People have been wondering why as a grown man who could go anywhere in the world why my wife and I went to Disney World for vacation, without any kids. Well, there were a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones is something I don’t hear a lot of people talking about, but its at the core of their theme park business model, and its very similar to Chick Fil A. What Disney sells is happiness, its in their mission statement which is clear the moment you enter the property in Orlando welcoming you to the happiest place on earth. Obviously the first thing that cynical people think of in Disney are the huge expenses and the long lines, but there is a reason everything costs so much yet is so extraordinarily crowded. Its essentially for the same reason that Chick Fil A is crowded every afternoon just for selling chicken, it’s because as a company, they don’t make excuses for failure and have a can do spirit on everything, and that is precisely what people are looking for at the Disney Parks, and why I specifically wanted to vacation there. I’m a very positive person and professionally everywhere I have turned over the last year and a half was some drag asser looking for every little excuse not to do something, and it was driving me crazy. It had been time for a Disney vacation.
That doesn’t mean that what you get at Disney is happiness. I watched carefully during my vacation the other people who were looking for the same thing as me, but obviously were not so inclined to experience such a product as Disney calls “magic.” Magic is the word for it, because in reality, its only the performance of illusions, not some mystical energy created to manipulate the impossible. Magic to create happiness is a series of tricks designed to evoke in the user a feeling they couldn’t get anywhere else, but not all people are prepared to experience it. So they can go to Disney World and spend many tens of thousands of dollars, they can have their magic bands and take the shuttle from the airport to the parks without paying all the tolls on the highways between the two, and all they’ll see are long lines and misery. They’ll complain later that Disney World is all about just making a buck and is for kids as they seek some psychological distance between their present reality and any future attempt at happiness. For many people, they do not want to be happy, because there is responsibility in it, so even going to Disney World can’t do it for them. But on this trip, I wanted particularly to study Disney as a company and how they maintained their brand so I was watching with different eyes than I normally would in times past.
One thing that was obvious, and likely the key to their success at Disney was that all of their employees were taught to buy into the philosophy, like Chick Fil A. You don’t go to Disney to hear excuses about why this or that can’t or won’t happen. With them anything is possible. Any request from a customer is entertained, and it’s done so with a smile on their faces. As I went everywhere and asked lots of questions of what they call “cast members” a personality trait emerged that was part of their employee development. The customer was always right, and the employees of Disney were taught never to complain, or to let it out that they disagreed with those very valuable customers. Everything was on time; no rides or attractions were shut down because they didn’t have enough employees to operate the activities. Nothing stopped at Disney World due to massive call offs of a weak labor pool to draw from. To make the parks work magically each day, it literally took tens of thousands of park employees to make the massive operation run. If 10% of their work force didn’t show up for work on time there would be big problems in selling that happiness, yet Disney didn’t have that problem at all. The reason why is the key to the answer.
To conduct my experiments my wife and I stayed in Kissimmee and spent some time out of the park interacting with the various work cultures there to draw some long-held conclusions that I have had. In years past, whenever we went to central Florida, we would meet at the family condo over in Cape Canaveral, and a fair amount of socializing was always part of the trip. This time, we didn’t talk to anybody, we just conducted my experiment spending a lot of time at all four Disney Parks, eating and interacting with their various resorts, and crawling over every inch of their Disney Springs development. We used all their various transportation systems and even talked to the janitors who walked around the park cleaning up the trash. I purposely looked for the ugly side of Disney, any peeled paint, any decaying wood, any sign of shortcuts toward the magic illusions that Disney was so obsessed with creating. Then once the parks closed, or before they opened, we would eat and shop down in Kissimmee and the differences in culture were obvious.
We were staying only two miles from the entrance to Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios the entire time along RT 192 which had a lot of great Gatlinburg types of tourist traps that I love so much. Only the employees almost everywhere we went sucked, and I mean, they sucked big time. We went to Joe’s Crab Shack which was just a stone’s throw to the south of Animal Kingdom, off the Disney property and it was obviously mismanaged in a terrible way. It took 15 minutes for someone to even ask to seat us, even with most of the place full of empty tables. Then we were told it would take an additional 15 minutes to seat us. When I asked why, they told us that they had a few call-offs and that they were running behind. Disney operates hundreds of restaurants, hotels, rides, and other vendors and I don’t think they would permit any of their employees from making such a ridiculous statement. Why would a business make their mismanagement problems the problems of the paying customer? Its an absurd concept, so we left Joe’s Crab Shack and looked for other options. And we found the same behavior everywhere else, including a Cracker Barrel
Our hotel had half dead slugs running the place, the room cleaners kept forgetting to give us new towels, coffee packs and whatever we asked for because they were not engaged in maintaining our happiness. They were just going through the motions like the rest of the world. Disney by contrast didn’t permit such excuses and that was obviously part of what they called magic. From the airport in Orlando to the surrounding establishments around the Disney World property, the contrasts were obvious, and a key to the success story. It really came down to a management decision to take away the excuses of unhappiness. If people wanted to see the strings and hidden chambers of the magic show, they could. But Disney would not be responsible for it. Their whole thing was to take away the excuses to be miserable. If people chose to be miserable anyway, that was on them.
I am one who likes to be happy, so it didn’t take much for me to enjoy that level of competency. In such a “can do” culture it doesn’t take much for me to respect such a thing. The cast members no matter how important their roles were in the customer experience held to the company motto and it was obviously successful. It shows what can be done when a company has expectations from their employees to behave a certain way and to ensure that the customer experience from their side is positive and excuse free. And in that, there are lots of lessons for the outside world to come to grips with, which is precisely why I chose this vacation over other options, which I’m glad I did.