What Disney World can teach us about customer service

Forty-three square miles; that’s about the size of the city of Manchester…it’s also the area taken up by the Walt Disney World complex in Orlando, Florida writes Martin Metcalfe

Consisting of four major theme parks (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios), two water/swimming theme parks, over thirty resort hotels (with over 30,000 guest rooms to clean each day), two entertainment, shopping and eating areas, five golf courses, a sports complex, scores of restaurants, hundreds of shops, eight conference facilities and a transport system similar to that of a large city, it is no surprise that it takes a lot of employees for it to run the Walt Disney complex smoothly….63,000 of them in fact.

The logistics alone are impressive: WDW sells more than ten million burgers, six million hot dogs and 75 million soft drinks each year.

It also sells three and a half million ‘Mouse Ear’ hats, holds more than 10,000 firework displays and hosts over 1,500 weddings annually. Disney even has its own language, based on cinematic references:  employees are cast members who do not do a job, but undertake a role, wearing a costume, not a uniform. Customers/tourists are guests who stay in resorts, not hotels.

It is the largest single-site employer in theUSA, but what many may not realise is that at up to 7,000 of these employees are university students from all over the world, with a sizeable number from theUK.

Many of these are registered through the Disney International Programs, providing around ten weeks of summer work in Orlando.

All cast members undergo an intensive period of training which is specifically designed to introduce them to the ‘Disney way’ – orientation: regarding how to look and act in (and out of) character, and traditions: the embedding the core organisational culture into the hearts and minds of cast members to enable them to deliver ‘Magical’ customer service experiences to Guests from all over the world.

Roles undertaken include: fast food and beverage, full service food and beverage, merchandise, operations and life guard, amongst others.

Some are lucky enough to be Disney characters or character attendants. Regardless of role, the cornerstone to Disney’s training programme is ‘the Four Keys’ – an organisational approach to providing guests with the best possible experience.

Training takes place at the purpose-built ‘DisneyUniversity’ and is delivered by a number of Disney experts. During the training process, cast members must go through a period of in-role training when they wear an ‘Earning My Ears’ attachment to their normal name badge. This attachment is removed once ears have been earned (i.e. training is complete).

 The Four Keys – Walt Disney’s vision for a great Guest experience


  • I practice safe behaviours in everything I do
  • I take action to always put safety first
  • I speak up to ensure the safety of others


  • I project a positive image and energy
  • I am courteous and respectful to Guests of all ages
  • I go above and beyond to exceed Guest expectations


  • I stay in character and perform my role in the show
  • I ensure my area is show-ready at all times


  • I perform my role efficiently so Guests get the most out of their visit
  • I use my time and resources wisely

Safety represents one core value; dealing with millions of visitors each year (many of whom are young children) this covers everything from ride maintenance to tending to lost youngsters.

All cast members are expected to be courteous (and smiling!) at all times, to stay ‘in character’ and to make sure the ‘Magic’ is always evident. Disney enables cast members to enact ‘Magical Moments’ to heighten perceptions of service quality and allow Guests to get the most out of their visit.

It is not unusual to see cast members replacing a dropped ice cream or spilt drink, usually to the delight of the recipient.

Though clearly focussed towards providing excellent customer service delivery to visitors/tourists (in Disney’s parlance, Guests – and always with the capital G), this approach offers a useful template for any business to follow, particularly those in the service sector.

‘The Four Keys’ has links to the  SERVQAL concept of perceived customer service quality (suggested by Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry as long ago as the early 1990’s) which identified five quality audit dimensions of reliability, assurance, tangibles, empathy and responsiveness as indicators for organisations to understand customer expectations and perceptions in order to improve levels of service quality.

Disney is recognised as one of the world leaders in customer service and training.

Embedding such fundamental concepts as engagement, diligence and empowerment into training programmes and when cast members are ‘on stage’ (at work) enables the organisation to realise key outcomes (satisfied Guests) and allows cast members to add vital aspects on to their CV.

Those lucky enough to undertake the Disney International Programme bring home with them a range of transferrable skills, knowledge and proficiencies that may be to the benefit of themselves, and the organisations that employ them in the future.

And the name badge? All cast members wear one (along with a smile), which states their name and where they are from. It provides a very useful introduction to those who work for Disney.

If you visit WDW, when you come into contact with a cast member check out their badge – they just might be from your home town.



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