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FROM MY HEART: My "Disney Wish" For Democracy
This 100-year-old company taught me lessons I wish more people knew.
Some of us struggle to protect our sense of childlike wonder, especially in painful times like these. I never have, and I have The Walt Disney Company to thank/blame for that. Today is the Company’s centennial. On October 16th, 1923, Walt & Roy Disney signed a contract to form the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio.
I say “blame”, because growing up meant forcing myself to temper my hopes with harsh realities, making my “inner 10-year-old” keep dreaming but stop driving. We all have to grow up sometime, no matter what Peter Pan says, but for me it always felt like hitting a brick wall. If you’ve ever heard my work on-air in any capacity, just know that when that job ended — no matter which job it was — the brick wall hit me, again and again.
Whenever you read this I’m sure the world will feel like it’s on fire. It’s hard to think about your dreams at nightmarish times. Right now a tribute to such a Pollyanna paradise as Disney might feel ill-timed at best. Should I wait until we put out the fires? Perhaps, but I believe that firefight will advance the more we remember what we’re fighting for: not just the world we want, but the world we wish for. The world some of our forebears and ancestors spent or gave their lives wishing for.
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I grew up in Florida, so visiting Walt Disney World was an annual pilgrimage for me. Epcot was my favorite park (yep, I’m a nerd), until the Disney-MGM Studios (now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios) supplanted that. I was always taken by how otherworldly the resort felt, right down to the highway signs being purple instead of green. The theming, the logistics of how foot traffic flowed, the immersion of the attractions, the remarkable technology behind it all… everything enthralled me. And getting a sense of how movies and TV shows worked up-close cemented my dreams for me.
“That!” I resolved to myself. “I don’t know how, but I’m gonna do THAT!”
As I got older I understood more about how it all worked. What looked like a well-choreographed ballet was exactly that. It was planned, rehearsed, designed, refined and tightly managed to make everything look and feel like it was all built for me personally. It’s hard as a little kid not to walk into the park and feel like Belle sitting down to dinner. “Be Our Guest” made sense the minute I heard it, because I’d lived it every time I walked through those gates.
If we can dream it, we can do it.
And when I finally got to do THAT, my childlike values helped set me apart as a broadcaster. I stumbled many times along the way, but over time I learned to treat everyone like a valued guest. Let your values shine through everything you say and do. The encounter begins the moment they can see you, and ends when they walk away. It all matters. Tell a unique story, sweat the details, empower your team to do great things, exceed expectations, and give the public a reason to seek you out again. I’m grateful for those values in every form they found me, including as a Disney fan.
None of which excuses the company’s failures. And there are several.
The Walt Disney Company deserves some pushback, despite the good it has done. Disneyland, for example, has been criticized repeatedly for not paying all of its Cast Members a living wage. The company relies significantly on fans who pay exorbitant amounts for Disney merch. (Don’t tell me a cruise is worth an extra $1,000 just because I get to meet Mickey and Minnie. Uh-uh.) And of course, the studio’s stubbornness in its negotiations with the union SAG-AFTRA (full disclosure: I used to be a local organizer and shop steward) have helped paralyze Hollywood completely — an echo of Walt Disney’s heavy-handed managerial style. None of my feelings toward Disney’s impact on my life forgives any of this. Indeed, they make addressing these problems all the more urgent.
That’s because I want the next generation of wide-eyed wanderers to feel the enthrallment that I felt, and still feel, at the stories that shaped my imagination. I want us to protect our sense of wonder and possibility. Children grow up so fast nowadays, with social media making them aware of societal scrutiny much too early. They need space to play, dream and explore. A recent commentary in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests real risk from neglecting this developmental need. The article, led by Boston College researcher Peter Gray, Ph.D., correlates a decline in independent activity — play, exploration, etc. — with a decline in children’s mental well-being:
“…if children are to grow up well-adjusted, they need ever-increasing opportunities for independent activity, including self-directed play and meaningful contributions to family and community life, which are signs that they are trusted, responsible, and capable. They need to feel they can deal effectively with the real world, not just the world of school.”
Leaving it to future generations to solve today’s problems is a cruel joke, unless we equip them to believe that those problems can be solved, and that they have what it takes to explore the world for solutions. We need them to wish upon a star, and then go confidently from wishing to working.
Unfortunately, I think the company itself might be impeding this by leaving a key element out: something from its own history. I noticed it in an ad for the company’s centennial campaign, called Disney100. You may remember a clip of Walt Disney opening Disneyland back in 1955. It’s the one that begins, “To all who come to this happy place… welcome.” I was stunned a few months ago to hear, during a Disney100 commercial, that the company altered the wording of this speech! It removed a clause and dramatically cheapened its meaning. In the edited commercial, Walt Disney seems to say:
Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals and the dreams that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.
