[SIZE=7]Setting the gold standard
Disneyland's operations chief prepares his 16,000 employees to make 'magical moments' during park's 50th anniversary.
By MICHELE HIMMELBERG
The Orange County Register
Some executives wear a bold-colored tie to project a message.
Greg Emmer wears a lanyard full of trading pins around his neck.
The head of operations at the Disneyland Resortuses the collection of pins as a strategic tool. It forces him to do what he says is the most important work of the day: connect with visitors.
On a recent stroll down Main Street, as Emmer talked about the refurbishment of Disneyland for its 50th anniversary, he spied a father and daughter staring at his chest. He tapped the lanyard full of pins and anticipated their question: "Would you like one of these?"
It's exactly what they wanted. The girl exchanged one of her pins for Emmer's "Princess," they chatted for a few minutes, and she left with a smile.
In Disney lore, that's called a "magical moment." A chance to make a memory.
It's the standard by which Emmer judges his staff of 16,000 at the two theme parks, three hotels and Downtown Disney district. He's the ultimate boss for everyone who regularly comes in touch with the visitors, including those who make the beds, operate the rides and serve the food.
People go to a Disney theme park expecting a safe and clean environment, but they return because of "how it feels," Emmer said. That's why he has worked the past year not only to make Disneyland sparkle but also to ensure that the staff is ready to receive the world for a celebration that launches Thursday. In the next 18 months, millions are expected to visit Anaheim to rekindle their Disney memories.
"Most guests are overwhelmed by how it all looks, but it's the little things that will make it special," Emmer said, paraphrasing a speech that he has delivered repeatedly in employee forums.
Those moments can be anything from a simple conversation with a visitor to the daily opening ceremony. Each morning, Disney officials select a family at the front gate to officially open the park. They get to chant the countdown, "1-2-3, Disneyland is open today," and take home a photo of the moment.
"There are only a few times a day to really single out someone and have a good time with them," Emmer said. "If every cast member does that a couple of times a day, the power in that would be significant."
Emmer, who grew up in Garden Grove, has studied and operated Disney parks for 37 years. He's a lifer, with his first job as a ride operator on the Matterhorn Bobsleds. He speaks the employees' language and knows what it's like to wear a "costume" (Disneyspeak for uniform) and to work "on stage" (inside the park).
After graduating from Cal State Fullerton in 1971, he interviewed for several jobs but was intrigued by Disney's plans to open a theme park in Florida. He jumped at the chance to start from scratch and transferred to the Magic Kingdom. He moved up the ranks to vice president, learning about everything from merchandise to entertainment.
In November 2003, he joined new Disneyland Resort President Matt Ouimet, as a senior vice president. By then, plans for the 50th anniversary were well under way. Emmer started walking the parks to assess what physical improvements were needed.
Like a 50-year-old house, the park had grown dull and dilapidated in places. Every facade on Main Street needed a vivid coat of paint. The thatched roof of the Tiki Room was wearing thin, and it took 10,000 feathers to refresh the talking birds inside. The prescription for Tomorrowland included a new color scheme - blues and silvers for a space-age feel.
Emmer also observed the staff.
"Everybody who works here knows about guest interaction," Emmer said. "It wasn't missing, but I wanted it to be embedded in how we do things.
"It always needs to be reinforced. Why not just be real overt about it?"
Emmer reminded them that their job is more than picking up trash, or selling a Princess tiara, or serving ice cream. Each job contributes to the sense that visitors have escaped to a fantasy world for the day. When a street sweeper whisks away the paper wrappers, he keeps that fantasy alive.
"The unique thing about our product - and it's almost unfair to call what we do a product - is that tonight, most businesses in Anaheim will close their doors at 5 p.m. and come back tomorrow and start over. They don't interact much with the public except when their product is on the shelf.
"Here, the guests expect us to bring our show to life every day. We build our repeat visitation through our performance each day. Companies talk about that, but for us, that's our lifeblood."
Emmer tries to get the employees to think of the park as a stage. The job requires getting all the scenery in place and every costume on straight before the curtain goes up. The challenge with a theme park is that people keep walking through your stage all day, and you have to keep it fresh.
That operational thinking is so ingrained in Emmer that it's hard to turn it off. When he walks through the resort, he stoops to grab bits of trash. He catches himself doing the same thing at the mall.
Nothing escapes him.
On bustling Main Street, Emmer spied a group trying to pose for a photo. As one son moved everyone into place, Emmer approached and offered to create a family memory.
"Would you like me to take a picture of all of you?"
The man's eyebrows shot up in surprise, but he joined his family and smiled.
Emmer lined them up in the viewfinder, stepped to the left to get Sleeping Beauty's Castle in the background, waited for a pedestrian to pass by, then "click."
The family said thank you, and Emmer replied: "Thank you for coming."
Another "magical moment."