A visit behind the curtain of the most magical place on earth.
Continuing on from the previous week’s post, we managed to escape the Dallas Iceocalypse of 2013, and not a moment too soon. Just over two hours (and one inflight whiskey later), we arrived in Orlando Florida, where the temperature was pushing 30ºC. We had escaped for our week of pseudo-vacation, studying leadership and customer service at the Disney Institute.
Even before our arrival, the Disney experience was beginning. Instead of heading to claim our luggage, we walked straight to Disney’s Magical Express, a coach service that would take us directly to our hotel in the Disney World resort. A few weeks earlier, we had received special luggage tags to use for our trip, that would allow staff at the airport to automatically route our bags to the hotel on arrival without us having to pick them up. All we had to do was get on the coach.
The customer service difference was already evident here – between the reception desk and our seats on the coach we were warmly greeted by four different sets of cast members (Disney’s term for staff). After the experience of the flight (which by flight standards was not bad), it was like night and day. Maybe it was the sincerity, or possibly our own excitement, but we all were smiling.
The coach took us across town and into the massive expanse of the Disney resort complex. The complex is big enough to be considered its own city, with 24 resort hotels, 4 theme parks and all the infrastructure to support it. Much of it remains undeveloped forest land, which made for the effect of being isolated from the rest of the world.
We were staying at the Grand Floridian hotel, a period recreation of Victorian era vacationing. Being Christmas season, chestnuts were roasting at the front entrance for guests, a giant tree had been erected in the main atrium, and next to it was a life-sized gingerbread house (made of real gingerbread) which conveniently doubled as a sales kiosk for Christmas sweets. The sounds of a live piano filled the lobby, and the jazz band could be seen setting up for their afternoon concert.
On check in, we received our instruction package for the course, and we immediately got to work. The delay in Dallas meant that we were already behind on our group assignment that was due for the first day of class, so I quickly dropped off my gear in the hotel room, and headed out to the pier at the back of the hotel. A small ferry service regularly shuttles guests to and from the Magic Kingdom, and the boat ride gave me a chance to soak up some sun and fresh air for the first time in a few days.
Given the rush to get work done, I only had a second to soak up the atmosphere and the crowds of the legendary Main Street before running into my team, who had been in the park all day (they had been lucky enough to get on the one flight leaving Dallas the previous day). We ducked into the impressively laden candy shop to do our assignment, a 30 second video highlighting an aspect of Disney’s business practices. We chose “attention to detail” as a theme, using the background of the candy being made in store with diligence and attention.
After a sumptuous dinner in the Moroccan area of Epcot, we settled down by the lake in the middle of the park for our official welcome dessert party, wherein we ate more cake than was healthy before watching the “illuminations”, a fireworks spectacular celebrating the notions of global community and harmony. The amount of fireworks used was on par with a New Years Eve celebration for a small city, and they did this every evening (and there’s a fireworks display across at the Magic Kingdom too). It was truly spectacular to watch.
After that it was back home for sleep. At about 1am I woke up to hear my roommate Ram arriving – he had been caught in the Iceocalypse, and had gotten on the late flight out of Dallas that day.
The next morning we all headed over to the conference centre for pre-class breakfast. At Disney, details matter, and if they can do something just that little bit differently or brand themselves where you wouldn’t necessarily expect, they will. And so it was that we had waffles shaped like Mickey Mouse for breakfast. There is in fact a whole phenomenon of the “Hidden Mickey” that pervades the Disney World resorts, with the distinctive symbol turning up in everything from uniforms to carpet patterns. You can actually buy a book that catalogues all the instances of such symbolism. It’s an inch thick.
After breakfast we started our lectures for the day. Our instructors for the course were Kendal and Jeff, cast members who had started out working in the parks (Kendal as a singer, Jeff on the Jungle Cruise) and worked their way up to being instructors for the Disney Institute. They had an amazing rapport and enthusiasm for teaching.
The big lesson of the morning was that in observing and learning the Disney approach, it was less important to focus on the questions of what and how, but rather focus on why something had been done a certain way within Disney. If we could see this, then we would have something adaptable to our own endeavours. Mere imitation would likely lead to failure.
After lunch we went on our first field trip… to the laundry. Admittedly it is not the most glamorous (but certainly the cleanest) part of Disney’s operations, but it provided a lot of insight into the management process and some of the challenges of change management and corporate culture, especially in a multilingual and non-customer facing environment.
