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"Creating Magic" reveals how the modern Magic Kingdom really operates

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"Creating Magic" reveals how the modern Magic Kingdom really operates

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If you want to know all about the Walt Disney Company's past, there are lots of great books already on the market. Just in the past year, we've had David Koenig's "Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World ," Michael Barrier's "The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney " and Neal Gabler's "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination ."

But if you want to know about how the modern Mouse House operates ... Well, that's where the stories start to get scarce. The closest that we've gotten to that type of tome lately is Charlie Ridgeway's "Spinning Disney's World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent." And given that Mr. Ridgeway retired from WDW's Publicity Department back in 1994, that book doesn't exactly give you a truly up-to-date look at how Disney operates these days.

Which is what makes Lee Cockerell's book, "Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney " (Doubleday Business, October 2008) such a fascinating read. You see, Lee -- right up until he retired from the Company back in July of 2006 -- was the Executive Vice President in charge of Operations at the Walt Disney World Resort. And if there was ever a person who could give you a really detailed look behind-the-curtain at the modern Magic Kingdom, it's Mr. Cockerell.

Copyright 2008 Doubleday Business. All Rights Reserved

Don't believe me? Okay. Then let's Lee describe what it was like to be a member of WDW management on September 11, 2001:

Being in Florida, we always had to be prepared for hurricanes, so we had a structure in place for responding to emergencies. As a result, on 9/11, once we received word about the horrible events that were unfolding, all relevant personnel knew exactly where to go and what to do, and we were able to make key decisions within half an hour: to mobilize buses and evacuate the fifty thousand people in the theme parks; to provide free hotel rooms for everyone who was stranded; to give cash and food vouchers to any Guest who needed money to eat; to suspend charges for phone calls to anywhere in the world; and to send costumed entertainers to occupy the frightened children.

Once the chaos subsided and the park re-opened, we faced new challenges because of the drastic decline in revenues and the uncertain future of tourism. We knew we'd have make structural changes quickly. The first decision was made by Al Weiss: We would not lay off a single person. We had to find other ways to cut costs.

Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

And with that, Lee skillfully shifts "Creating Magic" 's focus from being this you-are-there account of what 9/11 was like at Walt Disney World to what WDW officials then did to get that Resort through the next tough couple of months.

That's what makes "Creating Magic" such an interesting book. Cockerell carefully selects the stories that he shares in this 272-page hardcover. Both for their great behind-the-scenes flavor as well as the lessons that can be learned from these particular tales. Take -- for example -- the yarn that this former WDW exec tells when he tries to get across how important it is to really listen to the questions that your customers are asking you:

Do you know what the most frequently asked question at Walt Disney World is? No, it's not "Where is the nearest bathroom?" or "How do I get to the Magic Kingdom?" It's "What time is the three o'clock parade?" You read that right: "What time is the three o'clock parade?" But it's not a gag question, like "Who is buried in Grant's tomb?" What the Guests really mean when they ask the question is: "What time does the three o'clock parade get to this location?" Because Disney leaders and Cast Members know their Guests so well, everyone is trained to expect the question, and no one laughs when it comes up. Instead, everyone will say something like "It passes by here at twelve minutes after three, and if you stand right over there, your child will have a great view of Cinderella."

Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

"Creating Magic" is loaded with lots of great object lessons like this. Practical information that you can use both in your personal life as well as out in the business world.

Of course, if you're just a hardcore Disneyana fan who's jonesing for some new insights into the Company's history, "Creating Magic" still comes highly recommended. I mean, where else are you going to learn about the real origin of pin trading at the Disney theme Parks?

In 1998, George Kalogridis, who was then VP of Epcot, traveled to the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, with two of his colleagues to check out an exhibit that we thought could be adapted for use at Disney World. The Disney delegation liked the exhibit, but what really caught its attention were the hundreds of people trading Olympic pins. Because the traders were from all over the world, most of them couldn't speak one another's languages, but they were communicating perfectly through facial expressions and hand signals. And they weren't trading just official Olympic pins but also corporate pins by companies like IBM, Coca-Cola, and Kodak.

Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

The rest is business history. The next year, when the millennium celebration opened at Epcot, our stores were stockpiled with pins of our own. That year, Disney sold about three million dollars' worth of pin.

Or -- for that matter -- read truly heart-warming stories about how Cast Members really went the extra mile in order to make Guests happy?

When a little boy's tooth fell out while he was in the park, his mother washed it off in the nearest drinking fountain. But she dropped it, and it slid down the drain. The child was disraught because the tooth fairy would not be visiting his pillow that night. But then, a Cast Member who had witnessed the scene called the maintenance department, and someone came and opened the drain. Still, the tooth was not to be found. So the Cast Members on the maintenance staff told the family to meet them at five at Guest Services, near the park exit. At the appointed time, they presented the tooth in a beautifully wrapped box and told the child that Tinker Bell had found it. In actuality, the maintenance team had made a fake tooth in their shop, but it looked real enough to fool the euphoric child. Needless to say, making fake teeth to please young children was not in the team's job description. But going the extra mile is what people with character do. They are fully committed, meaning they're prepared to go all the way.

Copyright 2007 Disney / Charles Fazzino. All Rights Reserved

Lee Cockrell's willing to go all the way too, folks. Sharing all sorts of Disney-related stories that you've never ever heard before. Like what it was like to be at Euro Disney ...

... on April 12, 1992, we threw an opening night party for ten thousand people. The food alone cost more than a million dollars. We had bought practically every strawberry and shrimp in Europe. It was a huge success, and everyone was thrilled with the great work we had done. We were all geared up and ready for the huge crowds that were forecast for the big opening.

But the crowds never came.

