2020, blog, blog post, blogpost, disney, disneyworld, myblog, Uncategorized

5 Lessons I Learned from Watching Disney's “The Imagineering Story”

Recently I watched “The Imagineering Story,” a new docuseries on Disney+ about the history of the Disney theme parks. I grew up going to Disney World every year with my mom and when I wasn’t at the park, I was reading about all things Disney and watching TV specials about the Behind the Scenes of the park. Even to this day, I watch YouTube videos of Disney cast members talking about their experiences. So, “The Imagineering Story” was right up my alley.

As I was watching it, a lot of the senior executives and Imagineers started to say familiar advice that I’ve seen in my career. I was surprised that Disney employees faced similar issues at work. I wanted to take a moment to highlight some of the takeaways and lessons from “The Imagineering Story.”  

Encourage Failure and Bad Ideas

The Disney Imagineers, or WED Enterprises as they were formally referred to, were encouraged to take risks. I should stop to clarify that Imagineering is a term unique to Disney and is the combination of creative imagination and technical knowledge.  

In Episode 4, called “Hit Or Miss,” Imagineers recalled how in the 1990s there were dedicated teams focused on exploring new technologies, different attraction layouts, and new ride vehicles. 

“Succuss is about many many failures,” said Jon Snoddy, an Imagineer with Advanced Development. He goes on to talk about how they created a culture that doesn’t judge if things fail. In fact, they intend to fail! If over half of the projects succeed, then they aren’t trying hard enough. This experimentation helped them when it came time to create Tokyo Disney Sea. I love how much Disney prioritizes and values experimentation and risk. And moreover, how their team leaders support that innovation. That’s where the magic happens.   

But, Imagineers aren’t naive. One senior Imagineer, Joe Rohde (the guy with the incredible left ear piercing) acknowledges that Imagineering is very frustrating for business-minded people. There is a permanent tension between Imagineering and the business department. “Core components of creativity do not reconcile with efficiency-based business theory,” he said. How do you balance these two? 

This tension is not new. According to Disney folklore, Walt Disney was always asking his brother Roy for more money so he could do more creative ventures and Roy was skeptical and nervous. Roy was business-minded and Walt was creative and risk-taking. 

Design for the final level of the marketing funnel

In episode 3 “The Midas Touch” the Imagineers go into detail of how Euro Disneyland, later called Disneyland Paris, was built. They wanted to create the most beautiful Disney theme park and spared no expense. 

They returned to their history when building this new park, using tried and true principles. Walt Disney had four levels of detail that he preached to Imagineers. Design Imagineer Coulter Winn describes these principles as:

  • Detail Level One: You’re in the country, you see over the trees some tall buildings, maybe a church steeple 
  • Detail Level Two: You’ve walked into town, now you’re on Main Street
  • Detail Level Three: You’re looking closely at the colors and texture of the buildings  
  • Detail Level Four: You’ve gone up to the front door and you’re grabbing the handle, feeling the texture and temperature of the material 

All of these detail levels need to work together. Coulter says that at Disney they have to get to Detail Level Four to immerse guests in their story. This is where people fully buy-in and believe what you’re selling. 

These different levels of details reminded me of the Buyer’s Journey or Customer Funnel. First, you have the awareness stage when the buyer starts to hear of your brand in the distance, then they become interested and learn more about your brand, thirdly they are intent on buying your product and last they purchase what you’re selling. Just like with Disney’s design levels, your customer journey has to lead them to that purchase or Design Level Four.   

You don’t need to re-invent the wheel

With budgets as large as Disney’s it’s hard to think of them scrimping, saving and repurposing things. But, they are first and foremost a corporation focused on pleasing shareholders. I was surprised to learn in Episode 3 “The Midas Touch” that Disney Imagineers reused animatronics and set designs from an old 1974-1988 Disneyland attraction called “American Sings.” The happy singing birds, frogs, turtles, alligators, and rabbits found a new home at a more exciting ride called Splash Mountain. They fit right in next to the other Song of the South characters. Disney probably saved millions in time and money not having to design and build new characters for Splash Mountain. 

