Walt Disney, the First CXO in the Age of Customer Experience

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The most unexpected finding when evaluating Disney’s “magic” recipe for customer experience is the focus on process—the drive and ability to optimize the mundane.

One the most surprising facts about the Disney customer experience may just well be the 70% return rate of first time Disney visitors.

When you consider the great lengths that individuals and families go to just to get there the first time, it’s hard not to be impressed with Disney’s ability to get customers to really engage with the magical experience and keep them coming back time and time again.

Disney is the epitome of winning customer service and exceptional customer experience. And it wouldn’t be the case without the legacy of left by Walt Disney, the precursor to today’s CXO.



Walt Disney, the First True Chief Experience Officer

One surprising fact about what makes up the “magic” in the Disney customer experience is its united, team effort in performing flawlessly and optimizing the most mundane tasks associated with running a theme park. Walt Disney is a master process-titian, a true genius when it comes to operations and customer experience.

Walt was obsessed with perfecting the process and getting every little detail right. He knew that delivering time and time again was the key to ensuring that each guest would share in that magical experience. It all came down to getting the process right, then ensuring that every team member executed on their specific role, no matter how small.

“Magic” Experience Made by Optimizing the Mundane

The Disney approach is to see its theme parks as experience factories. At Disney’s theme parks, experience is never left up to chance. It takes a calculate effort and execution on specific customer needs while maintaining the specific environment that breeds the emotions that customers expect from the Disney experience.

Walt Disney believed that most critical function in perfecting the experience was creating consistent quality services. Constant repetition, perfect practice of small tasks that scale to make up the overall experience of what is “magical”. In a large park, like Disneyland, the number of employees and specific day-to-day functions required is astounding. But Walt knew that it all came down to getting the process right.

The book “Be Our Guest” expounds on the critical nature of the customer experience process at Disney:

Think of process as a railroad engine. If the engine does not run properly, it does not matter how friendly the conductor acts or how attractive the passenger cars look, the train will still not move and the passengers will not pay their fares.

Process is the engine of Quality Service.

From its earliest days to today, Disney still holds fast to its mantra of getting the process right and emphasizing the little details that make up the experience. To say that Disney really sweats the small stuff is an understatement. Staff members know that their roles is critical to that experience and in order to keep it together, they must always remain in character.

One year at Disneyland, a friend’s little boy fell and broke his arm. Princess Jasmine was standing close by and after quickly assuring that there were others there to help, had to quickly be ushered away in order to not break character. Aladdin stayed back and performed his “princely” functions and helped the little boy along with medical staff.

Although just a minor example, it’s also widely known that Disney parks contain a vast array of underground tunnels where staff members can quickly move from one section of the park to another without the need to focus on remaining in character for park attendees. It’s just one of the ways in which the Disney emphasis on process and experience is exemplified.

Perpetual Optimization

The Disney experience means that no detail is unimportant and if it can impact the overall customer experience it will be studies and optimized for maximum customer impact.

The length to which Disney would go to improve the guest experience is legendary:



Walt would wear old clothes and a straw farmer’s hat and tour the park incognito.

Dick Nunis, who was at the time a supervisor in Frontierland, remembers being tracked down by Walt during one of these visits.

Walt had ridden the Jungle Boat attraction and had timed the cruise. The boat’s operator had rushed the ride, which had ended in four and a half minutes instead of the full seven it should have taken.

Dick and Walt took the ride together and discussed the proper timing. The boat pilots used stopwatches to learn the perfect speed. Weeks went by until one day Walt returned. He rode the Jungle Boats four times with different pilots. In the end, he said nothing, just gave Dick a “Good show!” thumbs-up and continued on his way.

Every Detail Counts in Customer Experience

If you’ve ever been to Disneyland, one thing is clearly absent while you travel through the park: trash. Walt was said to have researched the experience at other theme parks and learned that people typically would litter if trash cans weren’t placed close enough to guest as they travelled through the park.

Walt created what is considered the perfect placement of trash cans and it’s not uncommon to see staff members on the hunt for stray pieces of trash in order to maintain the clean atmosphere of the park.

Walt was said to have studied other amusement parks and found that people would generally not walk more than 30 steps before littering after finishing a food item. Disney parks are apparently built with this in mind and aim to have an abundance of trash receptacles that are never more than a few yards away.

This same level of obsession about experience is evident in the engineering of the park and it’s atmosphere. From the placement of natural elements such as trees, bushes, and other landmarks to clearly define the specific section of the park you’re in, to the sound system used throughout in order to help create the right mood, 15,000 speakers in all. Specifically positioned to create the right mood.

“When Does the Three O’Clock Parade Start?”

This simple question is one of the most important when it comes to training Disney team members on what it means to deliver great customer service.

Questions like this are used to train new employees on the importance of the tone and the meaning behind what customers really want. When a guest asks this simple question, they don’t really want to know WHAT TIME the parade starts, but WHEN will they actually see it.

The answer “Duh…three o’clock” is probably the fast track to looking for a new job. Exceptional customer service means knowing to offer helpful and proactive insight to customers: “You’re in luck! It should be passing by here in 5 minutes. Would you like me to help you find a great spot so you can clearly see the parade?”

Your Customer Experience Begins With Your Culture

Walt Disney’s view of a company culture was based entirely creating a specific shared purpose that team members could easily connect with and support in their daily actions.

Shared purpose is at the heart of Disney’s operations, according to Be Our Guest. This is why Disney initially chose to refer to employees as “cast” members—they truly perform for park guests each and every day.

Disney’s outline for this “share vision” is similar to many organizations today. The Disney process comes down to simple actionable terms like:



  1. Safety
  2. Courtesy
  3. Showmanship
  4. Efficiency

Creating meaningful purpose doesn’t require complex mission statements or massive marketing campaigns. They just require simple, effective ideas that people understand and learn how to translate into action within their specific role in the organization. That’s the Disney magical way to creating an exceptional customer experience.

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