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How Walt Disney Would Manage Your Classroom: Part One

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Disclaimer: I (Dr. Lori Friesen) have no affiliation with Disney, and all of the opinions and ideas I am sharing in this podcast and in this blog post are my own.  They were simply inspired by the master, Walt Disney, himself. πŸ˜Š

AND I am SO excited about this show!

Episode Show Notes:

Think about that feeling you had when you first walked into Disneyland.

Maybe you were wearing a sparkly princess dress, and you saw that castle or your favorite ride off in the distance... and you're experiencing an incredible, nostalgic wash of everything somehow feeling right and good and possible in the world.

You suddenly believe in magic and fairytales again, and cotton candy and rainbow snow cones are once again actual, real food groups that you absolutely need, and where you can expect, at any moment, for a friendly, life-sized mouse or glittering princess to waltz out and wrap their arms around you for a smiling photo you can hang on your wall forever.

Now, step back out of that memory for a moment.

What you might not realize is that theme parks in general, but especially the incredible Disneyland, are carefully and meticulously designed to create that magical feeling in you.  

I don’t want to even try to away the magic (because it's SO awesome), but I want you to be aware that it isn’t by accident that we often feel this way when we enter these parks.

AND, we can learn a lot as educators by the masterful and purposeful way that this magical feeling is created – and we can use these same elements to bring some of that magic into our classrooms.

Although we all visit theme parks to be entertained, and by the way, we really are in the business of edutainment as educators in this modern world, theme parks are businesses, and the reason that so many theme parks, and especially Disney, are so successful is because of three masterful elements that are not only present in every theme park we visit, but are carefully and meticulously implemented in a way that is “stacked” – and what I mean by that is that without the first element, the second won’t work, and without the first two elements, the third isn’t even possible.

However, when all three elements are implemented alongside each other, they work together as beautifully as a first-class orchestra. And, much like your classroom, it really boils down to these three fantastic, masterful elements – so let’s talk about them now:

The first element that all theme parks have (but especially Disneyland) is:
“A Legendary Lay-Out” 

Now - let me explain what I mean by that.

I just finished reading an incredible book about Walt Disney’s life called Walt Before Mickey by Timothy S. Susanin (see the link in the show notes below in case you want to read it).

What’s really amazing about this book is that it really gives you a behind-the-scenes look at how Walt Disney lived his life. And there’s one short paragraph in particular I want to share with you.

On the last night of his life, Walt’s older brother, Roy, wrote:

“Walt lay on the hospital bed staring at the ceiling. It was squares of perforated acoustical tile, and Walt pictured them as a grid map for Disney World, which he planned to build in Florida. ‘Every four tiles,’ Recalled Roy, ‘represented a square mile,’ and he said, “Now this is where the highway will run. There is the route for the monorail.” (Walt Before Mickey, p. 180). (End quote)

Walt Disney died of acute circulatory collapse the following morning. And oh wow – did the world lose an incredible visionary.

But my point is that in the last days of his life, when Walt Disney was in his hospital bed, envisioning his plans for Disney World, he wasn’t thinking about the next greatest ride.

He wasn’t dreaming about the next princess or about the next movie he was going to create.

Instead, he spent his last days staring at the tiles on the ceiling of his hospital room, mapping out every single detail for his new theme park:

Where the entrances and exits would be, how the flow of traffic would move through the park,where the retail shops would be, where they would offer food and drink, and where each attraction would be strategically placed.

The master of theme park design, Walt Disney understood the importance of a clearly organized and defined lay-out for his park, and so his first task was to create a visual map to ensure that his guests would be able to move through his park easily.

Walt Disney was a genius, and I got to thinking about how much this actually compares to a masterfully orchestrated classroom.

Similarly, the amount of time and effort we put into thinking through the layout for our classroom space, and organizing our supplies and materials in a way that we and our students will be able to easily find what we need, when we need it, will determine how well the physical space will work for – and will greatly impact the amount of daily stress - or peace - we experience in our classroom.

Can you imagine entering Disneyland and not having any idea where the castle is? Not knowing where you can find food, or if nobody remembered where they put Magic Mountain?

It sounds ridiculous, right?

But when your students first enter your classroom, do they know how to navigate this new space?

Do they know where everything is and how everything is organized?

I want to invite you to envision your classroom as your own private universe that you are creating for your students. A place they have never been and will need some direction and some help navigating until they know the lay of the land.

Even if you are reading this in the middle of your school year, I invite you to take a second look at your classroom lay-out and see if there are areas that are causing you unnecessary stress, and start taking the actions you need to in order to make changes that will make a big difference in your day-to-day teaching.

