Courageous Creativity 2024

Courageous Creativity 2024 has just ended. I think this was my 5th run of the conference. Scot Drake (creative director behind attractions like TRON: Light Cycle Run) said it best in the conference closing when he said, "Inspiration is a resource that must constantly be refilled."

That's exactly what this conference does for me in the past, and despite the hiccups this year (through no fault of the incredible organization team at TCAP, and very much through fault of Disney,) this year's edition has done the same. 

Here's what you may have missed.

Day 1

The opening keynote was by the returning VP in charge of Live Entertainment Matt Conover. Matt spoke a few years ago and introduced me to the idea that "no idea is too small to be excellent" which I explored in depth in my book. This year, I learned it wasn't his quote, but another Imagineer, Tom Staggs. Sorry Tom, I'll credit you in the next book!

Matt talked about about a teacher who had a huge influence on him by giving him "an opportunity to fail... yes, to try new things that didn't always work." This coupled with the talk I heard last week from original Imagineer Bob Gurr really hammered home the importance of providing opportunities for our students to fail. That is to say, creatively fail. I want them to fail when they push themselves too far. When they try new ideas that just don't quite get there. I want them to fail in a way that makes them insist that they must try again. This requires creating activities and classrooms where curiosity is valued far more than it usually is, especially in secondary education. I'm excited to explore that idea over the next month.

Matt describe Disney Live Entertainment by saying, "We take stories and we bring them to life." I've said a lot about this idea (and will say far more in my next book!) but this just once again hammered home to me that we teachers really ought to see ourselves as theater performers. We share so many qualities with them that I can't believe we aren't all trained in theater arts. We too should be bringing stories to life!

He also shared an anecdote that resonated heavily with me. Matt described a time when his team was questioned by then CEO Michael Eisner. Michael asked some questions about the project. Matt's supervisor took this as a command to make changes which he then ordered. Sometimes though, questions are just questions. Matt carried that philosophy with him as he rose in the ranks. He now is clear to tell his reports, "I'm going to ask you questions. That's because I want to know. I'm not giving a command. You'll know when I'm giving you a command!"  I really want to emphasize this with my students this year. I tend to drown students in questions and often that is interpreted as a command. I love the idea of being explicit with this early on. 

Day 2

Our morning speaker was former Imagineer Nikkolas Smith. His talk focused on art as communication. He started by asking us to raise our hands if we were an artist. Nearly all of us did. He told us that is how he starts his programs with young people and most don't raise a hand. He then asks a follow up question. "What creative thing do you do? That's art!" It took me a long time in life to consider myself an artist. I can't draw - at all. I can't sing - at all. I was in a play once. I was a lion in first grade! As I've read about Imagineering I've learned that there are so many more aspects to art. My presentations are art. My little video intros are art. My teaching is art. I'm an artist and I want my students to think the same thing about themselves. Without a doubt I'll be using Nikk's question!

He later talked about how "art can get people to slow down, not just keep scrolling." I love that idea. Most students have a small-minded view of art, like I long had, but they still know it when they see it. They know that something calls out to them from time to time. They know that some movies make them feel emotional. They know that some video games excite their senses. They know others just get scrolled past. I'll be asking mine to consider what makes them "stop" and what they can do to get others to "stop" and pay attention to what they have to say. That's where the communication part of art came in.

Nikk said he tells students that "if the message is important enough, you have to put it out there." I think, especially in my community, my students don't think they have any message at all, let alone an important one. Thus, they see no value in their art. I had a young lady this last school year who is in every way one could imagine, an artist. She didn't fit in with most people, did not like working in groups, and often appeared lost in class. Early in the year, I commented on one of her doodles and just a couple days later she stuck around after class to show me some of her completed art. It was incredible. I thought that was a breakthrough moment. It wasn't. She shut back down and struggled throughout the class. Over the last month of class, however, with graduation on the line, we had yet another conversation. I told her that I was struggling to help her because I had seen her incredible art and talent and give my students the opportunity to share their knowledge through art if they so choose. I challenged her then. I told her she could still pass. She just had to do it. 

