Inside Disney U

Excerpt from “DISNEY U: How Disney University Develops the World’s Most Engaged, Loyal, and Customer-Centric Employees” by Doug Lipp (McGraw-Hill, 2013).

By Doug Lipp

Working at the Disney University is a trainer’s dream. Employees are happy to be there, both those who are providing the training and those who are receiving it. The images of world-famous cartoon characters grace the covers and pages of the training manuals. There is a catchy name for the new hire orientation program—actually, for most of the programs. The walls are a whole other story. A con­stant reminder of the company’s legacy and success are the posters, pictures, and artwork from Academy Award-winning movies and Tony Award-winning Broadway plays lining the walls of the hall­ways and training rooms.

The picture of Walt Disney receiving the Academy Award for his 1937 animated classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, stands out. Even the grumpiest trainer or trainee can’t hold back a smile when looking at the Oscar award Walt is receiving. There is the single, standard-size Oscar statue anyone would recognize. But this Oscar is not alone; there are seven miniature Oscar statuettes lined up right next to him. Then there is that ever-present back­ground music from the same motion pictures, animated features, and Broadway musicals. Who wouldn’t be motivated by this selec­tion of Grammy Award-winning tunes? In addition, the Disney University is situated in a place tens of millions of people pay to visit every year. Finally, what training staff in the world wouldn’t love kicking off a program that has Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck joining them at the front of the room leading a cheer?

It’s Hard Work

Many executives and training professionals are envious of the Dis­ney University. People think Disney trainers have an advantage. Quite a few think that if they had all that famous stuff, their train­ing programs would be equally well attended and everyone would be enthusiastic. The excuses and rationale for ineffective training programs flow like water: “If I had the staff and budget of a Disney University, life would be easy.” “If I had that kind of training environ­ment, with all those famous characters and cutesy things, I’d never have problems getting people to show up. Who wouldn’t love that?” “Disney has decades of history on its side. If my company had the equivalent of Disney’s brand and legacy, I wouldn’t have to worry.”

Yes and no.

A Provider of Values, Not Just Things

The benefits the Disney University staff enjoys are undeniable, but glitz alone won’t last. The honeymoon will end, and then what? In fact, the Disney University is much, much more than all these things. Van France would say, “A maxim of the movie industry is that ‘it takes a happy crew to produce a happy show.’” Something in addition to things is necessary. Taking this metaphor a step fur­ther, Van would argue that a movie set blessed with the best props and the most famous actors is doomed if the crew is unhappy and the director doesn’t provide support and direction. Certainly, movie props are important, but these things can take one only so far; there are limits to the life span and attractiveness of things. The enduring success of the Disney University—and the Disney brand itself— is due to much more than cartoon characters and award-winning background music. Creating The Happiest Place on Earth is a fine balance of values and things, along with a lot of hard work.

The Disney University has a set of crystal-clear values that are aligned with and fiercely supported by the company leadership.

Many organizations have invested huge sums of money and countless hours studying the Disney way of doing business. They have done an admirable job of analyzing and then mimicking Disney’s strategies for creating, building, and opening facilities that have world-class potential. But how successful are those busi­nesses, resorts, hospitals, and organizations (for-profit, as well as not-for-profit) at maintaining what they’ve created? Many fail in this department for two reasons:

  1. They focus on the stuff, the things, without the bedrock of values.
  2. They don’t fully consider long-term consequences, the effect of short-sighted decisions on long-term success.

Without the conscience of passionately accepted organizational values leading the way, it is far too easy to begin cutting corners. There is a price to pay when things and the bottom line become the main focus. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Pulling Back the Curtain

According to Thor Degelmann, “Disney makes a complex operation look simple; therefore, everyone else thinks, ‘I can do it.’” Thor’s in­volvement in human resources and the Disney University for three of the company’s most ambitious and complex projects—Walt Dis­ney World in Florida, Tokyo Disneyland in Japan, and Disneyland Paris in France—gave him a front-row seat for the many challenges. These projects cover a good portion of Thor’s 32-year career at Disney, but the message is the same: Disney’s organizational values drive the strategies, which, in turn drive Disney’s success.

“The Disney University is the conscience of the organizational culture,” says Thor. “Somebody always has to be the conscience. But it’s not the university alone. The team in operations is equally in­volved. The key is that everyone in management buys into Walt Dis­ney’s message of ‘keep the place clean, keep it friendly, and make it fun.’ This culture drives the investment in our people.”

Investment comes in a variety of forms. Unfortunately, too many organizations don’t take it far enough; they impose limits that eventually undermine employees and customers alike. By way of example, Thor says, “we didn’t make the mistake made by so many other corporations by limiting our orientation and training to people on the front line. Everyone participates in training, not just the ride operators or those who have direct contact with guests. So, from maintenance personnel and administrative assistants all the way to executives, there is full participation. There is corporate com­mitment to this approach to training, starting from the top down.”

In essence, the Disney University makes certain that every em­ployee is properly introduced to the company and understands the importance of the brand: Disney values, Disney history, and Dis­ney traditions. This context further enriches the specific on-the-job training (OJT) sessions conducted by the operations team, which employees attend immediately after orientation.

Sophie, for example, learned during her Disney University orientation that it is important to know who you are and where you came from in order to move ahead. She also learned that her day of orientation with the Disney University trainers was the first of several days of training. Before allowing its employees to have any direct contact with guests, the Disney University has determined that it is necessary that each employee attend the orientation pro­gram followed by the operations OJT sessions.

It’s Everyone’s Job

What else would you expect to hear from a toe-the-corporate-line executive who spent the bulk of his career in the Disney University? What about someone who spent his whole 34-year career on the front lines, in operations? What would he say?

