Be Our Guest: Re-Imagining Parents as Disney Would

As we head into another school year, teachers and leaders should think about how to re-imagine their interactions with parents. With this in mind, we pose an interesting question – “If Disney ran your school, what would the parent experience be like?”

Throughout graduate school, various professors would bring in research and practice from the business sector and ask us to apply them to the world of education.  We considered the acumen and experience of icons such as Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, Warren Buffet, and Peter Drucker; these leaders and their business practices became a lens through which the institutions of education could be perceived, analyzed, reimagined, and reformed.

So, it was not a stretch when a colleague shared with me that he was reading Be Our Guest by the Disney Institute for his Master’s degree program in educational leadership.  Interested in what the book could do for education, I read it.  Much like Disney’s Imagineering team, I began to imagine what education would look like through the lens of the Corporate Mouse.

In fact, nearly every aspect of Disney’s business practices can be applied to educational institutions, from how district offices are run, to individual school buildings, to individual classrooms.  The notions of service theme (mission), cast (employees), setting (environment), and process (operations) may be integrated and applied.  As the new school year commences, one particular aspect is worth analyzing, and perhaps even reimagining and reforming. That aspect is Disney’s approach to guest service as it relates to our school parents.

First, who are our guests?  Quite simply, our guests are every single person that enters the school building; they are stakeholders, community members, parents, students, etc.  For our purposes, school parents are used as the primary example of our guests.

Second, how should we interact with them?  The following points briefly summarize the Disney approach to guest service and each is followed by simple questions for consideration.

  • Disney’s attention to the guest experience begins with the cast members, a.k.a. employees, and their use of appropriate body language at all times which includes appearance, posture, and appropriate facial expressions.  As professional educators, do we “dress for success” on a daily basis and carry ourselves with the dignity and respect our profession deserves?
  • According to Disney, every guest is given direct eye contact and a smile which is followed by an appropriate greeting especially for that guest.  This may seem a simple and obvious communication skill, but is it being practiced with every guest?  Is every parent who walks through the door genuinely welcomed with a handshake and eye contact?
  • Disney adds that every cast member should seek out guest contact and, further, provide immediate assistance when needed.  Translated for our teachers, we must reach out and proactively engage and assist parents who enter our buildings, offices, and classrooms. We should listen to their needs, answer any questions they may have, and offer assistance.   Do parents feel engaged in the school?  Do they have opportunities to assist with problem solving and planning? Are attempts made with parents to proactively resolve minor issues before they become major problems?
  • Finally, Disney speaks to the “magical” guest experience, which is all about focusing on the positive and never expressing any personal issues or job-related problems in front of guests. Additionally, Disney requires that every interaction with a guest concludes with a genuine “thank you” or similar expression of appreciation.  Are parents privy to personal or personnel issues; if they are, is there an understanding that such awareness interferes with the educational mission of the school?   Do parents feel appreciated and respected as partners in their child’s education?

Walt Disney believed, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” and that belief is at the core of Disney Imagineering. While Fast Passes, funnel cakes, and roller coaster rides are found at the rare school carnival, the business practices used by Disney to run their theme parks offer a new, perhaps unusual, lens to consider and reimagine our schools. The guest experience, that is our parent’s experience, is just the beginning of what can be an exciting adventure in our own re-Imagineering of our schools.


Disney Institute, (2001). Be our guest. Disney Enterprises, Inc.:  New York, NY.

Dr. Abelein has served as a teacher, principal, diocesan administrator, and consultant in parochial and private Catholic education for twenty years. Prior to her position as Associate Superintendent for Leadership and Recruitment for the Archdiocese of New York, Dr. Abelein served as President and Principal at St. Aloysius in New York, Principal at Verbum Dei in Los Angeles, and Principal of St. Paul of the Cross in La Mirada, California, as well as, a Teacher in Guam and California. Dr. Abelein earned a Ph.D. in Education Policy, Planning and Administration from the University of Southern California, a M.Ed. Leadership from the University of Portland, and a B.A. in English with Secondary Education from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She holds New York State permanent certification in English/Secondary Level and School Admin/Supervision. Dr. Abelein has taught numerous graduate courses at Loyola Marymount University, Fordham University, St. John’s University, and the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Abelein currently serves on the Board of Directors at America Press, Inc. and supports One Home Many Hopes a non-profit whose mission is to “find, rescue, house, love and educate orphaned and abandoned girls in Mtwapa, Kenya and equip them to be the future agents of change in their community.” Dr. Abelein was awarded Fulbright Specialist Scholar roster candidate status in March 2011.


  1. KW September 5, 2012 Reply

    Possibly the best idea I’ve heard in my career. An issue I had to deal with often as an administrator was perceived (sometimes real) indifference or rudeness. Being public servants, we have to understand that the public deserves our best… in everything we do!

  2. nandini singh September 6, 2012 Reply

    This is from gurgaon.india

  3. Rich Meller September 25, 2012 Reply

    Great article! Simply approach that is done well for generations. What works for Disney could and should work for schools. All the best from “Da Bronx”!

  4. Madison October 12, 2012 Reply

    “Strive for perfection, settle for excellence”, I believe, is the Disney Motto. Another notion is that of Google practices and philosophies and how their implementation throughout the various levels of education could improve outcomes. I would be interested in reading your take on that, Dr. Abelein.

  5. Author
    Susan Abelein October 12, 2012 Reply

    In response to Madison, if you are referring to Google’s “10 Things We Know to be True,” then yes, there are certainly some (not all) of their beliefs that could (should) be applied to education. Perhaps a future blog of mine will speak to comparing and contrasting the application of “10 Things”. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Madison October 12, 2012 Reply

    Quick response – impressive! Was referring to “What would Google Do”, although same premise. And yes, some (not all) and could (should). Potentially more significant, however, may be how. Just as one would expect in the second part to your current blog, questioning and reflection are futile without transference and implementation. Thank you for the response.

  7. Sarah October 12, 2012 Reply

    Dr. Abelein,
    I, too, would be interested in reading a blog regarding proposed steps toward application. Thanks, Sarah

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