Human Resource Management in the Walt Disney World Resort


Probably one of the most magical places on earth, the Walt Disney World Resort theme park in Florida continues to delight and excite it’s guests, nearly 40 years after it opened, and is one of the most successful media and entertainment corporations in the whole world. The company represents the kind of success that many companies strive for. The secret to it’s success is it’s motivated, friendly and well-trained staff. The founder, Walt Disney believed that the only way to become successful was to have a great team on your side, and once said:

“You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world but it requires people to make the dream a reality.”

.A Brief History

The Walt Disney World Resort, is a multi-billion dollar corporation and is the world’s largest and most visited recreational resort, covering 30,080-acres near Orlando, Florida, USA. Millions of people every year take their vacations at the resort. The resort was founded, with the opening of the “Magic Kingdom” theme park in 1971. It consists of four theme parks, two water parks, 23 resort hotels, and various kinds of recreational and entertainment venues. Epcot park was added in 1982, Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 1989 and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998.

This world famous resort was inspired by the dreams of Walt Disney and his creation of Disneyland in California. The resort is the largest single-site employer in the United States, employing 42,000 people, with over 3,000 different job classifications. More than 1000 people work in the security department alone.


Disney is renowned for being a fun and friendly place at which to work. Its ability to offer attractive incentives make it a desirable place to work and it is constantly evaluating the market to ensure their wages remain competitive. All Disney employees participate in training programs that update them on the latest service techniques and technology being used in the parks. Disney recruit both internally and externally, advertising vacancies on their website, via the press, job fairs, employment exchanges and colleges. There is a large quantity of college students working in Disney. Recruitment staff also regularly travel to Puerto Rico, to recruit for positions in housekeeping, theme park assistants, bar and restaurant.

It ‘s 4 major employment strategies are:

Hire the right people

Develop people to deliver service quality

Provide needed support systems

Retain the best people

Once potential employees have been identified, interviews follow. The skills and abilities that managers generally look for are:

Excellent communication skills

Good team player

Self motivated

Problem solver

Leadership potential

Strong computer skills

Project management skills


Able to handle expectations

Personal and professional style

Strong business judgment

Ability to facilitate and multitask

A guest service outlook

Disney theme parks promise to provide a superior service in order to create a “…imaginary world where visitors can escape the themes of the “real” world”. To achieve this, the company has to employ people with the proper skills and personalities, who are also motivated, with a clear knowledge of the company’s marketing objectives and strategies. Staff have to be polite, well dressed, energetic, enthusiastic, and people-loving, always serving guests whole-heartedly. All staff are provided with an extensive knowledge of the park facilities, rides, and sites.

HRM Practises

Disney believes in investing in its staff and provide various training programs and learning opportunities for employees to work their way into higher positions. Disney nearly always promotes from within.

Almost everyone, even managers, begin in an ordinary entry-level hourly job. There is a program to help hourly workers who want to become part of management, there is another that allows them to transfer, as apprentices, to the technical unions like plumbers or electricians. Disney also grant educational reimbursement to employees still at college.

Supervisors try to create a family-like atmosphere in Disney by offering flexible schedules and on-site day care programs for employees with children. The company also host numerous special events for its employees that are held in the theme park after hours.

Present day human resources practices at Disney are considered to be “extraordinary”, with all staff being trained in excellent customer satisfaction policies. However HR practices were very poor in the early years of Disney. The Walt Disney Company originated back in 1923, when Walt and Roy Disney started their first animated recording studio. The first animation production was really hard, with tasks being divided out according to gender. By 1941, the Walt Disney Company employed 1,100 people. Ellwood (1998) describes Walt Disney as “a notorious workaholic, a perfectionist who pushed his staff relentlessly”. Both “paternalistic and domineering” he rewarded loyalty and punished dissidents. During this time, no women or black people were ever promoted to senior positions, and in fact it was the only Hollywood studio, that had no union. Eventually it came to the attention of the American Federation of Labour. In 1941., animators took industrial action over bad and dangerous conditions and lack of union representation.

