Fifteen years ago Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened as Walt Disney World’s fourth gate. We interviewed Rick Barongi who was the first major animal care expert that came aboard this project in its infancy. Click here to take a look at the history of how this spectacular park came to be.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom under construction. Photography by Steven Smith.
by J. Jeff Kober
Events yesterday at the Boston Marathon, along with events only a few months ago in Newtown, Connecticut have caused all of us to stop and consider the good and bad of the world we live in. There has been much comment and even debate in the social media networks. But sometimes, what it really takes is action. To that extent, I provide you the following story. I wasn’t sure I wanted to share it out of respect for the privacy of the family. That’s why I don’t use the names in the story. But I think the message is powerful, and can be used to invite us to consider what each of us can do to serve another.
Over the last couple of years a manager at the Coronado Springs hotel made friends with a family from Newtown, Connecticut. The Disney Cast Member especially came to know the family’s little girls who would seek out the Cast Member and share their experiences visiting Walt Disney World. They would talk about being princesses and the girls were so excited when the Cast Member asked for their autographs. They emailed the Cast Member when they returned back home to Newtown and sent her pictures they had drawn (which sits proudly on the desk of the Cast Member).
So when the family returned this year, the girls ran up and gave the Cast Member hugs and kisses. The Cast Member inquired about their vacation this year. At one point the grandmother pulled the Cast Member at one point to the side to say that the 7 year old, who attends Sandy Hook Elementary School, was in one of the classrooms on that fateful day. In fact, it was her second-grade class seen in the photo running away from the school. She was okay, but she lost 3 of her best friends and the past few months had been very hard on their family. Afterwards, the family walked away promising to come back the next day to tell the Cast Member about their experiences at Epcot.
The Cast Member immediately called her partners at the Yacht and Beach and asked if they could get them special fireworks viewing for Illuminations. They were able to get the family on a fireworks cruise from the Yacht and beach Club that night! The family could not have been more excited, and the girls loved that they each got 5 balloons along with it.
Still, the Cast Member wanted to do more. Brainstorming with an entertainment manager at the Magic Kingdom, they planned a private meet and greet prior to the next day’s parade.
This is one of the few times ever an entire character group photo was taken of those in the parade.
Normally, for a meet and greet, a few Disney characters volunteer for a photo opportunity. But today would be different. Every single character from that parade was there to greet them. The princesses presented the girls with baskets full of princess paraphernalia and handed them a giant poster with everyone’s autographs. They then walked them to their roped off viewing section and each Disney character who they had just met backstage walked up and hugged them again during the parade. The entertainment manager shared with the Cast Member from Disney’s Coronado Springs how much this family touched the entire Cast of the parade and how they were still taking about how much they loved the girls.
The mother told the Cast Member how grateful they were for the memories they made on this trip. While they could not replace the ones made that fateful day, they were still memories that would last a lifetime. The mother said it was the first time they were able to relax and could give some innocence back to the children.
The Disney Cast Member remarked, “It is amazing to me the power of our brand, the world we can create, and the amazing partnership I received across the property to help make a magical trip for this family was overwhelming.”
Indeed, it is overwhelming what the power of a few people coming together to serve others–to bring light and happiness–and to make the world a better place. That’s the message here. If you want to make a difference, than you simply have to serve others. To that end, several on Facebook have recently posted this quotation from Mister Rogers:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
If we want to do something more than post, than we must help. We must proclaim love and peace through our actions. The rising generation will not embrace a kinder, gentler world because they tire of viewing so much gore and violence, as much as they are really shown by us how much greater a world filled with love and understanding is.
To the Cast of the 3:00 parade, thanks for showing how.
During Spring Break, stand-by queues for Under the Sea-Journey of The Little Mermaid at Walt Disney World are stated as being close to 2 1/2 hours. What if an iWatch fixed that problem?
By J. Jeff Kober
What if a billion fixed your customer’s biggest complaint?
And it also made you money, reduced labor, and created greater guest satisfaction?
Call it Next Gen, My DisneyExperience or MagicPlus. Disney’s been working on a high-tech project that’s about to be released in a major way over the weeks, months and years to come. It’s been billed as a way to efficiently have one source to get into your hotel room, charge purchases in the parks, and utilize it for planning FastPasses in advance.
Some Disney fans are its biggest critics. Why would someone spend that much money for some band or for the ability to make a FastPass reservation? You can still build a lot of attractions for that kind of money. Used cleverly, you could use the money on four strong attractions in all four Walt Disney World theme parks to draw people in.
While some Disney fan sites have been critical about the investment, annual pass holders were nearly giddy with the experience of changing their annual passes over to RFID cards this last week.
