Turn Your Radio Station Into Disney World


(By Mike McVay) While many brands focus on family memories this time of year, arguably nobody does it like Disney. Disney has made billions of memories – and dollars – marketing the Magic of the Holidays. Disney World and Disneyland are always special, but the splendor of this time of year magnifies the uniqueness of all things Disney.

There are many lessons to be learned from Disney’s entertainment parks. This is why, when offered, I took advantage of the chance to attend the Disney Institute in Orlando. The Disney Institute is a multi-day course that teaches the core organizational beliefs that put Disney Parks in a league of their own and are directly applicable to radio. Here’s what I learned.


When we arrived on “campus” we were told that the Disney Institute would start with Traditions. This is where we were taught the history of Walt Disney and his brother Roy. We were told about the first mouse that was drawn, named Mortimer Mouse, before he later became Mickey. Decades of history are shared. They do that so that those who will work at the park understand the principles and objectives of the Disney family. How often do we spend time teaching a new hire about a station’s history or legacy and its purpose? 

Everyone is an Actor

Disney doesn’t have employees, they have Cast Members. As a cast member, one’s role might be as a ride operator, a character, maybe you’re selling candy, or maybe you’re cast into the role of a street sweeper. There’s nothing glamorous about being a street sweeper, but approaching it as an actor who has been cast into a role as a sanitation worker is much more empowering and creates a greater commitment to performing well. It’s a smart approach. 

Why would we not cast all of our “Actors” into roles? Wouldn’t it be great to take a new employee through a PowerPoint to provide that person with a better understanding of where they fit in, the role they’re playing, and what will be expected of them? You’re joining a cast.

Stay in Character

All Cast Members stay in character. Mickey puts on his head before any other part of the costume. The minute the head goes on, you’re now the character. Heaven forbid someone should see any character without their head. The same goes for personalities. When you’re out in public and members of your community see you, stay in character. We’ve all heard the stories of an air-talent driving a station vehicle and making an obscene gesture at a driver that cut them off. 

The Park is a Stage Area

Nothing should ever be out of place on stage. For instance, everyone picks up trash at a Disney park. If you’re standing behind a ride, you might see a door that opens into the park, with a sign on it that reads “Stage Area.” The studio is our stage. No visitors in the studio. No personal calls. No focusing on social media that doesn’t have something to do with your show or the station. Stay in the studio physically and mentally.

Cast Members Know Everything

Or at least they’re never allowed to say, “I don’t know.” If the cast member is asked a question they don’t know the answer to, they’re instructed to call a park operator and find the answer for the guest. Radio should be the same way. We’re supposed to know the answers. It makes me crazy when I hear an on-air personality ask the audience for information that can be searched online in seconds. This also points to preparation. The better prepared you are the better you will sound on-air and the greater your connection will be with the audience.

Low Ride Out

When they add a ride to one of the Disney parks, the ride with the lowest “attendance” goes away so that the park is never cluttered. That’s why, unlike other parks where the line from one ride intersects with the line from another, you can move through a Disney park with little slowdown. Same for any show. You want to add a new Benchmark bit or a feature to your show – what goes away? Increasing the number of commercials or promotional messages – what goes away? Keep from cluttering the station.

It’s All About the Environment

They don’t sell beer at the Magic Kingdom or Disneyland. (They do sell it at the more-adult-themed EPCOT Center and California Adventure, but not inside their flagship parks that cater to families with children.) Can you imagine how much more money Disney would make if they did sell beer inside all their parks? But it would ruin the atmosphere. Who wants a bunch of intoxicated adults yelling at each other or their children as they drag them through the park?

Same goes for your station. Don’t offend your audience with inappropriate advertisers or promotions unsuitable for your target audience. Stay true to creating an environment that matches your station’s format.  

Exceed Expectations

We were told a story of how one of the transportation boats, trying to dock and unload guests, broke free of the mooring and a handful of visitors fell into the water. They pulled them all out safely, gave them Disney-branded clothes to wear. At the same time, they cleaned and dried their clothes, provided them all with new cameras and cell phones or whatever other electronics they lost, and replaced expensive purses – even if they recovered what was soaked. They didn’t have to do that much for each person, but they wanted to do it so that the guests would tell the story of how they were cared for by Disney. Caring about the audience, sponsors, and team members at this level should be the norm. It’s not enough to meet expectations. Exceed them.

Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at [email protected]. Read Mike’s Radio Ink archives here.


  1. Mike, it all starts at the top. I know Disney hasn’t had the greatest press lately but anyone who’s been at any of their parks over the years knows how good the feeling can be. Thank goodness for great managers who can instill that spirit into their employees, and shame on those who can’t. Now does this mean we can hire a receptionist and greet listeners who visit the station?

  2. Actually, Disneyland and DCA does sell lovely adult beverages throughout the Parks and resort. They even have Food and Wine events at DCA.
    I love the article. I’ve said for years as a program director: Be Disneyland. Don’t be Magic Mountain. (Sorry Six Flags)

    • Alcohol sells at Epcot and at MGM. Not in the Magic Kingdom. Appreciate the compliment and your comment on Magic Mountain. I did not know it was Walt’s birthday. Sometimes a consultant gets lucky. 😎

  3. This goes for social media as well. I often see air personality postings that are definitely “out-of-character” for the station persona. It’s often shocking – from words and photos to memes! I know it’s been a dilemma for many in management regarding policies on personal social media sites, but it goes to a “cast member’s” commitment to “the role”.

    • That is so important especially if your show, or station has a family following. All the “planets were aligned” when we created Elvis Radio on SXM. It would take a small book to explain how consistency, relevance, relatability and image kept the tradition of a long dead rock and roll icon current, fresh and wholesome (in spite of, or perhaps because of, his human frailties). If you know your subject matter and live the positive aspects of it, you not only own credibility but earn the listener’s trust and loyalty. If you are genuine, then be, genuine. Walk your talk.


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