Scott Paton  |  01/01/1997

Service Quality, Disney Style

Can Mickey Mouse teach corporate America new quality lessons? Quality Digest takes a look behind the scenes at Walt Disney World.

It's hard to imagine a place more magical than Walt Disney World. The central Florida theme park continues to thrill, delight and exceed its guests' expectations more than 25 years after its opening.

Walt Disney World's recent 25th anniversary celebration provided Quality Digest with a sneak peek behind the scenes. A peek that provided the answer to the secret of Disney's success--one that Disney is now willing to share with outsiders through its new Disney Institute.

The secret to Disney's success isn't magic pixie dust; it's much easier to replicate. It's a well-trained, enthusiastic and motivated work force. It's a secret that Walt Disney himself realized years ago. "You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world--but it requires people to make the dream a reality," he said.

Let's take a ride through the inner workings of Walt Disney World to see how the company creates service quality, Disney style. We'll start with how Disney selects, trains and motivates its people, and conclude with how Disney is sharing its secrets with the rest of the business world.


All of Walt Disney World's "cast members" begin their careers with Disney at the Casting office. It's here that Disney "auditions" prospective cast members. Disney's casting building was specifically designed to introduce prospective cast members to the Disney family before the interview even takes place. The whimsical building balances Disney's focus as an entertainment company with its culture of respect for the individual. The argyle-patterned building (Walt loved argyle socks) was carefully designed to showcase Disney's rich entertainment background and to impress upon applicants that their place in the organization begins the moment they walk through the casting office door.

Why does Disney take such care with its casting department? The job market in central Florida is quite competitive. The unemployment rate is about 3 percent, and Disney has to compete to get the best workers. In addition, Disney cast members are represented by 34 unions, and the company deals with 11 contract negotiations a year. Quality cast members are a direct result of quality hiring practices.

Cast members assigned to work in the casting office come from all different parts of the Disney organization. They work on 12-month assignments. Disney believes it's important to have people who actually work in different parts of the company do the hiring. An assignment to the casting office is a coveted job--one that most don't want to give up after their assignment ends.

While prospective cast members wait for their initial interviews, they watch a short video that describes the interview process and outlines Disney's expectations of its future cast members. Nonconformists needn't apply. For example, male cast members are prohibited from wearing earrings or having facial hair. Disney's grooming standards make sense if you consider employees to be part of a cast of characters.

Once hired, all new cast members go through the same one-and-one-half day training program called Traditions. It's here that they learn the basics of being good cast members, from Disney history to direction on how to meet and exceed guest expectations. It's also their first taste of something that is a large part of all cast members' careers--Disney University.

Disney University

Walt Disney established the Disney University after opening Disneyland when he realized the need for a structured learning environment to teach the unique skills that are required of Disney cast members. It was the first corporate university and remains one of the largest corporate training facilities in the world.

Disney University provides Walt Disney World's 42,000 cast members with world-class training in diverse skills ranging from computer applications to culinary arts to regulatory training. The Disney University Cast Member Catalog rivals some community college catalogs in size and scope. In addition, cast members are also eligible to participate in the company's Educational Reimbursement Plan, which allows cast members to attend courses to pursue a college education at Disney's expense.

Walt Disney World has a reputation for cutting-edge technology, and Disney University is no different. It utilizes a number of advanced training technologies that allow all cast members to receive training when it's convenient for them. Mobile Training Units allow cast members to receive computer training at their work site.

Training via satellite from some of America's top business schools is available to front-line supervisors and mid- to upper-level managers. Participating schools include:

• Babson College
• Carnegie Mellon University
• Pennsylvania State University
• Southern Methodist University
• University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
• University of Southern California
• The Wharton School

In addition, the Disney University Learning Center provides cast members with dozens of self-paced courses in a variety of subjects that allow cast members to study whenever time allows.

A variety of visiting faculty are available for specialized training at various times.

Service quality

"We have some pretty strong
beliefs about things like who
is responsible for service, and
it's every member of this

--Jayne Parker, director of Disney University

Surprisingly, Disney University does not offer specific quality courses. This isn't an oversight. Instead, quality and service are built into all the training programs taught by Disney University.

As in every other service business, quality is critical to the success of Walt Disney World. Because 70 percent of visitors to the theme park are repeat visitors, the quality of service they receive can literally make or break Disney.