A week later she turned in a months-past-due project. It was amazing. The art was stunning, of course, but what most impressed me was how well it demonstrated the required learning. It left me with no doubt in my mind that she was paying attention the whole time and just wouldn't, or couldn't, express it. A week later she turned in another project for the next unit. On this one she wrote a short note to me saying, "I've never created this much art in so short a time. I think my hand is going to fall off!" It was, again, incredible work. I wrote back, "Your work continues to amaze me. I hope your hand is okay!" She came up to me after class and said, "Don't worry, it's a good pain!" She rarely spoke and even more rarely did so with a smile. Here she did. I think she has realized, that at least to me, she has a message worth sharing. 

Nikk left us with this advice for our students; "Tell them to find the very best and what they want to do and study them." The Internet has given us access to artists and creators from all over the world. We need to teach our students how to take advantage of that. I look forward to helping mine explore who is the best and how they can learn from them. 

The rest of the day was less impactful. I went to a workshop where we looked at the commonalities among the state art and computer science standards. I didn't get much out of it, but it was at least reassuring to know that creation and innovation are core to each. We then heard from another former Imagineer, Janice Rosenthal. She had a great story to tell about how she reached Imagineering. I didn't get much new to share with students other than her advice to tell a struggling student that "there's no reason you can't do this." So many of my students lack resiliency. I look forward to challenging them to prove to me why they can't do something. If they can, they probably learned more and worked harder than if they had just done it to begin with!

Next (still on the very busy day 2!) I got to go on my "special ticket event" inside the park. I chose one entitled, "Technology in the Parks." I loved it. It was hosted by Imagination Campus, the Disney student programs group, and offered the chance to go "back stage" on Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run. Despite my growing dislike for that attraction, seeing how it worked was amazing. It gave me quite a new appreciation for the ride that always leaves me let down. We then had a very short time to play around with some software to design fireworks shows. It was cool, but we were very rushed due to some less-than-perfect planning by our Disney hosts. 

This was my first sign that something wasn't quite right about the conference this year. Firstly, we were quite limited in our event choices. While I ended up loving mine, other attendees weren't so lucky. Some were quite let down by their experience. In reality, we just did condensed versions of what students attending the program would do. If I wanted to do that, I already could by bringing students. In the past we've been offered unique experiences (like when I got to visit the control room for World of Color last year!) It kind of felt like a sales pitch. I'm already paying (a lot) to attend the conference. I shouldn't feel like I'm being sold something. Our tour guides were wonderful and didn't give off the sales vibe in the last. It was just the situation overall that did. And again, I loved my experience.

That night (yep, still day 2) we gathered to be escorted to a reserved viewing area for the new Pixar themed fireworks show in Disneyland. We were walked all the way to the back of the park to watch it projected onto It's a Small World. We were dropped into basically a cattle pen by our hosts. It was not a good view and it was not comfortable. We were packed in like any other guest would have been. In fact, from my experience, it was far worse than the spots I'd viewed from before. I turned to ask our host if I could move and she was gone. She dropped us in the cage, put up the rope and disappeared. I was tempted to walk off and go on some rides. Instead, I removed the rope and walked to the non-reserved area. It was basically empty and directly in front of the ride. I got a better view and much more comfortable seating by going off on my own. The rest of the attendees, few of whom know Disneyland like I do, remained stuck in the pen. This experience was very unlike others I've had at this conference. We are often treated very well by park staff. We weren't in this case.

And it was about to get worse.

After a very late night where I got back to my hotel room at about 11:30, I set the alarm for 6 am since we had a 6:30 am event coming up on day 3.

Day 3

By 6:40 our park host had not shown up. There were 250 of us just standing there. Most quite unhappy that we'd gotten up so early only to be ignored. Eventually, we were told by phone that he just had to get in the security line with all the other guests. Excuse me? What? I'm paying $650 for this (plus $500 a night for the hotel) and you can't even send us to another security gate (of which there are plenty)? I was not alone in my frustration. I heard more than one fellow teacher cursing about the situation. We did, eventually get through, but by the time all of us did and we got into the park, the early guests were already in. The usual perk of getting into the park before anyone else was gone. I didn't get to take any fun "empty park" photos. Once again, we were walked all the way to the back of the park. We'd be riding Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway.


