Walt Disney World and Disneyland are money-making machines, and create significant, profitable interest in Disney movies, videos, clothing, and other merchandise. Despite the blatant Disney self-promotion, however, millions of fans visit and then return to the WDW and Disneyland resorts time and again, smiling and satisfied with their experience. This overwhelming success hinges on the way the Disney "cast" treats every guest who passes though the turnstiles.
Silly as it may seem, the Orthodox Church could learn quite a bit about attracting, converting, and retaining "faithful fans" from the Walt Disney organization. Just think what would happen if Orthodox Christians used some of these basic Disney-tested methods:
Mickey Mouse is far more than a figure head for Disney employees; he is a role model, someone to be emulated. We saw a Disney medic, obviously dressed for a special evening on the town and eager to be on her way after a full day of work STOP TO HELP a guest who had twisted an ankle while walking. She wrapped the ankle, called for a fellow employee to bring a golf cart to take the guest and get family to their car, got the injured guest something to eat, offered her card and a list of local medical facilities in case the ankle still hurt in the morning... far above the call of duty, and showing a great deal of kindness and compassion.
The guest thanked the medic, and praised her; the medic just smiled and said it's "just what Mickey would have done". The medic's behavior was guided by "the Mickey expectation" taught to all Disney cast members: do what you think Mickey would do in that situation. Be truthful, kind and thoughtful. Put yourself in the guest's place, and treat him as you would like to be treated.
Jesus Christ should be far more than a figurehead for the Orthodox Christian as well; He is REAL (and much more inspiring than a man in a fake-fur mouse costume), and present in our lives every day. He taught us to emulate Him in word and deed, to be compassionate and kind, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Almost every Disney employee we saw, from street sweepers to hot-dog vendors, wore ear pieces or carried walkie-talkies. They listened carefully to receive their instructions for the mammoth Toy Story Parade, and called to request assistance from specialized support staff as soon as it was needed. Two polite Disney staffers arranged for my husband and I to take turns on the Star Wars virtual roller coaster, so one of us could stay with our apprehensive two-year old who didn't like Darth Vader.
Orthodox Christians are fortunate to have two different communication networks available to them. Prayer and the teaching of the Scriptures allow us to speak with God directly, and hear His instruction. Everything technology has to offer, from bulk-mailed newsletters to teleconferencing and the internet, allow us to speak with our fellow Orthodox and the non-Orthodox Christian community both across town or across the ocean. The coordinated communication needed to first inspire and then execute efforts like starting a pan-Orthodox parochial school in your community or providing medical supplies to under-stocked hospitals in Bosnia or Serbia, rely completely on both of those networks being used to their fullest.
During peak arrival times, Disney staff members are out in full force at the park's main gates, where they greet every guest personally, offer advice on the best attraction to see first, point out the nearest restrooms, lockers, etc. They smile so much their cheeks must hurt by lunch time, but their friendliness seems very genuine. They are happy to see families pouring through the gates, enthusiastic to enjoy what the park has to offer.
Orthodox parishes, unfortunately, are notorious for not greeting visitors. Before my husband and I married, we visited several parishes in our area to decide which we would begin attending. We chose the parish that made us feel the most welcome on that first visit. A smiling man opened the doors for us, said hello, and told us that the left side of the church was usually less crowded. In the pew before Liturgy started, a college student leaned over and welcomed us, and introduced herself, pointed out her father and told us the name of the priest. How nice to be noticed! How good to see a friendly face!
At Disney, maps are available at the turnstiles, and at stands within 200 feet of the entrance... the greeters (mentioned above) often hand them out, too. The guides are updated each week with new shows, "improvement" areas being worked on, hours of operation, and so on. My daughter Katie looked forward to getting her sticker of Mickey Mouse each morning as we entered the park, and was thrilled when she got more than one. She showed them to everyone we passed: "See my sticker. It's Mickey Mouse!"
Visitors to an Orthodox parish may not be familiar with all of the customs observed in that particular church, or may never have experienced Matins, Vespers, or the Liturgy at all if they are just beginning an exploration of Orthodoxy. Having the text of the services as a guide, and music if there is congregational singing, is very helpful. Some parishes I have attended even passed out their bulletins PRIOR to services, and included the text of the Epistle and Gospel for the day, for those who did not bring a study Bible to follow.
Our parish offers "children's bags" in the vestibule, stuffed full of "props" to help younger children participate in the service as much as they are able, by holding a toddler prayer book or looking at an icon collection. The bags also contain Bible story books, paper and crayons, a small, quiet toy, and other things to amuse little ones when their attention begins to waver during the service. The children feel special. More importantly, visiting parents know that their children are welcome in the services, and not expected to be sent to a nursery.
The Disney resorts and cruise ships use all the showmanship at their disposal to tell their stories: Costumed characters wander the streets, posing for photographs with young and old. Japanese-style puppeteers make the undersea world come alive behind and indoor waterfall/curtain for "The Voyage of The Little Mermaid". An entire movie theater is moved through dinosaur valley to illustrate the origins of fossil fuels as Ellen Degeneres and Bill Nye "The Science Guy" explain alternative fuel sources on wrap-around ten-story movie screens in EPCOT's "The World of Energy". No expense is spared. There is never too big a celebrity, too much glitter, or too many fireworks for a Disney production.
