Thursday, July 31, 2014

Say what you might…

There are detractors out there…and you may be one of them. Well, to confess, this past month my family went back to Walt Disney World for the 7th time in 10 years. Yes, we went again! And as I told various people of my summer plans, more than a few winced, and said, “you’re going again??” with a heavy emphasis on the ‘again.’ Yes, we went again, and for those who know our family well, my sister loves Disney World (did I  put enough emphasis on the verb in that sentence??) and our family enjoys going.

The detractors out there—and WDW does seem to be as polarizing as almost anything else (Obamacare anyone??) with legions of fans and legions of detractors. Some do not like the MMMM (I made that one up, for you detractors out there, and it stands for Mickey-Mouse-Money-Machine) and some think the park and its attractions are delusional, or vapid, or…do you detractors need any more help???

But I gotta say, while I may have chosen another destination for our family (we could walk through the Disney properties blind-folded and successfully reach the next stop on the itinerary), I am not unhappy that my family makes its Pilgrimage to Magic (another designation I just created!) so frequently. I love studying the success of the place.

First, for those wondering why my family frequents the Orlando park so often: besides the obvious reasons that it is family-friendly, a known quantity, and on and on, I have referred to WDW as “my sister’s fur coat.” My sister does not actually own a fur coat, but like anyone who enjoys luxury and comfort, WDW, and specifically where we always stay at the Polynesian resort right on the Disney property (no, she does not want any suggestions of where and how to stay cheaper in Orlando!) her vacation plans for her family at WDW are a source of enjoyable, indulgent luxury and comfort—much like a beautiful and treasured fur coat. Elizabeth arrives at the Polynesian, on the Magical Express (seriously, that is what WDW calls their easy airport pick-up service) and for her the luxury and comfort and enjoyment begins…

My family went to WDW once when I was little—when I was 9. I went again at the age of 39, and we have since been going more regularly than Audra Macdonald wins Tony Awards (for those non-Broadway fans, she has won 6, and we have gone to WDW 7 times in the “modern” era. For the serious Broadway fan, Audra has won those 6 awards over 19 years, and my family has gone, again, 7 times in the last 10!). But each time that I go, while I know what to expect, I come away with appreciation and awe for the imagination, design, and forward-thinking of the Disney experience.

Forward-thinking??? Oh, you detractors think you are so smug out there, sighing with ennui that Disney is the same in the 21st century that it was in the 1970s. Au contraire, to quote one of the dishes from the Beauty and the Beast new restaurant experience called “Be My Guest.” I would argue, and even with those Broadway junkies who know everything au courant (I can’t seem to get the Candlesticks out of my head!!) and who could not possibly concede that WDW is forward-thinking. On one of the days of our trip I specifically looked at the parks and the attractions for what is theatrically forward-thinking (and not just focus on thrill-seeking, as my excited 12-year old nephew does on the Hollywood Studios Tower of Terror) and makes the experience even more enjoyable. Here are my findings:
      Disney is a leader in piquing the olfactory sense. When you attend Disney’s Philharmagic 3-D experience, or Epcot’s Soarin’, one of the important elements of satisfaction is the olfactory design and all the pleasant smells on the journey. If you attend Animal Kingdom’s “Bug’s Life” you even have the purposefully unpleasant odor of squished bugs. This spring, Audra Macdonal (you knew there must be a link, didn’t you??) uses a purposefully powerful perfume on stage in her portrayal of Billie Holliday. All those theatergoers sitting up close and personal in the simulated bar area get to smell and enjoy the reverie and enhance the performance. Where might we go next?

      Walt Disney pioneered those human-animatronic-robots, starting with his Hall of Presidents (I have actually heard people say. “That couldn’t possibly be Andrew Jackson, could it???” Um. No.) and extending through to the great Hollywood Studios “Great Movie Ride” that mixes real people with those simulated robots and they get more and more sophisticated all the time.

     Seriously, more people should go to the live shows at WDW. I went to Finding Nemo and in 40 minutes they told the story, had great songs and dances, creative costumes, and these performers are doing 7-8 performances  a day!! Here you have the whole Disney shebang, the powerful narrative with emotional connections, songs and dances, production design, and yes, an opportunity to buy gifts in the shop on the way out. No one puts a gun to your head to buy! But back to forward-thinking…WDW has pioneered an audience interaction that is exciting. You can have a conversation with Crush, a cartoon character, up on the screen as a cartoon. I don’t want to think too hard to how they do this, but this cartoon can engage the audience, speak to people and respond, and each performance will be unique, organic, and up-to-the-minute funny and touching. Disney magic…

Nephew Jack rode the “Tower of Terror” three times (thank you concept of “reward-the-planner” FastPass!) and while earlier I said he was a thrill-seeker only, in the time Jack and I rode it together, he and I took our time in the build-up and set-up of the attraction. The “Tower of Terror” is set in an old abandoned Hollywood hotel, circa 1939. As we made our way through the hotel (a creative and expensive way to keep patrons “in line”) Jack joined me in noticing the details that they chose to create the image of a 1939 hotel. He looked at the old book ledgers, all the knick knacks and we happily discussed how these details created the experience and enriched the narrative. Yeah, he totally enjoyed the “ride” part of it, but he didn’t mind indulging me in enjoying those theatrical details.

Is WDW perfect? Well, one of the new rides, the Snow White roller-coaster with the dwarves’ diamond mines, is a hot ticket but ultimately did not satisfy us enough. Somehow they neglected to emphasize all the strong narrative as wekk successfully as they usually do. It was more just a ride than an enhancement of a beloved story. It was an interesting exercise to critique the attraction as a family.

Ultimately, I do not mind going back to WDW, and while some of you detractors might yawn and say, “same old, same old” about our frequent treks to the humid, former swamps of Orlando, these trips act as a marker of time as well. Think back to when you were children and on birthdays you eagerly stood by the family room wall where the markings of height, and the passage of time chronicled your growth and siblings’ growth. These trips to WDW do the same for my family. A decade ago, Emma was in full-princess mode as she crept closer to age 6, and Jack was just past 2, and the WDW experience captivated them both. Here they are, a decade later, still captivated, but of course, in different ways. Each trip I take a movie of the family, interviewing them, trying to capture those wonderful big and small moments as they get wrapped up in the Disney theatrical machine. If we edited all those films together, it would resemble the current film, Boyhood a little as that film peruses through a real child’s real coming of age. The magic still lures and delights.

This year we stopped by the WDW HR department, called of course, the Chamber of Commerce, and wrote compliments about the five employees who most exceeded our expectations and charmed us. WDW is known for great service, and while not every employee is perfect, the very best employees struck me as similar to great teachers. A great teacher’s exuberance is palpable, even contagious, transcends the multiple times one has perhaps taught the same lesson, and personally thrilled when the transaction and experience is joyful. It is not easy to deal with frustrated students/park-goers, but the wonder, the magic is still possible.

You know it must be time to start thinking about school again if it all becomes an analogy of the teaching process!

Say what you might—the expense, the song of “It’s A Small World,” the familiar surroundings of the Polynesian, the why don’t you guys try some place else???? questions—but the family came home happy, planning the next trip to Disney, and…speaking to each other still after 24/7. Wow.