Classes finished late afternoon, and we got changed and caught a bus over to another of the parks, the Hollywood Studios. The one ride I wanted to go on was here, the Rock and Rollercoaster featuring Aerosmith (yes, that Aerosmith). It was a wild ride, an indoor rollercoaster that looped around in every direction while classic Aerosmith tunes played through the speakers. Incidentally, riding a rollercoaster while moshing to “Sweet Emotion” is a recipe for queasiness.
A few rides later we then headed back over to the Magic Kingdom for a late night in the park. On certain days hotel guests can stay later in the parks, even as late as 1am, so we took full advantage of it.
For the next day, our orders were to go out and observe the Disney approach at work, which was another way of saying we had a day free to spend in the parks. A group of us headed over to the Animal Kingdom, the fourth of the theme parks (there were two water parks that we didn’t visit). This park is probably the least “theme-park” like of them all, with a large part of the park devoted to wildlife conservation. We went on a safari ride through a reserve, seeing elephants, giraffes and even a herd of endangered white rhinos.
For the evening, we headed over to Epcot, and I tagged along with a group who were doing the “around-the-world” pub crawl. Whilst alcohol is not generally a part of the Disney image as a family-oriented organisation (and you won’t find it sold in the Magic Kingdom with the exception of the high-end restaurants), the nations that make up the Epcot World Showcase each have stalls selling a representative beer or spirit of their nation, and people try to go to each in turn. At 11 nations at about $8 a beer it’s an expensive enterprise (which also helps to limit unsavoury behaviour), so I abstained from joining in. That said, my exam results had come out, which was cause for a celebratory beer or two.
For the next day we were back in the classroom (which was also a good reason to have not gone overboard on the pub crawl). We learned about Disney’s “casting” process for hiring new staff, and got a distilled version of their new staff induction process (typically a full day session). We then went on a field trip “backstage”, seeing how the company manages staff behind the scenes. It actually felt a lot like being in the green room of a theatre, the controlled hustle and bustle, wherein the line between character and actor is blurred. It was clear that Disney’s approach of treating their operations like a performance was more than a gimmick, but something wholeheartedly executed.
After class many of the group went and had a celebratory dinner at one of the other hotels, indulging in all you can eat barbecue.
For the final day of classes, I got to tick off a bucket list item and do something at Disney World that I wanted to do more than any ride, and that was to visit the legendary “utilidors”, the mythical tunnels under the Magic Kingdom that serve to get cast members into their respective regions of the park and shuttle stock to stores. They’re the reason that you never see Buzz Lightyear on Main Street, or Jack Sparrow walking through the castle. Walt Disney knew it would completely shatter the scene. Few people outside of the company ever get to see the utilidors, so it was a real honour to be able to walk through them.
Back at the conference centre we concluded our classes with discussions of our observations and how we can apply what we have learned in our own work. At the end of this it was time for graduation, with a very special guest. Mickey Mouse himself had arrived to personally congratulate us! We were even given special graduation caps to mark the occasion. We warmly thanked our instructors and organisers, who had done an exemplary job in putting the whole experience together.
Afterwards, I went and got my graduation cap customised with my name (the parks have embroiderers that can do this), and visited the Magic Kingdom and Epcot for one last time, proudly sporting my graduation cap. Graduating from the Disney Institute is a big thing, even for a short course like ours, and I lost track of the number of times that cast members congratulated me as I walked throughout the park.
The next day Adam and I went over to “Downtown Disney”, a retail and entertainment area at the edge of the Disney World complex, and did some souvenir shopping at the largest Disney store on the planet. It’s also the busiest Disney store on the planet, swarming with customers doing Christmas shopping. Then it was time to hop back on the Magical Express bus to the airport. The week of training allowed us to see other organisations through a new lens, and flying home was in many ways a harsh return to earth.
Over a week later I’m still synthesising much of what I learned and observed during my time at Disney World. It was a huge and concentrated experience, and it has impacted the way that I look at organisations and how I want to shape and lead organisations in the future.
From an arts perspective, Disney is the biggest arts organisation on the planet, and they’ve managed to impact global culture in a way that entire genres of art have not. In a world where arts organisations face constant challenges to profitability and sustainability, an understanding of why Disney has succeeded where others have failed can provide insights into what strategies may allow the arts to be sustainable into the future.
Next week I’ll go into some of my specific observations from the classes, as well as some of the cool technology I got to play with whilst at the parks.
Until then, I recommend that if you have the chance even just to visit Disney World, go do it. It’s the experience of a lifetime.
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
Copyright © Gerard Atkinson 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the owner is strictly prohibited.