How Ed Grier makes dreams come true at the Disneyland Resort Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

Ever since Walt Disney opened the park in 1955, Disneyland has been known as “The Happiest Place on Earth.” So it’s fair to say the bar is set quite high for Disneyland’s president, Ed Grier.

“We don’t get to have a bad day,” Grier says. “Certainly we are not perfect, and we do make mistakes, but that is the approach we take. We don’t want to have a bad day. We want to have a great day every day for our guests. It’s important on that day, but it’s more important because we want them to keep coming back.”

As president of the Disneyland Resort, Grier is in charge of the operation of two theme parks, three hotels, and the Downtown Disney shopping, dining and entertainment district.

The historic Disneyland Park is the flagship of the resort, drawing nearly 15 million visitors annually. It’s the second-most-visited theme park in the world, behind only Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida. Disney’s California Adventure theme park — also a part of the resort — adds several million more visitors each year. Each one of those visitors expects his or her Disneyland experience to live up to Walt Disney’s promise.

Grier says the keys to providing that world-class service are gathering information, sticking to a plan and asking employees to contribute to the organization’s success.

With a work force of 20,000 employees spread throughout the 510-acre resort, that’s no easy task.

Gather information and plan

With so many moving parts to consider, keeping everything running smoothly is difficult. But Grier and his management team gather copious amounts of information to anticipate any potential bumps in the road and take action to prevent the problem before it occurs.

“The planning aspect is the toughest part of it,” he says. “If we plan well and we train our cast well, then we will be successful. Because of our training and anticipation and knowing our guests, we set ourselves up for success.

“It sounds daunting, but because we have the organization set up so we have information flowing back and forth, it makes it, never easy, but certainly we understand what track we’re on and how well we’re doing.”

In order to craft an effective strategic business plan for the resort, Grier needs to collect as much information as he can. The resort’s managers constantly measure their respective area’s performance. Every detail must be meticulously reported.

“If you are one of my leaders who runs a big line of business, say food and beverage, that leader will know how well the operation did the night before,” Grier says. “Did they achieve their financial goals, did they achieve their efficiency goals, did they achieve their guest service metrics?”

Hotel managers know how many guests to expect on any given day and how many hotel rooms are occupied that day, depending on the time of year. Some of the guest service metrics Disneyland staff record may seem like sweating the small stuff, but knowing your business inside and out makes strategic planning much easier. Those little things also can make the difference between a one-time guest and a repeat customer.

For instance, Disneyland restaurant staff measures how long it takes to seat guests once they have arrived at the location. In another example of the personal touch that Disneyland strives to provide, if a customer made a reservation or used a credit card, restaurant staff is supposed to call the guest by name.

“We build in interactions with our guest and cast,” he says. “It becomes second nature for our cast members. It means a lot to our guests that when they come here that we can really take care of them, and they really have a one-on-one experience. You would say that would be difficult to do with millions of visitors, but that is really what is so important for us — to have these immersive personal experiences with the guests and our cast and the environment we create here.”

Guests who are visiting Disneyland on their birthday can go to the guest relations department and be given a special birthday button. The button tips off Disney employees throughout the resort, and the birthday boy or girl will hear, “Happy birthday; we’re glad you’re here,” quite often. It’s another example of the customer service that has helped Disneyland maintain its status as an American landmark for more than 50 years.

“We put those service standards into place, and it becomes the way our cast members operate,” he says. “All of those little details add up to make a huge difference for your guest experience here. It comes from small things, like interaction with the cast members or seeing one of our spectacular fireworks shows. All of those things are cumulative in effect.”

Stick to the plan

Success at Disneyland wouldn’t happen without an astounding amount of planning that happens behind the scenes. In order for the resort’s day-to-day operations to run smoothly, everyone must adhere to the plan.

“It’s a 24-hour operation,” Grier says. “It’s analogous to running a small city. We have to make sure the park is ready to go the next day, so we have a third-shift operation. We have more than 900 unique positions, from engineers to bakers to characters to the president of the resort. We have a lot of different moving parts out there. The attention to detail is vital for us to make sure the millions of visitors that come here every year have a wonderful experience.”