However, these early days working conditions and problems, didn’t prevent the company developing into a massively-successful $23 billion media conglomerate, by the end of the 1990s.

Cast Members

Employees in Disney are called ‘cast members’. Quality cast members are a direct result of quality hiring practices. Bonuses are paid to workers who refer new hires. Disney believes it’s important to have people who have actually worked in different parts of the company, to do the recruiting. So the recruitment staff all come from different parts of the organization, and work on 12-month contracts.

When people are called for interview, they are required to watch a short video, before being interviewed. The video describes the interview process and outlines what the company expects of them, if they’re successful.

Once hired, all new cast members have to do a 1½ day training program called Traditions. It’s here they learn the basics of being good cast members, from Disney history to direction on how to meet and exceed guest expectations. Cast members are given 13 page manual of strict dress codes, known as the “Disney Look.” The “Disney Look” is a rigid code of appearance that imposes a clean, scrubbed, all-American look, that all cast members must abide by, and there is no room for non-conformity in it. The manual details the size of earrings allowed, down to the size of finger nails. Males are not permitted to grow any facial hair, and dyed hair, too, is not allowed, for both sexes. Disney’s strict grooming standards are vital, as employees are to be part of a wide cast of Disney characters.

Every employee is instructed in the “Seven Guidelines to Guest Service” which highlights the need to be cheerful, when serving guests.

From the very start, staff are encouraged to implement a “have a nice day!” mentality, and to smile the “Disney smile” all day.


Employees are usually given jobs according to their age and appearance, a process officially known as “casting”. The most “presentable” get the most popular jobs that involve a lot of interaction with customers. For example:

Young and pretty workers get “front-line jobs”

Haitian women generally work in housekeeping;

Older women sell in the shops

Older men work in security

African Americans work as stewards or cooks,

Africans are employed in the ” Animal Kingdom”, to lend “authentic flavour”.

Puerto Recons work in housekeeping, bars or restaurants

Anyone who might appear “less ‘presentable’ work on night shifts

Cast Members receive some excellent benefits including:

Health, Dental, Life Insurance

Complimentary Theme Park Passports

Learning and Development Opportunities

Educational Reimbursement

Scholarship Program

Paid holidays, vacations, and sick days

30% Discount on park merchandise

Employee Stock Purchase Program

Access to a Cast Member-only lake and recreation area with tennis, volleyball, and an Olympic-size swimming pool.

Service Awards

Employee & Cast Member Contests

Childcare Centres

Credit Unions

Employee Stores

Retirement plan.

Cast Members usually work 40 hours or more each week. There is no person in charge of quality service. It is the responsibility of every one to measure service quality levels, establish benchmarks and to set goals. Instead of one quality director, Disney has 42,000 of them.

(Paton S. M. Service Quality, Disney Style, Quality Digest)

Disney University

A lot of time has been devoted to designing successful employee ‘universities’, which train workers in the Disneyland philosophy.

Walt Disney established the Disney University to teach these unique skills. The University provides cast members with free world-class training in diverse skills including computer applications, professional development, management/leaderships development, health & safety, interviewing, business, etc.


One of Walt Disney main objectives (and one of his teachings that lives on very strongly at The Walt Disney Company) was to always “Exceed Expectations.” Walt inspired and empowered people to give more than what was asked of them. Even today, Disney is committed to employee empowerment. Empowerment enables employees to do certain things, within established limits and guidelines, to make the customer happy. For example, if a child drops ice-cream, seconds after buying it, employees are empowered to replace the ice-cream for free.

Employees are empowered to resolve all guest issues on their own, with managers only getting involved in extreme circumstances. Managers use service measurement teams to empower employees. 1 or 2 employees from each department take note of any service issues that might take from a guest’s stay at the resort. By keeping records of every problem, and how it was dealt with, helps to reduce the chances of it happening again. To keep up-to-date with their guests expectations, Disney also collects huge amounts of data about guests from opinion polls, surveys, focus groups etc.

