Tuesdays With Corey ~ Lee Cockerell Interview

Here’s a throwback article from Corey, when he had the opportunity to interview Lee Cockerell! Enjoy!


I got the opportunity to interview Mr. Lee Cockerell who worked for Disney from 1990 to 2006. He held several different positions while serving as a Cast Member until he retired as Executive Vice President of Operations for Walt Disney World. While he was working as a Cast Member his responsibilities included the operation of 18 resort hotels, four Theme Parks, three water parks, four golf courses, a shopping resort, and a sports complex. Mr. Cockerell now runs a company that that specializes in leadership and management training with an emphasis on how to give world class customer service through great leadership.

So sit back, relax and enjoy this interview with the one and only, Mr. Lee Cockerell


Corey Tucker: Give us the Lee Cockerell story in a nut shell, tell us a little bit about what you did before you went to work for Disney.

Lee Cockerell: I lived on a small dairy farm in Oklahoma without indoor plumbing except water through the 4th grade. I went to Oklahoma State University for two years and dropped out after two years and went into the U.S. Army. When I left the army I went to Washington D.C. and started as a banquet server at the Washington Hilton in 1965. I was put into a management training program after a couple of years and stayed with Hilton for eight years progressing to Director of Food and Beverage. I joined Marriott in 1973 and stayed with them for 17 years progressing to V.P. of Food and Beverage and left as a General Manager of the Springfield, MA Marriott to join Disney in 1990 to go to France to open Disneyland Paris as Corporate Director of Food and Beverage and Quality Assurance for all of the hotels and later promoted to VP of Resort Hotels. I was promoted to Senior Vice President of all hotels at Walt Disney World in Orlando in 1993. In 1995 I was promoted to Executive Vice President of all operations at Disney World a position I help until my retirement in 2006. I worked for 41 years and had a ball.


C.T.: As a child what influenced you to do what you do now and why?

L.C.: Nothing from my childhood influenced me to do what I did. I went to college and majored in Hotel and Restaurant Administration. I was a cook in the Army and then just got lucky and worked hard and my career unfolded one promotion at a time.


C.T.: Now for a question you probably all too often hear. How did you come to work for Disney?

L.C.: I was recruited by Sanjay Varma who was the Executive Vice President for Disneyland Paris for the Resort Division. He had reported to me at Marriott and now I was reporting to him. We are still good friends after all of these years.


C.T.: Were you a fan of Disney before you went to work for them?

L.C.: Of course…I had been to Disneyland four times but never to Disney World. I watched the Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday as a child and I wanted to be Daniel Boone or Davey Crockett. We got a TV in 1954 when I was ten years old.


C.T.: Explain what exactly you did as a Disney Cast Member.

L.C.: I was responsible for all operations so I hired the best expert executives and managed and supported them. I spent most of my time making sure we were hiring and promoting the right people, that we were training and testing everyone and that we were creating a leadership environment and culture where everyone mattered and they knew it. A place where everyone woke up in the morning and wanted to come to work vs. having to come. My goal was to create trusted leaders and that we had an inclusive environment.


C.T.: What do you think was your biggest accomplishment while working as a Cast Member?

L.C.: I developed Disney Great Leader Strategies which was the tool to train all of the managers at WDW to be better leaders.


C.T.: Tell us what it was like to help get Disneyland Paris up and going, and what was the general consensus from the locals to have a Disney theme park in Paris?

L.C.: It was the hardest role I ever had in my career. Doing business in five languages and hiring everyone whom have never worked for Disney was tough. Some locals loved us and some hated us. Bringing an American experience into a new culture is challenging. Today Disneyland Paris is doing a very good job and the locals for the most part love it.


C.T.: If there was one thing you could change about WDW, what would it be?

L.C.: Have no waiting lines….and drop the temperature to 70 degrees all year long.


C.T.: Do you think Walt would be happy with the Disney Corporation today?

L.C.: He would be tickled pink…and probably be surprised how it has branched out around the world into so many businesses.


C.T.: Are Walt’s original philosophies still prevelent throughout the coroporation today?

