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

After walking countless miles around three of Walt Disney World Resort’s Theme Parks, as well as Disneyland Paris, Dan Cockerell put on his Cast Member name tag for the last time, this past May, after 26 years with The Walt Disney Company. From parking cars to managing resort hotels and finally closing out his career as Vice President of the Magic Kingdom, Dan has ventured out on his own with a public speaking and consulting company. I recently sat down with Dan to discuss his career, the Walt Disney World Resort, and what lies ahead.

MIRARCHI: In 1989, as part of the Disney College Program, you worked at the front desk at the Contemporary Resort Hotel at Walt Disney World. At the time, you were studying poly sci at Boston University – so what made you choose to work at Walt Disney World during this time?

COCKERELL: The poly sci was kind of like alright go get a liberal arts degree because you’re not sure what you want to do with your life and political science seemed interesting. It certainly wasn’t a strategic decision. My dad had been with Marriott when I was growing up so I had been close to the hospitality industry. When I was in college I waited tables and I worked for Marriott at Champions Bar at the [Boston] Copley Marriott and then I worked at Disney. So I always have been extroverted and I love the service industry and connecting with people.

MIRARCHI: I understand that after graduation from BU, you headed back down to Walt Disney World and got a job parking cars at Epcot. Were there any other roles you held between your first job parking cars and being transferred in 1991 as an assistant manager at Disneyland Paris?

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Photo: Dan Cockerell

COCKERELL: I was only there for six months. I got there in July and left in January. I parked cars as my main job, but I also got trained in the ticketing area because that’s kind of all part of the arrival experience. So between parking cars, and selling tickets, and working at the gate at the greeter positions – those were the three roles I had – and they were hourly positions. We have used that model since then. We’ve used it for Disneyland Paris. We’d bring over European Cast Members who have worked for Disney previously or came out of a hospitality school to work in Florida and who understand the culture and the brand and then go to this new site to open in with the belief that many would eventually move into leadership roles. We did it for Hong Kong and we did it for Shanghai. We brought hundreds of Cast Members over from China to Walt Disney World to work in front-line roles just to get an idea of what – the kind of – I won’t call it the original because Disneyland is the original, but what it looks like in the United States. Knowing that the culture they are going to create in either Hong Kong, Shanghai, or France is going to be uniquely associated with the country but with a Disney twist.  I think that’s what we learned from Disneyland Paris. Those are the three jobs I had there and when I went to Disneyland Paris I was a management trainee. So, yeah, still pretty green.

MIRARCHI: Talk about some of your responsibilities and experiences working at Disneyland Paris.

COCKERELL: My wife and I – well she was my girlfriend at the time and we ended up getting married there [Disneyland Paris]. I was in the front – pretty much the whole time – front line manager roles. About once a year I went to a new job. When you first open a new park there is a lot of turnover and people are there and they open then they leave and new people come in. So I was in parking, then I moved into ticketing, and then guest relations. I was also in human resources for a year – which was a good experience to learn and I worked in food and beverage. I was in front line manager roles, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do long term. However, I knew that getting diverse experiences was going to help open doors later on. So it was just good old-fashioned meat and potatoes operations and just learning the technical pieces of each of those businesses.

MIRARCHI: You covered quite a few departments over at Disneyland Paris Resort?

COCKERELL: Yeah, and that basically was the idea because I didn’t know what I wanted to do long term so I kept moving and learning it will make me more flexible. It’s kind of a good way about approaching life. It kind of equips you to be more open and to do more stuff.

MIRARCHI: Upon returning to the U.S., you became the Ops Manager at Epcot. During your four years there what areas did you work in? Did you find one area more challenging than another?

COCKERELL: My first job there, I was the area manager for the American Adventure and the Japan pavilions. We’ve had all kinds of different organization structures over the years, however, at the time, these operational manager roles had geographical responsibilities. So you had an opportunity to run food and beverage, merchandise, custodial, and attractions. In that case, I got to work with the management of Mitsukoshi Corporation. They operate the food and beverage and retail operations in the Japan Pavilion. In 1683 they opened up their first department store in Japan – so they are incredibly old. I ran those operations and a year later I got additional responsibilities to run the Germany and Italy pavilions. I operated those for another year. Then I moved up to the front and ran the outdoor food operations. I don’t know if many people remember, but it’s where Mission: Space is now. And also, at the time, Ellen’s Energy Adventure. That whole side of the park was my responsibility. I also ran the Electric Umbrella – once again those geographic responsibilities. So, I spent a couple year back in World Showcase and then a couple of years in Future World.

