Greg Hale was an electrical engineer with a curious spirit when he interviewed for a position in Disney’s engineering department almost 30 years ago. He was eager to see how things worked behind the scenes, so he applied for the job figuring that even if he didn’t get it, he would at least get a backstage tour.
But he got more than a peek into what makes the Happiest Place on Earth tick – he was offered a job overseeing the electrical and controls engineering department, and his curiosity was sated … temporarily. The thing about intrapreneurs is that their thirst for knowledge is rarely satisfied for long.
I got to meet Greg at his Orlando office, where he is now vice president and chief safety officer of The Walt Disney Company, responsible for ensuring the safety of millions of visitors to Disney parks all over the world, including Orlando, California, Hong Kong, Paris and Shanghai.
Like most intrapreneurs, Greg is passionate about helping the company he loves succeed and helping it fulfill its mission “to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information, using its portfolio of brands to differentiate its content, services and consumer products.”
Enhancing guest experience through innovation
In 1999, Greg recognized that Disney’s theme park success was creating an issue for the company. As ever more visitors poured into parks, lines grew longer and longer. Guests’ most common complaint was the amount of time they wasted waiting in lines, time that could be spent enjoying the various shows, shops and eateries that Disney offered – which also meant that Disney was missing out on those potential dollars.
Boosted by his passion for wanting to give guests the best possible experience, Greg came up with an idea. What if they could offer guests a way to stand in line without having to physically be there? What if guests could virtually hold their place in a queue while they ate a delicious meal, purchased souvenirs, or took in a show? That would not only greatly improve their overall experience; it would also pour more money into the parks.
So Greg came up with the FastPass, which you’re most certainly familiar with if you’ve visited a Disney park in the last 17 years. With the FastPass system, guests can scan their park tickets in a machine near the entrance to an attraction, and receive a ticket that assigns a one-hour window for their return later in the day, where they enter that attraction with little to no wait.
“We actually went into the ride-control systems, looked at the capacity of every ride in real time, and have a computer system that knows that capacity and allocates a portion of the capacity to each FastPass issued,” said Greg in an IAAPA article. “It took a very talented team.”
FastPass launched at Space Mountain on July 1, 1999, and it was an immediate success.
“If guests had FastPasses at 7 o’clock that night, instead of leaving early, they’d stay for that FastPass,” Greg said in the IAAPA article. “So the demand to roll this out skyrocketed. We couldn’t implement this fast enough.”
The FastPass system is now in use at every Disney park around the world, and in 2014, they introduced FastPass+, a high-tech paperless version that allows guests to obtain FastPasses weeks before their arrival.
Building a culture of intrapreneurship
We’ve been touting that having an innovative culture alone is not enough to support long-term innovation. It’s important to have three factors of innovation working together – people, structure and culture – to achieve lasting change within your company. Disney is an enterprise that boasts those essential ingredients. They took an innovative person, surrounded him with other innovative people, and wrapped them all in a culture that encourages innovation.
And wonderful things happened. In addition to being a named inventor on more than 80 patents for innovations in the industry, Greg, with the help of his team, used proprietary infrared technology to create personal electronic handheld devices to help guests who have vision or hearing disabilities enjoy the park attractions. This technology is now used being used in more than 30 national parks in the U.S.
He and his team also invented an electronic handheld device for Disney’s food-and-beverage managers to digitally collect food data to help ensure they’re following all food safety guidelines. According to Greg, it’s one of the most advanced food monitoring systems in the world.
Driven by passion
One thing we’ve heard over and over again from intrapreneurs – from Disney’s Bran Ferren to Microsoft Canada’s Chitra Anand – is that true innovators are driven by passion. Sure, profit is important, but innovative ideas don’t necessarily appear profitable at first. Therefore, there must be something else guiding innovators in their efforts. And that thing is passion.
Luckily for Greg – and for the thousands of people who use his innovations every day – in a company as forward-thinking as Disney, following your passion is not just allowed, it’s strongly encouraged.