What Working at Disney Taught Me About Discipleship

By Marina Garcia

One of my favorite pictures was taken when I was about four. My hair’s a mess, I’ve got this really grumpy yet blank expression on my face, and I’m wearing an oversized sweatshirt with a giant picture of The Little Mermaid. Like many others, I was a Disney kid. However, unlike many others, my fascination with Disney didn’t stop when I got older. In the spring of 2013, I left my dream school, the University of Texas at Austin (UT), to participate in the Disney College Program. There, I worked as a raft driver at Tom Sawyer Island and an emcee at The Country Bear Jamboree smack dab in the middle of Disney’s Magic Kingdom.  

I went into this experience knowing little to nothing about my job, my potential, or myself. I grew up in touch with the faith and went to Catholic school for twelve years. I learned a lot and actually enjoyed a lot of it, but I still hadn’t made most of it personal. I didn’t know how to see people, to listen to their needs. Now, Disney is THE standard for customer service. Seeing people and anticipating their needs is their specialty, and cast members will do everything within their power to serve their guests because they understand the immense value of memories made in the parks. By teaching me to focus on their Four Keys: Safety, Courtesy, Efficiency, and Show, Disney not only showed me how to serve others well, but to be bold, welcoming, and to let go of control in doing so.

 After completing the program, I took what I learned back to UT and got involved with FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). I discipled two awesome ladies, led a FOCUS bible study, and eventually graduated and became a NET missionary on a discipleship team. 

Let’s take a look at how Disney’s Four Keys prepared me to be the disciple-maker Christ called me to be and how you can implement them in your ministry.

 

Safety

With thousands of people moving throughout the parks at any given time, safety is a top priority for Disney. From food to parade routes to maintenance of rides and attractions, safety is regarded as the highest key so that there may be order, clarity, and care for guests.

I worked at an outdoor attraction, and it seemed like it rained almost every day that spring. At any sight of lightning, it was our responsibility to clear all park guests off of the shores of Tom Sawyer Island in case of a severe storm. I remember one storm in particular that left me soaked from head to toe as I did my best to control my raft against powerful winds. Later that afternoon, we checked the hiking trails on the Island and found dozens of fallen branches and debris lining the paths that had been covered with guests only a few hours before.

Not all storms were like that, though. It took about 15-20 minutes for multiple people to check every cave and cranny to clear the Island. Sometimes storms would last for 15 minutes, and we’d sit in the office thinking, “Really? All that for a drizzle?” And the answer was always, “Yes.”

Of course, it would be. We weren’t going to take chances with our guests; we’d invited them to the Happiest Place on Earth. While we couldn’t control the weather, we wanted them to feel like they could trust us not only with creating memories that would last a lifetime but also in caring for their well-being amidst the hustle and bustle of parades and park attractions.

And you know what, youth have storms too, and they matter.

So what can storms look like in ministry? Do your teens feel like they can share whatever struggles they are having regarding friends, school, or even hard teachings to understand? A teen who doesn’t feel safe with you as an adult leader will not enter into small groups. Safety doesn’t always mean physical safety but trust. Can they trust that you are authentic in your Christian faith? Can they trust the other people in their group to keep what is shared confidential? Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A person who doesn’t feel safe isn’t going to be interested in higher growth needs.

 

Courtesy

If something goes wrong, Disney cast members will do everything within their power to return the magic to your trip. Cast members are encouraged to be positive, uplifting, and attentive to park guests’ needs, answering all questions from their wealth of knowledge about the park and all things Disney.

Bottom line: it’s called customer service for a reason.

It’s basic manners at its core, but so much more than just being nice. It means recognizing the worth of the people in front of you! They’re worth your time, commitment, and effort. A practical I took away from practicing Courtesy was the concept of being prepared. Is the parade starting soon? Park people’s strollers in a different section in front of the Country Bears’ theater, so there will be extra standing room. Frightened little boy’s parents were trying to convince him to go into the Bears show? Give him a little frog folded from an old Fast Pass in my pocket to keep him company. 

Learning to be prepared shaped my ministry by helping me prioritize my prep time for the bible study I led in college. The women I discipled had specific needs as well, and I realized the importance of individual attention for their growth. This carried on into my ministry with NET as I met with high school seniors trying to figure out what their faith would look like after graduation. Yes, I often served the masses, but it was in those individual moments where the magic truly showed itself.

