Think Bigger

Behind the scenes at Disney World w/ Ramit Sethi

When I think about iconic companies, Disney is at the top of the list, right there with Nike and Starbucks. The way Disney runs their enormous business is unbelievably integrated, and the guest experience is so finely tuned and engineered that it can feel magical.

As a result, for nearly 10 years, I’ve been thinking about taking a class at the Disney Institute, where business leaders can learn key Disney principles.

And earlier this month, I finally did it!

The class was four days in Orlando, Florida. There were a surprisingly high number of federal employees there (Department of Defense, National Park Service), HR directors, a school superintendent, and a few other industries.

I was surprised at how much time we spent on Disney’s values — almost the entire four days of the class. (You might think that “values” are one of those boring mission statements you put in the corner of your office, but I soon realized how deeply they can affect your business.)

But a lot of the more fascinating lessons came when Disney taught us its values by taking us to the park — three times in four days. We went through “backstage” entrances, got private tours, and got a chance to observe how they really do it.

Here’s what I noticed…

Disney Institute Leadership Excellence

(Btw, I do stuff like this regularly on Instagram. Follow me: instagram.com/ramit)


People lying around

We went to visit Disney World. What do you notice?

There are just people sitting around!! This blew my mind.

When I was younger, we didn’t go to Disneyland a lot — for six people, it was expensive for us. So when we did go, it was a BIG DEAL. We would get there right when it opened, rush around the park, and stay until the very end (exhausted).

To see these people just relaxing and lying back was totally contrary to my own experience.

Why? It’s a totally different view: abundance. An abundant view says, “I’m relaxing. I don’t need to see every single thing in the park because I can come back here another time.”

My friend Nick Gray taught me this when he told me how he visits a museum. “When I go to a museum, I’m spending 90 minutes max in there. And I’m spending the first 30 in the cafe, planning out my trip.” Totally abundant.

One of the things I love is how Disney has transformed their park experience to give their guests a feeling of abundance — that they don’t need to rush from place to place. If you want to max out your rides, you can…but if you want to take it slow, there are options for you too.

Line psychology

Disney is the best in the world at line psychology. The lines become part of the attraction. Check out this line for some ride we went on (sorry, don’t remember the name).

IMG 7777

Disney knows that the more attractions you experience, the greater your satisfaction. So they’ve invested in their guest experience to give you the chance to experience as many attractions as possible — and when you do, to enjoy the wait.

IMG 7778

One way they help guests experience more attractions is through FastPass, an unbelievable invention that’s completely changed the dynamics of going to a Disney park. You can now plan ahead with more certainty about getting on your favorite rides. Disney instituted tons of tweaks to make this even easier to use since it first rolled it out. And notice how they massage the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots” (btw, there are even more invisible levels that you don’t see here).

IMG 7782

They keep you entertained as you wait in line. There’s a great story about how one of their Animal Kingdom rides had a wait that was too long. They tried many tweaks to reduce the wait — like the considerable cost of adding on more seats to their trucks, retraining loading staff, etc. — but guest satisfaction was too low. Finally, they came up with the idea to train truck drivers to pause so guests could take photos of the animals.

Suddenly, guest satisfaction shot up.

It wasn’t just about the line wait. It was about giving guests something that wowed them, something they could talk about later — in this case, an unforgettable photo of animals up close.

While “number of guests through an attraction per hour” is a KPI, Disney is skilled enough to take the overall guest experience into account.

Great design with lots of subtlety here. There are tons of roundabouts, making you feel that you’re making progress, even though you’ve only walked a few feet. They also strategically block off certain areas with visual barriers so you can’t see how long the line really is.

IMG 7786

I consider Disney and Starbucks two of the best companies that use technology to actually help customers get what they want. No hype, no whiz-bang features, just stuff you really want to do. For example, you can order ahead with the Starbucks app, pay, and get rewards. That’s what people WANT to do!

With the Disney app, you can see which rides are near you, how long the lines are, book reservations at restaurants, get park hours, find bathrooms…essentially everything you could possibly want. Awesome.

Park design

Disney knows that the guest experience matters. They take that seriously, down to the smallest detail. For example, in Adventureland, you’ll see certain finishes that would make no sense in Tomorrowland or Fantasyland.

IMG 7770

Could they get away with having metal in Adventureland? Sure. But they don’t. Look at the details.

More minor details

More minor details.

Why I took the Disney class

I showed you some of my photos and observations from the park. But the most valuable insights came from the class itself.

I can’t share photos from inside the classroom, but I can tell you that I came home on Friday night and spent all day Sunday typing up my 23 pages of notes. I’ve already begun making changes in our company to clarify our values, improve our team communication, and think about you — our guests — more deeply.

