Magicmaker every day

St. Petersburg native Erin Wallace oversees all day-to-day operations at the park.

By Mark Albright, Times Staff Writer
Published May 3, 2007

St. Petersburg native Erin Wallace, senior vice president of operations at Walt Disney World, runs the world's largest theme park resort day-to-day for Disney World president Meg Crofton.

As faint screams from the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror filtered through her office window, Wallace talked about how Disney makes guest service stand apart and what it's like being a costumed character.

When people talk Walt Disney World they think rides and pixie dust. How does an industrial engineer like you fit in?
We have always been about fabulous storytelling. But there is a long legacy of industrial engineering here that plays a critical role in setting our guest experience apart.

How so?
It's about easing the flow of people through our parks. We measure everything. The spacing of the waste cans. Where people want to sit down. We predict staffing and the hours parks are open based on how many guests we expect and the 24,000 families in our hotels. Ideally, it's so transparent the guest doesn't think about it. We plan for people to do eight to 10 attractions on the busiest day, 15 or more on others.

What's your favorite ride?
Peter Pan. When you take off over the city of London, I feel like I'm falling out that window every time.

A survey by the new Zagat's Walt Disney World Insiders Guide found children skipped the old standbys ranking their favorites. Tops are Wishes Fireworks Spectacular, Turtle Talk with Crush, Buzz Lightyear's Spin, Playhouse Disney and SpectroMagic Parade. Surprised?
I thought Epcot ride Soarin' would be higher, but it makes sense. Parents used to take their kids downtown all the time for parade, but not anymore. Our parades are over-the-top and our fireworks spectaculars are set to music and incredibly inspiring. A common thread is the new kid-favorite attractions are interactive.

Buzz Lightyear is a G-rated shooting game letting riders participate in the experience. Parade performers entice people on the curb to clap or dance. Turtle Talk enables kids to chat with an animated character that calls them by name?
The characters come alive and seem real. Think of the memories. "Crush talked to me!" We're putting more emphasis on one-to-one experiences. Our new Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor attraction is similar to Turtle Talk on a larger scale with multiple animated characters (with voices from off-stage comics who ad lib the roles live) telling jokes while cameras hone in on faces in the audience.

Disney wants executives to work a costumed character shift to understand the power of the character. Have you?
I've been Pluto. It's amazing. You get huge admiration for cast members who do it every day. The costume takes getting used to. You practice writing autographs with big paws. It's extremely hot, but once you step into a park, these cute, little sweet peas come right at you with autograph books. You see in their faces they so believe in the magic of those characters that they just light up, hug you tight and want to show you love. It makes you feel different inside. It's magic.

You earned an MBA while working full-time as an executive and rearing two children. How do you balance it all?
I've got a fabulous husband who is a great dad. We prioritize our lives, so all our free time is devoted to our two children. I make myself free and clear so every weekend I have no plans but to be in the ebb and flow of their lives.

How does Disney maintain attentive guest service?
I'm after legendary guest service. That means better than the industry, doing things guests don't expect. We attract great applicants. We train them in explicit detail. It's about how you present yourself. Don't slouch. Point directions with two fingers, not one. If a cast member knows your name, they will call you by name. If they see a guest has an open guide map, that's a call to offer assistance.

How are they enforced?
Our leaders mostly come from hourly cast members (Disney-speak for employees trained to think they are on stage when working). They are deep in the heritage of this great brand and our standards. They spend a lot of time teaching what a great performance is.

How do you measure it?
There are daily audits based on whether services levels are attained. It's yes or no. We follow up with surveys when a guest returns home. If we spot a pattern, we can act quickly because our research is rich in detail. If somebody says something's amiss, we press for specifics.

How are families randomly picked daily to spend a free night in Cinderella's regal suite in the Magic Kingdom castle reacting?
One family was pulled out of a line at MGM Disney Studios and the daughter broke out in tears. She had told her mother her life's dream was to meet Cinderella. We also had one family decline because they had to make a flight.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.


Calling the shots at Walt Disney World is a long way from northwest St. Petersburg where Erin Wallace was reared by a family of elementary school teachers, including her mother, Joy Connolly, and a lot of help from Connolly's sister, Janet McCaffrey.

Wallace expected to be a teacher, too, until she was among the first students bused to Gibbs High in the early days of school desegregation. The University of Florida engineering program made a recruiting visit to minority-rich schools. On a school bus to Gainesville her junior year, Wallace was fascinated by industrial engineering course descriptions.

"I'd gotten a few Bs and Cs in math, but industrial engineering is really about problem solving, " she said.

She started in Frito-Lay snack food factories before following her husband, Steve, also a UF-trained industrial engineer, to Orlando for a defense industry job. She found a Disney engineering opening 21 years ago in the classified ads.