The genius of Disney:
bringing families into stories

Disney in 1977: My brother and I pose with one of the Disney characters who roam the park. (My brother is the one on the far left.)

Disney really hasn’t changed much in the past 35 years.

I was there for a day this summer with my sister and her family. Together we rode all the classic rides my sister and I had loved as children—Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, Dumbo, and more. And I was surprised at how little they’ve changed. Sure, Johnny Depp and Ariel have been inserted into the scenery, but overall the experience is the same as when I was 10 years old.

Disney in 2012: An access card serves as your ticket to the Magic Kingdom.

Participating in the stories

Those rides were meaningful to me as a child because I had read the stories, so I recognized the characters and scenes. Coming back as an adult, many of the story details had been lost to my memory, so the images were more confusing. I knew they meant something, but I couldn’t always remember what. Why is Wendy walking the plank? Why is Dumbo holding a feather? The images don’t tell the story themselves; they are meaningful only as a supplement to the story. But when you know the story, riding the rides is a way to participate in it, and that adds an extra dimension to what would otherwise be just a roller coaster ride.

(Of course, this is further evidence to support my claim that pictures need words in order to really have meaning.)

Passing on the stories

Now, I don’t know if kids today read Peter Pan and Dumbo. My guess is, kids who do read are more likely to choose Harry Potter and The Hunger Games than dusty old Disney classics. But today’s Disney World is still crowded, and the rides with the longest lines are still Peter Pan and Pirates. Why?

I think the secret is that those rides are still a powerful reminder of the stories the parents loved. Now they want to bring their kids to share the experience. Whether or not the kids get the same thrill out of the rides I imagine will depend on how well the parents have relayed the stories to the next generation. And, of course, movies starring Johnny Depp don’t hurt either.

Disney in 1974: My sister (you can barely see her over the dashboard) drives our grandfather around the Grand Prix Raceway. This Disney ride was extremely popular back then, even though it was not related to a story.

I think part of Walt Disney’s genius was that he recognized both the power of family and the power of story, and he managed to find a way to combine them. He brought stories to life through animation and animatronics, creating experiences that children would beg their parents to participate in, and that families would enjoy so much they would want to relive with each successive generation. There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of nostalgia about Busch Gardens or Six Flags.

Disney in 2012: My sister drives me around the Grand Prix Raceway (now called the Tomorrowland Speedway). We’re sharing the experience with the next generation—in the roadster in front of us, her 6-year-old daughter is barely able to see over the dashboard.

It remains to be seen how many generations the experience can last. Each new ride that Disney adds to the park is still tied to a story—The Little Mermaid, Toy Story, and Aladdin are all cinematic stories that are now represented by Disney World rides. But are families sharing these stories together before they share the rides? Are they sharing the movies, the books, or both?

Will kids today enjoy the Aladdin experience so much that when they become parents, they’ll drag their kids to that ride, instead of to Peter Pan?

What about you? Do you have a Disney memory you’d like to share? Have you and your kids shared a Disney experience? What was your favorite Disney story? What was your favorite Disney ride? Tell us in the comments below!

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8 thoughts on “The genius of Disney: </br>bringing families into stories”

  1. Actually, your sister only “thought” she was driving the race car. She couldn’t reach the pedal, so grampa was really providing the speed and she was steering.(At that age you don’t realize that the car is really on a track.)

    My favorite memory is watching you kids have so much fun. It was something we all looked forward to every year.

    Reply
    • We sure had some good times! And it’s fun to go back with the next generation and re-experience it all over again. In a sense, I’m surprised that the rides are pretty much the same as they were in the 70s—because Disney was so cutting-edge in his use of technology, I assumed that the park would have be completely updating all the time. But instead they add updates without replacing the old, nostalgic experiences.

      Reply
  2. I didn’t experience Disney World until my late 20’s – on my honeymoon. I felt like a little kid there. It was a great time! And Rachel loves everything Princess and even though we’re not planning on going to Disney with the kids for a few more years, she’s already talking about meeting all the princesses and going on rides. So for her, it will be awesome to finally meet the “real” princesses in the stories we read to her every night :)

    Reply
    • How fun! It’s probably a good idea to wait until Rachel is a little older so that she can truly enjoy the experience. My younger sister complains that our first few years at Disney were less memorable for her because she spent most of the day in her stroller with Grandma and Grandpa!

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  3. Hi Mel! Thanks for sharing your Disney memories. Disney is definately better going back as an adult with young children in tow. One of my favorite Disney rides is Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. It was even more fun riding it again with my daughters when they were age 4 & 6. The oldest had fun and could relate it to the story; but, it was very REAL to the 4 year old with the vivid imagination and grandest sense of wonder. She will tell you now that this experience and Disney cartoons and films had an influence on her becoming a professional graphic designer and photographer.

    The best experience of that day, tho, was seeing their perplexed faces after a most violent ride in the Tea Cups thanks to Auntie’s then boyfriend. They were fine, but “what’s wrong with Aunt Dar?” (as my sister stumbled out and ran for the bathroom…). Of course I have my favorites, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribean, the Haunted House. And, there are the fond memories of going to Disneyland at age 14 with my 10 year old cousin when my Uncle parked himself on a bench in MainStreet with a bag of carmel corn and said, “go – have fun, just check back every 3 hours.” We literally ran from ride to ride so we could say we hit every ride in the park before closing and couldn’t wait to come back the next mornig to do it all over again. The first taste of freedom without a chaperone!

    (Sigh) I need another Disney vacation . . .

    Reply
    • Joan, I hate to break it to you, but Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is no longer part of the Disney experience. I know, I could hardly believe it myself! That was one of my favorites too as a child, and I was looking forward to experiencing it again as an adult to see if it really was as “wild” as I remember!

      My niece and I did do the Teacups together this year, and I can sympathize with your sister. I didn’t have to run for the bathroom, but I was definitely more queasy as an adult than as a child!

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  4. I had never been to Disney as a child. One time I did go with my family in my 30’s. In my 40’s I had the opportunity to go to Disney for more than just a visit. Being a Hairstylist and Makeup Artist I was hired to be an “on-site stylist” for a destination wedding of one of my client’s daughters. I was on the property for three days and two nights. The experience was fantastic.

    Everyone had a great time, and the upscale treatment that Disney provided was amazing. One of the drawbacks was the process of getting a photo in front of the Castle like we wanted. The morning after the reception, at 6:30am, I went to the Bridal suite and recreated the bride’s hair and makeup. Luckily, I had put in enough hairpins that I only had to do minor work on the hair. The makeup needed to be reapplied, and more concealer was necessary due to the fact that most of us got very little sleep! What an experience.

    Reply
    • What a fun opportunity! I think the “upscale Disney treatment” you mention is another distinguishing characteristic. They really pay attention to details there, and they really treat their guests well—just like you do! It sounds like you helped make it a memorable event for the bride and the whole wedding party.

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