I continue my conversation with former Disney executive Djuan Rivers, as he shares stories and lessons from his time in Disneyland Paris, and as Vice President of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, including working with Joe Rohde, opening Pandora – The World of Avatar, and his window on Main Street, USA. He not only reflects on what he learned, but inspiration we can take from the Disney Parks as well. Djuan’s adventures continue to mountains, marathons, planes, and talking about not being afraid to jump.
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[00:00:00] Djuan Rivers: Walt Disney is quoted as saying you can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality. And his vision of what would eventually become Disneyland has expanded beyond the four corners of that one park to destinations and experiences around the world.
Just as the career of my next guest has done as well from his first role in Walt Disney World. Djuan Rivers Wild Ride, uh, embodies and embraces the ideology of Sees the Adventure. I am incredibly excited to be sitting down here at Disney's Wilderness Lodge with Dewan Rivers.
[00:00:47] Lou Mongello: Welcome. Thanks, Lou. It's an honor to be sitting here and talking to you. Do you have a, a wonderful reputation. But, you know, we set this meeting up in Wilderness Lodge. This is the, the resort that allowed me to sort of venture into my executive role. This is my first GM job right here. So walking through the doors, I think you saw me.
I'm looking up, um, super impressed with this place. Looks as amazing today as it did, uh, back then. So thank you. Glad, glad to be here. I'm not
[00:01:18] Djuan Rivers: gonna lie, I specifically position positioned myself facing the door. Cause I wanted to watch your expression as you, and I'm like, if he cries, I'm gonna videotape cuz it's gonna be gold just to get him
So you were, uh, you know, you were looking down before you were looking around, but, so just very quickly, how, how did you feel walking back into this space that was, that was not only your home, but was your home.
[00:01:40] Lou Mongello: Yeah. This is, uh, a true sense of nostalgia. Um, I go into places and I quickly get transported back to that time period.
I remember, you know, standing on the top floor, looking down. We celebrated our fifth anniversary, and balloons are dropping and [00:02:00] cast members are cheering. And it was, it was awesome. Uh, I also remember when we had to shut the pool down and how that was and that was challenging. So all those emotions, uh, sort of rushed through you.
And, uh, but the good thing about, you know, working and experiencing Disney for 33 years, I can truly say that all the experiences I've had have, uh, have been awesome. I mean, at least that's what I remember, the awesome part, even though we know that, uh, there are challenges there, .
[00:02:32] Djuan Rivers: All right, so I am a sucker for a superhero origin story, and I th.
Our discussion today will reveal just what a superhero you are, not just at Disney, but after Disney. So tell me the tale of young, wide-eyed Duwan growing up. Who knew from an early age exactly what you wanted to do and. Did not follow that path.
[00:02:55] Lou Mongello: Exact all , that's what we say in, uh, in French. Yeah. So, um, from a very early age, probably age five, I knew that I wanted to be a physician, so I was gonna be a doctor.
Everything I did was geared to become a physician. I only hung out with friends that were also gonna be doctors and physicians. So that's all it was. I, um, picked the one reason why I selected Emory University was because it had a very, very good, um, um, pre-med program that sort of prepared people for med school.
Um, but you know, fast forward as I sort of traveled through, uh, my academic years, I had an opportunity to work at Grady Memorial Hospital in the surgical trauma unit. And over the four months I worked there. And if you've never been to Atlanta, And sat through their surgical at Grady Morgan Hospital.
That's an adventure in itself. Just go sit in the lobby. I mean, during the course, during the time I was there, I saw gunshot victims, um, stab victims, people that were run over by [00:04:00] trains. It was just a mess. And I'm a happy guy, man. I'm, I'm a, I'm a very optimistic person, and I quickly realized that this is not something that I could do.
But even then, I, I sort of stuck with it until graduation. And then, uh, I realized that I'm not going to med school. I need to get a job. Um, so part-time job at, uh, Marriott Marquee, downtown Atlanta was where I started. Um, I, uh, had an opportunity to check in to Disney executives during that time period.
And, um, one of which was there, uh, Tony Jenkins was there recruiting for the college program. I think at the. At Atlanta University Center and he's like, you really need to look at Disney. And at the time I was like, Hey, I got a Emory. I have a degree from Emera. Are you kidding? I worked at Disney on Main Street confectionary shop in high school.
