Last weekend, my family and I took our first family vacation in … ever? … and spent a weekend together in Disney World, down in Orlando, Florida.  It was a huge, exhausting, and wonderful experience – and while I tried to enjoy it as a dad and a tourist, if you’re in the pop culture biz, you can’t help but take some mental notes along the way.  Disney is very, very good at what they do, and there’s a lot to learn from the way they handle their parks.

If you’ve never been to Disney World: you get not one but four major amusement parks, surrounded by resorts, a water park, and a bunch of other facilities where people sleep, eat, swim, and then get on buses to get to the parks to get on the rides to have fun.  There are big roller coasters, small playgrounds, animals, costumes, and tons upon tons of gift shops.  There’s actually some of just about everything.  It’s impossible to sum up in one post.

So I thought I’d share a few “takeaways” that the professional, “I want to make entertainment; what can I learn?” part of my brain picked up while the hot, frustrated, “why can’t I teach my kid not to lean against the urinals in the airport?” dad side of me was busy having a vacation.

Every place has a story. The gaming community is really into “narrative,” and Disney World is full of it.  You don’t just take a safari through a replica of the African grasslands; you also take a detour to chase down poachers and rescue a baby elephant.  The dinosaur ride doesn’t just spin you past a bunch of dinosaurs; there’s a scientist who’s sending you into the past to retrieve a live specimen, and really, what could go wrong?  Even the swimming pool at our resort had a story: it was on Ol’ Man Island, and a plaque (I wish I had photographed this) told the story of the Ol’ Man, and how he lived here in solitude until some local kids made this their swimming hole.  Those kids brought joy to the last days of his life, and now … wait, they just made this all up, right?  Right?  Whatever, let’s go swimming.

“What could go wrong?” is a great storyline.  Over in the world of games, we’re obsessed with the hero’s journey.  There is one hero, they go on a quest, etc.  In Disney’s rides, no one person gets picked as the “hero.”  Instead, the narrative usually veers into some kind of a calamity that everyone can decide how to deal with.

Or rather, nobody really has to do anything, you just sit there and enjoy yourself until the ride stops and the narrator tells you that everything’s fine.  But you feel like you were involved the whole time – and you can imagine that you played the hero.

Simple, obvious names work. I often overthink names – character names, titles, places, headlines.  I think they need to be tricky, or “clever,” or obscure, or overthought.  Disney doesn’t do that.  All of their names are simple, and they’re great.  Magic Kingdom.  Animal Kingdom. That Ol’ Man Island place, at the Port Orleans resort.  All nice and simple, and you understand what they are instantly.

If you’re in entertainment … . You can criticize Disney for plenty of things: for what they’ve done to copyright law, for what they did to Winnie the Pooh, et cetera.  They’re a big corporation, and they’re bound to do something that pisses people off.

That said, Disney also understands that they’re in the entertainment business, and the products and services they make are purely for fun and joy – not the public welfare, not utility, not health, but simply to entertain.  And every one of the many dollars people spend here is spent by someone who wants to have fun, to be entertained, and to spend a few days inside their dreams.  And Disney is very good at delivering dreams.

When you think about the extraordinary effort they put into everything – the attractions, the costumed cast members, the parade at Magic Kingdom – it’s daunting.  Yes, the show is old-fashioned, and a little corny.  But they give it everything they’ve got.  They’re not a lowest-bidder consultancy trying to migrate an enterprise to a new e-mail solution; they’re trying to entertain, and bring our imaginations to life, and entertain us.  And it made me realize, if you’re not giving 1,000% to entertain your audience … why do you think they’ll stick around?

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