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"Disney U" features many informative & hilarious stories about how things really work behind-the-scenes at the Mouse House

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"Disney U" features many informative & hilarious stories about how things really work behind-the-scenes at the Mouse House

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Did you need a distraction from all of the sad news coming out of Boston tonight? I know that I do. Which is why -- rather than watch that footage of the explosion at the marathon's line yet again -- I picked up a copy of  Doug Lipp's terrific tome, "Disney U: How Disney University develops the World's most engaged, loyal, and customer-centric employees" (McGraw-Hill, March 2013).

Given that Lipp helped create the first international version of Disney University (which was then used to train Cast Members for the April 1983 opening of Tokyo Disneyland), Doug's the perfect guy to take you behind-the-scenes at this somewhat mysterious educational arm of The Walt Disney Company. Which teaches the Mouse House's 166,000 employees that they should always be on the lookout for ways that they can improve the Guest's / customer's experience.

Copyright McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved

And this always-be-looking-for-ways-to-improve-things attitude can be traced right back to the Old Mousetro himself. Who -- in a neat little story that Lipp shares in this 222-page hardcover -- surprised an hourly Cast Member one day during the early 1960s as Walt was looking for ways to improve one of the Happiest Place on Earth's then- newer attractions:

The Fantasyland ride operator is busily moving the Skyway gondolas through the loading area. It is midwinter, and there aren't many guests at Disneyland, nor on his attraction. He turns briefly and is startled to see Walt Disney sitting on a bench watching him.

Walt calls out, "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

"Yes sir," says the cast member, as he nervously makes his way to the bench to sit next to Walt. While he has heard about these moments when Walt would unexpectedly emerge, this is a first for him.

"We're thinking of updating the Skyway," Walt informs him. "You work on this attraction every day, so I can't think of anyone more qualified to give me ideas for the new design."

A bit surprised, the cast member considers Walt's comment, and then offers his suggestion. "Actually, the gondola roofs are too low and Guests often bump their heads when I load and unload them."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

When they finished this brief exchange of ideas, Walt thanked him. Intending to get a closer look at the attraction, Walt proceeded to board one of the gondolas ... and he bumped his head!

That's the real fun of "Disney U." Doug understands that the easiest way to get people to remember one of the 13 lessons in leadership & company values that he's crammed into this McGraw-Hill Educational book is by entertaining them. So Lipp sprinkles in laughs wherever he can. Take -- for example -- this tale of what actually happened at Tokyo Disneyland's version of The Haunted Mansion just prior to the opening of Walt Disney Productions' first international theme park. In the years leading up to the opening of TDL ...

... a core group of Japanese managers and supervisors have received months of training from an elite group of Disneyland operations professionals. Many Japanese managers were transferred to the United States, spending months learning the details of running a theme park, Disney style; some even participated in the grand openings of attractions and theme parks in California and Florida. But as with any grand opening, there are endless details and many fingers in the pie, and some things simply fall through the cracks.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

In preparation for the press event (which would be held to commemorate the grand opening of Walt Disney Productions' first international theme park), the custodial and grounds-keeping crews have been hard at work cleaning, polishing, and scrubbing every attraction, every restaurant, and every store. Flower beds are repeatedly checked for wilted or dying plants. Tokyo Disneyland is spotless and ready for the big day.

And this created a huge problem.

Enthusiastically embracing the mission to "make the park shine," the custodial crew cleaned the Haunted Mansion. It's just prepped and readied for the big day; it is spotless! All the dust is gone. The spooky cobwebs have been removed. The Haunted Mansion is immaculate -- it no longer looks HAUNTED.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Ron Pogue, vice president of Disneyland International and Walt Disney Attractions, Japan, recalls, "The Japanese custodial crew wanted everything to look perfect for the press event. So they tidied up the old mansion." Unfortunately, in their enthusiasm, the custodians managed to eliminate meticulously created and specifically placed artwork. They removed all the rubber cement cobwebs, wallpaper stains, and dust on the velvet curtains that had been purposely and carefully applied by a team of artists to make the place look haunted. The art of aging and graining, a process commonly used in the worlds of theater and film, involves the precise application of paint and other materials to on-stage props and buildings, creating a sense of realism. In the Haunted Mansion, artists spent week transforming the newly built mansion into an old, decrepit haunted mansion. In one night, the graveyard custodial crew transformed the aged and grained Haunted Mansion into a building so clean, shiny, and spotless, it could have the white-gloved inspection of the strictest inspectors.

