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How Disney mastered the art of customer magic

Susanne Axelsson
Susanne Axelsson
September 2, 2021
How Disney mastered the art of customer magic

Listen to full episode on Frontline Magic Podcast:

Google Podcast

Spotify Podcast

Apple Podcast


When Walt Disney built Disneyland in 1955, his vision was to create a three-dimensional movie for visitors to escape to….a place so magical that even today, it’s known as ‘The Most Magical Place on Earth’, with six themed lands and dozens of attractions that appeal to all ages.

At Frontline Magic, we love...you guessed it...magic...and so chatting to Dan Cockerell, previously Vice President of The Magic Kingdom, was an incredible privilege. Dan spent 26 years working for Disney, culminating in responsibility for an unbelievable 12 000 employees and 20 million guests, and is now a highly sought-after entrepreneur and leadership coach.  

Tag along as he shares his best tips on how you can create a memorable experience for your customers...

Leadership is never about you!

Having started his career at Disney parking cars, Dan knows that the bright lights of success aren’t ever achieved alone and is refreshingly realistic about leadership and the privilege that comes with position. 

It’s all about role-modelling 

“At Disney, everyone is expected to pick up trash. It doesn't matter what your role is. As a leader, I couldn't tell everyone to do all this and not do it myself…”

Control vs influence

“A lot of people think that once you get into an executive role, you have this authority to just tell people what to do and you can control everything. That's not true. You really don't control a lot of things, but you can influence everything. Hire great people and be there to support them...let them know how important their jobs are and give them a purpose.”

Focus your feedback on behaviour

“You aren’t here to judge people personally - your job is to judge their behaviors, because that's what you can observe and manage. In sports, the coach gives feedback all the time – ‘Put your foot back, stand up straight, turn more to the side, hold the racket like this’. They're always giving constructive feedback, and we don’t take that to mean they don’t like us...you know it’s because they’re trying to make you better.”

Success is all in the detail!

If we take a ‘close up’ of how a Disney park runs day-to-day and how every customer interaction should look, Dan explains that it comes down to just four key values:

  1. Safety – every employee is empowered to step in and act on a customer or colleague’s behalf… because when done right, customers probably won’t notice, but gone wrong, your brand could suffer exponentially. 
  2. Courtesy – always a non-negotiable for frontline teams! Disney is particularly famous for their friendly employees. Never underestimate the power of a smile and a chat.
  3. The show – add your own element of ‘pizazz’/magic/wow factor...whatever you want to call it – go the extra mile and make the customer feel really special.
  4. Efficiency – always important, but deliberately in last place… and never at the expense of the first three values!

“Building a culture that lives these values daily comes down to a very ‘Disney’ way of doing things – storytelling and sharing great examples that reinforce these values. This storytelling creates an environment where people feel good, and confident, about what they’re doing and feeds their inner purpose. They know their work makes a meaningful difference to someone else’s day because we haven’t just told them how - we’ve given them actual, tangible examples. ” (Make sure you listen to the full podcast to hear about the magic wishing rock and a last dance in front of the Disney castle!)  

It’s all about the team...

When it comes to hitting the ground and getting things done, we rely on no one else more than our frontline teams. So first and foremost, make sure you have the right people on your team, advises Dan.  

“If you don't have the right person for the job, it doesn't matter how much you pay them, or how much you train them, or how much you recognise them - they’ll only be capable of doing the job a certain way. The people who have a great attitude are the ones who are going to create those magical moments for guests.” 

Dan thinks about service this way - the goal is not the creation of exceptional service; it’s to have customers return to and recommend The Magic Kingdom. But while service is not the goal, it is the mechanism for creating the memories that build brand trust, consistency and ultimately loyalty, and the people who connect with customers daily take on that responsibility. 

SHOWTIME! (again, and again, and again...)

The cast is ready, the team and culture in place – and it’s time to put on a show… and put it on consistently well for every customer.

“Consistency is a challenge. Hospitality can be repetitive, so when you’re doing things over and over again, you have to be careful to keep that energy and excitement high. Our customers could have saved their whole life to come to Walt Disney World for one of the most memorable days of their life. And we get to be part of that!”

“To achieve this, you have to give your people room to be creative and create moments that are exceptional and memorable. Their actions are why people come back again and again… and they keep building your brand. Empowering them is key.”

Every day gives a new opportunity

And finally – even when you’re feeling like the ball and not the Louisville Slugger, Dan believes that every day is a new day to learn: 

“Get up and do your best, and at the end of the day, forgive yourself. You're going to fail, get things wrong and make bad decisions. The only thing we can do is learn and do better next time.” 

Dan’s final top tip for making a positive change to how you serve your customers is to step into their shoes and try out your product. “Admittedly, a day at Disney World isn’t a hardship, but the principle of ‘stepping back’ from what you know and just enjoying what you have to sell can give you a new perspective and even a few new focuses on your to-do list!”

Here’s a quick recap of Dan’s top performance tick-list 

  • Leadership is never about you!
  • Success lies in the detail...
  • It’s all about the team when it comes to performance
  • Consistency is key
  • Don’t ever neglect to walk a mile in your customer’s shoes

For the full story on putting on an unforgettable ‘show’ -
Listen to full episode on Frontline Magic Podcast:

Google Podcast

Spotify Podcast

Apple Podcast



Susanne Axelsson

About the Author

Susanne Axelsson
Susanne is the Frontline Community Evangelist as well as the author and researcher for Frontline Magic Handbook. She believes happy customers are born out of great experiences. Great experiences are delivered by motivated frontline people.
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