Bob Iger loves technology. He’s made it one of three core strategic priorities when he became CEO at Disney. Stated he:”I’m committed to increasing long-term value for shareholders and am confident we will continue to do so through the successful execution of our core strategic priorities: the creation of high quality, branded content and experiences, the use of technology, and creating growth in numerous and exciting international markets.”
Wanting to move forward in a big-price, high-tech way isn’t so easy. How do you get the board of directors at Disney to sign on to spending that much money on technology?
The answer is simple. Have Steve Jobs sit on the board.
With the purchase of Pixar, Steve became Disney’s biggest shareholder. He also became a member of the board of directors for Disney. You don’t think that Steve wasn’t toying with what would make a theme park experience better? Do you think Steve and Bob didn’t talk about this?
Of course Steve Jobs passed away. But not before doing two things: First, paint a glimpse for Bob Iger about what the future might look like utilizing technology in the parks. Second, Arrange for Bob Iger to sit on Apple’s board of directors.
So what does this all mean for you the guest at Disney?
To understand what this initiative is all about, it’s probably more useful for you to figure out what Apple is doing. They’re the technology leader–not Disney. And Disney is there to follow their playbook.
I noticed an article a few weeks ago that talked about the use of Apple iPod touches to help guests enter the park. Initially I thought this was just to reduce the amount of congestion expected at these new turnstiles. But I thought it strange that Guest Relations hosts and hostesses were handling these devices, rather than admissions folks.
What is happening is that before, when you had a problem with your ticket, you were re-directed over to Guest Relations. Now Guest Relations can look right then and there and resolve your issue rather than go over to the Guest Relations kiosk and stand in line. You don’t have to leave the gate and get in another line. Cool. That’s a very nice thing. But it’s not worth a billion.
Yet the article made me think about where Apple was going. Apple has many projects going on, but one of the most intriguing is the development of the iWatch. It’s said that Apple has filed some 79 patents on this, and that it has teams of people working on this day and night to create an offering, that could conceivably be launched as early as Fall of this year.
Here is but one interpretation of what could be done with a new flexible kind of “Gorilla Glass” being used to create an iWatch.
It’s been some 3 years since Disney did an unusual test at Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. There they handed out tickets with instruction that stand by guests could get in line to ride when their number was posted. In place of a queue was a DJ, some games, and benches to sit down. The idea was to create an experience of waiting to ride the attraction without going through the experience of having to wait in a long line.
Fast forward to the opening of the new Dumbo the Flying Elephant about a year ago. Dumbo is an iconic ride for Disney. It was also one of the worst queues you could ever experience. It wasn’t a long queue. It simply didn’t move fast. That meant you stood. And stood. And stood–often with small kids. Painful.
Dumbo’s new circus tent waiting spot. No need to queue any more.
The big thing everybody talked about with Dumbo was that there were now two spinners. But there was also much more. Instead of a queue, an interactive tent was established, and guests waiting in standby were given a restaurant pager letting them know that their kids could play and the parents could relax until their pager went off, letting them know it was time to queue. Critics complained that the playground offered nothing for adults–but it’s been a big hit for kids. And it has given parents a chance to relax and let their kids play until it was their turn.
With the addition of a MagicBand you will still need the pager. But with the addition of an iWatch you won’t! It–not the pager–will be able to tell you when you can go on the ride. And for that matter, why wait in the tent if you don’t have a kid who wants to enjoy the playground? You can go next door to Big Top Souvenirs while you’re waiting.
People are excited about the new Disney MagicBand. But imagine how excited they’ll be with an iWatch. These bands are simply a device to transition you over to more exciting technology.
You’re thinking, “That will simply be like FastPass. What’s the difference?” Remember, FastPass is changing. You’ll set your reservation for FastPass ahead of time, so you won’t have to go to the attraction to get a paper slip like you did in the past. That means when you arrive, you can walk right on in when it’s your turn rather than check-in first. With stand-by, you will have to check-in at Dumbo by swiping your iWatch. But then as long as you have an iWatch or a smartphone, you are then free to do what you want until you check in. And if you don’t have an iWatch or a smartphone, you can still get the pager like they currently require and wait in the tent.
Do you see where we’re going with this? In time, there may no longer be any major queue other than the one used for boarding when you check in.
Now imagine if every major queue could essentially be like Dumbo’s? Maybe not places where there really isn’t much wait like the Carousel of Progress, but what if you took out almost the entire stand-by railing at The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, leaving the activities and just put in a few benches? Guests checking into the Standby queue could sit and enjoy while their kids play on the interactive activities now in place. Or as long as they have an iWatch or a smartphone device they could go next door to the gift shop and browse. Or hit the restrooms. Or simply grab a bite to eat, knowing their iWatch was telling them they still had another 15-20 minutes? And then when it was time, their iWatch would beep and they would return to enter. Those in time without an iWatch could still be given something like the beeper. But in a few years time, many will have an iWatch.
