Disney's Hollywood Studios

From Show Biz to Your Biz

by J. Jeff Kober | Release Date: April 27, 2014 | Availability: Print, Kindle

Lights! Camera! Take Action!

Guests at Disney's Hollywood Studios become the stars in a theme park experience like no other. In this behind-the-camera book, you’ll find out how Disney does it, and how you can use the same techniques to bring some show biz into your biz, with your customers the stars.

Stories from the Studios

Former Disney University leader J. Jeff Kober shares little-known stories behind dozens of park attractions, restaurants, and shops, and teaches you how to use Disney's peerless storytelling and customer service secrets to take your life and your business to new heights.

From the "ugly ducklings" of Min and Bill's Dockside Diner (and how to turn your own weaknesses into strengths) to Toy Story Midway Mania (and how to prevent "mania" from undermining your success), Kober takes you on a tour of Disney's Hollywood Studios that will change how you view the park—and how you view your own life, both personal and professional.

Putting on the Show

Disney's Hollywood Studios: From Show Biz to Your Biz is the only book devoted entirely to the Hollywood Studios theme park, with over forty chapters of park history, Disney trivia, and business best practices, including:

  • How the experience starts in the parking lot
  • A tale of two movie moguls: Walt Disney vs Louis B. Mayer
  • The valuable lessons of "merchantainment"
  • Adventures in partnership with George Lucas, Jim Henson, and Aerosmith
  • How Disney turns mundane minutes into Magical Moments
  • Hidden secrets of the Tower of Terror, and how Disney exceeded even its own standards

Get your business ready for its close-up!

Table of Contents



Part One: Entrance & Hollywood Boulevard

The Show Starts Here

Playing in the Sandbox

It All Started with a Mouse

Do You Remember Super Service?

Thumbs Up & Thumbs Down


Preparation, Luck, and Serendipity


The Value of a Dollar

Being the Comeback Kid

The Art of the Deal

Tale of Two Movie Bosses: Louis B. Mayer & Walt Disney

The Persistence of Vision


Part Two: Echo Lake

Strengths of the Ugly Duckling

Setting Your Customer Up for Success

Be Unique

Embracing Change

"Bump the Lamp"

Do You Trust Me?

Missed Opportunities

Be Prepared

Part Three: Commissary Lane & Streets of America

Being a Life Saver


Is Your Business Run by the Muppets?

Psychic Income

Doing More with Less

Let It Go

"Thank You for Being a Friend"

Sharing in the Sacrifice

Projecting the Right Image to Your Customer

Part Four: Pixar Place, Mickey Avenue & Animation Courtyard

The Mode and Manner of a Strong Creative Culture

Finding Balance

Transactions, Interactions, and Magical Moments

Of Failure and Success: The Journey of Walt Disney

Creating a Renaissance

The Magic of "We"

Part Five: Sunset Boulevard

"We Have Faces"

Do You Have a Mickey Mouse Operation?

Show and Business

Being a Good Sport

Exceeding Your Standards

Facing an Uncertain Future

Fantasmic! Decision Making

Final Scene

What's Your Next Cue?


Welcome to a unique insight into not only Disney’s Hollywood Studios but into the heritage of Disney, of Hollywood, and of a park that offers a great guest experience.

I have walked the streets of Disney’s Hollywood Studios hundreds of times, but no experience was so vivid as the time I walked onto Hollywood Boulevard during my first visit there. I had anticipated the experience for some time. Our first trip to Walt Disney World had been less than six months prior to the opening of the Disney-MGM Studios. We enjoyed the experience immensely, but were disappointed that the Studios was still months away from opening. My next trip would be in January 1990. Some nine months had passed since the Studios had opened on May 1, 1989. I had watched and recorded on my VCR the opening specials of the new park. I was psyched and ready to visit. I was in Orlando on a business trip, and as soon as I finished up the affairs of that trip, I headed right over to the Studios.

As I drove down World Drive, I was disappointed when flashing signs indicated that the park was closed to occupancy and that I had to go elsewhere. All this waiting…and now I had to wait some more. I made up for it by visiting the newly opened Wonders of Life at Epcot. It was also impressive, and it allowed me to dodge the afternoon rains. But other than visiting that attraction, I had seen Epcot, and I really wanted to see Disney-MGM Studios. I wondered if I couldn’t drive back over there and get in.

