Administrative Opinion Staff Supervision

Bringing the Magic of Disney to Camp – Training and Culture

I have written about Disney and their Customer Service and Innovation. Now let’s dive into Training and Culture. Both are as important as customer service and innovation at Disney. In fact, Walt Disney felt that the culture of his company started with the employees because they are the ones that make dreams a reality. Therefore, a lot of focus goes into keeping them happy. After all, for Disney to be the happiest place on Earth, they need to have the happiest employees.


Train Extensively and Create A Sense of Pride

The first training session that every new cast member goes through is called Traditions. This is basically an 8-hour orientation to the Disney company and is meant to make new hires feel excited and proud to work at Disney.

This would be a great way to start your pre-summer camp training as well. Start by naming your orientation something fun and different, like Pinecones or S’mores. Things to include would be:

  • Icebreakers and get-to-know-you games and activities
  • A history of the camp and organization
  • An introduction to leadership staff
  • A presentation of your camp’s/organization’s values (like YMCA’s core values of Caring, Honesty, Respect and Responsibility or Disney’s Four Keys to Guest Service of Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency)
  • A presentation on the traditions of your camp
  • A presentation on your camp’s reward and recognition systems for both campers and staff
  • A presentation on the power of camp and why it’s important – including your camp’s mission and vision statements
  • An introduction to camp songs and skits
  • An introduction to themes and special events
  • A team-building activity for groups that will be working closely together throughout the summer (ropes staff, waterfront staff, counselors groups by ages they are working with, etc.)
  • A trivia game show with camp swag as prizes
  • A tour of the property
  • Handing out t-shirts, name tags and an orientation booklet

Again, you want to get your staff excited about camp and to feel a sense of pride in working there.

After orientation, the focus should be on preparing staff for what lies ahead.

No first-time staff member (especially counselors) will ever be 100% ready for what they will face. You can (and should) do all the scenario training you want, but it’s not the same as actually working with the campers. New staff will not remember everything they should do for every situation. In fact, they will forget most of what they have learned. Staff training is often information overload.

However, it is important to go through it so that new staff are exposed to what could happen. Just make sure they are closely supervised and strongly supported in their first couple of weeks – something I have seen camps fail at time and time again – something I have failed at myself.

There is a lot of instruction that goes on during camp training including first aid, policies and procedures, risk management, the daily schedule, camper management, staff expectations, etc. If it’s not a part of training already, please make sure your staff know how to take care of themselves during summer (wear sunscreen, rest, hydrate, etc.), and make sure they know who to go to when they have questions or need assistance. Depending on the situation that could be a head counselor, program director, office registrar, food service manager, lifeguard, ranger, or some other staff member.

Constantly Enforce the Company’s Culture

Can you describe your camp’s culture? Company culture is a big concept that many have a difficult time grasping. So, what is company culture? Well, in essence it’s the personality of a company and includes a number of elements such as the work environment, company mission, values and ethics, and goals.

Staff Culture

I feel like a lot of camp directors focus mostly on their campers and not enough on their staff. They might spend a lot of money on marketing, high-priced registration systems, the newest, coolest activities, amazing crafts, etc. In order to do all this, certain budget items need to be whittled down to as low as possible.

One of those items is too often the staff budget. While all of what I mentioned is certainly important, I would argue that staff should come first, because they are the ones delivering that camp magic. They are the ones who can make or break a camper’s experience.

I think back on my camp experience as a kid and I don’t remember most of the activities, but I do remember my counselor and he was the reason I never returned. I have directed a camp that had very little in the way of activities, but because of the amazing staff, we were consistently full each week of each summer. Staff are your number one resource.

Divert money to your staff in the form of pay, food, trips and parties, rewards and recognition. Happy Staff = Happy Camp. This needs to be at the core of your culture. Walt Disney understood that, and while many former Disney cast members will tell you they didn’t have a good experience working for the company, most of them will say the opposite.

Let’s be real, you won’t be able to make every employee happy, especially when you are dealing with over 70,000 employees (the number of cast members for Disney World in Florida alone), but with proper recruiting, interviewing, hiring, training and supervising, your staff of 20-200 camp-loving employees should be easier to keep happy.

