Swiss Family Treehouse: Leadership Lessons

Swiss Family Treehouse: Leadership Lessons

From the Swiss Family Treehouse comes several stories and examples of leadership, trust and courage. We explore all that as well as what matters most in this podcast. You can find that podcast here on Podbean and here at iTunes. You can also type in “Disney at Work & Play Podcast” when you visit Spotify. Be sure to subscribe!

If you haven’t visited the Swiss Family Treehouse in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, you might check out this video. Note the bamboo throne at the end, which is part of our last story.

A Story of Trust

The first one comes from the story itself. One of the great messages in Disney’s classic film, Swiss Family Robinson, centers around trust and courage. This was often the difference between the father (John Mills) and the mother (Dorothy McGuire). Trusting to go to New Guinea in the first place; trusting to leave the ship after it was wrecked and not wait for immediate rescue; trusting in leaving the beach and seeking a home in the jungle; trusting their youngest boy Francis (Kevin Corcoran) to be up in the tree during construction; trusting their two oldest boys Fritz and Ernst (James MacArthur and Tommy Kirk) to set out on their own on a raft looking for others; and finally trusting to stay on the island when the option to return back was presented.

Bringing the Story to Life

The second story centers around Walt’s production of the film. He authorized his biggest budget for a live-action feature–a sum of $4,500,000–to create the film. He also trusted his director Ken Annakin to go out to the island of Tobago and do a 22 week on-location shoot where water, animal actors, and weather all factored into making production longer and more expensive. Added to the dilemma was a British production crew who hated being on the island, and who threatened to leave, causing the production director to take away their visas in hopes they would stay and finish the film.

These crates near the Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom honor Kenneth Annakin, who directed the film, along with Tommy Kirk, who played Ernst. M. Jones relates to Tommy’s role as Merlin Jones in later Disney movies. Photo by J. Jeff Kober

Even the actors had to apply some trust to their situation. John Mills, with a sense of British humor, described the difficulties: “If a scorpion doesn’t bite me during the night I get into the car, and if it doesn’t skid off the edge of a cliff, I reach the mangrove swamp. I walk through, and if  I’m not sucked in by a quick-sand, eaten alive by land crabs, or bitten by a snake, I reach the beach. I change on the beach, trying to avoid being devoured by insects, and walk into the sea. If there are no sharks or barracudas about, we get the shot and then do the whole thing in reverse, providing of course, we haven’t died of sunstroke in the meantime.”

In the end, all of that and more didn’t matter, because the result was that the film was the highest grossing film of 1960 bringing in around 40,000,000 into the studio coffers. With the added success of The Absent-Minded Professor, 101 Dalmations, and The Parent Trap during that same time, Walt and Roy were able, for the first time in the history of their company, to pay off their long-term loan from the Bank of America. Now revenue from the motion pictures would go directly back to the studio instead of the bank.

Trusting Cast Members

Finally, the third branch comes from the operation of the attraction at the Magic Kingdom.

I had a colleague who, in her college years, started out in Adventureland attractions. One night she was working at the entrance to Swiss Family Treehouse, taking tickets from the guests, though few were coming through by that hour. At one point several young men approached her and started asking a couple of questions. That led to a short dialogue with them about where they were from and of their trip to Orlando. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed a very prominent (no names used here) Walt Disney World executive pass by. She didn’t think too much of it, and then a few moments later, the young men went their way.

A little later this same executive came by and chewed her out left and right for talking and flirting with the young men. She was completely surprised by his demeanor. She in no way was flirting, not did she bring on the interaction in the first place. She was simply answering their questions and being polite, all the while handling the greeter position she had been assigned to. She had never met the executive before, nor did he know anything of her, and yet he assumed she was “slacking off” and not doing her job. It was difficult in the years that followed to really have any sense of respect for this individual after his angry demonstration toward her that evening.

None of us will ever experience surviving a shipwreck and having to establish your life on lonely island. Few, if any, of us will have the opportunity to produce or direct an expensive film production. Most of us however, will be in some operation where we will have to trust our co-workers around us. 

