Disney U: A book review by Bob Morris

Disney U : How Disney University Develops the World’s Most Engaged, Loyal, and Customer-Centric Employees
Doug Lipp
McGraw-Hill (2013)

There are valuable business lessons to be learned from “the human architect” of Disney’s magic kingdoms

I reviewed this book when it was first published and recently re-read it before reading Richard Snow’s Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World. Conservative estimates suggest that U.S. companies will spend at least $60-BILLION this year on employee training and much (if not most) of it will be wasted. Doug Lipp’s book and Chapter 24 in Snow’s book really are “must reading” for business leaders concerned about the ROI of their training programs they now support.

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Personal note: Soon after Disneyland opened in 1955, my father was invited by Walt Disney to tour the park with him and his brother Roy. (My father’s firm had been retained to design insurance coverage for the entire Disney organization and he served as the “general contractor” for assigning segment coverage.) Frankly, I had no idea what to expect and still get goose bumps every time I recall entering, for the first time, what was –and cotinues to be — both metaphorically and literally a Magic Kingdom.

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All organizations need to have more of their employees positively and productively engaged and that is certainly true of The Walt Disney Company and, especially, true of its theme parks at which “cast members” constantly interact with “guests.”

In this book, Douglas Lipp explains how “the Disney University develops [who he claims are] the world’s most engaged, loyal, and customer-centric employees.” They are “second to none when it comes to friendliness, knowledge, attentiveness, passion, and guest service.” That was true 65 years ago and remains true today.

Van Arsdale France is the “human architect” to which the title of my review refers. According to Lipp, he was “a strange combination of three of Disney’s most famous characters — Jiminy Cricket, Mary Poppins, and Donald Duck” — who exuded qualities and values “every leader should strive to attain: crystal-clear direction plus an unwavering commitment and passion,” qualities that Walt Disney also possessed in abundance. France played a major role in the development of people who make certain that each park would be “The Happiest Place on Earth” for guests as well as for themselves.

For leaders in any organization, whatever its size and nature may be, Lipp suggests thirteen specific lessons to be learned from the Disney University and devotes a separate chapter to each lesson. They are best revealed within the narrative, in context, but I will discuss briefly “Van’s Four Circumstances,” the values of The Walt Disney Company that create a perfect environment for the Disney University. They are not unique; rather, they are already well-known and must be pervasive at all kevels and in all areas of operation. Specifically: Innovation, Organizational Support, Education, and Entertain. Each must be constant and consistent. The complete discussion of these four can be found on Pages 19-25.

These are among the dozens of other passages that also caught my eye, also listed to suggest the scope of Lipp’s coverage:

o The Two Worlds of Disney (Pages 7-11)
o The Disney University Is a Fun Place to Work (31-32)
o Capturing Hearts and Minds (36-38)
o Balancing Art and Science, and, Keeping the Park Fresh (44-45)
o “We Want to Meet Snow White” (48-50)

o A Different Perspective (57-59)
o The Birth of the Disney University (69-70)
o Disney University: Where Everyone Majors in “People,” and, Disney University: Tradition and Innovation (74-76)
o Disney Guest Service: Simplify the Complex SCSE (84-87)
Note: Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Capacity/Efficiency
o The Disney Shopping Experience (87-90)

o The Walt Disney World Crisis (101-103)
o No Room for Excuses (115-117)
o Executive Development: A Disney Tradition (129-131)
o The Green Light Experience (132-134)
o Cultures Are Neighborhoods (175-178)

Douglas Lipp makes especially clever use of several reader-friendly devices, notably “Lesson Review” and “Applying Van’s Four Circumstances” at the conclusion of most chapters. He also inserts dozens of quotations from primary sources such as Walt Disney and Van France, of course, but also from countess others who were also centrally and significantly involved in the process by which the Disney Parks and University evolved over time. He cites (on Page 17) Van France’s memorandum dated (September 21, 1962) in which he proposes a program to establish “the University of Disneyland, 1962-1963.”

And then as they say, “the rest is history” and much of that history is brought to life in this entertaining as well as informative book.


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