10 Things We Can Learn From Walt Disney
Published: January 22, 2020
If you want to do ministry more effectively, check out these 10 ministry lessons we can learn from Walt Disney.
Whether you like it or not and whether you agree with everything its people do or not, you have to admit this: The empire of Walt Disney has touched the lives of millions of children and their parents around the world. Chances are very good you’re in that number.
Take this little test: Ever bought a Disney DVDs? gone to a movie made by Disney? bought a Disney toy for your child? watched a TV show produced by Disney? purchased a Disney app?
Unless you just arrived from another planet, you answered yes to one or more of these questions. And if you have children, there’s a good chance you’ve even been to Disney in Florida or California. If that’s the case, you’re not alone. In 2016, over 20 million people visited Disney in Florida. And over 17 million visited Disney in California. Not to mention the Disney parks in Hong Kong, France, Japan, and China. Yes, indeed, Walt Disney has made a worldwide impact on children and families.
On a recent trip to Walt Disney World, I looked around at the excited faces of the children and parents who were anxiously waiting to enter the gates. What was the company doing to attract all these children and parents? Why would these families spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to come here? What caused the smiles and the excitement on their faces?
As I walked through the gate, I asked myself, What cues can I take from the mouse that will help me more effectively spread the most important message in the world to children and their parents? Here are the 10 cues from Disney I discovered that can apply to your ministry.
Cue #1: Big Dreams
Walt Disney was born in 1901, and from an early age, he had a passion for animation. Like all of us, Walt’s passion was tested by difficulty. He was hired to work at the Kansas City Star newspaper as an animator, but he was laid off. He then started his own animation studio but eventually had to file for bankruptcy. Then one day something happened that would change everything. In the early 1940s, as he was watching his children play on a merry-go-round, a vision was birthed in his soul. He saw a place where children and their families could go to have fun together.
Disneyland’s opening day turned out to be a logistical challenge. Walt had sent out 6,000 invitations, but 28,000 people showed up. The temperature shot up to 110 degrees, and only a few water fountains worked. Ladies’ high-heeled shoes got stuck in the newly laid asphalt! Several rides and attractions broke or didn’t work, and there wasn’t enough food. Newspapers called the opening day Black Sunday. But Walt stayed with his vision, and Disneyland quickly became an extraordinary park. Within 10 years, 50 million visitors had entered and enjoyed the fruit of his vision.
What would happen if we caught a fresh vision from God for our children’s ministries? If we began to passionately pursue that vision? If we pursued it through difficulty and challenges until we saw it come to pass?
- Through prayer and strategic thinking, get a vision for your ministry.
- If God has already given you a vision for your ministry, ask him to renew and refresh your passion to pursue it.
- Formulate a plan that will bring your vision into reality.
- Decide now that nothing will stop you from seeing the vision come to pass.
Cue #2: Cleanliness
If you drop a piece of paper at Disneyland, an employee picks it up. Before the park opened, Walt took a hot dog, ate it while walking, and counted the steps. So even to this day, the trash cans are 17 to 25 steps apart—just the right distance to throw away a hot dog wrapper when you’ve finished eating.
In the same way, our children’s ministry areas need to be clean and tidy. No matter how new or old your building is, there’s one thing you can do—keep it clean. What a poor testimony it is for people to see sloppy classrooms and stinky nurseries.
- Schedule regular walk-throughs of your buildings—inside and out. Get several people to go through classroom areas and restrooms with you and make notes of areas that need special attention. Prioritize that list and knock it out one item at a time.
- Train people by example to never walk by a piece of paper lying on the ground.
- Organize a work day to do spring cleaning at the church.
Cue #3: Creativity
Outside many of the rides are signs that say, “Brought to you by the Imagineers of Disney—we make the magic happen.” Teams of creative people dreamed big together and then made the dreams come true.
It’s so easy to fall into a pattern of doing the same old programs the same old way that we miss new opportunities to effectively communicate to today’s generation. A team of creative people working together always accomplishes more than one creative person working alone. There are creative people waiting in your church to come up with great ideas to help you effectively reach and teach children. Get them together and just watch what happens.
- Identify creative people in your church who could form a creative team of six to eight members.
- Set a time to meet with these people on a regular basis to have creative think time.
- Consider any programs or parts of your ministry that have outlived their usefulness and need to be replaced with something more creative.
- Let your team’s creativity flow, and list their creative ideas. Then choose the priority items to do.
Cue #4: Seeing With Kids’ Eyes
Disney’s colors are bright, bright, and bright—kid-friendly for sure!
Sad to say, but the opposite is usually true in many churches. Children are marched into a beige room and set in brown chairs. Often it’s because the adults who picked the colors picked them based on adult tastes. But if you want to say to children, “We love you, and we prepared this with you in mind,” then decorate with colors they like.
- Identify children’s ministry rooms, hallways, and areas that aren’t decorated in kid-friendly ways.
- Pick out kid-friendly colors to decorate with by asking children, looking on leading kids’ websites such as www.nick.com and www.disney.com, and visiting local kid-friendly places such as toy stores, amusement parks, and restaurants such as Chuck E. Cheese’s and McDonald’s.
Cue #5: First-Class Service
Employees each have a badge that shows they’re there to serve. We were greeted with smiles and a here-to-help attitude. It was the little, first-class touches that impressed us. Even when we bought souvenirs, employees delivered them to the front gate for us to pick up that evening.
Walt Disney World employee Jim Cunningham says, “It’s 10 percent product and 90 percent service. It’s the type of service received that usually determines the decisions customers make.”