Bamboo Thrones

During the last overhaul of Swiss Family Treehouse in Adventureland at Magic Kingdom, there was a new feature added. Most remember the treehouse, the bedrooms, even the kitchen at the foot of the tree. But there was a new addition made. After you scale the tree, after you pass through the kitchen, and almost as you head back over the bridge to Adventureland, there is a small alcove that Imagineers have created a bamboo throne, coupled by pennants strung between it and the kitchen.

Do you remember the bamboo throne? It was more of a prop than anything. To understand its purpose we must go back into the film. The family became concerned that pirates would re-emerge and attack them. Fearing for their safety, they set about building a fairly creative defense involving palm logs, boulders, tiger traps and coconut bombs. But the time and effort involved only served to exhaust and build tension, especially at a time when the boys, Fritz and Ernst, were after the hand of the only girl on the island, Roberta. Seeing the frustrations at hand, the father sees the need to take some time off, and declares the first national holiday on their new island.

Disney marketing photo showing the family seated with the throne behind them.

A holiday should have food and festivities. So at the heart of that celebration father created a race. Win the race, and you are bestowed as a winner the right to sit on a bamboo throne. So the kids (and the monkey) got on top of elephants, mules, dogs, zebras and even an ostrich in an effort to out race each other. Poor Ernst. Getting an ostrich to cooperate is not an easy task. But it’s a memorable moment in the film. The antics of this race makes anyone laugh, but it all comes to an end when Roberta’s zebra detours toward the beach and then bucks her off. There on the sands of the shore, she realizes pirates are heading toward them. Alerting the family they take cover on a mountain top, and try to thwart the advancements of the pirates with their makeshift weapons. Ultimately, what saves them is the arrival of Roberta’s father by ship who chases the pirates off and ultimately rescues the family.

Then comes one of the great moments in the film. One would think they would all want to be rescued–to leave the island they were shipwrecked on. But now they ask the question, “what is it you really want?: That’s at the heart of this very tender segment. They come to realize that what they wanted was here all along. With the exception of Ernest, who wishes to go to a university, the family inevitably chooses to stay and make a new life for themselves on the island. Here’s how that dialogue goes:

Mother: I think that since we have to decide forever. I think my husband and I would rather stay here.

Father: (Surpised) Are you sure that’s what you want?

Mother: Mmmm…Ah, it’s been a good life for us here. Of course, as Roberta says, there are some few things you have to do without.

Father: But it’s surprising how unimportant they seem when you don’t have people stopping by feeling sorry for you.

Francis: “You mean, I don’t have to go? Yippee!”

Roberta upon hearing this, heads down to the pond and falls where Fritz is pondering his future. She breaks the silence by saying:

Roberta: It’s funny isn’t it about how you can change your mind about what’s important, what it is you really want. Take your parents. All of this time they have been wanting to get to New Guinea. And now when they finally have their chance they realize everything they want is right here.

Fritz: You mean they’re not going?

Roberta: I can understand how they feel.

Fritz: I do too.

Roberta: “Two people, if they have each other…what more could they want?”

Fritz: “I guess…just to be alone.”

In that moment they embrace, in the realization that they too want what their parents want…to stay on the island.

That bamboo throne at the foot of the tree represents the question, “what is it you really want?” Is it to win the race? Is it to be free of the fears you face? Is about finding love? What really matters most? The greatest thrones–bamboo or otherwise–are reserved for those who find what really matters most to them.

Souvenirs for Your Organization

Whether it’s your organization, or your own life’s journey, ask yourself:

  • Who do you trust?
  • Does it take courage to trust?
  • Do you trust others?
  • Do you trust yourself?
  • Do others trust you? Do they have the courage to trust you?
  • What are the hidden costs behind mis-trust?
  • What happens when others fail to trust you?
  • What are the inherent rewards in showing trust?
  • What really matters most? And do you trust your heart to find out what that really is?

More Leadership Stories

Need more? Definitely check out Disney, Leadership and You. It’s filled with stories from over 100 artists, imagineers & pioneers within the Walt Disney Company. You’ll get great ideas for gaining better results by effectively working with others. Check it out on Amazon today.

Disney, Leadership and You
Disney, Leadership and You, written by J. Jeff Kober.

J. Jeff Kober

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