Safety at Disney: Is There a Problem?

It’s been a long summer at the house of the Mouse. And the real culprit seems to center around safety at Disney.

In what should have been a blockbuster summer of opening several shows and  attractions such as the new Soarin’ Around the World, Frozen Ever After, Friendship Faire and Rivers of Light, the advent of these attractions was overshadowed by a trio of tragedies to include the shooting death of Voice singer Christina Grimmie, a massacre at the Pulse nightclub and the unfortunate alligator attack killing a child at Walt Disney World.

Safety at Disney
The new Friendship Faire at Magic Kingdom. Where Disney hoped the attention would be focused this summer. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

It doesn’t help that other carnivals and attractions have had their share of bad events over the summer as well, leaving question marks about safety in this industry, and even safety at Disney. Take for instance the water coaster accident that took place at Schlitterbahn’s water park in Kansas City. That ride was designed, built and operated by the same people who designed and built the Crush ‘n’ Gusher Water Coaster at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon.

Safety at Disney
The slides of Crush ‘n’ Gusher. Does the public hold theme parks guilty by association? Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Of course, Disney’s attraction is nowhere near the same height as the ride that took the life of the young man. But it runs on the same patented technology that propels you through the slide. Moreover, it does create a guilt by association challenge for Disney.

Then there’s Zika. The center of attention is really down in Miami. But again, it’s a guilt by association. It’s one more bite into the overall perception of whether Disney is a safe place to visit. And the result is that attendance at not just Disney but elsewhere is currently soft, especially from almost every international sector, with the exception of the United Kingdom.

Yes, it’s been a long summer.

Is Disney Concerned About Safety?

The same month that the little boy was killed by an alligator on the shores just off of Disney’s Grand Floridian, Walt Disney World published its annual safety Eyes & Ears edition–a publication intended for Disney’s Cast Members. In truth, the publication came out about a week or so after the incident, but it goes to press earlier in the month as it prepares for distribution. Here are just a few highlights of that edition:

  • Recognition of how a submitted safety suggestion led to repainting stripes in the bus load zones at Old Key West.
  • The challenges of moving Electronic Convenience Vehicles (ECVs) safely and of being careful with electrical cords.
  • The proper lifting of horticulture equipment out of a truck at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
  • Drying slick surfaces and pushing water off the sidewalk to reduce risk of Cast or Guests slipping.
  • Utilizing appropriate personal protective equipment for handling both soiled and clean garments in costuming.
  • Tips for Cast Members on how to enjoy your own family vacation trip safely.
Safety at Disney
Signs and electronic boards emphasize the importance of safety in a backstage hallway. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Perhaps the most notable article in this issue of Eyes and Ears was the discussion of Disney’s Automated Maintenance Verification System (AMVS). Every night the Engineering Services team performs over 2,500 priority maintenance functions on all of the attractions throughout Walt Disney World. The system not only keeps track of what should be checked, but the sophisticated software system is linked to the ride control system and can prevent operation of a specific vehicle, or even the entire attraction, until engineers have deemed the vehicle and its accompanying systems to be ready. When it is, a green light or a Mickey’s thumbs up is displayed. It’s a great example of how committed Disney is to safety.

Guests boarding vehicles at Test Track, a complicated attraction where computers manage the acceleration and braking for the passenger. Photo by J. Jeff Kober
Guests boarding vehicles at Test Track, a complicated attraction where computers manage the acceleration and braking for the passenger. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Disney is all about safety. It is the first of its standards or keys. Its importance is taught day one in its orientation, Traditions. It is more than just an article in an employee newsletter, it’s an active ongoing practice. I do not believe any hospitality organization focuses more on safety than Disney. The fact of the matter is Disney can’t design rides to a million and one chance that someone might get hurt. With some 20 million visiting the Magic Kingdom each year, that would be 20 accidents. Indeed, Disney has to design a billion and one chance of getting hurt–and even then, beyond that.

So if safety at Disney is first priority, how is it that they allowed alligators to roam the waters around its hotels? Worse, how did the very front line of safety–firefighters from Reedy Creek Fire & Rescue–not see that there wasn’t some harm? Perhaps this experience and others sheds new light on some important lessons. Lessons not just for Disney, but for any of us who are trying to attain a standard of excellence.

Lesson #1: You can’t afford group think to allow you to become casual about living up to your standards.

When we think about excellence, our perceptions of what is “great” evolve. So it is around safety. I wrote about this in a previous post. What we see as being “safe” evolves. What surprises us as being “unsafe” evolves. For instance, there isn’t one long term Florida native I’ve spoken to that hasn’t expressed some surprise about the fatal event at Disney’s Grand Floridian resort. Generally gators do not behave in those ways. There has not been a track record of gators at Disney attacking guests, even during the days when swimming was allowed in their lakes. Empirically, the fact is that there have only been 24 deaths in the U.S. over an 80+ year period, according to one report.

But of course, one is too many. And while it was never a serious problem, attitudes not just at Disney–but throughout the entire community–had become casual. That kind of nonchalant group think is why a bunch of local firefighters thought it amusing to feed a local gator, without thinking about the long term ramifications of such. Their attitudes were casual–but no different than any you found throughout the community.

Safety at Disney
This older sign suggests Disney was more preoccupied with feeding the birds than with the possibility of there being an alligator. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Lesson #2: “Cover Your Tail”actions make your intentions come across less than sincere.

There’s no better example of this evolution of thought than with the parking lot trams. I remember that as a small child the trams in the parking lot at Disneyland seemed like one of bigger thrill rides. It’s only been a few years ago that doors were added, and only a year or so ago they were added at Castaway Cay. In hindsight, the doors and other safety measures make sense. But do you need the mandatory long safety spiel required to be given before a tram can move with a newly boarded guest? If every word of that safety spiel is important, why don’t they give the exact same spiel at Disneyland? Why do they have an abridged version there?

