By Gregory Ciotti, marketer at Help Scout
Disney's ability to wow its fans and captivate customers for decades is explored in depth in the Disney Institute's Be Our Guest, a veritable blueprint for Disney magic.
Of all the facts featured within, perhaps the most surprising is the 70 percent return rate of first-time Disney visitors. It's tough to overstate how impressive that is, especially for a theme park; it's loyalty on a whole other level.
Below, I'll highlight some interesting and unique takeaways that the Disney Institute was willing to share in Be Our Guest.
"Magic" is made by optimizing the mundane
Perhaps the most unexpected finding when evaluating Disney's penchant for magic is the focus on process: the drive and ability to optimize the mundane.
Walt was obsessed with the process. He knew that the deliverance of a magical experience each and every time is dependent on developing processes that allow you to do so.
Walt viewed his theme parks almost as factories that produced delight and entertainment. He believed the backbone of good customer service was to design perfect processes and then repeat them at scale.
It almost seems cold to think of a wondrous place like Disneyland in such a way, but Walt knew that the magic was powered by these processes:
Think of process as a railroad engine. If the engine does not run properly, it does not matter how friendly the conductor acts or how attractive the passenger cars look, the train will still not move and the passengers will not pay their fares. Process is the engine of quality service.
Disney has seemingly held true to these beliefs with its close attention to detail through constantly improving processes. It's safe to say that Disney always sweats the small stuff.
Some examples mentioned in Be Our Guest include:
- Turning around misfortune. Despite the efforts made to inform customers of height limits, often a young child will wait with a parent to go on a ride, only to find out he or she isn't tall enough. Disney noticed that this was a major complaint from parents and, more important, ruined the experience for children. Disney has given staff permission to hand out a special pass when this happens that allows the child to skip to the front of the line on his or her next ride.
- Ending the experience strong. What better way to end a magical experience than with a smooth exit? Unfortunately, Disney found many guests had problems finding their cars when leaving on trams. Tram drivers now keep a simple list of the rows they work each morning, which is distributed to team members at the end of the day. This allows guests to simply denote the time they arrived, and the tram drivers will know what location the guest parked in. A huge win for ending the day without hassle.
- Fulfilling unique needs. Disney cast members found that disabled guests were often frustrated with parks because they had to constantly remind staff they were disabled, and they wanted to let staff know discreetly. Disney created Special Assistance passes and provided its cast with a wide variety of training so that they were able to identify and fulfill the needs of disabled guests without invasive questions.
Walt seemed to perfect these processes by observing each and every detail. He didn't just want Disneyland to be better--he wanted Disneyland to be 100 times better than anything else available.
Constant and never-ending optimization
Part of Walt's passion for processes is seen in his obsession with the details. This is a common trait among notable (and sometimes controversial) founders like Steve Jobs, who once famously called up Google's Vic Gundotra on a Sunday to say that the second o in the Google iPhone app didn't have the right yellow gradient.
Walt was a similar stickler for the experiences at his park. His obsession with the park stemmed from the fact that he saw it as a forever incomplete product that could always be improved. The lengths to which he would go to improve it are something of legend:
Walt would wear old clothes and a straw farmer's hat and tour the park incognito. Dick Nunis, who was at the time a supervisor in Frontierland, remembers being tracked down by Walt during one of these visits.
Walt had ridden the Jungle Boat attraction and had timed the cruise. The boat's operator had rushed the ride, which had ended in four and a half minutes instead of the full seven it should have taken.
Dick and Walt took the ride together and discussed the proper timing. The boat pilots used stopwatches to learn the perfect speed. Weeks went by until one day Walt returned. He road the Jungle Boat four times with different pilots.
In the end, he said nothing, just gave Dick a "Good show!" thumbs-up and continued on his way.
Another story that has circulated about Walt's obsession with detail regards the placement of trashcans at the Disney parks. As it turns out, the story is true.
Walt was said to have studied other amusement parks and found that people would generally not walk more than 30 steps before littering after finishing a food item. Disney parks are apparently built with this in mind and aim to have an abundance of trash receptacles that are never more than a few yards away.
