The First Ever Disney Institute Customer Experience Summit: My Field Report

I just returned from Disney’s first ever Customer Experience Summit, presented by the Disney Institute at Walt Disney World in Orlando.  It was amazing, and demonstrated Disney’s complete mastery of the craft of customer experience in both the material they presented and the way in which they presented it.

The Disney Institute

The Disney Institute (sometimes abbreviated DI) is Disney’s external training arm.  The Institute started in the 1990s as a resort at Walt Disney World that focused on hands-on learning, personal development and interactivity.  That concept didn’t catch on, so Disney closed the resort (re-opening it as Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa) and turned the Institute’s focus towards business.  In the early 2000s, Disney changed the focus of the Institute’s curriculum to focus on seminars for business professionals to learn the “secrets” behind Disney’s customer service and business culture.

The Disney Institute provides classes at several of Disney’s locations, including Walt Disney World and Disneyland.  They also take their coursework on the road, and in that form I’ve attended multiple different sessions on leadership, customer service, employee engagement, and business excellence.

Disney and Customer Experience

If you know me or this blog at all you know I have enormous regard for how Disney does customer experience, and many of the principles that I and my colleagues use in our consulting were stolen borrowed from Disney.  At the same time, Disney has never explicitly branded their material as customer experience; the closest they’ve come is talking about customer service excellence.

Until now.

For this event, Disney Institute repackaged their typical course offerings and rebranded them under the collective label of “The Disney Institute Customer Experience Summit.”  It was the first time they had done this, and in my conversation with various Disney Institute cast members it was clear they didn’t know what to expect.  They weren’t sure that the offering would resonate with customers, and they weren’t certain that they would be able to sell all 250 seats.

Not only did Disney sell all 250 seats, they sold them out in only a few weeks.  One cast member told me that the overflow waiting list was enough to fill half of next year’s summit.

DI offers similar course material all year round in many different locations, but this event took off.  Based on my conversations with fellow attendees, branding it as “customer experience” and hosting it at Walt Disney World itself really drew in the crowd.

Kicking off The Summit

The Summit itself spanned three days, from Monday afternoon to Wednesday night, and it was intense.  While the first day was all about registration and getting settled in, the second and third days each went from 7 AM to 10 PM with minimal breaks.  The first night consisted of an opening address followed by a condensed version of DI’s Leadership Excellence course.  While abbreviated, it set the stage for the rest of the curriculum on days 2 and 3.

Day 2 started with another group session delivered as only Disney can do it.  George Kalogridis, President of the Walt Disney World Resort, delivered the keynote speech that described the accomplishments of the resort and previewed some things to come.  At the end, the DI team brought out 250 pairs of Made with Magic mouse ears and distributed them to the crowd.  Yes, hundreds of grown adults cheered and giggled as they happily put on their ears then watched a video presentation where the color of the ears synced up with the effects in the video.

250 grown adults wearing glowing mouse ears and watching a video of fireworks

250 grown adults wearing glowing mouse ears and watching a video of fireworks

That’s magical, and not just because those ears cost thirty bucks in the parks.

Into the Classroom and Into the Field

After the keynote we all split up into different classrooms, each one tackling a different piece of the DI curriculum around customer services and employee engagement. I started with customer service; while the material wasn’t fundamentally different from previous DI sessions I’ve attended, the field trip to backstage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park sure was. My group visited Frankie, Disney’s bull white rhinoceros (an impressive 3,200 pound animal described as a “sweet baby” by one of his caretakers) and then toured the veterinary hospital.

What astonished me was that the Animal Kingdom’s team of veterinarians and vet techs don’t specialize:  one day they could be setting a broken leg on a tarantula, the next they could be removing a tumor from a fish, and the next they could be designing and hand-crafting an endoscope for a giraffe. I admit that I’m a laboratory and medical nerd, and I totally geeked out over the ingenuity and flexibility that the veterinary team has to demonstrate every day.

Even in the backstage areas at Disney they’re prepared to put on a show.  Work areas are neat and tidy, signage is plentiful, and the cast members clearly enjoy talking about their work.

Running with the deVil

Day 2 ended with a presentation by Karl Holz, President of New Vacation Operations and Disney Cruise Line, followed by dinner at the Villains Party backstage at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. At the Villains Party, Summit attendees enjoyed great food while having their picture taken with Maleficent, the evil queen from Snow White, or a completely over-the-top Cruella deVil.  After dinner, the entire group took a trip into the park to watch the new Star Wars fireworks presentation from a roped-off VIP area.

Me with Cruella deVil. Or maybe Karl Holz. Not sure.

Me with Cruella deVil. Or maybe Karl Holz. Not sure.

Day 3 started with a presentation by Paul Richardson, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, ESPN and Chief Diversity Officer, The Walt Disney Company.  Of all of the keynotes his was the most engaging, and included a hilarious video showing the first few minutes of ESPN’s broadcasting in 1979 (“Yes, younger people, we really did dress like that back in the seventies.”)  Midway through his presentation he brought out former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden.  Jon gave us the “four Es” that he tries to instill in his team members:  Effort, Enthusiasm, Execution, and Entensity. (“It sounds like it should start with an E,” says Coach Gruden.)

From there we resumed the regular DI curriculum; for me day 3 was all about employee engagement and a backstage field trip to the Magic Kingdom.

130 minute wait for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train? I don't think so!

130 minute wait for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train? I don’t think so!

Walt DIsney World has roughly 75,000 cast members on site, making it the largest single employment site in the United States.  Disney recognizes that without employee engagement they’ll never deliver magic to the guests, so they’ve put a lot of time and effort into mastering this concept.  One particularly intense exercise was called “Wonderland”, and it demonstrated just how important emotional tone is when leading or being part of an organization.  The exercise was so intense that several participants walked out emotionally distressed.

