Under a star filled sky in early March 2020, Josh D’Amaro took his place alongside Mickey Mouse on the red carpet at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park in Orlando. With spotlights piercing the night atmosphere, D’Amaro participated in the dedication ceremony of “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway,” an immersive new attraction rooted in the spirit of the dark rides that made Disneyland in Anaheim, California, famous.
After the pyrotechnics subsided and guests began pouring into the attraction’s entrance, D’Amaro fell back, choosing to remain outside the park’s replica of Hollywood’s Chinese Theater. Making himself accessible to everyone—from invited VIPs to front-line employees (referred to as “cast members” by Disney)—is a characteristic that defines D’Amaro.
“I remember standing there, in front of the crowd, being so proud of what we revealed to the world and so proud of the cast members,” says D’Amaro, who at the time was president of Walt Disney World Resort.
“It’s kind of that marker before everything changed for me, for us, for the company.”
Twelve days later, with the implications of the coronavirus pandemic becoming more defined, D’Amaro led the team that shuttered all four of the Walt Disney World theme parks, two water parks, 28 resorts, and the sprawling Disney Springs shopping and dining complex. While the closure weighed heavily upon D’Amaro, the leader used the experience to begin reimagining park operations and strategies for the future.
“The pain, the heartache, and the challenges that have come with this pandemic have been hard,” he says in a reflective tone that then turns optimistic. “They’ve also opened doors for us to walk through in a different way, with a different confidence, with a different strength than we’ve ever had before. I know it’s hard in the context that even today we find ourselves, but it’s true: We’re going to come out stronger than we ever have before.”
Funworld sat down with D’Amaro, now chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, in a virtual setting for a candid conversation on the future of the business—everything from how the pandemic accelerated lasting innovations to the famed “Disney Look” to reimagining rides and attractions to be more inclusive—along with what’s ahead for the global attractions industry.
Answering the Call
Like scores of workers around the globe in spring 2020, D’Amaro, 49 at the time, found himself working from home. Focused on how the coronavirus would affect Walt Disney World, D’Amaro paused when an unexpected call buzzed his mobile phone. The name on the caller ID? Bob Chapek, CEO of The Walt Disney Company.
Chapek quickly got down to business by offering D’Amaro the job of chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products.
He immediately accepted the promotion. Yet, upon saying goodbye, D’Amaro says he then sat in silence for 15 minutes, thinking about the significance of the role he formally assumed on May 18, 2020.
“I was humbled by the situation I found myself in. Given where we were, I felt an immediate and massive sense of responsibility to be sitting in this role, for a place that I cared so much about, with so many cast members who were looking for guidance,” he tells Funworld.
In his new role, D’Amaro oversees six theme park destinations across the United States, Europe, and Asia; Disney Cruise Line; Disney’s vacation ownership program; a guided family adventure business; and Disney’s consumer products that include licensing agreements for toys, apparel, home goods, and apps, along with a children’s publishing division and e-commerce platform.
“You get that little bit of a pit in your stomach,” D’Amaro says when remembering the emotion he felt following Chapek’s call. However, his feelings of apprehension were quickly replaced with those of confidence; “If anybody can do this, we can do this.”
Asia Leads Reopening Safely
Reopening Disney’s global parks and resorts safely became D’Amaro’s early focus. He gives full credit to the teams at Shanghai Disney Resort and Hong Kong Disneyland Resort for developing plans on how to shutter a theme park out of an abundance of caution and then reopen safely—something the park in Hong Kong did three times over a period of 13 months.
“In Asia, the team across the board just did an amazing job creating a blueprint. We then had a template that we could then take, adapt, and apply,” D’Amaro says about the plan that also led to the safe and successful reopening of Tokyo Disney Resort on July 1, 2020; Walt Disney World on July 11, 2020; and Disneyland on April 30, 2021. Disneyland Paris reopened on July 15, but again closed on Oct. 29, 2020, before reopening on June 17, 2021.
“Our cast members in Asia were reopening pioneers in this front. I would argue for the world, everyone was watching to see how we would do this,” D’Amaro says about the plan that in part includes physical distancing measures, enhanced cleaning efforts, mask-wearing protocols, and the installation of protective barriers to ensure cast and guest safety. With international travel almost unheard of during the second quarter of 2020, the cast at Disney parks ramped up their communication and forged new partnerships when separated by oceans and closed borders.
“Certainly, the cast members in the United States and Europe were watching,” he says. “I think this pandemic has brought us together even more closely as a family. I think we understand even more now the importance of what we represent to the world.”
Hong Kong Disneyland Resort holds a special place in D’Amaro’s heart. Earlier in his career, the Boston native spent time based at the Hong Kong resort working in sales and travel operations.
“I’ll often reference back to my three years in Hong Kong as the most formative leadership days of my life and the most formative family days of my life,” says the married father of two. “It was an adventure that literally shaped us into the people that we are today.”
Now, D’Amaro is reshaping what it means to be a cast member.
Evolving a Legacy
While the reopening of Disney’s parks around the world received headlines, behind the scenes, D’Amaro and his cast began reimagining what working for the Disney Parks, Experiences and Products group could look like.
After a challenging year, D’Amaro began reevaluating practices and standards established long ago. “The world has changed and so have the expectations of our guests. That’s why we’re fundamentally reimagining what a Disney experience could be, while keeping the unique magic our guests expect,” says D’Amaro.
With Walt Disney World Resort’s 50th anniversary just months away, D’Amaro is a leader who recognizes society has evolved since Magic Kingdom Park opened in October 1971. Today, the importance of individualism and inclusivity is highlighted by the new standards D’Amaro introduced on April 13.
