Me and my wife Sarah at Magic Kingdom

Me and my wife Sarah at Magic Kingdom

How many moments in your life have drastically shaped the person you are? It’s been 13 years since I took a semester away from university to start the Walt Disney World College Program. I’ve often recognised that my 11 months working for Disney greatly influenced the person I am. When I started working there at 19 years old I imagined I would still feel like the same person in the future: a bit shy and awkward, fairly sheltered, and still interested in going into TV broadcasting. I had no idea I would develop a bug for travel, be called into and out of religious life, and completely shift my area of study to theology and ministry.

Studies have shown that we’re bad at predicting how much we’ll change in the future. How much do you think you’ll change in ten years? Most people think not that much. Yet when you look back ten years you’re more likely to acknowledge that you’ve changed a great deal. While we may think we’ve reached a point in our life where we’ll pretty much be the same person in the future, the gift of retrospect will most often reveal that we’ve grown, developed, and formed a lot.

I’ve been reviewing a journal I kept from my time at Disney in 2003. Just a week into my experience I spoke about how kind and outgoing people were. You couldn’t be shy at Disney. I wrote: “I think I’m really changing as a person. I feel so comfortable to act myself and be silly, because everyone else is.” That was a big deal for me: to feel comfortable to act myself. Many of us live in masks because for one reason or another we’re afraid to be ourselves. By the end of my time at Disney any shyness had left me and I discovered myself more deeply imbued with six fundamental values that shaped my future self.

My parents at Epcot

My parents at Epcot

My parents have always taught me the importance of caring for family, but each day at Disney I saw hundreds of families being intentional about their togetherness. They tried to ensure they were each having a good time. Couples held hands as they strolled down Main Street. Family reunion groups snapped photos with their relatives to preserve memories. The importance of family bonds was evident all around me. Walt Disney’s dream was that there could be a wholesome place families could enjoy together. If I was ever having a tough day I could look on the families and be reminded of the magic of Disney.

Disney taught me that family is priority, and that it should transcend financial hardship, disputes, and even distance.

Disney taught us that we should always treat each guest “as a cherished friend,” and that even if the line was long the most important person was the one in front of us; we gave them our full attention. The value of courtesy was always put above efficiency. I remember that our training taught us to be like Sneezy, one of the seven dwarfs. “Greet and welcome each and every guest. Spread the spirit of Hospitality.” My interaction with guests at Disney was the initial spark for my future ministry. I only realised that years later. Ministry requires your full attention to be with the person before you. I took this lesson into my work as a hospital chaplain. Sometimes my patient list was so long that if I focused solely on checking visits off the list then I wouldn’t be able to spend quality time with any of them. Ministry requires hospitality. Each person we encounter has dignity and worth, so we ought to receive them lovingly, making a welcoming space for them.

Another opportunity for ministry was volunteering for Give Kids The World, which has a resort in Orlando. The children staying there have a terminal illness and for many of them a trip to Disney was their last wish. I volunteered some nights to hang out with the kids while their parents had a date night. It was my first experience being with children who were dying. They had such joy and innocence. I felt within me a yearning to always love the vulnerable among us, not only a given for ministry, but a given for being Christian.

Empathy quoteIn my second program at Disney I worked in Guest Relations, which meant I would often have to exercise my listening skills, another critical ministry skill. Guests would share with me their compliments and complaints. As in ministry, my role was to share in their joys and sorrows. I’d either smile and affirm the great experience a guest was having, or I would nod and acknowledge how their experience was not so good. Families spend a great deal of time saving to make a trip to Disney World so it’s understandable they might be disappointed when their expectations are not met. My primary role was not just to make the experience right, but to listen empathetically. Empathy places ourselves in the shoes of the other. Empathy reminds the other that we share in their humanness. This is a skill that I have developed through the years that I apply to my ministry.

disney trolley showJoy
It may seem that Disney manufactures an artificial happiness—we were told to make happiness for our guests. And while that might be partly true, Disney leaves room for the other realities of life: the human struggle between good and evil, the difficulty in making good moral choices, and even the grief we deal with. Still, the human yearning for joy underpins all Disney does, and it should also underpin ministry. As Christians, our hope is joy. We know that like a Disney story, the sorrow and suffering is only temporary. Our yearning for joy is a sign of our longing for God. The nuance in my Disney lesson though is that we mustn’t always try to escape the difficulty and force joy. We must be able to naturally recognise the joy that lies beyond the fog.

An essential element of good ministry is being a non-judgemental presence for another. We must meet each person where they are and as they are. Disney was a wonderful place to learn about the value of diversity. I had the chance to meet and work with people from many countries, with different cultures, sexual orientations, religions, and life experiences. I could not be sheltered from the vivid diversity of the human family. It was no longer fair for me to approach someone with my mind already made up about them. I had to literally follow Christ’s command to love my neighbour, no matter who they were.-

The Candlelight Processional at Epcot

Disney parks and movies have always been saturated with spiritual and moral themes. The parks, too, have not typically shied away from their Christian influence, thanks to Walt Disney’s devout Christian background. He even had Disneyland dedicated by a reverend. Each year Walt Disney World hosts the Night of Joy, a weekend of Christian bands playing throughout the park. The Christian influence is most apparent at Christmastime. Amid the secular Christmas songs, you’ll hear traditional tunes and discover the Christmas traditions from around the world.

Each year Epcot puts on the Candlelight Processional, where a celebrity narrator re-tells the scriptural story of Christ’s birth while a mass choir sings traditional Christmas songs, accompanied by an orchestra. The tradition began in Disneyland in 1958 and continues today in both parks. I had the chance to sing in the cast choir for the Candlelight Processional. I’ll never forget standing on the risers singing O Holy Night, gazing at the lighted Christmas tree behind the audience, feeling so blessed that I believed what I was singing about Christ. “Truly he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace.” All that existed and all the opportunities I’ve had, including my time at Disney, was because of this story of Divine love.

Disney became for me a sign of God, shaping me in these values that were so important to my later ministry and relationships. I don’t believe I would have been ready to hear the call of God for ministry if I hadn’t been given the chance to embrace the values I had been exposed to at Disney.

As each year passes we become more the person God made us to be. If you’re 20, you’ll be more you at 30. If you’re 55, you’ll grow more into yourself at 65. Our human formation never ends.

What events and moments in your past have shaped the person you are? Thank God for using those moments and future moments to draw you into the person God made you to be.

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