MIRARCHI: Your next move on the Disney ladder was in resorts. That’s a big switch from park operations. Did you feel prepared to handle being the rooms manager at the All-Star Movies Resort? Was it challenging?

COCKERELL: Oh tell me about it. I still tell people, I think being the operations manager at the All-Star Movies – Front Desk – was probably one of the hardest jobs I have ever had. The volume you do at the All-Stars, if I remember correctly, that resort has 1,920 rooms per theme – times three is  5,760 rooms. At the time I was only responsible for one-third of it. What I really learned in the couple of years that I was ops manager there was the importance to attention to detail. When guests go to a theme park, they don’t always know what is supposed to be happening. Everything is so magical, so immersive, and so overwhelming – everything just looks great. But when you get to the hotel, it’s a lot more of a familiar environment for the guests, it’s an intimate space they are living in and they know what their expectations are. So if something isn’t right – like if there is a hair in the shower that can be an issue because people expect their room to be clean and they get to come back to it every night and see it. So I learned a ton about holding people accountable and demanding excellence. You had to. You couldn’t afford to not have an incredibly clean resort because that’s a basic expectation for people who stay in a hotel – especially a Disney hotel. You also had to be efficient and have a great sense of hospitality. These two years for me were formative in learning about statistics and the importance of having really good processes to run an operation.

Additionally, at the time, the general manager of that hotel was Djuan Rivers. Currently he’s the vice president of Animal Kingdom Theme Park. So, he was my boss for a couple of years and he was great. I remember, after the first year, thanking him for being so patient with me. In the beginning, I figured it’s a hotel, you check people in, you give them their room, you clean the room, and you get the next guest so I thought ‘man, how hard could this be?’ Man, it’s hard.


Photo: Dan Cockerell

MIRARCHI: After one year at the All-Star Resort, you were promoted to general manager at the Wilderness Lodge. Typically managers will have worked in a number of departments before moving to a GM position. How did you adapt yourself to all these new responsibilities?

COCKERELL: It was very interesting. Like I said, the All-Star [Resort] was a fantastic training ground and a lot of people thought ‘I don’t want to be in a value resort because it’s not classy, it doesn’t have a lot of the fancy stuff,” but I think it was a fantastic place to train.

When I went to the Wilderness Lodge, I brought with me a lot of the operations experience. I brought with me the food and beverage and merchandise experience I previously had. It was quite helpful. And the great thing about getting experience – you don’t know how valuable it’s going to be and when it’s going to be valuable until later. You just got to have faith and learn new stuff and it will pay off at some point. For me, it really did pay off at that point because I was able to go in and have some technical understanding of the business, as well as a bunch I had to learn. Some of the pieces I had to learn were the Disney Vacation Club piece of the Wilderness Lodge and Artist Point, which is one of our signature restaurants.

At that point though Fort Wilderness Campground was also my responsibility. They had put both of those resorts together. So I started learning about the camping business, the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue Dinner Show, and the entire RV business. I think this was the first time I started to realize that your technical expertise is important, but you also have to start trusting the people who are working for you. You get to a point where you can’t be technically more competent than the people working for you because you just don’t have that span of experiences. It’s at that point you have to change your leadership style. You realize I am going to have to focus less on how we get stuff done now and focus more on what we get focused on and what the priorities are. That shift was the start of me understanding who my direct reports were, their expertise, and then let them do their jobs. Because you have to remember that many of them have been in that one line of business for decades and I was never going to know more than they did. It was never my goal. I had to take a step back and be more responsible for the environment and the leadership culture environment than the expertise in the individual line of business.

MIRARCHI: Out of all of the resorts you worked at from 2001-2006, which one was your favorite and why?

COCKERELL: Although I always have trouble picking a favorite from anything, I can say that it was my time working at the All-Star Resort and the Wilderness Lodge. The All-Star Resort was probably the best education I had on how to improve my leadership and management skills.

The Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness Campground was probably one of the most fun jobs because of the breadth and the diversity of what you had to deal with every day. From the Vacation Club business, the hotel business, signature restaurants, dinner shows, and camping – one minute you’re getting a report that there was a brown bear on the campgrounds and the next minute you had someone in the VIP suite at the Wilderness Lodge that needed something. Every day was a new day. The way that place is designed is incredible. You walk in [to the Wilderness Lodge] and all the guest’s stress just goes away. It’s such an incredibly relaxing, authentic environment.

