Theme Park Insider

Theme parks are in 'show' business, not the 'tell' business

October 23, 2017, 3:02 PM · Years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and I was enrolled in journalism school, several of my professors drilled into me the journalism cliche "show, don't tell."

The idea was (and is) that people react better to seeing examples, instead hearing lectures. If we needed to write about changes to the state budget, for example, we should show readers those changes with stories about people affected by them, rather than tell readers about the changes with some dry, boring recitation of numbers and quotes from elected officials. That's why so many news stories focus on anecdotes. They're trying to show you something about an issue, rather than just telling you about it.

This is hardly a new concept, of course. Much of the New Testament of the Bible is written in parables, after all. I suppose there might have been some other ancient book, with the exact moral lessons, that spelled everything out explicitly, instead leaving it to the reader to figure out, and is now forgotten because it didn't pass the test of time. No one wants a lecture.

So "show, don't tell," works in other contexts. I thought about this earlier today when reading Twitter. One (very thoughtful!) fan I follow complained that a security cast member told her to smile when she was going through bag check.

Having had this happen to me countless times since I was a child, I share her frustration. Want me to smile in your theme park, at your show, or in your business? Then show me a reason to do that. Do not command (another form of tell) me what to do.

One of the reasons why people visit theme parks is to escape from their routine, a large portion of which for many people involved getting bossed around by others. Obviously, as popular attractions, theme parks need to manage the huge crowds that come into their parks. But part of the beauty of great theme park operations lies in the ability of cast and team members to be able to manage people without any one of those visitors feeling like they've been managed.

As a theme park employee or contractor, as soon as you tell someone what to do, you've busted that wonderful illusion. You have exposed the machinery underneath the experience. You have broken "the magic." We might as well be back at work, being ordered around in a meeting, or on the road commuting, with traffic officers telling us where to drive. Where's the fun in being told what to do? That's the routine we are trying to escape.

The telling feels even more oppressive when it is coming from someone in a security uniform, and that feeling is amplified when security is ordering around women, people of color, or children — individuals who too often are the disproportionate target of suppressive demands IRL. Men telling women to smile especially evokes a long history of emotional diminishment. The best security officers are aware of these risks and work to make everyone they encounter feel welcomed, even as they endure a bag check or metal detector scan.

Yes, making that happen does mean treating each person differently. After all, treating everyone exactly the same defines the industrial process we want to escape by visiting a theme park. We are looking for a personal experience here.

How to do that? While each individual encounter will be different, "show, don't tell" provides a great place to start. What someone to smile? Offer them a smile, first. Great people warmly, but don't make demands. Say, "Hello" but follow it with something like "I am so happy to see you," or "There's so much wonderful stuff happening," instead of "How are you doing today?"

The last approach is cliche — an empty question that nevertheless puts someone under social pressure to respond. The others are just an unconditional expression of happiness. At a security check, the company already is making demands of its customers. Open the bag, turn out your pockets, walk through the scanner. Why compound that hassle with any additional requests? Instead, just give. Give people a smile. Show people your happiness to be here. Don't ask any unnecessary questions and do not make any unnecessary demands. If a guest isn't feeling that joy, let the guest have her or his space.

I know, having worked at Disney World, that the core of that job is making people happy. But no individual can force another person to feel happy. All you can do is offer happiness and recognize that it is up to your guests to catch it... or not.

Having been around since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I have learned that a direct command almost never inspires someone to change how they feel. Check that. Direct commands do make people change the way they feel, but they make us feel worse: frustrated, picked upon, and even angry.

Let me stop telling and start showing, then. The first time I got a front-row seat for a Disney parade, Captain Hook walked over to me, sitting on the Main Street curb. I was probably around 10, and looking back, am sure that I was sitting with a blank expression on my face. Being an emerging theme park geek, I was fascinated by the operation of the parade — the floats and the people, all working together in precise choreography. I wanted to study every move. As an obsessive perfectionist, I loved what I was seeing, so close in front of me. But, knowing me, when I am that deep in thought, my face isn't smiling.

So there came Captain Hook, to call me out. He bent over and motioned with his hands in front of his mouth, curling them up as if to make a smile. I felt the eyes of hundreds of people on the parade route turn toward me, as Hook singled me out for doing something wrong.

