Making magic

Creating next-level Disney experiences

When John Padgett (FIN '91, MBA '94) tries to explain what he does for a living, “people just find it hard to believe,” he says. “I am exceptionally fortunate to have a position that is too good to be true.”

John Padgett in front of Disney castle
Anyone who has used Disney's Magical
Express or FastPass+ or received a makeover
at the Bibbiddi Bobbiddi Boutique has
experienced a service created under Padgett's

Padgett is vice president of experience development for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. “I create next-level, consumer-driven, new business models focused on guest-experience simplicity, customization, immersion, and persistent connectivity.”

That's quite a mouthful. But any visitor who has taken Disney's Magical Express, used its FastPass+ queuing service, dined at the Magic Kingdom's Be Our Guest “Beauty and the Beast” theme restaurant, or received a princess or prince makeover at the Bibbiddi Bobbiddi Boutique has experienced some of the services developed with Padgett's leadership. These services aim to make a Disney vacation a seamless and more personal encounter in which guests can, through new technologies and other efforts, more fully engage with all things Disney.

Now testing at Disney World is his team's latest project, the MagicBand: “a unique wristband, equipped with a proprietary blend of radio frequency technologies” that will serve as a visitor's hotel room key and theme park ticket. Guests will also have the option of using it to engage with the FastPass+ system and pay for meals and merchandise. Padgett points out that the MagicBand is “really just an enabler for next-level, 'how-did-they-do-that' Disney Magic.”

Career building

At Disney since 1996, Padgett was also fortunate in his earlier career choices. A Tidewater native from Seaford, Va., Padgett joined general contractor W.M. Jordan after earning his undergraduate degree. The economic conditions then gave a finance graduate few significant career opportunities other than sales positions in mutual funds and insurance, he says.

“At the time, I thought construction was less about future career development and more about funding graduate school. However, working as a field 'layout engineer' on the Nauticus in downtown Norfolk, I was being prepared to be a future executive much more than I realized.”

The job superintendent, he recalls, “led the construction team with passion, intensity, and a relentless focus on quality execution — all fundamental leadership characteristics necessary for any aspirational effort, regardless of industry.” But most significantly, commercial construction taught him that “anything can be accomplished at any scale with diligent planning, a great team, the right tools, passionate leadership, and a focus on exceptional, forward leaning execution.”

W.M. Jordan helped Padgett return to Virginia Tech for an MBA by allowing him to come back to the construction site anytime he needed the work. Upon receiving that degree, he signed up at Air Products and Chemicals in Allentown, Pa.

There, he found a structured career-development program in finance (modeled after GE's) that was “quite exceptional.” In a relatively short time, he rotated through multiple roles in internal audit and business development across various manufacturing industries — from traditional industries, such as steel, to emerging ones, such as semiconductors.

Single company, diverse career options

Though he admired the company's “ingenious” business model, Padgett wanted to move beyond an exclusively engineering-driven businesses to “a business that also valued creativity.”

John Padgett in meeting
John Padgett leads the team that develops innovative
services and technologies to improve guest experience
at Disney Parks and Resorts.

Deciding to join Disney, he says, was not hard: “If Walt Disney World is effectively a city the size of Manhattan, I could work for a single company and have diverse and unlimited career options. After 17 years, this hypothesis has proven not only true but one that has defined my Disney career.”

His first eight years were spent in finance and business planning roles supporting many functional areas, including sales, marketing, travel operations, facilities, engineering, manufacturing, horticulture, distribution, security, utilities, and transportation.

He has gained, he says, not just a breadth of knowledge but also a “truly holistic understanding of the Disney World enterprise and how all the pieces intersect to ultimately yield the complete Disney experience.” His last nine years have been spent in experience development.

Creativity meets technology

One of the most substantial changes he helped lead was the creation of Disney's Magical Express, an airport transportation and luggage delivery system.

Allowing guests to bypass baggage claim and be transported to their hotel room via Disney-themed motor coaches where their bags would then “magically appear,” Padgett says, was an extremely complicated development effort. It had to be created outside the “Disney berm” and “ultimately required a reformulation of the Orlando transportation space, orchestrated through a deep collaboration and process integration with airline, ground transportation, and other companies, and government entities at the local, state, and national level.”

He calls Magical Express an “amazing experience,” but he is particularly proud of the MagicBand's blend of creativity and technology.

Disney MagicBand
Using radio frequency technology,
Disney's new MagicBand serves as an
all-in-one hotel room key, theme park
ticket, and payment mechanism.

“The experiential process innovations enabled by the MagicBand are stunning. But, most importantly, the magic it enables is unmatched. The MagicBand exemplifies Arthur C. Clarke's quote that technology properly advanced is indistinguishable from magic,” says Padgett, who has more than a dozen patents, awarded or pending, to his credit.

Embracing new thinking

Padgett starts his days at 5:30 a.m. with “a good workout.” At the office, his time can be spent on any combination of a diverse range of pursuits, including formulating strategies, creating or prototyping processes or technology applications, interacting with Magic Kingdom visitors during product or service launches, providing feedback to industrial design teams, negotiating business partnerships, and collaborating broadly with creative, business, and technology teams across the company.

A self-described “Jack of all trades and master of none,” Padgett relishes the thought that much of the work his team leads is considered “game changing.” “If it can't be done or has a higher risk level than most prefer, that is the space I covet.”

What thrills him most about his job is “working for a company that values innovation and embraces new thinking,” he says. “Disney is a unique company that strives constantly to raise the bar and execute flawlessly at the same time.” The combination is rare, he says, noting that in some other companies, the goals are considered mutually exclusive. “Working in an environment that expects both is extremely exciting.”

Holistic guest engagement

In his view, many companies in the entertainment and tourism business are constrained by an over emphasis on marginal services, such as charging parking fees and branding basic amenities and furnishings “while promoting the latest, non-differentiated in-room technology gadgets.” The industry itself will increasingly be about consumer convenience, he says. “We call this the 'death of consumer patience.'”

The key to success and profitability is “holistic guest engagement,” he says. “Real-value creation will be increasingly shaped by hassle-free experience delivery, deep immersion and emotional engagement, persistent connectivity, and next-level intelligence application.”

Padgett once said in an interview that “it is great to work where the world comes to vacation.” So, where does this Disney executive like to unwind?

Family vacations — with wife Bethany and teenaged daughters Savannah and Taylor — are typically Disney-centric, Padgett says — the Disney Cruise Line is their favorite. “We genuinely value the Disney service quality, consistency, and overall price value that we don't seem to be able to match elsewhere.

“Whenever we deviate, we typically are heading home thinking we should have just done another Disney vacation.”

Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Magazine Fall 2013

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