Al Weiss: Getting Serious About Creating Fun at Disney

Al Weiss is president of worldwide operations for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, whose vacation destinations around the world include the Walt Disney World Resort, Disneyland Resort, Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. This responsibility includes 95,000 cast members (as they call their employees), theme parks, resort hotels, golf courses, cruise ships, and other attractions.

Weiss began his 33-year Disney career in 1972 as an hourly cast member and worked his way up through a variety of roles and leadership positions. He rose to the top post at the Walt Disney World Resort in 1994 and was tapped to lead operations for Disney’s theme parks and resorts around the globe in November 2005.

Within the company, the community and the corporate world, Weiss is known for his passion for creating an unparalleled experience for each and every Disney guest, taking the business to new heights, giving back to the community and creating a world-class work environment for Disney cast members.

He is active in the community, serving as chairman of the University of Central Florida Foundation board of directors and serving on the UCF board of trustees, the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission, the Florida Council of 100 board of directors, the SunTrust Bank Central Florida board of directors, the Orange County Minority/Women Business Enterprise Alliance, and the “Give Kids the World” advisory board.

Weiss was named “Most Influential Businessman in Central Florida” by the Orlando Business Journal in 2005 and has received the Tree of Life Award from the Jewish National Fund for his visionary and humanitarian leadership in the community. In 2001, the National Conference for Community and Justice named him Humanitarian of the Year, honoring his work to promote respect and understanding among all races, religions and cultures.

A native of Chicago, Weiss is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He received his M.B.A. from the Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

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Ethix: In a world with so many problems, what do you see as the role for the fun stuff of Disney World, Disneyland, and Disney in general?

Al Weiss: We put people into a fantasy world where, for whatever period of time that they are here, they can leave behind the challenges and problems of everyday life. If we can do this, and really have them relax and enjoy themselves, it is probably one of the best things we can do for them. I think we are addressing an important area in people’s lives, and we are meeting these needs across the globe, from Orlando and Anaheim to Paris, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.

Dealing With Business Downturn

You were recognized as the Humanitarian of the Year in 2001. Could you tell us why?

There are probably two reasons. First, Disney World is the biggest employer in Florida, and as a company we are very philanthropic. We focus on children in the community with cash and in-kind gifts, giving over $20 million back to the community on an annual basis. I also serve as the chairman of the Foundation for University of Central Florida, the eighth-largest university in the nation, and am responsible for their first capital campaign. We had an initial goal of raising about $100 million. So far we’ve raised $250 million, and now that the medical school there has received approval, we will end up raising over $350 million in the campaign. So we are very active in the community.

But a big event of 2001 for us and for Florida was a business decision we made after 9/11. The day after 9/11, our business dropped significantly. I felt layoffs would not be right for our business, so I challenged the team to reduce costs without laying anybody off. The initial response to this challenge was, “This can’t be done! This is a fixed-cost business and this is the only way to get costs out.”

Over the next month we came up with a plan to avoid layoffs. One of the reasons was the environment of our community. Everybody else was laying people off at this time, and this would be thousands more people who would not be able to find work. After about six months, our business had ramped up materially to about two-thirds of where we had been before. Had we laid people off, we would have had to hire many of them back. It turned out to be a very good decision.

After 9/11 we did not give pay increases to management people who were scheduled for them, including myself. So we all participated in supporting the company and the people.

It would seem to me that your situation was different than, for example, The Boeing Company, where the trough may be five years instead of five months. How would you advise another type of business?

You have to do what is right for the business first and foremost. You might need to lay people off, as in the Boeing example, but you might retrain them or you might make sure that they have other opportunities with other companies. Arthur Andersen, when it was going through its downward spiral, was confronted with a devastating problem. A strong leader made sure that their people received opportunities in other places (see “The IBTE Conversation With Bob Wright,” Ethix 39). These are very difficult times.

Can you separate in your own mind between these two possible ways of thinking: (1) This is a good strategic decision for Disney to keep these people on because we are going to need them again. It is going to build community goodwill, etc., etc., or (2) It is just not right to do this to these people. This might not be the best decision for Disney and that kind of bottomline shareholder thing, but I am not going to lay thousands of people off in this community if there is any way I can avoid it. Which better captures your thinking?

