by Wil Hoffman
The other week, I was listening to a podcast interview with Lee Cockerell, former Executive Vice-President of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. This is the man who was once responsible for all of the cast members and daily operations at Walt Disney World. During the interview the host asked Lee Cockerell why he thought that Disney was doing better and better each year. At the time of this interview Disney World had over 50 million visitors a year. Lee’s response was simple, Walt Disney World has excellent customer service and leadership.
Having been to Disney World two times in my adult life and been on three Disney cruises, I can testify to this. My family is a Disney family. Being the only man in my house, I know all of the Disney princesses and know all of the hit songs from Radio Disney. But to be honest, I love it. I am man enough to say that I teared up a little as we were driving through the gates of Disney World.
Disney is growing every day. With new parks opening in Tokyo and other parts of Asia, the purchase of both Marvel and Star Wars, and movies coming out every year, Disney’s Stocks are only going up.
So what can our churches learn from Disney World? We need to learn their excellent customer service and leadership techniques.
When one talks about customer service within our churches, it sounds odd and people think that it does not fit with church. The reality is that it is something that we do all of the time, we just don’t call it customer service. But it’s true, we tend to work to make the members happy, give them a place they enjoy coming to, encourage them to bring others with them, and all the while stay true to the gospel message. However unlike Disney World, most of our churches are not pulling in 50 million visitors a year. In fact, we are closing more churches each year than we are opening. So what can we do?
We can learn to do things differently. When asked, “What is Disney doing differently?” Lee Cockerell gave two very powerful but very basic answers. First, it pays attention to the culture and second, it humanizes the brand. These are the two answers that Lee named for making Disney World a dream vacation spot for millions each year. By using these concepts, our church can also be a place where people keep coming back and not just to fulfill their weekly routine. So let’s take a moment to see what Disney World did in these areas and see how we can adapt them in our church.
Pay Attention to the Culture
First, we need to look at the biggest almost failure of Disney, Disneyland Paris. Disneyland Paris opened on April 12, 1992 and for the next three years the park was in constant financial struggles. It even lost 25% of their workforce by May the same year it opened. Nothing was looking good for the park and it was obvious to everyone that it was going to be one of the biggest failures in Disney history.
Although things were looking bad, in 1995 there was a turnaround. Disneyland Paris became the dream vacation for many in Europe. Lee Cockerell pointed to two things that made a huge improvement for this park, less American food and wine.
At the beginning of Disneyland Paris, it was a carbon copy of Disneyland USA. American attitude and appetite does not always translate to other parts of the world. This was the primary issue with the park. American food was not working in Paris, and if you have been to Disney you know they make a lot of money off the food.
Another issue was that Disneyland Paris did not serve wine, and not serving wine in Paris was a huge turnoff for the people. Wine is a main beverage with any dinner in France. It was a staple that the people were not willing to give up.
Disney was not paying attention to the culture around it. They took an American theme park and dropped it in Paris. Sometimes our churches also lose touch with the culture that surrounds the church. In our communities where our churches are, we have to be aware of the changes that happen. Changes are constantly occurring. New people move in, the old people may move away. There are new places to eat or maybe even a whole new atmosphere that surrounds our places of worship. When we realize that changes have happened, we then have to make changes to reach the new community without changing the gospel.
Humanize the Brand
If you have been to Disney World in the past few years you will know that technology is a big part of the park. With the introduction of the Magic Bands, life in the park is much simpler. The Magic Bands are everything from your Hotel key (if you stay in the park), it links to your credit or debit card so you can pay for souvenirs and food with a flick of your wrist, and even acts as your fast pass to get through lines to rides faster. This one piece of technology has improved your day in Disney World.
Even with all the help that technology gives us, the people at Disney World realize that it’s not about technology but is about the human interactions. I knew a cast member who worked in the Magic Kingdom and one of the things that he loved was talking to the guests. All of the cast members are friendly and easy to talk to. They want to make your visit a fun and memorable one. They will go above and beyond to make sure your experience is magical.
This is even more evident when traveling on the Disney Cruise Line. My family and I always take the time to get a picture with our nightly dinner servers. During the cruise they make it a point to get to know you, not just your food and drink choice, but they strive to know you personally. By the end of the cruise they have become our good friends and we want to remember them always. They have made a connection with us!
Too many times in our churches, we focus on the technology within the church. We try to have the best looking website, the coolest cell phone app, the nicest sound system, and the best media presentation on Sunday morning. But the truth of the matter is most people want a pastor and staff that are down to earth and will take a minute or two just to connect with you. Instead of pointing people to the “meet the staff” section on our websites, we should point them to the physical staff to meet. We cannot lose focus that we are all sinners in the need of a Savior. We are human and as humans, we like to talk and get to know others. We need to make those lifelong friendships instead of just being another face in the pew.
It’s the little things that will save our churches from shutting down. A little knowledge and a smile is sometimes all it takes to bring new members into the family of Christ. No matter what you think of Disney World, you can agree that they are doing something right. We can learn something from their business model and use it to help the church see new life.
Wil Hoffmann is a graduate of Midwestern Baptist Theological seminary. He found a passion for church revitalization while working as a Senior Pastor in Utah. He now lives in Jefferson City, MO where he seeks to help churches with revitalization.