Lessons in directing from the people who Imagineer theme parks

I went to Disney World in Florida last month. It was my 19th time at that resort. And at 30 years old, I was certain that I had seen everything that was to be seen, rode everything that was to be ridden, and eaten everywhere that served Mickey-shaped food.

So I needed another reason to get excited.

I had always been fascinated by the “magic” that the Disney people seemed to create while I was secluded on their property. Part of it, of course, has to do with the lack of exposure of news from the real world; whether this is self-inflicted or not is up for debate. There were two other factors that always played a part – the unbelievably well designed parks and the brilliant imagination and know-how that goes into its details.

And I mean details. 

I took one of the backstage tours and it blew my mind. Take my word – the amount of imagination and thought that goes into creating this ultimate illusion is enviable, and anyone in any form of the creative arts needs to take a lesson from the Disney folks.

Among the many things that I learned during my trip is the way that they all view their world as a stage (blatant Shakespeare reference intentional). Everything is part of a larger show, and much like an actual theater, what you see on stage is usually much smaller than what you don’t see back stage.  I took all of this to heart, was massively impressed, and bought a book. Because it’s really impossible not to buy something in Disney World.

The book is on Imagineering. In fact, it’s called Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real. It’s the newer one. The introduction alone was worth the price. In it, Marty Sklar, a legendary imagineer, outlines what he calls “Mickey’s Ten Commandments”. They are guidelines that many theme parks follow when creating experiences for their guests. I decided to feature them here, because they can also be applied to directing (and creating anything, in any medium, that is intended to be brought before an audience). Perhaps they can supplement your methods.

The commandment is bolded, with Marty Sklar’s commentary underneath in italics, taken directly from the book. I’m not going to provide any of my own commentary, because I want you to interpret them in your own way, untouched by me.

Mickey’s Ten Commandments

This is my non-copyright infringable image of a likeness of a particular rodent that may or may not resemble a certain registered trademark of a certain entertainment company. Parody is protected under the first amendment.
1. Know your audience.
Identify the prime audience for your attraction or show before you begin design.

2. Wear your guests’ shoes.

Insist that your team members experience your creation just the way Guests do it.

3. Organize the flow of people and ideas.

Make sure there is a logic and sequence in your stories, and in the way guests experience them.

4. Create a visual magnet.

Create visual “targets” that lead visitors clearly and logically through your facility.

5. Communicate with visual literacy.

Make good use of all non-verbal ways of communication – color, shape, form, texture.

6. Avoid overload – create turn ons.

Resist the temptation to overload your audience with too much information and too many objects.

7. Tell one story at a time.

Stick to the story line; good stories are clear, logical, and consistent.

8. Avoid contradictions – maintain identity.

Details in design or content that contradict one another confuse an audience about your story or the time period it takes place in.

9. For every ounce of treatment, provide a ton of treat.

In our business [Sklar’s words], Walt Disney said, you can educate people – but don’t tell them you’re doing it! Make it fun!

10. Keep it up! (maintain it).

 In a Disney park or resort, everything must work! Poor maintenance is poor show!


The commandments are terrific guidelines for creating a fully immersive experience for your audience. The show doesn’t have to begin and end with the stage – it should start the moment your audience steps foot in the theater (whatever that may be), and end when they leave.

I am already planning on ways to use them for my next production, which should come to life in the next couple of months.


Improv skills for better public speaking

Update: Please check out my Improv for Business partner’s blog entry on a more recent workshop that we gave: http://www.thehopkinsonreport.com/2012/10/thr-208-using-improv-to-improve-your-business-overcome-stage-fright-and-live-in-the-moment/. It’s much more thorough than mine – 2/21/13

I’m co-teaching an Improv for Public Speaking next Wednesday in NYC. From the course description: The objective of this class is to use the rules, skills, and games of improvisational theater to become a more polished public speaker and business professional. Try out the Improv experience without committing to a full-time course, have fun, build business skills, and meet new people.

Read the whole description and sign up here: http://skl.sh/MSZtXt

What you will learn in this class:

  •     How to be funnier and more engaging when public speaking
  •     Fun techniques for general social interaction and humor
  •     Ways to respond “on the fly” during a speech or a panel when put on the spot
  •     Better ways to communicate in meetings or with clients
  •     How to address stage fright and fear of speaking
  •     Public speaking tips and tricks
  •     Dealing with tough speaking situations… hecklers, smart-asses, people talking

Improv techniques you will learn

  • The rules of Improv
  • Telling your story
  • Connecting with the audience
  • Use of language and humor
  • Body language, non-verbal communication, and presence
  • Voice projection, control, and range
  • Fun games to put you in the moment

Speaking and presentation techniques you will learn

  • Finding your voice
  • Designing effective slides
  • Stage presence and eye contact
  • Speaker tech (laptops, remotes, audio, cables)
  • Effective use of photos & video (incl photos that always create empathy and humor)
  • Using slides to “break context” for humor
  • Pre-presentation checklist

By the end of the class, you will

  •     Feel more confident in front of a crowd
  •     Be more aware of body and voice, and how to use each to communicate effectively
  •     Have a set of exercises to use to relax and warm up the voice
  •     Be able to think quickly and adapt to a constantly changing situation
  •     Be a hit at every party because you can bust out sweet improv games

Why am I doing this?

Simple reason, really (aside from the obvious one). Through theater skills you learn real life skills. Because of theater, I came out of my shell, developed confidence (maybe a little too much at times – but I was 14, so gimme a break), and developed a love for a new art form. Through theater you improve your public speaking, thinking, and overall communication skills. You learn how to get in touch with your emotions and understand the emotions of others. You learn to react appropriately and quickly. And it’s fun. So just do it for that.