Take a look back at work you’ve previously made, whether it’s a template built that wasn’t used or a draft of a design. Could you repurpose that work? 

Don’t get siloed and stuck in your department 

When Imagineers were building Michael Eisner’s Disney’s California Adventures, they worked on a tighter budget than they had on Euro Disneyland. They were also divided between two projects. One team worked on California Adventures while the other worked on the new Tokyo’s Disney Sea, which had a much larger and looser budget. 

One Imagineer, Bruce, recalled the short-lived, much hated, ride Superstar Limo and how it was built by Imagineers who were in these tight pods, not consulting with anyone else. They had adopted the mindset of, “This is my attraction.” They stopped checking in with their peers to ask if this was good enough. They lost touch. Whereas, in previous Disney theme parks, rides were built more collaboratively. Superstar Limo only lasted one year and was later remodeled into a Monster’s Inc themed ride.

Take time to chat with or eat lunch with people in other departments at work so you can share what you’re working on and collaborate. 

Your work needs to make an impact 

One of the head Imagineers for Animal Kingdom, Joe Rhode, stated that he’s most proud of the projects that have a non-entertainment payback within them. He’s proud of the conservation station, a working research lab and a conservation fund that resulted from Animal Kingdom. 

Profits, entertainment, metrics aren’t enough to make a long-term meaningful impact. Richer rewards are needed. Who are you helping? How can your work give back to the community?  

As a kid at Disney, you don’t think much about how the theme park rides are built. They just kind of appear one day. As you get older, you realize that the project of building a theme park attraction isn’t all that different from working on a project at your work. Everyone has to collaborate, think creatively, first you build a mockup, you try to repurpose things, and you need to have a sense of purpose behind it all. 

I thought “The Imagineering Story” would be similar to the “One Day at Disney” movie that blatantly and blindly praised Disney CEO Bob Iger. But no, in “The Imagineering Story,” mistakes are acknowledged. A key takeaway from the docuseries is that when theme parks like Euro Disneyland, California Adventures and Hong Kong Disneyland were built for half the price, to please shareholders, the quality suffered, attendance shrank and guests were not happy. This modern cost-cutting mindset becomes more frustrating knowing it violates Walt Disney’s wishes. Walt is quoted as having said “Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.” I hope that in the future, Disney can continue to balance creativity with profitability, in order to continue its legacy and because many other businesses look up to Disney. 


This blog post was also published on my LinkedIn.

2020, blog, blog post, blogpost, myblog

Make a lasting impact in your role by going beyond your job description

Often the impact you make in a role goes beyond what you did as part of your everyday job duties.

I went thrift shopping at Volunteers of America today because I love thrifting. I needed to donate some old coffee mugs and I wanted to see if there were any cute sweaters or dresses. I love to check-in and hunt for unique clothes at the thrift store so when someone compliments me on it I can brag that I found it at a thrift store. The joys of thrifting!

I found some dresses I liked and as I was checking out, the cashier recognized me. “Oh, you’re the girl who put that TV up!” She pointed to the TV on the wall above her where a slideshow was playing.

When I worked at Volunteers of America Ohio & Indiana, in an effort to educate thrifters and distinguish VOA from other for-profit thrift stores, I designed a simple slideshow to inform shoppers that VOA is a non-profit and show photos of clients who have been helped by the proceeds of the store. I took this project upon myself and volunteered to do it. After I made the PowerPoint, I came into the thrift store with a flash drive, stood up on a ladder, plugged the flash drive into the TV, fiddled with the remote and taught the store employees how to turn on the slideshow each day. I did this multiple times in our different stores, To be honest, in the moment, the slideshow felt like an annoyance to me. I had to interrupt my day, drive to the thrift store, mess with a TV when I know very little about TVs or remotes or Input buttons. Sometimes, the TV wouldn’t turn on, the remote wouldn’t work or the TV wouldn’t play my PowerPoint in the format I had saved it in. It was frustrating. I would think, “This isn’t what I signed up for. This is not my job. Someone else should be doing this!”

