It’s been 13 years since I decided to take a semester off from college to go to Disney World.
At 19 years old, shy and awkward and fairly sheltered, I joined Disney’s college program. And believe it or not, in the 11 months that I worked at Disney World, I laid the foundations for my life in the ministry.
I’ve been reviewing a journal that I kept during my time working alongside Mickey and Minnie Mouse in 2003. Just a week into my experience, I wrote: “I think I’m really changing as a person. I feel so comfortable to act myself and be silly, because everyone else is.”
I was right: I was changing. Here are six fundamental values I learned at Disney that shaped me into the minister I am today.
My parents have always taught me the importance of caring for family, but each day at Disney I saw hundreds of families being intentional about their togetherness. Couples held hands as they strolled down Main Street. Family reunion groups snapped photos with their relatives to preserve memories. The importance of family bonds was evident all around me.
Walt Disney’s dream was that there could be a wholesome place families could enjoy together. If I was ever having a tough day, I could look at the families and be reminded of the magic of Disney.
Disney taught me that family is priority, and that it should transcend financial hardship, disputes and even distance.
Disney taught us that we should always treat each guest “as a cherished friend,” and that even if the line was long, the most important person was the one in front of us. We gave that person our full attention. The value of courtesy was always put above efficiency.
My interaction with guests at Disney was the initial spark for my future ministry. Ministry requires your full attention on the person before you. I took this lesson into my work as a hospital chaplain. Sometimes my patient list was so long that if I focused solely on checking visits off the list, then I wouldn’t be able to spend quality time with any of them. Ministry requires hospitality. Each person we encounter has dignity and worth, so we ought to receive them lovingly and make a welcoming space for them.
Another opportunity for ministry was volunteering for Give Kids the World, which has a resort near Disney World. The children staying there had terminal illnesses, and for many of them, a trip to Disney was their last wish. I volunteered some nights to hang out with the kids while their parents had a date night. It was my first experience being with children who were dying. They had such joy and innocence. I felt within me a yearning to always love the vulnerable among us, a fundamental calling of Christian life.
During part of my time at Disney, I worked in Guest Relations. There, I often had to exercise my listening skills, another critical ministry skill. Guests would share with me their compliments and complaints, and as in ministry, my role was to share in their joys and sorrows.
I’d either smile to affirm the great experience a guest was having, or I would nod and acknowledge how their experience was not so good. Families spend a great deal of time saving to make a trip to Disney World, so it’s understandable they may be disappointed if their expectations are not met. My primary role was not just to make the experience right, but to listen empathetically. Empathy places ourselves in the shoes of the other. Empathy reminds the other that we share in their humanness. This is a skill that I have developed through the years that I apply to my ministry.
It may seem that Disney manufactures an artificial happiness. And although that may be partly true, Disney always includes in its fairy tales the realities of life: the human struggle between good and evil, the difficulty in making moral choices, even grief.
Even when young princesses mourn their parents and contend with evil villains, the human yearning for joy underpins all Disney does. And it should also underpin ministry.
As Christians, our hope is joy. We yearn for joy just as we long for God. We know that like a Disney story, the sorrow and suffering is only temporary.
An essential element of good ministry is being a nonjudgmental presence for another person. We must meet each person where they are and as they are.
Disney was a wonderful place to learn about the value of diversity. I had the chance to meet and work with people from many countries, with different cultures, sexual orientations, religions and life experiences. I could not be sheltered from the vivid diversity of the human family. I had to follow Christ’s command to love my neighbors, no matter who they were.
Disney parks and movies have always been saturated with spiritual and moral themes. The parks, too, have not typically shied away from their Christian influence, thanks to Walt Disney’s devout Christian background. He even had Disneyland dedicated by a minister.
Each year Walt Disney World hosts the Night of Joy, a weekend of Christian bands playing throughout the park. The religious influence is most apparent at Christmastime, when Disney parks play traditional tunes and educate visitors about Christmas traditions from around the world.
At Disney’s annual Candlelight Processional, a celebrity narrator retells the story of Christ’s birth while a choir sings traditional Christmas songs, accompanied by an orchestra. The tradition began at Disneyland in 1958 and continues today in both Disneyland and Disney World.
I had the chance to sing in the choir for the Candlelight Processional. I’ll never forget standing on the risers singing “O Holy Night,” gazing at the lighted Christmas tree behind the audience, feeling so blessed that I believed what I was singing about Christ: “Truly He taught us to love one another. His law is love and His gospel is peace.”
All that existed and all the opportunities I’ve had, including my time at Disney, spring from this story of divine love. Disney became for me a sign of God, shaping me in these values that were so important to my later ministry and relationships. I don’t think I would have been ready to hear the call of God for ministry if I hadn’t been given the chance to embrace the values of Disney World.
As each year passes we become more the person God made us to be. If you’re 20, you’ll be more you at 30. If you’re 55, you’ll grow more into yourself at 65. Our human formation never ends. I’m blessed that some of my formation happened at the happiest place on Earth.
Andy Otto is a theology teacher and campus minister at Mercy High School in Red Bluff, Calif. This post is adapted from his blog, God in All Things.