Given that Disney is nearly a century old and has evolved from a family animation studio into an entertainment media titan, one might assume that the theme parks and their associated resorts represent a dwindling segment of their overall revenue. But in reality, the theme parks and resorts represent 31% of their total revenue, and demand for park experiences continues to grow. This fact is not lost on Disney, which continues to raise the bar for the levels of service and experience they provide, from the ultra-exclusive, VIP-only Club 33 locations to increasingly immersive hotel experiences that extend further into the realms of virtual reality.
The roots of the Disney approach run deep. On the surface, the parks and resorts appear to be “magical” places where “anything can happen” — but there’s a complex and well-oiled machine working in the background to make this seamless experience possible. Every employee at Disney (officially called cast members), from ticket-sellers and tram drivers to ride operators, shop attendants, and actors, receives extensive training on tone, posture, and word choice, so that specific interactions become muscle memory. Management strategist Gregg Ledermann points out that even maintenance workers are trained to help guests navigate the park and can orchestrate unexpected encounters that put smiles on faces.
Every system is ruthlessly scrutinized for inefficiency — even if it takes place in the parking lot. Take an example from the book Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service (written by Theodore Kinni on behalf of the Disney Institute). When it was determined that happy but tired guests were having difficulty locating their cars at the end of the day, a system was introduced that synced tram driver schedules with arrival times, so that each driver could help guests find their car quickly. Disney even works to perfect systems that aren’t intended to be noticed, such as the ambient sound system throughout the park — it’s designed so that volume remains constant and never intrudes on a guest’s experience.
Much like Zappos and the mission to “deliver WOW through service,” the Disney approach is focused on a single common purpose - to “create happiness by providing the best in entertainment for people of all ages everywhere”. This focus is the foundation for every interaction between a cast member and a guest at Disney. It’s much simpler to create magical moments from otherwise mundane circumstances when all you have to do is “create happiness,” rather than memorizing a handbook of policies or requesting that a manager provide permission before taking action.
As an example, consider a story shared by Bruce Jones, Senior Director of the Disney Institute, about a visit by a family with an autistic child. Knowing that a full day of interaction with other guests and cast members would be difficult for their son, they encouraged him to select an item that they would purchase as a reward when leaving the park if he were able to make it through the day. Queue close of day and the family, having had a great time, stopped at a shop to purchase his item, a clear balloon with a purple mickey mouse figure in it (purple was his favorite color). However, they learned that the last of these balloons had already been sold.
In most circumstances, that would be the end of the matter — the family would have faced disappointment and, at best, been offered an alternative item as consolation. Instead, the well-trained cast member immediately recognized that this balloon was very important, and quickly enlisted another cast member to step into a back room and prepare a new balloon which was happily offered to the family — the perfect end to a perfect day.
What a great example of how a seemingly insignificant item — a specific balloon, out of the thousands of balloons available throughout the park — is recognized for the important detail that it is! For the family in this example, getting that balloon was the key element in ending their day on the happiest note possible. That’s the real “magic” of Disney, and the driving factor in their 70% return rate for first-time visitors. In fact, Disney even has a program specifically designed to identify first-time visitors and guests who are having a birthday, providing them with a special badge that cast members are trained to recognize, so they can greet the guest by name as they wish them “happy birthday” or comment on their first visit.
Dennis Snow, who spent 20 years in leadership at Walt Disney World, reveals that the idea is to combine each of these “ little moments of ‘wow’” into a cumulative experience. Guests aren’t intended to remember each moment or interaction, but instead leave with a deep impression of a “magical” experience unlike anything they’ve experienced before
The Disney magic brings families back again and again, year by year and decade by decade. Grandparents bring grandchildren to watch them experience the magic for the first time; parents bring children so they can share the joy of their own Disney encounters. Family stories are the heart of the Disney experience — after all, Walt Disney’s original motivation for creating Disneyland was to provide families with a clean, safe theme park that could bring his animated movies to life. Small wonder, then, that so many stories about Disney service experiences revolve around parents and children.
