Ted Topping, Creative Insights Inc.

Vancouver, BC Canada

Park Cleanliness Links Guests Directly to Walt Disney

I began to learn a key Disney benchmarking lesson on the first evening of our first visit to the Disneyland Resort. It illustrates the long-term effect that a leader’s vision can have on a company’s values.

My partner and I had arrived early in the evening and headed straight to Disney California Adventure Park. Now, 30 minutes before the start of Disney’s Electrical Parade, we were eagerly occupying a great spot on the parade route from which to photograph the floats and enjoy dessert and coffee while sitting on the pavement.

We were completely in the excitement and emotion of the moment – which may be the reason why we accidentally tipped a half-full coffee cup, spilling the contents onto the pavement.

Immediately and instinctively, we grabbed our paper napkins and started to clean up the spill. We didn’t look for assistance, and we didn’t hesitate. We cleaned up our own mess.

Remember that this was on an open stretch of pavement some time before the parade. We could easily have let the coffee dry in its own time, or we could have moved to a different location and simply put the moment behind us. But we didn’t. Why?

Good question, the answer to which didn’t become clear until months later. It turned out that our actions were the direct result of a specific value that Walt Disney instilled in the business he founded.

Walt Disney insisted that the park would stay clean because “people are going to be embarrassed to throw anything on the ground.”

Some Background for Context

To put things in context, we needed to understand that the basic format of North American amusement parks dates back to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. This was the first to offer a “midway” area that was separate from the exhibition halls – an addition that turned out to be so popular that rides, carnival games and concessions formed the backbone of permanent parks across the continent for the next 50 years. Coney Island in New York was probably the best known.

By the 1950s, however, many of these amusement parks had closed or burned. Others were razed to make way for suburban development. But few people missed them, because most had become quite unsavory.

That is when Walt Disney decided to build Disneyland.

Even live entertainment can reflect the cleanliness theme at Disneyland.

Disneyland Would be Different

For a visionary like Walt, the thought of creating a different kind of amusement park was probably a logical extension to the family-friendly animation business he was already in.

In Walt Disney: An American Original, author Bob Thomas writes that Walt visited county fairs, state fairs, circuses, carnivals, and national parks while researching the idea of Disneyland. He studied the attractions and what made them appealing, and whether people seemed entertained or felt cheated.

Apparently, his most depressing experience was seeing Coney Island. He found it battered and tawdry, and the ride operators hostile.

But his spirit revived when he visited Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Dating from 1843 and still operating successfully, the park was spotless, brightly colored and priced within the reach of everyone. The gaiety of the music, the excellence of the food and drink, the warm courtesy of the employees – everything combined for a pleasurable family experience.

“Now this is what an amusement place should be!” Walt enthused, his vision for a fundamentally different kind of park confirmed.

Walt’s values are still in evidence as Cast Members mix with the crowds, picking up trash almost as quickly as Guests discard it

Management by Walking Around

When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt personally spent many days in the park – often sleeping overnight in his apartment above the Town Square firehouse. The hands-on involvement that he demonstrated is an excellent example of “management by walking around” long before the technique was known by that name.

This ensured that Walt’s pre-opening vision would become reality: Disneyland was remarkably clean right from the start. And before long, that cleanliness became a permanent and important characteristic.

There was a telling exchange during a journalist’s tour of Disneyland the week after it opened. “The park will never stay clean,” the writer predicted. But Walt insisted that it would stay clean because “people are going to be embarrassed to throw anything on the ground.”

He didn’t want peanut shells strewn on the sidewalks, so only shelled nuts were sold inside the park. And no chewing gum. During operating hours, employees (not yet called Cast Members) mixed in with the crowds, sweeping up trash as quickly as people discarded it.

Until his death in 1966, the values of Walt Disney the man directly shaped the values of Disneyland the business. Walt’s ability to experience the park in the same way as a Guest did contributed greatly to its appeal. And that appeal has lasted at least partly because the park still offers so many customer experiences that can be traced directly to him.

This is the most amazing part of the story for me, especially since I see so many businesses struggling to deliver even the basics of a good customer experience.

The custodial Cast Member in white, and the green-painted bench near which we were sitting.

Lesson Complete

On a subsequent visit to the resort, when my partner and I had become more familiar with the Disney legacy and operating standards, we were sitting on a bench in front of the castle and soaking in the moment.

Seemingly from out of nowhere, a custodial Cast Member dressed in white suddenly appeared beside us. We were used to seeing sweepers with brooms, but this fellow was a step or two above that. He walked to the green-painted bench directly opposite from where we were sitting and proceeded to spray and then wipe it several times.

After he completed his task, he walked past us on his way backstage. “What happened over there?” I asked.

“Apparently a Guest’s pen leaked,” he replied. “So I cleaned the bench before someone else got ink on his or her clothing.”

In that response, I heard not one but two direct echoes of the values that Walt Disney set down years before.

First, the park would not suffer the indignity of graffiti for even a day because graffiti would be removed as quickly as it was discovered.

Second, showing respect for an unknown customer, the Cast Member softened his explanation of the ink marks and did not blame a Guest for doing something bad.

Showing respect for an unknown customer is something that Walt Disney personally did many times. His example in that area is reflected today in the Disney philosophy of treating customers as Guests.

To bring this story full circle, it then dawned on me that when my partner and I instinctively wiped up our spilled coffee while waiting for Disney’s Electrical Parade, we earned that respect. And given the chance, most customers will do the same thing. This important lesson remains part of our Benchmarking the Disney Guest Experience study tour.

Now… let’s discuss the ways that you can apply this Disney benchmarking experience to increase the success of your business.

Written and photographed by Ted Topping

Benchmarking the Disney Guest Experience is a unique, two-day benchmarking program. It demonstrates a service standard to which every consumer-facing business should aspire

This intense, small-group experience helps you to see the business behind the magic of Disney. Although you will be among thousands of guests, we will help you notice and study specific things – both good and bad – that most people will not see. You will interact constantly with the facilitators, and have time to discuss issues that are specific to your business.

While the Disney setting is amazing, this “learn by experiencing” program delivers practical ideas that you can apply immediately in the real world. And you don’t need to be part of a huge operation because Disney’s tactics, methods and standards work in any size business.

Benchmarking the Disney Guest Experience will be most effective for people working at a level where they can influence both the service environment and the people in it, and who already “get” why those things are important.