This Tigger Bounce area barely made it pass opening day due to the potential of injury. Still, the idea was that parents would “stand around” while the kids bounced in the middle. Waiting around until your iWatch signals for you to enter the attraction is the way the future could look at Disney parks worldwide.
Imagine that the queue at Big Thunder Mountain took out it’s queuing rails and simply added benches along with all those new interactive games? Imagine that with an iWatch the interactive game at Space Mountain could “carry over” your game into another console as you snaked down the line toward the boarding area? What if your water-proof iWatch let you go under the boat and watch the fish swim until you were ready to enter the lagoon at Shark’s Reef at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon for your own turn to go snorkeling? Simply put, there could be no waiting at Disney with iWatch.
Imagine Disney taking out the rails and adding benches. It’s simply a waiting room until it’s your turn to ride the train. Simply check in when it’s your turn on standby with your iWatch.
In essence, within a few years, Disney could conceivably remove its major queues. That’s just one big thing that a billion (early projections stated even more was being spent) just might buy you in 12 major Disney theme parks world-wide. It will start with Walt Disney World, but with lessons learned, it will move forward from there, perhaps to Shanghai first. Know that China has overtaken the US as the largest smartphone market. You may recall that’s the country where they riot in the streets when they can’t obtain an iPhone.
This new statue Disney added this week near the Liki Tikis. It’s part of Pirates Adventure: Jewels of the Seven Seas. Like Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, Disney is creating new high-tech interactive means for occupying your attention while waiting to experience your next attraction. It’s building new experiences without having to build a standard “brick and mortar” infrastructure. These can also be rigged to work with your iWatch or other interactive, smartphone-like devices.
Stated Tom Staggs “In the coming years, we’ll introduce a broad set of systems and tools that will help us create a more seamless and personalized experience and help guests get more out of their visit with us…The ultimate goal is to welcome more and more people, while making their experience more satisfying, more personal and more immersive.”
This new DisneyTangled rest area includes logs that for the first time allows Guests to power their iWatch, smart phones and other devices. Meanwhile, the same restroom area allows new space for Peter Pan’s flight to incorporate a new interactive queue. It’s all part of the billion dollar package.
There’s more to come than making it easier to check into your room and get a FastPass ahead of time. More than this article probably implies. But reducing the frustrating experience of waiting to go on an attraction–the number one complaint guests have at Disney–is a big way to make a Disney theme park experience stand completely apart from its competitors. Is it a gamble? Yes–especially when other parks near Walt Disney World are building rides at a faster pace. But so was Disneyland in the first place. Again, to quote Iger: “The riskiest thing we can do is just maintain the status quo.”
For a billion dollar the status quo is about to change.
Not sure who took the picture, as I ventured on my own through Disneyland as a 12 year old. I do remember I had on my mother’s watch to keep track of the time so I could later meet up with them.
I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1972, in fifth grade, I went to Disneyland. We didn’t go in the summer following 6th grade so I saved my money working lawn jobs and paid for my family to go on vacation to Disneyland at age 12. We stayed at the brand new Howard Johnson Hotel and I went to the parks. Half of that time my parents joined me. The other half I was on my own.
I did the same thing the following summer, only this time I saved up enough money to stay at the Disneyland Hotel. My parents only spent lunch and a couple of hours in the afternoon with us. Otherwise I and my younger brother of nine were on our own at the parks. I think we stayed together. But I honestly couldn’t tell you.
Looking back I thought nothing of it. There were no cell phones, no texting, no way of even reaching the other than just the agreement to meet in the middle of Central Plaza at noon, and if that didn’t work–going back to the hotel room.
This week both Disneyland and Walt Disney World announced that unless a parent was present, children that appeared to be less than 14 years of age would be turned away at the gate. While the signage has been replete throughout the park that children under 9 could not ride an attraction without someone older being present, I had never really heard of any policy prior as to what age minors should be to enter the parks. It certainly wasn’t in the brochures or any of the literature or media.
Times…they be a changing. If anyone should have been concerned about my being on my own in the seventies it was when I was 15. That summer we were staying in Oceanside, California–some 90-100 minutes away from Disneyland. In pleading with my parents to go to Disneyland my father put me on a Greyhound bus at 6:15 am, and then I walked from the station several blocks away to the park afterwards. I remember the station well…filled with sailors, and “ladies of questionable repute”–though I’m not sure I fully understood that term. I repeated the same exercise in reverse after the park closed, finding the Anaheim station in the dark and taking the bus back to Oceanside. I can’t believe my parents let me do that. But they trusted me. And they trusted Disney.