The rain subsided just as I walked into the park. It was still daylight, but because of the rain, the neon lights up and down the street were lit and reflected off the wet pavement. It was magical. I followed the road all the way down to the Chinese Theater to the entrance of the Great Movie Ride. Seeing a long line of guests, I made a right through the Mickey and Leo the Lion gateway, and headed into the queue for the Backstage Studio Tour. The lines had lessened as the day grew later, but I still remember watching the monitors as Tom Selleck and Carol Burnett set the stage for the tram tour to follow.

Experiencing the Backstage Studio Tour reminded me of my first visit to The Walt Disney Studios. As a 17 year old, I wrote Ron Miller, then president of the studio, to ask his permission to tour the Burbank campus. In my young mind, I saw myself as the next Spielberg who would save the future of the Disney studio. I still vividly remember that tour some twelve years later. There was a prop yard dedicated to nothing but spare Herbie the Love Bug parts. And the soundstages were all off limits as the studio was working on a new top-secret film that would hopefully be as successful as Star Wars, called The Black Hole. I walked the back lots of Zorro and the hallways of the Walt Disney Animation Studios.

I eventually changed my interest in becoming a film director and directed them instead toward corporate training and development. Later, I would return to the studio to work on my graduate thesis, An Historical, Descriptive Study of Disney Educational Media as Informative and Entertaining. Dave Smith granted me access to the Disney Archives in the Roy O. Disney building at the studio. I spent days and weeks poring through the history of the organization, listening to tapes, and reading first-hand accounts. During breaks, I would sit out on the grass lawns or grab a bite to eat in the commissary. I couldn’t believe I was literally walking in the place where Walt had created so many dreams for so many years.

Walt never saw Walt Disney World completed, much less any idea of a studio park in Florida. But there seemed something familiar to me as I walked these streets, and all of those memories came back as I toured this new East Coast version of the Disney studio.

Fast forward a few years later and now I was a Cast Member with the Disney Institute. My role allowed me to park behind each of the parks, and I took advantage of it, as I went for a morning jog each day. My favorite place to park and go running was the Disney-MGM Studios. A few workers would still be out hosing down streets and making things ready for a new day of guests. I especially loved jogging up and down Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, where the neon lights were still defying the rise of a new day.

In my role at Disney, I worked over the years with artists and operators of the park in creating field experiences for those who attended the Disney Institute programs. In that role I escorted hundreds of visiting business professionals through the Disney-MGM Studios on business tours. I had other responsibilities as well. In creating new media for the Disney Institute, I spent one night at The Tower of Terror where we locked down a camera in the elevator and rode it seven times in a row without getting out. By the time we got the images we were looking for, we could barely stomach the pizzas we had left in the library for the cast and crew. But who else can say they had pizza in the library of the Tower of Terror—at midnight, no less!

I also remember many a trip with my family. I was there on opening day of the same Tower of Terror. It was all I could do to convince my children that the by-pass elevator was really not the one that would drop. Together as a family we enjoyed the parks. My oldest sons were into Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles and Power Rangers. Who remembers the short-lived Goosebumps HorrorLand Fright Show and Funhouse? Even my kids rolled their eyes. But other shows were unforgettable. My oldest daughter ran up to the stage and kept the last playing card Quasimodo tore in the final showing of Hunchback of Notre-Dame, A Musical Adventure. Our family enjoyed the Osborne Family Lights each Christmas over the years—even way back when it was on Residential Street. There were daddy-daughter dates at Sci-Fi Dine-In. And I remember my wife and I celebrating our anniversary by dining on Cobb salad and grapefruit cake at what is my favorite Disney restaurant, The Brown Derby. Today I still enjoy time with my youngest son on his favorite attraction, The Great Movie Ride.

There is so much to enjoy at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It has attracted millions and millions of guests, and is one of the top theme parks in the world. Still, there are many who dismiss the park:

“It’s too small.”

“There isn’t enough to do than at the other parks.”

“Too many shows and not enough rides.”

“Not a lot of theming.”

There is some veracity to those statements. But for the naysayers, I wrote this book, offering a new look at this one-of-a-kind Disney theme park. In fact, I would dare make the claim that you will not find, within so tight a space, a better telling for the story of Hollywood, of Walt Disney, and of the business of creating a great guest experience. You could walk the streets of the real Hollywood for days and still not understand its heritage as much as you would by spending a few hours at this special park. The show, rides, attractions, and restaurants of Disney’s Hollywood Studios are dripping with details of a bygone era, or, as Michael Eisner declared when he dedicated the park:

The World you have entered was created by The Walt Disney Company and is dedicated to Hollywood—not a place on a map, but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine, a place where illusion and reality are fused by technological magic. We welcome you to a Hollywood that never was—and always will be.

