We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. Accept | Find out more


The Keys to the Kingdom

At the Disney Institute, corporate execs study the house of mouse's practical magic.

Author Douglas Rushkoff Illustration Ross Macdonald

“THESE TUNNELS only look like they’re underground,” Scott Milligan tells me with glee as we descend a wide concrete staircase. “They’re actually the first story of a building that stretches underneath the entire park.” He stops and makes eye contact, as if he’s just revealed the secret of the mummy’s tomb. “What visitors see is really the second story of a two-story building. The grade around the park was raised to cover it up.”

My bright-eyed, barrel-chested guide smiles as the staircase opens into a tremendous tunnel system bustling with janitors, food servers and fully costumed characters, all capable of popping up in almost any location in the park to restock a restaurant, handle a problem or step onstage. “This is a culture by design, not a culture by default.”

Scott Milligan is not your typical Disney World tour guide. The impressively cordial fiftysomething former human resources manager takes corporate clients on tours of the park’s “living laboratory” as a facilitator for the Disney Institute, an off shoot of the company’s in-house training program, Disney University, which was highlighted in Tom Peters’ 1982 business classic In Search of Excellence.

In the practical sense, Milligan’s role is to help outside businesses—ranging from restaurant chains and hospitals to banks and airlines, including United— introduce some of the company’s innovations to their own operational cultures. The Tourism Business Council of South Africa retained Disney to help prepare more than 250,000 tourism workers, many of them new to the industry, for this month’s FIFA World Cup soccer tournament.

Disney World likes to portray itself as a place where “magic happens.” But for most adult guests at the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom and the rest of the 47-square-mile resort complex in Orlando, the real magic has less to do with the animatronic robots in Pirates of the Caribbean than the park’s staggeringly efficient operations and dedicated staff. However one might feel about Disney’s cultural offerings— from Mickey to Miley—the company knows how to keep the monorails running on time.

So while the institute offers a range of business courses, lectures and consulting arrangements, the most compelling offering is the chance to peer behind the Disney illusion. The experience is a bit like watching Penn and Teller reveal the secrets behind famous tricks and coming away amazed anyway. Somehow, the transparency only makes the feats look that much cleverer.

“The attention to detail backstage is as important as the attention to detail onstage,” Milligan says as he walks me through the tunnels. Called “utilidors,” there are 1.5 miles of them—all with pipes, fiber optic cables and God-knows-what snaking overhead. “A lot of our clients say, ‘Well, it’s easy for you guys— everything is magic at Disney!’ But it takes a lot of hard work. We keep our challenges backstage so you don’t have to see them.”

It’s an eye-opening tour. From computerized “hubs” where employees can get their assignments to boxes in which leaders can place notes praising employees for moments of outstanding service, the whole place is bevy of ideas and efficiencies.

For instance, Disney’s frontline workers—cast members, as they’re called—all wear name tags identifying their hometowns. “Once we added that, guest perception of cast member friendliness went up appreciably,” Milligan says. And the bit of personal information creates an opening for conversation, which can be just the thing to help a line move faster—or seem to.

And about those lines (one of the biggest challenges for any theme park): Disney’s key strategy has been to provide guests with accurate estimates of how long they might wait. The method for doing so is a model of simplicity. Every so often, a cast member hands a time-stamped tag to a guest entering the line; when he or she gets on, another cast member notes how much time has elapsed. The number goes on a sign at the entrance. Not only is it an effective means of calming frayed nerves and preventing logjams, but most guests, especially the younger ones, seem thrilled by the chance to help out.

One of Disney’s great strengths is the way it challenges and empowers employees to cook up such ideas. There’s even an in-house newsletter, Eyes and Ears, that documents ideas from employees that have been implemented successfully. For example, a few years ago guests began complaining that they couldn’t fit their rented strollers onto the little train that goes around the park. So the company tasked its employees with finding a solution. Redesigns of the trains or the strollers were rejected as too expensive, but then one employee hit upon a brainstorm: Let guests turn their strollers in as they board the train and pick up new ones as they disembark at another station. Removable stroller name cards were created, and the problem was solved.

