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A Strategy For Service Disney Style

By AlphaG Apr 21, 2015 3943 Words
Journal of Business Strategy
A Strategy for Service—Disney Style
Rick Johnson

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Rick Johnson, (1991),"A Strategy for Service—Disney Style", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 12 Iss 5 pp. 38 - 43 Permanent link to this document:
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(2007),"From beast to beauty: The culture makeover at Walt Disney", Strategic Direction, Vol. 23 Iss 9 pp. 5-8 http://
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Ady Milman, (2013),"Guests' perception of staged authenticity in a theme park: an example from Disney's Epcot's World Showcase", Tourism Review, Vol. 68 Iss 4 pp. 71-89

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A Strategy for Service—
Disney Style
Rick Johnson

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The organization's customer service philosophy was established over 35 years ago by its founder. Today, every aspect of the resorts and theme parks is geared to serve—and satisfy—its "guests. "


any organizations are
striving to improve the
level of quality ser­
vice through the per­
formance of their
employees. Some have recognized the
importance of corporate culture and
environment in the process. Our com­
pany strongly believes that the culture,
the environment, and the performance
of people lie at the heart of a successful
quality service program.
Guests at the Walt Disney World
Resort, located a few miles southwest of
Orlando, Florida, typically comment on
three main aspects of the quality of ser­
vice: the cleanliness of the place, the
show itself, and the friendliness of the
employees. These reactions are com­
piled through comments, surveys, focus
groups, and letters. Together, they reflect
the original business philosophy of Walt
Disney, who summed it up by saying:

Rick Johnson is Manager
of Business Programs for
Walt Disney World
Seminar Productions in
Orlando, Florida—a part
of the Disney University.
He instructs executives in
the "Disney Approach"
through business and
management seminars.

• "Quality will out!
• Give the people everything you can
give them;
• Keep the place as clean as you can
keep it;
• Keep it friendly;
• Make it a fun place to be."

While this philosophy applies to a
place of entertainment and family vaca­
tion fun, it applies as well to any
service-oriented organization. What
brings this philosophy to life at the Walt
Disney World Resort is a well-struc­
tured, complex, and fast-moving organi­
zation of people. Committed to a single
goal of creating happiness for customers
(called guests), the Disney people live in
a corporate culture—a way of life—that
places the guests' enjoyment above all
After a visit here, which includes the
Magic Kingdom Park, EPCOT Center,
the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park,
resorts, and recreational facilities, many
are prompted to ask, "How does Disney
get over 32,000 employees (called cast
members) to perform more than 1,400
different jobs (called roles) and deliver
quality service with a smile? How do
they do this for millions of guests, 365
days a year, often in 98° heat and 100%
humidity? How do they maintain a
quality service standard that many say is
unmatched anywhere?"
The secret to the Disney approach is
that there is no secret. Disney demon­
strates that high levels of quality service
can be attained by developing, refining,
and living a business strategy based on

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hard work, attention to detail, and ex­
ceeding customer expectations.
The first challenge in developing such
a strategy is to define a company's busi­
ness. Disney strives to provide quality
entertainment in its theme parks. It also
serves food, sells merchandise, operates
resorts, runs transportation systems, and
provides recreational facilities along with
a myriad of other guest and support
services. More important, the company
recognizes that the common thread run­
ning through it all is the ability to make
guests happy.
If guests are happy, they'll return.
Repeat visitation is the name of the
game. In fact, most of the guests who
will visit the resort this year have visited
Disney recognizes that it has a loyal
audience with high expectations. Many
people travel great distances to spend
time there. Disney understands that it
can't disappoint a guest, even once; if it
does, the guest may never return. It's
this understanding that defines Disney
service as "guest-driven."
Actually, what appears to be a com­
plicated service strategy is in reality an
easily understood formula. Each cast
member serves each guest in a series of
"magic moments" that add up to the
overall experience. With each cast mem­
ber, Disney knows its name and image
are on the line; the show is that fragile.
Disney knows that guests remember the
best and the worst experiences; the rest
fall into a standard.
To raise that standard, Disney works
hard to recognize and reward those cast
members who are doing it right. Cast
members who are not meeting the stan­
dard are coached and, as a last resort,
disciplined. Disney strives for perfection,
knowing they'll never be perfect, but
that they'll reach a higher standard for
the effort. So part of the strategy is
based on the realization that quality ser­
vice can be attained only through the
dedicated efforts of people (the perfor­
mance of the cast) in creating happiness
for the guests.

