Administrative Opinion

Bringing the Magic of Disney to Camp – Walk the Talk

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In the last lesson I covered Training and Culture. These are two very important parts of the puzzle, but it means very little if everyONE at camp is not walking the talk and everyTHING at camp is not walking the talk.


Everyone Walks The Talk

Does everyONE on your staff walk the talk? 

Actions speak louder than words. Wouldn’t you agree? Let’s revisit something I wrote about in the last post. Disney has a bunch of cast members whose main job is to keep the parks clean. They sweep up trash constantly. 

Cleanliness is part of the Disney culture. They are committed to this. That commitment goes all the way back to Walt Disney himself. He used to take his daughter to carnivals, and he just couldn’t believe how dirty the places were. He envisioned a carnival-type of place without the carny atmosphere – the kind of place a parent wouldn’t hesitate to take a child.

In fact, during Traditions (which we covered in the last post, as well) new cast members are shown two pictures – one of a trash riddled carnival and one of Main Street at Disneyland. 

Because cleanliness is such a big part of the Disney experience, all cast members are expected to pick up trash if they see it and throw it away…that includes the CEO, because everyONE walks the talk.

Being aggressively friendly is another expectation at Disney. It’s not just an expectation you’ll find in the handbook. Cast members are told to stop whatever they’re doing if they can, and offer help whenever they see a guest in need…and they do, I have seen it happen myself at the Disney parks on more than one occasion.

I’m sure your staff does what is asked of them, they do their job, but walking the talk is more than that, it’s also about the WAY you do your job. If you run a themed haunted house, the young person selling the tickets with a laissez-faire attitude, reading a magazine while working is not walking the talk. Depending on the culture you have created, the ticket seller can either be very friendly, asking customers if they have been before and giving them tips on how to get the most out of their experience, OR they could be in character, maybe playing the part of a zombie ticket seller, complete with make-up, costume, a dead-eyed look and the occasional grunt. Either approach could be considered walking the talk. 

Disney promotes itself as the most magical place in the world, and many of their fans would agree. Do you know another place that can be just as magical? Of course, you do. Summer camp can be a positive, life-changing experience for many kids and many staff. It can be a place of wonder, adventure and exploration. Whether it’s camp or the Magic Kingdom, it is incredibly important to preserve that magical experience. 

What do I mean? Let’s look at the character actors at Disney.

Did you know that those playing Disney characters at the Disney properties are told not to talk about their job ‘as a character’ with others. Well, sort of. If they talk about it, they must talk about it in third person.

For example, let’s say a cast member, who works as a Disney Princess, is at the grocery store during her time off and she is talking to her friend about meeting a cute kid while working. She cannot say, “I met the cutest child when I was working as Ariel at Disneyland.” Imagine if a little girl in the grocery line overhears the conversation. The magic for that girl would be broken. Instead, that cast member is supposed to say, “Ariel met the cutest child the other day”, even though she’s talking about herself playing the part of Ariel. You’ll find that most FORMER cast members will not break the magic when speaking about the job they used to have. That’s preserving the magic.

Obviously your staff aren’t playing characters, I just wanted to give you an example of cultural buy-in staff have at Disney.

But it’s not just the character actors. Every single person at Disney is expected to “walk the talk” in a variety of ways.

How can this be applied to camp?

  1. It starts at the top. Leaders should lead by example. If they expect staff to dress up for theme day, they should dress up for theme day. If part of the culture is to rub a certain boulder for good luck every time you pass it, EVERYONE should rub the rock, whether they think someone is looking or not. If staff are expected to be aggressively friendly to parents at check-in, leaders should also be aggressively friendly.
  2. It’s not just the leadership staff that need to lead by example, all staff should including (especially) the counselors. If a lifeguard gives campers instructions not to run while at the pool, no staff should be running either. If the campfire host asks everyone to be quiet during a skit, counselors should not be in the back having a conversation. 
  3. Think about your training, as well. If you train your counselors to praise and encourage their campers often, you should be doing the same with your staff – praising and encouraging them often. Walk the talk.
  4. How about self-care? If you are promoting hydration, sunscreen, proper rest, etc., then that should be for everyone from the first time camper to the camp director.
  5. Conversations around camp are also important. Does your camp culture include being a family friendly place, a place anyone and everyone can feel comfortable? Are campers expected to talk about appropriate subjects without using foul language? If so, your staff and leadership team should respect that part of your camp culture and behave in a similar manner.

I was a 16-year-old CIT at an overnight camp for two weeks. At the end of campfire one night all the counselors and campers returned to their cabins. A few of the leadership staff and a friend of the camp director’s stayed at the campfire along with a few of us CITs. The guest of the director decided to tell a very inappropriate joke. I mean, there’s inappropriate and then there’s INAPPROPRIATE. Everyone laughed, either because they thought is was funny or because they didn’t want to offend this well-known and respected guest. Later I found out that I was not the only CIT that felt uncomfortable about it. That moment shattered what I thought that camp was about and the respect I had for the director and the other adults that were there. This was not what the camp culture was about up to that point. They were not walking the talk. 

