This week, The Walt Disney Company kicks off its 100 Years of Wonder anniversary celebration at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. I will be there to cover the press event starting tomorrow, but I wanted to start with some thoughts about what Disney has meant to me during my lifetime.
Arthur Levine of About Theme Parks suggested the topic, and he has posted his own take on Disney's first 100 years, focusing on the company's social and cultural impact. [Please give it a read: Reflecting on Disney at 100.] But my take on Disney's 100 years is a bit more personal, though I hope that the lessons I have learned will feel universal.
Being a Los Angeles native, Disney has been part of my life ever since I can remember. I make my living today in media, and my very first media appearance was... as Disney’s icon, Mickey Mouse. I wore that costume for a Halloween episode of Romper Room here in Los Angeles as soon as I was old enough to appear on that classic children’s television show. (Thanks for having me on, Miss Mary Ann! I still remember that foot-long taffy in the goodie bag.)
Like millions of other GenX American children, I grew up with Disney’s movies and TV shows, but I also grew up with Universal and Warner Bros. shows, too. My favorite cartoons were from Jay Ward, not Walt Disney. While I loved going to Disneyland, and later Walt Disney World, most kids in my class wanted to go to Six Flags, because they had the cool, exciting roller coasters that Disney did not have.
I grew up as The Walt Disney Company was falling back.
Then, in 1984, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took charge at Disney, ending the company's slow downturn after Walt's death. Three years later, my relationship with Disney changed from fan to cast member when I got a job working at the Walt Disney World Resort.
I did not come to Disney from a happy place. My parents had moved from Indianapolis to Orlando while I was away at college, where I was not exactly thriving. I had just finished the second year of a brutal academic program at Northwestern, where cold winds blowing off Lake Michigan made the dark winter days even more depressing. A year serving as student government vice president had sucked from my life what little remaining joy I had left after studying. To complete the clichéd story, my long-distance girlfriend had just dumped me, and my roommate had moved out, too. Cue the sad trombone.
A distressed person who had lost his ability to connect with people emotionally might not seem the ideal candidate to work at the Most Magical Place on Earth - the emotional refuge to which millions of people escape each year, looking for a fresh dose of joy in their lives. But as I sat in the old casting trailers on Reams Road, north of the Magic Kingdom, I summoned what might be the most important lesson in show business.
Fake it until you make it. (For the details of that moment, see Smile if you want to work for a theme park.)
At Disney, my despair melted away - not because of my surroundings, but because of what my job required me to do. Disney told me to go out, smile, and help people. A year of sulking around, waiting for other people to come make me happy, did not bring the joy that going out and making others happy did.
I worked five summers at the Magic Kingdom, including a full year between graduating Northwestern and starting graduate school in journalism. But my newspaper career eventually led me back to Disney, as I started what is now Theme Park Insider seven years later as an experiment in online, community-driven reporting. Throughout the time I have been publishing Theme Park Insider, I have tried to remember the lesson that I learned as a new cast member in the Magic Kingdom - the best way to help yourself is to help others.
Beyond that, Disney has taught me how to find joy in the act of creating. Unlike other Hollywood studios, which at times have become enmeshed in unrelated businesses - from telephone companies to water utilities - Disney always has stayed grounded in the creative business. To be a cast member is to be a creator - a creator of entertainment, of customer service, of comfort, of storytelling, of ground-breaking engineering. When you create something truly wonderful, you feel that joy and satisfaction even before the first guest experiences your work.
Of course, when you see the joy and satisfaction on their faces, that doubles your emotional reward. But learning that I can find joy in what I create - whether it ultimately connects with people or not - was the final step I needed in my recovery from my mid-college funk.
My story is hardly unique among former Disney cast members. The opportunity to play upon perhaps the world's most popular performance stage has equipped hundreds of thousands of us with the skills and experience needed to create real value for clients, customers, and co-workers in whatever we are doing now - and will be doing in the future. That's why many top companies seek former Disney cast members to lead their customer service, operations, creative, and communication teams.
I understand that not everyone has enjoyed the positive experience that I have had with Disney over my life and career. Even if 99% of the people who come to or work for Disney had positive experiences, the immense number of people that Disney touches would ensure that the 1% of failures would include many thousands of dissatisfied customers and employees. As living in America becomes tougher and more expensive for each generation, Disney will need to step up with more aggressive compensation and support to ensure that its cast members can continue to sustain the level of excellence that people expect from the company.
So getting to 200 years may prove a far more challenging accomplishment than Disney's first 100 years. But what Disney has done for its countless fans and cast members - including me - over this past century certainly deserves celebration. Happy birthday, Disney. And thank you for all that you've taught me - and so many others.
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