Truth be told–children on vacation isn’t Disney’s biggest concern. There’s a reason why this is being announced this week. Over the years Disney has become the perfect place to dump your son and daughter with their annual passes while you’re working. This policy is seeking to remove that. It’s so commonly done that even some Cast Members are checking their kids in and then leaving to go to work themselves. Before, kids couldn’t get to Disney World unless someone took them by car. Now buses easily transport them from many miles away. You would be surprised at the number of latchkey children just outside the gates of Disney. No wonder that Disney consulted with child-welfare organizations around this policy. They don’t want to play baby sitter at the parks. There’s too much legally at stake.
I think that children should be accompanied by an adult–though I’m not sure at exactly what age. Fourteen seems old. After all, I was out throwing newspapers when I was ten. Surely I should be capable of riding Dumbo on my own.
When I was running a water park down the street from Disney I had many parents come to me asking that I make an announcement over the loud speaker or have every employee look for their child. As I inquired to the child’s age, and when they responded by saying the kids was age 10 or 12, I would reply with a gentle smile, “Well the bad news is that they’re having a better time than you are.” Clearly, you can give some freedom to children as they get older.
But small children–they have to be watched–especially those under 9. At the same water park, I dealt with an event where a five year old had been raped in one of our restrooms. I was the duty manager that day and it was a painful, terrible experience. Police, dogs, reporters all showed up shortly afterwards. The perpetrator was never found. It was awful. The parents, visiting from the UK were in shock. And yet when we asked where they were at the time, they simply replied that they were laying out taking a nap by the wave pool. They thought nothing of their child wondering on their own in the water park.
Of course, that wasn’t a Disney park. But the rules may still somewhat apply. Earlier this month one family spoke up about what happened recently when their child went missing on a Disney Cruise. Their 3 year old son was with the on-ship childcare facility aboard the Disney Wonder. Disney uses a tracking band system. In this instance, the band didn’t work, and there was a period of time that went by before the son could be located. Fortunately, the child was okay and unharmed. He had climbed into a ‘tunnel’ of stacked chairs and fell asleep. But it took inquiring about it and some 45 minutes later to find the child. Hopefully, in the wake of this, Disney will re-examine some important policies and procedures.
Does Disney do a better job than anyone else? Absolutely. You’ll find several articles about Disney making safety a first priority here on this web site. But the truth of it is…you’re the parent. You have to watch your children. It’s why you came to Disney…to be with them. If you utilize a Disney program that watches over them–ask lots of questions–and follow up. Don’t just assume.
And if you work locally and hold annual passes, promise the kids you’ll take them after work or on the weekend if they get their jobs done. Never completely assume the complete responsibility of caring for young, young children to the hands of others. Even if it’s Disney.
So what do you think? Can you trust a child alone at Disney? How about when they are being baby sat on the cruise line? Let us know what your thoughts are in terms of Disney’s promise of a safe experience, of their new policy regarding minors entering the park, and the role parents play in watching their children.
Big Thunder Mountain Railway–”The Wildest Ride in the Wilderness!” Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
There is no question that Big Thunder Mountain is one of the Magic Kingdom’s most popular attractions at Walt Disney World–if not the most popular. It represents so much of what Disney does well–a fun coaster attraction set in the theme of canyons found in southern Utah. It’s pure western charm and folklore and yet it’s a great ride!
I have scores of photos from this attraction, and yet I never had one of the upstairs queue. It was simply a mazed weave going back and forth until you headed downstairs to catch the train. Essentially it was wood on wood. If anything, you looked out over the mountain and watched the trains come in and out to keep yourself busy. If you were smart anyway, you got a FastPass so as to be able to bypass most of the queue and head right toward the train.
But all of that has changed. With the additional focus on the new Magic+ program where more people will be planning on using the FastPass system, Disney has been reinforcing the experience in the stand-by line. Winnie the Pooh and the Haunted Mansion has already had very unique additions added to their waiting areas. Now Big Thunder Mountain offers hers. Haunted Mansion is only one part of the queue. Winnie the Pooh is really more for children. This queue is much more than either of those previous interactive queues, and keeps everyone quite entertained.
It’s all set against a backstory of Barnabas T. Bullion (who looks very much like BTM’s own creator Tony Baxter). As president of the Big Thunder Mining Company you now visit the mountain’s mining office, the explosives magazine room, the foreman’s post and the ventilation room. In truth, it’s the same meandering queue, but boy! It has changed. The theming explodes (sorry the pun) with details and hands-on activities that could keep you busy for a good long stand-by wait.
A look into the open vault spells out why Barnabas T. Bullion is really into this mountain–literally! Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
The best part of this is the crank and detonator cases that face along the open-air window to the mountain. The premise is simple: Crank it up, and then blast. Out comes a spew of smoke and explosion from the mountain. There’s several locations where blasting is occurring, and each crank and detonator sets off a different site.