I’m sharing this with you because I want to highlight that I don’t just talk about buying courses — I truly believe in continuing to invest in myself. I love learning and I hope that with this little blog post, you start to see how seriously I take it.

Ramit and Mickey Mouse

Graduation day

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There Are 48 Comments

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Hey Ramit,
I have read a lot of your articles and emails and I must say that I’m intrigued by the testimonies. But the reason I haven’t gotten any of your materials yet is because I’m in Africa where the economy is low and people don’t like trading online due to the fact that they don’t have enough money and also, I haven’t seen a success story about an African on GrowthLab, so I can’t guarantee that an online business would be a successful venture in Africa . Every success story I read on your blog can’t be implemented in Africa because people won’t be attracted to it. I just got a Degree in Information Technology and I wanna be an internet entrepreneur but it’s difficult in Africa (Nigeria Precisely). Please I’d an advice from you . I enjoy your Articles and I wanna be like you or even better , but it’s quite difficult here in Africa.
Thanks Ramit.

Thanks for your note, Josh. And thank you for reading! I’d love to be able to feature more stories from around the globe. Tell you what: If you can find me an awesome story from an entrepreneur near you, and it’s a good one, I’ll feature it on this site / my twitter account. Keep your eyes open — we have students from countries all over the world using our material to start businesses. There are examples of entrepreneurship everywhere!

Jemma Samuel

Dear Josh,
My sister (Precious) is based in Nigeria. Despite the economic limitations & challenges, she runs an online business with clients from USA, Canada, Germany, etc. She has attended Forefront 2016 & 2017 two years in a row. It is difficult – yes but Ramit’s principles can be applied across all geographical borders if you are willing to stretch yourself. You could perhaps try Ramit’s Zero to Launch course just to give yourself a leverage.

PS: Ramit – you can always feature a success story about Precious – the first Nigerian entrepreneur to attend forefront twice since it’s launch.

Hi Josh.
My husband is from Zimbabwe and I understand what you’re saying about the local economy. But, I want to remind you that when you get your business going online, you become international. Currently, we live in Canada, but my best clients are Asian’s living in Australia. We communicate primarily through whatsapp. As my business grows my location will become completely irrelevant. I expect to be able to do the same thing here or Zimbabwe when we go there to visit family. As long as I’ve got an internet connection I’m good.

Jenna and Lily, thanks for the replies and I’d work harder and see where it takes me.

BRIAN FARELLO

Really enjoyed hearing about your experience at the Disney Institute. I’m a former cast member at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. It’s amazing how much you can learn from what they’ve done as a company and transfer those skills to your own business.

Columbia class on corporate finance
Jay Abraham 15-month course on business strategy
Sake tasting class
Standup paddleboarding (even though I don’t really love paddleboarding)

There are a ton

Ramit, I love that you have such an abundance attitude that you’ll try a new course/activity that you may end up not liking. I’ve become more comfortable with spending money on trying something new, being less than thrilled, and walking away thinking, “Well, at least now I know!” Even the less than great experiences give me stories to talk about and keep my life feeling full, rich, and interesting.

Your email suggested you’d discuss Disney’s values and what you learned in the course.

Your post is about park branding and operations.

I would like to hear more of the former.

I would second that request. I’d love to hear some details within the 23 pages of notes you took about Disney’s values and maybe which ones you’ve already implemented in your company. Thank you.

B & Damian – a really great book all about Walt’s values and vision can be found on Amazon. It’s called ‘The Wisdom of Walt: Leadership Lessons from the Happiest Place on Earth”. A great read for anyone but especially for those that are in leadership positions. It’s an easy read, where the lessons are told through stories of Walt’s life, but the lessons learned are priceless.

B & Damian, having taken one of their courses, I can vouch for this being more difficult than it sounds. What makes Disney such a great company overall is their use of systems. They have really taken systems thinking to a rare level. I would like to see Ramit expound on that concept as a lot of what he does is try to get people to leverage systems thinking to their advantage (that’s my take on it, anyway).

Ramit: Good “introductory” article. You probably have enough notes and memories for at least 20 more. I attended a similar class there in 1996 and I still have my notes. The room was an eclectic mix of individuals including family business owners, managers, and CEO’s. Did you see the laundry facility? Jeeez, I never saw anything like it. Love the wait time app. I encourage IWT readers & users to attend at least one Disney Institute program in a lifetime. Thanks for sharing.

We didn’t visit that facility, but one of our instructors used to manage it, so she had some great stories to share with us. Thanks for reading!

For those in the comment section that expressed interest in learning more about Disney’s values I suggest reading a book titled – Disney U (How Disney University develops the World’s most engaged, loyal, & customer-centric employees) by Doug Lipp.
This book will provide the insight you seek about the Disney values.

