Last week, during my kids’ spring break, we finally took our epic family trip to Disney World (yes, I am the tightwad father that refused to take them until they were old enough to remember it because I didn’t want to “waste” the trip). We did it right, too. Instead of fooling with airports and all the unnecessary convenience they bring, we drove the whole way, 20 hours round trip, Clark Griswold style. It is sufficient to say that between that and the lines at Disney, we all received adequate practice in the development of that most wonderful virtue of patience.
I didn’t just take the week off, though. From the moment we passed under those storied gates to the tortuous wait for the final monorail with 100,000 of my closest friends at 11:30 pm on our final night, I observed several interesting facts and trends that will be tremendously useful in providing advice to my banking clients. Below are five of those lessons that I thought may be worth your time to consider.
1. The Debit Card is Dead (or At Least Will Be Soon)
Nobody who is anybody at Disney pays for anything with a debit card. For those that are staying at the resort, stylish wrist bands are the preferred form of payment. These wrist bands, which apparently come in an array of colors and styles, store all kinds of information about the Disney patron they belong to. This includes payment information, which means that paying $50 for a $10 meal can be as easy as waiving your wrist in front of pay terminal, but it also includes your reservation to ride Space Mountain at 9:15 pm without having to wait in line for an hour and a half, as well as your ticket into the park. It is your all in one golden ticket for everything Disney (as well as Disney’s golden ticket to all of your valuable personal information and preferences).
Of course, my children had the Dad that decided to use points for a hotel stay “off resort” instead of springing for five nights at the Polynesian, so they did not get to sport one of these trendy “Magic Bands.” However, their prevalence could not be avoided, along with the obvious enthusiasm with which they were embraced. A few times I pulled out a debit card to pay for light sabers or food and the attendant looked at me like I had just pulled out a check book. Obviously, Disney is still an isolated environment and the infrastructure it has in place has not yet been replicated throughout our broader economy, but the outcome to me appears inevitable. As trusting as we now seem to be of technology and as much as we welcome its convenience, the days of the uni-purpose debit card that merely allows access to your checking account are numbered. The alternative form of payment device, whether it be a pretty wrist band or an iPhone, that not only allows access to your checking account but also stores all of your personal information so that retailers can cater to your every stored preference is fast approaching, whether the law is ready for it or not.
2. Branding Success Does Not Mean Branding Complacency
This was the first time I visited Disney World since I was twelve, and while I do not remember everything about that trip, I remember enough to recognize that this experience was very different. Unlike a quarter of a century ago, I did not spend my time waiting in line to see Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck; instead I waited an hour to see Chewbacca and Kylo Ren. Whereas my last trip I rode “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” this time my eight year old made me ride Buzz Lightyear’s shooting gallery numerous times.
There is no question that Disney is the king of branding, which has helped them develop and maintain a tremendously loyal following that still brings untold millions to their parks every year in what can only be called an American cultural pilgrimage. Let’s be honest, no one above 25 goes to Disney World because it is “fun;” they go because it has become such a rite of passage for children that those who do not take their kids are subject to a visit from DHS for mistreating their offspring. It is that irresistible brand which lead me to spend St. Patrick ’s Day walking untold miles while being run over by numerous mothers wearing green and pushing strollers (one of which who wore a shirt that proudly said “I’ll Shamrock Your World”).
That being said, the brand Walt Disney made famous 80 years ago is not the same brand that continues to make $100 a head off of those obnoxious green crowds today. While you still see Mickey Mouse and Donald from time to time, you come in contact possibly more frequently with talking toys and Jedi Knights. Disney’s brand has evolved. Instead of resting on the laurels that brought them incredible success, they continue to look for ways to make their brand relevant to new generations, and it is working. If you doubt their success, just ask movie attendants about the costumed crowds they had to manage this past Christmas and the millions of dollars they paid to get a glimpse at an aging Harrison Ford. However, Disney has not forgotten its original charm, and it still uses that legacy brand as well, which was evidenced by the way my eight year old’s eyes lit up both times he rode “It’s a Small World.” Their ability to improve a brand without destroying it is one to be envied and modeled.
3. Expectation and Perception are the Keys to Customer Service
While Disney’s branding is second to none, its crowd management is still a work in progress. Waiting an hour and a half for a minute and a half ride can really take it out of you. However, I noticed that my level of patience varied dramatically depending on how long they estimated the wait to be. When the estimated waiting time for the “standby” entrance to a ride was 90 minutes, I was thrilled when I only had to wait 60; however, when another ride estimated a waiting time of 35 minutes, I was fighting mad when that same 60 minute wait became a reality. I have always heard that you should under-promise and over-deliver when it comes to customer service and not the other way around. Disney is a very tangible expression of that truism.
