Can Disney inspire more women to become theme park leaders?

November 12, 2018, 8:59 PM · The woman behind Disney's Cars Land has announced that she will be retiring from Walt Disney Imagineering at the end of the year. Kathy Mangum, whose portfolio at WDI also included Disney World's two water parks and The Seas with Nemo and Friends ride at Epcot, currently serves as a Senior Vice President for WDI, with creative oversight of the Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris resorts as well as the Disney Cruise Line.

Mangum announced her retirement at the start of the IAAPA Attractions Expo she moderated this afternoon in Orlando: "Inspiring Women of Disney Parks."

What does it take to get on board — and then ahead — with the world's leading theme park company? Then what else does it take to do that as a woman, in an industry where almost all top positions remain held by men? The panel featured six executives from various ares of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, each talking about her experience coming to Disney and climbing the corporate ladder.

For many on the panel, what seemed like it would be a temporary gig turned into their life's career.

"When I graduated from high school, I told my parents I want to go down to the Magic Kingdom and work and I promise I will stay only one year and then I will come back and do all the normal things you are supposed to do after you graduate from high school," Petersen said. "One year turned into 42 years."

"I was an executive with Carnival [Cruise Line], but really wanted to get with Disney," Powell said. "I actually took a step backward" to get there, giving up her executive status.

"Sometime, you think your trajectory should always be in one direction. What I learned very quickly in making that personal decision for myself that it really is all about your opportunities and realizing that ultimately where you want to go is not the path that you envisioned for yourself," Powell said.

Seruto had to confront giving up a business she built when Bob Weis asked her to join Walt Disney Imagineering on the Shanghai Disneyland project.

"I had to ask myself, if I just hang on to the thing I am comfortable with, what am I going to miss out on?," she said. Fortunately for theme park fans, she jumped... and ended up overseeing the Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle of the Sunken Treasure ride that now stands atop our list of the world's best theme park attractions.

Taking chances and making changes are prerequisites for moving forward at Disney and in the industry, several panelists insisted. But hold on to some goals while making those changes.

"When I look back, my only regret is that I didn't change positions even more frequently than I did," Valiquette said. "Probably about 10 years ago, it became very clear to me that I wanted to lead our parks, and I always have had such a deep passion for Epcot in particular. So when my leaders would ask me, 'what do you want to do next?,' I would always tell them, even when leading a park was not yet within reach, 'I want to do whatever you think I should do so that, one day, when the opportunity is there to lead a park, I want to have all the qualifications you need in that person. So I will do anything.'"

"You've got to be open minded. If you really want the end goal, you've got to be willing to do what it takes to get there," she said.

Being open minded also means being open to new voices in the room, too.

"People are understanding that [diversity] drives innovation and it creates change," Petersen said. "We want our guests to be able to connect to those stories [that we tell] and we want the guest to be able to see themselves in those stories. We want all guests to be able to see themselves in those stories."

Others also spoke to the importance of listening to other voices.

"Just that notion of listening to the front line cast, because they live and breath it every day," Quinn said. "As a leader, you really will move everything forward so much quicker by listening to the cast members and what they have to say because they are remarkable, right? They are out there each and every day."

But sometimes it takes speaking up to elicit valuable input from a team member.

"If I can get through to somebody; I can say something that helps them get over an obstacle or take that next leap, and they do it," Seruto said, "that I feel true pride in."

And this work matters. It is important to millions of people, sometimes at the most significant times of their lives.

"What makes me most proud is when I think about the trust our guests put in us," Valiquette said. "When you think about guests coming to Walt Disney World, they are trusting us with their most critical moments, their most precious moments. People come to us not only for summer vacations. They come to us when they are celebrating a major life milestone: beating cancer, they've adopted a child. They come to us when they find out that they don't have much life left and they want a final, special moment with their family. Kids who are making a 'Make a Wish' trip are choosing Walt Disney World. They trust us to not let them down. That's such a big responsibility."

"I tell my team pretty regularly that what we do may not be rocket science, but on a lot of days, for a lot of people, it's more important."

Replies (16)

November 12, 2018 at 10:31 PM

Who cares but at least get rid of Kathleen Kennedy before she finishes off Star Wars for good!

November 13, 2018 at 5:16 AM

A lot of people care, actually.

November 13, 2018 at 6:29 AM

Interesting article - Well put and well said Robert

November 13, 2018 at 7:35 AM

I care! I have three daughters.

November 13, 2018 at 11:45 AM

They only thing that I read from these women (in the article) is that they talk a lot, but what can Disney actually DO, I can't find that in the article.

November 13, 2018 at 1:15 PM

Why do a lot of people care Robert?

@ Jeffrey
So by that logic if you had 3 sons then would you want Disney to come up with a program to inspire more men to work at the company?

November 13, 2018 at 1:25 PM

I would have thought it would be obvious why people would care about conversations and action to facilitate a more inclusive industry. Where we as fans can benefit from parks developed by the best teams possible. Where no one feels it's "not for them".

Far more confusing to me is why that would elicit snarky responses from people on a message board.

Daniel, as Robert points out in the article, we're talking about "an industry where almost all top positions remain held by men." I'm sure if the opposite was true, then there would be more of an obvious need to inspire men into the industry.