The Culture Is the Key
The answer to how Disney does it is the
corporate culture, or "the way we do
things around here." While "corporate
culture" is certainly a buzzword these
days, it is a useful term in explaining
how the company's quality strategy
The organization defines quality ser­
vice as a series of behaviors exhibited by
cast members in the presence of guests.
These behaviors include smiling, making
eye contact, using pleasant phrases, per­
forming their role functions, and imple­
menting the many other details that add
up to the "personal touch" in the eyes
of guests.
At the core of the Disney philosophy
is the belief that people (both guests
and cast members) are products of their
environment. To the degree that an envi­
ronment can be controlled, the appro­
priate reactions of people within that
environment can be predicted.
Disney, therefore, strives to control,
within good business sense, as much of
the environment at the resort as possi­
ble. Both the experience of the guest, as
well as the experience of the cast,
although adhering to different stan­
dards, are orchestrated to be as positive
as possible.
The company's philosophy of guest
service was established by Walt Disney
with the opening of Disneyland on July
17, 1955. He was committed to provid­
ing "good show" through themed
In essence, Walt took his greatest film
creations and translated them into a
form of three-dimensional reality. He
took a theater audience and lifted them
onto the stage, surrounded them with
sets and props, and had them interact
with actors and actresses (the cast mem­
bers). In a way, he put the guests in the
middle of the action, engaging all five
senses and enabling them to experience
the show scene-by-scene in a preplanned


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"In order to
exceed guest
needs and
the Walt
Disney World
team works
hard at
the study of
the g u e s t . "


Disney views its show as a live perfor­
mance and the physical setting as a
movie set. Everything must be carefully
designed and constructed to bring home
the feeling of theme and service to the
guest . . . in a word, quality. Each day,
the set must be perfect, restored to its
shiny luster so guests can "shoot the
movie through their eyes."
The concept of show business is ex­
tended throughout the culture and helps
in attaining the "buy in" of the cast.
From the beginning, an employee is not
hired for a job but, rather, cast for a
role in the show. Cast members wear
costumes, not uniforms. They play
before an audience of guests, not a
crowd of customers. When they are in a
guest environment, they are "onstage";
when they are in an employee environ­
ment, they are "backstage."
This vernacular communicates to cast
members that they are in show business.
They are not necessarily to be them­
selves when on stage, but rather to play
a role. The role calls for an "aggres­
sively friendly" approach, one that in­
corporates smiles, enthusiasm, sincerity,
high energy, and concern for the happi­
ness of the guest. In short, a cast
member is a host or hostess.
The culture at the resort continues to
evolve and change. Its purpose, however,
remains the same: to support the cast in
exceeding the needs and expectations of
the guests.

Know Your Audience
In order to exceed guest needs and ex­
pectations, the Walt Disney World team
works hard at "guestology," the study
of the guest. The goal is to understand
who the guests are and what they want.
Armed with this information, Disney
considers the guest perspective in every
business decision.
A Research and Statistics Department
conducts over 200 external surveys a
year. In a unique organizational setup,

Research and Statistics reports to the
Finance Division. In turn, Finance func­
tions as a team player, finding solutions
and alternatives to the potential prob­
lems that Research and Statistics may
discover. Finance, however, does not
function as a defensive keeper of the
Disney is constantly keeping track of
guest information such as the following:
demographics, evaluation of current
marketing strategies, attraction evalua­
tions, payment preferences, price sen­
sitivity, and the economy. Perhaps the
survey considered most important is the
price/value survey taken as guests are
exiting the theme parks. Walt Disney
stressed its importance when he said:
"Let's only be concerned about two
things: number one, have they had a
good time? Number two, have they re­
ceived their value, because people will
pay for quality."
Guest Letters departments of both the
Parks and Resorts Divisions receive tens
of thousands of letters and guest com­
ment forms annually. Their goal is to
respond to each one as quickly as possi­
ble. To close the information loop and
provide invaluable feedback to opera­
tional management, guest comment
reports, which condense the essence of
all guest comments, are generated and
distributed weekly to management.
These reports are classified by location
and list all compliments and complaints.
This process allows complaints to be
dealt with quickly to prevent
Another information-gathering tool is
the use of focus groups. These are con­
ducted by the Marketing department at
the resort to gather qualitative informa­
tion concerning the open-ended impres­
sions of guests and their reactions to
future projects. An extensive, internal
shopping service is also provided to
management for objectively monitoring
operating systems and cast member
An Industrial Engineering department
continues the guestology process by con-