There are many more ways all the camp staff can walk the talk. Give it some thought and make it part of your staff training.

What you do thunders above your head so loudly, I cannot hear the words you speak.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson


Everything Walks The Talk

Does everyTHING at your camp walk the talk?

Think of ‘everything walks the talk’ in terms of being aligned or congruent with your camp’s purpose. If you’re going to talk about teamwork, why not have people work in teams? When PEOPLE really begin to walk the talk, it’s easy to realize that THINGS need to walk the talk, too. While ‘everyone’ means the camp director, the program director, the registrar, the kitchen staff, maintenance, the counselors – everyone, ‘everything’ means the tables in the dining hall, the alumni newsletter, the hiring process, etc. – all should be congruent with the camp’s philosophy, mission and character.

A wonderful example of this can be seen at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World. In the Adventureland area you can see that the water fountain plumbing is covered in a faux adventurous style box, and the benches are made to look like they were carved from rock and wood. (It’s hard to see, but right behind the light pole is the bench, even though it looks like part of the ground. Nobody ever accused me of being a good photographer.)


Disney is all about the details, as well. A great example of this is at The Hall of Presidents at Magic Kingdom. The stitching and fabrics of each president’s wardrobe come from the time when that president was in office. This is not something the audience can see, so why do it? Why not just use modern-day stitching and fabrics and save money? Because, when cast members (and guests) learn about things that Disney does, like creating authenticity and paying close attention to the smallest details, that they are willing to put this kind of effort into one of their attractions, then those cast members begin to understand how serious Disney is about providing the best experience they can, and cast members want to be a part of it. Besides, you feel special when you know ‘secrets’ like this. It’s like you have insider information. Are there things about your camp that make it exceptional, but only some people know about it? 

You can’t see the stitching of the presidents’ clothes. You may not notice that garbage cans at Fort Wilderness Resort resemble tree stumps. Frankly, things that walk the talk should, for the most part, be invisible to guests. A great example of this is when you visit other amusement parks. You can feel that it’s not the same as a Disney park, but you can’t always put your finger on why. Is it the paint that is chipping off the hand rails or the buildings? Is is the trash behind the rollercoaster? Is it the attitudes of the staff? You may have a great time at that ‘other’ amusement park, but you know that it lacks that Disney kind of magic. 

These days, campers may not go to multiple overnight camps, but they often go to multiple day camps. If you run a day camp, does it have the magic campers won’t find at other local day camps? Is there a camp in your area that the kids always talk about with excitement, even when they are at your program? Hopefully, it’s your camp being talked about when those kids are making their rounds to the other day camps?

Here’s another example of everything at Disney parks walking the talk, yet being invisible, just part of the atmosphere. When you arrive at Disneyland or Magic Kingdom in the morning, you’ll hear lively music. You’ll also see that cast members are upbeat and energetic when they greet guests. But when evening hits, the music becomes mellow and cast members act more relaxed.

How many times have you seen a counselor leave a campfire where it ended with a slow, meaningful song, and while everyone is quietly leaving that counselor riles his campers up with his energetic humor. He doesn’t mean any harm, he’s having fun with his campers, but if the goal of the end of the campfire was to bring everyone down to a mellow state, he is not walking the talk. So, you have everyTHING walking the talk, but not everyONE is on that same page.

Think about what your camp stands for. Disney is about creating magic, creating the best experience for people of all ages. Is your camp about the same thing? Is it about educating children? Is it about providing a unique experience? Is it about introducing children to nature? Is it about keeping them safe and entertained while the parents are at work? Whatever it is, does everyone and everything support what your camp stands for, support its mission?

If your camp’s mission it to give children an appreciation for nature, the environment and our Earth, do you have recycling bins everywhere there’s a garbage can? Do you use toilet paper and cleaning supplies that are good for the environment? Are your crafts nature-centric? Are the campers given chances to be out in nature on their own in a quiet setting so they can take it all in?

If your camp is all about inclusion and acceptance, do you have a diverse staff? Is everyone using inclusive language, or is the program director addressing the camp like, “Hey guys…”? Is every activity accessible to everyone regardless of ability?

If your camp is about giving kids an exciting and engaging experience, does your camp provide a variety of activities? Do campers get to choose their activities? Do they get to request to be with their friends while at camp? Is there enough variety each session to keep return campers from becoming bored? 

If your camp is all about raising the bar when it comes to summer camp, is everything clean – and I don’t mean just on the first day? Is paint chipping off anywhere? Does your staff go through more training and get paid more than the average summer camp staff member? Do the restrooms have murals on the inside walls? How do you greet the parents? Do you offer yearbooks? 

Basically, take a look at every aspect of your camp (administration, training, supervising, activities, transportation, food, events, facilities, uniforms, marketing materials, website, roads, etc.), and take notice of where you’re doing a great job with walking the talk. Then take a look at where you might be falling short and make a plan to fix those areas. Getting everything and everyone to walk the talk is not an overnight project. In fact it will be an ongoing task, but one worth pursuing.

What are some ways your camp and your staff walks the talk? Where can it be improved?


Ariel photo by Laurie Sapp

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