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Disney as Text

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Reimagining learning and life with inspiration from "The Most Magical Place on Earth"

This past October, I was honored to serve as the opening keynote speaker at the National Collegiate Honors Council Annual Conference held at the Swan and Dolphin Resort at Walt Disney World. NCHC is an educational organization designed to support and promote undergraduate honors education programs at its nearly 900 member institutions around the world. Their annual conference draws around 2000 participants each year, comprised mainly of university students and faculty members. When I received their invitation to speak, I was unfamiliar with NCHC and what they offered. However, after our conversation and a little research, it was quickly apparent that their work and mine complement each other very well, as they also seek to provide students with challenging, authentic, real-world learning experiences. What particularly caught my attention was the NCHC-promoted programs, “City as Text” and “Place as Text,” study-away opportunities that allow students to spend multiple weeks of a semester taking a deep dive into a wide variety of interdisciplinary subjects while exploring a particular city or place.

The theme for this year’s conference was “Reimagining Honors,” and it was my role as the opening speaker to kick-off the proceedings with a little Imagineering-styled inspiration. My goal was to challenge both students and faculty to tap into the power of their imagination, reconnect with their dreams, and begin to design the future they’d like to see, for the programs at their schools and for themselves.

Riffing on the theme of NCHC’s popular study-away programs, I titled my talk, “Disney as Text” and as such, shared numerous lessons that can be learned by studying “The Most Magical Place on Earth.” I sought to explain how the principles and practices employed by Walt Disney and his Imagineers can be used to not only reimagine our places of learning and the experiences that occur there, but can also serve as inspiration for our lives. What follows are a few of those thoughts. As we sought to reimagine what learning could look like and began to dream of what could be, I shared with them the story of one of the great dreamers and doers of the 20th Century…Walt Disney.

In the mid-1940s Walt began to reimagine what the fairs and carnivals of the day could look like and dreamed of creating a clean, beautiful and exciting place; “a place," as he would later say, "for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company.” For 15 years Walt cultivated the ideas that would eventually turn his dreams into reality as he and his team of talented Imagineers designed and developed what the world would come to know as Disneyland. The creation of Disneyland became a living testament to one of Walt’s favorite sayings, “If you dream it, you can do it.”

With that in mind, let me ask, what are your dreams? How are you actively pursuing them? What plans are you making toward that end and what’s the first step that you need to take to place you on the path toward making them come true?

Of course, what early critics would call Walt's wild ideas became wildly successful and for the past 66 years, Disneyland has been a place where dreams are inspired and imagination reigns supreme. But as we know, he didn’t stop there. In the early 1960s, Walt began dreaming of something even bigger and bolder than Disneyland that would be carved out of the swamplands of Florida. Walt’s “Florida Project” would feature not only a sister theme park for Disneyland, named Walt Disney World, but also a futuristic city where people would live, work and play…an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow…EPOCT.

Walt said that, “EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing, and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise…. It will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future where people actually live a life they can’t find anyplace else in the world.”

Think about that for a moment. Walt said that EPCOT “… will always be introducing, and testing, and demonstrating new materials and systems…. It will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future.”

How might we, too, seek to continuously improve ourselves, our work our lives? How might we seek to push new boundaries, avoid complacency and never settle for mediocrity? What would it require from us to do so?

Unfortunately, Walt passed away before having the chance to see this ambitious project completed. Yet, in 1971, Walt Disney World opened to great fanfare; and when it did, it was fitting that his brother and life-long business partner, Roy O. Disney, would dedicate the park with these words…

“May Walt Disney World bring joy and inspiration and new knowledge to all who come to this happy place…a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn together.”

Fifty years later, Walt’s Magic Kingdom continues to inspire.

It would be there, in that "magic kingdom, "during a Spring Break trip with my parents in 1978, that my own Disney adventure would begin.

I was nine-years old and I was absolutely blown away! Like most kids in the world, I already loved Mickey Mouse cartoons and I was a huge fan of the Mickey Mouse Club, but this experience took things to an entirely new level. I know longer was just passively watching stories like Snow White, Peter Pan or Dumbo; I was actually participating IN the story.

Eventually the day came when I was a parent myself, and I returned to Walt Disney World with my own children. And just like my very first visit all those years ago, my boys, too, were blown away. During the next several years, our family would visit Disney World numerous times; we loved to experience the magic and wonder of the place! It was during one of those trips in 2010 that, like Walt, I began to have a dream of my own. Watching my boys play on Tom Sawyer Island, and reflecting on all that we had actually learned during our time in the parks, I wondered, “What if we designed schools like Disney designs its theme parks?” And like Walt, I began to cultivate my own "crazy idea" over the next several years, which led to an incredible journey of discovery that still continues to this day.

But that’s a story for Part Two of “Disney as Text...."

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