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stantly evaluating the resort's operating
systems and ensuring they are kept to
established service standards. Daily in­
spections, show-quality reports, waittime studies, maintenance punchlists, and utilization studies all contribute to
a safe and efficient operation between
guest and operating systems.
Perhaps the most important feedback
system in terms of the continuous re­
finement of the "show" is "management
by walking around," in which managers
observe and talk to guests and cast
members at the point of service delivery.
While top executives commit many
hours to this process, it is the line
supervisors who spend 60% to 70% of
their time where the business is, each
employee serving each guest one at a
time. It's these firsthand experiences that
develop a sense of the need to react
quickly to restore service when things go

"Michael Eisner
Disney with
'Where's the Disney
difference?' and
'What makes it

With the potential to generate so
much data concerning its guests, Disney
has learned to focus on what matters
the most in successfully delivering qual­
ity service. The company quantifies
data, for example, and includes it in pro
formas on future projects, which include
guest satisfaction and value factors.
Through the process of guestology, it is
fair to say that guests are helping to
design the future Walt Disney World

Corporate Strategic Objectives
• Sustain Disney as a premier entertainment
• Achieve a 20% earnings growth annually over anyrolling five-year period • Achieve 20% or greater return on stockholders'
• Maintain and build the integrity of the Disney
name and franchise
• Preserve basic Disney values

Disney doesn't stop with guestology;
uniqueness is also an important part of
the Disney strategy. Michael Eisner, the
company's Chairman of the Board and
CEO, likes to get involved in the creative
process to a surprising level of detail.
He continually challenges Team Disney
with questions like, "Where's the Disney
difference?" and "What makes it
Disney? " He does this in a constant ef­
fort to find and create whatever is both
unique and compatible with the welldefined Disney culture (Exhibit 1 lists the company's strategic objectives.)

Empowering the Cast
The process of empowerment begins
with strong creative leadership provided
by leaders who can create a descriptive
vision of the future; "sell the vision" to
each member of the cast, getting them
excited about it; and follow through to
ensure that each milestone is reached in
a timely manner. Empowering the cast
begins at the top with a strong commit­
ment and willingness to set the example.
The Disney show requires a lot of
hard work and discipline from everyone.
To make it work, the people involved
have to want to do it. The autocratic
method doesn't work for Disney nor has
the company been successful because it
has written everything down and struc­
tured the process to the finest detail.


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A strategic planning team assists man­
agement with the development of 5- and
10-year strategic plans that are updated
annually in conjunction with the cor­
porate executive team. In addition, the
operating management at the resort
develops an annual capital budget and
operating plan. Together, these tools are
essential in helping to keep Disney on
track through the development of the
company's goals and objectives.
Once given the assignments, individ­
uals responsible for them are provided
the necessary resources and authority.
This empowerment also holds them ac­
countable for completion of the project.
The purpose of such a strategic plan
is to create direction and accountability.
Empowerment is the key to getting
everyone to "buy in" to the plan. In
Disney's view, empowerment is an active
process that encourages the cast to get
involved, taking the strategic plan from
the boardroom to the point of action on
Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic King­
dom Park.

"Disney would
submit that it is
possible to create so
much quality that
the guest cannot
Disney has discovered a positive ap­
proach to the continual sharing of the
vision for the future in a way that
creates excitement among cast members.
They are committed to an ongoing ef­
fort to remember the "traditions of the
past," those things that have brought
Disney to where it is today.
Disney uses company history to its
advantage, telling cast members that 68
years of Disney history, along with the
Disney name and image, are on the line
with each of them. As cast members,
they can choose to reinforce or tear

down that image with each guest they
come into contact with. The reality of
Disney's business, and perhaps that of
everyone in the service industry, is that
success depends on each cast member
making the right decision and providing
the right behavior for each guest
Empowerment of the Disney cast be­
gins with a service theme of "creating
happiness" for people. Disney then pro­
vides extensive training, ongoing com­
munication, and dependable support
systems to help the cast make the right
decisions in each guest encounter. Em­
powering over 32,000 cast members re­
quires that Disney establish a framework
that supports all the members in their
decision making.
Four prioritized "keys" do this: safety,
courtesy, show, and efficiency. These
words are designed to help facilitate
decision making in the day-to-day oper­
ation, particularly when a cast member
is confronted with a situation he or she
has not previously encountered.
In other words, Disney tells its cast
that the only time courtesy can be
sacrificed is in the interest of safety. The
safety of the guest is the first priority
and must be built into everything cast
members do. "Show" is the term for
theming or the implied message of the
whole experience. Show will be sacri­
ficed only in the interest of safety or
courtesy to guests. Each term also forms
the basis on which the company mea­
sures quality service as well, a measure­
ment that is included in the cast
member review process.
Creating the appropriate balance be­
tween "good show" and the business
goals of a company is always a chal­
lenge. Is it possible to have too much
quality? Disney would submit that it is
possible to create so much quality that
the guest cannot sense it. After all, who
determines quality? Ultimately, the guest
determines what is quality, on the basis
of previous experience and expectations.
It is Disney's belief that quality needs
to be where the guest can touch, feel, or


