Setting the Stage for Success

The Disney University is a name that carries clout and evokes images of excellence.

How does Disney develop the world’s most engaged, loyal, and Guest-centric employees, year after year?

photo by

photo by

The simple explanation for the Disney University’s success can be attributed to the levels of support and clarity of purpose found in the Four Circumstances, the organizational values Van France identified as vital to the success of the Disney University.

Training cannot be limited to ‘Here’s what you need to do, now go do it.’ That’s not good enough. Training needs to instill a spirit, a feeling, an emotional connection. Training means creating an environment of thinking and feeling.

– Van France, founder of Disney University

 > Van’s Circumstance #1: Innovation

Backstory: Van France’s background included experience as a trainer in manufacturing and the military. He disliked the idea of a “training department,” but felt that the idea of a university was exciting. Historically, a university was ahead of the times, leading people into exciting adventures.

Van’s focus on being innovative created an ever-evolving learning culture.

> Van’s Circumstance #2: Organizational Support

Backstory: Dick Nunis, Director of Operations at Disneyland when Disney University was founded, had an education degree from USC. Nunis saw the advantages of branching out from a simple orientation program, and backed the concept of Disney University from the start.

Van knew that unless someone from the highest ranks of management backs an idea, it won’t happen. Leadership must be intimately involved and has to set the tone.

> Van’s Circumstance #3: Education

Backstory: Walt Disney established his own unique school for training the Disney animators when traditional art schools couldn’t provide the quality he was looking for. In 1932, Disney began required evening classes, eventually adding ½ day classes as well.

This is the foundation of Disney University: Walt’s long-standing value of providing employees with a tailored, relevant training and educational experience.  Van France built on that foundation, creating a unique school with a different type of artist. These “Disneylanders” would major in the fine art of creating happiness and receive a special curriculum in human relations and Disney philosophy.

> Van’s Circumstance #4: Entertain

Backstory: France had many friends in the Art Department at Disney. As a result, the handbooks and training aids were always creative and interesting, rather than the opposite – dull and academic.

On this point, Van France and Walt Disney were in strong agreement: it was possible – no, required – that Disney University both entertain and educate. Entertainment used as a training strategy is a powerful tool that increases engagement and ensures the retention of new concepts.

Secrets of the Disney University

The message from Van France and the many who worked with him is unwavering. Success is predicated on the following:

  • Having a seat at the leadership table
  • Being a valued part of the organizational culture
  • Moving well beyond providing merely short-lived programs
  • Being incessantly creative and willing to try new approaches to keep the message relevant, fresh, and engaging

The Four Circumstances also greatly influenced Van’s leadership lessons, which are applicable to all organizations and are as relevant today as they were back then.

Applying Van France’s Four Circumstances to ChurchWorld Guest Experience Teams

Innovate – Support – Educate – Entertain

 What Are Your Circumstances?

Identify: How do you set the stage for success to ensure sustained enthusiasm for team development? What values in your organization are nonnegotiable? Identify them.

  • Why are those values in place?
  • What benefits do the values provide your organization and team members?
  • Which values are the strongest? Which are the weakest?

Apply: How are the values of your organization brought to life?

  • How are they communicated to team members? How often? By whom?
  • Does everyone know the values?
  • What happens when these values aren’t upheld? Are there consequences? Exceptions?
  • How can the values be more effectively conveyed throughout your organization?


Inspired by and adapted from Disney U by Doug Lipp

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Continue the Disney U experience on Tuesday 3/25/14 with Capture Hearts and Minds

Disney U is one of the most significant resources related to the Disney organization, leadership, team development, and Guest Experiences available. In honor of the one year anniversary of the release of Disney U, this is a look back at a series from the book that originally ran last year.


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