The Disney Apprentice

Lessons Learned from Inside Disney

by Chuck Shields | Release Date: May 21, 2016 | Availability: Print, Kindle

Delivering Disney Magic

From his start as a submarine captain in Disneyland during the summer of 1967, until his final years with Disney as a vice president of Imagineering, Chuck Shields discovered the methods behind the magic. In his long-awaited book, he tells you how to put those methods to work for your organization.

How did Disney become one of the most successful enterprises in history? Through a broad set of inspired principles developed over the decades and integrated into a customer-centric company culture. Chuck Shields not only learned these principles during his 22 years with Disney - he created some of them.

In The Disney Apprentice, Chuck takes you through his Disney career - and beyond - sharing stories and "lessons learned" that will help you tap into the Disney magic. Chuck's highlights include:

  • Steering the growth of Disney University with his mentor, Van France
  • Guiding Disneyland through some bleak times as its director of human resources
  • Taking on the human resources challenge of Epcot as part of the executive Imagineering team
  • Putting the "Disney Way" to work at mega-corporations like Manor Care and Choice Hotels


Table of Contents



Chapter 1: Disney Foundations

Chapter 2: Cast Member Adventures

Chapter 3: In Search of Diamonds in the Rough

Chapter 4: Growing Through “Stretch” Assignments

Chapter 5: Growing the Role of Disney University

Chapter 6: Managing Through Difficult Times

Chapter 7: Where the Imagineering Takes Place

Chapter 8: Change Is Good

Chapter 9: Applying the Disney Lessons Learned


Even as I write this, I realize that there are readers whose first reaction will be: “What can we learn from a mouse that applies to how we organize and run our companies?”

Well for starters, it’s not any mouse—its Mickey. And it’s not just any company that Mickey Mouse represents. Today, Disney is the largest entertainment company in the world, with leading business operations in motion pictures, television, theme parks, vacation resorts, cruise lines, sports enterprises, consumer products, and a wide variety of new business ventures.

These ventures did not grow without a set of principles that were established by Walt Disney and his brother-partner, Roy O. Disney. They were defined and implemented by people like Chuck Shields in the function we now call “human resources”—HR in the vernacular.

Chuck was one of the Disney leaders in creating programs built around the idea that “how you treat people” is the key to creating leaders that understand what leadership is all about. He ”grew up” in Disneyland, beginning as a submarine “host” and growing into the HR champion at the design company responsible for creating Walt Disney Imagineering—which is where Chuck and I worked most closely together.

My role was to create an original Disney park based not of fantasy, but on communicating subjects and stories from “the real world”—energy, transportation, health, space, the oceans, and of course, imagination itself. Chuck’s task was to find my team the people—the talent—to create that new kind of Disney park. In a few months’ time, with Chuck’s organization and leadership, we grew from 800 to 2500 Imagineers. That park, Epcot, opened at Walt Disney World on schedule, on October 1, 1982. More than 30 years later, it is still one of the ten most attended theme parks in the world.

The lessons you will learn from Chuck’s book are deeply rooted in Disney methods. But as he has proven in a quarter century of leadership after Disney, in the health care industry and his own consulting company, Chuck knows how to create a “people culture” by selecting the right talent and building great leaders. And he knows how to “down size” an organization—as we had to do after Epcot opened—by treating people with dignity and respect.

As a storyteller, I know a good tale when I read one. In The Disney Apprentice, you will enjoy a good read full of anecdotes, advice, and know-how experiences by a top pro in the realm of human resources. Chuck Shields has “been there, done that”. Now, with a nod to that Mouse where it all started, he’s sharing the lessons he learned at every stop in his incredible journey.

If you are in the people business, this book is for you. If you’re not, better read it twice!

What started as a part time summer job at Disneyland in 1965 driving submarines in Tomorrowland turned into a 22-year journey that allowed me work with both Disney “dreamers” and Disney “doers”. Along the way I had the opportunity to spend fifteen years in the theme park, spending time in Casting, Marketing, Hotel Operations, Disney University, and Human Resources.

While some positions at Disneyland, like manager of Disney University, required dreamers, the theme park side of the business was focused on execution, service, and attention to detail (the doers). I also spent eight years at Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative design, engineering, and proto-type manufacturing side of the business (clearly the dreamers). What most leaders fail to understand is how important both of these distinct profiles are to the success of Disney and, for that matter, other businesses. Very few leaders or individual contributors are great at both sides of this equation. People prefer repetitive, routine, low-change work (the doers) or they relish in high-change, creative work that requires resourcefulness, adaptability, and the ability to learn from their experiences. Not only do different businesses require different levels of learning agility, but different jobs do as well.

