Former Disney Executive Advises Students to Play the Long Game

KENNESAW, Ga. | Jul 10, 2020

As young people face an uncertain job market, a former Walt Disney Resorts executive recently offered words of encouragement to a group of Kennesaw State University students, reminding them of how important it is to “play the long game.”

Dan Cockerell spent 26 years with Disney, starting out in the Disney College Program in 1989 and eventually holding vice president-level positions at several of the company’s theme parks. He most recently served as vice president of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando, before leaving the company in 2018.

Last month, Cockerell spoke virtually to a class of students enrolled in Kennesaw State’s Disney Interactive Entertainment Study Program. During his presentation, entitled Play the Long Game, he encouraged students to embrace flexibility as they begin their careers.

Former Magic Kingdom Vice President Dan Cockerell
Dan Cockerell

“I remember what it’s like being in college and figuring out what I wanted to do,” he said. “It’s nice to have a plan. But, how you approach your career and the mindset of how you approach your life is much more important than having a plan.”

Cockerell knows something about adaptability. After graduating from Boston University with a degree in political science, he was unsure of where to go next in life. He traveled to Florida and took a job as a management trainee with Walt Disney World’s parking services. A few years later he was chosen to manage the parking operations for the newly opened Euro Disney (now called Disneyland Paris), and eventually made his way to park operations. He served in leadership roles for multiple Disney parks and resorts before becoming vice-president of the Magic Kingdom in 2015.

“I’ve learned to focus less on how to plan better,” he said, “and more on how to react better when something happens.”

This message resonated with the students, who were enrolled in a course in creative adaptability as part of the Disney Interactive Entertainment Study Program. A collaboration between the Michael J. Coles College of Business’s Joel A. Katz Music and Entertainment Business Program (MEBUS) and the College of Computing and Software Engineering, the Disney program explores the link between entertainment and innovative technology that allows Disney to create experiences enjoyed around the world.

The four-week June course was originally intended to include three weeks of on-campus study and a one-week “study away” experience at Walt Disney World, where students would learn directly from Disney Imagineers. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic meant the travel portion had to be canceled, while the in-class lessons went virtual.

“We have been planning quite a long time to create a ‘Disney-fied’ experience for the MEBUS and computer science students,” said Jon Preston, dean of the College of Computing and Software Engineering. “Obviously the pandemic threw us a curveball. So, we had to roll with it and move on.”

During his presentation, Cockerell drew on his experiences at Disney to illustrate the leadership strategies that will set students up for success in their careers. He described Disney’s robust accountability matrix that measures everything from budgets and labor hours to guest satisfaction and safety, and how that matrix also applies to leadership.

Annual reviews involved looking at how employees feel about leadership, such as whether they trust their managers, whether they feel managers are good communicators, and whether managers invite feedback from their staff.

“Some companies focus only on results, and some focus only on leadership skills,” Cockerell said. “If you only focus on results, people leave. If you only focus on leadership, then you go out of business. Disney realized that you’ve got to do both things.”

Dan Cockerell Kennesaw State MEBUS Students
Cockerell speaking with MEBUS students
Specific leadership advice Cockerell offered to the students included knowing at the start of their career what their personal and professional priorities are, learning to be organized, welcoming a diversity of opinions and experiences, networking, not being afraid to fail, and becoming a lifelong learner.

For students concerned that the pandemic may have limited their career opportunities, Cockerell urged them to remember that the current situation will not last forever.

“If you have a delayed internship or graduation, remember it’s a drop in the ocean,” he said. “Try not to get too worked up. Remember that life is a long journey.”

Keith Perissi, director of the MEBUS program and co-instructor of the creative adaptability course, said it was great having someone with a wealth of leadership experience at one of the world’s largest entertainment companies speak to the class.

“It’s been incredible getting to know Dan,” Keith said. “We consider him a friend to KSU. Our students really benefitted from hearing from him.”

Visit the Disney Interactive Entertainment Study Program Page or contact for more about the program.

-Patrick Harbin

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