My family and I are on our way back from Disneyland, aboard WestJet flight 1422. We had 4 days at Disneyland and California Adventure Land, and I have to admit that I was impressed! Our daughters are 6 and 7, my lovely wife is 38 and none of them have ever been to Disneyland. I went when I was 12 with my family and then again when I was 23 with two buddies - it was a one day stop off on our year long journey to Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. That Disneyland stop was exactly 20 years and one month ago from this family vacation from which I am returning, but it feels like it was yesterday.
Twenty years ago I had just finished university, worked all summer as a program coordinator for The City of Edmonton’s Parks and Recreation during the day and as a waiter at Modern Art Cafe in West Edmonton Mall at night. At the end of September of 1998 my two friends, Trevor and Dave, and I packed out stuff and set out to discover the world, ourselves and in many ways, our plans for our futures. I remember feeling determined to gather business ideas as I wasn’t interested in teaching. I had finished my Education degree, but I was uninspired by my student teaching experiences. I was ready to discover more, and to venture out into running my own something or other. Disneyland had inspired me with what is possible with a vision and some of the best customer service anywhere. If Walt could so it, maybe I could too!
Of course, when I returned to Canada, I found myself landing a teaching gig through a strange twist of events and in January of 2000 I was standing in front of junior high kids in north Edmonton. I remember thinking about how engaging Disneyland was, where little kids will line up for an hour for a 3 minute ride. I knew that as an educator, if I could capture that level of engagement, I could do some amazing things in the classroom.
During my first few years of teaching I used a number of strategies to get my students invested in their learning - classroom elections, survivor challenges (remember the first Survivor - the beginning of reality TV?!!), Hogwort’s house leagues, fort dodgeball competitions, a student created rain forest, a student-led haunted house, a giant Risk game to teach colonization, mini Olympics to replace our school wide track and field event, and many more authentic projects to challenge my students. Disneyland’s model of engagement taught me that the human body can wait in countless lines, walk 1000s of steps and fork over huge sums of money for the opportunity to become immersed in a new world - why not try it at school. Now that I am 18 years into my career, and since I just finished another Disneyland marathon, it’s time to reflect on what I can take back to my career in education this time.
Creating Opportunities for Magic!
As parents, my wife and I have chatted about this for a while - at what age do we bring our girls to Disneyland? At ages 3 and 4, maybe they are too young and won’t remember it or they won’t be able to do a bunch of rides. If we wait too long, the magic of Disney may be lost so its better to bring the girls when they are still young enough to love the characters and rides. We ended up deciding to wait until they turned 6 and 7. Although the girls did well, and had lots of fun, the reality is Disneyland can work at any age. The girls loved all kinds of things and they would have if they were younger and they would if they were older. The truth is Disney has something for everyone; it creates opportunities for magic for a variety of ages and interests. It is so big and so vibrant and every corner offers a ride, a store, a restaurant or vendor, a show, or a street concert - there is always something happen to engage everyone. From Peter Pan fans, to Star Wars fanatics, Disneyland keeps growing, expanding and building their worlds for us all to enjoy. As an educator, I often think about trying to meet all students learning styles. Turns out Disney has modelled that for me in spades. I saw adults and kids alike experiencing tears of joy a few times - that is not something you see very often, unless you’re at Disneyland.
The Absolute Best Customer Service Comes From a Shared Vision
Disney’s customer service is outstanding. The staff on site are clearly all committed to ensure that everyone who visits has the same type of experience. Everything from cleanliness, to meeting characters, to experiences on rides, and to street shows, street snack, even the street itself are well planned and executed (clean and on time). Of course, everyone gets stressed about having to wait in lines, but at Disney, they do their best to entertain those in the line ups with all of the fun things happening to draw your attention away from a 45 minutes wait. They have art, music, street shows, interactive things happening around the lines that when you are just waiting in line you feel like you are actually on a ride or at some type of experience. The customer experience is well thought out and planned and at every every example it feels like Disney really cares about their visitors. This can only happen with a shared vision. Interestingly, developing a shared vision for a school is the second most important task for a principal (I wonder if Disneyland offers leadership conferences?) Disneyland’s customer experiences are clearly extremely important to all departments, managers, leaders, dancers, vendors, ride technicians, everyone - they are all paddling their giant ship in the same direction.