When thinking about Courtesy, here are some things to consider:

Are you providing people with things that are serving their needs? Are you being a good listener and asking follow-up questions? Do you look for opportunities to anticipate the needs of others? Affirmation and inclusion play a huge role in this as they serve to bring a sense of belonging to a young person who may be unsure about or even apathetic to this whole “faith thing.”

 

Efficiency

Again, thousands of people every day. Disney commits to Efficiency through managing events in a timely manner. The Country Bear Jamboree lasts 12 minutes? Take 5 minutes to load the 250 person theater and press the button to start the show. Disney does this and much more to avoid unnecessary inconveniences for our guests.

In a ministry environment, structure is your friend. It’s essential to have a schedule for your small group, even if it’s just a general one. Have a plan, a set direction, and have a goal to accomplish. Keep in mind the concept of being efficient with your time. Create a schedule for your event or discipleship group, and do your best to stick to it.

 While having a plan is important, sometimes the Holy Spirit has other things in mind. When I was a NET missionary, I led a group of girls in a study on Fr. Michael Gaitley’s book, “Consoling the Heart of Jesus,” and I think I got through the entirety of the outlines I made maybe twice the whole semester. You may find that a particular comment resonates with the group, and they want to spend more time unpacking it. It’s okay if you don’t make it through every video or question during your allotted time frame. Pray for docility and trust that the Lord will direct the conversation where it needs to go.

 

Show

To breathe life into the stories that Disney enthusiasts know and love, cast members commit to the concept of Show. This includes being mindful of what are referred to as “backstage areas” (i.e., Cast Members Only), as well as using thematic lingo and playing into the overall production of the world in which you’re working.

A huge component to Show is commitment. At the beginning of every Country Bears show, there is a 30-second window where the emcee introduces themselves and gives the theater guidelines. I found the Country Bears to be incredibly nostalgic for people, so I knew that each time that spotlight was on me, I had to deliver. For 30 seconds, I was part of the show, so I was going to put on my warmest smile and let my Texas twang loose for every audience that walked into that theater.

In a ministry setting, it may be easy to confuse Show with “Show-Off,” but let’s be clear: we’re not putting on a face. We’re committed to creating an environment of support, affirmation, and discovery. This calls you to act in a way that resembles the environment you’re trying to create. In ministry, I knew I had to commit to the things I was teaching the women in my bible study. If I was challenging them to pray, I had to have prayer experience from which to pull. Your example of prayer, reverence, authenticity, positivity, and appropriate humor will serve as a basis of how “normal” Christian living can look.

This concept can also extend to the physical environment itself. What space are you meeting in? Is it open or crowded? Too loud to hear, or too quiet for comfort? Does it make others feel welcome?

So take a look at your program. If you’re running something big enough to fill the Country Bear Theater or small enough to travel by raft, maybe there’s something that could use a little faith, trust, and pixie dust. Looking back, I’ve realized my experience working for The Mouse had so much more to offer me than just parades every day and fireworks every night. It took leaving my “norm” and following what seemed like some fantasy for me to realize that the tools they were giving me to serve park guests were later going to help me form disciples. So with that, I say do your best, say a little prayer, and have a magical day. 

 

 


Here’s me in my Frontierland costume on a good hair day, which in Florida still calls for a hat.

This is me preparing to head off the dock at the end of the day to bring guests back from Tom Sawyer Island. One of these rafts holds up to 55 people and can cross the River in 90 seconds.

This is my friend Claire. When I joined FOCUS, she discipled me and had a huge hand in starting my journey of proclaiming the gospel.

 

At graduation with Almendra, a fantastic friend whom I discipled our senior year at UT.

Hanging out at Providence Academy with a few girls I worked with, Evie and Abby. They’re sophomores in college now, and we still catch up from time to time.

 

Sisters on a mission! Here are a bunch of past NET missionaries attending the graduation of a then future missionary, Clare, whom we all ministered to in our time with NET. Clare went on to serve on a discipleship team with NET in ‘18-’19.

Embrace the challenge

Answer the Call

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