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"Be Our Guest" features an unvarnished take on Disney Company history

Jim Hill

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"Be Our Guest" features an unvarnished take on Disney Company history

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I have to admit that It's been kind of amusing to watch the reaction (both here and elsewhere around the Web) that Tuesday's "What's really behind the sudden change in Disney Parks & Resorts' facial hair policy" story has been getting. With all sorts of would-be Disney scholars weighing on whether The Happiest Place on Earth actually had an official policy in place in regards to personal grooming when this theme park first opened to the public back on July of 1955.

The harsh truth here is that - given that there had never, ever been a Disneyland before (More importantly, given that Walt could & would change his mind on how he wanted this place run with little or no notice) - the initial rules of operation for the world's first theme park were kind of written on the fly.

Which meant that - often totally by accident - a Disneyland employee could suddenly find themselves in violation of a policy that hadn't actually been written yet. In the recently revised and updated edition of "Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service" (Disney Editions, November 2011), Theodore Kinni writes about the poor publicist who - back in December of 1955 -- ran afoul of one of Walt's then-unwritten rules.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Walt was always focused on providing a good show, one in which the audience's attention was never unintentionally diverted or otherwise interrupted. Marty Sklar, the now-retired Chairman of Walt Disney Imagineering, remembered walking through Disneyland with Walt. As they reached the Mike Fink Keel Boats in Frontierland, a company publicist drove up to the pair. Walt was shocked. "What," he demanded, "are you doing with a car here in 1860?"

What's fun about this 208-page hardcover is - because this book is written mostly for people in the corporate world who have now turned to the Disney Institute for help in improving their company's customer service - there are lots of stories in here about Mickey's earlier missteps. Moments where - in order to deliver a more satisfying Guest experience -- the Mouse had to change the rules and/or actually create a whole new policy in order to address a specific concern.

 And given that "Be Our Guest" offers more of a warts-and-all take on Disney Company history (rather than the heavily edited & highly polished version of this story that Mickey usually foists on the public), there's a lot of genuinely fascinating material buried deep down in this book. Like that moment when Kelvin Bailey (who - back in the early 1960s - was one of Walt Disney Productions' official corporate pilots) reveals that - when he initially flew Walt down to Central Florida to do a site inspection of all that property which the Company had just purchased in Orange & Osceola County - Kelvin ...

Walt during his onsite inspection of the then-undeveloped Florida Project property.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... was beginning to suspect that his boss might not be playing with a full deck. "We drove ten or twenty miles and we got into this nasty, wasted country," he recalls, "Water, swamps, jungle, alligators. I thought, 'He's got to be out of his mind - this is nothing! Water up to our knees!' You couldn't have given me the land."

Even though he would not live to see the land developed, Walt had no trouble imagining it amid the Florida scrub. He pointed out Main Street, U.S.A., Fantasyland, and other nonexistent features to the thoroughly astounded pilot.

What's also enjoyable about "Perfecting the Art of Customer Service" is that - at the very least, in passing - this book discusses those private moments where Disney's confidence wavered. Where Walt wondered if the organization that he & his brother had built up over the years actually had the financial wherewithal to turn  40 square miles of swampland into a vacation destination. Which is why ...

WDW's Magic Kingdom still under construction in the
Spring of 1971. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

... In 1966, Walt and Roy briefly considered merging the company with General Electric or Westinghouse in order to raise the estimated $100 million in capital needed to build Walt Disney World.

Mind you, not all of the stories in this revised & updated version of "Be Our Guest" key off of Walt's actions and thoughts in the late 1950s / early 1960s. There are also lots of great more modern day observations to be found in this book. Little bits of trivia that are sure to delight & intrigue even the most dedicated of Disney fans. Take - for example - the paragraph which talks about all of the care & thought that the Imagineers put into the positioning of Disney's Wilderness Lodge.

I mean, I've long been a fan of this 728-room resort. I've been visiting Wilderness Lodge since it first opened back in May of 1994. Hell, if I'm remembering correctly, I think I actually got to visit this WDW hotel before it officially opened to the public (To explain: My ex-wife and I were living in Central Florida at the time. We were friendly with a lot of Disney World Cast Members, which is how we were then invited to take part in Wilderness Lodge's pre-opening, Cast-Member-Only "Open Mouse" event. Where - while toting our then-two-month-old daughter along with us -- we then toured this 8-story, log-structured building from top to bottom).

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Anyway ... I thought that I already knew Disney's Wilderness Lodge Resort pretty well. But leave to Mr. Kinni and his keen eye for detail to uncover an aspect of this hotel that I had never, ever noticed before.

The Wilderness Lodge is located right next to the Contemporary Resort, but the modern world never imposes on the Lodge's American West setting. Guests can't see the Contemporary; the view is purposely blocked. They enter the lodge along a winding road that is flanked by tall pine trees and dotted with old-fashioned streetlights and a BEAR CROSSING sign. If you walk straight through the main lobby and out of the building, you can see a long view over a completely undeveloped lake that is meant to remind guests of the open spaces and natural wonders of the U.S. National Parks.