Copyright Disneyland Paris Resort. All Rights Reserved

I called it "the summer from Hades." We had a wonderful theme park and great service, but business did not materialize as expected. Money was gushing out, and when revenues go down, stress goes up. Managers and executives were quitting, transferring, and getting fired left and right.

But every one of these stories that Cockerell shares has a point. Lee uses them as illustrate how anyone -- through hard work and perservance -- can then become a great leader. The sort of person who can inspire his fellow employees, delight his Company's customers as well as achieve extraordinary success out in the business world.

So don't make the mistake of thinking that "Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney" is just some dry, self-congratulatory how-to business book. There's lots of great practical information to be found between these pages (EX: Alice Marriott's secret for making a really good chili? Use pinto beans instead of kidney beans). Not to mention tons of never-before-told stories from the guy who was -- until just recently -- in charge of Operations at ...

Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

... the largest tourist destination and one of the biggest convention sites in the world, its 25,000 acres include 32 hotels with more than 31,000 rooms, hundreds of dining and retail locations, four major theme parks, a sports and recreation complex, a shopping and entertainment village, and 167 miles of roadways. With its 59,000 Cast Members, it is the largest single-site employer in the world. And my job was to know exactly what was going on in every nook and cranny of that vast domain.

You wanna learn what Lee Cockerell learned while he was working at Walt Disney World ? Then go pick up a copy of "Creating Magic."

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  • I feel that stories putting "The Suits" in a more positive light - and no, I don't mean press releases and memos about salary bonuses - are few and far between.  The Disneyana community really bashes these guys, myself usually included, and I really like hearing examples of men and women who work hard for extrinsic rather than intrinsic rewards.  I wish there were more stories like this to be found.

    Thanks for sharing, Jim!

  • "Do you know what the most frequently asked question at Walt Disney World is?"   . . . this entire section/story has been already told before in "Be Our Guest" and that book (which was put out by the Disney Institute) has been out at least 5 years...so are all these stories modern I ask???? Nope!

  • I had the pleasure to hear Lee speak during a convention at WDW just before his retirement.  It was truly a gifted speaker and he was very down to earth, almost folksy.  Whoever filled Lee's shoes upon his departure faced an huge uphill battle in maintaining Lee's level of openness, common sense and committment in dealing with both the cast and the guest.  The WDC needs more people like Mr. Cockerell.

  • I do not know Lee personally.  But I can tell you that any book published by Disney about Disney will have been vetted by its PR, Legal, and Marketing offices before it's presented to the public.  Or, in other words, you aren't going to get any true "insiders" look into the Walt Disney Company.  But you will get a bunch of folksy stories ("What time is the 3:00 parade?") that are questionable in their authenticity at best.  Really, could the most asked question at WDW be about the time for the 3:00 parade?  Come on, seriously?  I doubt it.  But it does make a good story, illustrates an aspect of the Disney business model, and also creates a marketing-friendly image of the Disney company.

    I bet that most frequently asked question at any Disney park is about temporarily closed attractions--that is, attractions that have gone 101.  Such, how long until Space Mountain (or the Haunted Mansion or Pirates) opens again?  I'd lay money that that question is asked far more often than "what time is the 3:00 parade?"

  • Englishboy-

    You'd lose your money. My sister spent several years working attractions at WDW and was always asked that question. Keep in mind that most people, when they step onto property, lose about half of their IQ. It's the same reason you see people stepping in front of vehicles and off of curbs with no regard for their safety- they assume that they will be safem, no matter what, while on Disney property.

  • Of course the text was reviewed, restructured, and rewritten by PR, Legal, and Marketing. No question. The 3:00 parade story is a time-honored chestnut. This version's spin implies "everyone is trained to expect the question, and no one laughs when it comes up." Well golly, I've heard that question, and while I have real doubts that it's the most popular question asked on property, I have seen multiple examples of cast members ridiculing the poor guest that asks it. I've also never heard, "and if you stand right over there, your child will have a great view of Cinderella." That response is pure Disney fantasy.

    Fake teeth as part of the Disney magic? This one is beyond belief. There are multiple maintenance issues throughout the Florida parks that are seen by thousands of people everyday - all those get put on the back burner, while some skilled craftsman creates a fake tooth? Parts of this story may have some basis in reality, but they've taken it so far overboard that it loses all credibility.

    And finally, the opening party for Euro Disney. Well, I've got some direct experience with that story - I was there. Yes, the amount that was spent by the execs for the execs congratulating themselves was excessive to say the least. It's troublesome because everytime a new attraction gets chopped down to size, it's due to tightened budgets, but those same budgets never have any hold over the executive boardroom. These excesses are to be expected of most Wall Street companies, but it certainly wasn't one of Walt's "leadership strategies."

    The main thing that was left out of this Euro anecdote was the Disney publicity department's role. The week leading up to the opening of Euro Disney, newspapers, TV, radio, etc all had the same message for Europe - don't come. The publicity department released to the various media that the crowds would be so heavy during the first months of operation, that it would be best to put off visiting the park, preferably until summer was over (Euro opened in April). The crowds didn't come, because they were specifically told not to. Clearly part of the "leadership strategy" of Euro was not looking back on the history of opening the Anaheim and Orlando parks. Coupled with overbuilding hotel rooms, Euro Disney's troubles were exclusively caused by the faulty "leadership strategies" of the Disney executives.  "Managers and executives were quitting, transferring, and getting fired left and right" - except for the ones that actually caused the problems.

  • Lee was a long-time Disney veteran who really seemed to "get it" when it came to the magic. I was so disappointed back when his retirement was announced.

  • This book, in my opinion, is a must read for anyone who runs a business or is involved in any way from middle to upper management. Being a former cast member and Imagineer, the training I received at Disney was second to none and Lee does a fantastic job of relaying those principles in a concise and easy to implement manner. I HIGHLY recommend this book!

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