But I hadn't done anything wrong, which offended my extra-sensitive, pre-teen sense of justice. I had felt happy, just trying to understand how Disney pulled off this parade. Now, I felt angry and humiliated by being shamed in front of such a large crowd. I refused to watch any more Disney parades until I got a job as a cast member and no longer had a choice. And I hated Captain Hook well into adulthood.

What if Captain Hook had just come over to the little kid he saw with what looked like a scowl on his face and performed some gag, instead? What if he gave me a reason to laugh, instead of an order? What if he showed me something funny, instead of telling me what to do?

I would have loved it — one more funny thing in this wonderful parade for me to study. Whether my face showed it or not.

If your reaction to all this is to say, "you're too sensitive — lighten up," I sincerely hope that you don't get a job working in a theme park with that belief. Everyone is who he or she is. Telling people not to feel the way they feel is not supportive — if anything, it's abusive. Theme parks ought to provide an escape from such ugliness in life.

Everyone is different. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect. But respecting people means that you offer something before you even think about making a demand. Working in a theme park is hard. Cast members deserve thanks for all the crap they take from guests, every day.Yet they shouldn't add to that pile, either. This is "show" business, not "tell" business, after all.

Replies (10)

October 23, 2017 at 4:05 PM · I was in the Disneyland Hub with a friend of mine when I got a phone message that a mutual friend of ours had just died. All of a sudden, a Cast Member appeared and said, "Sir, I'm afraid I have to give you a citation."

I was distracted and confused and burbled something like "Wha?"

She said, "You two aren't smiling enough for the Happiest Place on Earth." and she gave us a fake little joke 'ticket.'


I appreciate that she was trying to be fun and funny, but I was just not in the proper mood. One never knows what's going on in another person's life.


I took that to heart when I was a Cast Member. I made it a point to respond in kind to the Guests I encountered. If somebody was being breezy and jokey, I'd have a lot of fun talking and asking trivia questions with them. If somebody asked a flat question ("Where are the bathrooms?") I'd respond as clearly and concisely as I could. Trying to jolly anybody into an alternate mood has to be a lot more subtle than commanding them, or responding in a fashion too removed from their current state.

October 23, 2017 at 4:32 PM · When I was a moody teenager and had to sit on the curb of Hollywood Studios at the very start of my vacation because my mom wanted to see the parade, I had my arms crossed and probably a scowl on a di has to watch the parade. Then, a float with Grumpy the dwarf also being grumpy pointed at me, and that was more than enough for me to burst into giggles. And I’m still remembering that small event fondly a decade later so that cast member obviously did something right
October 23, 2017 at 8:01 PM · Interesting and thoughtful points.
October 23, 2017 at 8:44 PM · As a white, Jewish male, I feel very oppressed and marginalized that the author (who I otherwise love and who makes highly insightful comments, when he stays away from political comments), choose to marginalize white male security officers.

Thoughout my life, I have encountered an equal percentage of gruff, not commanding men and women private and public law/rule enforcement types.

Especially, since disneyland has a virtually equal percentage of male and female security officers.

To TELL readers, that gender makes a difference in security, is the exact opposite point of the article. If male police officers, were (generally) more unfriendly in reader's life experiences. The readers would think that, without having to be told/ordered by the author, to think it.

October 23, 2017 at 8:44 PM · As a white, Jewish male, I feel very oppressed and marginalized that the author (who I otherwise love and who makes highly insightful comments, when he stays away from political comments), choose to marginalize white male security officers.

Thoughout my life, I have encountered an equal percentage of gruff, not commanding men and women private and public law/rule enforcement types.

Especially, since disneyland has a virtually equal percentage of male and female security officers.

To TELL readers, that gender makes a difference in security, is the exact opposite point of the article. If male police officers, were (generally) more unfriendly in reader's life experiences. The readers would think that, without having to be told/ordered by the author, to think it.

October 24, 2017 at 1:33 AM · On my last visit to Walt Disney World, I went through the "no bags" line at Epcot, forgetting that I was wearing a camera bag on my hip. This wasn't too long after the Pulse night club shooting, and my shirt was covering the camera pouch.

A female security guard at that entrance stopped me, pointed to the bulge on my hip, and asked me to slowly raise my shirt while saying, "What is that?."

