On Change – And Disney World

By Scott Westerman

Almost 20 years to the day after our first visit, we found ourselves in Disney World this week. We purposely returned to the Disney Caribbean Beach Resort. The first time our kids were 8 and 10. Now they are grown and gone, so Colleen and I could experience the resort as empty-nesters.

The rooms were the same size. The TVs are still analog CRT based units (Disney doesn’t make any money when you watch TV) and the only change in fixtures I noticed was a more water conserving commode. I’m sure the carpets, beds and furniture have been changed out over the years, but they had the same feel. Only the wall paper boarder had been updated with a Finding Nemo motif.

What had changed dramatically was the food service at Port Royale. Disney has thought through how guests consume fuel when they are focused on getting to the parks. The menus are broader, with more healthy options and everything flows to a single point of payment that feeds the dining area.

We only visited Epcot and the newly named Disney Hollywood Studios (the MGM partnership is over) on this trip. Gone is the Michael Jackson Captain EO 3D film and the tour of state-of-the-art farming at the Land exhibit, replaced by the ultra popular “Soaring” virtual reality ride. At the studios, Disney has capitalized on the Toy Story and American Idol franchises. The hugely received “Toy Story Midway Mania” attraction allows you to fire make-believe baseballs at virtual plates, balloons and targets (Colleen whipped me on that ride). And then there’s the “American Idol Experience” which gives a lucky few the chance to display their talent, complete with judges, 5 cameras and a studio audience.

We came just as things were changing from Halloween to Christmas, Colleen’s favorite time of year. She happened to ask one of the Cast Members at the Downtown Disney Christmas store what it was like to change from one season to another at the Happiest Place on Earth.

“It happens overnight.”

Turns out there is a huge change team at Disney World who swarms over the parks after closing and re-invents the experience to match whatever the popular season, promotion or Disney film may be.

Since the Disney resorts are still one of the most profitable dimensions of the Mouse empire, I was particularly interested in talking with the front liners about how change happens.

It’s strategic – People spend a great amount of time thinking about what they want to do. And they think about it a long time in advance.

It’s carefully planned – At Disney, execution is an art. The Imagineers often break new ground, not re-inventing, but truly inventing new ways of doing things. They test ideas to work out bugs and then make the substantial investment in capital and human resources to ensure a first class product.

It’s meticulously measured – When we arrived, we received a single magstripe card which served as our room key, ID and credit card. On the flip side, all Disney sales are instantly recorded on a gigantic information system that can parse who is spending what, where and when. This data becomes the fuel for further tweeks and outright 180 degree shifts if something isn’t delivering as planned.

It’s delivered with a human touch – Then as now, Disney employees are hired for their ability to radiate the Disney magic. This trip, we found some Cast Members (that’s what Disney calls employees), who didn’t always display the company attitude. A few were very candid about how the economy has personally impacted their enjoyment of a Disney career. But the vast majority were well trained, comfortable in their Disney skin and genuinely enjoying their work. The husband and wife who took our tickets, “Greeters” they call themselves, have been married for 56 years, the last 15 of which they have worked together for Disney. The woman in the Christmas shop, who knew every attraction and gave us free movie passes we could use back here at home. And the lady at the grab-and-go breakfast bar who let Colleen have an extra banana, even though it didn’t quite fit in the food plan we purchased. All were happy to be there and happy to serve us.

I asked them all about change. “It happens all the time… We don’t change the fundamental objectives, it’s still about providing the most magical guest experience possible, but we change the attractions, the products we offer and the process we use to serve… That’s really what Walt did all along.”

We are all creatures of habit. And if that habit throws off cash flow, we’re unlikely to mess with it, even if there are competitive clouds on the horizon that might be a warning to re-think our game plan.

Fear can drive stagnation, too. “Don’t do that.. You might kill the golden goose!”

But if the data we get is telling us that change is in the wind, we have to have the courage to strategize, plan, and proactively execute change.

So what is your data telling you? How will you need to modify or enhance your personal product to continue to add more value.. and earn value? Is the company where you share your personal brand the right place for you to be? Are you in the right place but in the wrong job?

Is pondering, designing and executing meaningful change part of your everyday life?

Since 1971, Walt Disney World has been doing just that. And for nearly 4 decades, they have been one of the most profitable entertainment franchises in the world.

Why not think like a mouse, and share some of the magic that goes with it?