It's a shame Catherine Powell, formerly of DLP, wasn't on the panel. She's a brilliant, smart leader whose love of the parks (and the brand more widely) is really inspiring.

November 13, 2018 at 10:41 PM

@Ben

Where no one feels it's "not for them"

Is there any evidence that a majority of women/girls feel that this industry is "not for them"? I thought the majority of business degrees (maybe even all types of degrees) are held by women?

"I'm sure if the opposite was true, then there would be more of an obvious need to inspire men into the industry"

Why not just inspire everyone, regardless of sex, gender, religion, race, orientation etc? How is the need to only inspire women so obvious? What if a boy, transgender or not,(could be your own son if you have one) is thinking of becoming a Disney executive but sees this panel and decides to change his goal because it makes him feel its not for him? Is that ok?
If the need is obvious then the problem should also be obvious so please define the obvious problem that exists for the obvious need to inspire women especially to become successful Disney executives?

November 14, 2018 at 6:35 AM

I've said a lot of dumb things on this site but my God Daniel....

Your argument is incredibly invalid. You act as if men and women already commanded the same respect and consideration across all fields of work.Including but not limited to leadership and authority.THIS IS FAR FROM REALITY. To make the argument you're attempting to make is missing the mark my friend. Your statements are showing your privilege and it's embarrassing.

November 14, 2018 at 12:46 AM

Illustrating the challenge, via my Twitter post:


November 14, 2018 at 3:18 AM

Disney, IAAPA and TEA already each run a bunch of programmes to inspire people from all walks of life to pursue careers in the industry. But you only need to look at the boards and management teams of pretty much all major parks to see that there is a huge, industry wide gender disparity. I cannot understand why a single panel, simply celebrating the achievements and discussing the journeys of that underepresented group, would elicit hostility from people.

Yes, the industry can and should do more to resolve the various other inbalances that you point out. No one is arguing otherwise.

If my imaginary son sees a single panel celebrating inspiring women, in an industry and conference otherwise dominated by male voices, and decides that he's not welcome there, then I think there would be bigger conversations I would need to have with him first.

November 14, 2018 at 8:23 AM

So most of those guys waiting for the bathroom are sexists purposely keeping women out of theme park management jobs? That's the implicit jab that Robert and most commenters are making. Sorry, I find that hard to believe. Those jobs are publicly listed, anyone can apply to them. Like coding jobs, women are not interested in the field. Why don't we direct women to apply to jobs as miners, mariners and long-haul truckers? Women are underrepresented there as well. And encourage men to be early childhood educators, nurses and public relations specialists, which are female dominated fields? Basta!

November 15, 2018 at 4:02 AM

The most perfect repost, Robert - a picture of a queue for the restrooms is worth a thousand words.

November 15, 2018 at 3:10 PM

@Barry

Lol my priveledge!? You dont know anything about me and you wouldnt even dare walk around at night in the neighborhood that I grew up in. You and others can victimize women all you want. I prefer to consider women smart, strong and capable and not in any need of your pity or a companys like Disney. You can call my comments dumb all you want but at least Ive made a point and not some vague attempt to victimize women.

November 15, 2018 at 3:27 PM

@Barry

Lol my priveledge!? You dont know anything about me and you wouldnt even dare walk around at night in the neighborhood that I grew up in. You and others can victimize women all you want. I prefer to consider women smart, strong and capable and not in any need of your pity or a company like Disney. You can call my comments dumb all you want but what exatcly is your counter argument or assertion besides "My god Daniel"? Sounds like you and others are making an argument from emotion and not any sort of logic. Do you look at other industries that are dominated by women (for example the airlines) and say My god they need to inspire more men to work there?

@ Robert

Again about the bathroom so what? What exactly are you asserting? That Disney is a sexist company? That laws have been broken regarding discrimination by sex? That would be a serious problem worthy of investigation so is that it? I didnt read anything in the article besides the success that women have had there so Im confused at your vague assertion here. And the bathroom pic as well. Seems to me the only problem there is that they should build a larger mens bathroom.

November 15, 2018 at 6:40 PM

I hate getting involved in online arguments but apparently some of you need to hear a female's perspective.
I really enjoyed reading this article because it's interesting to learn about the careers of women who work at the company I hope to work at some day. I've read many articles about the work of male employees that I find interesting as well but it's nice to hear a woman's perspective sometimes. I don't understand why one panel of women causes such an uproar since I doubt any of you would have bat an eye at the countless all male and male-dominated panels. People find comfort in similarity, so it's inspiring to myself and other women to read about these successful women. There's rarely a need to inspire men, even in female-dominated fields, because society unfortunately has done a good job of telling men what they can and women what they can't do. I don't believe Disney is a sexist company and is purposely hiring mostly male employees. I believe they're hiring from a pool of mostly male candidates because many women might feel like they don't belong. This article is showing they do. I'm a mechanical engineer so I'm well aware of industry sexism and I don't need the pity of anyone or any company, just the same respect and support I know men are receiving. Biologically, men and women are different, that's just science, so having more female leaders that can offer a different perspective is a good thing for everyone. But remember "different" does not mean "not equal."
Oh and about the ironic bathroom pic- as a woman we wait in a lot of lines for the bathroom, if there's no line, that means there's no women. At a convention as big as IAAPA that's an issue and if you're struggling to see why discussing the success of women matters, then you're part of the problem.

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