Episode #137: Earning Our Mouse Ears: Disney’s Approach to Customer Loyalty

In September 1997, Ron attended the Disney Institute’s Professional Development program, The Disney Approach to Customer Loyalty: Creating Service that Keeps Your Customers Coming Back.

He wrote a three-part series of articles on his experience, and what he learned, which can be accessed on his LinkedIn Influencer blog page, at:

For historical information on Disney University, we drew from the book by Doug Lipp, Disney University: How Disney University Develops the World’sMost Engaged, Loyal, and Customer-Centric Employees (2013).

Van France founded Disney University, which is part of the HR division of Disney, in 1962, seven years after opening Disneyland (the Disney Institute was launched in 1986 and open to the public).

Disney U is the “conscience of the organizational culture,” and Van was instrumental in changing the language: On stage/backstage, Costumes (not uniforms), Audience (not crowds), Theme (not amusement) park, good/bad show.

He wrote a memorandum on September 21, 1962 that challenged Disney’s executives and Cast Members to up their games:

Disneyland will never be completed. We’ve certainly lived up to that promise.
But what about the people who operate it? Are we growing with the show or just getting older?
The trouble with people is that we get hardening of the  mental arteries, cirrhosis of the enthusiasm, and arthritis of the imagination, along with chronic and sometimes acute allergies to supervision, subordinates, the whole darned system.
Is it possible that what we have gained through experience, we have lost through habit, and that what we have gained through organization, we have lost in enthusiasm?

He believed “training is not a car wash” that you simply process employees through.

Ed and I prefer the word “education” instead of “training,” mostly because animals are trained while human beings are educated.

Our late colleague, Paul O’Byrne, used to drive the distinction between these two words home by using a question that you’ll never forget: Would you rather your 13-year-old daughter receive sex training or sex education?

Disney’s Park Operation Priorities are as follows:

  1. Safety
  2. Courtesy
  3. Show
  4. Capacity/Efficiency—the first 3 ensure this one is sustainable

Notice that efficiency is last, while the first three all deal with effectiveness.

Van also believed that it was as much about attitude as budgets; money may be tight, but creativity is free; and that budgets are the coward’s way out of any problem.

Van’s Model for educational programs: Make it simple, not simplistic; make it enjoyable; design experiential activities that make it memorable.

Be sure to check out our show (#49) with former Disney Executive Lee Cockerell, who was Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World Resort for 10 years.

Other books recommend’s on Disney:

Window on Main Street: 35 Years of Creating Happiness at Disneyland, Van Arsdale France, founder of Disney University

Disney University, Doug Lipp

Think Out of the Box, Mike Vance, former Dean of Disney University

Imagineering Way, The Imagineers


Ed Kless

Ed Kless joined Sage in July of 2003 and is currently the senior director of partner development and strategy. He develops and delivers curriculum for Sage business partners on the art and practice of small business consulting. Courses include: Sage Consulting Academy, Business Strategy and Customer Experience Workshops. Ed is the author of The Soul of Enterprise: Dialogues on Business in the Knowledge Economy, a compendium of a few of the episodes of his VoiceAmerica talk-show The Soul of Enterprise: Business in the Knowledge Economy with Ron Baker, founder of the VeraSage Institute where Ed is also a senior fellow.