You have to try to separate those two. I can tell you at the time that it happened, we did not know how long the trough would be. You have to take steps to figure out how to run your business. But at the end of the day we also had to think about putting thousands of people out into the market where they would be unlikely to get a job in Orlando, and where many of them could not go to other cities. Given how quickly that trough line started ramping back up, it was exactly the right decision for Disney and also the right decision for the team that was there.

If we take care of our guests first and we take care of our cast members, our profitability will follow.

What happened to executive salaries during that time?

After 9/11, we did not give pay increases to management people who were scheduled for them, including myself. So we all participated in supporting the company and the people.

How about on the building codes? You mentioned the idea that you prepare for more extremes than some others do?

Yes. We have a very high standard of building that is different than the counties we work in. Part of that is just practical, because of the amount of traffic we have going through our properties. We want to make sure we can maintain the parks over a long period of time. After a recent storm, when there was damage throughout the area, we were able to open the next day with virtually no damage. We had trees down and things like that, but virtually no building damage at all.

We also make sure we follow all the environmental rules, and we have gone to great lengths to make sure that we honor all of the wetlands. If there is an endangered species, we make sure we take care of that in the right way. When we opened Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we formed an advisory board of the best minds in the world to help us make sure that we operate at the very highest level possible. We don’t need media attention in these areas, and it is the right thing to do.

One of the challenges of being a big company is that some people will target you just because you are big, so you have to deal with your bigness.

Exactly, like Wal-Mart is facing today.

Establishing Corporate Culture

In the book Disney War by James Stewart, Michael Eisner demonstrated the tension between making money and making art when he said,

“We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. But to make money, it is often important to make history, to make art, or to make some significant statement … In order to make money we must always make entertaining movies, and if we make entertaining movies, at times we will reliably make history, art, a statement, or all three.”

Probably the very best thing we do for our cast members is give them an opportunity to grow in their careers.

How do you see that tension between the near-term profits and the long-term viability, and the creativity of products?

I do not know about that particular example because I have not read the book, but I can tell you how I would think about this at Walt Disney World. If we take care of our guests first and we take care of our cast members, our profitability will follow. We have always had that philosophy and live by that philosophy. It means making sure that cast members feel like they have career paths, training, and the technology to do their work. If you take good care of these two groups, you are going to find that the profits follow.

I understand you have set a certain type of culture in Walt Disney World. Yet in a corporation, culture is set at the top. From what I have read, your culture is quite different from the rest of Disney; more collaborative than competitive internally, for example. What kind of tensions does this create for you and your leadership team?

Well, the good news is, we have always been collaborative at Walt Disney World. And we continue to enhance that because our main goal is to serve the guests. The way we can best serve our guests is if we truly pull together as a team and really make sure that everything we do is handed off cleanly between different organizations. We have had 80 executives from Disney World who have gone elsewhere in Disney. Some stayed within our own theme parks and resorts, where that culture exists pretty much across the board. Some of them did go to other businesses, for example ESPN or the Film Group. Each one of the businesses, like ESPN, has its own corporate culture.

People are all highly competitive in the world that we live in, so they are trying to take their own business to the highest level possible. We do work together across the Disney companies creating synergy. When a movie comes out, a new animated movie as an example, some of the characters become merchandise in our theme parks. We will build shows or attractions around those characters. So we have a fair amount of collaboration with the other business units, looking at how we strategically take the company forward in the best way possible.

Corporate Values

How did you select the values for Disney?

They were selected long ago and are a part of our heritage and tradition. I think they probably existed when Walt was alive and they are the kind of things that worked well then and work well today. We continue to look at them, but never change them, because we believe they are right for us. They are safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency.

And do you think that all the employees know them?

No, but through the training you hope that the majority of them know what they are. Like any large company, some people are there because they want to move ahead and have a career, others are there because they want to buy a car, and others are there because it is a stopgap until they do something else. Not everybody is going to be there for the long term. So not everybody is going to understand all that we want them to.

Do executive performance measures include the values?

They do.

Hiring and Development

My son who works in the human resources field tells me that Disney has some very interesting approaches to hiring people, making certain that everybody fits the service orientation you are looking for. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

I doubt that we are very different from any large sophisticated company. We do profiles for each type of role that we hire for and try to measure the skills that are necessary to be successful in that role. Do they have a servant’s heart and want to serve people? People like that will be very successful in a service role. We do this for our management positions also.