Explosions at Big Thunder Mountain–and you’re responsible for them! Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Further on in the foreman’s post you can look down through a series of windows into the mines themselves to see what action is going on. Each scene isn’t more than about 10 seconds in length, thus keeping everyone moving along. Take a look. there are lots of scenes, and they are all humorous.
Before heading into the next room, stop and study the map.
The underground world of Big Thunder Mountain comes alive in this depiction of its caves and shafts. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
You can tell that Imagineers have put a lot of time and detail into the backstory of all of this, so that you get a sense that this mountain really is a mine, and not just a facade to a coaster. Other signs tie Big Thunder Mountain into the entire Disney “Frontier” nomenclature as it were. References are made to Tumbleweed, Pecos Bill, Thunder Mesa and Rainbow Ridge. At some point, you start thinking these places really exist!
The Hard Times Cafe at Big Thunder Mountain references the Apple Dumpling films of the 1970′s. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Further on you see what seems to be generators. Crank them up and you get a sort of old-time animation in the form of something similar to a Phenakistoscope. Each image displays horses, or buffalos, or in one case–two Phenakistocopes facing each other with the men having a shoot out.
Look at the top of the wheel and you can see a horse galloping along. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Beyond that you see the AutoCanary devices. In a previous article I talked about the concept of a Canary in the mine shaft. Here air from the mine with its different smells is pumped out to you while the canary looks on and responds. Above you are assortments of different bird cages all hung waiting to be used. Very cute, very clever stuff.
A set of AutoCanary stations where you can smell the air, and see the reactions of canaries. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Again, all of this occupies you in such a way that the queue is constantly in a stop-start continuum. It would be comparable to the interactive video game placed in the queue at Space Mountain. The protocol has not been completely defined as to whether you as a guest are fully justified walking around someone who is currently interacting with these devices. You don’t want to be rude–but you may not want to wait to play with them yourself. And like Space Mountain–if you walk around them, your time in the queue will go faster. But you will have missed a big part of the experience.
From an operations point-of-view, there were many cast members on the first day of operation gauging how long people were taking at each of the stations, and how the traffic was moving along. The AutoCanary devices are just before a turn that merges you into the FastPass group to form the final queue. If it’s backed up, more FastPass guests will be going ahead of you, while guests enjoying the interactive queue are holding up the standby wait even longer.
Certainly there are some challenges to be worked out. But all of this is part of Disney’s NextGen investment, designed to do four things:
1. Keeping Walt Disney’s promise of always “plussing up” the park.
2. Keep people immersed in the story and experience while in line, rather than looking at their mobile device.
3. Keep those in the stand-by line happy while many FastPass guests–including those who may pay extra for that privilege–moving through other queues and to the front of the ride.
4. Reinvesting in the aging infrastructure of the Magic Kingdom by keeping its current attractions fresh and appealing.
Relative to the last point, the new restroom area bordering between Fantasyland and Liberty Square is set to open soon. That too is part of this larger initiative–not just because it will have locations to re-energize your mobile device–but because the space dedicated to the old restrooms are being re-utilized into an interactive queue for Peter Pan.
It’s a unique time for Walt Disney World–and especially for the Magic Kingdom. And if Big Thunder Mountain is a hint of even greater things to come, it should be an exciting time–even if you’re in the standby line.
A nice touch, the same crank and detonator available in the mountain is now available to guests with mobility challenges as they await their stay in the queue. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Do you want see more? There are plenty more photos and even videos at my Facebook page. You will be astonished how much attention is shown to the detail of this attraction. Enjoy!
Last week I wrote about Disney’s NextGen Next Step: Story Maker Installation. I also showed the first prop that I know of to be installed, one at Muppet Vision 3-D. I then went on to talk about Disney’s use of data in the context of Congressman Markey’s letter to Bob Iger about child privacy issues.
Perhaps because that was the hot topic last week, that was what people were left with–how data is being used by Disney. So I can guess that the topic of Disney’s new Story Maker is being lost. But I wanted to point out tis new prop standing in the hallway of Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster along with all of the other artists on display:
There’s Phineas and Ferb and Heinz Doofenschmirtz. Not sure who that fourth rock player is. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
You might not think about it as you go through the queue at Disney’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. You might think it’s some children’s music CD being put out. But trust me that this is the next prop that will be part of Disney’s Story Maker experience. Like the other one, something will occur when you hold up your band to the window. My thinking is that it will record some element of you looking into the window.
There are many, many more of these to come. It is in many ways like all of the interactive enticements like Sorcerers in the Magic Kingdom or Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure. What sets this apart from any other, however, is that the experience will be held in ALL four parks–not just one. It may even go to other parts of the resort, such as Typhoon Lagoon, a Disney resort hotel or Downtown Disney. But I don’t think that will happen in the first round.
