Recently I had the pleasure of taking a bit of vacation time with my wife and spend some time rekindling our childhood spirits with trips to Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida. It was an amazing trip for a variety of reasons but just like any experience it provided the opportunity for reflection and learning as the parks offered up cool insights into the future of technology, the power of nostalgia in consumerism and how emotional investments in nostalgia can delight crowds and win brand loyalty, and the power of diversity and ecology in our everyday lives. I wanted to share a few of the lessons I took from the trip and share some of my favorite experiences from our recent trip to Central Florida.

  1. Nostalgia is a powerful drug. Sedikides talks of nostalgia as the “perfect internal politician, connecting the past with the present, pointing optimistically to the future” and a mental state “absolutely central to human experience”. Literally, researchers are beginning to realize the transformative healing potential of nostalgia in battling against anxiety and depression. And on a personal level, I could tell you that I constantly found myself smiling the entire vacation at random times as we would come across signs of my childhood whether they be characters from cartoons I used to watch, rides that my family went on during our childhood trips to the parks, or new experiences from more recent cultural phenomenons that still carried a particular weight. My entire mood was lifted as I got to experience a sense of childhood wonder again during these experiences. Nostalgia to me was also a central element of the consumerism that permeates an trip to Orlando. First, you want to experience all of the nostalgia as immediately as you can so purchase the fastpass tickets to all of the experiences so you can do more throughout the day. Second, there is merchandise everywhere and while you may not need another mug, t-shirt, souvenir treat, etc., the sheer selection of nostalgia inducing souvenirs solidifies the fact that you'll spend at least one additional purchase daily than you previously intended. But beyond that, both Disney and Universal do a fantastic job of using the power of nostalgia to connect with you as a consumer and build a form of brand loyalty that will last for years to come. As I said, I was able to remember rides that we did on old family trips that I wanted to ensure we rode again so I could share those experiences with my wife. But it goes beyond the attractions, the merchandise, and the pop culture books, movies, music, and TV; these brands have shown how you can take an element of pop culture, build an immersive world out of that element and allow users an interactive experience for losing themselves in this world and disconnecting from reality in a way that sparks a joy and desire to share that experience with others for years to come. The two most world-building elements of the parks for myself were the world of Pandora from Avatar in Disney's Animal Kingdom and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal. They both fully immersed you into those worlds and gave you a feeling of participating in a world that you had only previously imagined or seen represented in pop culture.
  2. Both parks had amazing displays of entertainment technology that they featured in their parks. They both showed what current technology is capable of and how with the growth of technologies such as augmented and virtual reality rides and entertainment technology will evolve in amusement parks in the years to come. The first example of a ride that did this was the Flight of the Avatar ride in Disney's Animal Kingdom. This ride strapped you into a seat that looked like you were riding a motorcycle and gives you 3D glasses. As the ride starts, the floor drops out from underneath you and you're essentially dropped into a big IMAX theater with visuals in front of you giving you the sense that you're riding a banshee from Avatar as it flies you around the world of Pandora. There are 4D effects as well so as the ride dips and dives you over water they use fans and water effects to mimic the effect of ocean spray against your face. The ride was absolutely incredible and I had a smile on my face the entire time. It was like a roller coaster through an incredible fantasy world and the immersion of the experience was unlike anything I've ever experience from an amusement park ride. Small improvement in that technology such as true VR headsets isolating you from other riders and haptic feedback suits that allow you to "feel" the creatures skin below you or more authentic experiences of wind, water, heat, and the environmental effects of the world would create an experience like the virtual reality presented within Ernest Cline's Ready Player One novel.  A second example of rides that invited a sense of the future were many of the rides and attractions in Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This technology was the animatronics that brought alive the many characters and creatures in the Harry Potter universe. These animatronics, coupled with projected audio-visual materials, soundtracks, and interactive human-robot interfaces, create scenes out of the books that come alive and allow you to interact with them that pulls you in on a personal level to the attractions and rides. For example, they have interactive wands you can buy and use at various points in the park to interact with attractions, using spells to ignite your own magical journey. The goblins in the Gringotts bank and the sorting hat and paintings in Hogwarts Castle talk to park goers as they wait in line for rides. You can change out "muggle" (i.e. human) money for magical money to be used at vendors throughout the park. Each of these interactive technologies created an amazing immersive experience that made you feel like you were a student at Hogwarts or a wizard or witch shopping for magical creatures, wands, spells, and magical tricks and treats. My experience at these parks made me excited to watch how entertainment technology evolves in the years to come.
  3. Ecological and human diversity is important and this diversity's importance is espoused at every opportunity in the parks. Human diversity first of all is prevalent in the parks and is first noticed as you simply sit and watch the crowds and crowds of people attending the parks each day. These parks truly are global attractions and there is something heartening in millions of people from hundreds of countries coming to these parks for the shared cultural experience of joy that these parks bring. Secondly, the parks attempt to foster diversity at every turn. I noticed this in the hiring practices of the parks. I saw a number of handi-capable individuals working in the parks and Disney's Epcot, for example, hires residents of the countries that they represent in the different areas of their park to work those sections. This not only helps with the cultural immersion of the experience but reinforces the notion that we are all in this wild journey of life together. Many of the evening fireworks and light shows reinforce how we each are just experiencing the same journey of life from our own unique perspective and that common themes of survival, love, joy, etc are communal. Ecological diversity is also reinforced throughout the parks. The parks themselves are kept extremely clean and an emphasis is placed on recycling throughout the parks. They also make it a point in the shows to emphasize the ecological contributions that animals and plants provide to our world and how we must do what we can to protect and preserve those species. This sparked in me some self-reflection on how I can utilize the concept of winning at the big and small level in my personal life. I realized that we can all help the environment win by focusing on small changes we can make in our personal lives that are huge wins for the environment. For me, this has manifested itself in two immediate changes in my life. First, I am using the reusable K-Cups and grinding my own coffee. The plastic one-time use K-Cups are horrible for the environment and using a reusable one is one improvement that I think made a lot of sense for me personally given the level of my coffee consumption. Secondly, I've started being a vegetarian over the last few weeks. So far it has gone well and I'm eating food that is healthier and has less of a detrimental impact to the environment. For instance, the environmental impacts of eating beef are disastrous and avoiding meat is the single biggest thing we can all do to reduce our environmental footprint. Therefore, I hope to think of more changes that can be incorporated in my everyday life that continue to allow us all to work towards a world that is more ecologically and humanly diverse.

These were the lessons that I learned during my most recent trip to Universal Studios Florida and Walt Disney World Orlando. I encourage everyone to take the time to not only enjoy life but learn from it. What did you take from the lessons that I have shared? Comment below or share the stories of how your own experiences in life are helping you learn and grow personally and professionally.