That is the goal of this book—not just to tell the tales of Hollywood and of Disney but to tell you what happens when you dream and wonder and imagine. I invite you not only to learn about a place that never was—and always will be—but to apply these ideas to the place that always is and will always be: your world. For each story offers lessons that can be learned—lessons in leadership, business, and even life. Disney’s Hollywood Studios: From Show Biz to Your Biz tells the story behind the magic and helps you to put magic into your own story.

Ready? Then…Lights! Camera! Action!

Just as a theme park has many attractions and adventures, so does this book. We celebrate all that is Hollywood, Disney, and the experience of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. There is no real historical order. Instead, the topics in this book follow two themes:

LEADING LIKE A STAR  What you must do to be the successful leader you want to be.

MAKING YOUR CUSTOMER A STAR  What you must do to create a great customer service experience for your customer.

We’ve added extra details—be sure to look for these special captions as you go through the book!

Imagine that you and I walked the streets of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The book follows the natural order we might take. Each chapter focuses on a different attraction, ride, or dining or shopping experience. We learn from the heritage, themes, stories, and concepts tied to each location.

You will see these themes repeat themselves again and again. But, in truth, the themes of persistence, working well with others, and paying attention to details are the solutions that create ultimate success.

I hope you wore comfortable shoes. There’s so much to cover.

Let’s go!


J. Jeff Kober is CEO of World Class Benchmarking, where he provides a programming series that studies and benchmarks many of America’s greatest corporations such as Google, Nordstrom, McDonalds, The Mayo Clinic, and Harley-Davidson. He is also president of Performance Journeys, a training and development group devoted to creating and implementing improved customer service and performance excellence in the workplace.

For nearly thirty years, Jeff has focused on organizational transformation for the private, public, and non-profit sectors. Those diverse activities have ranged from providing leadership programming for executives at GE to elevating the Starwood Hotel brands of Westin, Sheraton, and St. Regis. Other clients have included Federal Express, Office Depot, MetLife, City of New York, and Volkswagen of North America. Topics have ranged from leadership to performance accountability, and from customer service to team building.

Jeff was formerly a leader with the Disney Institute, a best-practices institution modeled on America’s first corporate university. While there, Jeff was responsible for working across the entire Walt Disney World Resort and designing Disney’s customer service programs. The programs Jeff has created have been seen by scores of thousands of participants in hundred of organizations across the world. He continues to be the benchmarking watchdog for best-in-business practices throughout the Walt Disney Company, having written The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney, and having created the Disney at Work interactive app series available on the iPhone and iPad.

In addition, Jeff has co-authored the book Lead With Your Customer: Transform Culture and Brand into World-Class Excellence. He currently resides in Orlando, Florida, with his wife and family.

A Chat with AUTHOR

If you have a question for J. Jeff Kober that you would like to see answered here, please get in touch and let us know what's on your mind.

In this excerpt, from "Strengths of the Ugly Duckling", Jeff traces the cinematic roots of Min and Bill's Dockside Diner, and the appeal of one of its stars: elderly, overweight, unattractive Marie Dressler, an "ugly duckling" who became one of Hollywood's swans.

The California Crazy architecture of Min and Bill’s Dockside Diner on Echo Lake takes its cues from Min and Bill, a 1930 movie starring old-time Hollywood veterans Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery. To film audiences decades later, these two actors may not seem very familiar. But the movie was a big hit in its day, and Dressler won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1931. A subsequent film, Tugboat Annie, made Dressler and Beery even bigger stars. In fact, Beery became MGM’s highest paid actor, until Clark Gable came along. Beery had a clause in his 1932 contract that the studio pay him a dollar per year more than any other actor on the lot.

What makes this tale all the more interesting is that neither Dressler nor Beery looked like Hollywood stars. In an era that was defined by real glamour, these two were the ugly ducklings.

Beery knew that as well as anyone. His career began at 16 when he ran away from home and joined the circus. He began as an elephant trainer for Ringling Brothers, but left two years later, after nearly being clawed to death by a leopard. In time, he ended up in movies, but he always played the comedy role. He noted:

Fate cast me to play the role of an ugly duckling with no promise of swanning. I have played my life as comedy rather than the tragedy many would have made of it.

Marie Dressler had a career full of ups and downs. When she performed in Min and Bill, she was overweight and sixty-two years old. She once said: “By the time we’ve hit fifty, we have learned our hardest lessons.” But she had mastered comic timing and had gained much experience doing vaudeville. When she played opposite Greta Garbo in the 1930 film Anna Christie, MGM was so impressed they signed her to a $500 per week contract—big money during the Depression. Time magazine featured her in a 1933 issue. Despite her age, she went on to become Hollywood’s number one box-office attraction until her death several years later at the age of sixty-five.

