Thirty years ago this month (August 19, 1988 to be exact), I walked into Disneyland for the first time. I hated it!
Three decades later, I teach a college course on The History of Disneyland. I write leadership books on Walt Disney, Disneyland, and Walt Disney World. I give professional presentations that inspire leaders and encourage everyone to find the leader within them and follow their dreams.
When I first walked into Disneyland, I knew nothing about Walt Disney and nothing about his Magic Kingdom. Since then, I have discovered that Walt Disney was the hero in his story. He led teams that changed our world by challenging them to create entirely new and different worlds.
How did Walt do it?
What leadership lessons can we learn from “The Happiest Place on Earth”? Is it possible to enjoy an amusement park not just as an escape, but as an example? Let’s take a virtual tour of Disneyland together and see what we can learn about leadership by listening to the park.
Like every day at Disneyland, our tour begins by making our way down Main Street U.S.A. This street stands as a testament to America at the crossroads of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an in-between era of technologies: the gas lamp vs. the electric light, the horse and buggy vs. the streetcar. Main Street may not provide us with any E-ticket thrill rides, but it leaves a lasting impression and an opportunity to learn our first leadership lesson.
Turn right and into the lobby of the Main Street Opera House. Inside you will find a bench from Griffith Park in downtown Los Angeles. Walt Disney used to sit on this bench on Saturday afternoons while his daughters rode the merry-go-round. It was on this bench that he first dreamed of Disneyland, a place where “parents and children can have fun together.” This is our first lesson, the Power of Vision.
Vision is the essential piece of the leadership puzzle. Leaders are responsible for taking their teams, their companies, their organizations, their ideas to the next level. Anything less is maintaining the status quo.
Maintenance is for managers.
Every leader needs his or her park bench. That place where you can sit. That place where you can think. That place where you can dream.
That place where you, like Walt, can envision your own “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” Encourage everyone around you to do the same. Why? Leaders develop their teams by allowing their teams to dream.
Our next stop and our next lesson is at the end of Main Street U.S.A. Main Street is an excellent introduction to our day at Disneyland, but we can only find the best stories and the best attractions by going deeper into the park. Sleeping Beauty Castle, the park’s icon, beckons us to follow.
To keep exploring. To keep moving forward.
John Hench, one of Walt’s famed Imagineers, says that “a castle is fantasy in any language.” It is fantasy to think that anyone can genuinely lead just because of position, title, power, or authority over anyone else. You know that you are a leader when you have followers. Leaders give followers a compelling reason to keep moving forward. Our second lesson is the Importance of Influence.
Leaders challenge everyone to live a bigger and better story. Influence attracts the best of the best who will want to follow you. Together, you can make magic and accomplish anything!
Immediately in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle is the central plaza and our third lesson in leadership, the Strength of Empowerment. Here, the park’s various lands branch off like spokes on a wheel. Recognizing the importance of the opening scene and closing shot, Walt controlled how you enter and exit Disneyland, via Main Street U.S.A. However, once you reach the central plaza, he is empowering you, the guest, to make your own decisions.
Will you go left into Adventureland? Frontierland? Perhaps you will stay straight into Fantasyland? Alternatively, maybe you will turn right towards Tomorrowland? The choice is yours because Walt is trusting you with your story. He is trusting you with your day at Disneyland.
Leaders do the same.
Walt Disney trusted his guests. More importantly, he believed in his team. He didn’t hire employees but rather “cast members.” Regardless of position, be it a janitor, baker, attraction lead, or vice-president, each cast member is personally responsible and empowered to ensure an outstanding guest experience. Walt wanted cast members to have as many guest interactions as possible.
Today, Disney sets the standard for customer service. This stellar reputation was built on Walt’s belief that in the mind of the customer, every employee was the company. “As well as I can I’m untying the apron strings—until they scream for help.”
Gather the right people. Train them well. Empower them to make magic. Encourage them to create happiness. Trust them to wow your guests, your customers, and your clients. If you don’t trust your team to make decisions, then you need to make better decisions in picking the right people.
Due to the abbreviated nature of today’s tour, we only have time to visit one of the Magic Kingdom’s themed lands. Let’s head north, across the drawbridge, through Sleeping Beauty Castle, and into the heart of the park—Fantasyland. Fantasyland best represents Walt’s vision for a place where “parents and children can have fun together.” It also teaches us another vital leadership lesson.
