An In-Depth Analysis of Disney’s Imagination Campus Communication Practices

The Disney Imagination Campus is a relaunching of the previous Disney Performing Arts and YES programs, both of which have been tremendous successes for the company since the first park, Disneyland, opened in 1955. Hundreds of thousands of students have participated, either performing or taking workshops. In many ways, the !C, is a microcosm of all that is both excellent and problematic in the Disney Company.

In creating a SWOT analysis, I first looked at the company as a whole, developed my own list, then compared it to several that I found online (Disney is a popular company to analyze, for obvious reasons). My own findings were similar to those of others, but I felt it was too broad and that I would have less personal experience to draw from; I opted to focus on the Imagination Campus.

Systems Theory: Loops both closed and open

In any system, there are complexities and variables. Systems theory postulates that interconnectedness is created because elements combine to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Even a cake is a system; flour, sugar, and eggs combine to make a delicious whole. Adjust the amount of flour, mistake salt for sugar, or leave out an egg, and the whole is compromised (Paynton & Hahn, n.d.). The Disney Company is a complex system, with myriad moving parts and layers. Communication is vital, and it goes both outward to the public (an open loop) and also amid only the organization itself (an imperfectly closed loop).

At the macro level, there are large-scale messages delivered by the top executives. Stanford University faculty M.McNichols and B.Tayan write of CFO Tom Staggs’s 2007 presentation to investors:

“he had to consider that any message delivered was perceived by investors as a direct reflection of management’s capability and credibility. Second, he had to consider how the company’s stated objectives influenced the behavior of its employees. Third, he had to decide how to implement the communication strategy across a wide array of channels, keeping in mind the purpose of the forum, regulatory requirements, and investor expectations” (para.1).

Obviously, meticulous care was given in preparing Staggs’s remarks as well as his delivery of such a vital message. Is the same care given when the recipients aren’t investors or guests but are employees? Usually, yes.

Top leaders are highly visible. Jeff Vahle and Josh D’Amaro can be seen in the parks, emails are sent to the cast regularly from the top executives, video announcements play in every breakroom on property. These communications are impeccably produced by large support staff, creating a flow of information from the top down, giving credence to the Disney Institute’s claim that “we believe leaders should absolutely be as intentional about the quality of communications to their employees as they are about the communications to their customers” (2019, para.8). However, communication can break down at the lower levels. Fewer resources and personnel may mean that messaging gets muddled or lost at the middle and lower levels of the organization.

Disney’s Approach to Ethics at the Imagination Campus

In March of 2022, the Imagination Campus found itself at the center of a national media storm. This was a highly unusual circumstance for the department, which had always been doing its work in the relatively controversy-free educational sphere. However, on March 15, the !C made headlines in publications like the Miami Herald, the Huffington Post, and numerous television news outlets. Since I was the instigator, I will break down the process step-by-step, correlating it to systems theory in how it played out.

Here’s how the event unfolded:

A large Texas band and drill team (almost exclusively Anglo and evidently of a high socio-economic level) were preparing to march down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom; I was their facilitator, observed them getting into costume, and noticed very obviously native headdresses being donned by white teens. Because of Disney’s recent addition of a diversity and inclusion key to its core values, I was concerned that this might send a message that the company would not support.

Input: Before approaching any directors or members of the group, I took my concern directly to my immediate supervisor. She casually came outside to look at the costumes and headdresses.

Throughput: She too is concerned and calls the head of the entire department, who answers immediately, listens, then pulls up all files on the school, which had not followed protocol (all costumes and music are to be submitted ahead of time, they had sent footage which omitted the problematic garb). She in turn goes one more step up the management chain. A collaborative decision is made to ask the girls not to wear the headdresses.

Output: My supervisor informs the directors. They are upset but comply (or so we thought).

Control: In a situation that was impossible to control and truly unimaginable to us, the students, led by their directors, contacted their parents by text. The parents lined up on Main Street to scream at us as we marched. The band stopped (it was against the rules to do so) and played a native-sounding chant while the drill team moved their arms like tomahawks, chanting “Scalp ‘em.” I stood at the front, watching in helpless horror.

The Disney communications and diversity team were called into action. The environment of the company, the sheer power of its mechanisms were brought into play as they researched the school’s history and reiterated the company’s commitment to cultural respect in carefully crafted press releases. Media coverage was favorable for Disney.

Ultimately, the goal of protecting and communicating the company’s reputation and values was met. Because the school went on an ugly defensive while Disney was careful about its messaging, our reputation was preserved (and I got a commendation for my handling of the mishap).

