At 46 years old, I crave Disney Magic as much as anyone. I still vividly recall the effervescent energy of several cast members during a visit with my then fiancée, now wife Rachel, 20 yrs ago. Their warm smiles and cheery voice coupled with an “I’d hug you if you were 10 and under” body language smoothed the path to a world of fairy tale and make believe. One almost couldn’t help but ‘Believe in Magic’ after a close-up encounter with a cast member, whether street sweeper or manager. I remember saying to Rachel, “How do they do it? To a person, the energy is so positive, the commitment to the guest so genuine appearing, the willingness to serve…. they create a mood-elevating environment.”
Soon after as I began working as a physician in a group private practice I learned about the Disney Institute. My physician group hired a law firm to train us in principles similar to those taught at the Disney Institute or Ritz Carlton Leadership Center. Their program taught us that 5 Star Service is never attained, but is always aspired. The idea is that while you may deliver an experience that is “5 Star-esque,” there is always opportunity to do even better.
Our medical center, Lake Washington Sports & Spine, the professional business I started 4 years ago, operates on the principle of always striving to be 2% better. And we operate on Positive Psychology principles, suggesting that in medicine we stand to learn much from the highest functioning among us. Our mission is to “KPA” or keep people active.
The feedback we routinely receive reflects our intentions. Our patients not only appreciate getting measurable results (i.e. returning to their desired physical activity) but they enjoy this improvement in a unique medical practice culture; for example, a live person, rather than automated phone tree, always answers the telephone, and we deliberately prioritize the patient over the population (as compared to large healthcare systems, the government or insurance industry), and we celebrate our patients’ recovery with a whimsical graduation ceremony.
My family and I just left Walt Disney World. We spent one day in the Magic Kingdom, another in Epcot, and the final day at Animal Kingdom. Unfortunately, it seems that Disney has misplaced the magic.
How so? Did the rides work well? Yes. Was the food adequate? Yes. Was the park clean. Yes. Were the attractions first rate? Yes. Well, what then? Where was the Magic lost?
The cast members.
More specifically, Disney has allowed to disintegrate its culture of training excellence, and so this gives the customer the appearance that the magic was lost in the cast members.
Not present during our Disney visit were the routine and common interactions between guest and cast members that would elevate the mood, and so lighten one’s weary, having-stood-an-hour-in-a-line-to-enjoy-a-90-second-ride, feet. During prior Disney visits, when the ‘magic’ was flowing, instead of heaviness or fatigue of one’s tootsies, one enjoyed a lightness of presence akin to being proverbially swept up by Alladin’s Magic Carpet. Disney distinguished itself from other amusement parks based upon its service culture and ability to deliver a superior experience. No longer. Not for me or my family. Walt would be disappointed.
Specific examples of falling short you require? As an extrovert and as someone with a keen ‘energy sensor,’ I routinely try and make eye contact and exchange greetings with those around me. The Disney cast members would rarely make eye contact, their collective countenance was at best disinterested, and they rarely did exchange a big-hearted greeting. Their energy was flat. This energy was present in nearly all the staff I encountered. In those staffing the rides, the attractions, the food courts/carts, and the custodial team. The difference in animation of the Disney cast members was very clear.
I believe only once did a cast member approach one of my young children (ages 13, 10, and 6) and ask about their experience or try to engage them in a moment of Disney magic. And this person was our handsomely paid private Disney tour guide.
Did my family enjoy our days at Disney World? Yes. Walt Disney World states that they endeavor to help guests create memories that will last a lifetime. I know my kids will remember their first backwards rollercoaster ride on Expedition Everest (I’m sure not a brainchild of Walt Disney). Isn’t it backwards, however, that they may not know or remember in 20 years if that ride took place at Walt Disney World in Orlando or Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey? Shouldn’t every child leave Walt Disney World with a love of Mickey Mouse and friends, asking for Mickey ears rather than a Star Wars light saber? Perhaps the Magic has been lost to a new Walt Disney Company mission of earning dollars over earning lifelong raving fans?
My guess is that this is a top down leadership issue, and that the leaders of the company are more caught up with demonstrating profits to shareholders than they are interested in continuing Walt Disney’s passion for bringing the Magic to people’s lives. A watered down mission dilutes the team culture very quickly. The absence of cast member “Believe in Magic” enthusiasm is reflected in their quality of work.
Interestingly, we can draw parallels to what is happening right now in healthcare where the primary drive is to control costs, not care for people. Government officials and insurance industry administrators and executives consistently invoke the buzzword “quality” in the same sentence when describing their aims of “expanding coverage and cost control.” It is well understood that you can strive for two of three, but not all three, when speaking of accessible, high quality, and low cost health care. Likewise, at least in days past, Disney rightly focused on two things: providing excellent (high quality) staff training and customer experience, and ‘magical’ amusements and attractions. And for this, they charged a premium. The admission/ticket costs to spend a day in one of the Disney parks has always been expensive relative to other amusement parks, and now the price exceeds $100 per person per day. Some have written articles about how Disney has priced out the middle class (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2015/06/12/how-theme-parks-like-disney-world-left-the-middle-class-behind/).
But just as healthcare systems have had to drop their focus on quality to focus on cost containment and access, Disney has dropped its focus on bringing out the ‘magic’ in each of its cast members through the once singular Disney training program, in order to concentrate on generating higher corporate profits.
While I find this sad, my father-in-law shrugs it off, believing that all things are destined for change. In our world of caring for active people, we see it as a glaring opportunity to serve a community of people who want and deserve excellent consultation with a wonderful team and top-notch physicians. I suppose it does follow that Disney’s mediocrity merely makes room for the next magical visionary whose mission is our enchantment. Perhaps that’s Elon Musk with SpaceX? I’m sure the void in magical experiences will provide a ‘carpe diem’ moment for one so motivated entrepreneur. And I, a self-described fairy tale fanatic, may be first in line.