Note: On the 56th anniversary of Walt Disney’s death, a continuing series of posts on the difficulties – and opportunities – former, now new again, Disney CEO Bob Iger is facing.
Upon Walt Disney’s untimely death in 1966 at age 65, his behind-the-scenes brother, Roy Disney, reluctantly came out of retirement to oversee the building and financing of Walt Disney World. Roy Disney died in late 1971, just a few months after the opening of Walt Disney World, and for the next decade the Disney Company was led by a team including Card Walker, Donn Tatum, and Ron Miller—all originally trained by the Disney brothers.
The genius of Roy Disney is often overlooked – a sad and unfortunate fact because Walt, the creative genius, only succeeded because of Roy, the organizational and business genius.
Their partnership, which began in 1923, was certainly filled with ups and downs. The lowest, of course, was when Walt died. In an act of pure brotherly love, Roy stepped out of retirement and stepped up to complete a version of Walt’s dream – renaming the project WALT Disney World, in tribute to his brother.
Roy, who had in reality been CEO of Disney since 1929, was now faced with dealing with the creative side of Disney. As only brothers can, the two Disneys were the best of friends and could be the worst of enemies. Even so, the Disney Company prospered with a long track record of successes.
Then Walt died.
What would the Disney Company do?
This is what they did then. Are there lessons for what they might do now?
As anyone who has been married knows, there is a difference between the moonlight and roses of courtship and the bills and responsibilities of marriage.
– Van France, Founder of Disney University
Anyone who has ever been involved in a grand opening knows the feeling. The energy accompanying the pre-opening, followed by the eventual letdown afterward, can be an emotional roller coaster.
At Walt Disney World, a number of issues were adding to the post-opening blues:
- Roy Disney, who took over as the company’s inspirational leader after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, passed away in December 1971, barely two months after the opening of Walt Disney World. His enthusiasm and focus motivated all the cast members to push through the challenges to complete Walt’s Florida dream. The company lost its vital inspirational leaders in a relatively short span of time.
- Cast members were exhausted. There wasn’t an operational road map for opening Walt Disney World. Everything was new; cast members learned as they created. Systems and procedures were developed as the resort took shape.
- Opportunities for career advancement slowed down. Turnover skyrocketed.
- Much more than a single theme park, Disney World was a complex environment that involved many professions. Walt Disney World, with the hotels, golf courses, campgrounds, and resorts, was a 24/7/365 operation. The word downtime wasn’t in the vocabulary.
- The singular goal of opening Walt Disney World, a tremendous source of motivation in and of itself, was gone. What else was there to look forward to? The inspiration and motivation provided by the clarity of a major goal would be hard to duplicate.
Sustaining the intense levels of pre-opening enthusiasm, effort, and momentum is not a reasonable goal for any organization. However, preventing a post accomplishment toxic environment or a mass exodus of team members driven out by crashing morale is a goal that is both attainable and worth pursuing.
The size and scope of Walt Disney World were unprecedented. It faced an equally immense employee relations crisis.
What would Disney do (again)?
Disney executive Dick Nunis began a series of meetings of the divisional vice presidents – but it wasn’t any ordinary meeting, and it was definitely not an ordinary location. In a small, sparse room – more like an unfinished attic than a meeting room – the meetings began.
That room, in the tower of Cinderella Castle, the symbol of the Happiest Place on Earth, would be the location for a miraculous turnaround.
The meetings led to a revised employee development strategy of centralized activities controlled by the Disney University and decentralized activities under the control of the divisions.
At the center of the plan was Disney University. It is the keeper of the key, the company’s conscience regarding the Disney brand; it is responsible for setting the ‘big picture’ to ensure a consistent delivery of the product. The new-hire orientation ensures everyone coming on board knows the culture of the company. The decentralized portion of the training strategy is the responsibility of each operating division.
Thor Degelmann, Human Resource Development Manager, Walt Disney Company
And the result – by 1975, two years after the meetings began, the turnover rate at Walt Disney World had dropped from 83 percent to 28 percent, a 66 percent reduction in turnover.
The honeymoon was over, but the marriage would thrive.
Applying Van France’s Four Circumstances
Innovate – Support – Educate – Entertain
Crisis Management and Culture Change
- In your organization, what is the equivalent of a honeymoon coming to an end?
- Are senior team leaders fully engaged in the resolution process?
- How could this turnaround strategy be improved?
- What symbols represent the culture of your organization?
- How could these symbols be used to help reinforce organizational culture and resolve crises?
- How do you communicate important messages?
- Are openness, honesty, and collaboration encouraged?
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 is one of the most significant resources related to the Disney organization, leadership, team development, and Guest Experiences available. Over the last ten years, I’ve spent over 100 days on Disney properties. During observations, and in numerous conversations with Cast Members, I was reminded again and again of the importance of the training principles found in Disney U.