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Happy Birthday Walt Disney

Walt Disney is one of my heroes.

December 5th is his birthday, and every year on this day I like to take a moment to consider the impact he had on those of us in the entertainment and service businesses. He is an icon, a role model, and absolutely an inspiration.

But why?

Why do the lessons Walt taught us over six decades ago still ring true today?  Because they are timeless, that’s why.  They are quintessential lessons in serving Guests – a master’s class if you will on the finer points of delighting Customers of all ages.

So what is there to be learned when you boil it all down?  When you look at the amazing career of this business giant, there are 5 things that really stand out to me.

Perseverance Matters:  The story of the Walt Disney Company is a storied one, but not one which was easy.  One of Walt’s most successful early creations, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was taken from him (along with his animation team) by the distributor.  This could have marked the end of the young animator, but rather than wallow in self pity, he put on an air of optimism and boarded the train back to California.  On that train ride, Mickey Mouse was born and the next great era of animation would begin.  The same held true when it was time to create Snow White, the first full length animated film.  He couldn’t just spring such a thing on his animators – surely they would have thought he had lost his mind.  Rather he pulled them in and performed the entire story live for them – doing all the voices and characters himself.  He took them on a journey that had many in tears by the time he was done, and after that, there was no doubt that he had the vision for an epic tale.

Innovation is Critical:  Someone has to go first.  Someone has to cull the best of what has come before and make something amazing.  Somewhere there has to be a jump to what is next.  Walt did this so many times, it is a hallmark of his leadership.  Never considering anything impossible, he forged a trail from which we can all learn.  He needed a way to shoot animation for Snow White, so the multi-plane camera was born.  He wanted a live action Abraham Lincoln, so animatronics would need to be advanced.  He wanted a place for parents to enjoy a safe, fun time with their children, so Disneyland was born.  Some lament that it can’t be done when times are tough or there is a gap in service.  But if we take a leaf from Walt’s book, that means its time to dig in and figure it out.  Stop worrying so much about “no” and believe that the answer must be “yes.”  Once you’ve made that commitment, then it is just a matter of getting there.

Always Keep the Guest in Mind:  Walt Disney was always thinking about the Guest and how to provide the very best experience.  He disliked the seedy carnivals of the day and wanted something great for Guests of all ages.  He wanted the very best experience for Guests – making sure that Disneyland was kept in tip top shape at all times.  He once had major portions of the park painted overnight when he noticed that it was looking a little sloppy in some areas.  Walt loved to walk the park and talk to Guests and Cast Members – he was deeply involved in making sure that it was a magical experience that folks would want to come back and see again and again.  He challenged his Imagineers to “plus it.”  Meaning to take it to the next level, make it better, and listen to Guests to improve the attractions.

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

Walt also wanted the experience to be immersive – something that would whisk Guests away from their cares for an afternoon.  Thus the berm was built.  This is simply a pile of dirt around the park – sort of a reverse moat – on which the railroad is perched.  This keeps Guests from seeing outside the park into the world beyond.

The Details Matter:  The story goes that Walt was so involved with the construction of Disneyland that if he didn’t like what he saw he would simply do it himself.  He was displeased with the initial designs for Tom Sawyer Island, so he took the plans home and redid them himself.  He was intent on a clean park that kept the details in mind.  He toured the country and brought back amazing ideas for the park and even today Imagineers visit locations around the world when creating new attractions.  He kept a close eye on things such as Cowboys in Tomorrowland and cars being visible on access roads in Frontierland.  Every detail of his park was important to him, and that spirit exists in all the parks and resorts today.  The amount of detail in the queues alone at Disney Parks is nothing short of brilliant – particularly in attractions such as The Haunted Mansion, Expedition Everest, and Star Tours.

Consistency Rules:  It is easy to be great once.  On any given day anyone can find greatness by accident.  But to find it consistently in resorts around the globe each day takes real dedication.  When Walt rode the Jungle Cruise ride and found the Skipper running fast with the show, he took action.  He showed the Cast Members what he expected then asked them to get to work on making the show more consistent.  But here is where he went the extra mile.  He stopped back in weeks later to ride the cruise again – but not just one time.  He knew anyone could get it right once, so he rode the ride several times before giving it a thumbs up on his way off the final ride.  We can all learn from that as we strive to delight Guests – you’ll do so more easily when you strive for consistent, sustained excellence.

So Happy Birthday Walt. 

Thank you for inspiring those of us who serve Guests for a living each day.

The word amazing is thrown around a lot these days in places it doesn’t belong, but this is not one of those places.  It is not hyperbole to say that Walt Disney was an AMAZING INSPIRATION to those of us who grew up enjoying the fruits of his labors.

Thank you so much for teaching us how to treat Guests like cherished friends.


Tony Johnson Customer Service Expert | Author | Trainer | Speaker

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