L.C.: Walt’s philosophy is alive and well…In fact it is better. Walt would be very proud of WDW.


C.T.: Do you think there is anything Walt would change if he were still alive?

L.C.: I am sure he would as he was never satisfied and that culture lives on at Disney today.


C.T.: While working for Disney, did you meet anyone who was ever associated with or worked with Walt Disney? If so, any good stories?

L.C.: I met people from time to time…. Tom Nabby was Tom Sawyer and hired by Walt. He was in charge of our Distribution Services. He had lots of great stories about being hired by Walt. Also Marty Sklar whom just retired with 50 years with the company. He can tell Walt stories all day long.


C.T.: What was it like at WDW on the day of September 11, 2001?

L.C.: It was the proudest day of my professional career to watch the Cast stay cool, calm and collected in evacuating the parks and taking special care of our Guests who were emotionally shaken. Real professionals all the way. I was in charge of the Emergency Command Center and directed all of the activites.


C.T.: How did 9/11 affect Disney?

L.C.: It affected Disney the same way it affected all organizations. Businesses plummeted and we had to react to get our costs down and we did it without any layoffs.


C.T.: Is there a story or situation that stands out to you where a Cast Member went above and beyond for a Guest to make their time at WDW more memorable?

L.C.: During 9/11 a bellman gave his car to a N.Y. fireman so he could get back to N.Y. to help with the rescue attempts at the World Trade Center.


C.T.: You wrote the book Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney. Tell us a little about the book and what prompted you to write it.

L.C.: The book is ten strategies for being a great leader and manager. I wrote it because I felt that after 41 years of being a manager and leader in the best hospitality and entertainment companies in the world that I had some stories to tell that would help others with their leadership journey. My book is now in ten languages.


C.T.: Is there any advice you could offer to someone who may be interested in becoming a Cast Member?

L.C.: You have to be great to get a job at Disney. It is hard to get in. I recommend that if you really want to be there to take any job you can get and then show them your “Can Do” attitude and if you are disciplined and organized you can probably get into management one day.


C.T.: What exactly is the Disney Institute and what is your involvement with it?

L.C.: The Disney Institute is for training managers and executives from any organization in the world to become world class through learning Disney leadership, management and service excellence principles. I am on contract to the Disney Institute to do training and keynote speeches and workshops on leadership and service for convention groups at WDW and other locations around the world.


C.T.: Now that you’re retired from Disney, do you still visit the parks?

L.C.: I do from time to time and still love it.


C.T.: What were your feelings when you found out you were going to receive a window on Main Street at the Magic Kingdom?

L.C.: I was totally shocked and surprised. It was a very proud day for me.


C.T.: Working as a Cast Member for 16 years you probably accumilated some really coveted Disney memorbilia. What’s your most prized Disney piece?

L.C.: A friend of mine had a piece of sculpture made for me out of spoons. It is Mickey Mouse made from soup spoons, tea spoons, table spoons, dessert spoons and all of the handles of spoons. It is about 18 inches tall and spectacular.


C.T.: Which character would you say that you most closely represent?

L.C.: Tigger….High energy and always trying to have fun.


C.T.: If you could only choose one park, one attraction and one resturaunt, what would they be?

L.C.: Epcot of course as my son Daniel is V.P. there and they have great food and wine. California Grill is my favorite. It was the start of great food and service at WDW. Dieter Hannig and I had to go to Michael Eisner’s office to convince him to spend the money to build this restaurant. The California Grill was the mother of all of the great restaurants that followed. I love Rock n’ Roller Coaster….Fast takeoff and 90 seconds of exhilaration. I would also like to mention that my website has lots of good stuff on it for current and future leaders at: www.LeeCockerell.com and my new Creating Magic iPhone and Android apps are doing really well with daily leadership and coaching on the go tips….Thanks for interviewing me. I am in Baghdad right now doing 13 leadership workshops for the U.S. Military and the State Department….Signing off from Baghdad. Our troops are awesome.


Here is a link for Mr. Cockerell’s: Creating Magic – Leadership and Coaching on the Go! app.





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