Exclusive: Dan Cockerell’s Exit Interview and Life After Disney – Part Two

In part one, of a two part interview, former Walt Disney World Vice President Dan Cockerell talked about his early years working at Walt Disney World and at Disneyland Paris, and gave us a glimpse into Walt Disney World’s upcoming 50th Anniversary. Here is the second part of Dan’s interview.

MIRARCHI: Disney fans seem divided about the new direction of Epcot. Some are excited about the new attractions and some say that it goes completely against the original vision (not Walt’s but when it first opened). What would you say to those who are not happy about the new direction? Also, talk about your thoughts on the changes coming to Epcot

COCKERELL: Well, one of the things I learned a while ago is working in a place that people care so much about and are so passionate about is a blessing in disguise. It’s a great thing to have, but there is also a downside to it. Since people have a strong feeling of ownership and strong opinions [about any of the parks] you cannot make everyone happy. So, we are always walking the line between let’s make sure we give homage to all the heritage and tradition, but we also have to make sure that we are being relevant to our guests and the new generations that are coming through. You’re always walking a tightrope. Sometimes we go too far one way or the other.

What we are hearing about World Showcase is that “it’s great — it’s always been great” and as we add new content — it’s the heart of the park. I think we have always struggled with Future World.

Back when I was working there [Future World] in 1991, the stuff you could see there you couldn’t see anywhere else. When you talk about “Future World,” well to keep a place out in the future you’d have to literally be updating it monthly to be able to stay ahead of that. You just can’t deliver that promise. I think tapping into the Disney IP [Intellectual Property] and keep that sense of optimism that Epcot is supposed to have is always been part of its trademark. If they can figure that out I think it will continue to do well. However, I think a lot of the parks — over time — will continue to look different. As you get older I think you get nostalgic. The other day I was talking to a friend of mine – we each have boys who are 17 years old. We were telling them about all these great and incredible movies they need to see from the 80s, and they have no interest in them. We said to them, “how could you not be interested in them, they are great movies!” They said, “yeah, but they really aren’t that funny and the technology is not that great.” We just think they are crazy. They just don’t have our point of view.


Photo: Dan Cockerell

MIRARCHI: Over the years, the theme park landscape has changed. It’s constantly evolving via technology (e.g. magic bands, smartphones) — in regards to that, where do you see Walt Disney World in the next few years?

COCKERELL: When we rolled out MyMagic+ about five years ago, interestingly, we had to do a ton of work internally to downplay how important it was to our cast members. It was kind of a dichotomy because it was this billion dollar project. It was going to change the way people experience Walt Disney World, but at the same time the cast — when we talked with them — said “so you’re putting all this new technology stuff in place, does this mean what we used to do isn’t important anymore?” We told them that what we used to do — and what we still do — is foundational. Keep the guests safe. Deliver the great, courteous, inspirational, emotional, and immersive experience to the guests. Make sure you have great interactions with them and do it really efficiently. That’s what is going to be the basis. It was important in 1955 and it’s just as important today. We’re just giving you [the cast members] new tools to do your jobs. And, we’re going to give the guests new tools to experience the parks. But that base — experiential piece — is going to continue to tap into human behavior and human nature.

I think what we are trying to figure out is how we can leverage technology but not make it so it distracts from the experience, but it enhances it. I read a few articles where Bob Iger said, “Virtual reality shouldn’t be in theme parks at Disney because it doesn’t enhance the experience. It’s an experience you can get at home.”

We have to figure out how we can create these immersive [experiences] in a way that you have to come to Walt Disney World to get them. It makes it challenging because technology is helping people — more and more — to experience things you couldn’t do before. I think there will eventually be a time when you can visit places from your living room without actually having to go there. So we have to figure out how do you make it so you physically have to be there to really get the full experience, to get the memories that will last you the rest of your life.


Photo: Dan Cockerell

MIRARCHI: Epcot has had great success with the Flower & Garden and Food & Wine Festivals. Do you see them adding an additional festival to bridge the gap between these two festivals thereby making Epcot the year-round festival center?

COCKERELL: I think so. We have ran, two years in a row now, in January and February the Epcot Festival of the Arts and I think there is more potential there. Epcot lends itself to these kind of festivals. It’s a great place for people to walk around and experience things. Ironically, the World Showcase Pavilions and the sidewalks were built for a parade. We ran some parades during the Millennium, but when they first built Epcot the idea was that there would be a parade every day around World Showcase, but we never did. Now we’re blessed with these huge, wide promenades that lend themselves to put kiosks in and keep the experience really positive without too much crowding for our guests. However, if we were to build Epcot today — we probably would not have built the sidewalks that wide.

So I would imagine, at least for World Showcase, but Food & Wine [Festival] has been creeping into Future World because we need more capacity. I think there is no reason why we are not going to continue to tap into that because the idea of the pavilions was you got to meet these people from different countries, eat the food, smell the smells and take it all in. So I think that will continue to be a strategy, at least for World Showcase. Obviously there are some new attractions going into Future World, so we’ll see what happens there.


Dan Cockerell and Family
Photo: Dan Cockerell

MIRARCHI: If there was one job or position at Walt Disney World you wanted to do, but didn’t?

COCKERELL: Hmm. That’s a good question. I don’t think so. I’d be hard pressed to say there wasn’t something I didn’t get to do because I had a lot of opportunities. When I look at being a vice president for three out of the four theme parks, I don’t know why I got to do that, but man was that awesome.

MIRARCHI: After 26 years with The Walt Disney Company, what motivated you to retire from the company and make the leap to starting your own consulting business?

