Disney U

"Training programs reflect organizational values and health."

- Disney U, page 53

Growing up just 12 miles from Disneyland, I was thrilled to visit “The Happiest Place on Earth” during its grand opening and several times a year thereafter.  By the time I returned for D-land’s 50th anniversary, Walt Disney’s vision had mushroomed from a single 85-acre theme park into a global conglomerate spanning the globe on land and sea.

Yet one Disney feature has remained constant throughout the years–its world-renowned customer service.  With fluctuating markets and changing leadership, how has the Disney brand consistently managed to maintain this world-class act, generally regarded as the gold standard, for over half a century?

In Disney U, Doug Lipp provides the answer:  Disney University, which assures that all employees from Anaheim to Paris, from janitor to COO, are committed to delivering stellar customer service.  In this insider’s view of the evolution of Disney U, Lipp weaves together anecdotes and lessons of the legendary Van Arsdale France, to create a model for other organizations who would like to achieve a similar reputation for service.

Employee development programs are not extras; they serve as company health barometers, Lipp asserts.  Organizations who want to flourish will find his book a welcome resource for adding some Disney magic to their training.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Consider Employees Your Most Important Customer

"The best way to offer outstanding service to our guests is to offer it to our employees."
- Disney U, page 11

Should a serious business care about the happiness of its employees? The answer is a resounding “yes” at Disney.  In creating “The Happiest Place on Earth” for park visitors, the Disney team learned the vital importance of training and developing the cast and crew that stage the “show.”  Management appreciates that what happens “on stage” is a direct consequence of what happens back stage.

Handpicked by Walt to train the first “cast members,” Van France, along with Dick Nunis and others, revolutionized the concept of employee training to the demands of a rapidly growing organization with theme parks on three continents.  Thus from the start, Disney U has enjoyed unwavering leadership support, allowing for the evolution of a comprehensive approach to the development and care of all employees.

What began as simple employee orientations morphed into broad programs that have enabled the company to prosper even during massive changes and economic downturns. Even in hard times, while other organizations trim training and development budgets, the Disney approach is to enhance and leverage them in order to remain successful.

The wisdom of this approach has been affirmed several times over as Disney U came to the rescue to meet challenges of growth, engagement, and culture, saving the brand and profitability simultaneously.   It is a valued part of the organizational culture.

By sharing insider stories of how the company survived major challenges through training innovations, Lipp supports his assertion that a company is only as strong as its employee development program.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Model the Behaviors You Want Employees to Learn

"Quality is essential in guest courtesy, in showmanship, and throughout our backstage activities as well as those on stage."
- Van France, quoted in Disney U, page 160

Disney envisioned Disneyland a huge stage, and accordingly, it became all about putting on the best show.  Disney U Dean Van France was determined to have employees committed to creating Disney magic for park guests at every turn.  For example, he insisted that clothes must be spotless. Everything should gleam. Front-line employees— “the cast”—must learn to smile and to gesture with an open palm, never pointing a finger.  In short, Snow White must never have a bad day, and the rides must never break down.

To instill the Disney commitment to superlative service, its training programs needed to model—not merely preach—that cultural value to employees.  “Do as I say, not as I do” was not and still is not acceptable.

Thus Disney U trainers walk the talk:   the training rooms are impeccable, with chairs neatly aligned—even after breaks.  Instead of rushing around before lessons start, beaming trainers focus warmly on trainees as they arrive.  Even back stage areas, e.g., the tunnels that cast and crew use between park areas, are kept painted and well lit to maintain morale.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Instill pride rather than servility in employees

"Everyone picks up the trash.  No one is above pitching in and helping."
- Disney U, page 155

Disney fosters employee engagement by taking the servility out of service jobs.  Van France understood at the deepest level the importance of creating pride among employees as he created a movie-based terminology for success which has been copied around the world.  Thus park employees are “hosts and hostesses” or “cast members” who wear “costumes” rather than “uniforms,” while the visitors are not customers but “guests.”  “Crowds” are called “audiences.”

“I wanted people to feel they were involved in something more important than parking cars, serving food, sweeping up popcorn, that they would be creating happiness for others,” Walt Disney explained. 

Top management stays in contact with the day-to-day realities faced by park staff. No one is too high and mighty to do front-line duty now and then. This is not just a coat of paint, Lipp notes:  “Everyone picks up the trash” is a lived cultural value at Disney as even executives are known to stoop over to pick up litter, don costumes, and greet guests.  And front-line employees are encouraged to make on-the-spot decisions to resolve problems, e.g., to replace a child’s spilled popcorn free. This “popcorn empowerment” costs but pennies and is worth its weight in gold in producing staff loyalty.

Nor is anyone too low to have their voice heard.  Employee feedback sparked the tunnel upgrades, an employee park, and other recreational opportunities that enhance retention.

During its first fifty years, Disney University adapted to company needs and will continue to do so, Lipp concludes.  At the same time, its twin core values of caring for employees and customers serve as a beacon to other organizations seeking success and sustainability.


As I see it, breaking out of the old HR box where employees are treated as interchangeable widgets rather than important partners is good for business.  Disney U belongs right next to Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness and Wagner and Harter’s 12:  The Elements of Great Managing as more testimony to the value for creating environments in which employees can flourish.  Lipp’s book also reminds us that Disney U has been putting that wisdom into practice for over half a century.  When will other organizations catch up?

Consider employee engagement in your organization: Does management treat employees as the most important customer?  Does everyone “pick up the trash?”  What changes would you recommend for creating happier employees?  What steps could you take on your own?

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Gayle Scroggs

ABOUT Gayle Scroggs

WHO ARE YOU? Positive psychologist Dr. Gayle Scroggs partners with clients to do their Best Work and create their Best Lives. Through sharing research-based strategies, she fosters more joy, success, and meaning for individuals and communities...
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