What Churches Can Learn from the Cultural Influences of the Disney Organization

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of taking a bunch of family vacations at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I love it … partly because it’s such a fun place to visit and partly because I find leadership lessons everywhere I look. My family recently spent a week at WDW and it got me thinking about how it’s changed over the years and what those changes can teach me as I lead at my church. Disney is a big organization attempting to stay on the cutting edge of impacting culture. Here are a few of their changes that jumped out at me:

  • Personalized Technology // In 2013, Disney rolled out a series of products under the banner of MyMagic+. This technology personalizes your vacation experience. You can book your ride times from home, before you even leave for vacation. A few of the newer rides create automatic digital souvenirs, which blend music, professional video and images of you on the ride. It’s reported that Disney has spent $1 billion to provide this sort of personalization to its guests.
    • How are you leveraging data to make a better experience for people? What if we celebrated people’s birthdays and anniversaries as they arrived at our services each week? What if we generated name tags for people with a scan of their license plates as they pulled into our parking lots?
  • More Intimate Experiences // Disney recently finished the Magic Kingdom’s largest expansion in its history, with a completely redone Fantasyland. In the middle of many great new attractions is Enchanted Tales with Belle. It’s an almost 30-minute small group experience where you are face to face with Belle from Beauty and Beast while kids re-enact the story. Don’t miss this … Disney could have invested in a new show, ride or theater experience … but they chose to structure an incredibly intimate time where families interact directly with the story.
    • Growing churches need to fight the urge to move people into larger and larger crowds. How can you break your ministry into smaller communities to give intimate growth experiences? Where is the “mid-sized” community being developed at your church … between the large gatherings and small groups?
  • Global and Local Expansion // I asked a long-time “cast member” at Disney World when the slowest time of the year is now. He commented that Disney has done a lot of global advertising to draw in guests from around the world, so there really isn’t a slow time of year due to varying vacation schedules. At the same time, WDW just opened a massive parking garage called Disney Springs as part of a new expansion project targeted at Central Florida residents and people vacationing at other Orlando attractions.
    • How is your church reaching out to “hard to acquire” first-time guests and more readily available “low-hanging fruit”? What’s a series of Sunday services that you could do to draw in a different demographic than you normally reach? (I love what The Meeting House is doing with some daring new ground in its series entitled ISIS, Islam, and Jesus … a great example of trying something new!) Who is the core community your church is perfectly tuned to reach? How can you reach more of those folks? (Have you heard of First Baptist Church at The Villages in Florida? This church is unashamedly reaching retired folks … check it out!)
  • Increased Re-Rideability // Disney changes some of its rides so they are different every time you ride them. The Star Tours ride at Hollywood Studios has 54 potential variations in the story line. The Toy Story Maniaride is essentially a 3D video game that you travel through … begging guests to ride it again to increase their scores. The new Test Track ride at Epcot allows guests to design their own futuristic car and then see how it performs … again implicitly inviting guests to come back and tweak their designs. These changes are a far cry from the “It’s a Small World” generation of rides where guests experienced the same thing for decades.
    • Are you offering variety in your experiences so that people have a sense of anticipation when they come to your church? What is the balance between offering a repeatable experience that you can do with excellence and fresh experiences that keep people engaged? How are you adding elements of surprise and delight into what your church does to keep people interested and coming back?
  • The Experience Before the Experience // Let’s be honest … a big part of a Disney World vacation is standing in line and waiting for something to happen. It’s a pretty ingenious business model really! I’ve noticed that throughout the park Disney attempts to make these “waiting” experiences as elegant and entertaining as possible. At the classic Haunted Mansion there is a bunch of new interactive elements designed to entertain and delight guests before they enter the ride. The queue for the brand new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride includes games and all kinds of fun stuff to do while you wait for your turn on the train. Even the Pinocchio Village Haus restaurant has menus with really cool animations to look like they are built by a cuckoo clock maker! All of these small sub-experiences help you enjoy the experience before the experience … whether that’s a $100 million roller coaster or a $10 chicken burger!
    • Where do people “wait” at your church? How can you add to those experiences to make them great? Can you get a volunteer to stand with folks as they check in their kids … maybe handing the kids treats or stickers? What happens before your service as people arrive? Could you do something in the foyer to welcome people and build anticipation?

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Rich Birch

Rich Birch

Thanks so much for dropping by unseminary … I hope that your able to find some resources that help you lead your church better in the coming days! I’ve been involved in church leadership for over 15 years. Early on I had the privilege of leading in one of the very first multisite churches in North Amerca. I led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 4,000 people in 6 locations. (Today they are 13 locations with somewhere over 5,000 people attending.) In addition, I served on the leadership team of Connexus Community Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. I currently serves as Operations Pastor at Liquid Church in the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. I have a dual vocational background that uniquely positions me for serving churches to multiply impact. While in the marketplace, I founded a dot-com with two partners in the late 90’s that worked to increase value for media firms and internet service providers. I’m married to Christine and we live in Scotch Plains, NJ with their two children and one dog.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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