Lovely sentiment. And incorrect.
Disney has worked very hard to craft a utopian persona of itself: a universe of entertainment guided by a problem-free philosophy. The truth is, that’s not what we love about it. Fans don’t just love how buoyant and carefree these classic stories make us feel, but rather how they move and inspire us. But a story cannot be moving or meaningful without a key element: the very element that someone, in their short-sightedness, took out of the original quote. Walt’s opening dedication actually says this:
Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.
Ideals… dreams… and hard facts. You need them all to inspire us.
The central element of every story is conflict. A protagonist wants something they cannot easily have, some force is willing to do anything to frustrate their success, and our hero has to make a series of difficult choices. Bambi wouldn’t mean much to us without the hunter that killed his mother. Mulan might never have found her strength without fighting the gender norms that constrained her. T’Challa needed Eric Killmonger. Nemo needed a vast and dangerous ocean. Heroes need hardships… and the courage to stop resisting them. That’s step one in Joseph Campbell’s well known model of all hero stories — the hero doesn’t want to go on the journey.
Can you think of any situation in our democracy today that calls us to face a challenge we don’t want to face? A journey we resist taking, even though we must?
My inner 10-year-old wants to go on that journey soooooo bad. He knows his dreams like he knows his own name. He has spent his entire life wishing and wishing, wondering and wondering, working and working. He feels like a small fish in a vast ocean, helped by many friends along the way, filled with a magic he’s still trying to understand, determined to go the distance, desperate to find where he belongs.
Sometimes that kid brings tears to my eyes. In the year since NBC News let me go I’ve had a lot of time to think about who I am and what I want, and I’ve spent a lot of time grieving that child. That child is loved, but lonely. Brave, but bruised. It’s been a long journey, and his hair is starting to turn grey. He’s spent decades kicking butt and slaying dragons, and he’s got the knee pain and the burn marks to prove it. It’s like he died… or is dying. I’m not sure.
Disney was one of many sources of idealism that permeated my childhood. The others were even more potent. My upbringing in a deeply religious family imbued me with a sense of destiny, spurred on by a faith community that expressed unwavering belief that I was bound for greatness. (And yes, that’s a hell of a lot of pressure. Too much, really.) As an African-American I developed a strong sense of my history, placing myself on the shoulders of giants who sacrificed everything for a future they would not live to see but firmly believed in. (Also, a ton of pressure.) Perhaps I loved those old Disney stories because, instead of obligating me, they were liberating me.
I wasn’t bound to do great things. I was free to do great things.
Not an obligation. An adventure.
Maybe I’m just childish, but I can’t let go of the possibility that we can create wonderful spaces where everyone is welcome. That’s my wish. I’ve experienced those spaces, and not just as a child. When I hosted 1A on NPR and traveled with the show around the country, speaking to audiences with hundreds of people from many walks of life, a bit of that same magic came along with me. It was a childlike belief that people, deep down, are generally good at heart: they just need places to let that goodness shine. My naiveté served me well after years of visiting Epcot, holding onto that tagline from the now-defunct ride “Horizons”: If we can dream it, we can do it.
Well, I’ve done it. More than once. I wish to do it again. Only bigger.
Cynics would say it’s too late for that, but the same America that scoffs at such idealism still worships the Elons and the Beyonces and the Obamas… and, yes, the Trumps… and all those who dare to make the outlandish inevitable. Whether you like them or not, you’ve gotta admit: guts will get you far.
…so why not for me, too? Why not for you?
Heroes need hardships.
I took that lyric from Pinocchio seriously, and I still do: “Makes no difference who you are.” There’s something my heart desires — a world that’s freer, safer and kinder than it is today — and I believe that it will come. Perhaps it’s a wild thing to ask for, that Americans actually learn to work through our differences without political violence or dehumanization, but a cricket once told me that “no request is too extreme”, so what the hell.
Here’s the thing: I assure you that whoever you think is ruining things right now, whoever is racing us in the wrong direction, they absolutely do not think their “request is too extreme”. If you want this world, or even your neighborhood or your household, to be a better place, Step One is to validate your dream. Stop judging it as outlandish, expensive, too time consuming or just too late. Validate it. Turn that dream into a wish. Dreams are ideas… wishes are requests. A wish is an action, and action makes everything happen.
My Disney Dream is not that life could be free from heartaches, but that it could be full of heroes. Not that it could be free from lack, but full of love. That no one need be a stranger, but that anyone could be our guest. I wish that someday, in my lifetime, the world could look at us with joy and wonder, as we say in one voice, as a diverse and united people:
To all who come to this happy place… Welcome.