Wanna’ hear a story?
One month ago today, Walt Disney World finally said goodbye to its wildly popular — but hotly debated — Splash Mountain log flume ride in both the Disneyland park and the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Since the ride was still one of the biggest headline attractions on each coast (with lines on hot days routinely creeping well north of two hours or more!), the fact that the Mouse House decided to shutter it is kind of a big deal. After all, if the point of a theme park is to offer themed rides that attract tens of millions of paying customers through the park’s gates each year… it seems that Splash Mountain was more than holding up its end of the bargain, yes?
Well, not exactly. And this is where our story begins.
Today’s blog entry will be a bit of a follow-up from a piece we originally published in 2019 as part of the first chapter of EDrenaline Rush. If you haven’t yet had the chance to check it out (the first few chapters are totally free on Amazon!), that book is all about game-changing student engagement inspired by theme parks, mud runs, and escape rooms — and the first third of it takes an in-depth look at case studies with particular appeal to classroom teachers that just so happen to find their inspiration in (yup, you guessed it) Walt Disney World. As we’ll soon see, the “Transformational Power of Theme” has the potential to create larger than life moments and experiences out of what otherwise might easily feel like a pretty forgettable affair. And as working classroom teachers, learning how to lean carefully into a clever bit of story and theming can help us create all kinds of magic in our classrooms.
But what happens when a story takes on a life of its own?
You’ll notice that the word “story” will come up A LOT in this post. That’s by design — because stories are sticky! They can inspire us. Remind us. Unite us. And sometimes, they can even force us to take action. they can play a major part in helping to elevate the mundane to become totally unforgettable. And as teachers, learning how to tell a good story can really help us start to craft lesson plans that resonate with our learners. But more on that in a sec. First, let’s take a trip through the old wayback machine into the pages of EDrenaline Rush from 2019 and see how our story got to this point in the first place..
The Transformational Power of Theme
Film, entertainment, and animation pioneer Walt Disney was a master of world-building. Each year, millions of visitors flock to Disney theme parks from China to France. In 2014, Forbes magazine reported, “Theme parks are core to the business model of American media giant the Walt Disney Company. Last year its eleven parks around the world provided nearly a third of its $45 billion revenue and 20.7 percent of its $10.7 billion operating profit.”
Nine of the ten most visited theme parks on the planet are run by Disney. The Magic Kingdom, the original theme park of The Walt Disney World Resort outside Orlando, Florida, boasts an attendance of more than 20 million guests annually, making it the single most popular theme park destination in the entire world.
Even though visitors to these fantasy lands know that they are not actually traveling aboard an interstellar rocket on Space Mountain or exploring a spooky Haunted Mansion full of “999 happy haunts,” elaborately themed attractions are the secret ingredient to the world famous “Disney Magic.” The Disney Institute, the company’s corporate training wing, writes at length about the Mouse House’s fanatical attention to detail in the 2011 Disney Institute book Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service. The corporation’s customer service mantra is distilled into four simple words: “At Disney, everything speaks.”
From the number of steps between trash cans (thirty), to the “forced perspective” technique that is used used to make an iconic castle appear to be nearly twice its actual size (one-hundred-eighty-three-feet tall), to the underground utilidor tunnels designed to ensure that you’ll never see two Mickey Mouses in the same place at the same time, Disney’s incredible attention to detail keeps customers happy and immersed in their fantasy kingdom. That’s why it’s called it a “theme” park!
Practical Magic For Any Classroom
Ok, ok… we get it. So Disney’s awesome. But what on earth does this have to do with being a better teacher? Let’s return to the present and see if we can put these same lessons to life in our schools.
In other words: how much more might our students learn if we could capture that same Disney-like spirit of wonder and excitement in our classroom?
The Disney parks offer richly themed worlds and colorful characters, imbuing each space with a larger-than-life sense of setting, purpose, and place. From the moment guests make their way through the entrance gates, a commemorative plaque greets them with the same welcome message that was once delivered by Walt Disney himself on the opening day of Disneyland: “Here You Leave Today And Enter The World Of Yesterday, Tomorrow And Fantasy.” As Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote, walking into these parks, people step into the “willful suspension of disbelief.” Guests feels as if they are entering into the story when they take their first steps into these timeless realms of imagination.
