Lessons Learned at Walt Disney World

Disney parks and resorts have set the stage for a global shift in customer experience. The reason why so many brands imitate their offerings and training program is because they have mastered the guest-facing environment and behaviors that drive engagement and loyalty. People want to be involved in something magical, which is why guests and employees alike flock to Disney.

It was a topic of constant conversation at Disney University and on the resort management team that we should behave as though we were “on stage.” By creating that feeling of being a part of something bigger, and magical, Disney sent the message to employees that we were actors in a show that centered on the guests. Here are just a few of the things that have stuck with me from my time at Walt Disney World.

Create Magical Moments

Magical Moment

If you’ve ever experienced a “magical moment” at a Disney property, then your eyes are probably glowing, and your mind is racing with a story you want to retell. The magical moment program empowers employees to do something spectacular for guests without anyone’s approval, and without anyone’s prompt. It can be as simple as seeing a toddler drop his Mickey Mouse ice cream and instantly purchasing a replacement for the child, or it can be a more complex surprise, like learning it’s a guest’s birthday and then decorating his or her suite with balloons, a cake, and decorative towel creations.

Lesson

Create a story worth telling for your guests, so that they spread positive word-of-mouth. By involving your front-line associates in these heart-warming moments, you create positive morale, employee empowerment, and friendly internal competition to out-wow the guests. With just a $30 magical moment budget per week, employees can get creative and deliver multiple free experiences as well as a few company products.

Hide the Trash (and Anything Off-Brand)

Concealed Trashcan

At Walt Disney World, we were told again and again that Walt Disney himself had invented the concealed-top trashcan, because he didn’t want his guests to have to see or smell trash while they were enjoying the magic of the park. This became a metaphor for removing anything off-brand, such as supply carts, non-branded, reduced-cost employee meals, and off-the-clock employees who might be texting or ignoring guests. These things were hidden in the tunnels beneath the Magical Kingdom, or “off stage” in any park, because they would detract from a guest who might be experiencing Walt Disney World after saving for it for ten years.

Lesson

Keep the mystery alive by removing unsightly aspects of an experience from the guest’s view. Employees should be “on stage” whenever they appear in guest-facing areas, so it’s important to provide them with ample, private relaxation areas. If you aren’t sure which nuisance moments or areas your customer-facing journey involves, then consider mystery shopping your experience to ensure that the pain points are resolved and the detractors are out-of-sight.

Have a PR Team that Acts as Fast as Lightning

Lightning at Disney

Unfortunately, bad things happen everywhere, even when you take pains to “hide the trash.” For the foreseeable events, Disney parks have bulletproof, actionable plans in place that are taught to all employees: if you see a natural disaster unfold at a theme park, you will quickly realize that even the lowest-paid employee is prepared and empowered with the know-how to protect, inform, and evacuate guests. For unforeseeable events, Disney has an on-park team of empowered PR people and security guards who have been trained to resolve any concern.

Lesson

A responsible company should have an action plan in place for foreseeable events (such as a hurricane flooding the parking lot), and unforeseeable events (like lightning striking an animal and killing it during the safari ride at Animal Kingdom). By preparing for the worst, you can ensure that bad events don’t become bad memories, and instead become stories about your employees’ capable and considerate handling of any situation.

Invest in Your People

Disney University

Any one of your people might be the single point-of-interaction that a guest experiences, and Disney knows that. From Downtown Disney vendors in Florida to Disneyland ride operators in California, Disney is taking pains to educate and train each person. From Disney University to on-the-job experiential learning, Disney has created a seamless and exciting program to ensure every guest gets a similarly magical experience.

Disney invests in its people’s ongoing educations and other interests. They offer credits to students, internships to potential future employees, and college courses in the convenience of the resort. As if that’s not enough, Disney parks each include an “off stage” educational facility where College Program interns (and others) can utilize free computer labs and libraries to study during breaks or on days off.

Lesson

Why are Disney employees the loudest, raving fans of Disney? It’s because Disney takes care of their people, from the affordable meals offered “off stage” at parks to the educational support and opportunities. Although smaller companies would have a hard time replicating this, they can do the paperwork to offer credits as appropriate, or offer quiet break areas for studying. An investment in your people is one that will create brand ambassadors, as well as more capable employees.

Keep Guests Preoccupied 24/7

Guest Transportation

Disney might be the only company in the world that does a better job of keeping guests preoccupied 24/7 than a Las Vegas casino. By offering free shuttles to-and-from parks and other attractions, ample meal variety, abundant entertainment options, ticket discounts for multiple days, and amazing facilities, Disney ensures that guests will stay on property and spend every dollar they budgeted for their vacations on the mouse.

Lesson

Create a front-to-back experience that is so fulfilling and exciting that guests don’t think about the competitor down the road. When people are having a great time, the last thing they want to do is drive across town to save a few dollars.

Treat Your Employees like Guests

My Graduation at Mickey's Retreat

From Mickey’s Retreat (a private, employee-only resort where my College Program graduation was held) to private party nights and celebrations, Disney ensures that their employees know they’re appreciated and considered. You won’t find bad food in the employee dining room, and you’ll never find tattered furniture upcycled from the hotel rooms in the employee relaxation areas. Disney takes pains to ensure that each employee feels heard and acknowledged from day one, which creates an ambiance of self-efficacy and empowerment that ultimately supports the brand promise.

Lesson

Your employees are your most valuable resource, and they’re the one you have the least control over. By treating them like family you care about, you can ensure that they will stay and become a resource for future guests and employees. Furthermore, employees who have experienced the products and attractions of your establishment are better resources for guests who inquire about options and opportunities.

It was an honor to be a part of the mouse’s family during my university years. We learned the invaluable lessons shared above, and so much more. The warmth and enthusiasm my Disney team still has for Disney is something you want to create in your employees, too: it’s something you can count on to sell your brand to future guests, and to encourage potential hires to join the team. When your past employees are being asked, “Are you being paid to say that?” you know that you have created brand ambassadors who will promote you for the rest of their lives, and that’s a marketing reach of infinite value.

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