The cycle was efficient and well-executed. At its top levels, Disney is masterful at this type of communication. The system worked, my concerns were heard and heeded, the chain of command was observed and the experts deployed.

If systems are teleological, meaning they seek to accomplish a specific goal or outcome, and homeostatic, seeking to maintain balance and equilibrium (Paynton & Hahn, n.d.), I believe the communications and Imagination Campus teams, working in an interconnected strategy, successfully demonstrated the quality communication that is a high priority for the Disney Company.

The Indianette scenario was a successful communication event. What is the broader picture of communications in the !C?

Developing Guidelines for Optimal Leadership Communications at Disney’s Imagination Campus

One of the greatest challenges for the !C is its seasonal nature, which inhibits consistency and prevents in-depth team planning and communications. The team’s leader works from home. In fact, all of the full-time management staff work in separate locations, which contributes to the disconnect between the head of the department and her various managers, who express frustration, feeling that their frontline expertise is not taken into account in decision making. As recently as July 28, when an informational session was held for those considering working in seasonal roles, its leader remained invisible, not in attendance in any way. Her separation from the operation might be considered problematic.

Another tremendous challenge for the Imagination Campus is visibility within the greater Disney company, as well as the need to build and increase awareness in the education community. A glance at the !C social media account posts reveals an impersonal, canned look at the work we do (posts appear to just be coming off a rotation of homogenous prescribed content that’s been written in isolation from the actual !C activities). I contend that a new approach to social media and promotion, one that amplifies the voices of the people and activities that are happening in real time and relies heavily on imagination (it’s in the name, after all), could generate interest in the program and appeal to teachers (external stakeholders) and Disney cast members who work directly in the !C (facilitators, Guest Talent Coordinators, and managers) as well as the cast members who support the !C from other departments (parade route cast, medical staff, and security personnel). How fun it could be to see TikTok videos of students in classes, display the students’ actual (amazing) theme park design vision boards on Instagram, or ask questions that teachers will respond to on Twitter?

What are some specific strategies for improving communication at the Imagination Campus?

Building on the foundation of the Five Keys, begin with Courtesy, demonstrate courtesy and appreciation to internal and external stakeholders by always utilizing a respectful, courteous voice in both verbal and written communications:

  • Develop regular communication in the form of newsletters, announcements, and emails to the internal team. This means solidifying who will be on the team so that, in the off-season, best practices, ideas, and collegiality can be consistently developed, even if some of the cast are deployed in other areas for some portions of the year
  • Create a contact list for targeted clients, send regular newsletters, promotions, and virtual scrapbooks that emphasize the positive results for student engagement
  • Increase call center staffing to encourage more consistent conversations with teachers throughout the year

Addressing challenges with Message receivers: Create a feedback avenue to nurture a relationship of trust and camaraderie before it’s needed.

  • Provide a robust, easily accessible feedback avenue: surveys, evaluation instruments, and after-action opportunities to gauge response and solicit ideas or critiques
  • Increase the visibility of leadership personnel both in crisis and out: leaders should be as visible as possible, both to the public and to the internal team. Specific to the !C, regular visits by the Director to the various campuses while workshops are underway, attendance at student performances, joining the staff for the various social activities instead of remaining invisible, and holding planning sessions in which he/she is an active participant would increase communications at the ground level of the organization.

Addressing Ethical Issues: Improve Relationship Building and Increase Visibility…

Strategies and improvements for addressing ethical issues: Increased visibility and interaction with the !C team by the top leadership will foster an ethical foundation for the department. K. Mihelic and her co-authors describe this “Leadership Principle: a leader is foremost a member of the company and its spokes[wo]man” (2010, p.38). Suggesting that ethical leadership emanates from the heart rather than the head, an increased and intentional focus on relationship building, particularly from the leaders one or two tiers above the frontline team, will underscore the integrity and mission of the Campus: to enrich the lives of students through meaningful educational opportunities.

And these will follow:

  • Transparency: “As far as corporate communications, the dominant business ethic in recent years is transparency. Transparency involves sharing all relevant information and decision rationale with stakeholders” (Cardon, 2021, p.18).
  • With increased ethical investment in the Disney !C goals, the practical observation of the Diversity and Inclusion Key as well as the corporate policy’s required protection of Disney’s cherished Intellectual Properties should naturally follow.

