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Cinderella's Castle I just went with my family for a trip to Disney World a couple of weeks ago. It has been a while since I’ve visited there, but I was quickly reminded of why it is such an amazing place. And as I looked around, I realized there are a lot of lessons that local churches can learn from how Disney World does things.  So here are ten things that I learned that I know we can use at my own church. Maybe you can use some of these ideas at your church, too.




1. The experience begins before you enter.

entry The front entrance to the Magic Kingdom

It starts with the Disney website that you booked the trip through, or the confirmation email that comes soon after. It starts maybe with the Disney luggage tags and customized vacation planner that arrive in the mail. It starts with the road signs that you see long before you see a castle in the distance. The Disney busses that shuttle park visitors from the airport to the Disney hotels are painted with Disney motifs, and have old Disney cartoons playing on the TVs. When you get to the parks, you’ll hear music playing through artfully hidden speakers long before you’ve gone through the turnstiles. Everything everywhere communicates anticipation, welcome, and a sense that you’ve arrived someplace very special.

The takeaway for my church is clear to me. People’s experience begins long before they set foot in the church. What does our website say, especially to people who have yet to experience a worship service or small group with us? How can we engage people before they ever enter our parking lot? How do our signs around our church help people? How can music, sounds, and even smells be used to create a certain mood, all before people come though our doors?

2. Celebrate people.

Bennett with her birthday button Bennett with her birthday button

When you check in at a Disney hotel, they ask if anyone is celebrating anything. Perhaps a birthday (yes – it was my daughter’s 5th), an anniversary, or maybe just someone’s first visit to Disney World. If that’s the case, you get a big button with your name on it. Cast members greeted my daughter with a cheerful, “Happy Birthday, Bennett!” everywhere she went. Even other park guests would strike up conversations with her while waiting in line. She felt valued and very special.

How do we celebrate people in our churches? Did the local high school gymnastics team just win the state tournament? Why not give a shout out to them? Use your church’s Facebook page and Twitter account to recognize exceptional people doing exceptional things! Publicly praise key volunteers who do a stand-out job. Find ways to recognize people, and you’ll not only make them feel valued and special, you’ll also build a sense of community for your congregation.

One other take-away: Name-tags really are a good thing.  Dale Carnegie said, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” I’ll confess, I never wear my official staff name-tag to the church I work at. But I realize that I probably should. My kids wore shirts with their names on them one day at Disney World, and to hear their names called (once to tell my son to get down off of a wall he was climbing on, even!) makes a big difference. And I liked being able to address cast members by name, too. It goes a long way towards personalizing and humanizing, well, humans. 

 3. Make programs interactive.

Invited to Join the Dance Party Parade Invited to Join the Dance Party Parade

Disney shows almost always involve some sort of audience interaction, whether it’s pulling someone out from the crowd, a 4-D theater experience with wind and rain, a parade where everyone’s invited to join in, or having one whole side of a theater do their best lion roar. There’s even a live comedy show with the guys from Monster’s, Inc. that’s entirely interactive.

Churches tend to be very presentational, very one-way. Involving the congregation isn’t just a gimmick. It’s a teaching tool that engages congregants, makes people pay attention, and leads to greater memory retention. How can your church break down the “fourth wall”? Can you have an entrance from the back? Can you have Q&A? Can you have a give-away? Can you feature live tweets on the screen? (ProPresenter 5 lets you do this, by the way. You can even moderate the Twitter feed before something’s put on the screen.)


4. Have friendly and easily identifiable staff and volunteers, with pocket guides for when they don’t know the answers.

Disney cast members are polite, engaging, often fun, and always available to help. And what if they don’t know the answer? At Animal Kingdom, I asked a woman who was explaining vulture nesting habits to my kids if she knew where we could go to get some popcorn. Kind of a random question for a vulture expert, but I thought there was one very close to where we were. She didn’t know, but she had a little pocket guide to that park, and she was able to pull it out and look it up for me immediately.

The takeaway for churches is of huge importance. Seriously. This may be the most important one, in fact. Because it’s really the Disney cast members who are critical to a good experience for park guests. The same is true for our churches. Parking lot attendants aren’t just parking lot attendants. They’re ambassadors. Greeters can’t just be people who hand out bulletins. They’re ambassadors, too. And any staff or volunteer should know the basics of how to help people find their way around the church, and be thrilled that they were asked to help.  And if they don’t know where the 6th grade Sunday School class meets, why not give each of them a laminated pocket guide that has every little detail on it? They don’t have to know it. They just have to know how to read. And here’s an additional idea: Each greeter could have some small maps of the church, too. If they can’t escort a person to where they need to go, they could simply draw it on a map that they then give it to the visitor. After all, one of the first things you can always find when you enter a Disney park is a map of that park.