And cast members do know how Disney defines quality. "Disney defines quality as attention to detail and exceeding guest expectations," says Jim Cunningham, program manager, business programs at the Disney Institute.

"The thing that becomes ever harder to do at Walt Disney World is to continue to try to exceed the expectations that our guests have," says Jayne Parker, director of Disney University. "Every time guests visit, their expectations are raised several times over, and to exceed their expectations becomes even harder."

To keep up with their guests' ever-more-demanding expectations, Disney collects a stunning amount of data on its guests from surveys, focus groups, opinion polls and other means. For example, the company knows that the average family saves two-and-one-half to three years for its trip to Walt Disney World. The average visiting family consists of 3.2 family members. Twenty-three percent of their guests come from outside of the United States. Fifty-one percent of their guests fly and 44 percent drive. Most important, however, Disney knows that its guests' top three expectations are for the parks to be clean, friendly and fun. Every cast member, from CEO Michael Eisner to housekeepers in Disney resorts, knows these expectations and is empowered to make them happen.

"What kind of message does it send to an hourly cast worker if a manager walks right by a piece of paper on Main Street and doesn't pick it up?" asks Cunningham. "It's every cast member's responsibility to keep the parks clean, friendly and fun."

Disney also looks internally to meet guest expectations. The company identifies what it calls global and local service quality issues. Global measures include corporate issues like peak park attendance. Local issues deal with measures that are in the control of a group of cast members.

Cast members in local area groups talk about what are important things for them to measure about quality or service, explains Parker. "They come up with those measures," she says. "They set benchmarks for those measures, and they measure them constantly. They make their own charts and graphs, and set their own goals around them. Those local measures are now threaded throughout the entire culture of the Disney organization."

Even though Disney cast members measure service quality levels, establish benchmarks and set goals, there is no director or vice president of quality at Disney. Instead of one quality director, Disney has 42,000 of them; quality service is the responsibility of every cast member.

"Our strong belief about quality and about service is that we cannot pick up a list of the individuals who lead this company and say that quality and service are not in their job descriptions," says Parker. "At Disney, we have some pretty strong beliefs about things like who is responsible for service, and it's every member of this organization. We have worked very hard to be consistent in our message that there isn't any position in this organization that isn't responsible for service."

People often marvel at how clean Disney parks are and how friendly the cast members are. And one of the most-asked questions is how does Disney keep its cast members motivated.

It's easy to have a cheerful, helpful and motivated cast member when he or she comes right out of the Traditions class at Disney University, says Parker. The challenge is to keep that person motivated six months later when it's 90 degrees outside with 98-percent humidity. The answer is not constant training, it's leadership.

"When new cast members leave Traditions, they're trained, but the motivation, the desire to perform well on the job, the feeling like you can make a difference is not about people in training, it's about great leadership," says Parker. "My role then becomes how do we train and orient new leadership to create an environment where cast members can have their opinions heard, can feel like they are contributing and can be motivated each day to come in and give us great quality. That becomes the long-term power of the Disney organization: having great leaders who create an environment where people want to do their best. They want to do their job in 90-degree heat and 98-percent humidity, and keep on smiling while they are doing it because they feel like they are adding value and contributing."

Obviously Disney has succeeded in building an environment where great leaders can flourish and inspire others to great things. An unexpected benefit of this success is Disney's willingness to share what they have learned with others.

Professional Development Programs

"If we contribute to any industry that can take what we
have learned and apply it to their business, and improve
the quality of service, then we've improved the overall
reputation of the country."

--Valerie Oberle, vice president of business development of the Disney Institute

Perhaps the most exciting part of the Disney story is how those outside the Disney cast can participate and learn from Disney's success.

About 10 years ago, Disney's success began to be noticed in the business world. Particular attention was paid when Tom Peters mentioned the company's success in his best-selling book In Search of Excellence. "When In Search of Excellence came out, our phones began to ring off the hook," explains Valerie Oberle, vice president of business development of the Disney Institute.

"We quickly turned our success into a business opportunity and launched our first business program called The Disney Approach to People Management," says Oberle. "We still teach that program today, and it has been very successful."

So successful, in fact, that more than 500,000 people have been trained by Disney during the last 10 years. The training programs were originally set up as the "external" component of Disney University and are known as the Disney University Professional Development Programs. The programs have recently been merged into the Disney Institute.

