Managing risk at the happiest place on Earth

As Walt Disney said, “It all began with a mouse.” What started in Walt Disney’s imagination has evolved into a global empire with theme parks, movie studios, television networks, a cruise line, restaurants, hotels, shops and so much more.

From a risk management perspective, keeping guests and cast members (Disney employees) safe is job one. And nowhere is this more of a priority than at the Walt Disney World Resort (WDW) in Orlando, Florida.

Located on 40 square miles (roughly 22,400 acres) in central Florida, Walt Disney World is twice the size of Manhattan, and encounters many of the same challenges found in any large city or municipality. Each day, tens of thousands of guests visit one of the four parks there: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom; stay in the nearly 30,000 rooms housed in more than 25 hotels and villas; visit two water parks, shop in the more than 250 shops or eat at the 450 food and beverage locations.

Approximately 75,000 cast members from more than 65 different countries play an integral role in bringing all of this magic to life, both in front of their guests and behind the scenes. Walt Disney said, “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality.”



Disney’s keys to success

People are Disney’s primary focus, both within the company and outside of it. Cast member training centers on four specific aspects: Safety, courtesy, show and efficiency.

Safety means cast members will practice care in whatever they do, while also watching out for the well-being of others.

Courtesy focuses on how to treat fellow cast members, guests, vendors and anyone they encounter. This involves being respectful and energetic, while projecting a positive image and working to exceed guests’ expectations.

Everyone loves a show, and that is a key element to the Disney experience. Employees are called cast members because each one plays a pivotal role in executing the “show” at each Disney venue. As part of the show, they are always careful to be in character and perform their roles.

Being efficient encompasses using their time and resources wisely to ensure guests receive the anticipated Disney experience. By focusing on each of these areas, the company reinforces the Disney brand while successfully projecting a consistent image and striving for excellence in every area.

Since WDW is a 24/7 operation, the company works extremely hard to ensure cast members have access to the care and resources they need. An on-site medical facility, and even a fitness center and a physical therapy clinic are available to cast members on the Disney property. Guest and restaurant linens, as well as some cast members’ clothing are serviced at an on-site laundry facility to keep everyone “dressed and pressed.”




When claims arise

Running an operation the size of a large city presents some unique risks. WDW has its own claims staff and handles the majority of claims in-house. There are guest claims and workers’ compensation, and in each one, Disney takes a proactive approach.

At the recent NAMIC Claims Conference in Orlando, Barry Dillard, director of claims management for Walt Disney World, explained their primary goal is to focus on the investigation and get all of the facts when there is an incident. It is important that their claims staff learns about the entire property – what people do, what the parks offer and even something as basic as how to get around the parks. “They spend their first year learning the property,” he added.

Understanding each aspect of the operations and attractions is critical to handling claims fairly, effectively and efficiently. “We can’t totally prevent them, but you can have good processes,” said Dillard.

“We focus on the guests’ needs first,” said Dillard. Employee training covers what to say in difficult situations, and the claims staff is on call at all hours to respond to events.

Related: Lessons learned from a painful year in insurance




Managing the risks

Handling risk management for an enterprise as large and complex as the Walt Disney Company requires a well-trained team. Michele Adams is the vice president of Risk Management Services at the Walt Disney World resort and has been with the company for 22 years. Two directors assist her in overseeing all of the different aspects of their risk management programs, and the approximately 100 cast members who comprise their group.

The WDW risk management team handles Walt Disney World, Disney’s Vero Beach and Hilton Head resorts, and a vacation reservations center in Tampa. The Disney Cruise Line has a separate risk management team.

The company is self-insured and self-administers programs for workers’ compensation and guest claims. Risk Management comprises mitigation and cost containment business processes. These include workers’ compensation and guest claims, risk transfer, business continuity, regulatory and compliance training, provider relations, and business insight and support. All of these teams work together and with their operations and corporate partners to share best practices and continuously improve their work processes.






 Adjusting to a world of new risks

Safety has always been a priority at Disney, but in a world of emerging risks, the company is taking their risk management strategy to a more personal level. “We really want to show that it’s not just the value of safety at work, but at home as well,” shared Adams. “It’s something we focus on 24/7. We know that if you can drive safe behaviors at home that you will bring those to the workplace.”

She also stressed that “safety isn’t something extra that you do, it’s how you do things.” Adams says that the company has really embraced the importance of doing safety walks and understanding one’s workspace. “Managing risk isn’t related to just one area or one team – it’s an entire culture of safety and you have to start there. We always want to have a great show and things that we bring to our guests, but there’s no reason why we have to risk safety in order to do that.”

The company has a business plan and Adams says her team is always checking to ensure their risk management efforts align with the corporate strategy. There is constant growth and development taking place within their resorts, so the team wants to be engaged in the risk management process as early as possible.

For example, if a new resort or attraction is opening, the team wants to be engaged to understand how it will be used, and whether lessons learned from previous resorts or attractions can be applied to the new one. “We’re always trying to apply what we know and do it better now,” said Adams.

Another aspect of their risk management strategy involves encouraging cast members to walk around the parks to observe what is going on in the areas where the guests and staff spend time.

“Observational risk management is one of the most underrated ways to learn what’s going on,” explained Adams. “It’s not always one silver bullet, but a lot of smaller things that can really help reduce risks.”

She described the value of looking for hazards as they walk through the parks and resorts, watching areas where they may have had incidents, and trying to determine what is contributing to them. Observing what is actually taking place gives the team some context and substance to the numbers on an incident sheet.

Adams and her team collaborate with other Disney parks to identify the issues they are facing and share the solutions they have found. It is a great way to communicate what they have learned while gaining insight into concerns that can be addressed before they become major problems.

The risk management team also practices a number of tabletop exercises, such as how to prepare for a weather event, so everyone knows their role before an event actually occurs. “Every team member knows that they have an important role to play in planning for an event and managing recovery afterward,” Adams explained. Each exercise teaches them something they hadn’t planned for, so after the drill, the team debriefs to understand what worked well, identifies weak points and develops responses to strengthen the plan.




Focusing on the future

Part of Disney’s strategy for dealing with new risks involves educating their new leaders and cast members. Adams said they need to guard against complacency and stressed the value of training and its impact on their cast members who are interacting with their guests.

“We do a lot of training and coaching,” she shared. “We want to make sure everyone has the same message of how treat our cast members, our guests, and how to handle things if something goes wrong.”

The company also focuses on ways to empower leaders to handle simple situations so they do not become big ones. “We like to say, ‘Let’s keep minor things minor,’” said Adams. It is just another practical aspect of Disney’s risk management strategy.

Walt Disney World is indeed a magical place, but sometimes reality intrudes into the land of enchantment, adventure and fantasy. When that happens, there is a team of behind-the-scenes cast members already in place to assist employees and guests with whatever event has occurred and help them navigate the claims process. It definitely takes more than a sprinkle of fairy dust, but one should never underestimate the value of a little magic.

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