Hiring and Training Perspectives from a Disney Veteran

By Chad Emerson
Technology continues to affect the theme park industry in interesting and often unexpected ways. While technology can enhance the guest experience and make it more immersive than ever, these same enhancements can become distractions if the technology is glitchy or not understood well by front-line theme park employees.

This means that hiring employees with an aptitude for technology is increasingly important for the industry’s large parks and resorts. It’s great to give guests the ability to check into restaurants, reserve a place in line, and pay for merchandise from the convenience of the smartphone. But, if the employee checking them in or assisting their transaction doesn’t fully understand the technology, then it’s easy to imagine a frustrated customer rather than a happy guest.

Walt Disney Resort celebrated Earth Day 2019 with the debut of massive new solar facility. Shown is Rachel Smith from Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment team. Employees must possess attitude, passion and skill, but skill is the trainable piece, according to former Disney executive Lee Cockerell. Photo by Olga Thompson.

At the same time, a tech-savvy employee won’t make that same guest happy if they don’t possess more conventional customer service skills too. In other words, when hiring today’s employee, it requires a careful balance between these types of skills.

In this issue of The Large Park Report, we sought out expert advice from Lee Cockerell, former executive vice president at the Walt Disney World Resort where he led many of Disney’s operations and hiring strategies. According to Lee, when interviewing and hiring employees, theme park operators should remember several basics even in this fast-paced world of technology.

Lee Cockerell

Three Key Questions with Lee Cockerell
The Large Park Report: When discussing hiring, many often focus more on strategies for the candidate and less on the potential employer. What are two leadership tips you can share for employers when interviewing potential employees these days?

Lee Cockerell: Tip number one is to look for attitude and passion first and then skill. Second, don’t hire until you find a great candidate, no matter how long it takes. Skill is trainable, attitude and passion are not.

LPR: Leisure travelers are increasingly tech-savvy even inside theme parks and theme parks are increasingly embracing in-park technology. How should leaders in charge of hiring adapt to this new scenario when evaluating prospective employees?

Cockerell: Leaders today have to have technical competence, management competence, technological competence and leadership competence. It takes all four to be a successful leader. Depending on the role of the employee a high level of technology competence may or may not be required. If an employee has a great attitude and passion, we can train them in the technology related to their job.

An artist’s rendering of fireworks at Walt Disney World Resort for the Epcot Forever new nighttime spectacular. The show will debut Oct. 1, 2019 at the Lake Buena Vista attraction. Lee Cockerell is the former executive vice president of the resort. Photo courtesy of Disney.

LPR: While in-park personalized technologies can enhance a theme park experience, they also pose a potential risk of isolating guests to their phones. How should leaders in theme park operations balance these realities to provide the best possible customer experience?

Cockerell: It’s all about balance. The guests and the employees know everything you need to know. Involve them along the way and you will make the right decision. Some guests love technology solutions, and some don’t, so for the foreseeable future operations will have to continue to offer human service and printed material and technology.

LPR: How important is technological “know-how” when hiring a front-line theme park employee?

Cockerell: I ascribe to a pretty straightforward equation: Technology is only as good as the people implementing it. People are only as good as the culture allows them to be. Culture is only as good as the leader it is derived from.

Disney Cast Members have collaborated to help make more than two-thirds of the new solar facility pollinator friendly, with the goal of creating a safe and welcoming habitat for butterflies, bees and other insects, including endangered and at-risk species. (Olga Thompson)

Complexity and Customer Service
As Lee’s feedback reflects, theme parks are increasingly complex places with advanced technologies at almost every level. This means that, when hiring your employees, their ability to understand and implement that technology is a critical skill. This is especially true for front-line employees who are often your guest’s first experience at your facility.

At the same time, a tech savvy employee won’t be very effective unless she or he also understand the always important (and decidedly less “techie”) principles behind effective communication and customer service.

(Lee Cockerell is the author of numerous leadership and hiring resources including, “Creating Magic…Ten Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney” and “The Customer Rules…The 39 Essential Rules for Providing Sensational Service.” )

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