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Disney’s common sense ‘magic’ is typical of the advice offered by the Disney Institute, which has seen demand for its customer service secrets from big companies – including a growing number of Canadian ones – skyrocket. (GENE DUNCAN/DISNEY)
Disney’s common sense ‘magic’ is typical of the advice offered by the Disney Institute, which has seen demand for its customer service secrets from big companies – including a growing number of Canadian ones – skyrocket. (GENE DUNCAN/DISNEY)


Lessons in management: What would Walt Disney do? Add to ...

At the seminar in Burlington, a screen displays the company’s “chain of excellence,” which starts with leadership that motivates staff to go the extra mile to satisfy customers, who in turn come back for more. That coveted repeat business results in the final link in Disney’s chain: profit.

Disney’s exceptional customer loyalty certainly adds up. The company’s presenters tell the crowd that more than seven out of 10 guests at its theme parks have been there before. And Disney calculates that, on average, each visitor who walks through its front gates is worth an astonishing $62,000 over a lifetime.

“They come to us time and time again because they know what they are going to get,” Mr. Kurlin says. “It’s like McDonald’s. It’s like Tim Hortons.”


‘Green side up’

Disney says companies should try to consciously design their own corporate cultures, by telling stories that reflect their values to their employees.

Disney staffers are told about how Dick Nunis, then executive vice-president of Disney parks, forced a group of executives to help roll out sod in the frantic days before Walt Disney World opened in 1971.

One executive asked how, and Mr. Nunis replied: “It’s pretty simple: You keep the green side up.”

To this day, Disney uses the phrase “green-side-up situation” to mean a time when all hands must be on deck, and to illustrate its culture of forcing everyone to pitch in.

Stop saying no

Disney security staff called them “stealth weddings.” Groups overdressed for the Florida heat would try to circumvent the company’s ban on weddings and tie the knot in front of Cinderella’s Castle.

Disney had long held that the grown-up, religious elements of weddings disturbed its “fantasy” setting. But after customer pressure and market research, Disney compromised and built a “wedding pavilion” within sight of the castle. Packages even include carriage rides and appearances by Mickey and Minnie.

Now, Disney’s parks are second only to Las Vegas as a wedding destination in the United States. The lesson, Disney says, is that companies should look again at things they are saying no to.

Use your mouse ears

Disney says it holds regular brainstorming sessions with front-line employees and takes their ideas seriously.

For example, it was the parking attendants at Walt Disney World themselves who came up with a low-tech solution to a big problem. About 400 families a week were forgetting where in Disney’s 12,500-vehicle parking lot they had left their cars.

The answer did not involve GPS or licence plate scanners. Disney staff simply write down the times that each row of the lot fills up in the morning. As long as customers know when they arrived, Disney staff can find their cars.

Jeff Gray


All new hires at Walt Disney World spend an entire day in what the company calls “traditions” training, learning Disney’s corporate lore.

Among their assignments: A quiz to see them name as many Disney animated characters as they can. The idea is to get employees “emotionally connected” to Disney from the start, says Walter Kurlin, a presenter with the Disney Institute, the company’s consulting arm.

“It’s like an indoctrination. You know what that is; they drink the Kool-Aid,” Mr. Kurlin acknowledges, after pointing out that he grew his new goatee after Disney relaxed its famous ban on staff beards earlier this year.

He says Disney is more interested in an applicant’s personality and enthusiasm than skills or experience: “We’re looking for attitude, not aptitude. Aptitude is fine, but anybody can fake aptitude on a résumé. But attitude is real.”

Most workplaces are not like Disney World. But Mr. Kurlin says employers can benefit from some of Disney’s methods. For example, the company makes sure applicants know a company’s “non-negotiables” up front.

A chirpy video tells would-be Disney applicants right away not only about the jobs, pay and benefits – but about Disney’s strict rules on personal appearance. Woman must have “natural” makeup and hair colour. and necklaces and bracelets are banned. Men’s hair must be “off the ears and off the collar.” Visible tattoos are banned.

Disney also insists that even the words it uses matter. Disney consciously calls its staff “cast members,” thus assigning even janitors or fast-food servers a “role” in the show. Visitors are “guests,” not customers.

One consulting client had a particularly unfeeling name for its staff, says the Disney Institute’s Jeff Williford: “They called the people who worked for them ‘units’ [as in] ‘We have 27 units, and they service our users.’ Those terms really affect how people perceive themselves.”

Jeff Gray

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  • Walt Disney Co
  • Updated June 23 4:07 PM EDT. Delayed by at least 15 minutes.


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