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.
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.
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.
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!