From this information, the company have learned that the “top three” guest expectations are for the parks to be fun, friendly and clean. Every worker, from the CEO to cleaner, know these 3 expectations well, and is empowered to make them happen. All employees know, too, the definition of quality at Disney:

“Disney defines quality as attention to detail and exceeding guest expectations.”

Performance Appraisals

Management use performance appraisals and performance surveys, to measure internal service quality. The annual performance appraisal is designed to give the employee a broad perspective of his/her accomplishment from the previous year and to identify upcoming challenges. Another strategy employed by managers to deliver service quality, are monthly development action plans. (DAPs) (Zeithaml and Bitner, 2000)


Disney certainly know the true value of retaining productive employees. Annual turnover amongst its employees is only 20%. This low turnover is made possible by the extensive employees reward programs, on offer, and by the policy it has of treating it’s employees like resort guests. There are more than 50 different reward and recognition programs at Disney, that are used to maintain high employee morale and commitment. The most prestigious award is the “Partners in Excellence” program. This award involves any employee nominating another employee (who must have excellent attendance and no disciplinary action record).

At a certain time during the year, all nominated employees are invited to a special dinner ceremony, where they are individually congratulated by company executives, for their outstanding accomplishments. Then, they are all given bronze statues of the company founder, Walt Disney.

Disney also use service pins, attendance awards, and Recognition-O-Grams (ROGs) to rewards committed employees. Recipients usually wear the service pins on their uniforms, which they receive on their first, fifth, tenth, twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries. Attendance awards are also offered to employees after one, three, five, ten and fifteen years of perfect attendance. The awards range from honorary certificates to a $2000 gift certificate.

Recession hits Disney Theme Parks

Like many other industries, the recession and the recent decline, has really hit the theme park industry in America. Early this year, the Walt Disney company reported a 32% drop in net income for its fiscal first quarter of 2010, which it attributed to the recession. The company were forced to cut 1,400 jobs from the Orlando theme parks. The original Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, cut 300 positions, while the rest were eliminated at the company’s corporate headquarters at Burbank.

“These decisions are not made lightly, but are essential to maintaining our leadership in family tourism and reflect today’s economic realities,” said Mike Griffin, a Walt Disney World spokesman.

Those laid off received a 60-day paid administrative leave, a severance package that is based on their years of service, extended medical benefits, and job placement.

Trade Unions

Workers are represented by 34 unions, the biggest being the Service Trade Council Union (STCU), The STCU represents about 22,000 F/T and 5,000 P/T workers at Disney World. The SEIU is part of the STCU, a consortium of six trade unions that is the only group certified to bargain with the Disney company. In the last two years alone, Disneyland Resort has successfully negotiated nine agreements with the union. These agreements included wage increases, sick pay and access to seven affordable and reliable health care plans offered through Disney’s Signature benefits package for full-time cast members.


This essay looked at the human resource practises that have been adopted at Disney in order to maximize the delivery of superior guest services. Reasons for the company’s success include emphasis on customer service, and a focus on the elements of efficiency, courtesy, show, and safety. It has shown how employee strategies at Disney lead to the attainment of exceptional service quality, and large volumes of guests repeatedly coming back, year after year.

Disney takes a lot of care with its casting department and regularly assess its pay packages and new ways of recruiting. It offers a competitive package of wages and incentives to it’s staff, such as free park admission and discounts on park merchandise.

In the past, Disney’s theme parks seemed to be fairly recession-proof. But this year, fewer people found their way to the Magic Kingdom as profits were down from 2008-10. Disney said the company manages its operation based on demand, and like any other business it is subject to the ups and downs of the economy.

The Disney philosophy teaches that by allowing employees to take care of customers in a respectful way, the business will take care of itself. It’s important that management stress to workers that employee empowerment and development is an on-going process. The actions of empowered employees have enabled Disney to continually exceed customer expectations and have helped develop lasting relationships with millions of guests worldwide.

The human resource department must continually develop successful empowerment strategies and effective reward and recognition programs to maintain high morale and promote teamwork, and to keep the company soaring, especially through these troubled times.

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