The legendary Disney customer service. With Lee Cockerell, former Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World® Resort

In todays Skip the Queue podcast episode I speak with Lee Cockerell, former Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World® Resort.

We discuss day-to-day challenges running a large operation, the legendary Disney customer service and Lee’s biggest piece of advice to anyone operating a visitor attraction right now.

“We train them (cast members) to take care of the guests. So we allow them to do whatever they decide is something that would be really appropriate and helpful to every customer.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Day-to-day challenges running a large operation
  • Leadership
  • The legendary Disney customer service
  • Lee’s advice to anyone operating a visitor attraction now

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.


The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Lee Cockerell

Kelly Molson: So, Lee, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.

Lee Cockerell: Yeah, I’m happy to. We’re missing all the UK people here in Florida.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I know. We’re really missing traveling as well. Everyone that I’m speaking to is really missing going to all the amazing places that we’re not able to go to at the moment. So it’s such a shame. It must be strange there, it must be really quiet for you in Florida.

Lee Cockerell: It is. We don’t even have much traffic, which is amazing. Yeah. It’s very strange times.

Kelly Molson: That’s maybe not a bad thing, less traffic though. Less traffic, better weather apparently.

Lee Cockerell: But there’s no place to go. So that’s the bigger problem.

Kelly Molson: No, well look, we haven’t spoken before and I normally like to find out a few things about you, personal things upfront. So I wondered if you’d mind answering a few icebreaker questions for me?

Lee Cockerell: Yeah. Go ahead. Sure. No problem.

Kelly Molson: Okay. So, Lee, do you prefer cats or dogs?

Lee Cockerell: Well, I had a dog the whole time I was growing up from first grade until I left home and I loved that dog more than anything. We had a cat once too, but it was not as friendly as the dog, so I would have to go with dog.

Kelly Molson: Okay. That’s a good answer. That means that we can definitely be friends because I’m a dog person too. I’ve got one of them sitting down here on the floor next to me as we speak.

Lee Cockerell: Oh, good.

Kelly Molson: What’s your hobby? What’s your favorite hobby?

Lee Cockerell: You know my hobby, I quit playing golf because I was so bad at it. I gave my golf clubs to my son because nobody claps when I play golf. So public speaking is kind of really my hobby because people clap and I’m a very insecure person, so I need that kind of feedback from people.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I love that. That’s very honest, Lee. Thank you. Okay. And so, tell me something, you are very good at many things, but tell me one thing that you’re not very good at, apart from golf.

Lee Cockerell: You know, I was in business for 42 years and I hate the finance department. So I always had to have a good finance person around me because somehow the numbers bored me and I never worked very hard to understand them. So I had somebody explain them to me every month.

Kelly Molson: Lee, you sound so much like me. I think there’s a lot of business people that do not like the numbers and they just need someone to take over that side of the things.

Lee Cockerell: Yeah, exactly.

Kelly Molson: Listen, I would love to just hear a little bit about your background and how you came to be the VP of Disney World. How did that come about?

Lee Cockerell: I think it was magic. It’s a miracle actually. I grew up in Oklahoma on a little farm. We were as poor as could be. We didn’t even have indoor plumbing. And later on, we moved to the bigger city, and my mother was married five times. That’s kind of interesting. She was a busy woman.

Kelly Molson: Whoa.

Lee Cockerell: I’ve been adopted twice. I got my name Cockerell when I was 16, by husband number four. So I’m already really screwed up. Then I got to go to college because the doctor had money, she started making better choices, but I didn’t go to class. I just had fun and I flunked out and I went in the Army. When I got out of the Army, I went to the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C. that’s where John Hinckley shot President Reagan back in the eighties, coming out of the hotel.

I was a waiter there and I got into a management training program, and I worked for Hilton for eight years in Washington, Chicago, and New York City at the Waldorf, Los Angeles. I joined Marriott Hotels, worked for them for 17 years. Since I had focused on food and beverage, I became the vice-president of food and beverage operations for Marriott.

Then I got recruited by Disney in 1990 to go to France and open Disneyland Paris, which we did. Then I came back to Orlando in let’s see, ’93. I stayed there 13 years and I was in charge of all operations there. So I don’t know how it happened. I think I had them fooled for all those years. People thought I knew what I was doing, but then I decided that nobody knows what they’re doing so I was in good company.

Kelly Molson: You absolutely are. What an amazing story. What an incredible story.

Lee Cockerell: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: When you were at Disney, I mean, this blows my mind anyway. So you led a team of 40,000 cast members and you were responsible for the operations of 20 resort hotels, four theme parks, two water parks, the shopping and entertainment village, and the sports and recreation complex. I mean, it’s not like you had enough to juggle on a daily basis.

Lee Cockerell: Yeah. I didn’t have any idea what was going on, but I surrounded myself by incredible people. They knew what was going on and that’s pretty much how I stay out of trouble, I get experts around me.

Kelly Molson: That’s the key is it, surround yourself with good people?

Lee Cockerell: Absolutely.

Kelly Molson: What was the biggest day-to-day challenge that you had when you were running such a large operation?

Lee Cockerell: Getting everybody to behave themselves and be professional, and not do inappropriate things, and come to work on time. So basic human problems. People are always the problem. It’s never anything else.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Yeah. I hear you. Whatever size your business is, that’s always the challenge, isn’t it?

Lee Cockerell: Yeah. It’s the only problem you’ll have in your life are people.

Kelly Molson: What about the customer service side? Because I mean, you wrote a great book on customer service called The Customer Rules, and in my eyes and in many people’s eyes, Disney, they are just the best at customer service. They are the pinnacle of customer service in so many people’s eyes. How do they keep the standards so constantly high?

Lee Cockerell: Well, it’s pretty simple and any of your listeners can do the same thing. It’s a matter of, I would say we do three things better than anybody else. Number one, we hire better. We’re very careful. We have high expectations for performance and we explain those to anybody that wants to work for the company so that there’s no misunderstandings about being professional and doing your job the way we train you.

Second thing is training. We train you and test you and we enforce the training, and we’re very serious about that. It’s like we’re putting on a show. It’s just like on Broadway, you got to be able to do your job on the stage or you won’t be on the stage. So we audition you. We train you. We rehearse you. Then we create a culture where I would say most people that work at Disney wake up in the morning and are excited to come to work because of the way we treat them, out of respecting them.

They have opportunity to get promoted. They have the opportunity to get development and learn and move up and get promotions. And so, I always say, “Hire them right. Train them right, and treat them right, and it’ll work just fine in any company.” That’s just one of the things I think the problem is, people get bored with the basics. They don’t realize it’s about people and there’s no upside to not treating people really well.

I always tell people, “If you think there is, try it on your wife, and then you’ll find out.” And so, no upside, there’s only a downside. So we’re very respectful. We’re very professional. We care about people having success. When they have that environment, they go out and take care of the guest because they want to, not because they have to. That’s the difference, I think. When we want to do something, we just do it no matter what, if the boss is around or not. When people make us do things we only do it when somebody is watching you and we want it that way all the time. It’s a pretty simple formula. That’s how we think about it.

Kelly Molson: I mean, that’s so true, isn’t it? So keep your team happy and then they keep your customers happy. Disney has a real … I mean, I’ve been to Disney on a number of times and I love it. I told a story this morning on LinkedIn about visiting the Magic Kingdom for the first time when I was a 10-year-old girl and walking through the gates and walking down Main Street, U.S.A. and seeing Cinderella’s castle and being just so blown away and in complete awe of the kind of the spectacle of it. But the thing that really makes that Disney experience is the people and it’s the cast members. And so, I wondered what’s the most elaborate thing that you’ve ever witnessed or seen in terms of customer service at Disney, for cast members really going out of their way to make people feel special?

Lee Cockerell: Yeah, well, I saw it so often because it’s not an unusual thing that cast members do things that you don’t expect. I mean, after 9/11 we had one of our people that worked in the hotel, a bellman, give his car to a guest who needed to get back to New York and told him he’d pick it up later. There were no rental cars left. You couldn’t fly out after 9/11. This guy said, “Hey, take my car. I’ll come and get it later.”

I mean, I see this all the time. I mean, a cast member, you lose your phone charger and they go to Walmart and get one for you. It’s just an amazing thing. It’s not because we train them to do that. We train them to take care of the guests. So we allow them to do whatever they decide is something that would be really appropriate and helpful to every customer. So if a little girl gets her dress wet or dirty or falls down, the cast member can give her a new dress, no [inaudible 00:10:15]. So they have authority, our people have authority to do the right thing.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. You’ve empowered them to make their own decisions about the level of customer service and what they can do to help people.

Lee Cockerell: Sure. I mean, if you hire the right people, you train them and you’re very clear with your expectations, they’ll do a great job. If you don’t trust your people, then you’ve probably hired the wrong person or you personally have some kind of control problem. I always tell people, “Maybe you need to see a psychiatrist,” but other than that, that’s what we do. We expect people to do their job, not have to have somebody watching over them every minute, they’re adults and your people are your brand. Let me tell you what, at the end of the day, your people are your brand.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, I hear you.

Lee Cockerell: It’s always the people, the rides they know are going to be good, the attractions, the shows, but the people are so different and people compare from other places they’ve been. The comparison is why we are rated so high, we just are better.

Kelly Molson: How do you think that with the COVID-19 situation, that we’ve all been part of, how do you think that Disney magic is going to be with the kind of safety precautions that Disney will have had to put in place now that they’re starting to open up and people will be allowed to come back? Do you think it’s going to change it at all?

Lee Cockerell: Well, I think that’s going to be an every different guest’s point of view. I mean, it’s going to be rough. It’s going to be tough. I do worry about it because if you’re comparing from your visit last year, it’s going to be totally different and it’s not going to be as individualized as it was before where your kids can get close to the characters on all those sites. So it’s a worry, no question about it.

I think the attitude of the cast members will be great. I think Disney will do a good job of enforcing the safety policies, but yeah, it’s an issue. Wearing a mask in July and August in Florida. It’s so hot here now it’s already a problem. So it’s just a matter of what kind of attitude the guest has about understanding what’s going on.

A lot of guests right now around the world are not being very cooperative. So I don’t know, I hope it’ll be fine. I think it’ll be good when you’re in the show and it’s air-conditioned and you’re watching it, or you’re doing your rides, or in the evening when it gets cooler, but there’s challenges and we’ve never been through anything this extreme. And so, it’s hard to say, unless we’ll just have to see, and I’m sure there’ll be adjustments every day to policies, procedures, operating guidelines, rules, regulations, as we learn more. And so, I’m pretty glad I’m retired.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. You’ve swerved that one.

Lee Cockerell: Oh, yeah. Timing is everything.

Kelly Molson: Well, yeah, definitely. I guess that that’s a challenge for Disney as well, isn’t it? Because all eyes are on them. So, you know, the world of attractions, I guess, looks at Disney to see how they do things and then follows. So there’s a lot of people that are watching at the moment to see how they operate and what the guest experience is like.

Lee Cockerell: Yeah, and the other problem is trying to get halfway productive. So many countries where there’s blockage about people being able to come. A lot of people are older that grandparents used to come with their kids and their grandkids. If you’re in the older age group, you’re worried about getting this. And so, there’s going to be multiple complications.

As I always say, “All they can do is do their best and just work through it and see where this thing ends up.” It’s really crazy right now around the world, actually, it’s just too bad. But then there are Disney people who, God, they would fly to the Moon to go to Disney. So they may love it, the only thing I will say.

Kelly Molson: No, but that’s true, isn’t it? Because Disney fans are really … there are a big contingency of them that are really hardcore Disney fans and they’ll go back over and over again. They’ve been on the rides, hundreds and hundreds of times.

Lee Cockerell: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: I can’t see that that’s going to deter them so much.

Lee Cockerell: Oh no, it’s not going to deter a lot of people. But on the other hand, Disney needs a lot of people to pay for all that overhead expenses. You know, if you’ve got one person or a hundred thousand at night, the fireworks cost the same amount. So keeping it safe, keeping it halfway profitable, keeping the guests happy, keeping the cast members safe, and making money, that’s like a dilemma.

Kelly Molson: So now you’ve taken … Well, I mean, you say you’ve retired from Disney, but I mean, you haven’t actually retired at all, have you? So you are public speaking. You’re an author. You have a brilliant podcast, Creating Disney Magic, which I listen to frequently. What else is keeping you busy at the moment, Lee? Do you advise other attractions on operations and customer service?

Lee Cockerell: Sure. I advise anybody who’ll pay me. I tell people, “I know things you don’t know and if you pay me I’ll tell them to you.” But I just have been working on a new product coming out in the next couple of weeks called Cockerell Academy. It’ll start out with eight to 10 courses on leadership management, customer service, videos and audios for students who are trying to get in the workforce now. Advice for them. A course on decision making. A course on time management.

Those will all be rolling out where it’s going to be a subscription, it’ll be $249 a year for the access to the library. It’ll be updated every month with more stuff, new stuff. I just did that because I’ve wanted to do it for a long time, but I always had a good excuse. I didn’t have time. Now I don’t have an excuse anymore.

Kelly Molson: No, that’s it. You’ve got all the time now.

Lee Cockerell: Yeah, and I need to go up to my office and work so my wife doesn’t leave me, you know? So this is how we figured it out.

Kelly Molson: So with the fact that … so you advise attractions, you advise, as you’ve said, anyone that pays you. I know that you work in other sectors as well, but if there was one piece of advice you could give to anyone who operates an attraction at the moment, what do you think that would be?

Lee Cockerell: Well, the key to leadership in my mind and getting people feeling good about trusting you. Every job I had at Hilton, Marriott and Disney, I’m out in the operation, everybody knows me. They know I’m available. They know I will solve their problem. I will deal with their issue and they know I’ll tell them the truth. I’ll be like their mother, I might love them and tell him, I love them, but I might kick their rear end too if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do because I want them to be successful.

I think that’s the problem with most organizations, they’re not taking a personal interest in the training development of people and improving their self-confidence, their belief in themselves. I really focus on getting the people right. I don’t really want to know how to run the ride. I could care less. I just focus on the people and then I know that they will do a great job.

So it goes back to this, anybody out there in business, hire them right, train them right. When you train people right they actually get that feeling that you care about them. You know, there’s only two things parents worry about in the world, and if you apply these in business, you’ll be successful.

Lee Cockerell: Parents worry only about two things, safety and education. That’s it. There’s nothing else. So don’t get confused, make it a safe place. I mean, emotionally too, not just physically. So a place where you’re appreciated, your opinion counts, people care about you. Everybody wants to be in a place where they matter. That’s all, that’s what everybody wants. Your wife, your husband, your kid, everybody wants to matter.

Leaders can pay attention to that and make sure people know they matter. If you do that every day, you’ll be amazed. Your productivity will go up 50%. Your turnover will go down. People will be nicer. They’ll have less anxiety, less depression. I mean, create an environment and a culture where people wake up in the morning want to come to work, not have to come.

Kelly Molson: Great advice. I think we all want that.

Lee Cockerell: Yeah. I mean, it’s basics. This is the basics in life. It’s not hard. Your mother taught you this already.

Kelly Molson: She did. It’s very true. She’s a clever woman, my mum.

Lee Cockerell: Of course.

Kelly Molson: But that’s right, isn’t it? A lot of people don’t focus on the basics and then that’s where they make the mistakes.

Lee Cockerell: Exactly. That’s why all these politicians are getting in trouble. They did not focus on 100% safety. When people don’t feel safe, they don’t trust you, and when they don’t trust you, they won’t do what you tell them to do. You know, trust is the number one thing in the world. You know who you trust. It’s probably very few people. You probably trust your mom, maybe your dad, your grandmother, but think of all the people that have let you down, or they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. It’s unbelievable. I work hard always to make sure people trust me, and if they trust me, they’ll do anything I want them to do and I’ll do anything for them, and the next thing you know we are happily married.

Kelly Molson: How do you build that trust? How did you build that trust when you had so many people that you were managing? I mean, I have a small team. There’s six of us. We all trust each other, but we’re all together a lot of the time. So how do you build that trust when there’s 40,000 cast members that you need to build that with?

Lee Cockerell: Well, first I scheduled a lot of time out in the operations every week, walking, talking to the cast members, checking in. My calendar put me out on the face-to-face with people. I published a newsletter every Friday, encouraging people, telling them what my expectations were, what I needed them to do. Today, I would do a podcast for every employee, like this. They would be hearing this every Friday for five or six, seven minutes.

They knew that my reputation was that anybody who wants to see me can come and see me. When I started, that the manager started doing it because they didn’t want their people coming to see me. So they started taking care of the problems. I got a reputation for being somebody that followed through. I had a confidential voicemail. People could leave me a message about something that needed to be fixed or was being ignored or wasn’t safe, or their manager was doing something inappropriate. All of our executives had that.

So I had many, many ways to make sure I knew the truth. Second, that when I learned the truth, that I took care of it and made it right. So over time, even if I’ve never met with people, they had heard about me. Other employees had told them, other cast members told them, “Hey, you can trust Lee. He’s on top of this.” All of a sudden your reputation grows because people say good things about you behind your back, not the kinds of things most people say about their manager.

Somebody says, “You want to be trusted, you’ve got to be trustworthy.” That’s it, you know? You got to do the right thing even if it’s hard. A lot of people don’t want to do the hard thing, they want to do easy things because hard things are hard. I tell people, “If you can’t make hard decisions and you can’t have hard conversations with people, don’t have children and don’t be a leader.”

Kelly Molson: Good advice.

Lee Cockerell: That’s all you do. That’s your life.

Kelly Molson: I love that you do a podcast with your team now. I love that you’ve embraced technology and that would be the way that you’d keep in touch with everyone. That’s great.

Lee Cockerell: Hey, I’m on TikTok every morning.

Kelly Molson: Even I’m not on TikTok. You’re way ahead of me.

Lee Cockerell: I know, you know why you should be? You’ll understand the young people like a thousand times better.

Kelly Molson: I’m sorry.

Lee Cockerell: It’s a little scary.

Kelly Molson: It is a bit scary.

Lee Cockerell: But I give them messages every morning and I’m slowly getting people’s writing me say, “Oh, I liked it.” I only do 30 seconds, maybe a minute. There are a lot of videos on there about police brutality and all. I’ve been recommending to police chiefs and enforcement, start watching TikTok and you’ll see the attitude of young people around the world. You need to understand where they’re coming from and you don’t because you’re too isolated. And so, I’m on all the social sites every day.

Kelly Molson: I love that. Do you know what? I’m going to download TikTok tonight and I’m going to follow you. You’re going to be my first follower, Lee.

Lee Cockerell: Like now, I gave advice yesterday for everybody to vote and get Trump out of office.

Kelly Molson: Whoa. Okay.

Lee Cockerell: Because the young people don’t like this and they’re the ones. There’s going to be four million people turn 18 before the election to vote. And so, I can reach them that way.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. That’s good. It’s good that you’re using your platform for good, Lee.

Lee Cockerell: Yeah, I am. Also, I’m promoting my work. So you got to be out there and it changes, you know, you got to really be on top of watching where people are getting their information. If you’re on Facebook, like I am, you’re getting people that are about to die anyway. So I mean, LinkedIn is great, professional. I did a post the other day about something, I’ve had over 20,000 views on it.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Lee Cockerell: That sells books. That sell speeches. That gets me be known who I am. And so, each one has a different audience and you got to stay on top of that because it’s changing rapidly.

Kelly Molson: Yes.

Lee Cockerell: You know, right now the US government’s trying to stop TikTok because that’s owned by the Chinese. As soon as they do, somebody else will open another one. You can’t stop it. People are going to give their opinion.

Kelly Molson: No, you can’t stop free speech, Lee, for sure.

Lee Cockerell: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: What I’d like to do is ask you … well, actually I’ve got two more questions to ask you. One I’m not sure about, because I spoke to a friend just before I came on here and he wanted me to ask you this and I don’t actually know if you like rides, but he’s asked, “If you could only go to one Disney park in the whole world and ride one ride, what would it be and why?”

Lee Cockerell: It’s not so much the rides for me, but I like to go to Epcot around four o’clock in the afternoon. After it’s starting to get a little cooler, I like to go to the French pavilion, the UK pavilion. My wife loves to go to the UK pavilion and shop, and French pavilion for perfume. Then around 5:00 or 5:30, we have a little cocktail, and then we have dinner at one of the pavilions. Then we watch the fireworks and go home. So we’re there for like four hours and one of them were five hours. That’s my favourite thing to do. Rides, you know, they’re okay. I mean, I’ve been on all of them so many times, the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, I kind of like it.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, that’s my favourite one. That’s my favourite one. I love that.

Lee Cockerell: I think that’s incredible and it goes off at a million miles an hour. So yeah, that’s fun. I’ve been on every ride so many times because when my grandkids were growing up they lived in Orlando, the three of them, and I used to take them all the time.

Kelly Molson: Oh, that must have been an amazing experience to share that with them.

Lee Cockerell: Well, I had to ride the rides they liked, not the ones I liked.

Kelly Molson: Did they like a Small World though? Because that’s a bit repetitive, isn’t it?

Lee Cockerell: I think they might have until they could speak, talk, listen and talk. I don’t think so. No, not really. They like Buzz Lightyear.

Kelly Molson: Okay. Good choices. Well, look, Lee, we’re coming to the end of the podcast and I really want to ask you the last question and it’s, is there a book that you recommend that’s helped shaped your career in any way?

Lee Cockerell: Oh yeah. You know, I was not a big reader when I got out of school. I personally learn best by doing, so experience is a big deal to me. Then one day I started reading and I found out, “Wow, I’m learning a lot here.” Reading, looking at websites, reading the newspaper every day. But I would say one that struck me was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Lee Cockerell: Because it was very basic and it’s all focused on people. I started thinking about my own behaviour, my own communication, my own reaction to things, and that book helped me a lot. I’ve had it on my desk for, oh God, I think it came out in ’89 and that’s 30, 31 years ago. So yeah, that had an impact. I read now every day. I read a lot. And so, there’s so much to learn and to understand, and if you don’t read, you’re probably not going to get the truth because half the people in the world don’t know the truth. All they know are rumors or what their parents told them. I tell people, “Half to stuff in your brain’s not even true, so be careful.”

Kelly Molson: Well, I mean, that’s a great book recommendation. Just remember listeners, we always give away a copy of the book recommendation from our guest. So if you would like to win a copy of this book, then just head over to our Twitter account that’s Skip the Queue and retweet this episode announcement with the comment, “I want Lee’s book,” and you will be in a chance of winning it.

Lee, thank you so much for being on today. It’s been such a pleasure to speak to you. I have been so excited about this all week. It’s been brilliant to hear about your leadership skills and customer service experience. And so, thank you.

Lee Cockerell: Okay. I’m going to work on Congress here. You work on parliament and we’ll try to straighten out the world.

Kelly Molson: Tag team, Lee. We’ve got it covered between the two of us, for sure.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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