Why Top Disney Person Matters...To You | Disney World

  • At a serious newspaper, you can’t expect to read front page news about a new theme park roller coaster. But you might expect the downfall of the highest Disney executive to get major attention.

    But which would you read?

    The coaster news, sure.

    And not the fate of someone more remote to you.

    As you probably know, COO is Chief Operating Officer.

    And the major (read: important) news was about him: Tom Staggs.

    But surely you were more interested in the newest roller coaster now operating with a definite date for climbing aboard.


    So the more serious personnel move at Disney at the same time?

    What does it mean?

    But more relevant:

    Does it matter to you who is COO or not?

    We think it does matter to you. And we’ll tell you why.

    One reason is your last experience buying Disney World Orlando tickets.

    Even if you were able to score Disney World Tickets at discounted prices, was it an enjoyable experience? (We hope so, but if not, it was not typical…or at least we hope not).

    So if you just give this a few seconds of thought, who the chief Indian at Disney or elsewhere is important.

    Why the boss counts

    Tom Staggs is an important part of why you go there, and why you come back.

    Because you had a good time.

    Hardly an accident.

    The Wall Street Journal, perhaps the most serious of all US newspapers outside of The New York Times, said this about COO Tom Staggs.

    “Succession planning at the world’s largest media company fell into disarray Monday as chief operating officer Tom Staggs, the presumed successor to Chief Executive Offer Robert Iger, unexpectedly said he would step down.”

    This is not something you keep in mind on a daily basis such as a look outside to check on whether you need an umbrella because it looks like rain….but Disney is not just a theme park in Orlando…and sponsor of a lot of movies.

    It is the “world’s largest media company.”

    The media cares and so should you

    So it demands some attention.

    And the Disney COO story…whatever a COO is or is not…is regarded as big news everywhere.

    “The news sent shock waves through the entertainment industry,” reported The Orlando Sentinel.

    It also came after more upsetting news not only for casual visitors but also for diehard fans. Or just about everyone.

    Despite record attendance and rising Disney Orlando ticket prices here and elsewhere, Disney has announced various cutbacks.

    That includes reduced operating times and shorter hours for cast members. Some layoffs, such as 100 painters.

    Disney explains this in typical sunny terms as refining operations for more efficiency “while delivering an experience that exceeds the evolving expectations of our guests.”

    But others see it as simple, perhaps cheap-minded cost cutting.

    It appears that there's "a significant initiative underway to see where they can reduce costs in the parks," said Bob Boyd, a leisure analyst with Pacific Asset Management.

    Typical of any company…but Disney?

    Upset Disney fans blog about it

    This certainly did not please everyone, as seen by negative bloggers.

    At the same time, the smaller news was about its far more minor competitor, SeaWorld Orlando.

    It opened a preview of “Mako,” destined to be the tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster in Orlando.

    Speeds up to 73 miles an hour.

    You can ride it June 10.

    In the meantime, there’s a showing of what it will do inside the park’s Nautilus Theatre.

    Twice a day. With free snacks.

    And tickets and other prizes in a raffle.

    So why is there so much attention to COO Tom Staggs?

    “There's going to be an empty throne in the Magic Kingdom two years from now—and it's suddenly far from clear who will fill it,” said a report from Newser.

    This all made us curious, and maybe you too, as to what Tom Staggs did there. And why he was leaving.

    And still the biggest question for most of us:

    Impact on you

    Does this matter to us? Or the park-goers of all types?

    Really, the move means the world’s largest media company: needs a new boss.

    One candidate is Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook.

    It would be a joke for almost anyone we know, and you as well, to send in a resume to apply for the job.

    But considering it pays several million dollars a year…Staggs’ starting salary alone was $2 million a year…and pays much more in both money and power…you might want to understand the position.

    First, what in the world is a COO?

    Yes, everyone knows it is a high level position.

    Boss, of course.

