“Everything speaks.” That’s what I learned back in 2016 when I took a group of church leaders to Walt Disney World to explore how Disney’s lessons for success could be applied to church outreach. The idea that “everything speaks” means exactly that. Everything we do tells a story, intended or not. The ways we act, the ways we decorate, the ways we communicate, along with many other seemingly innocuous decisions all send a message to people coming to our places of worship.
And now, Disney has some lessons for churches as they prepare to reopen in this time of coronavirus pandemic.
First, exceed minimum expectations. Walt Disney always sought to go above and beyond minimum expectations. He called this “plussing” an experience or design. He constantly insisted that engineers and designers “plus it” when working on a project. He knew small details could be added that would transform a collection of small “wow” moments into one big wow experience.
If you wander through Disney parks, you can find all sorts of places where things have been plussed. In the New Orleans train station in the Magic Kingdom, the telegraph sounds in the background are Morse code of the first part of Walt Disney’s opening-day dedication speech at Disneyland on July 17, 1955. In the Hall of Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s animatronic president has polio braces under his pants which will never be seen by the audience. In Cinderella’s Castle, the beautiful and extensively detailed mosaic of the Cinderella story has tiny details such as portraying the stepsisters in character, one colored red for anger and one green for jealousy. Look down as you walk throughout the park, and you will see small details embedded in the pavement underfoot such as peanuts in the Storybook Circus or broken tiles, gems and coins in the concrete pavement all around the Flying Carpets of Aladdin.
Not only are things plussed to add a little extra fun, but everything is done for a reason. Author and speaker Simon Sinak reminds organizations to Start With Why. Understanding the reasons we do things is the beginning of our story. If we understand why things are the way they are, we can better understand how everything speaks.
In Disney parks, trash cans are positioned every 30 feet because that’s about as far as people are willing to carry a piece of trash before dropping it on the ground. The trash cans tell a story about Disney’s commitment to cleanliness.
Churches are faced with the dilemma of reopening in a way that satisfies our mission as communities of faith while being as safe as possible. If Disney can teach us something about creating positive guest experiences, does it have anything to teach us about safely reopening our doors for in-person worship and gatherings?
With that question in mind, I returned to Jeff Kober, my keynote presenter in 2016. A long-time trainer and instructor at Disney, Jeff now uses his Disney experience at his own firm of Performance Journeys, where he coaches public, private and nonprofit organizations to improve their customer experience and engagement. Lately, his Disney at Work and Play podcasts have focused on the reopening of the Disney parks.
Second, remember the “why.” “When you reopen the church, you are basically giving people permission to say it’s OK to go on with your lives,” he said. “This is not just a question of whether or not you can have people come to your church. This is a question of whether or not you can give people permission to move forward with their lives and make sure you’re doing that at the right time and the right place and the right way.
“Disney is not just trying to be a business, trying to open up. It’s trying to show that we are really making measured, thoughtful approaches based on medical input and expert input. I think that that’s really valuable.”
“Disney is … trying to show that we are really making measured, thoughtful approaches based on medical input and expert input.”
To illustrate the “why,” he cites Pam Hymel, chief medical officer for the Disney parks. “Suddenly you have a medical authority around Disney, which I’ve never seen before until this pandemic event. I love this quotation that the doctor chose. She said, ‘I wear a face covering in public spaces because it may help protect you. And in turn, you wear face coverings because it may help protect me.’ Yes, this is do unto others as you’d like to have done to yourself or better, or the platinum rule — do unto others as they would like done to them.
“There are people who are uncomfortable with everyone not wearing a mask and those people, they might show up the first time, but they might not come back for a while afterward,” he said. “They walk through the experience of coming back to church and they come away feeling, ‘I’m not sure about that.’ But how do we implement that? How do we bridge the gap between those people who make a priority of worshiping in person and those people seriously concerned about the health risks of being in the same place?”
Third, communicate in advance. As with so many things, the answer seems to be in communication.
“It’s not just separating you from the next person at the Hall of Presidents or only seating every other row at The Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s about really a multi-pronged, everything speaks approach to a culture of being safe, of making safe choices and decisions,” Kober explained. “And I think that is the lesson that can be gleaned, especially from Disney, as it prepares to reopen.
“And by the way, they haven’t reopened,” he added. “They’re telling you all these things in advance. There’s a lot of advance communication. No one should walk in the park on opening day and say, ‘Oh, do I have to wear a mask?’ You’ve got to be kidding me. There’s so much messaging about that mask wearing. It’s not in a mean way. It’s just this is our expectation. You know, let’s all do this and let’s make this happen. We’re going to do whatever we can to create the best guest experience possible. And that means safety first.”