So what is the story of your classroom?
Oftentimes folks use the words “narrative” and “story” somewhat interchangeably. But let’s get clear about the small but crucial difference between the two. A narrative is an open-ended string of events, unfolding at random in a loosely episodic string of “and then… and then… and then…” Sure, there are plenty of flashes of fun, fright, suspense, and surprise to be had along the way in any narrative. But more often than not, they leave you with a big old pile of stuff where things just sort of happen. Despite teachers’ best efforts to make each day memorable, strictly speaking? “Third grade,” “Geometry,” and “AP Euro” are narratives, not stories.
Lots of amusement parks offer thrills and spills without a story. Take, for example, your average amusement park’s log flume: You hop in a boat, get hauled up a waterslide, and whoosh! Smile for the camera as you splash down for the perfect way to cool off on a hot summer day. Fun? No question. But what’s the story here? Is a world-class log flume really enough to attract millions of visitors a year? Not hardly.
In contrast to a narrative, a story has a clear beginning, a clear middle, and a definitive end. As Robert McKee, former professor at the University of Southern California and creator of the noted “Story Seminar” explains, a story tells the singular tale of an iconic hero in a journey against a clearly defined obstacle. Stories promise adventure through challenges that raise the stakes, where consequences topple like dominoes in a race against the clock. In the best story, you can’t help but feel a mounting sense of excitement, where each stage of the journey proceeds “and so… and so… until finally…” and there’s no place left to go but an ultimate showdown.
When you peel back the pixie dust, Disney’s Splash Mountain is just a glorified log flume. Yet for the better part of four decades (1989-2023), it was inarguably one of the most popular attractions on planet earth.
And a huge part of its success — and, ultimately, its demise — has everything to do with the story it told.
Every day for the past 35 or so years on the long-running Splash Mountain ride, guests climb inside a floating ride vehicle and quickly sail past an audio-animatronic Br’er Rabbit, who we see boarding up his beloved family home in the briar patch and setting out to seek adventure on the open road. As is the case on so many great theme park rides, the hero’s journey becomes our journey — and we can’t help but see ourselves through the eyes of this animatronic other. In a very real way, we’ve entered into the “Magic Circle” where the rules of the outside world are momentarily suspended. And so during the next ten minutes, we follow our hero as he waves goodbye to his neighborhood with a quick spritz down Slippin’ Falls, take a tumble with him down into the song-filled tunnels of his “Laughin’ Place,” and survive a close call with his villainous rivals in Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear before we are ultimately captured by this dastardly duo. As the music swells and darkness closes in around us, we see a pair of menacing vultures taunting our final ascent while Br’er Rabbit pleads with his captors not to be thrown into the briar patch! One high-energy, forty-five-degree angle drop later, and we’re soaking wet, singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” with Br’er Rabbit and his friends from the safety of his briar patch home sweet home.
To be clear: the narrative of both log flumes — climb into a boat, go up a conveyor belt, go down a water slide, get wet — is exactly the same. But the story? Wow.
New Stories Open Doors to New Adventures
As we’ve seen throughout the Splash Mountain example above, stories can elicit powerful feelings — both by design and without meaning to do so. And when the stories we tell simply fail to address the very real and lived experiences of the people we seek to entertain, inform, or attract in the first place — then there is every reason to stop telling these stories and start looking for new ones.
The fact is, the story of Br’er Rabbit (and the Song of the South film that helped make his story famous) has long been a controversial one. Since all the way back to the film’s release in 1946, many had long perceived Disney’s depiction of the happy, folksy tales of an idyllic Reconstruction-era life as told by a once-enslaved Uncle Remus to be a particularly insensitive and hurtful portrayal of Black Americans. Not surprisingly, Song of the South has long been a point of contention both within the Disney corporation and among its fanbase and critics. Though Song of the South received two Academy Awards, it was never officially released on home video, DVD, or Disney-sanctioned streaming services. This controversy would surround it for more than half a century until the summer of 2020, when the imagineers over at Disney ultimately decided to pull the plug on their once popular Splash Mountain attraction in the wake of the George Floyd protests.
