Creating Magic in Our Schools

Sequin Minnie ears on our heads, we rushed to join the dance party. Surrounded by five-year-olds, we surrendered to the Latin rhythms of the live band. We lost ourselves in silly salsa movements and giggled as we bravely danced with abandon under the night lights in Tomorrowland. Disney’s magic had captured our 34-year-old hearts. During our visit to Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, I found myself inspired by the Walt Disney exhibit, One Man’s Dream. Through images, artifacts, and videos which told the story of Walt’s life and work, I learned powerful and important life lessons. Mainly, I learned that Walt Disney didn’t work in isolation, and he listened carefully to feedback. Walt’s brother, Roy, knew that they would need funds to support all of Walt’s wild ideas. It was Roy who came up with the idea to sell merchandise; a decision that helped Walt fund his innovative ideas and proved to be extremely lucrative. Roy wasn’t the only person whose teamwork made the dream work. Did you know that Walt Disney wanted to name his darling Mickey Mouse, “Mortimer?” His wife, Lillian, gave Walt critical feedback that Mortimer sounded pompous. She suggested, “Mickey Mouse” instead, and the rest is history.

Many of us think of Walt Disney as a miracle worker. A man with superhuman talents which led to legendary success. But ask anyone who has recently visited Walt Disney World or anyone who has read Lee Cockerell’s book, Creating Magic, and they will tell you – the magic actually boils down to one thing: the EXPERIENCE.

MAGICAL MOMENTS: As Cockerell states, “It’s not the magic that makes it work; it’s the way we work that makes it magic.” During a safari ride at the Animal Kingdom, Linda, our cheerfully gruff tour guide, made it seem as if we were about to experience something unique. “Wow, you guys, you are about to witness something very special…a rhino! They aren’t usually out during this time of day. This is a truly rare moment that you’re experiencing here, folks.” Now, do I think that rhinos are seen by guests on the daily? Yes. Do I think that deep down Linda may not have been as thrilled about the rhinos as she sounded? Maybe. She was pretty convincing. But, we were at Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and we came to experience the magic! Linda helped us look for and see the magic. Later, during my visit to the Festival of Life show, a performer opened by saying, “Welcome, we’ve been expecting you.” You’ve been expecting ME? Wow! I’m so glad that I came. And the magical, little moments kept rolling in. At the Magic Kingdom, everyone smiled and waved everywhere we went. We saw parades, fireworks, Tinkerbell in flight. All that I’m describing happens on a daily basis at Walt Disney World. Every. Single. Day. And yet, you can’t help but feel like you are experiencing something unique, special, and rare. Because you are.

No Disney cast member (their word for employee) has a bad day. They all learn through Disney Traditions training that the guest experience must be magical. They maintain a focus on safety, courtesy, efficiency, and show. And it’s the beautiful blend of all four of these factors that make the guest experience so magical. Some might say, “Mary Poppins smiles because she knows that’s her job.” But the truth is, much of the Disney magic comes from the fact that Disney encourages cast members to put their personal touch on the work and gives them permission to solve problems for guests. When a ride was down, and we thought we had wasted our Fast Passes, a cast member swooped in and saved the day by giving us replacements then we went on our merry way. A simple solution. The cast member didn’t sweat the fact that Disney was going to be down some Fast Passes. They fixed the problem, and we all moved on. The experience doesn’t have to be perfect to be magical; it merely has to put people first. Take care of the people. What would happen if we thought about the student and parent experience in our schools in the same way? Imagine if our students woke up excited to come to school every day because every staff member made them believe, “I can’t miss school today! Something magical is going to happen, and they’ve been expecting me!

DETAILS MATTER: A Disney Traditions instructor once told me, “Every moment is an opportunity to grow the brand.” And whoa, she wasn’t kidding. Everywhere you look at Walt Disney World, guests all of ages can be seen wearing unique varieties of Mickey ears. Oh, it’s raining outside? Go inside and purchase a Mickey poncho. Oh, it’s dark outside now? Glow in the dark ears! When we arrived at Hollywood Studios, we were greeted by an elderly cast member from our home state of Ohio. Not only did he create a magical moment by letting us each pick out a sticker, the stickers were, of course, Disney stickers! Again, an opportunity to grow the brand. Perhaps the best illustration of the power of details comes from our experience on Epcot’s Soarin’ ride. We enjoyed a 4-D trip around the world without ever leaving our seats. With the wind in our hair, we enjoyed riveting images from around the world and smelled them too. In Africa, we enjoyed the aroma of the fresh, lush grasslands. In India, lilac and lavender filled the air as we floated through ornate gardens and architecture. We felt grateful to be alive and rejuvenated by an experience that didn’t require us to leave our seats. All because Disney took the time to work out the details. No, it won’t be enough for them to see the world. They will feel it and smell it too. We will engage all of their senses. Pure magic.

If these examples leave you skeptical, consider this: Have you ever seen a Disney character or cast member walking into the park in their costume or a Tomorrowland cast member in Frontierland? No, you haven’t. Because of Disney’s careful attention to detail. Cast members do not wear their costumes to work. Their costumes are laundered on site. They do not casually walk through different “lands” in their costumes; there are strategic entrances and exits. They have systems and protocols that are followed down the tiniest detail which helps not only children but adults believe, “Wow, these characters are REAL; they live in this magical place!

PERSONALIZATION: Maybe the greatest magic of all comes from Disney’s ability to personalize the guest experience. On the Toy Story Mania ride at the Magic Kingdom, we were able to interact with the game, fighting intergalactic crime, earning points and receiving our individual stats alongside the stats of the group. We even got to experience a “face swap.” Literally, our faces were on a screen during the ride. What?! We felt like we were truly a part of it. Little ole’ us. And if we thought that took the cake, we were later chosen to be a part of the Indiana Jones show at Hollywood Studios. We received costumes, cues, and coaching on characterization. We didn’t just go to a show – we were in the actual show! What a thrill. And the personalized experiences kept coming. We designed our own cars on Epcot’s Test Track. We were able to see our stats, and how our car’s performance compared to the other cars, designed by people on the same ride at the same time. Our experience on Epcot’s Spaceship Earth was similar. Personalized images of ourselves, and the opportunity to complete a questionnaire to develop depictions of our personal futures. Disney leverages technologies to meet their guests’ expectations. In fact, Disney has discovered four common guest expectations. Two of which are strongly connected to personalization:

  1. Make me feel special.
  2. Treat me as an individual.
  3. Respect me.
  4. Make me knowledgeable.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about those four guest expectations in relation to our schools. This is not only what we want for our students and parents; it is what we want for our school teams. Do we promote school cultures that make teachers, instructional assistants, culinary staff, and custodians feel cared for, special, and valued? What customer service and classroom practices are we implementing which could enhance the parent and student experience? Which practices are detracting from a magical experience?

While enjoying a fireworks display at the Magic Kingdom, we heard a confident voice fill the park, “Anything is possible. All it takes is a little courage.” Let’s bravely ask ourselves how we can provide a magical experience for all stakeholders. What small things can we do that will make a big difference in the areas of safety, courtesy, efficiency and show? How can we listen to critical feedback then purposefully and collaboratively plan so everyone feels respected and treated as an individual? To take it one step further, how can we make people feel special?

Walt Disney himself once said, “First, think. Then, believe. Third, dream. And finally, dare.” Let’s dare to create magic in our schools. Every. Single. Day.

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