Safety at Disney
Parking lot trams with doors. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

After a while you wonder if the safety spiel isn’t about safety as much as it is about covering your tail in court. And I couldn’t quite blame Disney for that either. After all, it’s insane how many people try to make money off of Disney in court. But sometimes those “cover your tail” approaches only end up creating a perception that you’re more concerned about “watching your back” than you really are about safety. And that perception can lead people to being more skeptical–and thus less concerned–about really being safe.

Lesson #3: Simply being more bureaucratic seldom supports your efforts of living up to your standards.

No question, safety at Disney is important. But what Disney can’t do is go overboard. There is little advantage of going from one extreme to another. While safety is Disney’s strength, a strength overdone to an extreme can become a weakness.

Let me give you an example: I heard one Cast Member (a very proactive, professional individual I may add) tell me the other day, “I’ve never seen an alligator at Disney. No I’ve never seen one. Because if I see an alligator, I have to fill out a whole bunch of paperwork–and I’m not going to fill out that paperwork. So I’ve never seen an alligator.”

The truth is that the bureaucracy of safety at Disney can actually get in the way of being safe. Such paperwork or other measures can create fatigue in one’s effort to living up to a given standard. And that can create real problems down the line. It’s good to follow through, but if following through requires more paperwork than it’s worth, people will stop being engaged in living up to that standard.

Lesson #4: Being politically correct or trying to put the right spin on things can leave you cynical about the standard you’re trying to live up to.

Then there was the situation where an intern working in Frontierland felt that management was more concerned about putting the right spin on possible gators in the Rivers of America, than focusing on being safe. The Millennial took to social media to express her frustration that safety at Disney seemed to take second place to not drawing attention to the situation. Management responded by firing the individual. While senior management ultimately did the right thing by rehiring the intern it had fired, it left many people rolling their eyes, wondering if safety is really that important? People can often take something as important as safety at Disney not seriously if you feel that for PR purposes, the company is trying to put a spin on things.

Safety at Disney: So What?

Now this article isn’t about safety at Disney as much as it is about your organization. Safety may not be the most important standard in your organization. It may be honesty, responsiveness, or efficiency. Regardless of whatever standard you declare as being important to defining your organization, consider the following:

  1. How intentional are you in living up to the standards you set?
  2. How do you incorporate those standards throughout the organization?
  3. How does living up to those standards evolve over time?
  4. How do you get everyone on board to your standards?
  5. Are the intentions behind your standard authentic? Are there hidden agendas behind that standard?
  6. Can you be too bureaucratic in your efforts to live up to your standards?
  7. Can your standard’s strength become a weakness? Can you come across as being more politically correct than really caring for living up to your standards?

Postscript:

Since publishing this article, and just a few days ago, Disney, “in the abundance of caution”, took measures to offer free mosquito repellent to guests while in the park. Know that Disney already has a number of preventive measures, including spraying. Disney has already been so mindful of this that the safest thing a tourist can do in Florida is to stay at Walt Disney World. The resort does an amazing job so guests do not experience such things as gnats, flies, and mosquitos while staying on property.

Still, this measure is a little like having recycled cans in the park. It’s a gesture of goodwill, but Disney had already been recycling materials long before guests expressed dismay in not seeing a recycled can. This move feels a little bit like that. But, it is a good thing to spray yourself prior to going outside. So one can see the benefit.

The problem here is that in their signage they have refused to use the word Zika. Articles like this one focus more on Disney and even Universal being sensitive in not using the word, than on the problem itself. And even though it is mentioned as Zika on its website, again, that kind of PR caution can ultimately leave an organization branded as being more worried about image than about safety.

3 thoughts on “Safety at Disney: Is There a Problem?

  1. What an awful article. The author has no concept of the law and his analogies are flawed.. For example, Korber shows us a sign posted at the beach at the Aulani in Hawaii and then tries to tie that in to what happened at WDW with the alligator tragedy. To illustrate his point, Korber talks about “Disney being more concerned about feeding the birds than alligators” on the beach in Hawaii… Alligators, REALLY? on the beach in Hawaii?? WOW… then he talks about the child who died on a waterslide NOT at Disney and then says that “Disney is guilty by association”… WHAT? really? So when a theme park accident occurs somewhere, all theme parks are “guilty by association”. The article has little fact and a lot of sensationalism, drawing on the association of the Disney brand with tragedy.

    • Gerry, It’s Kober, not Korber. The picture of the sign you reference was taken on the shores of Disney’s Polynesian Resort hotel, not Aulani. It was taken on June 14th, of 2007, a few years before Aulani even opened. Having been to Aulani, I’ve never seen a sign like that, because you’re invited to swim in the water, something that hasn’t been allowed for years at WDW. Those in the industry know who Schlitterbaum is and what kind of rides and attractions they create (which includes the AquaDuck on the Cruise Line as well as the Crush ‘n’ Gusher). So if there’s a problem on one of the rides they created that uses the same technology, you pay attention. Moreover, the media after that event and after other carnival rides had safety problems spent a lot of energy raising the issue as to whether theme park rides should have greater government oversight. So yes, it is a little bit like guilt by association. Truth is Disney does much more than any other industry to safeguard its attractions, but when things go wrong elsewhere, they can easily be swept into the problem even though that problem is not theirs.

      My articles are not intended to be sensational, rather it is intended to re-direct the reader at the end to consider what it means for their own organization. There are lessons to be learned not just in safety, but how you live up to your standards. That is at the heart of this article.

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