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Older Debbie now knows that likely no one else would’ve made the slideshow and taken the time to install it. I’m now able to take a step back and see how the slideshow has endured after I left VOA. It made me happy to see that the slideshow still plays in the VOA thrift store every day.

The cashier handed my stuff to me and I looked down to see a plastic bag that I recognized. I helped design the bag, hell I even worked with the plastic supplier to get it made. I learned more than I wanted to know about how plastic bags are made and shipped!

The idea for this started as part of an innovation brainstorming session we’d had with different team members in different departments. We needed to find a way to increase thrift store donations. Someone suggested we redesign our bags. The bags could become a tool for future donations if they had our logo, phone number, tagline, website, etc. It sounded like an easy solution to change the bags at first but ended up taking about four months to complete. It was tough to juggle this bag project on top of my other duties especially when I was doing something I’d never done before. It took a lot of persistence but eventually, the thrift stores switched from generic red and white Thank You bags to branded bags, with a meaningful tagline on one side and useful information about how to donate items back to a VOA thrift store.

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The impact of my time at VOA can be found not just on the website and social media. In fact, I’m not too sad if no one remembers the social media posts I made. I know I made a lasting impact by working on things outside of my stated job description. I went to meetings, listened to problems that existed, volunteered to raise my hand, thought of creative solutions, tried new ideas and worked with others to make the change happen. I was thinking about this on my drive home and I’m not one to brag but I do need to acknowledge that I did some awesome things for a non-profit that’s dedicated to helping everyone reach their full potential and achieve well being.

Every time I walk into a VOA thrift store, I’m reminded of the impact I made during my time there and I feel so proud. 

I also published this article on LinkedIn.

2019, About Me, blog, blog post, blogpost, myblog, personal

An unforgettable Valentine’s Day

Nate surprised me with an unforgettable Valentine’s Day. I feel so loved.

He picked me up after work and we drove to campus. The whole drive, I was trying to guess what we were doing and where we were going. We parked at Chadwick Arboretum, where we had a picnic on our second date. Nate told me he had an evening planned walking down memory lane. I started to tear up; it was just so thoughtful. We strolled around the pond at Chadwick, talking about who we were back then and how we were both so nervous and unsure where the relationship would go.

I remember that after the picnic, almost three years ago, we went to the Chocolate Café. So, on our walk down memory lane, that’s where we went next! Okay, we weren’t the only ones with the idea to go to the Chocolate Café on Valentine’s Day but the wait wasn’t that bad. I ordered the lobster bisque soup and a Dirty Girl Scout martini. Nate ordered a dirty martini, the special sandwich which was pulled pork, mango and habanero with a side of cream of mushroom soup. I never get tired of talking to Nate. We always find new things to learn about each other. We talked about our babysitters when we were little. I liked babysitters because they’d ask me what I wanted to do and Nate said he’d just walk over to a friend’s house and didn’t really have babysitters.

Nate warned me that the last thing on our itinerary had a set start time but it was okay if we were late. What could it be? He told me we’d been there before, there’d be food available, and it would probably end around 10pm. I had no clue. We drove back home and parked. That’s when I connected the dots that we were going to a Blue Jackets game. I’d get to see my other Valentine, Cam Atkinson! It was so sweet of Nate to surprise me with hockey tickets. We got there at the end of first period. The guy next to us had a thick British accent and kept yelling very British things like “rough ‘em up, lads!” and “Come on, lads.” I got a tub of popcorn at the end of the second period and ate about half of it. The Blue Jackets weren’t playing their best and lost 0-3 to the New York Islanders. Oh well.