One father describes the visit that helped him realize the true power of the Disney magic through his then-five-year-old son. Flush with “Disney Dollars” provided by his grandparents, the little boy searched a Disney shop looking for just the right item to spend it on, finally locating a toy that fit the bill, a Buzz Lightyear doll.
When the father went to purchase the toy and asked the son for his wallet, a cast member took over, creating a micro-experience that was pure magic for the boy. The cast member called the child by name and proceeded to carry on an in-depth conversation just as he would with an adult customer — chatting about where he’s from, remarking on the toy and discussing its features, then moving on to payment, an explanation of sales tax, and a careful accounting of change due at the end of the transaction. The little boy left with an enormous sense of accomplishment for making a purchase all on his own, with his own money, which added a new, deeper layer of meaning to the toy long after they brought it home. The magic of that experience brought the family back twenty times over the following decade.
Of course, there are times when magic takes a back seat to simply solving a problem. That’s the case for one family, whose Disney adventure looked to be going off-course when the father discovered that he had forgotten to appropriately tag their baggage so that it could be transferred from the airport to their room at a Disney resort. Knowing that this was a complex problem (and his own fault) involving Southwest Airlines and the Orlando airport baggage system in addition to the Disney resort machine, he was worried that the vacation was about to be ruined.
When his first call to Disney customer service left him unsure if a solution was possible, he turned to a cast member at the resort. After helping them check in and pointing the family towards dining options, the cast member took charge and managed to locate the bags, then bring them to their rooms, in just a few hours. And that’s the magic here — as the kids were lost in their excitement about the adventures to come, Disney cast members quietly solved a problem that could have derailed the entire trip.
And their story doesn’t stop there. A few days later the family attended a late night campfire event in the Fort Wilderness area of the resort. Facing a long, multi-stage journey back to their hotel room, disaster struck: their oldest son suddenly became sick. Cue a cast member to the rescue — noticing their plight, he stopped by with a golf cart and drove them to a restaurant parking lot, where he dashed in to call up a private van ride directly back to their hotel.
While the family waited, the cast member brought supplies for the sick child, including a toy — and he remembered to bring a toy for the younger son as well, cutting off any sibling jealousy at the pass. To top it all off, the van delivered them back to their hotel in plenty of time to catch the nightly fireworks display from their balcony.
Disney certainly isn’t the only organization in the hospitality and entertainment field with a reputation for exceptional customer service. While it’s true that they may outshine competitors in delivering concierge service concepts at a daunting level of scale, other organizations also have great stories to share about their dedication to making customers happy.
Some of the most amazing stories come from niche-oriented hotels and resorts that flip the Disney script in their approach to the marketplace, focusing on a narrower customer demographic. In many ways, that makes the following stories all the more impressive, since these organizations are already expected to deliver a customer experience that far exceeds the offerings at mid-market hotels and motels. In other words, when these customers are impressed, that speaks volumes about the lengths these companies go to in order to make sure each customer has an exceptional and worry-free stay.
Micah Solomon highlights a selection of examples of truly jaw-dropping customer experiences, ranging from unexpected attention to minor details all the way up to the effortless resolution of seemingly insurmountable problems. These stories come from world-class, five-star hotels, where incredible service isn’t just expected — it’s demanded. But as these examples prove, even in the competitive world of concierge hospitality, it’s still possible for companies and empowered employees to astonish and delight customers in powerful ways.
The first example comes from The Inn at Little Washington, a Forbes Double Five Star and AAA double Five Diamond rated resort in Virginia. A couple arrived at The Inn from Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive, for a three-day stay celebrating their anniversary. As their bags were removed from the car, the wife suddenly discovered the hanging bag with all of her clothes had been left in their garage at home. While employees huddled to determine what they might do, a senior team member asked for the couple’s house key, then jumped in a company car and drove round-trip, eight full hours, to deliver the clothing — just in time for the couple’s 9 PM dinner reservation.
