The Disney Difference

The Complete Guide to Adding Disney-like Magic to Your Corporation or Organization

by Wayne Olson | Release Date: December 4, 2016 | Availability: Print, Kindle

Transform Your Business

The Disney Difference is must-reading for fans of Disney or for anyone who wants to apply the lessons and magic of Walt Disney to their organization. If you serve customers, charitable donors, or guests, this book will show you how you can give your best and give everyone a more magical experience.

The Disney Difference is packed with enjoyable history about Walt Disney and his ‘world.’ But more than a fun Disney archive, Wayne Olson’s book emphasizes the importance of customer relations through the Disney lens. That’s why I recommend it. Dazzling customers with remarkable service. Yes!”
— Dan T. Cathy, Chairman and CEO Chick-fil-A

“I’ve read lots of books about Disney, and this one is a gem. Read this for new insights and useful ideas.”
— Mark Sanborn, The Fred Factor

“This is a wonderful book. It’s not only a tribute to Walt Disney and the philosophy that helped make Disneyland the showcase for an entire industry, but it details that philosophy beautifully and outlines how it can be applied to every business endeavor, large or small. Whatever Walt did he did from his heart. To see the things he believed in being interpreted and incorporated in so many areas of business would make him very proud. It is a must-read!"
— Rolly Crump, Disney Imagineer

Table of Contents



Chapter 1: The Magic of Walt Disney

Chapter 2: Widen Your World

Chapter 3: First Impressions Last

Chapter 4: Once Upon a Dream

Chapter 5: The Personal Touch

Chapter 6: We Work So Others Play

Chapter 7: Believe

Chapter 8: A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

Afterword by Bob Gurr

Selected Bibliography

Wayne Olson’s new book gives us many great pointers and ideas on how following Walt Disney’s philosophy on total and complete attention to detail can help you create magic in your organization. On page 10 we learn an important lesson about bumping the lamp which is an excellent example of “everything matters.”

From the simplest things like listening intently to your customers and employees you will learn vital information you can implement in your own organization.

You will learn how vital the basics and common sense approaches are, including serious attention to cleanliness and friendliness, and how they separated Disney from everyone else in the world, and still do today.

Walt knew what we all should know by now, that you must hire the best team you can and make sure you are giving them the training, development, appreciation, recognition, and encouragement they deserve so they can perform their role in the show and be inspired to stay with the company.

This book is about how the real magic is created at Disney, and it all started with Walt.

You will learn how Walt’s imagination, engagement, persistence, risk taking, and an unbelievable can-do attitude formed the foundation for the continued growth of one of the greatest companies in the world.

You will learn the reasons why Walt was so insistent on calling customers “guests,” employees “cast members,” and the workplace “on stage” and “backstage.”

If you have always wanted to learn how Disney performs way beyond the expectations of their guests, then you will love this book. Not only will you love it but you will learn many concepts and philosophies you can apply today, no matter the size of your company or what it does.

You will learn about the names on the windows on Main Street, U.S.A., and why they are there.

You will learn how Walt applied all five senses to his work, including sight, smell, taste, feel, and hearing, to create the Disney Difference. He even applied the sixth sense, a sense of humor, to round it all out.

I ran Disney World operations for ten years and I thought I knew just about everything, but I learned lots of new information reading this book that I wish I had known when I joined Disney.

Every day around the world the big red curtain opens at Disney theme parks to start another performance like no other in the world. Disney parks are places where fantasy is real and reality is fantastic. The Disney Difference is real. Study this book and learn how you can create magic in your organization.

As Walt said, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” and Walt did it by adding The Disney Difference to everything he did. Enjoy the journey.

Makes a Difference Who You Are

Your decision to invest your time and perhaps a few dollars in this book reveals something important about you. You care about those you serve. You also want to do a better job for the corporation, organization, educational institution, or charity you represent. You want to grow, and you want to know how learning about Walt Disney will help you do that.

However, there is something else about you that you might not have considered. This book’s mission is to recognize and develop this notion and grow it within you. What is this notion? It’s simple.

You matter.

No one can do your job like you can do your job. How you answer the phone, how you interact with others, and the smile on your face are as individual as your fingerprints. While we can always do our jobs better, no one can do your job like you can. And while we can all improve ourselves by adding skills, experience, and training, all of that is learned in the context of, and through the prism of, our personalities.

Walt Disney was quick to appreciate the importance of the individual. Each person was unique, and Walt was careful who he hired. He knew you could not separate a person from that person’s skills and abilities. The “who” of the person he hired was as important as what that person knew. Perhaps even more importantly, he emphasized the need to treat each customer and guest as the individuals they were.

We can all benefit by looking at ourselves and our jobs the way Walt Disney did. He wanted to please his customers (his guests), and he hired the right people to make that happen. He understood that people are much more than a collection of talent and experience. People are a total package, and who you hire to deliver the service or make the goods is as important as the service or the goods themselves.

