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