Fourth, create a culture of compliance. “You’re ready to reopen when you’re serious about the processes that you’re going to have to follow,” Kober advised. At the end of the day, our successes are only as good as the ways in which people actually buy into our ideas and go along with our processes. How do we create a culture of compliance?”
When Kober works with organizations, he uses the simple acronym R.U.L.E.S. to illustrate ways to create buy-in and foster compliance.
R – Relevant. Again, start with why. Does that process or requirement make sense? If it made sense at one time, does it still? During the pandemic, Disney waived its policies regarding cancellations and changes, and the ability to let guests determine what is best for them will probably continue. “You have one opportunity to make a first impression coming back,” Kober said. “And so let’s be real. If we can’t agree on whether masks are needed or not, let us at least agree that it is relevant and important and critical that we respect other people’s feelings on this and we support them in feeling comfortable by wearing masks.”
He quoted Ambrose Redmoon, who wrote, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one’s fear.” Then he explained: “That’s important because we think to ourselves, ‘We’ve got to wait for all the fear to go away and then we’ll take action.’ That’s never going to happen. Fear stays a long time.
“We’re going to take action to create a physically and spiritually healthy and safe place to worship.”
“We have to move on, but because we value life, because we value each other, because we value how others feel, because we value the need of coming together and worshipping, we’re going to take action to create a physically and spiritually healthy and safe place to worship. You’re going to have people on both sides of that equation. And you have to make sure those sides are feeling heard and understood, not just by you, but by the other side.”
U – Uniform. Lead by example. Compliance only works if everyone does it and if something is done the same way every time.
“In truth, one of the frustrating things about compliance is the inconsistency,” Kober explained. “People don’t want to be surprised by the rules. We[‘ve] got to have some integrity here. If we say one thing and do another, we’re a mess. We say we care about you and we don’t do it. We don’t demonstrate it through our behavior. We’re not being uniform.”
In addition to the usual rules at any theme park — non-public areas, ride height requirements, remaining seated on rides — it is guaranteed that Disney will be implementing new procedures and accommodations for guests and cast members. It is already clear that mask-wearing and social distancing will be implemented throughout the parks. This will impact queuing in lines and seating arrangements for shows and dining. Some stores and restaurants will remain closed for the foreseeable future. Temperature checks will happen as a part of the normal security screening process.
L – Lead with honey. As Kober says, “Make it fun to do the right thing.” Encourage compliance by removing the stigma of participating in something that may be seen as new, different or uncomfortable.
“Make it fun to do the right thing.”
“Disney has put banners of The Incredibles everywhere, saying, ‘Together we can make your day incredible.’ It is kind of cool to do the right thing. You have Mom with her outstretched arm maintaining proper distance. They make it fun. They have these Stormtroopers that are positioned at Disney Springs. They’re up on a balcony where they’re socially distanced from the crowd, but they’re doing a lot of bantering. They’re calling out: ‘That person’s wearing their mask correctly. These people are staying apart.’”
Also at Disney Springs you’ll see people in yellow shirts out in the park answering questions, but they are “really there to cheer you on to doing the right thing and in a socially responsible way,” Kober explained.
Many of the lessons learned from Disney Shanghai, which already has reopened, will be implemented in the U.S. parks. As a way to “plus” the experience and encourage kids to wash their hands, automated soap dispensers will produce blobs of foam soap in the three-circle shape of Mickey Mouse’s head. Kober said people are “lining up just to wash their hands. They want to take a picture of the soap and put it on Instagram.”
E – Educate. “Disney is doing this right now. The parks have not opened yet, and they’re saying this is what a Disney experience is going to look like when you come back. Whatever it is, we need to let people know. Don’t assume they know. Educate them.”
S – Support. Churches, like Disney, must support people in doing the right thing. Disney is already recognizing that wearing a mask all day is going to be a challenge for guests and cast members alike. In response, cast members will have specific zones that determine the amount of personal protective equipment needed based on the amount of contact with other people in that area. You will also likely see something like “breather zones” where people can take off their masks and relax for a few minutes before going back out into the park. Of course, those zones will require their own rules for compliance and cleaning.
Even with the vast amounts of money Disney has lost by being closed, there has been no rush to reopen the parks, Kober concluded.
“You’ve got to do a little bit of soul searching. Disney’s lost a ton of money, and they are focusing hard on reopening. But they’re doing it methodically. They’re trying to reach out on both sides and get everybody’s input and involvement and do it in a way that still creates magic at the end of the day. And that — that’s the job.”