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An Interview with the President of Disney Parks: Al Weiss
Al Weiss’ official title is president of worldwide operations for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. According to Disney public relations, “He is responsible for operations at the company’s theme parks and resorts spanning three continents and including the Walt Disney World Resort, Disneyland Resort, Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland Resort Paris. He also oversees Disney Cruise Line and Disney Vacation Club.”
And Al is a Christian. He is active in his church, First Baptist Church of Kissimmee, and he serves as Chairman of the Board for Vision360, a national church-planting organization. Recently, Al Weiss spoke with TheHighCalling.org about his work, his faith, his family, and his priorities as a leader in all of those places.
What’s the best leadership lesson that you’ve learned from your time at Disney?
In an organization as large as Disney, no one individual could possibly know what’s going on in all places. So I have to hire a great team that has all kinds of skills and expertise and then rely on them to perform their functions. My goal is to make sure I hire great people who have leadership skills, because some of the people who report directly to me have 60 thousand people working for them. Then I figure out ways to serve them so they can be successful.
What’s the best leadership lesson you’ve learned from Vision360?
Vision360 is an organization that was started about three years ago to target the need for more churches in the greater Orlando (Disney World) area. But we quickly sensed God wanted us to expand this model for church planting around the U.S. Now our focus is not on one geographic location, like a Disney park, but on the globe. So we are looking for people who have a global heart and mindset to reach across the world through church planting. To me the lesson is the same: you’ve got to have key leadership in place that can relate to and motivate people and set the right tone and environment for success.
So you’re President of Worldwide Operations for Disney Parks, which is a huge organization, and CEO of Vision360, which is growing. How do you keep your perspective, find balance in all of this?
I keep my priorities in place. My relationship with the Lord is first; my family is next; ministry and career are behind that. I make decisions that ensure I have success in all these arenas. About five years ago, our very athletic daughter was in her first year in college. She was going to play fast-pitch softball and basketball—about 90 games a year. I’d made a commitment to be there for her. Then, I got offered a job in California. If I’d taken it, I would have missed the majority of her games. So I turned it down. In the next four years, we got to see her play in about 80 or 85 games a year. There are times you have to make decisions to reinforce the priorities in your life. If you do that consistently, you’ll have success in balancing those things that are important to you and keeping them in the proper perspective. I have one life to live, one calendar, and one set of priorities. I live my personal life and my business life by the same priorities. It makes everything easier for me because I’m living my life one way.
How open are you about your faith at Disney?
I don’t go out and talk to people about my faith on a regular basis. Many people know I’m involved in Vision360 and that I go to church on a regular basis. People know my parents were in ministry; my dad was a church planter when he grew up. We have many Bible Studies on our property; I’ve been asked to speak about my faith to those groups. In the corporate world, I think the most important thing is to do your job to the best of your abilities. At the end of the day, that’s what they appreciate and care about.
One of Disney’s philosophies is that everyone in the park is a cast member. What are the challenges in remembering the value that every employee brings?
Every time you’re in a big company with unions and negotiations, there are times where it can play out in the media in a negative way. For me, the key is to make sure we respect each person for what they do and we give them proper credit. After we’ve trained our employees and given them the tools they need, the most important thing we can do for our cast members is to make sure that if they choose to have a career, they can have a career with us. We ensure that this happens by promoting about 75 to 80% of our management needs from people right within our company. You’re also accountable to stockholders and board members.
How do you balance the needs of your stockholders with the needs of your guests or even the needs of your cast members?
If we’ve set the right tone and environment for our cast members, they are going to want to deliver great experiences to our guests. If we are delivering great experiences to our guests, they talk about us in a very positive way. They walk away having a great vacation experience, and they come back more often. I call that our “Circle of Life” where we’re satisfying all those constituencies, because we’re giving the cast a great experience, we’re giving the guests a great experience, and then you get a return on your investment to the shareholders.
Do the shareholders ever get impatient? I’m thinking back to something I read about what happened at the parks after 9/11.
I don’t think we have had many impatient stockholders after 9/11, because what we did was a pretty amazing yeoman’s feat. We had a pretty significant drop in business right after 9/11. We had a certain targeted cost reduction we needed to make to continue to achieve a certain level of profitability that would be received well by Wall Street and the shareholders. We decided that we were going to find that level of cost reduction without laying people off. That ended up being a pretty smart decision. You would have laid cast members off into a market where everybody was laying people off, and they wouldn’t have been able to find jobs so they would have gone on unemployment roles, and been a burden to the government. Just months after 9/11, our business started ramping back up. We very quickly moved up to good levels, and we would have hired most of those people back.
So, you’ve been with the company for many years, since 1972, right?
I’ve been there for 35 years! I started when I was seven [laughs]. No, I’d just graduated from high school, and my first job was to go into the Magic Kingdom and clear the cash registers back to zero. It was called a “z-run.” We would get a receipt from the cash register of the sales for the day and take them to cash control. They’d bring the money down in a locked bag with a receipt on the top saying how much money was in that bag. We'd match up those receipts, put them on a spreadsheet, put them in the vault, and then send them to the bank to get counted and deposited.
During those 35 years I’m sure the fantasy has broken down for you a couple of times.
There have been times where maybe I didn’t think I was promoted in the organization as quickly as I should have been, but I can honestly say that every single role that I’ve had, I’ve loved. I’m in my 22nd different job at Disney, and the first 22 years I had 20 different jobs, so I was moving to a new job just about every year. I never really got a chance to get bored. What I did was I really got immersed in those jobs; I tried to do the very best I could and let the results of what I did pay off.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Disney?
I go back all the way to my first job. I would go up on Main Street to clear those cash registers back to zero; the park would be empty of people, the lights would all still be on, and I’d walk into one of the most magical fantasy places in the whole world. It was so amazing to walk around the park at that time. For me, that was one of the coolest experiences that I’ll never forget in my life.
Do you have a favorite memory of your time with Vision360?
Just seeing God’s hand upon this ministry. I could talk about miracle after miracle that has happened as a result of just doing what God asked us to do. Through Vision360, God has put us together with amazing people from around the world, and with gifts of land. We’ve started planting churches in Orlando—we’ll have at least 15 in 2008. What we’re seeing in these churches is a very good family environment. There are many, many individuals who come and feel like they have a safe place to go, a place where they can be supported, they can be loved and cared for.
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