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The Smile Factory Essay

Disneyland as the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth” occupies an enviable position in the amusement and entertainment worlds as well as the commercial world in general. Its product, it seems is emotion – “laughter and well-being”. Bill Ross, a Disneyland executive, summarizes the corporate policies nicely by noting that “although we focus our attention on profit and loss, day-in and day-out we cannot lose sight of the fact that this is a feeling business and we make our profits from that.

The “feeling business” does not operate by management decree alone. Whatever services Disneyland executives feel they are providing to the 60-70,000 visitors per day, employees at the bottom of the organization are the ones who most provide them. The work-a-day practices that employees adopt to amplify or dampen customer spirits are therefore a core concern of this feeling business. The happiness trade is an interactional one. It rests partly on the symbolic resources put into place by history and park design, but it also rests on an animated workforce that is more or less eager to greet the guests, pack the trams, push the buttons, deliver the food, dump the garbage, clean the streets, and in general marshal the will to meet and perhaps exceed customer expectations. False moves, rude words, careless disregard, detected insincerity, or a sleepy and bored presence can all undermine the enterprise and ruin a sale. The smile factory has its rules.

Employees number close to four thousand and run the 60 odd rides and attractions of the park. They are a well-screened bunch. There is – among insiders and outsiders alike – a rather fixed view about the social attributes carried by the standard-make Disneyland ride operator. Single, white makes or females in their early twenties, without facial blemish, of above average height and below average weight, with straight teeth, conservative grooming standards, and a chin up shoulder back posture radiating the sort of good health suggestive of a recent history in sports are the typical of these social identifiers.

This Disneyland look is often the source of some amusement to employees who delight in pointing out that even the patron saint, Walt himself, could not be hired today without shaving off his trademark pencil-thin mustache. To get a job and keep it in Disney is to conform to a rather exacting set of appearance roles. These rules are put forth in a handbook on the Disney image in which readers learn, for example, that facial hair or long hair is banned for men as are aviator glasses or earrings and that women must not tease their hair, wear fancy jewelry, or apply more than a modest dab of makeup.

The legendary people skills of employees, so often mentioned in Disney promotional material, doesn’t amount to much according to employees since most tasks require little interaction and are physically designed to practically insure that that is the case. In the event that sustained interaction with customers might arise, employees are taught to deflect potential exchanges to area supervisors or security. A training manual offers the proper procedure “On misunderstandings, guests should be told to call City Hall…In everything from damaged cameras to physical injuries, don’t discuss anything with guests…there will always be one of us nearby”. Employees quickly learn that security is everywhere, but hidden.

Where one works in the park carries much social weight. Postings are consequential because where one works provides rewards and benefits beyond those of wages (which vary only slightly across jobs). Status adheres to assignment or functional distinctions: 1) The upper class prestigious Disneyland Ambassadors and Tour Guides. 2) Ride operators performing coveted “skilled work” such as live narrations or tricky transportation tasks like those who symbolically control customer access to the park and drive, the costly vehicles such as the antique trains, horse-drawn carriages, and monorail. 3) All other ride operators

4) The proletariat sweepers (keepers of the concrete grounds) 5) The sub-prole, or peasant status food and concession workers (whose park sobriquets reflect their lowly social worth – “pancake lady”, “peanut pusher”, or “soda jerk”. The basis for sorting individuals into these various broad bands of job categories is often unknown to employees – a sort of deep, dark secret of the casting directors in personnel. When prospective employees are interviewed, they interview for a “job” at Disney, not a specific one. Personnel decides what particular job they will eventually fill. Personal contacts are considered by employees to be crucial in this job assignment process. Although many outside acquaintances of the person will only know that s(he) works at Disney, rest assured, insiders will know immediately where s(he) works and judge s(he) accordingly.

Uniforms are crucial in this regard for they provide instant communication about the social merits or demerits of the wearer within the little world of Disney. Male ride operators on the Autopia wear, for example, untailored jump suits similar to pit mechanics and consequently generate about as much respect from peers as the grease-stained outfits worn by pump jockeys generate from real motorists in gas stations. The ill-fitting and homogeneous “whites” worn by sweepers signify lowly institutional work.

