60 Years of Creating Happiness: Disney University Employee Orientation


“At Disneyland, I wanted people to feel they were involved in something more important than parking cars, serving food, or sweeping up popcorn, that they would be creating happiness for others.”

Van France, Disney University Founder

From Employee to Cast Member, Customer to Guest

Starting with the first Disneyland orientation program Van France and Dick Nunis created in 1955—60 years ago this year—Van’s message has remained the same:

Instill a sense of pride among employees about where they work and the jobs they perform. Van was determined to make Disneyland a place where customers and employees experienced second-to-none service. He knew creating happiness would be impossible if employees didn’t feel respected and good about what they were doing—regardless of their job.

One of Van’s strategies involved creating a whole new language at Disneyland; a language that reinforced the dignity of every job in the park. Walt Disney originally set the tone when he first introduced the concept for Disneyland; it wasn’t an amusement park, it was a theme park.

Disneyland is a huge stage; Van leveraged this by introducing show-business terms. He reasoned that a new vocabulary, coupled with strong organizational values, could help bring pride and energy to the job. Plus, it wasn’t limited to employees of the park; Van also changed the words used for customers. Thus, employees became “hosts,” “hostesses,” and “cast members.” Customers became “guests,” and crowd-control became “guest control.” Over the years, the show-business vocabulary evolved along with the quality of the show itself. Ultimately, a core of powerful terms emerged from this approach … terms that reflect the essence of Disney’s sustained success:

  • Good Show/Bad Show.
  • On Stage/Backstage.

More importantly, these terms encompass values found throughout the company. Van and the Disney University pioneers were well aware of their task; creating a new organizational culture focusing on respect for customers and employees involves much more than the skillful use of a thesaurus.

More Than a Coat of Paint

Are the people who pay for goods and services “Customers,” “Patients,” “Students,” “Residents,” or “Guests?”

Are the people working in an organization “Associates,” “Team Members,” “Partners,” “Employees or “Cast Members”?

Merely changing nouns or verbs won’t ensure world-class customer service or create a motivated and engaged workforce. Equally preposterous is the notion that simply slapping a fresh coat of paint on a dilapidated, run-down house will bring it up to code. Just as paint won’t improve the structural integrity of a building, [Tweet “catchy words for customers and employees have no value without leadership support.”]

Yet, the debate about how to best address customers and employees consumes valuable time, energy and money in organizations facing more onerous issues. For those, assessing and clarifying organizational values is a precursor to future improvement.

60 years ago, Disney University founder Van France got it right; treating employees with respect, and then preparing them for their job by providing training, is the recipe for sustained success.

Why don’t more organizations recognize this simple fact?

Excerpt from Disney U: How Disney University Develops the World’s Most Engaged, Loyal and Customer-Centric Employees. McGraw-Hill, 2013