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.
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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.
Disney taught me that family is priority, and that it should transcend financial hardship, disputes and 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. Ministry requires hospitality. Each person we encounter has dignity and worth, so we receive them lovingly and make a welcoming space for them.
Another opportunity for ministry was volunteering for Give Kids the World, a resort near Disney World for children with terminal illnesses. For many of them, a trip to Disney was their last wish. 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.
Empathy places us 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.
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 are 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 had to follow Christ’s command to love my neighbors, no matter who they were.
Disney 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.
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.
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.
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.