If you work for a nonprofit organization, or in a for-profit corporation where you are in contact with others, who you are matters. It’s all about you. Your personality. Your outlook. Your approach. It all matters.

In every sales, customer service, or fundraising position, who you are is important. In many cases, who you are matters as much or more than what you know. Even for those of us who have no direct contact with customers or the public, we can still use the examples from Walt Disney in the way we treat fellow employees, supervisors, and managers.

Walt Disney recognized this basic principle. Everything he dreamed, designed, and did was focused on the individual. He was relentless in developing talent among those who worked for him and with him, and was no less persistent in insisting his audience was not a group or crowd as much as it was a collection of individuals, each with his or her own personality, desires, dreams, and wishes.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that while claiming to be more personal and connected is actually increasingly impersonal, if not overwhelmingly cold. Countless calls are answered by machine. “Press one” is usually the first thing we hear when calling just about anyone. People are so used to texting, many are concerned we are losing even the basic skills to communicate effectively with one another.

Companies, organizations, and even friends are becoming more distant. Even during his time, Walt Disney was trying to bring people together. He realized people were becoming separated from one another, and it was important to bring them closer.

Today, text messages have replaced phone calls. Emailed messages have replaced conversations. While technology is wonderful and is responsible for many advances, it can never replace human contact. When we lose touch with our customers, donors, and prospects, we lose business. We lose friends. We lose customers. Unfortunately, as a nation we are losing touch, and as a result, service satisfaction is at an all-time low.

However, it does not have to be that way. If we try to harness some of Walt Disney’s principles, we can excel beyond our wildest dreams. In a world that expects disappointment or poor service, our attempts to connect with those we serve will be noticed and appreciated. Our work is worth it.

Small Efforts Big Rewards

Walt Disney knew the difference between success and failure was not a long journey—in either direction. You can move from ordinary to extraordinary with just a few small steps. Your smile can change an everyday experience to a pleasant one for your customer. Your helping hand can transform a one-time visitor to a life-long customer.

You make the difference.

You are the difference.

Remember, as you read these pages, who you are matters. The great thing is that no matter how many people read this book, each can find significance and greatness, because each will accomplish it in his or her own way.

At first it might seem Walt Disney’s approach would not work for any non-artistic endeavor. How does a theme park relate to the administration of a military contractor? How does making an animated movie relate to the running of a factory? The answer lies in how we approach our staff, our customers, and the product or service we make or offer.

No matter what we do, people look to us for the same reasons. They want us to make their lives better. Ultimately, whatever our product may be, people want us to do something that will bring comfort and happiness to their lives, or at least make their lives easier. Maybe without even realizing it, everyone we meet secretly desires to be better off after having met us. And even if they didn’t, there is no harm in approaching them as if they did.

In the pages that follow we will explore how Walt Disney approached his movies, theme parks, and consumer products. We will look behind the scenes at how Walt and his company accomplished so much, on a surprisingly limited budget. We will learn how we can all relate to our customers, clients, charitable donors, and friends a little more like Disney. When we do, we will dazzle them and amaze ourselves with all we can accomplish. In the end, we and they should all be better than we were before.


Wayne Olson, a former television producer and trial lawyer, currently teaches nonprofit and for-profit corporations how to relate better to their donors, customers, and employees. He is the author of two other books and the host of his own radio show.

You don't have to set a record to be successful.

You might be surprised to learn that Disneyland and Walt Disney World don’t set many records. You will not ride the fastest roller coaster in the world in a Disney park. You will not find the highest roller coaster in a Disney park, nor will you see the longest roller coaster in a Disney park. Even for all its many rides, shows, and attractions, Disneyland (or any Disney park) rarely sets records for anything in any category, except one.

The one record Disney holds is the only one that counts: attendance. As explained in the Disney Institute book Be Our Guest, by 1996 an estimated 1.2 billion people had visited a Disney park. In that year, Disney’s largest property, Walt Disney World, boasted 27 hotels with more than 25,000 rooms, as well as 300 restaurants and eateries.

People don’t come to Disney parks to ride the fastest, tallest, or scariest of anything. There are plenty of other places for those chills and thrills. Disney’s lands provide an overall experience, and give guests something more: a story. Consider that when Disneyland opened in 1955 it had no thrill rides at all. It was only with the addition of the Matterhorn in 1959 that Disney added a roller coaster to its stable of attractions.

While the Matterhorn did not set speed or height records, it did set one important Disney-type record. It was the first roller coaster in the world to be made of steel tubing and it was the first to have “blocks” or sections so multiple trains could safely be on the track at the same time. Records for being the first at something can never be broken. Disney rarely sets out to be the most of something. “Most” things can always be overcome with more. Firsts, however, are firsts forever. It takes more effort, dedication, and courage to be the first at anything, but as Disney shows, the rewards are often worth it.