This is one thing we actually do better than Disney! (After all, the Church has been doing it a lot longer.) The natural splendor and pageantry of Orthodox Christian worship services make the best possible impression to those wanting to glimpse the Kingdom of God while still on earth and hear the story of salvation. With Christ Himself authoring the story and directing the action, and Sts. Basil and John Chrysostom providing the "scripts", there is no comparison. The priests, deacons, and altar servers are adorned in centuries-old designs of silk brocade, colored according to the festal cycle. The iconostas glitters as hundreds of candles flicker and reflect in the gold leaf. Sunlight streams through the stained glass as the Great Entrance procession makes its way around the church. Byzantine chant or beautifully-sung Russian-style arrangements fill the air and lift the spirit heavenward with the billowing incense.
Most of Disney's attraction exit lines deposit guests right into the middle of an appropriately-themed gift emporium. Safari hats and rubber snakes are sold from the back of a rusty jeep next to the "Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular", and shelves of model spaceships and rubber Storm trooper helmets are offered at the Endor Vendor at the end of the Star Wars virtual roller coaster, "Star Tours". This year, every gift shop is also offering glossy coffee-table books celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Magic Kingdom park, along with anniversary glasses, T-shirts, license plates, and photo albums. There is a wealth of popular iconography guests can purchase to remind them of their Disney experience, and share with friends unable to make the journey with them.
Few Orthodox parishes offer their visitors and own parishioners the same opportunity. Small icons, icon greeting cards, Liturgy and prayer books, crosses, censers and incense, votive lights, and the like are available at a small case in the lower level of our parish. Those unable to stay for coffee hour, unfortunately, do not have the opportunity to see these items and recognize that they can help us carry our Faith into the "everyday world". They remind us of the Kingdom and the commitment we have made to live our Faith in our kitchens, in our cars, in our cubicles at work. Several years ago, during the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Orthodox Church in America, I scoured the liturgical suppliers' catalogs and parish "gift shops" for a T-shirt with the anniversary logo to wear while I worked on the church bulletin. I never found one! I have, however, ordered an icon of Euphronsynos the Cook to hang in my kitchen. [Note: St. Vladimir's Press, Light and Life Publishing, Conciliar Press, and many other suppliers issue catalogs, and sell by mail to individuals as well as parishes. Ask your priest for a peek at his catalogs if you are interested.]
The whole Disney-MGM Studios theme park is built around revealing the magic used to make movies, and the crowds pour in to learn and enjoy. Three complete movie sets are broken down and explained in the course of the "Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular". After feeling the force of a 3.2 Richter earthquake and being drenched by an eight million gallon tidal wave, guests of "Disaster Canyon" are shuttled around to the rear of the attraction to see the maze of pipes and jets and generators that make the disaster become reality. And it's not so scary when you know there's a switch which shuts it all down immediately.
A great deal goes on behind the Holy Doors in an Orthodox service that many never see: they hear the muffled prayers of the priest, and see the curtains rustle, but what goes on is not always explained in Liturgy books. The priest of the Antiochian parish I attended as a child held a "children's Liturgy", usually on Saturday, in which he left the Holy Doors open. He provided simple explanations for everything he was doing, stepping to the side so we could see the placement of objects on the altar. The girls were even permitted to look behind the iconostas from the acolytes' room before Liturgy started (the boys were all acolytes, so were often in the altar).
The Walt Disney organization has its own children's publishing company, as well as long-term partnerships with several large commercial publishers, and it insists on full editorial control. Disney A to Z, the biography of Walt Disney, the coffee table books of classic Disney animation, the children's story books, and the videos and CDs are all coordinated to tell the Disney story in Disney terms... and with Disney quality.
Every jurisdiction in the Orthodox Church has some sort of publishing effort, and the advertising and distribution of these excellent materials from Lenten cookbooks to heavy-duty theological treatise is getting better and better within the Orthodox community. But you still can't find the Orthodox Study Bible or a rubrics book in a typical commercial book store (though I did find one in a New York City shop). A book of Orthodox saints lives? Impossible. For those interested in learning about the Orthodox faith, or in expanding their understanding of it, the availability of such study materials in vitally important. Pope John Paul II has had three mass-media bestsellers, all exploring Roman Catholic spirituality. I pray to see an Orthodox catechism with such a wide distribution, and check the internet every day for news of its existence.
Walt Disney was awed by the wonder of "progress" and its ability to bring peoples of all creeds and colors together. He personally designed several of the park attractions to share that vision with his guests, from the "Carousel of Progress" in New Tomorrowland to "Spaceship Earth" in EPCOT. He even dismantled and moved the "It's a Small World" display from the 1964 World's Fair to Disneyland, then replicated it at WDW because he felt it so perfectly fit with the message he was trying to convey (Gee, thanks, Walt!)
Orthodoxy is the hope of humanity. Christ died for the salvation of all who hear the Word and believe, regardless of race or ethnic background. Witnessing to the True Faith in every aspect of daily life is an honor and responsibility we all share as Orthodox Christians. And the Word is truly a message that needs to be heard!
by Nichola Toda Krause
© 1997 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).