Norma Shearer presented Dressler with the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1931. At the ceremony, Shearer said:

Our tribute goes to someone who is not only a great artist but someone who we all truly love. A grand old trooper who has carved her niche of fame in two generations. Miss Marie Dressler


To accept her award, Dressler had to ease a nine-year-old Jackie Cooper, who had fallen asleep on her shoulder, into the lap of his mother. (Cooper was nominated for Best Actor in Skippy.)

Realizing that she was much less attractive than other top female stars of her era, such as Vivien Leigh, Jean Harlow, and Carole Lombard, Dressler resorted to what she did best: comedy. She said: “I contend that every woman has the right to feel beautiful, no matter how scrambled her features, or how indifferent her features.” She also noted: “To know that one has never really tried—that is the only death.”

Marie Dressler would ultimately pen her own autobiography, The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling.

Ask yourself:

  • How can I take my weaknesses and turn them into strengths?
  • What have I not tried before that would lead to my “swanning”?
  • Do I see myself as past my prime? How can I change that paradigm?
  • Where do I find the comedy, even in moments of tragedy?

In this excerpt, from "Is Your Business Run by the Muppets", Jeff offers some advice (backed up by Disney Legend John Hench) about how to keep Kermit away from the cash register.

One of the retail must-visits at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the Stage 1 Company Store, specializing in Muppets memorabilia. The shop is themed like a run-down, big-city hotel lobby. Shirts and pants are hanging on clotheslines. The wallpaper is shoddy. Pictures hang crookedly on the walls. Around the lobby several humorous signs are posted:

Out to lunch! Be back when I feel like it.

We feature…The Murphy Bed. From the Makers of Murphy’s Law.

Please steal linen. It’s cheaper than having it cleaned.

Check-out time is whenever you like. Patrons wishing to sneak out without paying will find it easier than they think.

Guests with valuables are invited to store them in the house safe. Simply look behind the check-in desk. A large hole in the back of the safe will enable you to withdraw and replace your valuables at any time.

The humor in this setting is that some people have stayed in hotels not much different in look and feel than the shop. Of course, it’s cute when it’s the Muppets taking over New York. It’s another thing when you’ve had long layovers, and you just want to check into a comfortable, clean room. Certainly, it’s not the experience you would expect staying at a Disney resort hotel.

Everything speaks to the experience, whether it’s eating in a restaurant, buying an insurance policy, or even staying in a hotel. Returning to this store set at Stage 1, let’s look at four key “Ps” that deliver to the experience:

People  The front line is the bottom line. Imagine that Disney Cast Members returned from lunch when they felt like it. Imagine that a ride shut down in the middle of the day because everyone decided to just stop and go to lunch.

Place   Everything onstage should support a great guest experience. You wouldn’t expect people’s wash to be hanging over the railings in the atrium at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort.

Process  You want to make it easy for customers to do business with you. Having a hole in the back of the safe may make it convenient for storing items, but it will never make it secure. Checking out whenever you want by sneaking out probably isn’t a good business model.

Product  Provide the best products and services possible. Would you really want a bed by the maker of Murphy’s law?

Imagineer John Hench explained Disney’s approach:

What’s our success formula? It’s attention to infinite detail, the little things, the minor, picky points that others just don’t want to take the time, money, or effort to do. As far as our Disney organization is concerned, it’s the only way we’ve ever done it…it’s been our success formula… We’ll probably be explaining this to outsiders at the end of our next two decades of business.

Disney is still trying to explain it today. On another occasion, Hench said:

Interestingly enough, for all its success, the Disney show is quite a fragile thing. It just takes one contradiction, one out-of-place stimulus to negate a particular moment’s experience…tack up a felt tip brown paper sign that says “Keep Out”…take a host’s costume away and put him in blue jeans and a tank top…replace that Gay Nineties melody with rock numbers…place a touch of artificial turf here…add a surly employee there… It really doesn’t take much to upset it at all.

Whether it’s through the People, the Place, The Process, or the Product, we deliver great service by paying attention to the details that matter to our customers. Anything else looks like a hotel run by the Muppets.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the People like that interface with customers?
  • What is the Place like that provides the setting for customers?
  • What Processes do I have in place when it comes to doing business with customers?
  • What are the Products that I provide to customers? Are they what customers really want?
  • What messages do I send—in writing or otherwise—about the value of the brand I represent?
  • How fragile is the customer service experience I provide?
  • How often do I walk the experience to see it from the customers’ point of view?

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