This will be an interactive experience that will allow you to build you own story, like meeting all the princesses, or conquering all of the Disney mountains. There is more to come, but know that this is a major component of the interactive experiences coming out this year.
There is a lot of buzz going around with respect to Disney NextGen, My Magic+ and other interactive elements that are going into the Disney Parks. Much of it has to do with My Disney Experience website and mobile app along with the wrist bands that, among other things, serve as a room key, theme park ticket, and access to FastPass+ selections.
Here comes the next step: Story Maker. I wrote about what was heading to Walt Disney World virtually back in October. I discussed Wilderness Explorers, additions to Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure, and even noted Pirates Adventure: Jewels of the Seven Seas. But the one big thing I made note of was Story Maker. Unlike the other adventures which are park specific, this one encompasses all of the parks–perhaps even the entire resort. Stitch Kingdom has been reporting some of this over the last year as far back as last March. They noted that a host of still and video cameras would capture photos and video, and then thematically weave them into a variety of media outputs such as a flip book or a photo keepsake.
Over the last several days installation has begun for this project. Most of it is not very obvious. Some of it is in the form of props that may not catch your attention when you first walk through a queue or attraction. Here’s one example: Step into the waiting area at Muppet Vision 3-D in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. You’ll recall there are lots of luggage and props from the muppets (yes…to include “a net full of jello”). But now a new piece has arrived, and its placement is such that you wonder if it’s always been there.
This mirror has been installed for Disney’s Story Maker. It sits on a crate that says Fragile! Ship to: Walter Whistler-in residence; The Muppet Theater, USA. It’s a reference to Walter, the newest muppet from the recent movie.
Truth is, this is coming throughout all the parks. Think the exit to “it’s a small world”. Think Journey Into Your Imagination. Think It’s Tough to be a Bug. It will bring a whole new layer of interactivity not seen before.
Of course, all of this is coming at a time of considerable discussion & controversy. Tom Staggs in the Disney Parks Blog gave a broad brush stroke overview of what was coming on January 7th. As of January 28th, people were still weighing in on the observations, questions and concerns. “How is this going to work?” ”Will it affect privacy?” “Is this Big Brother?”
To add fuel to the fire, Congressman Edward J. Markey wrote Bob Iger demanding answers to the issues as to the potential to gather personal information about children as well as target-market such toddlers.
The truth in all of this can be found in the new THINK exhibit at IBM. Here you find a quote on the wall to the entrance of the new Innoventions exhibit. “
Nate Silver, American statistician said: “Every day, three times per second, we produce the equivalent of the amount of data that the Library of Congress has in its entire print collection, right? But most of it is like cat videos on YouTube or 13-year olds exchanging text messages about the next Twilight movie.”
Data is everywhere. This couldn’t be truer than at Walt Disney World. And with that comes two facts:
1. Disney has been collecting a lot of that data for some time. Disney is deep in analytics. They already know quite a bit about you–what days you entered the park; which park you entered; when you entered; what rides you drew a FastPass on; what charges you put to your room…etc. If you’re concerned all of a sudden about Disney being too much of a “big brother” you aren’t paying attention.
2. With all of that data collection Disney is in truth somewhat modest in their gathering/use of data compared to Google, Apple, and others. Even your grocer knows what you are buying. In fact, in Disney’s defense I’ve heard that Disney and the Chinese government have gone back and forth in disagreement on the number of cameras to be installed throughout Shanghai Disneyland. If you think Disney is into surveillance, you are going to be blown away by the Chinese government.
Personally, I think Story Maker will be fun, as are the other interactive elements like Sorcerers in the Magic Kingdom and Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure over at Epcot–activities that also gather data on you. But what do you think? Is this just too much? Or is this where the future is headed?
I passed by a t-shirt the other day in the parks. It read:
“6 out of 7 Dwarfs are NOT Happy”
So true. And yet, is it? So when I saw that Disney reported a major employee survey a few months ago, I was interested. With all of the Disney blogs out there we hear of both very happy, and very grumpy employees. But in general, how satisfied are Disney employees? Is it really a great place to work? Well, a few months ago employees across The Walt Disney Company received the results of a survey conducted in the late Spring. They gave their opinions on some 65 core items related to their work experience of being a part of Disney.
Disneyland Cast Members gathering in preparation for an upcoming parade.
This is especially of interest because there seems to be something of a sentiment that Disney–and especially Walt Disney World–is largely going downhill. I addressed some of those points in a recent blog. There is a body of evidence from organizations like Gallup that suggests a direct correlation between high employee engagement and high customer satisfaction. One tends to follow the other. I subscribe largely to those ideas in my book, Lead With Your Customer, the premise being that it’s really two sides of the same coin, and that to be effective with one, you have to be effective with the other. Lee Cockrell, former Executive Vice President of Walt Disney World wrote the forward of that book, and he and many others subscribe essentially to the same theory. So it’s worth noting how Disney did in its employee survey as a signal to how it’s doing with its customers.