Disneyland’s staff uses theatrical terminology to emphasize that a visit to the park is intended to be similar to witnessing a performance. For example, employees are referred to as “cast members.” Each cast member’s job is called a “role” and each role has a script to follow. Cast members must follow their script, which is a strict code of conduct and Disney-approved phrases they may use while at work.

“We go out there and we tell them, ‘What is your job?’ Grier says. “‘Your job is to create happiness and make dreams come true.’ OK, how do you do that? It doesn’t matter what your role is, whether you’re someone at the front gate making sure our guests get the right ticket media that they need to enjoy their stay or if you’re in custodial making sure the park is clean.”

Every morning when the resort’s employees arrive at work, they will have planning sessions with their direct leaders. The managers will talk to their reporting employees about the plan for the day and prepare them for some of the particular nuances of the day’s work. Grier says this daily primer helps keep the resort’s departments running like a well-oiled machine. But reinforcing the importance of sticking to the plan isn’t the only benefit of these sessions — they help develop the bond between manager and employee.

“They get to know each other that way,” he says. “It is vitally important for them to have that relationship with their cast members. We want them to have an understanding relationship — to treat them like an individual.”

Ask employees to contribute

Grier says you have to show employees that they are valued members of the organization. At Disneyland, that is done by treating every employee as an individual whose opinions and ideas are respected.

Grier gives employees the opportunity to voice ideas and concerns at “blue-sky sessions.” These meetings are designed to foster innovative thoughts without limits.

“Creativity comes from every aspect of the organization,” he says. “In those sessions, we allow for creative thinking. It’s almost anything goes; any idea is a great idea. And it may spark something we’ve never thought of before. We really embrace that thinking of ideas can come from any place, big or small.”

But beyond formal meetings, Disney’s leaders try to make an effort to be approachable at all times, which encourages employees to provide feedback from their perspective. He blocks off time on his weekly calendar to spend in the parks. By making yourself more approachable, you create an open relationship with your employees, increasing the chance that they will feel comfortable enough with you to give you their honest opinion.

“For me, it’s a very open relationship I have with them,” Grier says. “I am very honest with them. I trust them, and I want them to trust me. Constant feedback is important. I don’t want them to hesitate to tell me anything, even if it’s bad news. So that’s the environment I try to create for them. That way, I’m never surprised and they’re never surprised.”

The people in direct contact with the customers often can provide you with vital insights to make your organization better.

“Our front-line cast members, as we call them — they are out there every day,” he says. “They know the operations best. Many times our staff members have ideas on the operations because they see it every day. So they can tell us about it. Our leaders who are out there know the operation best, so we rely on what they tell us on how we can make improvements. My leaders are very honest with me about what’s working and what’s not.”

Whether it’s through a phone call, e-mail or office visit, Grier says his employees can contact him anytime.

“Certainly we all have busy schedules,” he says. “But if they need time, I make time for them. I make time for them; they’ll make time for me.”

Once Grier has listened to the feedback, he compares it to the resort’s goals and priorities. For instance, if Grier receives a suggestion on how to improve efficiency in a particular section of the organization and the resort’s metrics show that it needs to improve efficiency in that very area, then that suggestion moves to the top of the pile.

Although it is the oldest, the Disneyland Resort is still the second-largest jewel of Walt Disney Co.’s Parks and Resorts segment, which earned revenue of $11.5 billion in 2008 — an increase of 8 percent, or $878 million, from 2007. But if Grier wants to see the results of his work, he doesn’t have to look at a financial report — he can just look out his window.

“I can see Space Mountain, I can see our parade captains getting ready for the parade, warming up, I can see hotels from here, I can see the monorail going,” he says. “All the things that we put into place, all that planning, I can see it. And if I want to, I can walk out my door and actually experience the product. It’s powerful. When I say, ‘Here’s a new parade we created,’ I can see it. ‘Here’s a new attraction,’ I can see it being built. You can really see all of that hard work and planning, not just from me. From our leadership team down to the cast members, you can see it come to life every day.”

How to reach: The Disneyland Resort, (714) 781-4565 or www.disneyland.com