MIRARCHI: Next you were promoted to General Manager of the All-Star Resorts (Movies, Music, and Sports) – that’s a much bigger portfolio of hotels to run and brings all sorts of new challenges and situations. Can you talk about some of the things you experienced during this time?

COCKERELL: The sheer size of the All-Star Resort was something that I came to realize and respect. With 5,760 rooms in the hotel, I came to realize the importance of perfection. To put it in perspective, at the All-Star if we cleaned 99% of the rooms perfectly every day, we still had 57 rooms that were dirty. That 1% is a lot of rooms!

With an operation like this, it would be easy to work more hours, micro manage and try to get involved in everything. However, there were not enough days in the week or hours in the day for me to do that.

I learned quickly the importance of having the right leadership in place, trusting them to do their jobs well and then let go and give them the freedom to do what they did well.

It truly takes a village to make a place that big run well every day. The General Manager is just one small piece of that huge effort.


Photo: Dan Cockerell

MIRARCHI: Starting in 2006 and through to your retirement this year – you were in parks (Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and the Magic Kingdom). Can you talk about some of the challenges and responsibilities that came with each of these different parks?

COCKERELL: After two years running the All-Star Resorts as the General Manager, I was asked if I’d liked go to the Magic Kingdom and run merchandise. I did that for a year and a half and then I was the operations general manager for another year and a half. I was then promoted and went to Epcot, then [Hollywood] Studios, and then back to the Magic Kingdom as the vice president. From then on out [it] was parks business.

Each of these parks is similar and different at the same time. They each have their own personalities and priorities.  When I was at Epcot, the Food and Wine Festival had been around for a while – I think I was there for the 14th and 15th anniversaries of the festival. It just kept growing. The last year I was there we had a record year. I remember thinking and we were all saying, ‘this has gotten as big as it could get and it just can’t get any bigger.’ I think they doubled it since then. [Laughing] It’s unbelievable what you can do.

The challenges or the fun parts of it [Epcot] was being able to lead all the Cast Members from all the International Pavilions. You had to learn all these interesting cultural traditions and how to deliver a Disney experience in an authentic way. That was always fun for me. We [Disney] ran some of the International Pavilions and [for the] other pavilions, those were run by third-party operating participants. I got to meet a lot of entrepreneurs and learned a lot from them and how they ran their businesses.

Then obviously, [at] the front of the park – [in] Future World – we were always trying to figure out what’s next. When I was there, we had opened Test Track and we opened Mission: Space after I had left Epcot. The time I was there we were in discussions about what the next chapter of Epcot would be – the Blue Sky phase. After I left, they put pen to paper and started designing what that would look like.

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Photo: Dan Cockerell

MIRARCHI: In the past three years you were the VP of the Magic Kingdom. Were you involved in any of the planning for the upcoming 50th Anniversary in 2021? If so, anything you can share?

COCKERELL: Yeah, we’ve talked about it. We are starting to get – in earnest – the planning around Walt Disney World’s 50th in the past six months. We were benchmarking Disneyland’s 50th and 60th and we also looked at Disneyland Paris’s 25th Anniversary. We started gathering information on those events, what they did, and what was compelling for the guests. We started to have conservations about what [Walt Disney World’s] 50th would look like.

I think what you’re going to see is that the 50th really is the Magic Kingdom’s 50th, but we really want it to be a Walt Disney World celebration. It will be a tilt with a nod to the past, but really looking ahead. There is so much more ahead of us and [we’re] really looking towards the future.

I think that a lot of people like their traditional, sentimental look at it [the Magic Kingdom]- which we’re going to give a nod to, but there are so many great things coming — there is so much stuff under construction. I think for many years people said, ‘Walt Disney World is sort of built out and all the growth in the future is going to be internationally,’ but obviously that strategy changed five or six years ago. We said, ‘no, no there’s a lot more room for growth at Walt Disney World’ and you can see that now in the investment.

Dan publishes a free weekly newsletter where he offers his thoughts on topics that cover success through personal improvement or learning. Many also include an article that supports that week’s subject. To subscribe click here.

In Part Two, Dan talks about Epcot, Festivals, and venturing out on his own.

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