In order to better manage crowds, Disney has developed something called the “Fastpass” which allows patrons to reserve preferred treatment in waiting lines for three separate rides at one park each day. The rules for the application of the concept are somewhat cumbersome and confusing, but the idea makes sense: spread out crowds at different times during the day in order to shorten wait times for everyone. The biggest problem is that everyone usually wants to ride the same three rides, so the bums who did not get their “Fastpass” reserved in time have to sit in line and watch the chosen ones pass easily to the front of the line. In theory, we all had the same opportunity to secure those reservations, but that didn’t help my feelings a bit when my child had been hanging on me and whining for the last 45 minutes and I had to watch a 19 year old and his girlfriend walk by me just by waiving their pretty wrist bands in front of a terminal until the Mickey Mouse outline turned green. Therefore, my suggestion for Disney, or any other customer service representative, is this: always over-estimate the amount of time that I am going to have to wait for your service, and if someone is jumping ahead of me, you had better not let me know about it, even if I had the same chance earlier and chose not to take it.
4. Sometimes You Just Have to Start Over
As Daddy’s reward for waiting in those long lines, we also decided to take in some Spring Training baseball while we were there. For those of you who don’t know, the Atlanta Braves Spring Training home is at Disney World, and this provided a much needed reprieve from the exhausting hustle and bustle of the Magic Kingdom. I and my youngest son are Braves fans, and we had an opportunity to watch them tie (unfortunately no free baseball in Spring Training) my oldest son’s favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Incidentally, my oldest son was raised a Braves fan but unfortunately jumped ship (somewhat understandably) when the Braves decided to trade or run off every player he had ever known. He instead decided to proudly wear Cardinal colors and bask in the glory of 100 wins instead of hide from the shame of 95 losses.
However, while I constantly had my nose in the program looking up names of Braves players I have never heard of, I did notice that there was a lot of good, young talent on the field wearing navy blue. Not only that, but there seemed to be an energy and enthusiasm generated from so many optimistic minor leaguers looking for a job that you couldn’t help but feel that better days are ahead for the Braves. If you have followed the Braves like I have, you know that they spent at least a decade just above mediocrity holding onto the idea that what they had been doing for several years would ultimately bring them back to where they were in the 90s. To their credit, their management finally said enough, and they have decided to blow up a moderately successful model in hopes of achieving even greater success with unproven but incredibly talented prospects. Their ultimate destination is still unknown, but I don’t think there is any doubt that this was probably their only chance to again build lasting success. Baseball teams are no different from any other organization, including banks. Those who are happy with mediocrity can plod along with an outdated model, but to truly reach new heights in a changing environment, sometimes it is necessary to start all over.
5. We Must Continue to Dream
The dramatic success of Disney and everything it stands for is not an accident. It is directly related to the vision of its amazing creator, Walt Disney, who foresaw much more than a mouse on a piece of paper when he began the organization that has now become a cultural phenomenon, much less an American corporate giant. That vision lead to a corporate culture that fostered dreaming and dreamers and pushed the company to greater heights than its creator could have even imagined. Had Walt Disney, or his corporate heirs, ever allowed themselves to be motivated only by short time pursuits or quarterly earnings goals, the company would have never become what it is today. Dreamers may not be profitable every quarter, but their potential for greatness is much higher than pragmatists. Obviously both are needed, but they must balance each other, and one cannot be allowed to push the other to the side.
One aspect of Disney World that made an impression on me as a kid was the optimistic focus on the future and the possibilities it could bring. From Spaceship Earth at Epcot to Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom, my twelve year old sensibilities were fascinated by not only the amazing future the park imagined, but just how inevitable that future seemed to be. Maybe it was a difference in age and perspective, or the fact that my first visit was in the eternally optimistic 1980s while my most recent visit was during a much more pessimistic period of time, but for some reason, when I visited the park last week, those exciting views into the future seemed to be a retrospective window into past dreams rather than a thrilling prediction of future progress. It made me sad to feel that we, our companies and much worse our country, are losing the capacity to dream. When I was a kid, I spoke of becoming an astronaut often, but I rarely hear space discussed in my house these days unless it is in the context of “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Heck, our country doesn’t even have a space program anymore. I know that dreams and imagination are difficult to nurture in this age of Great Recessions / Terrorism / unbearable regulation / (insert current fear hear), but we can never allow our urge to defend against our worst fears impair our courage to pursue our wildest dreams. To do so would lead our lives, our families, our country, and our world to a fate worse than death.