It is my observation that a certain amount of tension between dreamers and doers is healthy for the business. What many observers fail to recognize is that even our top management at Disney was organized around this concept. For example, Walt Disney was the dreamer and Roy Disney was the doer. In an attempt to get back to our foundations and revitalize the company, the Disney board elected Michael Eisner (the dreamer) and Frank Wells (the doer). Interestingly, the theme park leaders who were great at what they did often suggested that the Imagineers should report to theme park leadership to ensure their ideas worked with the operational side. Even at Imagineering we had a business head, Carl Bongirno, and a creative head, Marty Sklar. Seldom do we see a leader who is balanced between these two extremes. The theme parks generally felt that the creative side should report to them, while the creative side had no interest in managing park operations. Ultimately, you may want to create a dual career path for each side of the business.

I decided early that I did not want to write another boring business book, but rather take what Van France, the founder of the Disney University, spent the time to teach me. Van taught me that we need to constantly reflect on what is working and what is not, and then ask the tough questions. We need to constantly be asking; “what did we learn”. So the book talks about my key experiences and stories and lessons learned. I can assure you that much of what you learn in this book can apply to either your personal or professional life. To keep things interesting, the book includes some fun Disney stories and facts. I felt confident this goal had been accomplished when I received the following unsolicited note from my editor:

It has been my pleasure working on this book—I think it’s going to be both truly insightful and very delightful (I admit to sharing a few Disney tales with my kids) for readers. You have something very original here. I wish you luck in securing an agent and publisher. Thank you for the opportunity to work with you!

Leading is not always easy and there can be difficult scenarios that arise that make it very challenging. It is amazing how much we learn when we are faced with managing through difficult times. I was promoted to the top HR position at Disneyland at a time when the Disney organization was facing its biggest challenge. For the first time, the position also included Disney University. Excitement about the new position quickly dissipated as we faced a major executive change, gasoline shortages that turned into a slump in attendance, a major strike of our Maintenance Division staff, a first time layoff, and an attempted hostile takeover.

After four years we got the organization back on track and I asked management for a change. They responded by asking me to join Walt Disney Imagineering as its first vice president of Human Resources and Administration. Imagineering had taken on $2 billion in capital projects that included Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland. Taking the creative design, engineering, and proto-type manufacturing organization from 800 Imagineers to 2,500, while building an HR function from the ground up, proved to be another tremendous learning opportunity. I also helped Disney integrate the acquisition of a major commercial and home building real estate development company during these eight years.

Today’s organizations are generally very short term and financially focused. There are realities in play that force this situation; however, it is my contention that the time and effort invested in selecting, onboarding, and developing the right talent for your organization is a missed opportunity that has an excellent return on investment. After twenty-two years I was recruited by a large East Coast company to test the viability of leveraging my Disney experience to prove the value of this investment. I share this effort and the outcome in the last chapter of the book.

I hope you enjoy reading The Disney Apprentice and learn something new while you are at it!

Chuck Shields

Chuck Shields rose in The Walt Disney Company over the course of his 22-year career from Attractions host at Disneyland to Imagineering vice president.

After leaving Disney, he continued his executive career at Manor Care, Inc., before starting his own company, Mount Rose Consulting Group.

One of Chuck's first leadership stints at Disneyland came shortly after he was hired as an attractions host for the Submarine Voyage.

This leads me to a story that demonstrates just how dangerous these procedures can be for the guest. It is also a perfect example of why safety is so strongly emphasized and why the operators had to stay alert at all times.

It was a typical hot August day at Disneyland. The lines were long and I was due to be relieved for my break. My replacement was late returning from his break, and I was going to have to take one more trip before I was relieved. I was relatively bored from circling the lagoon so many times that day, but that was to change dramatically in the next few minutes.

The dockhands made quick work of getting our guests seated. There were a total of 38 seats on each submarine, or 19 on each side. One side of the sub was entered from the rear hatch and the other from the front hatch. To ensure we maximized the capacity of each sub, the host not only assisted each person down the ramp stairs, but kept count of how many guests had entered from their hatch. As the sub got close to reaching capacity, the boarding host would ask how many were in the next party so that we did not split up parties, but at the same time attempt to fill all 19 seats.

As I watched the guests take their seats and peer through their personal portholes, I noticed a large Japanese tourist group of approximately 15 had taken their seats, with most of them at the front end of the sub. As I stood in my conning tower awaiting the signal from the dock hosts that they had checked to make sure both hatches were secured and it was time shove off, I noticed that both my front and rear hatch lights were red, an indicator they were not secured properly. I decided they had either malfunctioned or had burned out; a pretty safe assumption considering I had never had a hatch left open and it was both hatches, not just one.

In case you have never been to Disneyland, the subs travel through a lagoon for about 200 yards before entering and exiting an extended cavern area. At the entrance and exit to the caverns, the subs go through a waterfall with the taped spiel calling out “Dive! Dive!” and then “Surface! Surface!” as they approach the exit falls. The inside of the caverns are relatively dark to help with the illusion of being under water. I can remember thinking I was on a perfect pace as I entered the entrance falls. Everything was going along smoothly until I approached the exit falls. It was then I was startled to see my front hatch slowly begin to rise and observe my forward deck suddenly occupied with several members of the Japanese tour group! Apparently, my back hatch was secure, but I was less fortunate with the front hatch, which had been open as we traveled through the entrance falls. The tour group did not speak English and must have thought taking on two inches of water was simply part of the ride’s special effects as they passed through the entrance waterfall.

