing what you can do when you have money."


Well, yes, there's quite a bit of money at work at Disney World's four parks. Of course, most of it is brought by willing participants in the magic, who come determined to leave their money behind. No one is guilted or begged or forced to do it; the joke that even "cast members" often make is that they simply make sure that you get a chance to lay your money down, at every opportunity.


Those "cast members" – that's what every employee of the Disney Parks is called. They are trained so that each and every thing that happens is meant to be part of a visitor experience, from the street sweepers along Main Street USA to the fellow who drives the bus back to the airport at 5:00 am.


We saw one sweeper cast member finish a trash swipe, fill his long-handled bin with water, and use his broom on a patch of sunny pavement to draw . . . Mickey Mouse. It was a good likeness, too.


The common thread I saw and felt and experienced, and even got to talk to cast members about, was training. Each and every cast member got a pretty complete training cycle before being sent out to greet the public. Everyone knew the message and the purpose and the methods that went into not only their own stations, but the work zones around them. Their training also was clearly consistent in telling them all that "I don't know" isn't an answer, but "What a great question; let's go find out who knows the answer to that" is.


Is everyone happy in the happiest place on earth? Nope, we're all humans here, except for the anthropomorphic animals and Goofy (if you ask the accompanying cast member whether Goofy is a canine, they all quickly point out that Pluto is Mickey's dog, but Goofy is Goofy, end of story).


It happened that I saw not one but two fights, between family members, sad to say, who brought their troubles and conflict right on into the park with them. The Disney approach, which I learned was also – yep – part of the training, is to never have a one-on-one confrontation with a guest. As fast as possible, there were two Disney staff engaging each of the combatants, and they largely focused on separating the warring parties, and then listening. Just listening.


Training, problem solving, teamwork, and everything – and I mean everything – focused on delivering the themes, from trash sweeping to waiting in line. None of that begins with spending large sums of money, though the money is clearly being spent to deliver that.


Like the sheetrock holding up Cinderella's towers, the Disney experience isn't that far from home, except for how it's arranged.  More about that next week!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your unexpected insight at or follow Knapsack