How Disney Creates Magical Experiences (and a 70% Return Rate)

Disney’s ability to “wow” its fans and captivate customers for decades is explored in depth in Be Our Guest, a veritable handbook for Disney magic.

Of all the facts featured within, perhaps the most surprising is the 70% return rate of first time Disney visitors.

It’s tough to overstate just 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. His belief was that the backbone of Quality Service was built on designing perfect processes and then repeating 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 their close attention to detail in constantly improving their processes. It’s safe to say that they always sweat the small stuff.

Some examples mentioned in Be Our Guest include:

  1. 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 importantly, ruined the experience for children. They have 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.

  2. Ending the experience strong. What better way to end a magic 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 what 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.

  3. 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 discretely. Disney created Special Assistance passes and provided their 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. Hey didn’t just want Disneyland to be better—he wanted it to be 100x better than anything 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 which could always be improved.

The lengths 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 Boats 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 trash cans at the Disney parks. As it turns out, it is actually 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 in Disney World to keep the sound levels consistent throughout the entire 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 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 utilize it to train new cast members.

How so? Well, it’s asked to new employees in theoretical scenarios to assess whether or not they understand the importance of in customer communications.

The reason is that guests don’t ask this question out of ignorance—their meaning is often, “When will the three 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 5 minutes. Would you like me to help you find a great spot so you can clearly see the parade?”

It’s interesting—and for me, reassuring—that the Disney Institute places such emphasis on tone and service delivery. They believe it’s one of the most universal things any company can do to improve their support, which is something I’ve addressed before.

They’ve 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.

The idea is that this sort of training should take precedence over everything else. 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 Front Line is Your Bottom Line

The team you build is the company you build.

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.

It is apparent that Walt was ahead of his time. He may even have been at home with the remote work powered startups of today. It seems he favored the best output possible with the best people available; everything else was secondary.

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 at Disneyland, Walt opposed the idea vehemently.

“I don’t want you guys sitting behind desks. 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 appearance—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 that 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 bi-weekly 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.

On a smaller scale, this might look like the Customer Support Bulletin Board that we’ve posted about before. You can use it even with a small team to make sure marketing, engineering, IT and ops all know about how support and customer success has been recently.

Your Company’s Culture Is a Shared Purpose

Walt Disney’s take on defining a company culture was based entirely around creating a genuine shared purpose that people would be proud to support.

Over the years, Disney’s shared purpose has evolved into the following mantra:

We create happiness by providing the finest in family entertainment.

This thinking has affected many parts of Disney’s operations, according to Be Our Guest. This is actually why Walt Disney initially chose to refer to employees as “cast” members—they were always supposed to put on the best show possible for customers.

In truth, defining a shared purpose doesn’t have to be an eye-rolling affair, though some corporate cultures might make it seem so. A shared purpose for a software company like Help Scout might go beyond our intention to make useful software and instead be: “We help companies provide outstanding support for their customers.”

Our purpose is achieved not only through software, but through education, shared insights, and gathered data.

It’s also interesting to see Walt Disney outline his “vision” for Disneyland in a way a modern product manager might today. For instance, Disney established priorities that must be fulfilled in every new process or idea.

  1. Safety

  2. Courtesy

  3. Showmanship

  4. Efficiency

This was Walt Disney’s way of pruning the myriad of ideas available. Knowing that a great product starts with saying no, this was the evaluative standard used to keep bad ideas at bay.

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