As you approach the entrance or exit falls, the sound of the water increases substantially. With the front hatch open, the sound was even more exaggerated, and as it grew louder several members of the tour group had apparently decided to abandon ship. They were not about to repeat the experience they suffered when entering the entrance falls. Some of the group even jumped off the sub to the catwalks that had been installed after one sub derailed and sank in earlier years. Others just stood fast on the front of the sub hoping the waterfalls would magically shut down.

Clearly, this required calm, but immediate action. I simultaneously threw the sub in reverse and called to the dock on my ship-to-shore phone asking them to press the button that shut down the falls. With that done, I crawled between the two rows of guests to the front hatch, urging those on the front of the sub to come back inside. A couple of the guests returned to the sub, but others refused to leave the front deck. I went back to the conning tower just in time to see the falls slowly shutting down. Unfortunately, the sub’s weight made it impossible to bring it to a quick stop, and I knew it would be a close call for those that remained topside. They were already totally soaked from going through the entrance falls, and to add to the insult the water was still slowly running over the falls as we exited to several hundred guests observing the proceedings. The three or four Japanese tourists that remained on the front deck stood stoically as we pulled into dock.

While I was slowly pulling into the dock, the lights inside the cavern were turned on and the individuals who had jumped to the catwalks were escorted to the docking area by Security. The rest of their party that had chosen to stay on the submarine joined them. I will never forget the sight of watching the group all lined up, cameras in hand, and still dripping wet. And while they did not speak any English it did not take a lot of imagination to come to the conclusion they were not happy. It occurred to me that some were still wondering if this was all part of the show.

You are probably wondering what happened from there. The entire party was escorted to our first-aid facility backstage. There they were met by a tour guide who spoke Japanese and a representative from Wardrobe, who distributed robes and took their clothes to be dried and pressed. The tour guide apologized on behalf of Disneyland and answered questions, relaying requests to supervision.

Continued in "The Disney Apprentice"!

During the construction of Epcot, Chuck was an Imagineering executive. It was serious work, but there was still time for silliness, as this never-before-told anecdote about famed Imagineer Joe Rohde illustrates.

Our president, Carl Bongirno, recognized the stress on the team, and with his support we initiated several interventions. At one point we organized an event that required the executives to provide some comic relief. For those of you who are old enough to remember the Gong Show, this was our version. I remember the VP of Finance and myself wearing trench coats and singing; “She wore a yellow ribbon in her hair.” Both of us thought we could sing, but we were “gonged” off the stage.

Carl was very people-sensitive and recognized that our spouses were also undoubtedly suffering from our long hours and pressure. He decided to invite the spouses in for monthly lunches and project updates. I can’t speak for the other executives’ spouses, but my wife greatly appreciated the effort. He invited the senior leadership team to Epcot’s grand opening. The event was black tie and first class all the way. We also organized an annual open house for the families of our team. Most of the children were fascinated with the special effects demonstrations. Each area was responsible for creating a show that demonstrated what they were working on in an “entertaining” way.

As we got closer to completing the Epcot project, several things were coming to light. The project was going to be over budget. Second, there were no other large projects on the drawing board. It also began to surface that Michael Eisner had come to the conclusion that a longer-term solution for Imagineering was to take a hard look at what could be outsourced to other companies. Imagineering projects start with show designers and artists who create storyboards of their proposed attractions. This process links the story sequentially to the scenes that guests experiences on the attraction. The storyboards are then used to walk senior management through the design concepts and gain project approval.

This brings up a fun story that I got second hand from Pat Scanlon, who was one of the vice presidents in the creative division while I was there and who still remains in touch today. He talks about one of these presentation meetings that changed the way new project concepts were delivered to executive leadership. The meeting and presentation involved Imagineering partnering with the Rouse Company on their Festival Marketplaces. These marketplaces represented a leading downtown revitalization strategy in the 1980s for American cities. They were modeled after European-style shopping markets, conceived by Benjamin C. Thompson. Joe Rohde, a top Imagineering designer, was the designated creative lead for the presentation. Without a hint to anyone in the room, Joe suddenly turned to present his brother, a famous European foreign designer. In reality Joe was presenting himself and a made-up character he called his brother. According to Pat, Joe stayed in character for the entire presentation, never once reverting back to his own personality. Pat tells me this set the tone for all future presentations. He commented that it took the individual’s personality out of the equation, reduced tension, and at the same time reinforced the show business focus of Disney.

Continued in "The Disney Apprentice"!

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