COCKERELL: Yeah, well [laughing] it’s mainly my wife’s fault. She grew up in the south of France, she was 16 years old and moved to London for a year and a half. She didn’t speak a word of English and learned English and was an au pair. She moved back to France, went to school and was then hired to work in the French Pavilion [at Epcot] for a year. She, as I, have always had this sense of adventure.

Now, we have two kids out of the house. One just graduated from college, our daughter is a sophomore in college, and our youngest son is a junior in high school and he’ll be out of the house next spring. The big question my wife and I started talking about a year ago was, “What’s next in our life?”

We have a great setup. Orlando is a great place to live. I have a great job and we can wait six or seven more years before I retire, but the idea is if we were going to see more of the world we need more time and more flexibility. We thought, “So do we jump off the edge now?” We looked at this risk and said, “Okay, we’re going to take this plunge.” If things didn’t work out her [his wife’s] point of view was, “Well, you can always go back and find a job.” I applied [this decision] to how I approached things early on in my career — just keep getting new experiences and as soon as you feel you’re slowing down from learning go do something else.

In this case, this all came together and that something else now is to be an entrepreneur and go all the way to the other side. It’s been definitely scary. Definitely exhilarating. The first five weeks I have learned so much about running a business. All the networking and all the things you don’t have to think about when you’re working for a big company like Disney. So it’s pretty exciting.


MIRARCHI: Talk a little about what your new venture involves?

COCKERELL: The three big things I talk about on my website is 1) keynote speeches, 2) consulting, and 3) Virtual COO.

For 18 years I was a keynote speaker with the Disney Institute and I took every opportunity I could to speak publicly. I knew this was something that I was good at and it was something I wanted to continue to develop and I had a feeling it was something I wanted to do outside of Disney. I’ll go speak to organizations on leadership, on culture, on any topic they are willing to hear about. Mainly, I like to talk about the importance of culture, the importance of creating a positive environment for your employees to work in. If you do that you have a better chance of succeeding and delivering whatever service you’re providing to your customers.

I was recently in Croatia for a week, in the beginning of June, working with a hotel company on organizational structure. If organizations are interested in looking at growing quickly or they are thinking about making a change, I can bring a point of view to help them out.

The idea with the Virtual COO [Chief Operating Officer] is that if there are smaller companies or start-ups that need some help looking at strategy or other resources, I can go in on a part time basis and be a coach for them and share my opinion from running things.

These are the three big areas I am honing in on.

MIRARCHI: One of your services is being a “Virtual COO.” Has anyone ever done something like this before? Talk about what it involves?

COCKERELL: I think it’s fairly new, but I don’t think it’s a foreign concept. The way I got the idea was I was talking to a buddy of mine who I went to high school with. He’s in sales out in Las Vegas. He said to me, “You know what, a lot of times we know we need to do strategic work, we know we need to put processes and milestones in place, but we don’t have the time and we really don’t like doing that. We’d rather be out selling. So, if you could come in and hold us accountable and do that we’d love to defer to you and have you do that for us.” Of course, in the Disney way, I said, “Don’t you want to teach your people and develop them and have that relationship?” He said, “No, we just want to sell. We’d like someone else to do that.”

So, he gave me that idea. When I mentioned it to a couple of people they said, “Oh yeah, fractional COO’s.” They seem like they understood that. It goes along the term “gig economy.” [A gig economy is an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements.] That’s what I am finding now. I don’t plan on hiring anyone for my “company.” I am a sole proprietorship, but I have lots of people I am working with — a virtual assistant — I have people helping me with running my website and other aspects on an hourly basis. I didn’t hire them, but we’re working loosely together.

I have been mostly impressed with technology. You can connect with people and work with people virtually. You don’t need office space. My office is wherever I can plug my I-pad in and send emails and get things done. I give people intellectual help. The big thing is I don’t want to over-commit. You can quickly go from “Can you help us?” to “I want you to work for us.” I don’t want to be working for someone full time, but I want to give them what they need to help them along the way.


MIRARCHI: Talk about why you have decided to give 5% of your fees to the JA Academy for Leadership & Entrepreneurship, Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, FL.

COCKERELL: When I was in high school I did Junior Achievement. The concept back then was a parent would come in and help you and you’d create a company, you’d have a president, a vice-president, a marketing person and you’d come up with a product. I think we sold post-it notes with people’s initials on them. You’d go to your neighbors, your grandparents and they buy them from you. You’d order it, you’d deliver it, you’d charge for it, you’d have a cost of sales, you’d get a profit at the end of the semester you liquidated the company. So you got to do your own little, virtual company and see how a company ran.

When I got the All-Star, this was 16 or 17 years ago, I joined the board of Junior Achievement of Central Florida and have been with them ever since. JA is basically going to students and talking to them about life skills they may not be getting in school or at home. For example, how to budget, how to interview for a job, what the concept of a free enterprise system is, and how value is created. So, six years ago, we created the JA Academy — the first public/private partnership with a school system. The Orange County School System was refurbishing Oakridge High School and they gave us a building. They said, “If you’d like to create your JA Academy for Leadership and Entrepreneurship we’ll give you the space, we’ll give you the teachers and then you can bring in your curriculum to add on to that.” The minimum requirement to get into the academy is a 2.5 GPA. We want to give kids a positive environment where they can do well in. So far, we have had two graduating classes and each year we have had over $4 million in scholarship offers for these kids. It’s a long term investment. When you talk about clothing and shelter; those are easy stories to tell. But when you tell people we need your investment and you’re probably not going to see a payoff for 10 years — it’s hard to tell that story. But it’s important because it’s a long term investment in our economy, our kids, and the future. I was always giving money to JA, but when I went out on my own I wanted to put a stake in the ground. Whatever success I get every month, I write JA a check for the academy.

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*Featured image courtesy of Dan Cockerel