On the other hand, for males, the crisp, officer-like Monorail operator stands alongside the swashbuckling Pirate of the Caribbean, the casual cowpoke of Big Thunder Mountain, or the smartly vested Riverboat pilot as carriers of valued symbols inside and outside of the park. Employees lust for these higher status positions and the rights to small advantages such uniforms provide. A lively internal labor market exists wherein there is much scheming for the more prestigious assignments.

For women, a similar market exists, although the perceived “sexiness” of uniforms rather than social rank seems to play a larger role. To wit, the rather heated antagonisms that developed years ago when the ride “It’s a small world” first opened and began outfitting the ride operators with what were felt to be the shortest skirts and most revealing blouses in the park. Tour guides, who traditionally headed the fashion vanguard at Disney in their above the knee kilts, knee socks, tailored vests, black English hats, and smart riding crops were apparently appalled by being upstaged by their social inferiors and lobbied actively (and, judging by the results, successfully) to lower the skirts, raise the necklines, and generally remake their Small World rivals.

Movement across jobs is not encouraged by park management but some does occur. Employees claim that a “once a sweeper, always a sweeper” rule does exist, but all know of at least a few exceptions to prove the rule. The exceptions offer some (not much) hope for those working at the social margins of the park and perhaps keep them on the job longer than might otherwise be expected. Dishwashers can dream of becoming pirates, and with persistence and a little help from their friends, such dreams might come true next season (or the season after that).

These examples may seem silly, but they are important. There is an intricate pecking order among very similar categories of employees. Attributes of reward and status tend to cluster, and there is intense concern about the cluster to which one belongs. Few ambassadors or tour guides will stoop to speak at length with sweepers, who speak mostly among themselves or to food workers. These patterns are of more than slight concern because Disneyland (especially in the summer) can be compared to a college mixer where across sex pairing is of great concern. The various forms of dating games are valued pastimes among Disney employees and are often played with corporate status markers in mind. Thus, when Yvonne, the reigning Alice in Wonderland, moved in one summer with Ted, a lowly sweeper, heads were scratched in puzzlement, even though most knew that Yvonne was, in her other life, a local junior college student, and Ted was in premed at USC.

Disneyland’s softball and volleyball leagues, its official picnics, canoe races, employee nights at the park, beach parties, and so on provide a busy little social scene for those interested. Many employees live together in the large and cheap (by LA standards) apartment complexes near the park. Employees sometimes refer to these sprawling, pastel, and slightly seedy structures as “the projects” or “worker housing”. Yet, the spirited attractiveness of the collective, low-rent lifestyle for those living it is easily grasped.

Paid employment at Disneyland begins with the much renowned University of Disneyland whose faculty runs a day-long orientation program as part of a 40 hour apprentice program, most of which takes place on the rides. In the classroom, employees are given rigorous test of their absorption of famous Disneyland fact, lore, and procedure. Employee demeanor is governed, for example, by three rules; 1) First, we practice the friendly smile,

2) We use only friendly and courteous phrases, 3) We are not stuffy – the only misters in Disneyland are Mr. Toad and Mr. Smee. Language is also a central feature of university life and new employees are schooled in its proper use. Customers at Disneyland are “guests”. There are no rides in Disney, only “attractions”. Disneyland itself is a “park”, not an amusement center. There are no accidents at Disney, only “incidents”. Employees do not wear uniforms, rather they checkout “costumes” each day from “wardrobe”. So successful is the training that, during a 35 hour interview, not a single Disney employee uttered the taboo words uniform, customer, or amusement park.

Training also employs symbolism. Inspirational films, hearty pep talks, family imagery, and exemplars of corporate performance are all representative of training symbolism. Another example, perhaps extreme, concerns the symbolic role of the canonized founder in the corporate mythology. When Walt Disney was alive newcomers and veterans alike were told how much he enjoyed coming to the park and just how exacting he was about the conditions he observed. For employees, the cautionary whoop “Walt’s in the park” could often bring forth additional energy and care for one’s part in the production. Upon his death, trainers in the university were said to be telling recruits to mind their manners because “Walt’s in the park all the time now”.