I immediately remembered not only what I had there, but the circumstances in the surrounding area that led to her being so direct and demanding. I absolutely complied -- not only, as a former Disneyland cast member (who dealt with a couple of bomb threats, as well as working a private party at Disneyland where one person got stabbed outside the park, and a gun was pulled out in Adventureland later in the day, and I had a man physically threaten me for helping his girlfriend down from a wall that she couldn't stand on for Fantasmic!), did I understand her concern -- but I also got that, technically, a camera bag on my hip meant I probably should have gone through the longer bag check line instead of the "no bags" line.

I lifted my shirt and showed her the bag, then told her I would slowly open it for her to check inside and see that it was, indeed, a camera. She thanked me and moved on to the next guest, who she was much more friendly with (which I was not upset about, as I understood that I had inadvertently put her in a stressful situation -- and for the rest of that vacation, I waited in the regular line to have the camera bag inspected, and made sure it was visible before getting to the front so they could see it was not a gun on my hip).

But on that day, about 10 feet after I had undergone this impromptu security check (under reasonable circumstances), I had another security guard -- who had seen the interaction -- come up to me and say "she thought you were a pirate."

Okay, no Pirates of the Caribbean at Epcot, but I got the reference. And yes, swords are more the "Pirates" weapon, but they DO use guns in the attraction, and used to sell them in the gift shops, so I got it.

And he and I laughed together over his clever response to the situation.

If the first security guard had ended our interaction with "now smile and pretend this wasn't at least a little scary for both of us," I would have been VERY put off. But the fact that another security guard came up to me and made light of the situation? That made my day.

One last thing for Robert -- when you said "Say, 'Hello' but follow it with something like 'I am so happy to see you,' or 'There's so much wonderful stuff happening,' instead of 'How are you doing today?'", that's brilliant advice which I'm sad I'd never thought of before. I am VERY guilty of the 'How are you doing today?' generic approach (both as a former cast member and in my current capacity managing a casino).

Your advice is sound, and I plan to incorporate it into my regular routine of welcoming our guests. So thank you for including that wisdom.

October 24, 2017 at 4:53 AM · @DaveDisney, I'm not sure you read the same article that I did. I can't see a reference to a white male security guard. There are mentions of parts of society that might have more of a reaction to that kind of behaviour. But I know, for example, women who wouldn't accept being treated like that by another woman due to past experience with men. Behaviour of the security person is what matters, not gender. I'm sorry that you feel like you are being oppressed, but in this case, you aren't. You are projecting to much into this article if you are feeling like a victim.
October 24, 2017 at 7:11 AM · First time in a scootmobiel and we went to Island Of Adventure. I was nervous and depressed although I made the decision conscious weighing out the possibility for me to visit a theme park never again or go and sit in the freaking chair. I never felt so handicapped.

My first ride was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and I wanted to ride it so bad. I drove up to a team member and she had a pleasant smile and showed me the special entrance and explained the (long) route I had to take. Her being nice lifted my spirit a bit.
I followed directions and ended up at a separate loading platform. The was a nice guy who was having fun with a small kid in a wheelchair in front of me. He said hi to me and continue taking with the kid about Harry. He was so infectious and when he saw I was following the fun he slowly included me in the group. The four of us (the kid and his parents and me) ended up on one bench. He high fived us before we left the station and we were a group. When I came of I was another person. No brick could smash the smile on my face. That's how you make guests smile.

October 24, 2017 at 9:50 AM · @davedisney, I feel marginalised and oppressed by you expressing your innate desire to be oppressed by inventing a subtext in the article that is not there. There are plenty of real examples of marginalisation and oppression out there for you to feel outraged about, there is no need to dissect a document like this to try to find something that isn’t there.

(If you think I sound ridiculous then I have been successful in showing you what your behaviour looks like)

October 24, 2017 at 4:44 PM · While nobody should be physically touched, you did run into a villain Robert. He is supposed to be a jerk to you ;)

To each his own, but one singular cast member should not ruin your experience or life because they did something cringe worthy. We are all human. We need to allow mistakes to be made and apologies to be given.

This makes me think of what if a character is too good. There have been some complaints for Nox, the demon underlord of Fright Fest. He is a jerk and acts like one. Hell, he is the Devil! People are complaining that he is being too good.

Makes me also think of Gaston who tells girls to make him a sandwich. What do others think of that? That is the point of Gaston.

I get Robert's point, but I find this as being a touchy subject because Disney does see its share of attitude adjusted teenagers.

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