When you said you do these tests to match skills to positions, are they skills tests or are they psychological tests? There has been some controversy in the literature about using psychological tests as a screen.

I understand. But these are not psychological tests. They are just asking them questions about how they think about what they would do in this environment, and things like that. It is really very basic.

We start that way, but the next step in the process may be more important. That is the training that we give. We train them on what quality means from a Disney standpoint, and we also try to make sure that they have all the technical skills they need to be successful. So we will spend a lot of time and energy after people have been hired. We want to make sure they are trained to carry out the roles where they are assigned. And we provide ongoing training to make sure they stay current, if there is a new technology or a new service we are trying to implement. We want our cast members to have the opportunity to grow.

As you look for people who have a service orientation, does this suggest that this is something that can be taught? Can a person who is not service oriented become service oriented through training?

Yes, there is no question about it. I think many people have not really thought about doing things the way we do in our business. People can and do learn.

Probably the very best thing we do for our cast members is give them an opportunity to grow in their careers. We fill about 75 to 80 percent of our management needs from within our company, from our hourly ranks into our management ranks. Many of our people in frontline jobs actually have college educations and want an opportunity to grow in their career. So we are able to attract a very high quality cast member who wants to have a long-term career with our company. We have an amazing number of people who have been with our company for a very long time. On an annual basis, we recognize people’s years of service with the company, starting with five years. At a recent dinner we recognized over 1,000 people who had been with the company 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40 years. We are very fortunate to have that kind of an environment.

Google has become famous for all of its internal processes that are designed to facilitate creative thinking. What sorts of things do you do to foster creativity for your people?

We have very strict grooming standards for many of our people who face the customer, but our artistic people are allowed to dress and wear their hair the way they want. We do treat that group differently. We allow them to take sabbaticals and do other things to create the environment that will be conducive for their success. Creativity is our hallmark, and we need an environment that encourages it.

If I were a guy just taking tickets and driving a ride, would I know that the company wanted me to think creatively about how we could do things better in the park?

I think so. We solicit and receive thousands of ideas from people at all different levels in our company every year and because they are good ideas, a lot of those get implemented. So they see that in action, going forward.

Customer Experience

Are you also looking for creativity in how you serve your guests?

We have to make sure that our cast members are able to deliver a great experience to our guests. So the right service levels, the right number of cast members, the right interaction that we have with our guests — all of these are a part of delivering the experiences so our guests can fulfill their dreams and desires. We are very sophisticated in rules for timing the number of staff needed in particular situations. There may be times when we get surprised, but generally we get very close. We look at wait-time analysis for the attractions and shows, trying to serve people well. We created the Fast Pass because one of the biggest complaints we have had in our parks is the long wait in line for our most popular attractions. A Fast Pass ticket gives you a window of one hour to go back to that attraction, and while you are waiting for that time to come up, you can do other things in the park. We measure guest satisfaction on a daily basis, and we know if it is trending up or trending flat.

As you try to create an experience in your parks, what other goals do you have?

We want to transport a guest into a world that is very different from the one they are used to. So we use our creativity to take our attractions to a very high level. For example, instead of just putting in a Tower of Terror ride featuring a drop, the creative team studied every detail of what could be created for the guests. The tower is situated in an “old hotel,” and the experience is a very rich one.

Creativity is our hallmark, and we need an environment that encourages it.

Another hallmark of our service involves treating our guests with respect, with special emphasis on children. This means we have to learn how the parents are going to react to the way we treat their children. We do things like “Magical Moments” where we go up to a little boy or little girl and trade a pin with them. We might put a child in front of the controls for the monorail or steam train to show them how we actually operate these things.

We have a commitment to cleanliness. I spent many hours with James Stewart (author of Disney War) briefing him on the strategy and commitments we have. But the main thing he took from our time together is that when I was in the park and saw a scrap of paper on the ground, I picked it up. We want everyone doing what it takes to create this great experience. To do this takes a lot of work. It requires the right people. It requires the right reinvestment in our product to keep fresh and current, because the bulk of our guests have been there before. They are re-payers, and we want to continue to draw those people back, time and time again.