Yet, like employees everywhere, there is a limit to which such overt company propaganda can be effective. Employees soon learn that there are real people out there and that these people do not always measure up to the typically well-mannered and grateful guest portrayed in the classroom. Moreover, ride operators often find it difficult to utter the prescribed “welcome voyager” to the 20 thousandth human being passing through Space Mountain on a crowded day in July. Other difficulties present themselves as well, but operators learn that there are others on stage to assist or thwart them.

Supervisors and foremen are on the premises not only to help them, but also to catch them when they slip up.

Smile Factory questions

1) List out as many methods of employee control as you can from the reading.

2) What was the most surprising thing from the reading?? For those of you who have been to Disney’s theme parks, did it change how you think of Disney??

3) What problems do you see with Disney’s approach to control??

In “Smile Factory: Work at Disneyland”, by John Van Maanen, Disneyland is a great example of a bureaucracy – with its division of labor and hierarchical structure. There are set guidelines regarding authority. When I read this article, I immediately tried to remember any personal recollections I may have had involving Disneyland personnel. Considering I have been to Disneyland four or five times in my life, I was surprised to realize that not once had a Disneyland employee done anything worth me remembering.

Disneyland Park only hires from a small portion of the general public. According to Van Maanen, Disneyland likes to hire tall, white males in their early to mid twenties. These men must also be in good physical shape. The park is trying to present a certain image. The ride operators do not speak much to the guests. Consequently, the only way the ride operators can project an image (presentation of self) to the guests is by their physical appearance. The division of labor is also an integral part of the Disneyland bureaucracy.

Certain status is bestowed upon different jobs within the park. Van Maanen describes how most ride operators aspire to working more glamorous rides such as the Pirates of the Caribbean. The men working the auto ride, Autopia, are looked down upon because their job requires them to wear old mechanic jumpsuits. This shows that even clothing, or other aspects of physical appearance, affect status within the park.

Just like Disneyland tries to present an image to its guests with its hiring practices, those same workers partake in a similar social phenomenon. Employees that have the same job title and make roughly the same amount of money still find ways to differentiate themselves. This division of labor also benefits Disneyland. Those at the bottom of the ladder are forced to work hard if they want to work their way up. It provides incentives, which is good for business. It also allows the park to replace their unskilled labor relatively easily.

By dividing up the labor – and keeping the jobs at the bottom of the ladder relatively simple- it enables the park to quickly train new employees. Very little capital and time must be placed into the training of these unskilled positions. On the down side, however, the different statuses can lead to bitterness or frustration. The constant presence of supervisors, although guarding the park against laziness, most likely contributes to poor employee morale.

The chain of authority at Disneyland is also simply laid out. The ride operators and lower level employees are all trained to act in a very generic, benign way. Instead of training each individual to be fluent in customer service, Disneyland has decided it is cheaper to just tell the ride operators to smile and shut-up. If problems do arise, they are told to send the guest to their superiors. Within this rigid chain of authority, however, the ability for ideas to flow across the division of labor is constricted. Also, this hierarchical structure reinforces these status positions.

For me, I was stunned at the attitudes of the Disneyland employees. I personally felt thought there would be more cynicism and bitterness. But Van Maanen paints a picture that shows the employees, at least somewhat, bought into the Disneyland training. Even more surprisingly, these employees took a lot of pride in working for Disneyland. Given the nature of the heirarchy and the bureaucratic style administered by the park, I expected there to be more resentment against the Park itself. This showed to me the potential benefits of a bureaucracy. In today’s day and age, “bureaucracy” often has a negative connotation. But the Disneyland example, employed by Van Maanen, showed very clearly the different aspects (both positive and negative) of a bureaucracy. Some people might say that Disneyland has a very “sterile” vibe to it. These people are probably right. But there are ways to apply this Disneyland model into other fields.

This approach by Disneyland, much like the McDonaldization of the globe, has “assembly-lined” personal interaction. Instead of just using the assembly line approach to assemble a product, the approach is now being implemented when assembling an interactive experience. There is so much variation involved with personal human interaction. To limit the possible negatives associated with these variations, places like Disneyland have pre-packaged and sterilized human interactions. Park employees treat everybody the same – with the same forced smile. The prevalence and success of Disneyland’s management style will have repercussions in the world for years to come.

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