And about being easily identifiable:

Spot the Cast Member! Spot the Cast Member!

It occurred to me about halfway through my Disney trip that any time I needed help, I had no trouble identifying who the staff were. And that’s really impressive, considering there’s no standard uniform for Disney park employees. But in general, there was just something different about them. If they worked on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, then they were probably dressed in early American garb from the days of barbershop quartets and street cars. In Animal Kingdom, safari vests made the cast members easy to spot. Some cast members did indeed have uniforms, too: Brightly colored Polo shirts, neatly tucked into dress pants. Not too outrageous, but not your typical tourist garb, either. And (as mentioned above) they all had on name tags.

How do we do this in our churches? On this one, there may be some push-back from volunteers. They want to look good on Sunday morning too, right? Each church needs to think through creatively, “How do we make our greeters and guides easily identifiable to anyone who might walk in?” It could be some sort of vest. Or a ribbon that hangs down from their name tags. Heck, they could all wear giant sombreros.  It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it’s easy to tell they’re different, and they’re available to help. Walt Disney himself said, “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

5. Everything involves story.

Disney World recognizes the importance of story, and makes it central to so many things, even to places you wouldn’t expect. Sometimes it’s a natural tie-in. The Be Our Guest Restaurant at Belle’s castle comes with a story built-in. When you walk in to that castle, you already have seen the movie and heard the songs.  So immediately you’re a part of the story, as soon as you walk through the gates. (These are the gates that Maurice shut behind him, mind you, to save himself from wild wolves, remember?) But how do you make a story out of a roller coaster? Easy. You put it in DinoLand, where it’s no longer a roller coaster, but rather, it’s a trip back in time in a time machine. The Tower of Terror? Sure, they could have just made a carnival ride that has sudden drops. But instead, Disney created a creepy, haunted hotel, and invites you into that story. The Rockin’ Roller Coaster. Expedition Everest. The Buzz Lightyear ride. Mission to Mars. More often than not, Disney doesn’t just have a ride or attraction. There’s a story involved, no matter how simple, and you’re invited to be a part.

What’s the takeaway for churches? I think we should begin seeing worship services not as a few songs, an offertory, and a sermon, but instead, as a journey. Invite people into the story. At the welcome time, don’t just say, “Welcome to our worship service!” Say, “We’re so glad you’re here today, because today, we’re going on a journey together. We’re going to explore a story from the book of John in a way that you may never have heard it before. And by the time you leave here today, you’ll understand how that story can still resonate in and through us.” That’s the preamble. And then draw them in, through all of the worship elements, to the story you want to tell. And leave them with the knowledge that ultimately, their lives are a part of God’s meta-narrative, the over-arching story of God’s work in his creation throughout history. Remember, good worship services don’t simply present information. They engage and transform. Don’t build carnival rides when you can help people see their lives in the light of God’s story.

6. Logos, Branding, and Theming works, and aids communication.

The Astro Orbiter at Tomorrow Land The Astro Orbiter at Tomorrow Land

It’s all Disney World, right? But within Disney World, you have The Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, Typhoon Lagoon, and Downtown Disney. And even then, each park has its sections. The Magic Kingdom has Frontier Land, Main Street, Tomorrow Land, Fantasy Land, etc.

So this is, as best I can tell, how Disney re-enforces branding: The further away you are, the more important the global brand. In other words, a TV ad you see at home might emphasize “The New Fantasy Land at Disney World”. The connection to Disney World is all over it. But once you’re in Disney World, the focus is “The New Fantasy Land in the Magic Kingdom”. And once you’re in the Magic Kingdom, the need to keep reminding guests that they’re at Disney World diminishes more and more.

Does your church have a logo? A specific identity? And what about your sub-ministries? Some people think “branding” is a bad word in the church, that we’re somehow marketing Jesus. I disagree. I think effective branding is effective communication. When I asked for directions in Animal Kingdom, an employee was able to tell me, “That’s over in Dinoland”. That’s much easier than, “You’ll head north across the bridge, then go east for 300 yards before coming to a kiosk…” Signage should re-enforce branding as well. If your children’s area is known as The Construction Zone, for instance, then brightly colored construction signs and hard hats might be a way to flesh out the theme and branding of your children’s ministry. It makes it memorable, and re-enforces what you’re trying to do with your children’s ministry.