Last but not least, Walt encouraged this sort of obsession with the product in his team. Some of the innovations that Disney engineers have come up with are nothing short of amazing. One of the most impressive is the ambient sound system used at Disney World to keep the sound levels consistent throughout the park:
Today, as you walk through Disney World, the volume of the ambient music does not change. Ever. More than 15,000 speakers have been positioned using complex algorithms to ensure that the sound plays within a range of just a couple of decibels throughout the entire park. It is quite a technical feat acoustically, electrically, and mathematically.
"When does the three o'clock parade start?"
This question became so commonplace that the Disney Institute and Disney University now use it to train new cast members.
How so? New employees are asked this question in theoretical scenarios to assess whether they understand the importance of tone in customer communications. The reason is that guests don't ask this question out of ignorance. Their meaning is often, "When will the 3 o'clock parade pass here?"
Disney creatively uses this common question as a litmus test for potential cast members. The best hires know to offer helpful and proactive advice: "You're in luck! It should be passing by here in five minutes. Would you like me to help you find a great spot so you can clearly see the parade?"
Disney also developed training for tone through a system called the Traditions Program:
It explores the effects of posture, gestures, and facial expressions on the guest experience. And it explains how tone of voice and the use of humor can contribute to--or detract from--service delivery.
Though Disney certainly has other forms of education for cast members, the thinking is that if you can't get interactions down, it won't matter how "right" you are in assisting customers.
Your frontline determines your bottom line
"The team you build is the company you build." --Keith Rabois
Understanding that such innovation could only be had with a motivated team, Walt placed great emphasis on making sure Disney employees could polish their craft. He seems to have been heavily invested in the early days, when he had the resources to step in personally:
If you were a young animator at Disney in 1931 and you didn't own a car, there was a good chance that several nights a week Walt himself would chauffeur you and a group of your colleagues to Los Angeles for company-paid classes at the Chouinard Art Institute.
Later, Walt hired a lead teacher at Chouinard to teach at Disney Studio so employees wouldn't even have to make the drive. To Walt, this wasn't an expense but an investment. He fully believed that giving the right people the right motivation was the only way to accomplish his dream: "Whatever we have accomplished is due to the combined effort. The organization must be with you, or you can't get it done."
Despite Walt's penchant for process, he also recognized the importance of building a self-sufficient team. It's no wonder that so many of Disney's innovations have come from ground-level employees.
Walt never did build an organization in the strictest sense of that word. What he built was a loosely unified group of talented people with particular abilities who could work together in continually changing patterns. They did this with a minimum of command and a maximum of dedication. What Walt wanted was the greatest creative effort--not the most efficient operation.
No team can operate in a bubble
In Disneyland's early years, when a suggestion came about to build an administration building for the management, Walt opposed the idea vehemently.
"I don't want you guys sitting behind desks," he said. "I want you out in the park, watching what people are doing and finding out how you can make the place more enjoyable for them."
Walt was not just talk. He lived by these words. Senior vice president Tony Baxter describes how Walt would pay close attention whenever he had the opportunity to observe how children reacted to new amusements. When Baxter brought his younger sister and her friend to test a new ride, Walt was attentive and inquisitive:
The three of them rode through the attraction, and when it was over, Walt asked if they liked it enough to do it again. Yes, came the answer. Walt replied, "Then you need to sing the song this time!" and the trio--two children and the leader of a corporate empire--took a second trip.
His thinking was that nobody, not even the company executive, should operate in a bubble. This emphasis on cross-collaboration within Disney has spurred on a few innovations.
When customer researchers at Disney found that guests greatly desired more access to characters at their appearances--and also highlighted the difficulty of navigating the crowds that formed around the characters--cast and management were immediately informed of their grievances.
The two teams worked together to make fixes right away: Characters were brought into specific areas so they could be better managed, fixed greeting locations were selected and broadcasted throughout the park with signs and pamphlets, and the CHIP (Character Hotline and Information Program) was created, resulting in a phone number that any cast member can call to find out where certain characters are.
Even among teams, Disney encourages collaborative work. At the Disney parks, there is a biweekly newspaper written by and for the cast called Eyes & Ears that has a larger circulation than many actual newspapers. It highlights new things about the park so that no cast member is uninformed.