Most of this practical, operational magic was developed long after the company’s famous founder left the scene in the 1960s. By the 1990s, Disney representatives admit, the parks were experiencing something of a crisis. The fruit of Walt’s original genius was going a bit stale, and a host of competitors had begun developing themed experiences of their own to rival Disney’s.

The company hired a seasoned businessman, Judson Green, to reinvigorate the parks. Green figured the best way to do that was to employ some very basic, commonsense procedures to allow cast members to feel more personal responsibility for the guest experience.

Another key to Disney’s success is the “quality service matrix,” which prioritizes customer service in the following order: safety, courtesy, show and efficiency. Out of context, that may sound as ho-hum as most other management schemes. But Milligan, who experienced Disney’s frontline operations himself, serving as a safari driver at the Animal Kingdom for four years, sees it differently, and he invites me to try out the Kilimanjaro Safari as a way of bringing the point home.

We watch our young driver navigate the acres of re-created African range and pass a few grazing beasts. “See the way she’s slowing down now?” Milligan explains as our driver turns a corner through a muddy puddle. “That keeps the rhino from charging the vehicle.”


Milligan remembers a close call he had a decade or so ago, when the driver before him had accidentally irritated one of the massive animals and it was Milligan’s turn to ferry his passengers through the rhino’s area.

“When the rhino started to come at us, I had to think fast about exactly what to do,” he explains as our van rounds the very same curve. “I mean, the van is made to withstand just such an impact, but someone could have thought it was a Disney illusion and hung their kid over the side to take a picture—‘Look at baby with the rhino at Animal Kingdom!’”

So Milligan sacrificed “efficiency” and “show” for the top priority, “safety.” His voice speeds up as he reaches the critical moment of decision. “I said, ‘This is not part of the show. Please remain seated in the vehicle.’” For Milligan, breaking character was a very big deal, a decision he might not have made without the matrix firmly in his head.

That such reminders are necessary is testament to the devotion to the “show”—the Disney experience— most cast members feel. Indeed, the company may be unmatched in the world for its ability to engender such dedication. In one of the hotel daycare centers, I saw two thirtysomething employees tearing up at the climax of a Jonas Brothers movie about a sleep-away camp talent show—a movie they had seen dozens of times before. I spoke with a young cast member playing Cinderella for a “character lunch,” and she told me she’d known since she was a toddler that being a cast member was her destiny. And a monorail attendant showed me the mouse ears she had tattooed to her ankle in an effort to prove her dedication to the boss.

Of course, she keeps the tattoo covered when at work, in accordance with company policy.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, author of Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back, says the magic of Disney lies in its hotel check-in process.

3 Responses to “The Keys to the Kingdom”

  1. jeff noel Says:
    June 1st, 2010 at 5:11 am

    Disney Institute is AWESOME!

  2. David B. Says:
    June 1st, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    To echo Jeff’s adjective of AWESOME, the programs offered by the Disney Institute go beyond awesome. Insightful, inspiring, innovative . . . just a few words to describe my two experiences.

    It doesn’t take a corporate executive to take advantage of the programs offered by DI. If you have the opportunity to participate, seize it!

  3. James J. Simon Says:
    June 6th, 2010 at 4:04 am

    As a former Cast Member and graduate of the Disney Institute, I recommend the Disney Institute for any manager who is interested in improving customer experience and/or operations. Disney is surprisingly candid in sharing their successes, challenges, and processes. One key example is their decision to offer hotel guests with free, roundtrip bus and valet luggage service from/to the airport. Although this was an incremental expense, it proved to allow guests more time to visit the parks (i.e. spend more), increase preference for Disney hotels, and ensure that guests were more relaxed and happier with their magical vacation.

Leave your comments