As of this writing, the ride is currently undergoing an extensive re-theming and refurbishment in the months ahead. And when the park inevitably reopens the attraction, it will be under the banner of Tiana’s Bayou Adventure — inspired by Disney’s The Princess and The Frog. The reason? Times change. And so must the story. Pay attention to how many times Disney used of the word “story” in their press release from June of 2020 that outlined the company’s rationale for the attraction’s overhaul:
“Today we are thrilled to share a first glimpse of a project Imagineers have been working on since last year. Splash Mountain – at both Disneyland park in California and Magic Kingdom park in Florida – will soon be completely reimagined. The theme is inspired by an all-time favorite animated Disney film, “The Princess and the Frog.” We pick up this story after the final kiss, and join Princess Tiana and Louis on a musical adventure – featuring some of the powerful music from the film – as they prepare for their first-ever Mardi Gras performance.
Tiana is a modern, courageous, and empowered woman, who pursues her dreams and never loses sight of what’s really important. It’s a great story with a strong lead character, set against the backdrop of New Orleans and the Louisiana bayou. In 1966, Walt himself opened New Orleans Square when it became the first new “land” added to Disneyland park, so it feels natural to link the story and the incredible music of “The Princess and the Frog” to our parks.
The voice of Princess Tiana and Tony Award-winning actress, Anika Noni Rose, shared, “It is really exciting to know that Princess Tiana’s presence in both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom will finally be fully realized! As passionate as I am about what we created, I know the fans are going to be over the moon. The Imagineers are giving us ‘The Princess and the Frog’ Mardi Gras celebration we’ve been waiting for, and I’m here for it!”
The approach to retheming or “plussing” attractions (as Walt Disney referred to it) begins with Imagineers asking the question, how can we build upon or elevate the experience and tell a fresh, relevant story? It’s a continuous process that Imagineers are deeply passionate about. And with this longstanding history of updating attractions and adding new magic, the retheming of Splash Mountain is of particular importance today. The new concept is inclusive – one that all of our guests can connect with and be inspired by, and it speaks to the diversity of the millions of people who visit our parks each year.”
As magic makers and storytellers in our own classrooms, there is a lot to learn by studying the rise — and fall — of one of Disney’s most iconic rides. When used properly, the right story at the right time can be magic. But if we’re not careful in the stories that we tell, the results can be far worse than a multi-million dollar re-theming of an amusement park ride. Here are our five biggest teacher takeaways from the story of Splash Mountain.
1. Narratives Aren’t The Same As Stories
Log flumes are pretty straightforward affairs. Get on the boat. Go up the conveyor belt. And get soaking wet. But there’s no way your average county fair or boardwalk ride is packing tens of thousands of guests into its vehicles every day. And it certainly isn’t creating hours-long queue lines in the middle of July.
The next time you’re a planning a lesson for your classroom, challenge yourself to ask how you might be able to “plus it” with a clever splash of story to help your students become a part of something bigger than “unit x practice test 4.1.” Perhaps they’re a crack team of time travelers or super heroes or expert spies in training who’ve uncovered a scrambled set of hidden vocabulary words — and it’s up to them to work in small groups to decode all of these secret messages before the enemy discovers what they’re up to!
2. Stories Are Powerful
From the carvings on the cave walls of our ancient ancestors to the brightly colored likes and comments in an endless stream on Instagram, human beings find tremendous value and validation in hearing the stories of others and sharing our stories with our fellow man. Stories help us connect to one another and to causes larger than ourselves. They are epic. Compelling. And incredibly sticky. And they help us transform everyday experiences into larger-than-life adventures.
