Building a better trash can – the Disney way.

Lessons on the value of customer experience in every corner of the journey.

This product story is over 70 years old, and yet has never been more relevant in today’s customer-first world. This is the tale of an unsung hero, literally to be unseen, yet essential in supporting a core corporate strategy in delivering the highest level of front-line customer (guest) experience.

This is the tale of how the Disney trash can came to represent the higher ideals of founder Walt Disney, and his insatiable quest to get every single detail right for guests of his theme parks.

With each Disney theme park spanning over 500 acres and hosting more than 15 million visitors annually, keeping Disney clean is a monumental challenge. There is an army of on-site staff maintenance “cast members” who mow the lawns, polish the benches, and wash the streets. Still, there’s always been one key member of the clean team who became a legendary icon.

The Disney trash can first made its appearance in 1955 with the opening of Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. But that trash can wasn’t today’s trash can that’s become so iconic you can buy miniature replicas in the gift shop.

The original trash can featured metal mesh with an open top, ubiquitous in those days. The flaw in the porous design became quite apparent when the heat of the day began to melt the garbage inside, seeping through the mesh causing a visual distraction — not to mention an emanatory odor.

Walt Disney noticed this major design flaw as he intently walked the park every day to see how his guests were enjoying (or not) the overall experience. He watched with enough conviction to notice not only the defect in the trash can design but the location of the trash cans themselves.

Over the next few months, Disney made note of when guests looked around for a disposal area and determined that, on average, guests needed a place to drop their trash every 30 feet.

Walt, being the Imagineer he was, not only standardized the trash can location rule of 30 feet (still in effect today), but he also re-invented the trash can design. One of the very first to commercially develop a fully enclosed metal receptacle that would encase any visual and smell-able distraction to his guests’ otherwise impeccable pleasant experience.

Side note: while developing this new trash can approach, Walt never patented his design.

So why care so much about trash? Are there not more important things to worry about when building and running the happiest place on earth? I suppose it depends on how you view the world.

Walt uniquely saw the world, idyllic bleeding toward utopian. With that, every detail mattered to him as he aimed for the perfect guest experience. And with a view like that, details matter more than you can imagine.

Having this perspective on an intensely elevated guest experience is one that needs to be held to an even higher standard today. Think of all the other experiences your customers have had before doing business with you. That collective sum of experiences, both good and poor, will shape whether you’ll deliver against their expectations.

It can be easy to overlook the importance that all the little things make in aggregate over time. A missed opportunity at any point throughout your customers’ journey can compound over time and degrade all of the efforts you’ve made elsewhere (aka “the big things”).

So here’s to all the little things that make a difference — the unsung heroes. And to never letting a little trash get in your way of a magical experience.

Three Takeaways

1. Plan every single step of the customer journey.
Map out a full customer journey in its current state and seek out areas of improvement and opportunities for innovation. Prioritize improvements as near-term, mid-term, and long-term, using a variety of filters such as optimization or innovation, ease or complexity of implementation, and directness of business impact (to suggest a few).

2. Focus on the details (that really do matter).
Account for every single step (large or small) that leads to an ideal state journey, ensuring the perceived little things are not overseen. The collective sum makes up a more significant portion of the overall experience satisfaction level than you might assume. Look for your version of the Disney “trash cans.”

3. Seeing for yourself.
Customer experiences are not academic in nature. These are real-world hits and misses that can only be identified and understood by seeing them in person. Consider ethnographic research cross-referenced with historical, analytical, or customer service data models. But at the end of the day, nothing replaces seeing for yourself first hand what’s working and not working. Put yourself in your customer's (literal) shoes.

To find out more about our real-world approach to customer experience strategy and planning, reach out to us. We’d love to hear from you.

Dean Elissat VP Client Engagement