You should know that this is the second year this survey has been administered world-wide throughout the company, the first given two years prior in 2010. But it isn’t the first time employees in parts of the company have had employee surveys.Back in the 90′s under Judson Greene’s leadership, Cast surveys were instituted across the entire Florida property. The Cast was able to rate how things were going across all of Walt Disney World, across their area (like Wilderness Lodge or Blizzard Beach) and then across their own department (HR, operations, retail). It’s my impression that over the years that focus on doing an employee survey did not remain. So it’s interesting that now it’s not only being done, it’s being done across the entire Walt Disney Company.
Why would Bob Iger want to do this? He shares his view in the Disney Newsreel (studio newsletter):
“…I want Disney to be one of the most admired companies in the world, and we cannot do it without our employees. I want us to be admired by consumers, investors and the general public, but I also want us to be admired by the people who know us best–our employees. I want people to be proud to work here, to feel good about what we do and how we do it…That’s why it’s so gratifying to hear that the vast majority of our employees are proud to work at Disney and that they feel respected here. Most have confidence in our strategic direction and our management, and more are engaged and empowered in their jobs. All of these things are critically important to our ability to achieve our goals as a company and to attract and retain the best talent.”
The first step in any survey like this is to get people to actually fill out the survey. In most organizations employees go along with it. But there’s always a body of people who live in fear that their opinion will come back to haunt them, so they avoid taking such surveys. I seldom find any of that happening, especially in surveys that are administered at this large a scale, and usually by competent survey/measurement organizations like who know how to measure this. Furthermore, the survey doesn’t hold much validity–much less reliability–if you don’t hear from most of your employees. So to help make this happen, contests are often held to “get out the vote” as it were to getting the best percentage possible of completed surveys.
How many took the survey? Well, according to the Disney Newsreel, 69 percent of employees participated in this year’s survey with participation in most business segments ranging from 82 percent to 87 percent. That probably means that there were a few segments that were fairly abysmal in their survey efforts, pulling down the average. In other words, they don’t get it, or they are in a chaotic point of organization/re-organization that they don’t have the ability to focus on making the survey a priority. Still, it was noted that there were 96,000 who took it this year as opposed to 82,000 in 2010. That’s a solid number moving in the right direction.
And how did Disney do? Not all the results were published. But of those positive, here’s what was said about the overall results:
- 87 percent of employees say they are proud to work for The Walt Disney Company
- 80 percent of employees believe the business segment they work in develops creative products, services and content
- 70 percent believe that their business is leading the industry and is evolving and making the changes required to compete effectively in the marketplace.
- 80 percent believe their business segment is committed to creating and supporting a diverse workplace.
- 80 percent of employees across the globe find their jobs both challenging and interesting.
- 77 percent understand how their jobs fit with the goals and strategies of their business segment
- 90 percent understand the role they can play in helping Disney to be a responsible company.
Tom Staggs speaking for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts noted that “we also saw a 10 percentage point increase in the number of Cast, Crew and Imagineers who feel both highly engaged and enabled in their roles.” Indeed, Iger noted in particular that ESPN and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts showed the greatest improvement, earning scores that were six points higher on average than in 2010. And finally, they also noted that this last year employees dealing with the parks were asked questions specifically regarding Disney’s safety initiatives, and were pleased to see incredibly positive results.
What about making improvements? The newsletters for the major U.S. parks, the Disneyland Line and Walt Disney World Eyes & Ears, both noted the same key opportunities for doing better. That included:
- Opportunities for our Cast to set and pursue career objectives
- Improving our operational efficiency
- Providing more opportunities for collaboration and teamwork
- Better communicating the actions we’re taking in response to your survey feedback.
The trick to the latter bullet item is that too often teams don’t really do anything with the results. I saw this often as a Cast Member even at the Disney Institute–a place where they should have been practicing what they were preaching. Once the data was given, there was no real follow-up. Worse, little action was taken–or if it was done–few seem to know that actions were taken. It’s simply necessary that surveys like these not be something you check off your list as having completed, but rather be the driver for what you do as a team to make improvements each and every day.
And when they are done correctly–expect to see employee survey results dramatically improve.
It’s easy to dismiss these kinds of activities as simply corporate hoops that keep HR people busy. And of course we can quote Benjamin Disareli* that there are three types of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics. I suppose one could whittle away at the data here. But if you really want an engaged workforce–especially of the size that is Disney–you have to figure out in some way how engaged your employees are. Then you have to take action to make improvements.