Our brains are hardwired to be incredibly creative. But far too often, traditional school puts up an endless parade of obstacles that suck the fun out of immersive storytelling. We read X chapters until we take a quiz. We complete Y problems with little real world relevance. And we tell students that they’re going to need to master Z concept for their lives outside of the classroom — yet we very rarely ever stop to ask them just what, exactly, their stories look like in that very same space. As teachers, we hear so much about “voice and choice” that it’s practically become a game of education Buzzword Bingo. But what might happen if we put those buzzwords into practice and actually gave our students more of a chance to write themselves and their stories into our course curriculum?
3. But Stories Can Be Dangerous
Here at EMC² Learning, we are committed to helping teachers learn how to leverage the very best elements of gamification and playful pedagogy in order to create lesson plans that their students will love. But there’s a huge difference between using non-traditional means of instruction to help students make sense of our course content and using game-like classroom activities to make light of real life trauma. To be absolutely clear: this is especially true when designing “story-like” experiences where students are asked to take part in even light role playing to simulate or reenact events (fictional or historical) where real, live people may have been forced into situations against their will. Some stories simply aren’t appropriate starting points for play.
Escaping a horde of hungry zombies is all in good fun. Escaping Reconstruction-era trauma is not.
4. A Story Needs a Hero
In the original Splash Mountain ride, the hero of the story — and, by proxy, our eyes and ears at every step along the way — is a clever and rascally trickster (with some questionably racist undertones) in the character of Br’er Rabbit. In Tiana’s Bayou Adventure? Disney hails our hero as “a modern, courageous, and empowered woman, who pursues her dreams and never loses sight of what’s really important.” The fact that both stories happen to be set in the American South, and both characters happen to have been voiced by Black actors is certainly no coincidence. But only one of these stories tells of a hero who any parent would point to as a role model. Because representation matters.
In the stories we tell in our classrooms, it is vital to pay particular attention to just who, exactly, gets to play the role of the hero. This includes the texts that we teach. The multimedia clips that we screen. And the very instructional design of how much time we devote to giving space for different voices to be heard in the daily structure our classroom activities — and each of these topics is more than worthy of being the subject of entire books and blog posts in their own right. Because as uncomfortable as it might feel, it also means making ample room for new voices to be heard in our lesson plans.
We’ve all heard that infamous teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons droning on and on in an indecipherable “womp womp” cadence while her bored students are expected to sit quietly and take notes on what’s being said. What small changes can we make in our instruction starting today to give our students more opportunities to be the heroes of their own stories? How can we put an end to all the endless teacher talk by inviting new voices and new stories to take their rightful place in the spotlight of our classrooms?
5. And Stories Require Change
On days when the Disney parks operate at peak capacity, it is estimated that a staggering 15,000+ people would ride Splash Mountain on any given day. That means that single ride could comfortably bring in anywhere from 3-5 million guests every single year. And while tens of thousands of park guests still happily packed into this wildly popular attraction right up until the very day of its closure, it’s clear that the folks at Disney have run the numbers and realized that they are much better served in the long run to shut the whole thing down — even if it means taking a major headliner ride offline for almost two full years in order to make the experience more inclusive, appealing, and future-proof for millions of guests in generations to come.
Let’s face it: schools are constantly strapped for time and funding. There’s never a good time for bad news. And there’s rarely enough money or staffing to provide adequate training, support, and resources that can help us address the latest problems in such a massive system with so many moving parts, let alone stay ahead of the next problem before it starts.
But if we’re not willing to change today, when will be a good time to do so?
Disney opened Splash Mountain in 1989 — a full 40+ years after the film that inspired it was originally released… and they knew the franchise it was based on was problematic even then. Flash forward nearly 40 years later and only just now (after a global outcry) is this long-running attraction that was built on such a shaky foundation finally grinding to a halt.
Now take out the words “ride” and “attraction” and swap in words like “teaching practices,” “curriculum,” and “textbooks.” How many systems that exist inside of our schools or classrooms today are built on similarly suspect foundations? What longstanding problems do we ignore for the sake of convenience? What stories do we tell ourselves today to continue justifying telling the stories that we’ve always told?
And what stories to we need face in modern-day academia so we can do the hard but necessary work to create a system “that all of our [students] can connect with and be inspired by, [which] speaks to the diversity of the millions of [young] people who [attend our schools] each year?”
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