Set the Right Records

Think about the records you want to set. The theme of far too many board meetings and subsequent staff meetings is “how can we be the most” of something? There is always a struggle, if not a competition, to serve more people, build more buildings, or expand into new areas.

Sometime around 1990, and lasting for ten or so years, theme parks in the United States and around the world found themselves in what industry insiders called a “roller-coaster arms race.” During that time, one theme park would build a roller coaster that included some exciting new feature. It might be the most loops, the highest drop, or the fastest speed.

Each summer season brought the unveiling of a new type of roller coaster. Some innovations and openings came so quickly that a theme park that began the summer with the fastest coaster would find itself in second place by Labor Day.

There were stand-up coasters, then really tall coasters called megacoasters or hypercoasters. Later, even taller coasters demanded a new name: gigacoaster. When enough gigacoasters started appearing everywhere a new category emerged: stratacoaster. No one could design, build, or test the maximum limits of thrills without being topped by another soon after.

One could say the roller-coaster arms race ended only when theme park operators discovered there were limits to what the human body could withstand. One theme park near London was forced to redesign a ride after a particularly revealing pre-opening test run. As told in a Los Angeles Times article, “Thrill Ride Designers Compete to Push the Limits,” by Hugo Martín, several mannequins used to test the new attraction lost limbs as they rode the rails.

During the 1990s, as other theme parks raced to outdo each other, Disney watched. Even as then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner declared the 90s to be the Disney Decade, Disney’s theme parks clearly did not participate in the coaster wars. During that so-called Disney Decade, the company built only three coasters in the United States: Gadget’s Go Coaster in Disneyland (top speed 21.7 mph), Goofy’s Barnstormer in the Magic Kingdom (top speed 25 mph), and the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando (top speed 57 mph). Disney’s investment in thrills was negligible compared to its competition, if you considered the competition to be other theme and amusement parks.

Like any other arms race, there were winners and losers. Some theme parks could not keep up. Some went out of business. Some filed bankruptcy. The same is true for the companies that designed and built roller coasters. Disney remained strong, choosing to compete where others weren’t: in story telling, cleanliness, and dedication to customer service.

Where do we compete? Just because others are doing the same thing does not mean we should. Disney survived and thrived because it had something no one else had. Disney had wonder. Disney had enchantment. Disney had magic.

While Disney cares as much about the bottom line as any corporation (profit or nonprofit), it is extraordinarily careful when setting benchmarks for itself. It rarely boasts the biggest, longest, or fastest of anything. When it does advertise in superlatives, it is almost always in terms of the giving the best guest experience possible. Racing to be the record holder in anything leads only to disappointment. Set a record and someone will immediately try to beat it.

Continued in "The Disney Difference"!

Do you really know what business you're in?

Consider the United States Postal Service. While many of us don’t use the mail as much as our parents did, the U.S. Postal Service is a minor miracle. Pretend for a moment that no one ever came up with the idea of mail. If someone were to approach you and say he or she would come to your house six days a week and pick up your letters and deliver them anywhere in the country in a couple of days for just a couple of quarters, you would rightfully call that person crazy. Logistically, it is a near-impossible feat to move so much mail so quickly, so efficiently. The miracle is even greater when the same person tells you that you will also receive mail from other people six days a week.

Yet, the U.S. Postal Service often fails to realize its true purpose. It fails to recognize its strengths and instead exposes its weaknesses to a point where it is almost self-defeating. Case in point is a moment just after the turn of this century when the post office decided it was time for a change.

As reported in the Chicago Tribune on March 5, 2007, “Time Stands Still When You Are Waiting in Line at the Post Office,” the U.S. Postal Service started “phasing out” clocks in its 37,000 post offices around the country. The postal service said it was removing clocks from all its lobbies as part of a “retail standardization program” to give their lobbies a more uniform appearance.

The post service denied the move was in response to complaints from customers that they were waiting too long in line. Rather, it said, “Clocks are probably not appropriate in the retail environment.” It emphasized that it was not forcing the removal, only asking local offices to take away the clocks, because it wanted people to focus on postal service and not the clock. Customers did not quite agree with the removal of the clocks from post office lobbies: 90.6% of respondents to a Chicago Tribune survey indicated that removing the clocks from waiting areas was a “bad move.”

When you think of “postal service,” are the images positive? While the postal service insists the move was for the consumer’s benefit, the consumer knew better, and newspaper cartoons and columnists chimed in. The suspected reason was service was horrible and the clocks reminded all of us how long we had to wait for the privilege of enduring it.