    But what does a COO do that is different, say, from a CEO (Chief Operating Officer) or simply a President or CFO (Chief Financial Officer)?

    You probably think you know what that is. But probably you don’t really

    And we were not sure until we checked.

    Chief operating officers are “oftentimes unsung heroes,” was one Internet description.

    Accenture called the COO “one of the least understood roles in business today.”

    Simply put, the COO us the highest-ranking executive within a company.

    So could you someday become one, if you had the necessary background and education and experience?

    Why not?

    A study showed most of them had college degrees, often advanced degrees. Master’s or MA’s, or even doctorates.

    Apple’s Jobs was one

    But Steve Jobs was a COO.

    So was Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

    And guess their educational level?

    They not only did not have impressive degrees, but lacked much of any strong formal educational backgrounds.

    So that is encouraging.

    COO’s as bosses help companies make better products or provide better services.

    That is the simplest and most direct explanation of what they do. Or try to do.

    That means they create short-term and long-term goals.

    Easy enough. At least it sounds that way.

    That brings us to Walt Disney, of course.

    Not so easy when it comes to Disney.

    But at the same time, easy enough.

    Walt started it all. And the tradition continues.

    We say this because the “happiest place on Earth” has both a simple goal and a tough one at the same time.

    Think of all the companies and places where you do business that disappoint out.

    That’s generally because they don’t care about you.

    And you know it.

    What Disney does to guests

    You don’t have to be special at Disney to be special.

    They try to treat everyone as special.

    Not that they always succeed.

    But they do more times than not.

    They succeed far more than they fail.

    Unlike some businesses that seem to want their people to avoid customers, Disney does the opposite.

    Cast members make everyone of us feel important.

    You know all the small ways they make you welcome.

    What Disney does routinely, every day, is give you a huge welcome.

    Not just the squeaky clean parks, either.

    No overflowing trash cans.

    Small touches.

    But everywhere.

    The streets are cleaned at night. After everyone leaves.

    We take all this for granted. But it is done by design.

    By an effort.

    A huge effort

    Managers are trained to make sure custodians are far from the only ones concerned about cleanliness. Neatness is everyone’s business.

    Some call it “show ready.”

    Just one example of that: When is the last time you found a ride or show that did not run on time?

    If you did, rarely, you found the reason.

    Cast members communicated.

    It’s not highly unusual at all for cast members to know the schedule of a nearby show but the times for another one in a far-off area of the park.

    Most people in service positions have simple training.

    They are trained to take your money.


    Which is the exact opposite of the Disney customer service experience.

    We could go on about this at far more length, but it’s all part of the Disney experience.

    So it all comes down to the COO.

    That person who follows Walt’s vision of a perfect park…or as perfect as anyone can do it.

    So how did Staggs handle the position?

    And maybe…just maybe…and out of simple curiosity…how would your own personality have stacked up with his? Could you have at least the potential to do it yourself?

    You almost certainly aren’t as old as Staggs. And equally don’t have his years of experience.

    Start out with modesty

    But a good start for you would be a modest manner. And having an attitude of keeping a low profile.

    Those were attributes universally attributed to Staggs.

    Being receptive and comfortable with Disney cast members also helps. Employees routinely described Stagg as “warm.”

    As COO, Staggs had not only theme parks to oversee but also such areas as the Disney cruise line of three ships, the vacation ownership program, and Disney’s themed resort in Oahu.

    But he was seen as particularly effective in handling a global workforce of 130,000 employees spread across six theme parks. Including the one built in Shanghai, which may have played a role in his leaving.

    “It’s a job that requires gut instincts on what consumers will respond to, and meticulous attention to detail on all aspects of the guest experience,” noted a story on Staggs in Variety.

    Disney parks are generally viewed by the public as Disney’s brand. That’s often an advantage but can also be a problem if expectations are not met.

    Cast members liked him

    Profiles of Staggs’ track record at the parks and resorts unit have been mostly strong from the media.

