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Theme Parks: Interview with Former Disney Exec. Greg Emmer

matterhorn roller coaster at disney world orlando florida

Greg Emmer is known throughout the amusement and theme park industry as one of the leading advocates for great guest service and team-oriented leadership. He recently retired from a long career at Disney where he held a wide variety of leadership positions—at each one earning high praise from many corners.

Emmer recently sat down with for an exclusive interview discussing some of the challenges and accomplishments of his career. 
Every other Wednesday, Blooloop contributor Chad Emerson  gives readers an opportunity to learn from key industry figures. 

Greg Emmer former Disney executive Disneyland Epcot
Blooloop:  How did you get started in the amusement industry and what positions have you held during your career?

Greg Emmer:  Like so many of us in the Disney family, I got started at Disneyland (as others did at Walt Disney World) as a part-timer while still in college.  My first assignment was as an Operations host on the Matterhorn in summer of 1968.  Once I graduated in 1971, I was promoted into management and transferred to Walt Disney World to help start up the Transportation area (monorails, ferryboats, buses and parking area). 

Over the next three decades, I worked throughout theme park operations at Walt Disney World in attractions, food, merchandise and entertainment.  I worked at all the levels of management including vice president – the executive level responsible for one of the various business units.  During my tenure at WDW, I held the position of Vice President at the Magic Kingdom, Vice President of Epcot and Vice President for the Attractions line-of-business.  In late 2003, I transferred to Disneyland to lead the Resort operating team as Senior Vice President.  I retired from this position in February, 2008. 

Blooloop:  What was the most challenging event you faced?

:  For me, the most trying events are those associated with a mishap involving a Guest or Cast Member.  Even in operations that consistently stress safety, accidents will happen.  The important thing is how does the organization handle these “moments of truth.”  We worked hard to be prepared for any emergency, knowing that we would be judged by our response.

It was common practice to conduct drills to simulate incidents of every nature—hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, serious injury—and then critique ourselves afterward.  At Disneyland, there is a small team that met monthly to conduct a one-hour, table-top exercise looking at various scenarios.  The practice never Walt Disney reveals Orlando Florida plans for Walt Disney World.made us perfect, but at least we had confidence in our ability to respond appropriately.

Blooloop:  Describe the operational difference between Disneyland and WDW?

:  The most obvious difference derives from the Disneyland Resort’s more compact layout.  The proximity of the two theme parks, the three hotels and Downtown Disney allows for a more integrated and aligned operating model.  The organizational structure reinforces the integration, which gives the resort a more nimble response to planning and execution.  Typically, all the operating units (attractions, food, merchandise, entertainment, etc.) sit together to decide resort-wide issues as a single unit.   This translates to a more shared purpose across the entire property. 

A second less obvious difference is created by the high number of Annual Passholders (APs) at Disneyland.  APs visit often and are extremely vocal about the Guest experience.  Having a constituency like this keeps everyone on their toes and helps leaders stay attuned to the business.  The majority of these Guests are locals who have grown up with Disneyland in their backyard, have a deep respect for what the Park represents and are quick to offer feedback—good and bad.  This feedback helps the Disneyland Resort stay relevant.

Blooloop:  Give us an example of an extremely rewarding leadership experience.

:  By far, my most interesting and rewarding experience was in my last assignment as the leader of the Resort Operations team at Disneyland (December 2003 – February 2008).  I moved from WDW to Disneyland to assist Matt Ouimet, who had just been named the new President, in rejuvenating the Guest and Cast experience, and to make dramatic improvements in business results.  Our goal was to have the Resort ready to effectively capitalize on Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, which was to commence in May, 2004. 

It is always stressful to move into a new assignment – getting to know your new team, establishing strong working relationships with new peers, adjusting the organizational structure if necessary – but this change also involved an intense focus on upgrading the Disneyland “show, ” and, at the same time, ramping up the Guest experience.  Our goals were to commence the 50th anniversary having the Disneyland Resort looking fresh and revitalized, re-instilling a sense of pride in the Cast and taking service levels to all time highs.  All of this had to be accomplished in a very short time frame. 

As it turns out, the team was extremely successful.  Disneyland never looked better and our Guests told us that our Cast members delivered service and made “dreams come true” at an exceptional level.  In their words, “the Resort feels different.”  The 50th anniversary was a huge undertaking and it served as a wonderful launching pad for all the great things that followed. 

Blooloop:  If you were to spend the day at any theme park, share with us what that perfect day would include.

Emmer:  Actually, I just enjoyed such a visit a few weeks ago.  My wife and I walked Disneyland for a few hours to experience the Christmas Holiday decorations and to stop by the new offerings that had opened recently.  Naturally I was looking at cleanliness and the overall condition of the facility, but especially how the Cast Members were engaging with the guests. 

On this visit, everything looked and felt great.  It is tough to find a more delightful time of year at the Resort, and the Cast seems to catch that spirit.

More from Chad Emerson :
Themed Restaurants: Chad Emerson Interviews Steve Schussler

Michael Hudson of Gaylord Hotels Talks Americana, Opry, Themed Entertainment and the Hospitality Business
Amusement Parks: Former Disneyland President Matt Ouimet Reflects
Amusement parks: Theme Park Operations – A Conversation with Lee Cockerell

And also:
Disney Parks Celebrate U.S. Military With Free, Multi-day Admission to Theme Parks in 2009

Disneyland Resort Makes Annual Passes More Accessible and Affordable for Southern California Residents
Ballantyne to Provide 35 NEC Digital Projectors with Real D 3-D Technology to Support the Launch of “Bolt” in Disney Digital 3-D
Disney’s Hawai’i Project Begins With Ground Blessing

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