Give Your Staff a Voice

Let them be a part of creating that camp magic by offering ideas on new activities, special events, new systems around camp, anything that could improve the program or facilities. You want staff to feel empowered, appreciated, to have buy-in. The best way is to let them be a part of the creation, adaptation and innovation of the camp program.

Rewards and Recognition

Show your appreciation for your staff in the form of a rewards and recognition program.

At Disney theme parks, there are a lot of ways a cast member is recognized including the Disney Legends program, the Disney Legacy Award, the Recognize Now! program, the R.A.V.E. Award, Environmental Excellence Award, and a host of other individual awards. Guests who want to recognize exceptional cast members can even leave a tweet with the hashtag #CastCompliment on one of the two Disney Twitter accounts. The cast member’s supervisor will retweet it with the employee’s picture.

There are lots of ways to reward and recognize camp staff. While I have my favorite ways and least favorite ways, the important thing is to have some sort of program or system in place.

Most of us really like the idea of hanging out with co-workers outside of camp. This is especially true for resident camp staff. Field trips and parties are great ways to show your appreciation for staff and keep them happy. Field trips can be anything from bowling to a ball game. Parties can happen at the director’s house, a restaurant or a local park.

The bottom line is that you want to foster a culture of staff appreciation.

Other Important Considerations

Does your leadership staff lead by example? Walt knew the importance of this. That’s why, to this day, you will see all Disney staff, including the president of the company, pick up trash if they see it. Just as camp counselors should lead by example for their campers, so should everyone else at camp.

Where does communication fall in your culture? Is your leadership intentional about communicating things like changes, news, successes, etc. to everyone on staff including the kitchen and maintenance crews? Are the camp’s goals shared with the staff or are they kept close to the director’s vest? If there’s a problem with the plumbing in the dining hall restrooms, how is that information disseminated to everyone?

Company Mission

What is your camp’s mission? Is it evident in everything your camp does? Is it evident in everything your staff does?

The Walt Disney Company Mission Statement: “The mission of The Walt Disney Company is to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. Using our portfolio of brands to differentiate our content, services and consumer products, we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related products in the world.”

Disney Theme Parks Mission Statement: “We create happiness by providing the best in entertainment for people of all ages everywhere.”

Let’s say your camp has a mission statement similar to Disney’s: “The mission of Camp XYZ is to differentiate our facilities, programs and services in order to provide one of the most enjoyable, welcoming, creative, innovative, and nature-centric summer camp experiences in the world.” Something like this may or may not be appropriate for your camp, but if you set out to be different, better than your competition, you need to decide on how you’re going to do that.

How do you differentiate your facilities? Would you consider your facilities rustic, and not in a charming way? What kind of feelings do you get when you walk into a restroom that your campers and staff use?

What about your programming? Does your camp only run the typical camp programs like archery, swimming, crafts, etc? Could you do something different, unique? Are the campers getting bored from doing the same activities year after year? Are they progressing in skill level?

Are the camp’s staff trained using training materials that are similar (or identical) to other camps, materials that you have used for years? Or are you constantly keeping up with new trends and breakthroughs in training, using technology, adding sessions for mental health, etc.?

Vision for the Future

Whatever your camp’s vision is for the future, be it to grow, expand, provide new and innovative programming, create an alumni program, clean, repair and/or update existing facilities, etc., if you want your culture to thrive, everyone (including seasonal staff) needs to share the same vision.

Each person needs to know that they can be a part of what the camp is to become and they need to know how they can contribute to the camp’s vision in order for it to become a reality. When all the staff, at every level, have a sense of that purpose, the camp’s culture will thrive, and that will in-turn empower staff to contribute to the camp’s mission and vision.

The Walt Disney Company’s corporate vision is “to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.” I challenge you to create (or help create) a great vision statement for your camp or organization, one that everyone can get behind and contribute to. That can be a vision for this coming summer or it can be a vision of the next 10 years.


Traditions photo source: Disney Makes My Heart Melt
Cast Members at Indiana Jones Ride photo by Ske-Art
Robert Iger and Winnie the Pooh photo by s_bukley/

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