Not long ago, my wife, Jane, and I ticked off one of the items on our bucket list. We went to Walt Disney World. We had made the pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom once before, when our children were younger, before our hair turned gray. We went this year to see what it would be like with just the two of us. The answer is that it was fun, in that grueling, Disney sort of way.
If you’ve ever been to Disney, you know that it’s the kind of vacation that requires an extended rest once it is over. It takes planning to get there and work once you are there. We walked miles every day and spent hours standing in line. As I watched fellow pilgrims hurry by, the brief snatches of conversation I caught in passing only confirmed what I already knew to be true. When Walt Disney opened his first theme park, Disneyland, in Southern California, he dedicated it by saying that his objective was to create a “happy place” that would “be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” The theme park soon adopted the slogan, “The Happiest Place on Earth” and it has been the guiding principle for Disney’s parks ever since. Despite their slogan, a Disney theme park is not the happiest place on earth. There is plenty of happy to be sure. But there is always at least one child crying. Usually several. Everywhere you turn your eye, there are exhausted people. Couples are arguing with one another. In fact, if I had to identify a primary emotion for a Disney park it would be anxiety, not happiness.
We are anxious at Disney World because we are in transit. We are always on our way to somewhere else. Either we are making our way through a crowd to our next ride, anxious that someone else is going to get a better spot in line than us, or we are standing in line, impatiently waiting for the ride to begin, which will last less than a quarter of the time we waited for it. If we are not waiting for a ride, then we are waiting for a bus to take us to the next theme park or back to our hotel so that we can rest up for the rigors of tomorrow’s visit. If you are the paying adult, you do not want to break all this waiting down to calculate the cost per minute. With that said, we had a good time, but the similarities and differences between the promises of the Magic Kingdom and the eternal Kingdom kept coming up. During our trip, four things caught my attention.
The Power of Professional Friendliness
First, it occurred to me that a forced smile is almost as good as a real one. Disney employees go out of their way to greet you with a smile. They don’t do this because they are friendlier than most. It’s their job. I imagine that a portion of their employee evaluation is based on how much they smile. I knew they were being professionally friendly. Yet every time someone smiled at me I couldn’t help smiling back. This experience has changed my thinking about the value of greeters at church.
I confess that I’ve always felt a little cynical about what I like to call “the gauntlet of welcome” at my church. This common congregational practice has always seemed disingenuous to me. I do not see it as welcoming but impersonal. It is the kind of greeting that is characteristic of a flight attendant more than a friend. I have often questioned whether it makes anyone feel welcome. My trip to Disney World convinced me that it probably does. We know it’s only a formality. Sometimes the smile is obviously forced. But most people like to hear that someone else is glad that they are there even when it’s only that person’s job to say it.