Lessons from Disney: How to Build a Workforce that Delivers Magical Experiences

Top-Rated Workplaces Spotlight: Walt Disney

The mouse. The memories. The magic. Yes, we’re talking about every child’s dream destinations. The Disney parks.

If you’re having flashbacks of walking around DisneyWorld or Disneyland while collecting character autographs and wearing your Mickey ears, you should know that the Disney vacation experiences have expanded to encompass much more than those two locations.

Worldwide, Disney has 12 theme parks, 52 resorts, a collection of Disney Signature experiences, the Disney Cruise Line (which has 4 ships and plans to add 3 more by 2023), Adventures by Disney, the Disney Vacation Club as well as Aulani resort in Ko Olina, Hawaii.

But Walt Disney Parks and Resorts is also one of the most highly rated companies for culture on Indeed. We wanted to understand a little bit more about the magic and learn about what’s behind these dream destinations. So when we spoke with Tami Garcia, Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Diversity and Inclusion at Disney Parks and Resorts, we were (ahem) all ears.

The happiest place on earth

Let’s address the (flying) elephant in the room. The Disney magic is real, says Garcia, and it’s part of what drew her to work for the company. She’s been at Disney for nearly 28 years and came to the company from Lockheed.

“I have my dream job and I absolutely love it,” she says. “The brand, and the ability to just be part of the magic, and deliver those magical experiences was something that I was very interested in.”

Those same defining Disney characteristics are part of what attracts new talent to the company.

“The thing that sets us apart is the ability to create lasting memories for children and their families,” she says, adding that “[employees] can be part of creating those memories and delivering that magic.”

Garcia acknowledges that there’s a difference between experiencing this magic as a child and being an employee who delivers that experience to guests nearly everyday. So how does the company set up employees for success in their roles?

“The foundation is what they have experienced in being a guest, because they know what that good service is all about. So we really look for people that can deliver on that.

“But we have an amazing, very thorough training program to make sure our cast members are prepared from an operational preparation standpoint and [that they] learn about our Disney traditions and the heritage that is so important to delivering that experience,” she adds.

Behind the scenes

So who are the people behind the Disney experience? The company has three categories of employee: cast members, crew members and “Imagineers”.

“The vast majority of our employees are the cast members. That’s anybody working in the parks and resorts,” says Garcia.

But employees who work on the cruise ships have their own designation, and are known as “crew members.”

And then there are the Imagineers. These employees are behind all of the Disney parks and experiences. The title combines the terms “imagination” and “engineering”, and Imagineers can take on a wide variety of roles, from research and development to scientists to “rock work designers that are actually out there carving rocks,” says Garcia.

“You’ve got storytellers, you’ve got people that are specialists in paint and color. You’ve got architects. You’ve got engineers. You’ve got technologists. You’ve got a little bit of everything, as you can imagine, coming together to create these amazing experiences.

“They’re really the creative force that imagines, designs and builds all of our products and experiences around the world,” she adds.

Opportunities to advance, learn and explore

Not only is Disney supportive of employee advancement—say, if a cast member wants to move into an Imagineer position—but the company provides the resources and education that enables employees to reach these goals.

A recently initiated education program gives the company’s 88,000+ hourly employees the ability to pursue higher educational or vocational training, whether it’s related to their current role or not.

The company also has an education reimbursement program for educational pursuits related to the employee’s role, as well as a program called D Learn, which includes online tools, reference materials, instructor-led programs and more.

And if employees are seeking more hands-on, experiential learning opportunities, Disney’s got that covered too.

“We provide a lot of opportunities for our cast members to take temporary assignments. So [they can] move into different roles, and try them out so [they] can get that real take on the job experience,” says Garcia.

Some of these opportunities involve traveling on “task forces”, which are placements at different parks or experiences. “Cast members can get a lot of exposure to some of the Imagineering disciplines when we are building new theme parks. Shanghai is one of our most recent,” she adds.

“We create a task force, and what [it] does is go and transfer the knowledge from our existing parks to make sure we train the new cast members on the ground how to operate. Cast members can get a feel for the different roles and try them out—and the task force could be anywhere from three months to 12 months and beyond, so it’s a great opportunity.”

Defining a global culture

The world has changed a lot since the Walt Disney World Resort first opened in 1971, and even more since the first park opened in 1955. The company now provides experiences across the planet. So how does the firm define culture? The most important thing, which has been consistent for years, is passion.

“Our passion for guest service, our passion and our commitment to our cast members. That’s been very constant and very important, and really what we would say is our North Star from a parks and resort standpoint.

Beyond that, safety is of course vital, and the firm is focused on creating a collaborative culture that’s centered on innovation:

“Making sure we’re connecting and staying very well-connected across the globe is key to success,” says Garcia. “We want to make sure that we’ve got the teams that are challenging one another, that we’re challenging ourselves. We have a demand for excellence so we’re delivering the best in all [we can] do, and we’re very focused on that guest service.”

Garcia also stresses the importance of developing a global concept of diversity.

“Connecting with one another and understanding the differences in each of our markets, and appreciating them, and respecting them—that’s one of our consistent cultural components.

“We’re very focused on creating inclusive environments where a variety of opinions matter. [When you have] such a global workforce you want to make sure you are hearing all voices and all perspectives.”

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