Now look, I love that ride. It is the focus of my latest live show (available for bookings!) so I'll take it. But honestly, if they had told us the night before that we'd be standing in security, not have any empty park photos and be going on the same ride we did last year, most of us would have just slept in. Either way, we got back there and waited. And waited. And waited. Despite us being in quite late, apparently no one had alerted the ride ops team at the attraction that we were coming. We did finally get on. Well. We got in at least. We walked through the very impressive ride queue and saw the fun little cartoon intro.

Aaaaaaaaand the ride broke down.

A handful of our group got on for all of 30 seconds only to be evacuated. I never even got on. I don't blame anyone for this. These kinds of things happen. But, when you add it to the lack of support and care we'd received up to that point, you could tell people were very frustrated. They did give us a lighting lane pass we could use later, though few people had planned to stay until later since we had no idea we could and most had transportation plans coming midday. I bailed from the group and using my pass to go on Space Mountain. That worked for me, but again, unless you know how replacement lightning lane passes work, you wouldn't know you could use it for other rides like I did. None of the park staff bothered to tell us. I left the park and headed to breakfast. Now, usually the food at this event is fantastic. Lunch on day 2 had been merely okay. This breakfast was straight up bad. It was an egg sandwich. The eggs were basically powered and the thin slice of ham on it was very overdone. It was yet another feeling of less effort being focused on us this year.

At that point I started to believe it wasn't just us. Many Disney fans have been complaining over the last two years about increasing prices and decreasing customer service. While I've experienced some of it myself, (particularly with the ridiculous park app you have to use), it's been minor. The way park ops staff worked with us (or didn't) during this conference, sure made it feel that way to me though. I can see where people are coming from. 

The good news is that our closing event was coming up and it had nothing to do with park ops!

The close of the event is always a panel of Imagineers telling their personal stories of how they made it there. This year's panel was particularly good. Here's some quick highlights.

Artist Laura West showed us some cool concept art she didn't Tiana's Bayou Adventure including one where she diagrammed how an otter might create a banjo. It is a cool thinking and creativity activity that I'll be sure to use with my students.

Writer Joe Lemoine was spectacular. He told us how a teacher finally made him feel like he was doing "more than just trying to survive school." I love that thought. I want my students to do more than survive. I want them to take advantage of their opportunity to grow and learn. He also talked about his interview with Imagineering where he was asked what set him apart from all the other candidates. I love that question. They were all clearly qualified. What made him unique? That's something I like to drive into my students. In our modern world so many of our students rely on Internet sources and AI to think for them. That's not going to make them stand out. You are not a robot! He also reflected on imposter syndrome saying, "You start doing a thing you love, but lose joy by comparing it to others. Don't forget the joy you had in the process!" Great advice for anyone, especially our students.

Interior Designer Rebecca Smith relayed a story of meeting Marty Sklar and his advice of "Lead with your strengths." as a response to imposter syndrome and the feeling that our qualifications aren't enough.

Communications person (I don't know the word!) Catt Phan told her incredible story of immigrating from Vietnam and her desire to validate her mom's sacrifices. That's something I find myself regularly reminding young students of. Their actions do not just impact them, but their families as well.

Scot Drake gave his closing mentioning the importance of inspiration, but adding that creativity is a muscle. You've got to use it to grow it and you can't just keep doing the same thing! He also talked about how common failure is for Imagineers. (A common theme I've found myself running into lately.) They start a project, plan it all out, get excited and invested, then find it just cut for reasons having nothing to do with quality or ability. They have to just come in the next day and start the next project with the same enthusiasm. Failure is part of the journey! That is definitely something I want my students to accept.

So, despite the hiccups, I still had a great time at the conference. I've made some good friends there over the years and it was great to catch up. I hoped going would get me excited about preparing for my return to middle school, and it has, at least a bit. I'm still not fully in, but I've got plenty of ideas and inspiration to get going on. I am excited for my elective as I will be spending a significant amount of time teaching and practicing creativity. I hope I can figure out how to inject that regularly into my world history courses as well. 

And, even if I can't, I can at least start looking forward to next summer!

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