Mickey's Management Mojo

Compared with war correspondents, business reporters have it easy. Sure, we cope with tough challenges: relentless cold-call pitches from clueless public-relations executives (for the record, I don't cover the textile industry in New Zealand); the impenetrable thicket of jargon on conference calls, and interviews with CEOs whose hours-long monologues make Fidel Castro seem reticent. Over the years, your correspondent has endured cross-country flights in coach, spent sleepless nights in four-star hotels where room service stopped at 11 p.m. and trekked to conference rooms all over Manhattan.

I've just returned from what is likely to be the most harrowing investigative jaunt of my career, a four-day slog through teeming streets filled with screaming children. For a half a week I subsisted on unhealthy, borderline inedible fare and endured the torture of loud, repetitious music and unbridled sincerity.

Yes, I survived Disney World.

Critics charge that Disney's parks are nothing more than simulacra of reality, carefully constructed capitalist fantasy lands that shut out unpleasant realities. (In other words, they're a lot like Wall Street before the subprime mess hit the fan.) But Disney World, an immensely successful enterprise, clearly has a lot to teach about the realities of business. In fact, for 21 years the Disney Institute has offered businesses "the tools to apply proven systems and strategies to their own organizations." Case studies show Disney has helped the accounting firm PricewaterHouseCoopers boost retention rates among interns and assisted General Motors' efforts to improve customer satisfaction at dealerships.

But you don't have to be a client of Disney's to learn some of the theme park's obvious commercial lessons. Many businesses and other large organizations would be well advised to stop spending millions of dollars on the services of McKinsey & Co. and other management consultants and instead drop $248 on a three-day Park Hopper pass.

Airline executives should rush to the Haunted Mansion in the Magic Kingdom. Our heads sank when we approached and saw the sign advertising a 15-minute wait. Despair turned to elation when we were ushered into the spooky entry hall in just a few minutes. This experience was repeated time and again—at rides and restaurants—where promised delays of 20 minutes miraculously shrank in half. After a few days, it became apparent that this might be a conscious strategy of underpromising and overdelivering. Which is precisely the opposite of the tack airlines have taken lo these many years. The carriers continually promise that planes will leave or arrive at a specific time when they know the probability of an on-time departure is only slightly greater than the probability of your suitcase's being the first item to hit the luggage carousel.

Managers, maitre d's and hostesses at every high-end restaurant in Los Angeles should be schooled on the radical innovation of the Fast Pass. At many fine-dining restaurants, customers with reservations frequently are made to wait for tables, and slip the maitre d' a $20 bill to avoid being seated in Siberia. But Disney is far more democratic. If you're willing to plan ahead, you can print out a ticket—a Fast Pass—that entitles the holder to instant access to a ride later in the day—for no extra charge!

The blanket assertion that government should be run more like a business is frequently unconvincing. (What if the Federal Emergency Management Agency were managed like Enron?) But the brass at the Department of Homeland Security, from Secretary Michael Chertoff down to the surly guards at La Guardia who single out 8-year-old girls toting pink backpacks for extra scrutiny, should spend a day at Disney's efficiently managed borders. The land of Mickey tightly controls access to its 30,500 acres through a system of checkpoints and turnstiles that combines state-of-the-art technology and old-fashioned humanity. Disney's border crossings, which in 2006 managed the flow of 49 million through the complex's six principalities, are equipped with biometric identification; adult guests can't enter unless they first scan their fingerprint, which must match prints already on file. The border guards smile effusively at the foreigners who have come to spend money heedlessly on their shores.

Finally, every CEO should take at least three or four rides on It's a Small World and then spent the rest of the day in Epcot. For years, the United States has been shrinking as a global economic force, a trend that is accelerating with the continuing boom in Asia and the domestic slowdown. For more and more companies, future growth and prosperity will depend on penetrating foreign markets. But Americans aren't so much innocents abroad as ignoramuses abroad. A day at Disney can remedy all that. It's a Small World is like an animated version of Thomas Friedman's "The World Is Flat." Epcot allows visitors to immerse themselves in the cultures and cuisines of 11 countries, from Mexico to Norway, in 40 compact acres.

Of course, it should be noted that despite the great efforts made to create authenticity—the Japanese hibachi joint was staffed entirely by Japanese—Epcot doesn't provide a uniformly realistic experience. In Epcot's European countries, the dollar still retains some value.