Universal Design for Learning
One surprise I had this time at Disney is how they have helped ensure every ride is accessible to all guests. For everyone who has mobility challenges or using a stroller for their kids, there are ways for everyone to access the rides and attractions. I found it difficult to even find a set of stairs unless it was inside a building - everything is ramps, unobstructed sidewalks and paths (expect for the other people). The access for people in wheelchairs and rascals or kids in strollers was magical - everything was set up to accommodate in every way possible. In addition to this, Disney does a really good job of balancing rides - they have rides that make my kids excited, but they got me running to a line up at the Star Wars exhibit. My oldest daughter loved the thrill rides and rollercoasters, while my younger daughter preferred the story-based rides and the chance to shoot lasers from the ride car. There really is something for everyone, as Disney caters to a wide range of interests and passions. Want to go on a ricing thrill - Cars is your ride! Want to get wet, but not too wet - Splash Mountain is your ride (really wet is at Canyon Creek). Want to experience a classic Disney and feel the Magic of flight, Peter Pan is your ride. Want to experience a Disney classic movie and get a fright - Snow White is your ride. Want to relax with a beer and a snack - yup they have that too! Want to hear Elsa let it go - head to the Frozen theatre. Want to see the park from high up above - then go on the Ferris Wheel in California Adventureland.
The point is that Disney is magical for as many people as they can be magical for. If you go there and do not have any fun, you are really trying hard to not have a good time. In educational circles, we call all of this Universal Design for Learning, which essentially means that the strategies that work best to engage and support those who have unique needs, are often also the best strategies to engage and support everyone. After all, everyone can use a ramp, when only most people can use the stairs - why not just use all ramps? Disneyland uses the UDL principles very well to help ensure everyone can experience the Disney magic.
Integrating Technology to Enhance Your Experience
The integration of technology in Disneyland was also very smart, helpful and enhanced our overall experience. It also made it easy for us to pay even more! The Disneyland app knew where we were at all times and limited how many Fast Passes we could access. The app didn’t work until we were in the park and it put a limit on our fast passes. The app essentially made it really easy to relax, because the old strategies of “gaming the system” and running around collecting fast passes was stopped. Now, the app allows customers to feel less stressed, knowing that everyone has to follow the same rules. The app also gave access to park pictures that were taken by the friendly staff who were present at key locations to take family pictures. The photographer would scan the QR code on my phone and the pictures of our kids and family were available for viewing and download from the app in 5-10 minutes. The app also gave the most important information required at Disneyland - wait times for rides. Using this information, we could better plan our day’s itinerary and it allowed us to be strategic with our time in the park. The app also had show times and other important park info, like when a ride was not in operation, any cancelled shows, special events or announcements. Overall, the app made our time in the park easier and more memorable - it almost makes me wonder how people managed without the app.
This had me thinking about creating an app like the Disney one for students - think of the possibilities! Student could register that they are in class using the app, and with location services on the school would know exactly where they were. When a student isn’t in class, we could just check the app’s program to locate them and send a message - “please return to class”. The student could also receive important information, schedule for an exam, to sign up for a session with a teacher, or set a meeting with a counsellor about course changes. School announcements could be done through the app as well. All of that connectivity could be app based and provide an excellent service to students and teachers alike! This type of app is like coming someday, its only a matter of time.
Teaching how to Delay Gratification
What do I know about Disneyland - it is a very impressive place but it is also expensive. We spent the month of July this past summer on a road trip with our camping trailer and truck for a month in Oregon and California and the cost on that trip was about the same as a week in Disney (including flights, hotels, food, park passes, etc). On our way home to Edmonton, we chatted about when we would go again. Likely in a few years, maybe one more trip with our kids before they are adults and they can go on their own. But they did love it, so we are tempted to go sooner rather than later. That thought right there is something that I need to realize is what makes Disney so amazing. Even with its high costs, people will save and plan their vacation time to return to Disney because it is just that good. It may mean less dinners out, less spending at the mall (or on Amazon), and buying one less Apple item for me this spring. Disney will help teach our family to delay gratification to save up for another trip to the Magic Kingdom in the next year or two. Is it really better to make memories with Mickey than to spend our money on Oilers tickets for example?
Thanks for the Lesson!
When you really think about it - Disney is a super expensive trip where you spend your day walking thousands of steps and waiting in lines. We pushed ourselves hard for 4 days in Disney going from 7:00 a.m. until late in the evening. The sheer size of the park, finding where everything is, tracking our fast passes, walking from our hotel to the park, dealing with the hordes of people, it can all be stressful and exhausting day after day! But regardless of all of that, people love it so much they go in droves. People are wilingl to sacrifice the money, time, energy and effort to experience Disney. As an educator, I have to ask myself how can that type of magic help make school more positive for students? How could a school be so exciting and engaging for student that they would sacrifice the time, energy and effort to learn at school. Is it possible for school to capture that type of magic, engagement, excitement? I think the answer is YES!!