A Backstage Experience

backstage_pass-001By Steven Green and C. Casper Casparian

Who would have the audacity to think it is a good idea to bring 36 camp and school directors to the most magical place on earth, Disneyland, and not allow them to go on any rides? No Space Mountain; no Soarin’; not even a glimpse of the digitally re-mastered Captain EO. As a training exercise, the Foundation for Jewish Camp oriented professionals from Jewish summer camps, day schools, and religious schools to some of the marketing, business, and operational strategies implemented by the Disney Company, through a program known as the Disney Institute.

We were fortunate to participate in this opportunity for businesses and organizations to learn and see firsthand the culture and practices that Disney has cultivated. FIFA, for example, utilized the Institute as part of its training for 15,000 workers before the 2010 World Cup. For FJC, the Disney Institute was a four-hour, guided, behind-the-scenes tour of the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, CA.

To be clear, this is not any kind of endorsement of the controversial, oft-panned character of Walt Disney himself. As an institution since 1955, this theme park is part of The Walt Disney Company, an enterprise that owns ABC and Marvel among others, maintains a market cap of $150 billion, and is one of the forty largest companies in the world. As one would expect, our experience “behind-the-scenes” was a fascinating look at what it truly means to pay attention to detail. Sharing all of the insights and tour moments would be exhaustive, to be sure. Here are a few highlights of the learnings that Jewish camp directors experienced, and that apply to creating a special environment for Jewish learning.

Small Details and Big Ideas Both Make a Difference

As we entered the Disneyland theme park, we stopped first at a trashcan. That’s right – a simple, metal trashcan, one of hundreds strategically located throughout the park. Disneyland actually was the first place to have the now-common, covered metal trashcans with the swinging door that hides trash. This was a response to the rubber bins that would start to show remnants of trash spewing out overtop after about an hour of sitting idle. In order to mitigate this problem, Disney put metal cans around each of these and named them, adoringly, the $2,000 trashcans. Over the course of three years, with purchasing and upkeep, this is the approximate cost. But it is worth it to the establishment to maintain the sanctity and pristine nature of the park.

And the trashcans really were the tip of the iceberg. In an effort to make Disneyland an oasis, it’s created a 360 degree experience for the consumer. As far as the eye can see, there is the theme park. Other buildings – including the 3rd largest Hilton in the world located behind the California Adventure Theme Park – are strategically obstructed by huge cartoon mountains.

Camp, too, is a Jewish learning oasis. Camp directors understand that their camps’ physical space should both reflect this and maximize its potential. This does not mean that every camp will move to the wilderness. Rather, every camp can create a boundary where the camp experience begins, and that space should be purposefully designed and curated by the camp. With this in mind, camp directors can take a closer look at removing distractions that impede camps from pursuing their missions and creating the best setting possible.

An Employee-Friendly Culture

Disneyland has created an environment for its “cast members” – its term for employees – to remind them they are part of a production in its entirety. The “show” requires each members’ participation. To cultivate this, Disney offers a separate village backstage which incorporates a coffee shop, bank, store, show ticket depot, and even a weekly florist. Areas exist throughout the park where customers are not permitted to enter with the exception of the occasional backstage tour.

Camps – in the seemingly never-ending quest to find employees, train them, and retain them – pay close attention to supporting staff, and to giving them the tools to perform their jobs. Staff are critical in camper retention and in delivering the optimal camp experience. We know that some directors, following the Institute, are looking closely at what else they might be able to do to get the most out of staff. Maybe this means assigning or improving a separate space for camp staff to escape during off hours. Maybe it means making certain everyday household and personal items more readily available.

It Takes a Village

Finally, abundantly clear was the collective effort it takes to make Disneyland operate effectively at such a high level of customer service. Personnel are charged with the magnanimous feat of working together and understanding their fluid roles and responsibilities. Over the course of our four hour tour, our guide did a lot more than simply guide us. He took pictures of people when requested, picked up trash, and repeatedly acknowledged passersby celebrating a special occasion. This was all while successfully leading a 20-person contingent of educators and administrators.

What a great model for camps and their staff. Camp staff roles may not be entirely interchangeable, but the more that team members have an attitude of collective responsibility and at least an understanding of the various roles, the better the experience will be for the campers. Of all settings, camps can strive to have a true team structure and reinforce the concept espoused in the Talmud, “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” – all of Israel are responsible for each other.

Disneyland’s 16.2 million visitors in 2013 certainly did not interact with the executives at Disney. Rather, those customers interacted with some of the 65,700 employees who have the necessary skills and training to help each of these individuals get the best experience at a Disney theme park, with the hope that it would not be the last.

Even at a summer camp with 500 participants, it is not easy for a camp director to get to know each camper individually. But certainly all staff members can be welcoming and approachable – as we know they are. Just as staff members should be comfortable offering assistance to everyone, campers of all ages should be comfortable approaching them.

Time and again, camp has proven to be one of the most effective Jewish learning environments. It is immersive, dynamic, and – simply – fun. These highlights from a tour of Disney’s operations are a nice reminder to always look to perfect, to innovate, and to build a foundation for success. This is not an assertion that nonprofits should be more like for profit businesses. Rather, these are “transferrable” concepts to strive for the best customer service experience and to create an intentional staff culture of collectivity. A camp hitting on all cylinders will offer campers a compelling summer of Jewish engagement and learning, filled with friends and, yes, fun.

Steven Green is the Director of Grants Management and Administration for the Jim Joseph Foundation

C. Casper Casparian is owner of CMC, LLC, a strategic marketing communications firm in Los Angeles. He helped conceive and launch the One Happy Camper incentive program with the Foundation for Jewish Camp and has worked with Jewish summer camps in the Western states since 2008.

cross-posted on the Jim Joseph Foundation blog