How Disney Became the World’s Largest Entertainment Empire

June 4th, 2009   •   1 comment   

Statue of Walt Disney and his most famous creation (couresy of Michael Sult)

“Mickey Mouse management isn’t a joke. It’s the ticket to your business future.” – Bill Capodali and Lynn Jackson

Anybody who is into the world of entertainment knows how omnipresent the Disney brand has grown to be.

Today, Disney (or the Walt Disney Company) is easily one of the most recognisable consumer brands on the planet.

Acquiring major brands like Marvel and Star Wars in recent years, The Walt Disney company generated a record US$55.63 billion in 2016, with net profits of US$9.39 billion. This humongous conglomerate has some 195,000 employees worldwide (2016) and has businesses in movie making, network and cable television (including ABC and ESPN), theme parks, retail, food and beverage, merchandising, website (its Club Penguin online world is hugely popular with kids) and more.

Headquartered in Burbank, California, this icon of imagination needs no introduction amongst children of all ages.

Thanks to the book The Disney Way – Harnessing the Management Secrets of Disney in Your Company by Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson, we can learn a thing of two about the world’s mightiest purveyor of fun.

Extolling the virtues of the world’s largest entertainment and media company, the volume is peppered with tales of how Walt Disney with the support of his brother Roy Disney started this company in 1923 with just $500 borrowed from their uncle and grew it over the decades.

So what is the secret of Disney’s magic?

The core of it, according to Capodagli and Jackson, lies in the 10 key management strategies underpinning Walt Disney’s four-pillared philosophy of Dream, Believe, Dare and Do.


1. Give every member of your organisation a chance to dream, and tap into the creativity those dreams embody

As an animator and a cartoonist, Walt Disney was adept in the art of visioning and storytelling. He formed a group called “Imagineering” in the early 1950s to create new ideas and attractions.

To generate new possibilities amongst your team, you can organise “Dream Retreats” away from the hustle and bustle of your workplace. While doing so, ensure that your organisation’s dreams and visions can secure the buy-in from all stakeholders.


2. Stand firm on your beliefs and principles

You should ensure that everybody in your team understands the vision, mission and values of your organisation. They should also believe in and subscribe to these principles.

Formalised and communicated to all employees, these founding principles should be long-term traditions. In the Walt Disney company, they include the organisation’s emphasis on  family values and wholesome entertainment (at least in its core brand products).

Similarly, Disney’s mantra “Live your beliefs” provide a compass to all its employees to deliver these precepts.

3. Treat your customers like guests

The legendary customer service at Disney theme parks form the core of this strategy, where every visitor is treated like a guest in your home.

Everybody – from the cleaning guy to the CEO – has to take personal responsibility in according hospitality to visitors. This even includes picking up all litter on the theme park grounds.

Leading hotel chains are especially good at this. Often, their mottos are highly inspirational.

Examples here include the Ritz Carlton (“Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen”) and Marriott hotels (“Go beyond”).

To provide superior service, staff must be well-trained and empowered to innovate. Service delivery processes would also need to be ironed out for this purpose.

Heard the saying: the front line equals the bottom line? In Disney, this isn’t just a meaningless mantra but a way of life.

4. Support, empower, and reward employees

Teamwork as encapsulated in the three musketeer’s clarion call of “All for one and one for all” is a vital component of the Disney Way.

Every team member needs to work towards the greater good.

As Walt Disney himself had said, “I don’t propose to be an authority on anything at all… I follow the opinions of ordinary people I meet, and I take pride in the close-knit teamwork of my organisation.”

To work well, your teams should have a common focus. They should comprise cross-functional colleagues working together on a similar process.

Factors such as the physical layout of offices, staff rewards, information sharing, and group celebration should also be developed to positively influence the unity and performance of your work teams.

5. Build long-term relationships with key suppliers and partners

An extension of the earlier concept, Disney owes part of its success to forming strategic alliances with its partners.

Over the years, Disney leveraged on licensing and distribution agreements to grow its empire in win-win arrangements with retailers and distributors.

Likewise, Disney employees are encouraged to work closely with their suppliers and to involve them in co-creating new products and services. Such partnerships help to raise quality as suppliers would better understand how to meet Disney’s standards.


6. Dare to take calculated risks in order to bring innovative ideas to fruition

Risk taking is necessary in any entrepreneurial venture. This philosophy was probably best captured by Michael Eisner’s entry to Disney in 1984 as Chairman and CEO.

Although he was subsequently ousted in 2005 in an ill-fated fashion, Eisner did contribute towards major developments in Disney. They included the successful launch of The Lion King musical which set new Broadway records.

In this area, employees should be given the opportunity to develop and implement innovative ideas in all areas of their jobs. Off-site retreats involving cross-functional teams could be organised to reengineer products, processes and services.

While mistakes should be tolerated, opportunities for failure could be ameliorated by studying previous projects.


7. Train extensively and constantly reinforce the company’s culture

To perform at a consistently high level, all Disney employees are trained and drilled at the Disney University. Walt Disney himself was a perfectionist who demanded nothing less than the best.

Training should be offered to everybody involved in specific roles – not just managers alone. It should move from imparting knowledge to developing the right attitudes, skills and ultimately habits in all “cast” members.

In developing your human resources, you should consider development plans which carefully examines how your employees’ areas of weaknesses could be strengthened. Such approaches are superior to traditional performance appraisals.

8. Align long-term vision and short-term execution

Project planning is key (“Fail to plan and plan to fail”).  In Disney’s parlance, projects should be managed through the following processes:

  • Step 1: Blue sky (ideation)
  • Step 2: Concept development (research, evaluate alternatives, recommendation)
  • Step 3: Feasibility study (refine scope, do pro formas)
  • Step 4: Schematic (finalise master plan and outline processes)
  • Step 5: Design objectives (finalise design details, equipment and materials, plus implementation strategy and budget)
  • Step 6: Contract documents
  • Step 7: Production (site infrastructure, workareas, show elements etc)
  • Step 8: Install, test, adjust
  • Step 9: Close out (assemble final project documents, monitor performance)
  • Step 10 (from the authors): Celebrate a job well done!

Other than having a detailed process, project planning should also include the development of quick and inexpensive prototypes to test products, services or processes.

9. Use the story boarding technique to solve planning and communication problems

This technique used in animation to communicate a proposed storyline can be employed in the corporate world.

With an objective facilitator, storyboarding helps to elicit suggestions and inputs from all stakeholders involved. It can be used to formalise and crystallise project plans.

Storyboarding is also useful for communication purposes and helps everybody to see the “big picture” more easily.

10. Pay close attention to details

Finally, the saying “God (or the devil?) is in the details” is truly apt in any organisational endeavour.

With an artist’s eye, Walt Disney obsessed over the intricate parts of his organisation. To help his animators understand how penguins move, Disney once brought five live penguins into his studio!

Captured in the Japanese Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement, paying attention to details involves understanding your different customer touch points and seeing how they could be enhanced.


The Disney Way is a great book on leadership and management, with useful lessons that any organisation could use.

While some of the facts in the book were outdated since its publication in 1998, I believe that Disney’s timeless principles of management still apply in this day and age.

Overall, I found that these lessons are useful and relevant for those in the business of leisure, especially those searching for the best way to weave magic into their offerings.  Highly recommended.

Tags: , , ,

One comment

    posted on Jun 04, 2009 at 5:32 AM

    local management styles dont believe in believing your staff! its all top management say, Sad huh?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *