Worthy of the Mantle: Disney and Jobs

My wife and I recently visited Disney World with our son’s family. For myself and our two grandsons, it was our first-ever trip to the world-renowned resort. The boys were wide-eyed and excited as they took in the rides and attractions (although the many lines tried their patience a bit). For me, however, it provided a case study in customer experience, which led to some interesting thoughts.

Everyone is familiar with “Disney perfection.” The pleasant on-site accommodations are linked flawlessly with the various parks and locales by a reliable and comfortable transportation system. The parks are clean, the staff friendly, and there are ample restrooms, food services and tasteful souvenir shops about the beautifully laid-out grounds. In an era where “customer experience” is often crowed about, Disney holds the high ground.

One detail of the parks that stood out for me is how they tactfully block off areas that are under construction. Painted fences surround the building sites. Alongside are benches where visitors can take a break. And on the fences at regular intervals are little plaques, with quotes from Walt himself, that provide a bit of the Disney philosophy with regard to building. It’s as if he’s reminding everyone to not feel too inconvenienced — pursuing new dreams and ideas is what the parks are all about.

A particular Disney quote, however, stuck with me. Supposedly, said Walt, “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.” I recalled the cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,” with Mickie bouncing up and down at the wheel, and how that character became a hit that launched the Disney studios on its way to riches and fame.

Of course, it wasn’t just Mickey that made Disney successful, nor was the long-lasting fame automatic. Rather, the success of Mickey Mouse opened a door that allowed Walt Disney’s full vision and capabilities to be expressed, including his desire to push the technology and business of animation, and an innate understanding of what his customers wanted. And this got me to thinking about Steve Jobs.

Both Steve and Walt mastered customer experience. Both pushed technology in order to deliver products that customers love. Both exist in an ethereal world of dreams (Disney: “When you wish upon a star..”; Jobs: “Think Different”). Both maintained precise control of their products, companies and brands. Both brought ground-breaking innovation to their fields: Walt implemented cell animation very early on, perfected “multi-plane” camera techniques — an early 3D-like experience — and delivered the first animated feature film, “Snow White,” despite the trepidations of everyone around him. Jobs, on the other hand, essentially gave birth to personal computers with the Apple w, then conceived and delivered the Mac, his iDevices, and numerous innovations in the marketing of his tech gadgets, effectively marrying them to our daily lives.

But perhaps most interesting is how Disney came to technology through entertainment while Jobs came to entertainment through technology. Walt, the entertainer, envisioned Epcot, the technology-ruled “City of Tomorrow,” while Steve, the “tech guy,” became CEO of Pixar Studios, the hugely successful 3D animation studio. (He also brought the music industry into the 21st century through the iTunes store.) It’s as if they shared a gene somewhere that enabled them to bring us treasures from the future. Whatever it was, they were set on paths destined to converge. Pixar inevitably was bought by Disney, and Steve ended up on Disney’s board as its largest share holder.

And so I propose that Jobs has become, in a sense, the heir of Disney’s legacy. Understanding customers’ innate desires, and the ability to create things that connect with and satisfy those desires is what links the two visionaries. People almost universally love their products and are delighted to use them. Indeed, customers stand on lengthy lines to ride “Pirates of the Caribbean,” or to get the latest iPhone. Their success isn’t the result of a cold, calculating computer analysis, but an expression of gifting and vision that is theirs alone. It’s business as art, technology as instrument, innovation as life-blood, and unquestioned success the result.

Today, Disney’s work lives on, driven by the philosophy of innovation and customer experience that’s fully embedded in the company he founded. Will we say the same thing about Apple when Steve Jobs is one day gone? Our culture needs companies that “get things right,” and can deliver extraordinary products and services in extraordinary ways. Perhaps a “sorcerer’s apprentice” is somewhere in the wings, waiting to take up this mantle. The job description includes an unfettered imagination, an iron will and a love for delighting the masses. “Thinking different” will help, too. Qualified candidates, however, need not apply. We’ll know you when we see you.