Ron Pogue, who started as a ticket taker at Disneyland’s front gate and eventually rose to the position of vice president of Disney­land International, describes a fundamental value that drives deci­sions: “Walt Disney’s philosophy for success might sound simple: ‘Quality will win out, give the public everything you can give them, keep the place as clean as you can, and keep it friendly.’ However, executing this philosophy every day, year after year, is the real chal­lenge.” Ron’s career was as long as Thor’s, but Ron’s expertise is on the operations side of the business.

Van France and the staff of the Disney University worked hand in hand with the operations team to convey Walt’s philosophy to all the employees. In essence, they successfully created a way to pass the baton from the Disney University training team to those in operations. The whole team in operations believes in the value of education and training. As Ron explains, “Every one of our em­ployees—our cast members—knew their role, whether working on-stage or backstage. The key was ensuring that management understood this philosophy and then knew how to translate that core belief to our cast members consistently.” Everyone knows his or her role in keeping the parks friendly, well maintained, and ef­ficiently operating. This way of doing business—also known as the Disney Philosophy and the Disney Way—involves a huge invest­ment of time, training, and money that not many others are willing to make. At Disneyland, the Disney Philosophy is not just a nice thing to do but a must do.

Ron’s comments sound eerily familiar, don’t they?

Organizational values typically are exposed in the form of prop­erty and people maintenance. “Operations guy” Ron Pogue’s comments reflect an equal concern for maintaining the property, the things, and the people. At the same time, Thor Degelmann, the “human resources guy,” stresses the importance of the training se­quence: Disney University training must be combined with on-the-job training in operations to ensure that property and people are prepared and maintained.

Consider the mirror-image similarities between the comments made by these two career executives, one from the Disney University and one from Disney Operations. Both are singing from the same sheet of music; they share the same values. How many corporate lead­ers can demonstrate that this is happening in their organizations?

Capturing Hearts and Minds

There are plenty of training departments and organizational devel­opment teams throughout the world that have a world-class staff and facilities and ample budgets. Many have at their disposal highly educated curriculum design specialists and the latest audiovisual technologies. On a program design and implementation level, a good number of organizations are fully capable of creating actual and virtual classrooms in every state, province, region, or country in which they operate.

Despite the resources at their disposal, too many training de­partments struggle to provide an educational experience that sur­vives beyond the walls of those classrooms or the pages of their training manuals. Also, too many training departments fail to get employees’ support of the concepts, strategies, guidelines, rules, regulations, ideas, and procedures presented during training. To overcome these problems, the heads of organizations and training departments might start by addressing these questions:

  • Why aren’t the standard operating procedures of our company followed?
  • Why is it so difficult to provide best-in-class customer service consistently?
  • Why is it so hard to create and then sustain momentum?

Even the lowest-tech, bare-bones, and budget-challenged train­ing program will get the job done as long as hearts and minds are cap­tured. Training programs reflect organizational values and health. The content of training programs, the individuals who teach, the employees who attend, and the way employees are supported out­side the classroom reveal much about organizational culture. Many organizations would benefit by simply looking at what their train­ing activities (or lack of training activities) are telling them. Which of Van France’s Four Circumstances are present? Combined, they ensure that hearts and minds are engaged.

  1. Is innovation encouraged? To what extent is creative out-of-the-box thinking fostered both in the training environment and on the job?
  2. Is organizational support found at every level? Are leaders, from C-level executives to front-line supervisors, aligned with the training team? Is their support overt and enthusiastic? Do operations staff and training staff collaborate to ensure the effectiveness of content and delivery methods?
  3. Is employee education valued and nonnegotiable? Or is training the first thing that is cut when budgets are tight? (If Van France’s second circumstance—organizational support—is truly in place, training doesn’t get cut.)
  4. Is entertainment incorporated into training and education initiatives? Is training engaging and practical? Are experiential training techniques that have enough shock value (simulations, role-plays, exercises) employed to get maximum involvement from all trainees, even the introverts? When it is used effectively, entertainment has a place in virtually any training environment; it helps transform theory into action and the boring into the memorable.

The image of Dick Nunis personally conducting dozens of orientation programs, enough to reach thousands of cast members, sends a powerful message. Indeed, having the president of any company preside over employee orientation or training is unusual, and this is most likely a stretch for the majority of leaders. Yet the exact opposite is too often the case: disconnected and distant executives sending messages of indifference through their lack of involvement and support.

The Disney University’s success is due to its uncanny ability to capture the hearts and minds of the thousands of employees it serves. Van France blended his values with those of Walt Disney, Dick Nunis, and a cast of brilliantly creative leaders. He then turned them into a groundbreaking approach to employee development. To this day, decades after its founding, the Disney University continues to produce results envied by business leaders around the world.

The Disney University is certainly a lot more than Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Excerpt from “DISNEY U: How Disney University Develops the World’s Most Engaged, Loyal, and Customer-Centric Employees” byDoug Lipp (McGraw-Hill, 2013).For more information, visit

Doug Lipp is a speaker, author, and consultant on customer service, leadership, change management and global competitiveness. By age 29, Lipp was the head of the training team at the Disney University at Disney’s corporate headquarters. Fluent in Japanese, he was later on the start-up team for Tokyo Disneyland, Disney’s first international theme park. Lipp worked alongside Van France, who was responsible for a breakthrough in employee training. This resulted in the singular approach and attitude between employee and customer that is known throughout global Disney properties: The Show and The Cast. After leaving Disney, Lipp co-developed an international consulting firm with a Stanford University professor, teaching diverse teams of professionals how to better themselves in the marketplace. Lipp is the author of eight books on leadership, customer service, and international business. For more information, visit

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.