Editor’s Note: Western Illinois University Department of Communication Instructor David Zanolla is on sabbatical to broaden his understanding of organizational communication. Zanolla teaches Communication 379, “Disney and Universal Communication Culture,” a course that begins with eight weeks of classroom study about the organizational and communication culture of the Disney parks and culminates in a trip to Walt Disney World so students can observe the Disney communication culture in action.
Upon returning to Illinois after visiting the Disney Parks in China, Hong Kong and Japan, one of the most common questions I’m asked is, “So, what did you learn?”
To be honest, this is a question that turns out to be difficult to answer because I experienced so much. I walked 168 miles while touring the four Asian Disney parks. I communicated with people who had never been to the United States and only spoke simple English phrases.
When I visit the American Disney parks, I am the “local,” but this time, I was on their turf and I was the outsider. In spite of all that, I enjoyed myself immensely and gained valuable insight into how a tried-and-tested organizational model was implemented outside of the U.S.
The final parks I visited were in Tokyo, Japan (Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea). As a fan of Disney parks, it did not take long for me to rank these destinations at the top of my list. While the rides were spectacular and the entertainment was top-of-the-line, the thing that impressed me most was a group of employees who most would tend to overlook.
Who were they? The custodial staff.
These parks were immaculately clean.
A friend I spoke with shortly after returning echoed this sentiment.
“I seriously would not have been afraid to eat off the ground,” he told me.
While that statement may have been a bit tongue in cheek, I agreed with his thinking. However, the ability to keep the parks physically clean was not the only reason the custodial staff is worth noting. Cleaning is, of course, part of all their jobs, but it’s what they did to go above and beyond their job expectations that made them the MVPs of these two parks.
It seemed as if you couldn’t walk more than 50 feet in these parks without seeing a custodial cast member. Their presence was noticeable in every area of the park, as were their interactions with guests.
I saw custodial staff constantly stopping to take photos for guests. At one point, a custodial cast member had formed a line of people for whom he was taking photos. He didn’t seem to be frustrated that he got stuck taking photos; he seemed to enjoy the ability to interact with guests. In fact, I marveled at his ability to have fun with one couple while taking their photo.
In this instance, he set them up to snap their picture, and I watched him fiddling with one of their phones. As a spectator, I assumed he was having trouble finding the shutter button. Instead, I learned he had taken a picture of the guests first and then flipped the camera around to “selfie” mode.
Imagine the hilarity that ensued when he showed these guests the photo he had taken for them, only for it to be of his face instead. The look of shock on their faces was quickly followed by him showing them the “real” photo of them he captured.
I spent nearly 15 minutes watching this custodial worker make these guests smile through the simple task of taking a photo. I then got in line and, when it was my turn, I didn’t ask for a photo of me alone… I asked him to pose in a photo with me. He seemed surprised and honored.
More evidence to showcase the contribution of the custodial staff is found in the broom art created by this group of employees. In the pictures below, not only can you see the custodians creating these drawings using their brooms, but you can see the group of visitors putting rides on hold while they watched this art come to life.
To me, the custodial staff members were the unsung heroes of the Tokyo parks. You don’t think about them being important, but them fulfilling their roles in the organization is crucial toward their culture being a success.
This is true in all organizations.
Who are the MVPs of your organization? Who is often overlooked but without whom your culture would not be maintained effectively?
My Disney & Universal Communication Culture course (COMM 379) will be offered during the Spring 2017 semester. For more information, visit www.wiu.edu/comm/disney.