Be Willing to Change or Be Willing to Perish: The Birth of Disney University

One jarring element can undermine a host of favorable impressions.

That’s why street cleaners at Disney World are given extra training at Disney University to ensure that they respond in a positive and helpful fashion to questions from departing Guests.

It might seem strange to train street cleaners in customer service, but Disney learned years ago that these cast members receive the greatest number of unstructured questions from park Guests.



To make sure that a Guest’s last – and lasting – impression after a wonderful day in the park isn’t ruined by a don’t-ask-me-it’s-not-my-job attitude, Disney provides three extra days of interpersonal skills training for the cleanup crew. Disney believes in a proactive approach to head off potentially damaging situations.

That wasn’t always the case.

Walking in Disneyland and interacting with the large number of cast members in 1962 exposed Van France to the inadequacies of the existing organization and training process. He found:

  • Outdated training materials
  • Trainers who were out of touch with the realities of park operations
  • Temporary summer jobs that had become careers
  • Hard work and long hours on weekends, nights, and holidays
  • Exhausted cast members that were becoming burned-out

Van also saw the need to expand beyond the simple orientation program of 1955 into a more complete sequence that included a consistently applied on-the-job training component.

The Disney University was created 7 years after the 1955 grand opening of Disneyland in response to the demands of a rapidly maturing organization.

Our theme of “happiness” was great for the first years, and we still use the basic elements of that program. But now we needed something new, something that would impose responsibility and self-discipline on all of our key people.

Van France

Walking the park also reinforced in Van’s mind the requisite elements for ensuring “substance” in the Disney University.

  • Training staff had to have credibility
  • Trainers with frontline experience were a must
  • Program content had to reflect the reality of the workplace and still convey corporate values, standards, and expectations

The Disney University should be a pioneering force, the world’s first and foremost corporate institution for training in the art, skills, and knowledge required in outdoor show business.

Van France

With this in mind, Van proposed that the Disney University develop employees into “Disneyland specialists,” with emphasis on four areas:

Leaders: We need to develop leaders who have an overall understanding of the complex combination of skills and professions that have made the Disneyland show the world’s greatest entertainment attraction.

People specialists: We need men and women who are professionally qualified to deal with people and their many demands.

Trade Specialists: WE need to develop those skilled in the various unique technical phases of the operations, but they must also have an overall knowledge of the total operation.

History and traditions: Most importantly, we sorely need training in the Disneyland organization and the history and traditions of Walt and his company.

With all the changes to the Disney organizations over the years since the opening of Disneyland, Van knew that it was more important than ever for the University to create programs that would carry on the traditions, philosophies, and dreams that Walt Disney had left for the organization.

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

Innovate – Support – Educate – Entertain

Be Willing to Change or Be Willing to Perish

In your organization, can you identify the equivalent of Van’s Four Circumstances that support “Be willing to change or be willing to perish,” balancing tradition with innovation? Can those things be applied to ensure that training and team development programs are credible?

  • How does training in your organization remain relevant and credible?
  • How could training processes, programs, and staff improve “substance”?
  • To what extent are the history and traditions of your organization perpetuated and built upon?
  • What traditions should be maintained in your organization?
  • What traditions are impeding progress and innovation?
  • Who in your organization has the influence and desire to implement change?

Inspired by and adapted from Disney U by Doug Lipp

Get the book TODAY to learn invaluable lessons for your Guest Experience Teams

Disney U

Book     Kindle


Continue the Disney U experience Thursday 4/10/14 with Simplify the Complex


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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s