    He inherited many initiatives by his predecessors such as the “My Magic Plus” that have been regarded as big successes.

    A big plus for him was his relationship with the legions of cast members.

    Only one example of his popularity was obvious when he surprised members by making an unplanned appearance at a Disney event to praise Imagineer Tony Baxter.

    The audience loved his showing appreciation for Baxter’s efforts by dedicating a window along Main Street to him.

    Staggs seemed like “just another cast member.”

    At the 2011 opening of the revamped “Star Tours” ride at Disneyland, Staggs, cloaked as a Jedi knight, engaged in a strenuous light saber battle with Darth Vader.

    He then cut the ribbon with a light saber.

    Staggs himself has said he made an effort to keep involved with everyday Disney cast members. That is a somewhat unusual move in the entertainment industry.

    In 2012, while accepting the Distinguished Alumni Award from Minnetonka High School, Staggs noted that showbiz was “the most self-congratulatory industry there is on the planet.”

    He jokingly and he jokingly told the crowd that in his then-22 years in entertainment, he’d never accepted an award at a major awards show such as the Oscars, Emmys or Grammys.

    He was more than liked

    Staggs would fit a character out of a Disney movie.

    He grew up in the small town of Excelsior, Minn., about a half-hour outside of Minneapolis.

    He’s been married to his wife, Melanie, for over two decades, and is the father of three boys.

    “I don’t get caught up in all the Hollywood glitz and glamour,” Staggs said.

    Staggs earned a B.S. in business from the University of Minnesota in 1982 and went on to get his MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business.

    He worked in investment banking at Minneapolis’ Dain Bosworth and for Morgan Stanley before joining Disney. That was in 1990 as manager of strategic planning.

    “He’s a very good dealmaker. He’s smart as hell and he is very personable — that’s a good combination,” former Disney CEO Michael Eisner said of him.

    Staggs was promoted to COO after heading up the Disney Parks and Resorts unit (and overseeing the Shanghai Disney resort).

    To be a top leader often takes years of experience

    Prior to that, he spent 12 years as the company’s chief financial officer

    He consistently earned praise from major publications for his handling of the company's finances, earning Institutional Investor magazine's billing as its top CFO in the entertainment industry on several occasions.

    “During his 26 years at the company, (he was) was well-regarded but had little experience in the company's creative operations like film and television,” one profile said.

    Staggs was described by other Disney people with the almost infamous cliché:

    “He’s a good team player.”

    So where did he go wrong?

    Many commentators praised him not only for his financial capabilities -- including openness about Disney dealings -- but also for his clear people skills to handle the job.

    But the questions that often came up were about something else.

    Where was the vision?

    His strategic vision of where to take Disney in the future.

    But any vision concept has to be linked with the Shanghai park, which has been confronted several delays in opening.

    The importance of that is the future of Disney rides high in China.

    It could be a huge popular and financial success.

    But it also is a potential problem to deal with the Chinese government and local investors.

    As Disney learned the hard way during his 1992 launch of Euro Disney or now Disneyland Paris, local tastes can be finicky.

    The new park will woo middle class guests, who may be far more common in western theme parks than in Communist-ruled China.

    Disney commentators in the wake of Staggs leaving generally said no specific project or failure prompted the sudden move.

    New directions at Disney?

    Disney might want someone more experienced in the film and television side of the business, or technology, said other analysts quoted in The Orlando Sentinel.

    “Disney is a complex business that includes theme parks, cable, broadcast, studio entertainment, consumer products and interactive media. Its challenges lately have included ESPN, which has lost subscribers as consumers have been canceling cable-TV subscriptions,” the newspaper wrote.

    Speculation was that Disney wanted longer term thinking of what the company should be, and where it was heading in the future.

    So whoever eventually is named to take over, and while it won’t be you or anyone we know, we can only wish them the best.

    And this advice:

    Good luck on a tough job….

    …because it’s never easy to follow Walt. ###