The Parking Lot Principle: Transforming Wasted Space Into Gold

Parking lot - no parking

Disney theme parks are known as “The Happiest Places on Earth.” How is this environment created? There are certainly many things that help create that unique atmosphere, but there is one in particular that stands out; one thing that reflects Disney’s obsession with creating a great Guest experience by taking care of every detail … right down to the parking lot. In my career at Disney, especially at the Disney University orientation, we reinforced the following concept with our new hires and employees every day.

The parking lot is one of our key competitive advantages.”

What? How could that be? Parking lots are known as dirty, crowded places that serve a very limited, and often expensive, function … not usually mentioned in the same breath as “competitive advantage.” This comment often drew nervous laughter from our new-hires. But, the parking lot principle isjust one of many examples of how Disney does a terrific job of elevating a basic function into a magical experience. The parking lot is most likely the first and last thing a customer will see during a visit to a Disney property. The employees in the parking lot are likely to be the first and last staff members a customer will come into contact with … what could be more important than the parking lot?

What is the equivalent of the parking lot principle at your company? Are you overlooking a vital contact point with your customers in the form of the receptionist, the call center, your security officers, web site or delivery personnel?

Here’s a very simplified example of the kind of message we shared with our new-hires during orientation at the Disney University:

“Our Guests come to Disneyland to escape the worries and harshness of the outside world, and it is up to you, the Cast Members, to help make their dreams come true. Unfortunately, one harsh word or inappropriate gesture by a Cast Member can undermine the work of the whole team. Let’s say a family comes to Disneyland and spends the whole day enjoying the attractions, food, and environment. They leave after the fireworks feeling completely happy … and exhausted. What if the driver gets confused (which often happens) as the family attempts to leave the parking lot? What happens if the driver then asks a Cast Member about which exit to use to get to the highway? What happens if that Cast Member is a bit rushed and stressed out trying to control the thousands of cars heading toward the exit, and barks back: “Look, just keep moving, you can read the signs when you get out on the street,” and brusquely waves the car on? It’s pretty obvious that the driver is likely to feel angry and dismissed. In a split second, the Cast Member could very well undermine the previous ten hours of great joy the family experienced. Then, in that instant, the memories of all of the friendly Cast Members, the cleanliness, and the glitter and beauty of Disneyland could be replaced with a final memory of anger and disgust.”

Do you think this family is coming back? Do you think this family will encourage their friends to visit?

It Is All About Innovation … And Fun! Disney University founder, Van France, recognized the need to balance hard work with a dose of merriment and fun. In fact, he created the Parking Lot Olympics, during which parking lot cast members were challenged with games such as:

  • Cone stacking: stacking the most cones in five minutes
  • Cone laying: lining up the most cones in a straight line

The stress-relieving qualities of such “demanding” events proved invaluable to the participants. After all, these cast members are on the literal front line of Disneyland. Dodging speeding cars, answering guests’ questions, and doing it all on a jet black surface in the intense summer heat take a toll.

Taking Home the Parking Lot Principle: What is the first and last impression guests have of your organization? What is the equivalent of the Parking Lot where you work? Is your “parking lot” a barrier to outstanding service, or does it enhance guest experience? Are you successfully leveraging a traditionally challenging environment, role, or position into one of outstanding service and leadership excellence? Or, are you missing a golden opportunity to establish a new, much-appreciated contact point with your staff or those you serve?