No matter how much follow-up we do with visitors to our church, if people have a bad experience on their first visit, they probably won’t come back. We must invest time in making sure the first experience they have with us is a first-class one.
One of the things we’re moving toward at our church to give a first-class touch is a host program. We want every new family who pulls into our parking lot to be greeted by a host family. The host family will be in the same stage of life as the guest family so they’ll have common interests. The host family will stay with them during their entire first experience at our church. They’ll walk with them and help them check their children into classes and then sit with them during the adult worship service.
After the worship service, they’ll walk with them to pick up their children, walk them out to their car, and thank them for coming before they leave. A day or two later, the host family will call the visiting family to ask if they have any questions about the church and to thank them again for coming.
- Formulate an effective system to give guests a first-class touch.
- Enlist greeters to give guests special attention. Choose friendly, caring people who can make guests feel at ease. Station these people at key entrances.
- Make sure you have clear signage for each room and area of the building.
- Train your team to personally walk guests to rooms rather than pointing the way.
Cue #6: Fun
Children and their parents have fun at Disney! I’ve met many adults who say they’ll never go to church because their parents made them go as a child, but I’ve never met an adult who says he’ll never go to Disney because his parents made him go as a child. The truth is you don’t have to make someone go where they enjoy being!
Some well-meaning people think children shouldn’t have fun at church. Yes, children need to be taught to worship God in reverence, but we also need to let them worship God as children with fun, excitement, and energy. When your church is meeting the needs of children in a fun and relevant way, kids will wake their parents on Sunday morning, ready to go. When the opposite is true, children won’t want to come to your church.
Are children saying your church is boring? Hint: If they are, it probably is. Are you constantly telling children at church to “sit still and be quiet“? Do parents tell you their children wake up excited about coming to church?
- Plan children’s time at church to include lots of fun, interactive learning.
- Use methods relevant to today’s kid culture to relay your message.
- Do a survey of the children and families in your church to ask them how you can make church a more exciting experience for them.
Cue #7: Visible Mission
I noticed that Disney’s mission statement was clearly stated in a prominent place for all to see. Part of that statement is “May Walt Disney World bring joy and inspiration and new knowledge to all who come to this happy place…a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn together.”
It reminded me of how important it is to let people know why we exist as a ministry. A mission statement unites your team, gives you a grid to run all programs and ministry decisions through, and provides your team with direction.
- Gather key leaders from your ministry team and develop a mission statement. Make it short, easy to remember, and precise.
- Post your mission statement for all to see, and ask your ministry team to memorize it.
- Go over your mission statement with your team often.
Cue #8: The Eye Gate
It was confirmed to me again that Disney knows this is an extremely visual generation. The greatest example for me was when I was waiting to get on a ride. A group of 200-300 people waited in a theater room where a large movie screen played a film. I looked around and saw a majority of the people intently watching the screen. Throughout the park, visual means are used to capture people’s attention. In fact, one of Disney’s 10 Commandments is “Communicate with visual literacy.”
The top three influences on people today are television, movies, and the Internet. All these are visual means of communication. We need to use visual means of communication as much as possible if we’re going to capture the attention of this generation.
- Find out what Christian videos appeal to children and have them playing when children enter your area.
- Each week plan to use some type of visual communication in your lessons and services, such as video clips, object lessons, and PowerPoint or MediaShout presentations.
- Gather a team of computer-savvy people in your church and create a website to connect with children and families.
Cue #9: Teamwork
In Florida alone, Disney employs over 50,000 people to make the magic happen. Walt said, “You can dream, create, design, and build the most wonderful place in the world…but it requires people to make the dream a reality.” Realizing their people are their most valuable asset, Disney goes to great lengths to train, equip, and care for them. Extensive training and interviews take place before placing people on the team.
Each new person is brought up to speed on philosophy and mission. Training, communication, and care are high priorities. Every team member feels respected. Everyone wears a name badge. Work is fun. They even have a private lake for swimming, sailing, and fishing. There are a plethora of ways in which performance is recognized. Awards, team member of the month, and peer recognition systems abound.It’s not what you can do by yourself in children’s ministry, but it’s what the team of people you gather around you can do to make it happen. The success of your ministry depends on the strength of the team you build.
- Work hard to create a culture of family and fun within your team.
- Take time to share the philosophy and mission of your ministry with new team members before placing them in service.
- Give your new team members a spiritual gift and personality test so you can help them find their unique places of service. This leads to people enjoying their place of service and gives them “stickability.”
- Provide regular training for your team to help them grow in their leadership and ministry skills.
- Keep communication lines open with your team. Give team members opportunities to give you feedback and share their ideas.
- Regularly honor, encourage, and award team members.
Cue #10: New Ideas
Disney has kept the signature items that have worked through the years and at the same time has continued to add fresh, relevant ideas that’ll reach out to a new generation. In the same way, we must constantly look for new, fresh ideas. We must keep reading, attending conferences, networking, asking questions, and searching for new ways to minister to children.
- When was the last time you got a fresh idea for your ministry and implemented it?
- Do you purposely take time to look for fresh ideas?
- Are you willing to look for fresh ideas outside your comfort zone?
- Do you think you have arrived or do you have an attitude of learning and growing?
We walked away from Disney with some great family memories. But I also walked away with a great challenge: If all that time, energy, money, creativity, focus, and work is being dedicated to a temporary, earthly purpose, how much more should I give my best to sharing the eternal message of God’s Word with children and families?
Dale Hudson is the children’s pastor at a church in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and co-author of the book 100 Best Ideas to Turbocharge Your Children’s Ministry and 100 Best Ideas to Turbocharge Your Preschool Ministry (Group).
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