Changes to the well-established “Disney Look”—the company’s policies for how cast members show up at work—now allows for cast members to have visible tattoos, wear more jewelry, and sport gender inclusive hairstyles, to list a few.
“We all think that one’s ability to bring the stories to life is strengthened—substantially strengthened—when you as a cast member … or an employee anywhere in the world, or a family member … when you feel supported; when you feel like you’ve been given the tools to excel at the role that you’re playing; and when you feel you can actually show up as yourself,” D’Amaro tells Funworld. “That’s exceptionally powerful, and for me, for our leaders, and for this company, it’s important that we put that on full display and we lead the industry—or the world—in welcoming all here.”
Yet, D’Amaro isn’t stopping with grooming guidelines. He is also changing the very bedrock of Disney’s training standards that can be traced back to Walt Disney himself. Governed by “The Four Keys” of safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency, D’Amaro raised eyebrows when he added a fifth key this spring: inclusion. Immediately, the critiques began.
“‘You can’t, you can’t do that.’ ‘You can’t mess around with legacy,’” he says, sharing the feedback he received.
“Yes, we absolutely can. I will pay tribute to our founder, to our legacy, but I will also at the same time push us to be relevant today,” he says. “To add an inclusion key is so powerful.”
That also now means cast members at Disney’s theme parks will have a greater array of options in the costume (the name Disney gives uniforms) they select. More diverse and gender-neutral costumes will allow cast members to feel a sense of belonging at work. In fact, Disney’s dress code handbook no longer provides gender references.
The inclusive mantra doesn’t end backstage; it’s also coming to the forefront of storytelling.
Even while the pandemic continued to shutter Disneyland, Imagineers revealed changes coming to two attractions in the name of inclusion. Both “Splash Mountain” and “Jungle Cruise” in California and Florida will evolve in a way D’Amaro calls “beautiful and reflective of our society more relevant to our guests.”
The “Jungle Cruise” family boat ride will receive a new storyline and a new final scene that encompasses the ride’s new narrative. The “Splash Mountain” log flume will welcome Tiana from the animated film “The Princess and the Frog.” The princess is described as a strong lead character who’s “modern, courageous, and empowered.” The changes follow recent updates the parks made to established attractions. In 2018, “Pirates of the Caribbean” recast Redd, a famed bride wearing a red dress, as a pirate herself. The effort is global. Another reflection of this mission stands at Hong Kong Disneyland, where the castle recently underwent a massive renovation in time for the park’s 15th anniversary that tripled its size and reflects the diversity of a dozen Disney heroines.
“We will continue to not only look at the experiences that we have today, update them, and make them relevant and appropriate, but as we build, we will also start to think about all the great stories that we have to tell around the world and bring them to life in a way that everybody again can see themselves,” says D’Amaro.
The Georgetown University graduate—who worked in corporate finance for The Gillette Company before joining The Walt Disney Company in 1998—encourages other leaders in the global attractions industry to leave their offices behind. D’Amaro believes it’s a best practice to actively engage with guests and employees.
“I talk to my leaders all the time about this: Being in the park is not something that you do when you have time,” he explains. “Let’s not be confused: It is the most important, most special part of any leader’s job. The emails will be there; the meetings will be there. But the truth is right inside these parks, and you have to be out there—and I love it.”
Challenging Standard Practices and Embracing Technology
In the same way D’Amaro is reshaping the cast member experience and storytelling, he is also focused on transforming the guest experience.
D’Amaro made the decision to sunset Disneyland’s annual pass program, using the closure to gain consumer insights to develop a new membership offering that Disneyland says will offer more choice, greater flexibility, and drive value for the resort’s fanbase.
Moreover, while the parks were closed, teams continued their focus on innovation and new technologies that will enhance the guest experience at Disney’s global theme parks.
Though some capital expansion projects are delayed, investment continues with new franchise-focused attractions slated to open in the post-pandemic era. Disney California Adventure Park opened Avengers Campus on June 4, featuring the “Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure” attraction. Next door at Disneyland, Imagineers made enhancements to the classic dark ride, “Snow White’s Enchanted Wish.” “Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure” is set to open as a new dark ride at Epcot on Oct. 1, the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World Resort. The Disney Wish—Disney Cruise Line’s fifth ship—will set sail on its inaugural voyage on June 9, 2022, to the Bahamas from Port Canaveral in Florida.
When thinking to future developments, D’Amaro is particularly excited about the opportunities that the Disney+ streaming service can bring to the parks.
“Our streaming service continues to connect fans with our key brands and some of the best storytelling in the world—and our parks are where stories come alive,” says D’Amaro.
That on-demand service is also at work inside the parks, where guests can use Disney apps to order food, check in to restaurants, play mobile games, and join select ride queues. Mobile food ordering alone—where 84% of Walt Disney World Resort food transactions are completed using mobile devices—is now up from 9% pre-pandemic levels.
D’Amaro cites the reservation systems as a tool that can help guests better plan their vacations. The new Disney Genie park planning tool (debuting later this year), will be able to scan millions of itinerary options and help guests maximize their trip.
“We’re very focused on the future and creating the best guest and cast experience,” D’Amaro says.
While details have yet to be announced, Disney shared with Funworld that some innovations are likely here to stay. Post-pandemic implementations including park reservation systems, mobile ordering, virtual queuing, and contactless check-in at resorts, among others, are enhancements that have the added benefit of helping the resorts strategically manage capacity and improve yield.
“We have a very strong vision. I think we’ve learned that we need to have courage. We’ve learned this year that we can move quickly. We’ve learned that there’s nothing that can stop us,” D’Amaro concludes.
Contact Funworld Managing Editor Scott Fais at [email protected].