And it's not just the Disney theme parks & resorts that you'll be viewing differently after reading "Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service." As you dig the revised and updated edition of this Disney Institute-authorized book, you'll also come away with a renewed appreciation for films like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "WALL-E." More importantly, how these particular Touchstone Pictures & Pixar Animation Studios productions continue something that Walt used to do with the full-length animated features that Disney Studios produced in the late 1930s & early 1940s. That extra little bit of attention-to-detail which then made the movie magic seem that much more real. This now-decades-old practice ...

Copyright Touchstone Pictures / Amblin Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved

... has been referred (in modern times, anyway) to as "bumping the lamp."

Bumping the lamp was born during the filming of the Walt Disney Pictures film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." The film was an innovative mix of live action and animation. In one scene, the movie's leading man, Bob Hoskins, bumps into a lamp hanging from the ceiling. The lamp swings back and forth, and so does its shadow. During the making of the film, the lamp appeared in the live-action setting the same way it would in the natural world. But what happened when the animated star, Roger Rabbit, was added to the scene? That's right - no shadow crossed our wisecracking hero's face.

Most of the film's viewers would not notice the difference, and certainly the scene could have been shot without Hoskins bumping into the lamp. But the film's animation artists made sure that the shading on Roger Rabbit accurately reflected the moving shadow cast by the live-action lamp in each of the twenty-four frames in every second of the scene. They paid attention to the details and took that extra step in their commitment to a quality guest experience.

Concept art for the interior of WALL-E's home. Copyright Pixar Animation Studios.
All rights reserved

A more recent example of bumping the lamp can be found in a scene in "WALL-E," a Pixar film about a lonely little robot that is left behind to clean up Earth after humans have abandoned the planet. Nearly six miles of cityscape were designed and built in a computer to make WALL-E's world believable to audiences. WALL-E is a collector; in one scene, he returns to his home after a day's work, and the audience sees this firsthand. In this single scene, Pixar's animators populated WALL-E's home with 827 poker chips, sixty-six license plates, 290 fake eyeballs, etc. The lighting sources in his home include 798 Christmas lights, two chords of forty-eight chili lights, four bug zappers, five paper lanterns, and ten tiki lights. No viewer could possibly see all of these items. So why did Pixar include them? "It's the little whispers that speak to an audience," explained director Andrew Stanton.

So if you're the type of person who actually enjoys hearing those little whispers. Or - for that matter - if you like learning about those moments where Walt flat-out yelled at his employees. Take - for example - what happened back in 1956 when ...

... it was suggested that an administration building be erected for the management of Disneyland ... Walt was vehemently opposed (to this idea. He said that)"I don't want you guys sitting behind desks. I want you out in the park, watching what people are doing and finding out how you can make the place more enjoyable for them." When he found out that the staff was leaving the property to eat, Walt steamed, "Stand in line with the people, and for god's sake, don't go off the lot to eat like you guys have been doing. You eat at the park and listen to the people."

Walt practicing what he preached, getting out and interacting with the
public at Disneyland Park in the Fall of 1962.
Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

If a book like this - which offers a far more unvarnished take on Disney Company history than you usually get to read -- sounds like something that would appeal to you, that I urge you to pick up a copy of "Best Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service."

Just be aware that this Disney Editions publication is really aimed more at the corporate crowd, rather than at Disney fans. Which is why you may find yourself wading through pages & pages of self-serving corporate speak like ...

Clearly, all organizations need customer-friendly employees. In fact, the number-one question that Disney Institute's corporate clientele asks us is "Can you make our people nice?"

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... before you'll then come across a gem like this which then gives you a renewed appreciation for how the original Disneyland Park was designed.

John Hench, one of the original Imagineers (the folks who design and build all of Disney's theme parks), remembers watching Walt finesse a setting. "I was so astonished by the way Walt could create a kind of live-action cross-dissolve when passing from one area of Disneyland to another. He even insisted on changing the texture of the pavement at the threshold of each new land because, he said, "You can get information about a changing environment from the soles of your feet."

So if you want to get a better sense of how the first Disney theme park actually came together, all of the trial & error involved with getting The Happiest Place on Earth up out of the ground (More importantly, what went into getting Disneyland's first set of Cast Members properly trained and motivated), then get yourself a copy of "Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service."

Disneyland's dedication ceremony on July 17, 1955.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the spirit of full disclosure, I guess that I should note here that I did not actually pay for this copy of Theodore Kinni's newest book. Disney Publishing provided me with a review copy of "Be Our Guest" back in November for gratis.

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  • Thanks jim for a peek into these stories. I actually think that the price of going to Disneyworld is a great value when one considers all the infrastructure and great customer service that you get.Especially when compared to the closest thing we have to us is Six Flags Great America and how expensive that is and how rundown all the rides appear (peeling paint, dirty, etc) and the staff that doesn't seem to care.

  • I love this site, just because I'm such a gigantic sucker for behind-the-scenes stuff. So, thank you. That is all.

  • awesome history that's cool back then they had stuff like that. They should tell everyone that's like epic. I have never been to Disney world but i hear it's good.

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