7. Exceed expectations.

Pssst! Indy! Behind you! Pssst! Indy! Behind you!

The Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular is really, um, spectacular. It’s a visually impressive live stunt show done in three acts, with much audience interaction between the acts. And boy, they pull out all the stops. It has the giant boulder scene. It has people falling off of rooftops. It has fake fist fights. It even has an exploding airplane with real fire that you can feel on your face.  After watching it, it occurred to me that the masses would have probably been satisfied with the first act alone. It was just that good. But then they topped it. And in Act 3, they did it again. Did you know that Disney has a ceremony to open the park in the morning? You should check it out if you never have. Do they have to do that? Of course not. But what it does to generate excitement is really cool. Finding Nemo: The Musical? It could have been a rinky-dink little production. Look, if the kids hear their favorite songs and see Marlin, Dory, and Nemo, they’ll be satisfied, right? But Disney holds auditions in L.A. and New York. And the Finding Nemo musical is a top-notch quality production that this seasoned Broadway attendee found to be mighty impressive.

So how do we do this at our churches? First let me say, it’s not about a show. Disney is in the entertainment business. For them to exceed expectations will look different from how we should. Some large churches will certainly be able to exceed expectations with the production quality of their worship services and events. But for small congregations, how do we exceed expectations? We can show extravagant grace. We can love the unlovable with a love like they’ve never experienced before. We can give generously to causes in our communities. We can adopt babies. I have a friend who has a dream to use churches to completely take over the state’s foster care program. And even in our worship experiences, we can think through things like, how do we make taking communion the most holy and moving experience that we can? For long-time jaded church members who can so easily go through the motions, is there a story or a song that will help make the taking of communion, at least on this Sunday, a more sacred and holy thing than ever before?

8. Big spaces require big productions.

Cellphone shot of the Lion King show. Cellphone shot of the Lion King show.

Not much to say here, other than the obvious. Big theaters have big sets and big props. And the biggest canvas of all? Cinderella’s Castle, where every night it becomes the focus of the best fireworks show you’ll ever see. Now that’s a big space.

Most churches gather for worship in big spaces. Yet often, the space is not utilized. Many times churches outgrow a sanctuary and have to move to a new one, only to do worship in the new space in the exact same way they did it before. LED lighting has come down in price in recent years. Could you cast colored lights on the big white walls up near the front? And then change the mood of the room during the worship times? Consider using video screens, and not just for lyrics. They’re a palette at your creative disposal.  If your services have more than 1000, use cameras for IMAG (Image Magnification). Even as the production gets bigger, the cameras will help in making it feel intimate.

9. Metrics matter.

Disney tracked me. And I was okay with it. Sometimes in a line, a cast member would give me a lanyard with a red card around it. They would say, “Give this to the cast member at the front of the line”. When I arrived there, I’d hand the card over, and they would pass it over a magnetic reader. What were they doing? Seeing how long it took me to get through the lines. That way the estimated wait times posted on rides weren’t just a blind guess. They were accurate.

What do you track with your congregation? Just attendance? Do you know the average age? Do you know the demographics of your neighborhood, and where it is similar or different from your congregation? If you have multiple services, who comes to which ones? Does your church have a Facebook account? Did you know you can analyze it? You can see which posts get seen and shared the most. You can see the age breakdown of those who have “liked” your page, and get a breakdown by gender, too. Why are people coming to your website? You can use tools like Google Analytics to analyze your web traffic, and see why people come to your website and what they’re searching for. Then you can craft a better experience to help them.

10. Have an inspiring guiding vision.

castlemiceI heard once that Walk Disney himself ordered that Cinderella’s Castle should be the first thing built at Disney World. Then it would inspire the workers who worked to build the rest of the park. Disney’s vision was simple, and later he relished in its completion: “We believed in our idea – a family park where parents and children could have fun- together.” That was it. Everything else flowed from that.

What’s your church’s central, guiding vision? We have Christ at the center of it all. He is the one around whom it all orbits. So lift him up, and lift him up high. And articulate a simple but inspiring vision of your church’s call in the world. Then let everything flow from that.