Creating The Happiest Place on Earth: Disney's Culture of Popcorn Empowerment

“The best teams know what to do when operations don’t go ‘according to the script’”

- Van France, Disney University Founder

Are the people who pay for goods and services “Customers,” “Patients,” “Students,” “Residents,” or “Guests?”

Are the people working in an organization “Associates,” “Team Members,” “Partners,” “Employees or “Cast Members”?

At this very moment, any number of leadership teams are wringing their hands over the question of: “My oh my, how should we address our employees and customers?” Here’s my advice to them:

If your leadership team members aren’t currently walking, talking examples of the values listed on your countless posters and T-shirts, stop this conversation. You must first build a foundation of trust.

Merely changing nouns or verbs won’t create a culture dedicated to world-class customer service or ensure a motivated and engaged workforce. Equally preposterous is the notion that simply slapping a fresh coat of paint on a dilapidated, run-down house will bring it up to code.  Just as paint won’t improve the structural integrity of a building, expertly designed training interventions, and clever words for customers and employees, have no value without leadership support.

Absent a rock-solid set of values and crystal-clear operations priorities, (that ALL employees live and breathe by) the debate about how to best address customers and employees is largely a waste of time ... practiced by far too many organizations. 

Yet, magical moments abound when a culture of trust supports employee development. 

Picture the following scenario in front of “its’ a small world” at Disneyland:

Timothy, a custodial cast member, is scurrying about sweeping up trash when he hears the child crying. Making his way through the guests converging on the source of this commotion, Timothy sees the problem. A small boy, melting down in tears, is focused on the ground, stomping his feet in anger. The empty popcorn box and scattered kernels tell the story. Making matters worse is the boy’s father, scolding the boy for his carelessness. This is definitely not “The Happiest Place on Earth” for the boy, his father nor for the scores of guests watching the scene unfold.   

Within moments, Timothy appears next to the boy, kneels down and says, “I’m sorry about your popcorn.” Instantaneously, two things happen: dad stops yelling and the child, almost startled by the question, nods his head and stops wailing. Continuing, Timothy says, “Mickey Mouse told me he saw you drop your popcorn and knows you’re really sad right now.” Pausing for a moment for dramatic effect, Timothy continues, “And Mickey Mouse wants to know if you would like this big, fresh box of popcorn.” 

Miraculously, a box of popcorn appears from behind Timothy’s back.

“Profound” doesn’t come close to describing the impact of this interaction on the child, his father, and the many guests who’ve gathered. Timothy is equally buoyed by the interaction. 

Unfortunately, some organizations seem determined to undermine employee trust, morale, creativity, and effectiveness—up and down the hierarchical chain of command—with restrictive policies. Far too many organizations spend far too much time on superficial stuff, “the cost of popcorn,” (the proverbial paint on the walls), at the cost of creating a culture promoting trust and employee development. Without a doubt, the scenario with Timothy, our service superhero, would have ended much differently had he been preoccupied with worrisome thoughts of: “What should I do?” or, “Will I get into trouble if I give this child a new bag of popcorn?”    

Handing out free stuff is certainly not the answer to every problem. The organization that constantly rectifies problems by doling out free goods and services (“comping”) is likely plagued by more fundamental issues. Yet, companies with the best products and tightest service standards must prepare for eventual customer complaints and requests. Too few are well prepared. “I’ll have to ask my supervisor,” reflects the sad state of organizational health for legions of employees and their disgruntled customers:

  • Potential problems are not discussed. 

  • Resolution strategies are not considered.

  • Employees aren’t trusted. 

Those managing the Disney University and their counterparts in Operations at theme parks and resorts relentlessly consider potential problems and their resolution. “What do we do when operations don’t go ‘according to the script’?” The employee development model my mentor, Disney University founder Van France, championed in 1955 is still in play at Disney: Managers and cast members constantly assess and even role-play, guest problems, and resolution strategies. 

The cost to Disney of a box of popcorn is mere pennies, yet the message conveyed to guests and cast members via popcorn empowerment is worth the weight of the popcorn, in gold: 

  • Actions speak louder than words: "We really do care about your happiness.”

  • Trust: Empowered cast members can solve the most commonly occurring problems. 

Popcorn empowerment embodies an organizational culture crafted carefully and methodically. Timothy’s problem-solving strategy is but one example of creating a culture dedicated to service excellence; a culture of ‘happiness ambassadors.’

In my best-selling book, Disney U: How Disney University Creates the World’s Most Engaged, Loyal, and Customer-Centric Employees, I reveal the heart of the Disney Culture and describe the values and operational philosophies that support the world-famous Disney brand.  

To this day, the Disney University continues to turn out some of the most engaged, loyal, and customer-centered employees the business world has ever seen. By empowering—and training—cast members to solve every conceivable guest challenge, Disney properties deftly handle the challenge plaguing every organization: “What do we do when operations don’t go ‘according to the script’?”  Disney knows their focus must transcend the superficial (and well-known) practice of addressing employees as cast members, and customers as guests. 

What are you focused on, and how will you improve employee empowerment?

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