I have always been fascinated by Imagineers. They are Disney’s main designers and creators, bringing to life worlds and fantasies that before only lived in our imaginations. They tell us stories through their detailed engineering. When I visit the Disney parks, I see a lot more than rides and commercialized Mickey ears; I am transported into a mindset where I can dream up any future and build it around me.
Imagineer = engineer + imagination. Maybe not all of us are engineers, in the traditional sense, but we all have the ability to engineer and design our own lives. And even as adults, everyone has a powerful imagination. It’s the choice to use it that we often forget we have. So here are some life lessons that I have learned from studying Disney’s Imagineers.
- Tell a story
Rides at Disney are more than rides; they put you directly into the stories. In Mission: Space you are assigned to the crew of the first manned mission to Mars and sent for training. In Muppet*Vision 3D you are guests in the audience of the muppets’ first 3D show and help to find Bean Bunny. In the Tower of Terror you visit the scene of the 1939 Twilight Zone mystery where five people disappeared in an elevator. This is what sets their parks apart from standard amusement parks. They don’t just develop a ride; they develop an experience and consider how the park guests will interact with it from start to finish.
This is the same way we should approach anything we create. We need to look beyond completing a project and consider how the user will experience the end results, even if that user is only ourselves. What kind of story do we want to write? How do we want the story to end? How do we want to feel? Asking these questions guides us to the full lifecycle of a solution. If you want to get healthier, picture yourself as a healthy person and imagine what that would feel like. Then write your “story” of what it would take to get you to that happy ending so you can go forth and live it.
- Never say “no”
We all hate hearing the word “no”. Some of us even hate telling someone the word “no”. It’s like an instant dark cloud that sends down a lightning bolt to kill an idea. But one of the first lessons introduced by the Imagineers in their book, The Imagineering Workout, is to replace every “no” with “yes, if”. Can we fly human to Mars? Yes, if we create a spacecraft that can travel there safely. Can we build that spacecraft? Yes, if we engineer more efficient propulsion systems. The “yes, if” continues until we reach a problem that we can focus on in the present.
Sometimes when we face a challenge, what we think is a “no” is actually a “not yet”. Can we lose 50 pounds? Yes, if we change our nutritional lifestyle and we exercise routinely. Can we exercise routinely? Yes, if we find exercises that we enjoy and fit our schedule. The thought process continues on and can be combined with mind-mapping tools to generate a plan. This is also an excellent method for those who suffer from anxiety prior to presentations or exams. Instead of telling ourselves we can’t do it in those moments of panic, we should be telling ourselves that yes, we will succeed if we prepare and focus. Those difficult problems introduce their own solutions and steps if we simply tell ourselves “yes”.
- It’s all in the details
One of my favorite things about Disney is how much attention they pay to the details. Watch Finding Nemo and you’ll see the Pizza Planet truck from Toy Story drive by. Climb to the top of Tarzan’s treehouse in Disneyland and find the tribute to the original Swiss Family Robinson tree. Walk through “A Bug’s Land” in California Adventure at night and hear the murmur of crickets. While you may not notice every detail individually, they combine to immerse you in the environment. The more details we can address, the more developed our solutions become.
Now, it is all too easy to get overwhelmed by trying to consider all the details at once. But we can successively narrow down our focus to the finer points. Choose your objective(s) and theme, make the big decisions, and then progressively elaborate until you are satisfied with the details. We did this when planning our wedding, starting with the theme and the venue and working our way down to the handmade escort cards and the song for the final dance. Continuously question your assumptions and think of ways to enrich your choices. Putting extra effort in the details will pay off in the end.
- Use all five senses
When you first walk onto Main Street, U.S.A you see a small town right out of turn-of-the-century Missouri (Marceline, MI to be exact, Walt Disney’s hometown). You hear ragtime melodies and live barbershop quartets. You can pick up ceramic figurines, view old-fashioned photography equipment, and pet the carriage horses. You sample country-style fried chicken and hand-cranked ice cream. You even smell vanilla as you stroll down the road. You are completely transported into this environment of good memories and simple pleasures. By engaging with all five senses, you can have a real experience with what is really a well-designed façade.
This same concept applies to solving problems where we need actual, tangible solutions. Let’s say you want (or need) to improve your sleep. Keep your bedroom organized and decorate it for a calm environment. Choose sheets and pillows that are comforting and relaxing. Create a soothing nighttime playlist or find ways to block out excess noise. Use lavender scented detergent or diffusers. Start a ritual of chamomile tea or a glass of warm milk just before bed. By addressing all your senses you develop complete, well-rounded solutions. And by combining this strategy with mindfulness techniques you can enhance your overall experience.
- Combine traditions, history, perspectives, innovation, and creativity
When I consider the five original sections of Disneyland, I like to think of the essential themes behind them:
- Main Street, U.S.A. – traditions & values
- Frontierland – history & spirit
- Adventureland – experiences & perspectives
- Tomorrowland – future & innovation
- Fantasyland – imagination & creativity
These are the same elements that designers in almost all disciplines consider, at least in part, when creating their products. When we balance these elements we take advantage of all the world has to offer. It is important to use both “sides” of our brain to approach challenges or improve our well-being.
If you’re trying to start a business, you’d start by defining your core values. Then you’d research what has been successful in the past and who your predecessors are. Then you’d likely explore the resources that exist around the world and how other people have approached challenges. Then you’d study what technologies are up and coming. And all the while you’d be brainstorming and creating unique solutions and processes that make your business truly special. So what may seem at first like novelty themes are actually the same ones we implement throughout our lives.
- Entertain to educate
Walt Disney once said, “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” Disney movies, books, and parks are full of opportunities where children and adults alike can open their minds and gain knowledge of the world. Take a tour of the World Showcase in EPCOT or listen to Lincoln’s speech on Main Street, U.S.A. Just because you’re having fun doesn’t mean you’re not learning valuable lessons along the way. The trick is to find the right balance and make education entertaining. There is no reason it needs to dry or serious all the time.
When I went through school it was all too easy for classes to become boring. But I was fortunate to have teachers who engaged with us and provided games, alternative media (movies), and projects that kept us interested in learning. Why can’t you enjoy school? Isn’t that why you go to school in the first place, to learn skills to become productive adults so you can live a full, happy life? The same can be said for us as adults. Focus on the fun or positive aspects of your job and the rest won’t seem as difficult. A little bit of happy goes a long way.
Every time I enter Tomorrowland the gears in my head start turning, popping out new ideas for all of the technology I wish we had at our disposal in the present. And while we may not be sending humans to Mars just yet or interacting with anthropomorphic droids, we can at least get a taste of what it would be like from what the Imagineers have created. Tomorrowland has been present at Disney since the inception of the parks in 1955, and Walt Disney truly recognized the importance of dreaming up advanced futures. The Imagineers paint immersive pictures of what an ideal future could be like, and they translate it into a 3D, albeit artificial, environment that can be just as inspiring.
I believe the true talent of an Imagineer is in putting us in those ideal visions of the world or the future. They allow us to experience them in the present, and thus be motivated to replicate them for real. We need to hold onto these elements that inspire us, no matter where they come from, and use them to build our futures. Next time you watch a movie or walk through the parks, take notes on the things that stir your mind and see how you can use the ideas in your everyday life.
Here are some books I suggest for further reading:
- The Imagineering Way: Ideas to Ignite Your Creativity by The Imagineers
- The Imagineering Workout: Exercises to Shape Your Creative Muscles by The Disney Imagineers
- Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real by The Imagineers
If you’re looking to experience more next time you visit the Disney parks, please check out my Disneyland Diamond Celebration Scavenger Hunt!