If you were playing a word association with someone and you were asked to react to the word “post office,” most people would not respond with “service” or “customer service.” While several books have been written on the innovations and advances at both UPS and Federal Express, no known books exist on the same subject highlighting the logistical miracle that is the post office, which handles more volume than either of its relatively new competitors. Rather, the one extra-curricular product the post office has given us is a new phrase, “going postal.” Its meaning is anything but flattering.

The irony is clear. The post office does wonders. Yet, people hate the post office. Ask anyone about the post office and you are likely to get a negative reaction. Ask them about their letter carrier, and you are likely to get a far different response. People generally love the loyal, friendly person who delivers the mail each day.

To see what the post office gets right, and where it could be better, read The Fred Factor by Mark Sanborn. You will want to have a letter carrier like the one who delivers mail to Sanborn. Fred is the letter carrier that not only delivers Sanborn his mail, but generally makes life better for the author. If only Fred ran the whole post office, people would be making up reasons to mail things, just so they could deal with people like him.

Perhaps, if the post office thought more about its reason for being, it would concentrate on the people it serves and focus less on whether there is a clock in the lobby. For example, why doesn’t the post office have a drive-through? There appears to be only a couple post offices in the United States that offer customers the convenience of a drive-through.

Other countries such as Bahrain embrace the idea of giving their customers a drive-through post office. Although Americans can pick up meals, do their bank transactions, and drop off dry cleaning from the comfort and convenience of their cars, buying stamps or dropping off a package is not in the system, at least for now.

One of the great things about Walt Disney is he did not insist his customers do things his way. He was quick to change his approach to match his guests’ desires. Once, chief Disneyland landscaper Bill Evans approached Walt and told him of a problem he was having at the park. He told the boss his beautiful flower bed was being trampled and ruined by the guests. As John Hench recounts in his book Designing Disney, Evans asked Walt to put up a fence to keep the guests out.

While he was a horticultural expert, and known for his beautiful landscaping, Evans lost focus. He thought his job was to create elegant landscaping. In reality, his job was to give guests a visual treat; to offer them something beautiful to behold as they walked through the Magic Kingdom. The flowers were there for the guests. Walt told Evans they would not build a fence; instead, they would pave the pathway.

In an amusing story on how Walt cherished entertaining his guests, he had to handle another problem coming from the landscaping department. Just before opening day at Disneyland, there were not enough plants and flowers in the park. Disney landscapers had already purchased and cleaned out all the plant nurseries in Orange County and in many of the neighboring communities. They could not grow plants fast enough and there were none they could buy locally.

Disney, in typical Walt fashion, had Evans go to the Disneyland parking lot and gather some weeds. He then had them planted throughout the park and had Evans put Latin name tags on them. Problem solved. Walt’s job (and Disneyland’s) was to entertain. And as guests walked by plants that were clearly weeds, but with ostentatious-sounding scientific names, it was worth a chuckle or laugh until real plants could arrive.

Walt Disney knew his business: create an environment that guests will enjoy and appreciate. The mistake the post office makes is an underlying belief they are in the business of moving letters and packages. While that is what they do, it is not why they do it. They move parcels and notes to help people. They do it to make life better. Disney got it. Fred gets it. Why don’t Fred’s superiors?

Continued in "The Disney Difference"!

About Theme Park Press

Theme Park Press is the world's leading independent publisher of books about the Disney company, its history, its films and animation, and its theme parks. We make the happiest books on earth!

Our catalog includes guidebooks, memoirs, fiction, popular history, scholarly works, family favorites, and many other titles written by Disney Legends, Disney animators and artists, Mouseketeers, Cast Members, historians, academics, executives, prominent bloggers, and talented first-time authors.

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Theme Park Press Books

The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion The Ride Delegate 501 Ways to Make the Most of Your Walt Disney World Vacation The Cotton Candy Road Trip The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney Disney Destinies Disney Melodies The Happiest Workplace on Earth Storm over the Bay A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World: Volume 1 Mouse in Transition Mouseketeers Down Under Murder in the Magic Kingdom Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City Service with Character Son of Faster Cheaper A Tale of Two Resorts I Saw Ariel Do a Keg Stand The Adventures of Young Walt Disney Death in the Tragic Kingdom Two Girls and a Mouse Tale Ears & Bubbles The Easy Guide 2015 Who's the Leader of the Club? Disney's Hollywood Studios Funny Animals Life in the Mouse House The Book of Mouse Disney's Grand Tour The Accidental Mouseketeer The Vault of Walt: Volume 1 The Vault of Walt: Volume 2 The Vault of Walt: Volume 3 Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? Amber Earns Her Ears Ema Earns Her Ears Sara Earns Her Ears Katie Earns Her Ears Brittany Earns Her Ears Walt's People: Volume 1 Walt's People: Volume 2 Walt's People: Volume 13 Walt's People: Volume 14 Walt's People: Volume 15

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