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Amusement parks: Theme Park Operations – A Conversation with Lee Cockerell

With a brand new book from Random House, nationwide speaking engagements, and a fast-growing consulting business, Lee Cockerell, the recently retired Executive Vice President for Operations at Walt Disney World, is hardly taking it easy.  

This November former Disney operations exec Lee Cockerell will be giving his first-ever IAAPA presentation, a session on Crisis Leadership Strategies. Blooloop’s Chad Emerson, who will also be part of the IAAPA session, posed a few questions to Cockerell about lessons learned while leading operations at the world’s largest theme park resort.

Q.  What was the most challenging leadership experience you faced while working in the amusement industry?

A. I would have to say 9/11. The day of the event was not the most stressful because we conduct simulations throughout the year to be prepared to handle a crisis. So as tragic as it was, we were well prepared to act. Our Cast Members did a superb job that day and the days after of taking care of our Guests and each other. The most challenging part was getting a plan together to bring costs down because of the tremendous and immediate loss of business. My executive team worked day and night for weeks, seven days a week, to put a plan together to reduce costs, maintain the guest experience and to not lay anyone off. I learned that there is a lot you can do when you have to, if you involve everyone in the solution.

Q.  What was the proudest leadership moment you experienced while working in the amusement industry?

A. The way that our Cast Members stepped up after the three hurricanes that went though Orlando in 2004. Over 5000 Cast Members volunteered to stay on property or to be there right away after the storm passed to assist in getting the resort reopened.  That is commitment.

Q.  While working at Disney, how did you measure whether your leadership principles were really working?

A. We had an annual leadership survey of all of the Cast Members. They rated their leadership on many questions. Eighty percent of Cast Members participated in this anonymous survey. The three questions which showed how well the principles were working are:

  • Do you trust your leader?
  • Would you work for your leader again if you had the choice?
  • creating magic by lee cockerell walt disney world executiveWould you recommend others to work at Walt Disney World?

We improved every year on these questions to a very high level of satisfaction on the quality of our leadership who led by following the principles and strategies outlined in my book.

Q.  Your book is being published in numerous different languages.  You also spent time at Disney’s resort in France.  How have you found these leadership principles to work in different countries and cultures?

A. I have found that it does not matter where you apply these strategies. They work anywhere. I give talks about these strategies around the world and have not found one place were they are not embraced. All people want respectful leadership. All people want to matter and know that they matter. This is a major part of a leader’s responsibility. . . Let them know they matter. Make them feel special, Treat them as individuals, show total respect to them and train and develop them and you will be considered a great leader no matter where in the world you practice your leadership, and your organization will get great results. Your people are your brand and your reputation.

Q.  Were you to return to Disney as a guest one day, describe what your perfect visit would involve.

A. 70 degrees, clear blue skies, no lines, and smiling happy Cast Members who love taking care of Disney Guests . The basics are the name of the game. As Walt said, “Keep it clean and friendly and everything will work out fine. Don’t ever get bored with the basics in life.”

Details on Lee’s new book (right), “Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies From A Life At Disney, ” can be found at:

See also:
Chad Emerson talks with  Cindy Gordon about her time at Universal Orlando
Amusement Law: Legal Learning at WWA and IAAPA
Amusement Law : How IALDA Serves the Amusement Park Industry, Legally Speaking
Halloween Risk Management for Amusement Parks: Curbing the Scary Specter of Legal Liability

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