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4 Things Walt Disney Taught Me About Guest Service Today

Today I walked in the footsteps of Walt Disney.

Or at least as best I could in his second park, The Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

I know he never physically walked these grounds, but I can feel his fingerprints all over them.   As I walked down Main Street, let the smells and sounds wash over me, and then headed toward Cinderella Castle, not only did I feel my cares drain away but I also took a moment to thank Walt posthumously for his contributions to The Guest Experience.

Lest we forget, we lost Walt in 1966, so his brother Roy had to postpone retirement to see his brother’s vision through.  He did so masterfully and gave this address during the opening in 1971.

“Walt Disney World is tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney … and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney’s dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring Joy and Inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place … a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn – together.” – Roy O. Disney, October 25, 1971

This was an amazing nod to Walt’s vision and the speech he gave in 1955 on opening day.  The park was a tribute to his brother’s legacy and has grown into one of the largest single site employers in the country and a dream destination for children and adults alike.  I can say unapologetically that I am a super fan, and every time I visit Walt Disney World, I am inspired to be more creative, more of service, and more attentive to the details that can delight and amaze Guests.  As I write this, I am sitting in the Columbia Harbour House taking a break from the hot day to enjoy a delicious lunch.

I took away four key things from my time in the park today:

Optimism is Key:

 “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” -Walt Disney

In 1928 Walt had lost everything.  His popular character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was gone due to a problem with the rights, his animators had been hired away, and he boarded a train back to Hollywood with things looking bleak.  His telegram to his brother Roy read: “Don’t Worry. Everything Okay. Will give details when I arrive.”  On that train ride Mickey Mouse was born and would go on to become the star of Steam Boat Willie, the first synchronized talking cartoon.  Haven’t we all gotten those kicks in the teeth that set us straight?  I know in my career I have occasionally had setbacks that really inspired me to dust myself off and climb back to the top of my game.  Often you’ll find that when you challenge adversity and refuse to lose, that you end up not only recovering to where you previously were, but surpassing that success.  If you really do embrace the challenge and not let it get you down then you can climb to even greater heights.

Think of Customers as Guests:

“The visitors are our Guests. It’s like running a fine restaurant. Once you get the policy going, it grows.” -Walt Disney

That is the secret to the power of Disney.   Customers or clients can be seen as transactions, but Guests are welcomed into your hearts and homes.  When you begin by understanding that everyone who visits your business is looking for sincere hospitality and to enjoy the benefit of what you have to offer, then you are positioned to win.  When I walked down Main Street today and listened to the quartet singing old classic songs and the Associates from the Emporium blowing bubbles and smiling at the children who passed (including this giant sized kid), it was obvious that they were serving from a place of genuine love for what they do and a desire to serve.  When I stopped to watch the 3:00 parade, Cast Members were helpful with finding just the right place to stand to get some fantastic photos, including the photo of the dragon that is at the top of this article.  Harness that kind of helpfulness in your teams and you’ll find that Guests become the focal point of your organization.  Put it another way, make sure you are clear about what great service means, model it, and settle for nothing less.

The Details Matter:

“I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the Park (Disneyland). I want to feel they’re in another world.” -Walt Disney

As I walked from Main Street through Cinderella Castle and into FantasyLand, it was so clear that the details were well in hand.  Inspired by Disneyland, Magic Kingdom brings the immersive experiences that Walt always envisioned for his parks.  As you move from area to area the music, decor, costumes, and Cast Member appearances change.  Everything compliments the theme of the particularly area or “land” you might be visiting in the park.  Walt never wanted anything to impact the story he was trying to tell.  He was fiercely protective of the details, as was evidenced when he was very concerned about a cowboy walking through TomorowLand destroying the illusion.  His vision was for a better way to move goods and Cast Members around the property, which is what inspired the Magic Kingdom to be built on the second story so that a network of tunnels could be built below.  The challenge for every business is to make sure that every single piece of the experience is managed.  That means that your business is clean, orderly, and all focused around the Guest.  Yes, this is the nitty gritty stuff like making sure that you don’t have dead bugs on your window ledges and that your seating or waiting areas are clean and bright.  Walk through your business with an eye toward what your Customers will think of every little thing, and you’ll quickly find where you need to focus.

Cleanliness is Important:

“Give the public everything you can give them, keep the place as clean as you can keep it, and keep it friendly.” -Walt Disney

Most places don’t think much about cleanliness.  That’s a shame, because for many businesses like restaurants and hospitals, it is seen as the price of entry, not just nice-to-have.  Disneyland was founded on the principle of cleanliness, as Walt was always so disappointed at how dirty the carnivals of the day were when his children were growing up.  From day one, the cleanliness of the park was critical and everyone on property – from Leaders to Custodians – picks up trash and pitches in to keep things clean.  As I walked past the Haunted Mansion and The Seven Dwarves mine train, I saw Leaders in both areas picking up trash and walking the park to make sure all was in order.  The takeaway here is impactful: it isn’t enough to set policy, you have to live it.  You have to set the example and then make sure that your team sees you living that brand.  This will show them that it is so important to you that you are willing to roll up your sleeves and pitch in to get it done.  That is a powerful statement that goes well beyond just asking your team to comply.

So with that, it’s time for me to head back out into the Magic Kingdom and enjoy the attractions.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this tribute to Walt and his vision – I know I try my best to soak up all the magic I can when I’m in the parks and try to translate that into my daily business.  The magic of Amazing Guest service doesn’t have to live exclusively inside the gates of the Magic Kingdom.

Walt Disney’s vision of Guest satisfaction, immersive experiences, clean locations, and innovative optimism can live within us all as we drive everyday to delight our Customers.

Until next time, take a moment to thank Walt for ushering in our modern era of Guest Service!


Tony Johnson Customer Service Expert | Author | Trainer | Speaker

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