Great article, Ramit. I went to The Magic Kingdom for the first time for my son’s Make-A-Wish trip earlier this year. I too was amazed at amount of detail and the perfectly tuned systems they have instilled everywhere.

Everyone from security at the front gate to Guest Services, to ride operators, to cast members really did go out of their way to make my son (and whole family) feel special during the trip. I gained a whole new level of admiration for the company as a result.

I didn’t know about the class, but I’ll certainly throw this on the Someday/Maybe list for the future. Thanks for the detailed and documented write-up!

Awesome. See my comment to Aaron elsewhere in this thread, btw. It may spur some thoughts.

I book a DisneyLand package a few years back, a fast pass tickets for 3 days and a neighbourhood hotel. A package came to our Canadian mail very shortly after my online order, in a Disney folder with our tickets and some goodies. That made us super exited, more exited then before that package in the mail. Those tiny details made a huge difference of how we travel to DisneyLand to how we spend our money in DisneyLand. I’m a detail person and that made the trip so much fun.

Ramit, I’m so glad you got to experience that portion of Backstage Disney. The little things that they think of, while it looks like irrelevant minutiae, is so important to the overall experience of visitors. And I love how they do it very obviously (like the overall design), somewhat obviously (such as the jokes hidden throughout the park) and subconsciously (through music, touch and smells). I’ve been underground and backstage many times, but I’ve never been to the leadership program. I really found your comment interesting that they spent so much time just on the values. Did they integrate each value with exercises as the class went on? Would love to peek at the notes you took.

Yes, they did a great job of tying what we saw to their values. I’ll see if I can find a way to share more about the values.

My wife and I just vacationed in Orlando earlier this month. The customer service difference between the Disney parks, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld is incredible; the cast members at Disney World’s The Magic Kingdom are a step above.

For example, we were at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, and the person taking our lunch order asked, “Y’all want fries with that?” It’s an okay question in its own right, but when everything around you is quintessentially British, it steals the magic away from the moment. (Not everyone needs to have a British accent, but would it kill you to drop the “y’all” and change “fries” to “chips”?)

I would *love* to take the same course you did, and I hope to do so in the very near future. Thanks for sharing!!

Really subtle. Thanks for the great example of how even the tiniest area of business has the opportunity to be improved.

Yay! Thanks for writing this! I would love to go to the Disney Institute one day. Disney World is fascinating no matter how you look at it.

It was a great experience! Suggestion: Come up with a plan for moving from “I would love to go…” to “Here’s when I plan to go, and how I’m going to do it.” Turn it from a wish to a plan.

“A wish is a dream your heart makes” from Cinderella… Hey Ramit – great article. When I went Epcot years ago they had (maybe still do) something called DiveQuest. As a SCUBA diver, I was able to swim in the aquarium with all the sea life and interact with families eating meals in the restaurant behind the thick clear walls. And you know what? We were taught briefly how to interact with guests as we made the short walk from lockers to to the entrance stairs, and back after the dive. There were signs telling you when you were entering onstage and offstage areas and I gotta tell you it made you feel a few inches taller when you entered the guest area as a short-lived cast member. Mike

I visited Disney World with my husband and stepdaughter in the summer of 2016, and we were so impressed by the level of service; including some of these examples you’ve mentioned above. I was dreading some of it, but some of the features they offer just took it to the next level. I always thought this kind of vacation would be so cheesy, but I can see now why Disney has so many loyal customers who visit their parks every year.

Cheesy? No. We have annual passes in our home precisely because the experience is always wonderful even for the adults. All of those tiny details make a huge difference for those people with the money to spend – the adults – and it pays off. Disneyland has so many annual passport holders that they have to raise the prices to obscene prices to control demand, and they’ve had to implement surge pricing for non-passport holders. That’s a level of customer experience expertise far above most other companies. And the experience in other areas (e.g., cruises), is no less exceptional.

For anyone saying “maybe/someday/I’d like to go” to the Disney Institute training, I second Ramit’s comment above to go from “maybe” to making a plan for it. The investment is worth every penny.

daniel konopacki

I worked for Disney for roughly 15 years. I was a Cast Member at Disney World, then later a developer with Parks & Resorts Online and finally Corporate Technology. And I had the privilege to work with some incredibly creative and talented people.

The key value that Disney espouses is each employee’s ability to “Make Magic” happen every day. It’s in the little things, the details, the personal touch. It’s seeing a little kid wearing a name tag and calling the child by name (the look of wonder at these moments was always spectacular). It was how to raise the bar to not just give the Guest (that’s what they were called, NEVER “Customers”) not just what they expected, but that little something more that they *weren’t* expecting.

