Disney's Four Keys To A Great Guest Experience

For decades, Disney’s Four Keys have been the foundation for a great Guest experience. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

When Disneyland was created in 1955, an orientation to the parks was held for all the newly hired “Cast Members.” This orientation, built by Van France and Dick Nunis, became known as “Traditions”. It emphasized the heritage of what was then Walt Disney Productions, and declared the importance of customer service. “We Create Happiness” was a service vision put in place to suggest that no matter what your role was in the park, your job was to make the Guests happy.

Some ten years later, Van France returned to Disneyland, and, now reporting to Dick Nunis, created a set of standards to help operationalize the manner in which Cast Members should create happiness. Four words were established:

  • Safety
  • Courtesy
  • Show
  • Capacity

Though “Capacity” later evolved to  “Efficiency,” these standards have endured the test of time. As new executives  have come on board, management in the parks have locked arms and insisted that these Four Keys stay intact. They are taught to all Disney Cast Members at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. They are prioritized as such, and they are powerful tools in that they are easy to remember and can used as a litmus test for excellence, whether thinking strategically, or whether acting in the moment on the front line. So powerful were these ideas that I designed entire programs at the Disney Institute around these concepts, and have since gone on with my own business to help companies design and implement their own service standards and values.

America’s oldest corporate university, Disney University here in Walt Disney World, is the home to “Traditions” where new Cast Members are introduced to Disney’s Four Keys. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

In time however, Disney management also wanted to define more specific guidelines or behaviors. This resulted in Disney’s Seven Service Guidelines. They even at some point tied them to the Seven Dwarfs:

  1. Be Happy…make eye contact and smile!
  2. Be like Sneezy…greet and welcome each and every guest. Spread the spirit of Hospitality…It’s contagious!
  3. Don’t be Bashful…seek out Guest contact.
  4. Be like Doc…provide immediate service recovery.
  5. Don’t be Grumpy…always display appropriate body language at all times.
  6. Be like Sleepy…create DREAMS and preserve the “MAGICAL” Guest experience.
  7. Don’t be Dopey…thank each and every Guest!

These guidelines went on for many years, but they were a little hard to remember, and they were missing some other important service behaviors. So a few years ago, Disney’s Service Basics were created. There were four areas of focus with key behaviors listed underneath:

  1. I project a positive image and energy.
  2. I am courteous and respectful to all Guests, including Children.
  3. I stay in character and play the part.
  4. I go above and beyond.

Beneath each of these were specific behaviors like “Smile” and “Look approachable” for the first one listed. Moreover, they identified specific actions expected of Leaders as well, and the behaviors that tier up to those actions. This was critical, in that having a great Guest experience requires having management supporting that experience.

In everything they do, Cast Members must operate from the Four Keys. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The problem with Disney’s Service Basics is that they really didn’t align with Disney’s original Four Keys. They simply sat separately. We saw the same thing as we worked with clients as varied as hospitals, government agencies, or trucking companies. We began creating behaviors that aligned with each of the core standards that were established. That way, there was a tiering effect for learning. A new employee going through an orientation might only remember the 4-5 standards being shared, but in time they could learn the behaviors that go with them.

So it wasn’t too surprising when I heard a couple of months ago that Disney had decided to do the same thing. They now have a tiered effect. The first are four keys or values. These are followed by 2-3 key actions for those standards. Then there are behaviors listed under each. Here are they are in their new form:


  • I practice safe behaviors in everything I do
  • I take action to always put safety first.
  • I speak up to ensure the safety of Others


  • I project a positive image and energy
  • I am courteous and respectful to Guests of all ages
  • I go above and beyond to exceed Guest expectations


  • I stay in character and perform my role in the show
  • I ensure my area is show-ready at all times


  • I perform my role efficiently so Guests get the most out of their visit
  • I use my time and resources wisely

Essentially, what has happened is that the Disney Service Basics have been largely evolved to the key points listed under Courtesy, with new actions and behaviors directed toward the other three Keys. In particular, “go above and beyond” could be applied to all Four Keys, so under Courtesy, it was modified to “go above and beyond to exceed Guest expectations”. Research also showed that international partners mentioned the importance placed on showing attention toward seniors, and not just children, so the wording has been modified to “I am courteous and respectful to Guests of all ages.”

It’s important the Disney Cast Members are courteous and respectful to Guests of all ages. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

So now beneath each of these bulleted action points are 2-3 specific behaviors. For instance, under the first bullet point for safety, “I practice safe behaviors in everything I do” is:

  • Know and follow all safety policies and procedures
  • Safely deliver on Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency.
  • Be aware of surroundings and the hazards that may be present
They have also kept the Disney Leader Basics and have created the same tiering effect between actions and behaviors.

Four Keys Basics: Disney Leader Basics

  • I lead with a positive attitude and demonstrate commitment to Cast Members
  • I know and manage my operation and teach it to Cast Members
  • I recognize and hold Cast Members accountable for delivering The Four Keys Basics

I applaud the work that Disney has done here and believe that it will refocus energy around creating a great Guest experience. Moreover, this pattern is very helpful to organizations who want to create great customer service in their own organization. The expression “being simple but not simplistic” applies here. You keep to several key principles or values, but then you work very hard to implement those concepts every day in delivering great customer service.

Disney’s Four Keys serve as a compass for creating happiness and serving others. More than fifty-five years later, these Four Keys serve as the foundation for everything Disney does. Any organization would be envious to have several key standards stand that test of time. It is at the heart of what has made Disney the powerful name it is today.

To learn more about the Four Keys, and other great examples of customer service, check out The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney, available in paperback or Kindle version at Amazon.com.

7 thoughts on “Disney's Four Keys To A Great Guest Experience

  1. Typo alert: “Be like Sneezy…gret and welcome each and every guest.”
    Can you see the typo? “GRET,” doesn’t mean GREET does it?
    Don’t sneeze while typing…

  2. My minister went to Disneyland with his family and learned about the four standards of practice which he tied into his sermon at Sunday service. When I got home I went online to see that under each standard were two to three key actions to describe what the standard looked like.
    I was impressed in how I could practice these into my daily life routine and share them with my family and friends. That’s why Disneyland is the “Happiest Place on Earth” and I want my home life to have that same positive, effective, and infectious culture as Disneyland, making my home, the second, “Happiest Place on Earth.” It starts with a single act of kindness, a warm and caring smile!

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