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On the Contrary The Disney Diary

August 10, 2001
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Dear Diary,

I've just had a wonderful, entertaining, adjective-laden day, and now that it's over, I'm starting to worry. I know, I worry too much. But please hear me out.

The day began at 5:15 a.m., when three other journalists and I were treated to a private four-course brunch inside Cinderella's castle in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Yes, the one in Orlando. Talk about amazing! Who knew it could be so hot before the sun comes up?

Inside the stone castle walls we ate tiny waffles shaped like Mickey Mouse. We dabbed our chins with satiny blue napkins. We "yes-pleased" and "no-thank-you'd" the swarm of waiters around us. All the while, a harpist played. I felt like I'd won a reward challenge on Survivor! The harpist even granted my request to play "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin, which was utterly lovely on the harp and probably a sign that I've aged. (Note to self: Hook up turntable, find "Stairway to Heaven," and play it. Loudly.)

We were at the park early as guests of the Disney Institute, an organization that teaches other companies about Disney's approach to customer service and human resources management. The institute wants journalists to become familiar with its training programs, and this is where my worry comes in. But I'll get to that in a minute.

After brunch and before the theme park opened, we were allowed to ride several "attractions," which is Disney parlance for everything from the sweetest of merry-go-rounds to something appropriately named Alien Encounter. By 9 a.m., Florida's temperature hovered around 237 degrees, and I was actually thankful when the enormous gold camel on the Aladdin ride -- er, "attraction" -- spit water on the front of my new pink shirt.

During the next three hours, we toured the "backstage" area to learn a bit about how Disney manages its employees, and we visited the company's "Casting Center" -- that's personnel office to you and me. Our guides explained that each week, Disney hires somewhere between 350 and 500 people, but they never said why the company has so many cute titles that have to be written in quotes.

I have to confess something, Diary. After watching a video for prospective employees on what it's like to work for Disney, I was tempted to sneak an application. Do you think Disney needs writers? Maybe I could don a cute little writer costume and swagger around the park with a quill pen and half-empty bottle of Jim Beam.

Anyway, just when I thought the day couldn't get any better, our hosts took us to the Disney Institute Spa, where we received -- get this -- a complimentary massage. A massage! As if having brunch in Cinderella's castle is the kind of taxing event one needs to recover from. (Note to self: Have more massages on good days!)

Then -- I'm not kidding, there's more -- we went to a Disney Institute classroom, where we were invited to a cooking class. After being offered slim glasses of sparkling wine, we sampled olive oils, balsamic vinegar, and Parmesan cheeses. We made fresh fettuccine from scratch, blended pesto, and eventually sat down to eat yet another multi-course banquet. The institute uses cooking classes for team-building purposes, and I have to say it worked. By the end of class, the other writers and I had become new best friends.

After lunch the group dispersed, and I walked around the Disney Institute grounds feeling, in the heat, like a steamed pork bun. But I was content. I mean, who wouldn't be after being treated like Snow White all day?

So what's the problem? Well, here's the rub: Disney showed me such a good time because I'm a journalist and they want me to write about the institute.

The problem is that I'm now feeling obligated, and I don't believe in doing something just because I'm supposed to. I'm a journalist, remember? We're programmed to question authority. Besides, doing something out of a sense of obligation seems insincere and ungenuine. I would much rather, for example, give someone a Christmas card because I'm thinking about her than send cards to people I never talk to simply because they sent one to me. Similarly, I would much rather write about a company I admire than a company that wines and dines me.

But wait a minute: I do admire Disney, and I admired the company long before its "cast members" hosted me. In fact, my very first memory is looking out from a stroller at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Would it be so bad to write about the institute and the 60,000 people they train every year? I mean, Disney is the kind of company where executives pick up trash when they see it. Where employees smile at each other and actually display teeth in the process. Where people rise up the ladder from part-time cashier to executive positions. Where people come from around the world for a chance to shake Mickey's hand in person.

Maybe I'm feeling obligated to write about the institute not because its staff members are good hosts, but because the organization does good work. If more companies were run like Disney, which is the institute's unspoken goal, the business world might have a few more contented customers and employees. Would that be so bad?

Hmm ... I think I've just had a breakthrough, Diary. This may be the first time I've actually scrutinized my sense of obligation and determined that there was a good reason for it. Maybe obligation in and of itself is not such a bad thing. Maybe only unchecked obligation is. Do you suppose this means I should write more Christmas cards? (Note to self: Don't get carried away.) Okay, maybe not. But perhaps it does mean that sometimes there are good reasons to feel compelled to do something, and this is one of them.

Workforce, August 2001, pp. 21-22 -- Subscribe Now!


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