Steve Lewelling, the director of operations at Tokyo Disneyland, has a lasting memory of the incident. Living in Japan as part of the start-up team, Steve got a wake-up call -- literally. "The call came at 2 a.m. My manager of custodial, another American expatriate, called me at home, woke me up, and said, 'Steve, they've cleaned the Haunted Mansion!' I couldn't believe this guy was calling me in the middle of the night simply to tell me the Japanese custodians had done their job." As the details started to emerge, Steve realized the gravity of the situation. What had taken the artists three weeks to create had gone down the drain. "We had just put the artists on a plane and sent them back to California," recalls Steve. "I was on the telephone scrambling to get them back, and their plane hadn't even landed in Los Angeles!"

And it's not just Walt Disney Parks & Resorts that Doug Lipp takes you behind-the-scenes at. He also has lots of great stories that deal with the Studio side of the operation. Take -- for example -- how Disney lost out on a boatload of dough back in late 1989 / early 1990 because various arms of the Company weren't communicating all that effectively back then:

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

As part of (their) strategy to reinvigorate the Disney Studio -- and the whole company -- Michael (Eisner) and Frank (Wells) were determined to foster a culture of creativity, innovation, and accountability. Several years after they joined the company, the new entrepreneurial culture they created was already reaping great rewards; the 1989 smash hit The Little Mermaid was a direct result. But there was also an unintended negative consequence.

(As Carol Davis-Fernald -- who started out as a trainer in the Disney University and eventually rose to a position of vice president of human resources and employee initiatives at the Company -- recalled:) "The Little Mermaid was a blockbuster hit in the theaters, but we didn't fully leverage that success in consumer products; retail sales of The Little Mermaid-themed merchandise such as dolls and games didn't fare as well as they could have."

The problem was product volume and variety. In light of the unparalleled success of the movie, there was a lack of mermaid-themed merchandise in stores. The consumer products team hadn't been involved in developing merchandise until late in the game, and since the product development cycle -- from initial ideas to products on store shelves -- is long, there hadn't been time to catch up. The lack of timely communication and collaboration between business had become a major problem.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

(In the wake of these lost merchandising opportunities from The Little Mermaid), Retailing specialists from consumer products were brought in to share research data (with Mouse House upper management).

"Every executive in the room reacted in the same way: Look at the opportunity we missed," says Carol. The importance of involving a more diverse team, even from the earliest levels of script development, became one of the many learning points garnered by those attending (this after-actions meeting).

The tremendous increase in the volume of merchandise sales for subsequent films as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King provides testimony to the power of improved communication and the synergy that (this in-house meeting in 1990) helped foster.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And Doug doesn't just take "Disney U" readers to behind-the-scenes places at the Company's corporate headquarters. Lipp also journeys to the top of WDW's Cinderella Castle. To a room that ...

... had no windows, nor was it painted. In fact, it was just an empty space left over from construction, no more glamorous than an unfinished attic.

Dick Nunis picked up the telephone and personally called the vice presidents of every division, (inviting them to join him) high above the Magic Kingdom, (in a room that could only be reached) via a small construction elevator or a steep, narrow staircase.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

So why did the then-executive vice president of Disneyland and Walt Disney World invite all of these VPs to join at the top of Cinderella Castle? Lipp shines a spotlight on a little known moment in WDW history. A time in early 1973 when ...

... the barometer of employee morale, the turnover rate, was hovering near 83 percent; employees were leaving the company in such high numbers that the recruiting and training teams could barely fill the gaps. They had long since passed the service industry average of 55 percent.

By 1973, the original team of 5,500 Cast Members had ballooned to almost 10,000.  Employees and managers (were experiencing) burnout.

Copyright G. Doug Lipp & Associates. All rights reserved

So what did Dick and his cadre of WDW vice presidents do to turn around the Resort's employee retention levels? You're going to have to pick up a copy of "Disney U," Doug Lipp's extremely entertaining & educational book in order to find out.

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  • Sounds like a great book, Jim. My Disney dream job (or at least one of them) is to teach Traditions at Disney University, so this should be fascinating.

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