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Disney as Text: The Magic of Experience

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Cultivating memorable experiences can have a powerful impact on learning.

In my last post, I began sharing thoughts from my presentation last October at the National Collegiate Honors Council Annual Conference at the Swan and Dolphin Resort at Walt Disney World. Taking advantage of the environment that we were immersed in, I explored the notion that by examining “Disney as Text,” we could gain insights and knowledge that could be applied to learning and life. When we ended Part One of this series, I was reflecting on the ways that my visits to Disney World with my family inspired me to consider this question, “What if we designed schools like Disney designs theme parks?”

With this in mind, I revisited Walt’s original vision and read it in a new and different way.

When describing the idea of Disneyland, Walt said,

“Disneyland will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge. It will be a place for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company. A place for teachers and pupils to discover greater ways of understanding and education…. Disneyland will sometimes be a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic. It will be filled with the accomplishments, the joys, and hopes of the world we live in. And it will remind us and show us how to make these wonders a part of our own lives.”

It's clear that Walt intended for his park to be more than just a place to enjoy some thrill rides and have a good time. His vision was bigger than that. He sought to create an atmosphere that promoted community through the shared experiences of learning and play.

As I pondered this, I wondered, what would it look like if we applied Walt’s vision to the design of our schools?

What if our schools were a place for people to find happiness and knowledge? What if they were a place for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company? What if our schools were a place for teachers and pupils to discover greater ways of understanding and education? What if we created them in such a way that they would sometimes be a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic? Imagine if our schools were filled with the accomplishments, the joys, and hopes of the world we live in and sought to remind us and show us how to make these wonders a part of our own lives.

What would that look like?

This was a timely and pertinent question for me to consider, because at the time, I was serving as academic project lead and acting principal during the design phase of Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School, our school district’s nationally recognized and award-winning facility that features an innovative STEAM-based curriculum. While working on plans for the school, I began closely studying the work of Disney’s Imagineers, that wildly talented group of artists, designers and engineers that, from the earliest days of Disneyland, have been creating incredibly immersive experiences that bring the stories of Walt Disney to life. In their work, I discovered ideas to incorporate into our plans that could be used to enhance learning and build community.

But just what is Imagineering?

The Imagineering Way

Imagineering is defined as, “learning and succeeding by dreaming and doing.” It is the process by which creativity is combined with technical know-how that results in the creation of innovative ideas. In his book, Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show, legendary Disney Imagineer John Hench explains the work of the Imagineers like this,

“As designers, we Imagineers create spaces—guided experiences that take place in carefully structured environments, allowing our guests to see, hear, even smell, touch, and taste in new ways. Ultimately, we give them a place to play, something Walt believed adults need as much as children. We give power to the guests’ imagination, to transcend their everyday routine. Our special notion of form, together with Walt’s insistence that our guests should, ‘feel better because’ of their experiences in Disney theme parks, establishes the foundation for the art of the show.”

The more I studied about the level of intentional design that goes into crafting the immersive experiences that each Disney park is famously known for, I realized that the Imagineering process actually provided language to what, as a veteran classroom teacher, I knew to intuitively work, primarily, how to capture the attention of an audience through providing experiences that engage the senses and elicit an emotional response while cultivating an atmosphere that encourages play. And like guests who attend a Disney park, I’ve always believed that students who leave my classroom, or school, should feel better because of their experiences there.

The Magic of Experience

I once heard an Imagineer remark, “We’re not about building attractions or creating shows, we’re about creating experiences…experiences that stimulate all five senses and completely immerse our guests into the stories they love with the characters that they love.”

One of my absolute favorite experiences that Imagineers have created at Walt Disney World is "Avatar Flight of Passage" in Animal Kingdom. I love everything about that attraction, beginning with the cue that meanders through "ancient" caves featuring rock art that reveals the unique connection between the Na'vi of Pandora and the fearsome Ikran, or Mountain Banshee. It sets the tone for understanding the significance of the flight that you are about to take. The level of detail throughout is incredible, especially as you enter the research lab of the Pandora Conservation Initiative where you'll find college textbooks lying around that feature the biology and ecology of Pandora along with personal notes left for some of the lab techs. When you finally arrive in the flight chamber, the fun really begins. This is more than a simple thrill ride. It is a story that you actively take part in as you mount your Ikran and soar through the Pandoran skies.

Veteran Imagineer Joe Rhode, the driving force behind almost all of the attractions in Animal Kingdom, describes the experience like this, "In Flight of Passage, the sensation of flying is really visceral, really believable. Not only do you have the more obvious aspects of flying—the swooping and curving—but we’ve put in crosswind, air density, and banking.”

This is more than simply a ride. It truly is, as Joe says, a visceral experience that can quite literally take your breath away as you're caught up in the blended reality of the moment.

As a long-time Imagineer, Rhode is an expert at transporting guests to all sorts of worlds through the creation of immersive experiences.

Experiences, as he explains, “suggest engagement and participation, not simply consumption.” In other words, experiences invite you to take part in the action, to play a role in the story that is unfolding before you. Well-planned experiences can elicit a variety of emotional responses, from joy and laughter to anxiety and fear. As Rhode further explains, “The quality of engagements rests on the shoulders of those who envision, design, deliver, operate, maintain, and evolve them.”

As an educator, I have the power and responsibility to carefully craft the experiences that my students have within my classroom or school, whether I’m a subject-area teacher or a building-level administrator. The quality of those experiences rests on my shoulders. My actions, or inactions, can greatly impact the emotional responses of my students within the learning environment that they experience every day.

In their paper, The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory, Tyng, Amin, Saad and Malik demonstrate that,

“Substantial evidence has established that emotional events are remembered more clearly, accurately and for longer periods of time than are neutral events…. Emotion has a substantial influence on the cognitive processes in humans, including perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving…” and, “has a particularly strong influence on attention….”

Knowing this, think about the following. If my goal as an educator is to have my students retain what I teach them, then providing them with experiences that create an atmosphere in which they can have positive, emotional responses is important; the learning that occurs at that time is more likely to be encoded in both short-term and long-term memory. That being the case, we should do everything within our power to create environments that cultivate those experiences. Just as Walt believed his guests should feel better because of their experiences in a Disney park, so too, should our students feel better because of their experiences in our classroom or school…and learn well while doing so.

In our next installment of "Disney as Text," we’ll explore some Imagineering-inspired examples of classroom experiences such as these, beginning with a look at the foundational role of the power of stories.

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