The official summit ended with a final presentation, then after an extended break we had one last over-the-top Disney dinner, complete with a Beauty and the Beast theme and singing and dancing by talented cast members in full costume.  Try the grey stuff, it’s delicious.

Delivering CX

Disney understands this topic like no other organization, and not only do they talk about it, they demonstrate it.  They hosted the Summit itself at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, the flagship hotel of the entire Disney empire.  They took advantage of every tool at their disposal, including sound, lighting, performers, food, drinks, social media, and the Walt Disney World resort itself.  They set up character meet-and-greets and gave out free photography as conference attendees met Mickey and Minnie, or Snow White and Dopey, or Cruella deVil and the Evil Queen.  The menu was built around the high-end cuisine you’d expect at the Grand Floridian. They made every attendee feel like a VIP with backstage tours, exclusive events, and personalized attention.  Dozens of cast members participated in the planning and execution of the event, and it was obvious.

Perhaps most illustrative at all, they adapted the conference to the needs and wants of the attendees.  Before the conference began on Monday one of the attendees proposed a small get-together to travel over to Disney’s Polynesian Resort and get Dole Whips.  A Dole Whips is just a pineapple soft-serve ice cream blend, and it’s not even exclusive to Disney World, but they’re hard to find and many Disney fans are also hard-core Dole Whip fans.

The WHIPs at the Disney Institute Customer Experience Summit

The WHIPs, the original crew that went for Dole Whip before the conference. One of our members created the backronym Walt’s Highly Interactive Participants.

When the conference organizers saw what we had planned they sent a cast member along with the group to make sure everything went smoothly.  Fifteen of us happily rode the monorail over to the Polynesian and enjoyed our Dole Whips, and we immediately formed a bond.  Several members posted our group photo to social media, and the conference organizers took note.  Presentations throughout Monday and Tuesday were peppered with mentions of Dole Whip.

Whip It, Whip It Good

On Wednesday, Bruce Jones, the Senior Programming Director for DI and the emcee of the event, declared that the team had taken note of our Dole Whip fascination and decided to do something about it.  They weren’t going to just bring Dole Whips, though, they were going to kick it up a notch.  And that’s now every attendee at the Disney Institute Customer Experience Summit found themselves with the opportunity to enjoy a frozen pineapple drink that day, and most of those drinks also contained rum.  Furthermore, Bruce declared that if we showed our conference pass at any Dole Whip venue on property we would also get a free Dole Whip.

It was a simple thing, just a little meme that got started when some people wanted to meet before the conference and share an enjoyable experience, but Disney took it and magnified it to something bigger and better.  Now that’s customer experience.

Convergent Evolution

While I certainly leverage much of my customer experience expertise from things I’ve learned at Disney, I also pull in components from many, many other sources. Exceptional customer experience only happens when an organization does many things right, so I incorporate principles from all kinds of experts and then my team adds their own take as well. We talk about culture, and common purpose, and the importance of design.  None of these concepts are new, but customer experience design pulls them together in a way that feels new.

I’ve been to DI courses multiple times over the last several years, and it was interesting to note that they put more weight on some ideas now than they did in the past, and that those ideas are already part of what my team teaches.  Common purpose is an old idea, and one that has been the cornerstone of my CX work, but not one that I recall seeing examined at length in the DI classes I’ve attended.  This time, however, there was an entire section on common purpose, and they went into the topic in great depth.

Disney is the leader, but we’re all learning and improving this field at the same time.  It’s gratifying to see that the most respected organization in the field is talking about some of the same topics that I’ve been using for years.

A Diverse Audience

Perhaps my greatest surprise at the Disney Institute Customer Experience Summit was understanding just how diverse the audience was.  We represented dozens of industries from all over the world.  I met folks in higher education, retail, management consulting, information technology, hospitality, banking, publishing, training, healthcare, motivational speaking, financial services, and entertainment.  I was astonished at how many people were there from religious institutions.  There were people from state, local, and federal government divisions. I sat next to a woman who operates a funeral home, and I made friends with a benefits consultant who used to be a cast member.

What was also interesting was who wasn’t there.  I didn’t meet many people from sales or marketing.  I only met one other CX consultant and one management consultant, both of whom are now my friends through the Dole Whip connection.  The summit didn’t seem to include anyone from all of the organizations that claim to be CX-focused but really just provide market research tools that measure Net Promoter Score or web site traffic.  I didn’t meet anyone from the big consulting firms like McKinsey or Accenture.

Audience Reaction

The first session of a new conference is always fascinating, because only the true believers are there. Based on the enthusiastic response and the general tone of every interaction I had with fellow attendees, we were all true believers.

Customer experience is a maturing field, and there are many companies dipping their toes in the water to understand what it means and how relevant it is to their organization.  The people attending the Summit were not tentatively dipping their toes.  Even if they hadn’t been through the DI experience before, even if they had no formal training in CX, they were believers, and they were there to participate with great enthusiasm.

As I told my colleagues, this is the first conference where I didn’t hand out or receive a single business card, but I came back with twenty new friends on Facebook.

The Future of the Disney Institute Customer Experience Summit

The Disney Institute created this first-ever customer experience summit without being sure what to expect; the cast members I talked to were pleasantly surprised that the event was so popular and that the participants were so engaged.  While they haven’t announced anything for the next summit, one cast member suggested that they might offer it at Disneyland next and perhaps have one a year at both WDW and Disneyland staggered six months apart.  It may be challenging for DI to constantly come up with fresh takes on their core content, but if there’s any organization that can continue to create that exceptional experience, it’s Disney.


Interested in keeping in touch? Sign up for our newsletter.