In addition to being highly popular, like most things Disney, the programs are also highly profitable. Yet Oberle maintains that they also serve a higher purpose. "If we were in this just to make money, we could exploit it even further," she says. "We could take these seminars around the world and have a staff of 300 facilitators. We know it would sell because we see the demand for it, but we want to make it special.

"If we can contribute to any industry that is interested in hearing about what we have to say and can take what we have learned and apply it to their business, and improve the quality of service, then we've improved the overall reputation of the country."

Disney's altruism aside, sharing secrets also provides the company with an opportunity to learn from those it trains. "It is an incredible laboratory when you think that in each of our programs there are people from health care, automotive, financial services, retail and a variety of other services," says Oberle. "Our programs are designed to be sure that participants have an opportunity to share with each other and to share with us. We often use those groups for a benchmarking opportunity or a research opportunity to find out what they are thinking about current needs in the industry and what's working and what isn't."

There are also limits to what Disney will share. For example, it's unlikely that Disney will ever offer programs on brand management or strategic planning. "Our brand is everything to us," says Oberle. "Even though it would be an incredible seller if we did a brand management seminar, it's just not something that we are willing to share. We also have huge demands to do marketing programs and strategic planning. That would give people a competitive edge. We won't share that because we couldn't go far enough into it to make it worthwhile."

So just what will Disney share? Participants in the Professional Development Programs can choose from the following courses:

The Disney Approach to People Management--This seminar lets participants step behind the scenes to discover creative, yet practical strategies for managing their company's most important resource: people.

Length: three-and-one-half days.

The Disney Approach to Quality Service--This seminar presents the success story behind quality-service strategies practiced at Walt Disney World. The seminar shows ways to enhance service delivery through the use of existing facilities and technical services, skills training designed to improve service and methods for turning complaints into victories. Participants leave the course with an action plan for developing and evaluating their service philosophy.

Length: three-and-one-half days.

The Disney Approach to Creative Leadership--This learning adventure takes participants beyond theory for a hands-on look at the power of organizational creativity. Walt Disney World is used as an operational model to explore ways to maintain a creative and competitive edge in today's business climate. Participants discover new ways to create synergy in their business teams, enhance their leadership skills, communicate a vision for the future and turn ideas into reality.

Length: three-and-one-half days.

The Disney Approach to Orientation--Participants in this workshop step into the role of the newly hired Disney cast member to experience Disney orientation firsthand. They then begin to adapt the Disney process to create a customized program for their own organization.

Length: two-and-one-half days.

The Disney Approach to HR Management--Presented in conjunction with the Society for Human Resource Management, this seminar gives participants the opportunity to see how Disney human resources works firsthand. Participants discuss people management issues with the Disney management team and develop a human resources assets plan to take back to their organizations.

Length: three-and-one-half days.

Customer Loyalty: Keeping the Promise--Participants in this workshop learn from Disney what customer loyalty really means and why it's so important to business today. They will be able to calculate the economic advantages of adopting a loyalty-based business philosophy.

Length: three-and-one-half days.

Plus customized business programs to suit participants' needs.

Disney Institute

One of the newest attractions at Walt Disney World has no rides or parades. Instead, the Disney Institute offers guests the opportunity to learn. Guests can choose from a variety of programs designed to stretch the mind as well as the body. The Disney Institute, which opened in March 1996, features more than 60 hands-on programs in television and radio production, animation, gardening and the great outdoors, culinary arts, performing arts, design arts, lifestyles, story arts, sports and fitness, and more.

The Disney University Professional Development Programs have recently been folded into the Disney Institute to allow Professional Development Programs guests to participate in the Disney Institute programs and facilities.

"The campus-like environment that we created allows guests to feel like they are in a special setting," explains Oberle. "The Disney Institute now represents all learning and enrichment programs for our guests."

Another reason for merging the Professional Development Programs with the Disney Institute is that it allows for much more flexibility in designing programs like executive retreats, where companies may want to combine their own agendas with Disney programs.

Walt Disney's dream of creating a magic place where dreams can come true has obviously been fulfilled. An unexpected benefit of Disney's legacy is helping teach corporate America how to capture the magic that is inherent in all of their "cast members."

For more information about the Disney Institute and Disney University Professional Development Programs, contact the Disney University at P.O. Box 10093, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-0093 or telephone (407) 828-4411.


About The Author

Scott Paton’s picture

Scott Paton

Scott Paton is the president and CEO of Certus Professional Certification  and the president of Paton Professional. He’s the former editor and publisher of Quality Digest, and now serves as editor at large.