Do you assess the experience of your guests through surveys?

Yes, we talk to our guests every day. So we will know in real time what we are delivering and how the guests are reacting to it. That gives us an opportunity to really understand our business and do it the right way. This is the careful balance between the cost and the benefit of everything we do.

Tell me where you see this going. What will the theme parks look like in 10 years? Will you expand in other countries? Will you change the nature of the parks?

I cannot predict exactly what it will be like. We are continuing to look at ways to expand around the globe where the opportunities exist. So that is why in September we opened Hong Kong, and we are continuing to look at other opportunities and places where we can plant a Disney flag. In terms of what that experience will be like in 10 years, I can only begin to guess. We are going to make sure that we stay on the leading edge, but not the bleeding edge of technology. We have certain new things on the drawing board. One example, we were building a brand new major attraction, a new land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park called Expedition Everest. We used 4D technology, which allows us to take a building, a system, and a track, and within minor tolerances understand how all of those pieces fit within the core of the building. You could never figure that out with old technology.

You had a safety problem on Thunder Mountain Railroad a few years back, my favorite ride incidentally. How do you deal with safety?

We do not like accidents! We do everything in our power to create a very safe environment.

We have a commitment to cleanliness.

A Global View

I have never been to a Disney park outside of the country, but I know there has been at least an element of controversy in bringing an American icon to another country. In Hong Kong there have been some questions about lack of transparency in terms of willingness to talk about numbers of people coming. How integrated are your operations internationally?

One of the reasons we went to our new organization a couple of months ago was that we wanted to become a global company and operate it that way. So we brought the operations of all theme parks together to operate commonly, and not individually side by side. Cast members from different countries will get very similar training. There will be cultural training to recognize differences, of course, but you will have very similar core training.

What difference do you see coming from Disney with the changes at the top?

I think you will see a lot of the same as well as some new strategic moves. I had a great relationship with Michael Eisner and see that continuing with Bob Iger. Bob has his priorities that will continue a lot of what was in place before. I think he is going to focus on international growth. He is going to focus on innovation and technology and creativity. These are the hallmark of Disney.

The large number of executive ethical scandals in business today makes it apparent that it is easy to go off track as a leader. Would you share personally what you do to keep focused?

I believe the process of building a life is more important than any accomplishment or destination. There are five principles I have committed to, and I try to remind myself of these on a regular basis.

“I believe the process of building a life is more important than any accomplishment or destination. There are five principles I have committed to, and I try to remind myself of these on a regular basis.”
— Al Weiss

  1. I will be the same person all the time, and not change because of the position that I have. It’s easy when you get promoted, or have been given an award, to start believing the things that are said about you. You must recognize that some people want to be your friend because of the position that you hold, not because of who you are. My relationship with God and my relationship with family are grounding points where position does not matter. These are vital relationships.
  2. I will live out my priorities and be content with the life that they build. Don’t be so concerned about the destination of your career but focus on the journey. Some have said it is easy for me to say this because I have a very senior position. But I have been doing this my whole career. I turned down a promotion when it would have meant moving to California and my children were deeply involved in sports programs where I lived. Except for short periods, I make sure to honor my other priorities.
  3. I see myself as God sees me, not as others see me. It is so easy to get caught in the trappings of a position. But success is measured at the end of a career, not at the peak. It is important to be reminded to watch the little things you do, even when you think no one sees you. When I took over at Disney World, there was a habit of executives parking wherever they liked, even if it might block delivery trucks or others. I decided to park only in legal spots, but I never said anything to anybody about it. It was interesting to see how quickly people started parking legally.
  4. I will live as a steward, not as an owner. Stewards have responsibilities to others — to shareholders, employees, customers, and the environment. I have been given trust. I am also a steward of my home. Owners sometimes operate out of the perspective of privilege. Stewards operate from the position of service. This principle works its way out in big things and little things every day.
  5. I will live to make others successful. I don’t have to do it all, and I don’t have to be the best at everything. When I hire someone, I try to find the very best person for that position, to make the team stronger. I then ask them, “What can I do to make you successful in your job?” Many are surprised by this, expecting the question to come the other way around — what is expected of them to make me or the organization successful? But leading as a servant is the key to real leadership.