Some of the questions you need to ask yourself when you are setting up your own legendary lay-out in your classroom are things like:

  • Where is your castle? The focal point of your classroom, your meeting place, where everyone can come together for class meetings and lessons?

  • Are your instructional supplies well organized? This includes a class set of rulers, arts and crafts materials, reference books, maps, instructional texts, curriculum guides, etc. Can you easily find everything you need?

  • Are student supplies well-organized? (Are they in bins, on shelves, and labeled, and are they accessible?)

  • Have you taught your students where everything is and what they are allowed to access themselves and what they need to ask permission for?

  • Are there clear pathways between desks and groups of desks in your classroom?Can you get from one end of the classroom to the other without anything getting in the way?

  • Can you SEE all of your students from EVERY ANGLE of your classroom when you stand and sit in different places?

Theme parks are designed in a way that they can always have an eye on their guests from every angle in the park – just like you need to know where all of your students are at all times.

Although these sometimes aren’t the fun and cool things we love to focus on as elementary teachers, these are the simple but foundational elements we need to think about when setting up the physical space for our classroom. 

I think that in today’s “instant gratification” society, we have a bad habit of only focusing on creating the magic first – because that’s the fun part, right?

We want to find the cool, fun stuff on social media that we can grab and use right away. Of course – I LOVE lots of new ideas, too, and I can’t wait to share so many great ideas with you about how to bring some magic into your classroom.

But if Walt Disney were alive today, I’ll bet he would say:
Of COURSE we will have magic, but first: 
Have you created a clear plan for how the entire space will work?

Walt Disney knew that a legendary, well-thought-through layout is key to success. If there isn’t a clear flow of traffic, and if you and your students don’t have all of the supplies and resources you need, this will cause low-grade stress for you every single day, right?

Now, how can you apply this in your own classroom?

Let’s talk about six things you can do right away to get started towards creating your own legendary lay-out in your classroom:

  1. View your classroom, your “mini-universe,” from a child’s perspective.
    Take a tour at kid-height of your classroom – do you see what they see? 

  2. Label everything, and make sure that all materials your students need are at THEIR eye-level. If you want them to be able to access materials, make sure that they can easily reach them. On the flip side, if anything IS accessible by tiny hands that you DON’T want them to reach, put it out of reach for them!

  3. Give your students a tour of your newly organized classroom.
    Clearly explain to them what they are allowed to access (and when) in terms of supplies and resources, and what is off limits. Show them where supplies are kept for anything they might need.

  4. Stand in every possible area of your classroom and ensure you can see everyone from every angle. Now sit down in the various places you will sit throughout the day (if you EVER actually sit down) and ensure that you can see everyone at all times.

  5. Ensure that ALL pathways are clear for quick movement from all areas of your classroom to the other. Be sure you have clearly designated space for student jackets and backpacks and shoes to be off the ground so they aren’t in the way and become slipping or tripping hazards for you or your students. (And by the way, I always keep a few old towels on hand at school – if you have rain or snow, you can throw them under dripping jackets and backpacks to ensure that nobody slips in the puddles.)

  6. Create your castle – a focal place in your classroom where everyone can come together as a community. Make it a comfortable place – a space that everyone wants to be in and can gather in comfortably without being squished. Decide in advance if you want students to be sitting in a circle so you can easily see everyone (and so everyone can see you so you can encourage shy students to participate), or if you are comfortable with everybody sitting wherever they want to. I usually started with the circle and then moved to the clump once everyone knew how things worked in our classroom and what the rules were.

And those six steps, my friends, inspired by the great Walt Disney himself, will have you on your way to creating a legendary lay-out for your classroom, which is the first foundational element for classroom management mastery.

Now, this episode is part of a three-part series, so I really don’t want you to miss out on next week’s episode, Episode #5, where we will dive in deep about the second element in incredible theme park design which we can learn from in developing an unforgettable classroom – and that second element is how they are able to "Establish Energizing Expectations." It’s really good, and really meaty, so I really don’t want you to miss it!

Want Some Help with Classroom Management NOW?

Go ahead and grab the freebie I’ve created especially for you by clicking the link below. This checklist is a fantastic way for you to get a clear picture of where you are currently in your understanding of classroom management, and to give you a clear path forward for the next steps you need to take towards creating the classroom of your dreams.

Subscribe to Beginning Teacher Talk in iTunes:

Also, be sure to subscribe to this podcast in iTunes so you never miss an episode. I hope you have a wonderful week, and I can’t wait to connect with you again soon.



Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode:

Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor

Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at and at

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