I was in Disney World last week for a family vacation, and I just got back yesterday. I enjoyed plenty of time in the pool and hot tub, basked in the sun, boated around the lakes, and of course visited the theme parks.
A few years back, my brother and I wrote a memoir titled We Grew Up at Disney World, which isn’t actually too much of an exaggeration. Most years during my childhood, my family would go down to Disney World for a week and camp at Fort Wilderness. The memoir is full of inside jokes and family drama, obviously, but more than anything, it’s a memoir about Disney World’s influence on the sorts of storytellers my brother and I have become.
Disney isn’t coy about the fact that they are selling their guests a story. Both the fireworks shows I saw at Magic Kingdom and Epcot—“Happily Ever After” and “IllumiNATIONS” respectively—are introduced by a voice-over that invites guests to become the heroes of their own story or join a global story of belonging and progress.
It’s the little things too. Standing in line for a ride like the Jungle Cruise, I find myself looking at all the old packing crates and bottles and wondering how many of them are genuine antiques and how many of them were made specifically for the ride. One of my brothers is deep into virtual reality technology and “immersive storytelling,” and really that’s what Disney World is. The rocks may be fake and the “artifacts” from various expeditions to Mount Everest fabricated, but they use this accretion of little details to create an environment that feels internally consistent and believable.
Even the resorts are all telling stories to the people staying there. From its live jazz band to its new flapper bar to the retro furniture, the Grand Floridian tells a story about turn-of-the-century opulence. The Polynesian Village Resort tells its story with plumeria shrubs and carved tiki statues and a fake volcano overlooking the swimming pool area.
Maybe it’s because I’m a writer that I see things as a writer, but I get the feeling that Disney’s Imagineers also think in terms of plot, setting, character, detail, description, theme, point of view. They work with buildings and rides and resorts and experiences rather than books and writing, but I think over the years I’ve learned a lot about my own craft from them. Even the physical space in my portal fantasy novel—where the protagonist travels to lots of little worlds with their own distinct cultures and languages—is probably subconsciously modeled on Epcot’s World Showcase, where different “pavilions” highlight the architecture and merchandise of different countries like Italy and Morocco.
The Mexico pavilion in Epcot includes an interior space called the Plaza de los Amigos, which is decorated to look like an open-air market at night. There’s a restaurant to one side and a Mesoamerican temple nestled in fake jungle in the distance. I snapped a pic and sent it to my sister with the caption, “Passing through Boca di Dios,” which is a locale from the colonial-era fantasy novel we drafted last year.