What are the messages for Disney or any organization?
- To truly actively engage your workforce, you must survey your employees.
- Do what you can to increase the number who participate in those surveys.
- What you see quantitatively, does not completely reflect what you need to hear qualitatively.
- Remember that the survey is not an end to itself. It’s a gateway toward making improvements.
Finally, here is my take. The results seen here are typical of what I would expect from most Fortune 100 companies. What is astonishing, however, is that this is a movie studio. This is an amusement park. This is a TV company. This is not your typical insurance company or bank. This is a very volatile industry. It’s show business for pete’s sake! So the fact that an amusement park would get these kinds of scores is amazing. The fact that given the in-and-out flow of people in the film and television industry they would even attempt to look at this, is fairly noteworthy. Therefore, I’m impressed that Disney world-wide is focusing on this and trying to improve the experience for its employees. And the results are pretty good. Perfect? No. But they are moving in the right direction. Certainly I don’t think they are going into some downward tail spin as other critics might express.
What do you think? Do you think this is a true measure of employee satisfaction? Do you think that it improves employee engagement when done correctly? And do you think Disney is moving in the right direction?
*If you like me were desperate to find anything on Walt Disney as a kid you would know that in any encyclopedia Disareli always followed Walt Disney.
A great source for insights in the theme park world comes from The Season Pass podcast. One example of that is the recent episode 219-Creating Men in Black: Alien Attack Part 2. Men in Black is one of Universal Florida’s signature attractions. The interview involves attraction creators Craig Hanna, Dave Cobb and Andy Garfield. In discussing the challenges of keeping the guests consistently flowing through the building, they then turned the conversation into the important role employees play in making the attraction work. Here’s what was noted:
“You know what I love though? Mostly it’s the ops staff. Like the Haunted Mansion or any other good attraction really. They so get in the character and they wear that white shirt and black tie as if they are one of the MIB–and they are really great. I literally have not been there when I haven’t seen an employee or one of the ride ops sort of acting in character and really getting into the story of the show.
“I think that’s the sign of a good attraction when your employees really enjoy being there. It’s as gratifying to me as the guests going through it.”
Do you agree? Do you think there are some attractions that because they are such great rides the Cast Members take a great pride in operating those attractions. If so, what would they be? The Jungle Cruise? The Monorail? Kilimanjaro Safaris?
Do you think that some restaurants like Be Our Guest or Prime Time Cafe or California Grill are such great restaurants that the Cast Members take greater pride in their work?
If I would note a favorite it would have to be the Tower of Terror. The cast is consistently offering an experience that is fun to be around. Each cast member is a bellhop and they truly take on the roll in a slightly demented way. I give much of that credit to what I think is one of the really great Disney cast members–T.J. Wollard. I’ve known T.J. for many years and his persistent effort to create a strong guest experience is truly notable. If you’ve seen him or interacted with him–you won’t forget him.
T. J. is often featured on Disney promotional material like this one.
T. J. loves the Tower of Terror. As a former Disney Cast Member with the Disney Institute I walked up and down that building many times with him. He knows every inch of that attraction and treats the building as it he owned it. The imagineers went at great lengths to create a tremendous experience, and the pride shows in T. J. and the other cast members who operate that attraction daily. They are more engaged and show it in their performance of welcoming guests to the Hollywood Tower Hotel.
Again, do you think there are certain attractions that employees take great pride in because they are such great attractions? How does that pride show? What does that look like in any organization?
Lessons From Epcot: In Leadership, Business & Life
I’m very excited about my newest book, Lessons From Epcot: In Leadership, Business & Life.
Available as an iBook, Walt Disney’s greatest vision, Epcot, comes alive with powerful best-in-business and best-in-life insights. Originally available as an app, it is dedicated more than ever to being a showcase for new ideas, filled with stories, examples, and illustrations based on the heritage, themes, and concepts that have made Epcot at Walt Disney World truly one of the most remarkable places on earth. Not a travel book, nor a “tell all” essay, Lessons From Epcot is designed to inspire those who enter with new paradigms for work and play.
“If you can dream it, you can do it!” is the thesis of Epcot. Here is the instruction manual for doing so. As a former leader with the Disney Institute, I have worked with organizations directly for nearly 20 years to help them create powerful brands and high performing organizational cultures. If you love Epcot, you’ll enjoy the insights, but this study of Disney is beyond just the fun of visiting the parks. O bring real-world ideas to people who are looking to bring create a better world of their own.
From Spaceship Earth to The American Adventure, Lessons From Epcot shares little-known insights that will inspire all. After all, that’s what Walt Disney wanted to do when he first conceived this idea of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. And we bring you those stories for your discovery so that you can build your own tomorrow.
To download your copy, or to view a sample from this iBook, visit us on iTunes!