I still had a memorable and romantic evening. We came home and watched some old Pixar shorts that I had on DVD.       

2018, myblog, personal, Uncategorized

Glamours of air travel

Doodles about my crazy morning trying to get to Houston.
You catch more bees with honey than vinegar.
You’re capable of more than you think, especially when you’re not afraid to ask for help.
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It started this morning at 6 am, when Nate drove me to the airport. I boarded my American Airlines flight at 8:30am, ready to head to Dallas where I’d have a one-hour layover then catch a connection to Houston. I was looking forward to seeing my Aunt Susan and the rest of my family. Then, I would drive to Dallas for a work conference.Sitting on the flight, about to take off, the pilot loudly announces that there’s an issue with one of the navigation instruments and that maintenance is looking into it. An hour goes by. The pilot comes back on to tell us they can’t fix it and we have to get off the plane. As we trudge off back into the terminal, a gate agent hands us pre printed postcards with a hotline to call and info about our options.

I’m naive about flying and honestly thought they would direct us to a new plane and the flight would leave immediately. I started to follow the people in front of me until I realized they didn’t know anything that I didn’t know at that moment. I’m such a follower. Instead of going to a new plane, we all stood in a long line waiting to speak to the gate agent to make other arrangements.
My first thought was panic. What do I do? I’m alone. I can’t do this. I don’t know. I can feel my breathing growing shallow and felt very aware of the other passengers all paired up, helping each other book new travel plans.
I texted my mom and dad to tell them what happened, looking to them for advice. My mom told me to talk to the gate agent. My dad told me to take a Southwest flight. He researched flights and told me about one that was leaving at noon. By now it was 9am.
I got a text message from American saying my flight to Dallas was delayed until 12:30pm. If I took that American flight, then I’d just be stranded in Dallas. I had a choice to stick with American, try to get rebooked somehow or switch to Southwest.

The guy behind me in the non-moving line to speak with a service agent, was talking about the 12:30pm flight and I asked if he knew anything more and he said he’d gotten rebooked by calling the 800 number. So, I put away my hesitation to call the 800 number and dialed. I politely gave the woman on the other end of the phone my record locator number. I think these phone reps have such a hard job and deal with so many jerks. The least I can do, is not be a jerk to them. Especially because I need them to help me. The representative told me there was a flight got Houston leaving at 3pm, laying over in North Carolina and arriving in Houston at 7pm. That itinerary sounded terrible. She said I could always cancel my reservation and book with another airline. So that was it. I called my dad and over the phone, we booked the Southwest flight. Scribbling on the back of my ticket I wrote down my confirmation number and my immediate to do list.

  • Cancel American flight. Only cancel inbound flight, not return flight.
  • Call Volunteers of America.
  • Call Aunt Susan.
  • Call Nate.
I ran through my list of people I needed to tell about this and then exited the American terminal. I could finally breathe easy, I’d overcome this hurdle.
Not yet. Dad texted me saying he’d booked the flight for tomorrow, not today. I stared at my phone in disbelief. This wasn’t happening.
My dad apologized and told me there was a similar flight available for today. I went to the Southwest Airlines gate and to my surprise, there wasn’t a line to speak with an agent. Instead of telling the representative the whole story of this morning, I said that I’d like to change my reservation. She pulled up my flight and I told her I’d like to be booked on Flight 38. I held my breath. I expected a firm “no, that flight is booked.” It would be too easy if this were to work. She looked up at me and said “yes, we can do that.” She printed my boarding pass and wished Ms.Gillum a nice flight.
And so, here I am, in the Southwest gate waiting for this new flight. Going thru airport security twice in one day seems like cruel and unusual punishment. I’m thankful for my smartphone, for decent strangers, for my dad helping me so much, for my Aunt Susan being flexible and for my work for being understanding.

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My “I’m tired, maybe I should’ve just driven” face