My favorite story of Walt himself, going above and beyond, was during the making of the movie, “Flowers and Trees.” It was being made as a black and white when, about halfway through production, Technicolor came out with their full-color process. They called Walt into their office, gave a demo, and he signed, nearly on-the-spot, a 3-year exclusive deal to be the only studios who could use it (think “Merry Melody” cartoons). But that’s not the amazing part. He went back to his studio and told his production crew to *scrap* what they were doing and restart using color. Roy, his brother and company accountant, went ballistic. “You’ll bankrupt us! We’re over halfway done!”

(Remember that at this time, a 30 minute animated film too, perhaps, 2 years to produce. That means that Walt was, in essence, scrapping MONTHS of work for his hair-brained idea!)

Walt’s response: “No, trust me. This is going to be great. People will love it. Just watch.”

And they did. So much so, that it won the first ever Oscar for Animated Film.

That’s what Disney means by “Making Magic”.

Disney’s core values are built on principles called the Four Keys; Safety, Courtesy, Efficiency and Show. These are discussed on the Disney Institute blog and in several other articles which you can find on the web if you search Disney Four Keys. Walt considered knowledge of these critical to the park’s success and for many years the details of them were considered confidential company intellectual property.

The Disney experience is a unique; How many stage shows or movies invite you on stage with the actors? It requires a degree of other-centered (unselfish) guest service which invites you into a world in which you can be safe, carefree, happy and fulfilled both emotionally and physically. Achieving that becomes the priority of cast members and the facility. It also requires a willingness on the part of the guest to suspend their disbelief enough to become susceptible to childlike surprise and delight. When those two come together is when the magic happens. It is also why Disney is so particular about hiring the “right” staff and maintaining high standards of performance in them and the facilities they work in. After 60 years, it’s a finely tuned and very effective process when applied diligently and consistently.

Thanks so much again. Everytime i see your mail I get very excited. I’m so glad that when I took on the journey in entrepreneurship, your material was one of the first I stumbled upon. Buying one of your courses is in my bucket list for 2018. Like josh said, the landscape in Nigeria is tough but there are entrepreneurs here who are doing well on the internet. Cant wait to feature on your site as one of them.

Jemma Samuel

I totally recommend Ramit’s Zero to Launch course. It changed my sister’s life and yes she lives on Nigeria. You can do it too if you tactically and diligently apply Ramit’s principles

You are right about the tough landscape, but having an Asian Godfather in Ramit has long changed my life and reasoning. I realised I don’t need to let the Nigerian environment stifle me. So I consciously worked my way out of that stagnant mentality and have been thriving. You too can. I organise meetups bothering around lifestyle changes and personal development. You can be a part of it you know. Search for the group “Lifebleach” on Facebook.

Just what the hell is this guy selling? He’s banged on about Disney but so what? I haven’t actually learned anything – so what’s for sale here and what’s the cost?

He is sharing an experience. If you read through diligently you will find what you need to buy from him eventually.

Great to hear from you Ramit. It’s always nice to see someone documenting their journey; it’s not just talk about investing in your growth – you do it and show others how as well.

Love the behind the scenes – you should do this more.

Craig Rohlfing

I love hearing your take on this. I have read and studied a lot about how Disney creates such a great experience at their parks. Books like “Be Our Guest” and pretty much anything from Lee Cockerell have tons of info about this. I try to apply this stuff to my English school here in Brazil. I am taking your Mental Mastery course and I believe you and your team have done a great job creating a magic experience for students. My interaction with customer care was very professional and prompt. The more I work with your systems, the more time and cash I’ll have to take my family to Disney. As a fan of yours and Disney, thanks for this post.

Ramit Sethi

Thank you — especially for the kind words about our support team! I’ll share this with them.

Brian D'Agostine

I read a book a while ago called “Walt’s Revolution: By The Numbers”. It is an insider’s look at what makes Disney great, numbers wise. Ramit will think I’m crazy but my end goal is to open a physical attraction someday as a secondary income stream to complement my online business. The book had several anecdotes not only on Walt’s values, but how his hairbrained thinking kept Disney as a top performer compared to other attractions both locally and abroad. Worth a read for anyone considering a brick and mortar attraction.

This was great, thanks for bringing us along to share in your experience. Disney is a magical place, just came back after enjoying our second trip to WDW as a family.

My question: You wrote
they massage the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots” (btw, there are even more invisible levels that you don’t see here).
Can you elaborate on the invisible levels?

Thanks!

Ramit Sethi

We were part of a Disney Institute class that went backstage. There are also backstage tours, corporate events, and even the ability to hire a guide who will escort you to the front of the lines at attractions.

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