Arnie WeissmannDisney employees are, in a very cheerful sort of way, the most tightly disciplined group in the travel industry, and part of that discipline involves the use of language.

There are euphemisms aplenty, and learning the code must be part of the initiation into the Mickey Mouse Club.

An employee is a cast member, their timeshare program is a vacation club, and an advocate guest is what others might call a Disney nut. Those who create new attractions are imagineers, and one activity that imagineers engage in is placemaking.

The concept of placemaking is positioned as a subset of storytelling, and storytelling is rooted deep in the legendary status of Walt Disney himself.

During the 48 hours of revelry at the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, Walt was quoted more often than Chairman Mao at the height of the Cultural Revolution. And the phrase I heard most often was that Walt Disney used to describe himself as a simple storyteller.

But it occurs to me that placemaking, not storytelling, is the most important concept to understand in order to crack the Disney Code. One way to understand just what exactly has been accomplished in Orlando is to engage in a bit of storytelling oneself.

Imagine that you are a 24th-century archaeologist who unearths the ruins of Epcot, perhaps starting with the high-design of the Mission: Space facade. Its symbolic suggestion of our solar system would signal that something momentous took place there.

When further fieldwork shows that it was part of a 47-square-mile complex of ruins, researchers might believe theyd discovered something as important as the Valley of the Kings. Cinderellas Castle would undoubtedly be thought of as the likely seat of government. (Id give them about 100 years to figure out it was an amusement park.)

But Disney parks engage in other forms of placemaking. Having brought my 4-year-old son, Dash, to Orlando during the celebration, I began to appreciate that the experience is equally about establishing places in the psyche.

Disney attractions often present scary places or situations, but ones that can be experienced in utmost safety. Dash wanted to repeat attractions that initially frightened him most, like Splash Mountain and the caves on Tom Sawyer Island.

Apparently, familiarity breeds content. Ive noticed that since weve come back, hes less afraid of the dark at bedtime.

With that in mind, its possible that theres one piece of the Disney Code thats not quite right. The success of the storytelling that goes on in its attractions is due to the guest becoming part of the story rather than being a passive observer. That is, the guest, as much as the employees, become part of the cast.

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A quick congratulations to the 51 finalists of AAAs Travel Challenge, a contest that awards $100,000 in scholarships to the high school students who are the most knowledgeable about geography. The event took place at Universal Orlando on the heels of the Disney festivities, and I was honored to be a judge.

Industry sponsors that support the program include Continental Airlines, Hard Rock Live, Holland America Line, Marriott, MBNA America, Pleasant Holidays and Universal Orlando.


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