Two more stories, this time from Solomon’s personal experience, jump out. The first comes from the Five Star Montage Palmetto Bluff near Savannah, Georgia. Solomon was there on a visit with his wife and young son, who was learning to ride a bike at the time. As he struggled to stay balanced on the bicycle they had borrowed from the resort, a nearby house attendant noticed his precarious position and returned to the main office to see what she could do. Just a few minutes later, she returned with a bike that now had training wheels attached, and with the manager of the recreation department in tow to make sure that everything went smoothly from there.
Of course, not every story of customer service excellence involves an employee going above and beyond expectations — sometimes, as with the previously discussed case of the Zappos Customer Loyalty agent who wrote a witty email, it’s enough just to have a sense of humor about things.
The next story starts with a phrase common to anyone who has contacted a call center for support, or booked a reservation by phone — “is there anything else I can help you with today?” When asked this question by an employee with a company known for great service, Solomon often tests their limits by responding “yes — I would like a pony.” While he’s received witty reactions from a few places, the concierge at the Four Seasons in Austin, Texas won the prize. Her response? “I’ll see what I can do.” A few minutes later, she slipped a four-page portfolio under his door, highlighting a selection of horses for sale within a twenty-five-mile radius, and an offer to pick up any horse that he selected, provided his credit card were able to cover the purchase.
No review of customer service excellence would be complete without highlighting a few cases from the world-renowned Ritz-Carlton hotels and resorts. A significant part of the reason for their outstanding reputation for customer service comes from their famous strategy for empowering employees to spare no expense in solving problems for customers. Every employee is authorized to spend up to $2000 per incident to help a customer out. Again, that’s per incident, not per year or month. And — this bears paying close attention — employees not only have access to this fund entirely at their own discretion, with no prior approval needed, but they are encouraged to spend the money whenever they feel it’s appropriate.
The reason for this commitment? Ritz-Carlton knows that the average customer will spend $250K with the company during their lifetime, and as a result, they see no reason why employees shouldn’t be prepared to solve any problem in order to retain those customers. As a result, Ritz-Carlton employees are not just well-trained and empowered to do whatever it takes to build such incredibly strong relationships, they’re also equipped with the resources needed to make miracles happen.
One great example comes from the Ritz-Carlton in Bali, where a family checking in discovered that they had left behind specialty milk and eggs for their son, who had numerous food allergies, and replacements weren’t available in the area. But the executive chef recalled a grocery store in Singapore that carried these items — so he reached out to his mother-in-law, who agreed to pick them up and then fly to Bali.
Another example, again shared by Micah Solomon, comes from the Dove Mountain Resort near Tucson, a Ritz-Carlton property. As a family prepared to leave the resort following their stay, the mother couldn’t find her son’s favorite Thomas the Tank Engine toy anywhere. She reached out to two employees at the resort and explained that her son would be devastated without this toy. As any parent knows, a child’s favorite toy is not easily (or possibly ever) replaced; it’s an important daily companion, part of countless eating and sleeping and bathing rituals, and its loss can throw an entire family’s schedule out the door for days or weeks at a time.
Realizing the importance of the toy, the two employees drove to a toy store and purchased a replacement — but instead of shipping it directly to the family, they returned to the store, opened the package, and proceeded to photograph Thomas traveling around the Sonoran desert. Then they sent the toy on to the family, including the photos and a note written in Thomas’ own voice, describing his adventures. The family, understandably blown away, thanked the resort and declared that Ritz-Carlton had earned their business for life.
Just as with the Disney model, Ritz-Carlton recognizes that exceptional experiences only happen when people take care of problems or provide an extra touch based on personal understanding. As former Ritz-Carlton COO Stephen Cooper puts it, “It’s all about people. Nobody has an experience with a thing.” The goal isn’t “just” to make customers happy but to go so far beyond even the highest level of expectations that customers feel an incredibly close bond with hotel employees.
Their mission is “to develop such a strong emotional engagement between the hotels' staff and their guests that a guest will not consider staying anywhere else, even if they have an option.” It makes sense: the reason guests keep coming back and are eager to spend as much as they do isn’t thanks to the view from the balcony or the amazing thread count on the sheets, it’s the employees and their dedication to sparing no expense to make each visit perfect.