February 2024

Why the Mouse Clicks

An iconic place and an iconic brand had some valuable lessons to teach us about what matters.

I recently had the opportunity to take my granddaughter to Disney World. As any grandparent knows, the kids might be the ones who get excited about trips to Disney, but those experiences can be really special for us grownups, too. This particular trip reminded me of so many interesting and important things, and even taught me a few new lessons.

That might be surprising, seeing as I’ve been taking my kids to Disney World since my oldest was one year old. He’s now 32. As a developer and owner of retail spaces, even when I was a young man, I appreciated Disney’s ability to create an alternate reality that felt truly magical. No matter what else was going on outside the gates of Disneyland (in Anaheim) or Disney World (in Orlando) and no matter what thoughts might be occupying your time and your attention, when you stepped through those gates you were transported to a happy place. I was always impressed by how Disney parks (along with their hotels and shopping areas) somehow seemed immune from the everyday realities of dying plants, vandalism, and fading paint. There were no bugs, no bird mess, and no trash on the ground.

After more than three decades of Disney adventures, these wonders start to get taken for granted. It’s understandable that your attention shifts to other, more practical matters like new rides, interesting places to eat, and the everyday logistical considerations that occupy your time, even on vacation.

And then along came my granddaughter.

As family tradition dictates, as soon as she could hold her head up (and not get scared by seeing a giant mouse walk around) we took her to Disney World. Her presence helped me see and appreciate a few things differently—and recognize some important insights like:

The world is a much better place when you see it from a kid’s perspective. 

Kids don’t know that furry animals can’t walk and around and hug people. They aren’t jaded by a giant castle, cynical about a giant elephant carrying them around in circles, or underwhelmed when Peter Pan introduces us to Tinker Bell. The world is an amazing place when you see all the great things we have created through fresh eyes.

The little things matter. 

Everywhere you look, the credo “The Happiest Place on Earth” is emphasized. From a Main Street filled with balloons, Cheerios and parades, to trash-free streets, to hidden Mickey symbols just about everywhere you look, the details matter at Disney. The depth and thoughtfulness of those small-but-important details reinforce the notion that with the right environment, you can leave your worries behind. One of my favorite pictures to share is an image of how the manhole covers in the park (yes, even Disney World still needs plumbing) all have Mickey ears on them. It would be easy for Disney to have standard manhole covers. Certainly not everyone notices and appreciates them. But just in case you do, Disney goes the extra mile to make sure to give them a little bit more magic.

People love surprises. 

The beauty of Disney isn’t the predictable race to get in line for the popular rides, but the many “spontaneous” pop-up parades, seemingly random encounters with iconic characters on the street, and all the different ways you can experience a place in a new way, even if you (or at least us) have been here dozens of times already.

Keep it Fresh. 

It obviously isn’t always easy, but you can’t rest on your laurels.  While my kids and my granddaughter love the many rides and experiences we had over our lives, Disney continues to reinvent itself. It now has Star Wars land, Indiana Jones, Toy Story land, and so many other concepts and spaces and experiences that Walt Disney himself couldn’t have imagined. Across the country, people pay a lot of money, investing sometimes what amounts to years of savings, to take their family to a place that is so much more than an amusement park, in part because it truly is a different place every time you go.

Memory-making is everything.

Why was it so important to bring my granddaughter (who still needs naps, diaper changes, and isn’t a great communicator just yet) to a place that is pricey, filled with crowds, has unpredictable ride schedules, and has a noticeable lack of healthy food options, as soon as she was old enough to notice where she is? Because I want to build on the memories and traditions of our family. The tradition of sharing a common place, where we feel happy and connected, every year with those we love is what life is about. For our family, Disney is that place and our experiences there remind us of that fact. One of our major charities is to grant last wishes to terminally ill adults. And one of the most common requests from those dream recipients is to take their loved ones to Disneyland or Disney World to leave behind a lasting memory. Traditions are what connect us and what bind families and communities together.

The need for human connection is very strong.

Virtual reality, food delivery, online connectivity, home theaters. These are all things that should logically hurt the business of an expensive theme park where none of the entertainment or rides are particularly affordable or convenient. So why does Disney continue to grow and to thrive? The answer was written all over my granddaughter’s face when she first entered Disney World. The smells, the sounds, the visuals. The cumulative impact of all these, plus seeing her parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents all together enjoying it all is irreplaceable and irresistible. The brain may say there are a lot of different ways to access all of that enjoyment (perhaps directly to your virtual reality headset at home) but your heart understands that this experience is different. 

This is all relevant to our business. After all, we also build and create real spaces. We prioritize how our customer sees what we provide as a place that gives them some degree of comfort and even joy. Some of what they come for is necessity products, yes, but hopefully wrapped in an emotionally compelling environment. A security guard or a day porter who knows your name. Small details that make the real estate part of the neighborhood. Subtle conveniences and small discoveries that make your visit a little more interesting and engaging. It all matters—and it all helps create a relationship, not just a transaction. This might be where you get engaged or celebrate an anniversary. It might be where your kids got their first jobs. It might even be a place you take your grandchildren.  Disney is an inspiring brand. Like all companies, Disney isn’t perfect and has had its stumbles and occasionally lost its way. But in our world, no matter the environment, the state of the economy, and the impact of new generations and technology innovations that come along, families of all generations continue to be awed by the experience of Disney almost 70 years after it first opened its doors. I think that is both a helpful message and a hopeful message for all of us who build places and create experiences.

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