Walt Disney most wanted to be remembered as a storyteller. He built Disneyland to tell stories. When the park first opened, the best stories were found in Fantasyland, specifically the original “dark rides” of Snow White, Peter Pan, and Mr. Toad. The goal of each was to evoke a specific emotion.
Snow White sets us up for fear and danger. Peter Pan provides us with awe and wonder. Mr. Toad tells us about humor and comedy.
On opening day, guests loved these stories and loved these attractions. They were also baffled. Why?
Because Walt intentionally left out the heroes and lead characters. He didn’t want a passive audience but instead active participants. There was no Snow White because you are Snow White. There was no Peter Pan because you get to be Peter Pan. You are Mr. Toad!
Guests spent the next thirty years complaining at Disneyland’s City Hall about the missing heroes. “I just rode Snow White; did you know that she’s not there?”
Finally, in 1983 they “fixed” Fantasyland by placing the heroes and lead characters into these stories for the first time. However, here is my challenge to you: Stop looking for a hero!
As a leader, you recognize the importance of our fourth lesson, the Acceptance of Accountability. You are the hero. No one else is coming. Figure out what needs to be done and do it.
Throughout our tour, I hope you are paying attention to a small Disneyland detail. It may not seem like much, but it sheds light on how to be a better leader. Look at the name badge of the next cast member you pass. Do you see what it says? It only includes the team member’s first name and his or her hometown. What the badge doesn’t say speaks volumes about Walt’s unique style of leadership.
Walt Disney always insisted on only ever being called “Walt.” Longtime cast members knew that he hated it when someone called him “Mr. Disney.” Legend has it that one morning, Renie Bardeau, Disneyland’s official photographer, was sitting on Main Street drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. Walt stopped by and asked if he could join him. A waitress came to take Walt’s order and was physically shaking as she asked, “Mr. Disney,” what he wanted. Bardeau never forgot Walt’s response: “Young lady, there are only two misters in Disneyland. Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Toad. You can call me Walt.”
Walt Disney owned both the studio and the park that bore his name. He knew that if being called by his first name was good enough for him, then it was good enough for everyone else, too.
No titles. No pretentions. No rank.
Walt Disney never focused on position or power. Instead, he saw what needed to be done, and he did it. No one told him to add sound to cartoons, but that is what he did with Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. No one told him to take animation and create the world’s first full-length animated feature film, but that is what he did with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. No one told him to create a theme park—a place where parents and children can have fun together—but that is what he did with Disneyland. Lastly, no one told him to get into urban planning, but that is what he was working on when he was planning EPCOT and Walt Disney World the night before he died.
Stop waiting for permission.
Start leading by doing what you know needs to be done today. If you are looking for a place to lead, start by picking up the trash. At Disneyland, every cast member is responsible for taking the lead in keeping the park “The Cleanest Place on Earth.” Walt Disney was always bending down to pick up stray trash in the park. You can take the lead for your team by doing the same. When you take initiative you exhibit our fifth lesson, Lead by Example.
As we exit the park, we find ourselves right back where we started, on Main Street U.S.A. Here we can also see our final leadership lesson. Take a moment to look up at the second- and third-floor windows above the various shops and restaurants. These are tribute windows, Walt’s way of giving credit to the men and women who helped make his dream possible. In theatrical terms, these thank you notes are a form of opening and closing credits, recognizing the significant contributions of many different cast members to the Disneyland story. Walt Disney knew that “you can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality.”
Who are your team members? When was the last time you gave an encouraging word? How are you thanking them and giving them credit for the role they are playing in your success? Your followers need to know that they are making a difference. This is our final lesson, Consistent Encouragement creates teamwork.
Like Walt Disney, you too can make a difference. I believe it is possible to live every day as if it’s a day at Disneyland. Leadership isn’t always easy; too often the real world is filled with more problems than pixie dust.
My advice? Listen to the park.
Walt envisioned Disneyland to be “…a live, breathing thing.” Like any person, the park has its personality. It has stood the test of time; its history and stories speak to anyone who will listen. Open your heart, and you will discover the Wisdom of Walt and his magical style of leadership.
Mickey Mouse Ears not required.