I just got back from a vacation to Disney World, one of twenty-some trips there that I’ve taken in my lifetime. For the past thirty-ish years (excluding a period of about four years where I was “too cool” for it, and thus stupid), my mom and I (and occasionally my dad) have gone to Florida to enjoy the rides, food, and a unique atmosphere found nowhere else in the world.
Maybe this sounds excessive. It probably is. I get asked often why I keep doing this year after year, particularly whether I’m chasing some kind of long-lost nostalgia from my childhood. They’re probably right, to be honest. I think to some degree, that’s what we’re all doing.
But I have also found that whenever I go back, there’s a kind of inspiration that I recapture, that I get to refuel on yearly and bring home to my creative life.
It reminds me of when I first discovered that “big ideas” don’t have to stay in your mind. They can, with a lot of brainstorming and refining, actually come to life.
As a kid, I never went to Disney to meet characters or get lost in some kind of fantasy world. My mom saw fit to introduce me to Walt Disney (the creator) rather than a bunch of park employees in animal suits (the created). In her eyes, there was more power in learning about the unique talent that brought the company into being than getting character autographs.
(Side note: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with meeting the characters. I’m just saying I was a weird kid and that kind of thing wouldn’t have appealed to me. Also, I may or may not have done the Winnie the Pooh lunch and Disney princesses’ breakfast as an adult.)
I can still remember the first Disney trip we ever took, when I was six. I was captivated by everything. I wanted to know how all the rides worked and what they looked like with the lights on and walk through them. When we got home, my dad helped me make a miniature pirate ship resembling the ride vehicle for Peter Pan’s Flight and recreate some of the scenes from the ride.
The cool thing about going back year after year, particularly since the early 2000s, has been seeing how the park has evolved, including the addition of whole new areas of the space, as well as new attractions.
Some of these changes, like the installment of the new sections of Fantasyland, have brought new life to the park, while I still deem some, such as the dismantling of all the early EPCOT attractions, as unfortunate, but necessary to progress.
Regardless, I hardly believe that Disney should be relegated to “just a tourist attraction” or a vacation destination that resides only in dim memories.
I think there are three valuable lessons in the park for writers, ones that I continually learn year after year.
And you don’t have to come from a family insane enough to have a yearly Disney trip to learn them, too.
Lesson 1: Big Ideas Come from Little Places
My motto for Inkling Creative Strategies is that we turn little ideas into big stories. This is precisely what Disney does, and their most beloved attractions have some fascinating origin stories.
One of most popular rides at EPCOT, for instance, is Soarin’, where you get to parasail around the world. Seated in an apparatus that lifts you off the ground, you fly in front of an IMAX screen that depicts scenes from the Taj Mahal, an African savannah, Mount Everest, the Great Wall of China, and other famous locations.
In addition to feeling like you are actually soaring over these places, scents, sound effects, and strategically positioned winds of different temperatures fill the auditorium.
The ride is a technological marvel, but when we rode it on our latest trip, a guy we met shared that it started as an experiment a Disney Imagineer did with his son’s Erector set. He constructed the device that lifts visitors off the ground, then began to brainstorm what kind of ride experience it could provide.
Pay attention to creative impulses and ideas that you come across in your daily life. They might eventually become a powerful experience for readers.
Lesson 2: Backstories Matter
I’ve watched a LOT of documentaries about behind the scenes at Disney World, and all Imagineers say that the aspect of an attraction that matters the most to creating the experience is the backstory.
At other amusement parks, a roller coaster is just a roller coaster with twists and turns and upside-down loops. At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, it’s a Rock n’ Roller Coaster—a high-speed drive through downtown Los Angeles in a super stretch limo because Aerosmith just gave you tickets to their concert plus backstage passes.
The story even begins the moment you get in line. At the Rock N’ Roller Coaster, you’re on a tour of a recording studio that eventually takes you into a session with Aerosmith, who then has to abruptly leave to get to the concert and decides to bring you along.
There’s also the Tower of Terror, with a queue that leads through a decrepit hotel that was once home to the stars of Hollywood, until a thunderstorm and an accident with an elevator changed all that.
Now, you are invited to step into your own episode of The Twilight Zone and experience it all for yourself.
Every story you write contains loads of potential for setup. You can make your reader a part of the story by instantly introducing them to the setting and overall world, even before the action of the plot itself begins.
Lesson 3: Know When and How to Try New Things
Speaking of Hollywood Studios, I remember when it was still called Disney-MGM Studios and had something like three rides. Now, it has Toy Story Land, where you get to hang out in Andy’s backyard, and most recently, the Star Wars galaxy, where you get to fly the Millennium Falcon and join the Resistance.
The same goes for Fantasyland before it was revamped a decade ago. Long ago, the area now occupied by Belle’s village, the Little Mermaid Ride, Seven Dwarves’ Mine Train, and Dumbo’s Circus used to be the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Ride . . . and nothing else.
They are also in the midst of completely overhauling EPCOT, with a new Moana attraction and park entrance forthcoming.
However, as much change as Disney World has undergone, they also know when to keep things the same. Several classic Magic Kingdom rides, including Peter Pan’s Flight, the Haunted Mansion, and (perhaps unfortunately) It’s a Small World have remained virtually the same as they were when the park first opened.
As Walt himself once said, Disney is about doing new things and opening new doors, but they also recognize that there is a place for tradition that needs to be respected. I have to admit that I love these rides mostly because they let me experience the magic of visiting the park for the first time even as an adult.
You can do new things with your writing whenever you want and let your creativity lead you where it wants to go . . . but don’t lose sight of what makes your work your own.
The things you like the most about what you create are probably what your readers like the most as well. Don’t feel tempted to change things about your writing because you think you need to create stories that are flashier or more interesting, or because you feel like you keep writing the same things over and over again.
If there’s something you think you do well and you like doing it, don’t stop. By all means, try new things, but don’t lose sight of what makes you passionate about telling stories.
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