Best practices for developing and delivering communications; the role leadership plays:

  • Utilize the team rather than going it alone: collaborate and release control enough that the team members can utilize their talents to contribute fresh perspectives as well as concrete skills such as those below:
  • Aim for accuracy in content delivery: spelling, grammar, correct content. As author Peter Cardon says, “Plan, write, and review” (2021,p.68).
  • Allow multiple eyes to proofread, edit, and approve messaging before its release. Cardon goes further, explaining that in business communication, you must get content and audience right, then follow up with thorough feedback, reading for understanding, and extensive proofreading.
  • The National Federation of Independent Business writes, “create a simple guide for you or employees on how you want your business to communicate on social media. This can include key messages, draft posts, prepared responses, do’s and don’ts, and even general voice and tone suggestions so your brand messaging is consistent, professional, and beneficial to your business” (2017, para.29).

Specific social media ideas include:

  • Displays of the students’ actual (amazing) theme park design vision boards on Instagram
  • Questions that teachers will respond to on Twitter? This has the added benefit of feedback opportunity and customer engagement
  • Connect with teachers with intention. “Teachers use social media, particularly Pinterest, at a higher rate than the national average. Reach them where they are, such as on social sites like the million-member ‘WeAreTeachers’ Facebook page. Don’t forget about niche communities, either. The more specialized the field, the higher the likelihood that its teachers network with peer groups” (Smart Insights, 2017, para.7).
  • TikTok videos of students active in classes

Social and cultural impact of these guideline changes on internal and external stakeholders:

Unify approach and create cohesion.

  • Gather the whole team together before, during, and after the main season to analyze feedback data and plan thoughtfully for future workshop offerings and improved processes
  • A targeted, strategic communication strategy will increase visibility and effectiveness of this small but truly unique contribution to the overall Disney story and culture
  • The impact of Disney storytelling and training expertise is unrivaled in the social sphere and corporate world. With improved communication, that impact could translate into a more relevant presence in the educational realm.

How these guideline changes will help the leadership in the effective delivery of communications in the future:

Building on the foundation of the Five Keys, with improved communications comes increased efficiency. Less time wasted in the trenches of operational detail permits more time for maintaining the vital channels of communication that will serve the department better in the long run.

  • Less time wasted in duplicated efforts
  • Less staff time lost in putting out fires (i.e: the ten-year-old backstage policy ambiguity about which the frontline cast spoke numerous times. A more direct line of communication, coupled with confidence that feedback was valued and acted upon might save hours of wasted time on performance days)
  • Interdepartmental communication could improve processes across all areas (i.e.: conversations between recruiters and facilitators would help recruiters to sell the program more effectively, increasing revenue)
  • Increased ongoing staffing that could communicate consistently would provide security so that team members felt safe in sharing tasks that they’ve previously clasped tightly, due to the need to prove themselves indispensable

How systems theory and best practices have formed guideline changes:

  • Systems theory postulates that interconnectedness is created because elements combine to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts (Paynton & Hahn, n.d.).
  • The Disney Company is a complex system, with myriad moving parts and layers. Communication is vital, and it goes both outward to the public (an open loop) and amid only the organization itself (an imperfectly closed loop).
  • The Disney Institute claims that “we believe leaders should absolutely be as intentional about the quality of communications to their employees as they are about the communications to their customers” (2019, para.8). However, communication can break down at the lower levels.
  • Fewer resources and personnel may mean that messaging gets muddled or lost at the middle and lower levels of the organization. That certainly seems to be the case in the Imagination Campus as consistent, intentional communication both vertical and lateral is often scattered or inconsistent in message and frequency.

The Imagination Campus would benefit from an in-depth planning retreat with all of the internal stakeholders to create a codified system in which the five elements listed above could be planned for and implemented, with interconnectedness being the device by which the primary goals of the !C can be expressed by its leader, Betsy Ervin; the message can be rung loud and clear through the ranks of the !C cast and disseminated to the external stakeholders, the teachers. Ongoing system maintenance in the form of video conferencing might be an effective way to keep information flowing during the times of the year when the staff is partially deployed to other areas of the WDW Resort.

In conclusion, there is much to feel positive about in the !C. The enthusiasm of those who lead it on a daily basis is infectious, the various team members who move in and out of the department on a seasonal basis are passionate about the work, students and teachers provide positive feedback. The absence of the main leader, the physical separation of the various teams, and the need for innovative social media are all challenges that can be faced, given the company’s overall culture and resources. Disney’s Imagination Campus has a bright future.



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