10 Things I Learned from Disney – #6: The Power of Stories

disneyfiguressmIn the Disney Theme Parks, two of Walt’s great loves are on open display. The first comes from Walt’s inherent gift for storytelling. Most Disney rides are more than just a jolt of adrenaline. The thrills are seamlessly integrated into a story. Whether it’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, The Tower of Terror or Indiana Jones, there is a distinct storyline to each ride, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Walt was, at his core, a natural born story teller.

Walt’s other love was his fascination with technology. Walt believed that technology was the hope for a brighter future and he had a childlike fascination for it.

With Disneyland, and with the later Disney parks, Walt’s dream was to bring his two loves together. He wanted to create an environment where great stories could come to life, allowing us to immerse ourselves in them. And, with technology, he wanted to provide a showcase for it’s promise and potential. Technology played a vital role in bringing the Disney stories to life, through innovations like animatronics and sophisticated special effects. But it was Tomorrowland and, later, Epcot, that Walt envisioned as the true shrine to the wonders of technology. And in these two examples lies a cautionary tale for us to heed.

The Power of a Story

As I said in an earlier post, humans are wired to love stories. If you have to get details to stick, the best way is to put them into a story. The human brain seems to respond naturally to the structure of a story, perhaps because stories are time tested distillations of how we see the world and what we find interesting about it. Stories are possibly the most highly evolved of all human communication forms, next to  grunts of warning or delight. Stories have lifted us to new heights, with the power of narrative being a constant through all our art forms, across all cultures. There is no society or tribe on earth that does not tell stories. And if you look at Disney’s best loved rides, you’ll find the ones that stay truest to the ideal of telling a story are the ones that stand the test of time.

But technology has not fared as well in the Disney Parks. Of all the lands in Disneyland, Tomorrowland has been the one that has required the greatest number of overhauls. What was once wonderful quickly becomes woefully dated. The challenge with technology is that it never stands still. You have to constantly re-imagine the future, because we relentlessly chase it. If you take technology and showcase it, you also freeze it in time, which soon passes it by. Even Epcot (originally standing for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) hasn’t managed to stay ahead of today. It’s no longer a glimpse of the future, but rather a quaint testimonial to what the future might have been.

Technology Fades, but Stories Live On

So, in the world of Disney, the power of stories has stayed as fresh and powerful as the day they were first told. But the lure of technology has rapidly faded, necessitating constant overhauls and retrofits. The lesson I’ve learned from that? Technology in itself is not an end goal, but rather the means to an end. Technology for humans started when we first realized that materials from our environment could be re-purposed to give us an advantage. The stone axe, the spear or the bow and arrow had no inherent magic. Their value lay in the things they let us do. Technology in and of itself is a empty promise, it only takes on meaning when it allows us to do something we couldn’t do yesterday. And that’s why we drive technology forward, pushing our advantage through the tools we adopt. Technology is a factor in the equation of human productivity, but it’s the result of the equation that matters.

Stories, however, speak to the heart of the human condition. They resonate with a different part of our brain. Technology gives us tools. Stories give us our soul. In looking at which of Walt’s two great loves eventually emerged triumphant in the hearts and minds of guests, it’s clear that stories strike closer to home. And in that is a very timely lesson for us. We have become infatuated with technology, but we should remember that it’s how we apply that technology to do very human things that matters. And it’s those things that will eventually make their way into our stories.

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