sense it. (Real gold leaf is used on the
carousel horses, for example.) There are
limits to quality, and a line must be
drawn for each organization. At Disney,
that line goes beyond the expectations
of most of the guests, but not too far
beyond. Disney is in the business of
creating illusions.

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Delivering Quality Service
When most executives think of the de­
livery of quality service, they normally
think of a smiling, courteous employee.
Equally important are the numerous
support systems that enable the em­
ployee to perform the assigned function
and maintain a positive attitude.
If a specific attraction is inoperable,
Disney is then not supporting the em­
ployee who must advise hundreds of
guests of this fact. Support systems can
be as mundane as a telephone, a stapler,
or user-friendly computers. They also in­
clude procedures that must work for
(not against) the employee in the de­
livery of quality service.
From the beginning, the resort was
designed to incorporate strong support
systems; these include the resort's own
telephone and energy services com­
panies, as well as attractions designed
for reliability and show appeal.
Support teams such as horticulture,
art and design, human resources, central
shops, and maintenance assist line man­
agement by providing services which
free them to concentrate on their as­
signed role. They would not be able to
spend as much time coaching employees
and obtaining feedback were it not for
the direct placement of support teams
and systems.
In the delivery of quality service,
there are two parts to every cast mem­
ber's role: the mechanical and the per­
sonal touch. The mechanical is the job
function which an employee has been
assigned to do, that is, to serve food,
sell merchandise, drive a monorail, or

help people on or off an attraction.
This part of the role must be done cor­
rectly in a manner that exceeds guests'
expectations. This is not, however, the
most important part of the role to be
The personal touch is the eye-to-eye
contact, the smiles, the pleasant, courte­
ous tone, the sincere caring that comes
through the transaction. This is the
competitive edge that companies strive
for in the service business. Disney has
found it can't force the personal touch.
To obtain it, the company must go for
the emotions in people to get them to
"buy in" and play their role in the
It is also important that management
sets the example. Management members
have the greatest influence on the tone
of the work environment. To the degree
that management is positive, supportive,
and places emphasis on the right things,
fellow cast members will emulate its
As an example, a system known as
"cross-utilization" is in place during the
resort's peak times when, for a short in­
terval, demand outstrips the number of
available employees. As part of crossutilization, members of management and support teams put their paperwork
aside and work short shifts in custodial,
food service locations, or in any number
of on-stage positions. In this way, guests
are served, cast members are supported
during a busy period, and management
and support personnel gain a renewed
respect and empathy for the frontline
cast member.
The Disney approach is more than
just the corporate culture—it's a way of
life for the organization. This approach
is simply one of hard work focused on
guest service and mutual appreciation
among the members of the team. While
it may sound too simple to work, its
simplicity is preferred so that all mem­
bers of the team will not only under­
stand the mission and strategy, but most
important, will carry it out. ■


This article has been cited by:

Downloaded by UNIVERSITY OF HULL At 05:37 14 April 2015 (PT)

1. T. Derek Halling. 2013. A Change of Service Leads to a Welcome Change. Journal of Library Administration 53, 429-438. [CrossRef]
2. Beverly Kay Hogan, Edited by Mona Shattell, PhD, RN an Cleary. 2013. Caring as a Scripted Discourse versus Caring as an Expression of an Authentic Relationship between Self and Other. Issues in Mental Health Nursing 34, 375-379. [CrossRef] 3. Anne Reyers, Jonathan Matusitz. 2012. Emotional Regulation at Walt Disney World: An Impression Management View. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health 27, 139-159. [CrossRef] 4. D. Keith Denton, Peter Richardson. 1997. A unifying approach to management. Management Decision 35:5, 398-403. [Abstract] [Full Text] [PDF]

5. Jeffrey Gandz, Frederick G. Bird. 1996. The ethics of empowerment. Journal of Business Ethics 15, 383-392. [CrossRef]

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