I don't know if that's a career cuz all my friends are gonna go to med school. Obviously I can't do that. But then, um, I, uh, somehow maneuvered my way into an interview with, uh, Bob Small, the late Bob Small, who was the VP of Resorts, and, uh, had an incredible conversation. That in itself is a, is a story, but, um, but that's how I returned to Disney.
Um, and my first job was at, uh, the Grand Floridian Beach Resort. On the opening team there, uh, bell Services Manager. So
[00:05:30] Djuan Rivers: quickly take us back to, Your time on Main Street? In high school. High school. School. So what brought you there? Like were you a Disney fan as a kid, or what was it about Disney other than the fact that maybe it was in your backyard and was it like the cool place to work?
Were your friends doing it? Yeah,
[00:05:46] Lou Mongello: everyone worked at Disney. It wasn't the backyard. We all did it. My father was the executive chef here, so, uh, there was that, there was that attachment. And, uh, I mean he was, he worked with the company for over, [00:06:00] uh, 25 years. And it was the thing to do, um, the full circle experience, I dunno if you know this, but the full Circle experience for me was, my very first job was at Smucker's Corner on Main Street, which is a different story now, but, but if you walked, if I, the young Dwan Rivers would've walked out of the.
The Smucker's Corner store and looked to his right. That's where my window sits today, . And it's unbelievable to think that that could happen. Um, cuz back then when we went through Traditions, which was three days Yeah. Um, you had a chance to, to, to tour, um, main Street and people gave you the stories. Very iconic people who were instrumental in getting Disney to where it is now.
So to be a a a part of that legacy and to have the connection from my high school days to the day that I, uh, left the company and retired is, uh, was pretty special. So Grateful Circle experience. So
[00:06:57] Djuan Rivers: it's literally a main street to management journey, you know, with a little bit of a, again, a sort of a circuitous gap.
Gap in between. Talk to me a little bit about that experience opening up what is, and for a lot of people still remain sort of the, the flagship resort at Disney. Wow. It
[00:07:13] Lou Mongello: was so back up. Prior to that, my. resort experience or hotel experience was the Marriott Marquee in downtown, um, Atlanta. So big, big, big sea hos, big city, um, um, hotel.
And so the first thing that I could not understand when I came to Disney is that, uh, it was, they just had these conversations about, we have to clean every room. And I'm like, I just, I'm like, I can save you guys a lot of money. Like you wouldn't. Why you, why are you cleaning every room? That doesn't make sense.
But the idea of a hotel running at 98% or 99% occupy is unheard of. It's just, just doesn't happen. And so, um, that was my first revelation when I, when I started with Disney. But opening the Grand Floridian Bell Services team, Craig Hodges was the leader. [00:08:00] Uh, we had incredible, uh, an incredible team of super dedicated people.
I mean, the Grand Floridian was and still is, um, You know, the most premium hotel we have on site, but it was also the hotel that sort of launched the growth of the hotel division. Um, and from that point on, we just kept building more and more and more hotels. So we, we set the standard of what quality service and what luxury would, would be, um, for the future of Walt Disney World.
And, you know, our leadership at the time did not, um, take that for granted. And I think today you can still walk to that property and see it, but there's some crazy stories from, you know, the, the Beach Boys and Grand opening and the Jacuzzi to um, um, uh, just a ton of sort of like unique things. And I, and I, I had an opportunity to make a recommendation on something and I think that one thing really fueled my, um, Desire to stay with this thing.
Cause I honestly thought it was gonna be a two year Stanton and, and, and go back into the outside world. But the, if you walk up to the Grand Floridian today, you'll see the Bell Services guys taking luggage from the porter ca she to the luggage room. Well, they're walking underneath a covered area. That covered area didn't exist.
And luggage, believe it or not, it rains in Florida, and it rains every day in Florida. And luggage used to get wet every day. And so I went to my boss and said, I have an idea. I think we should build a corridor, cover this. We can protect the luggage. We won't have so many gas complaints and, uh, um, it'll make the operation that much better.
And he's like, great idea. So I re sketched out, put it in plan work, and it was built. And I was like, wow, this is a company that listens to people. And I always realized that. You know, the way I felt, I [00:10:00] wanted to make sure as I grew with the company, I made other feel. Other people feel like they were listened to, that if you have a great idea, um, go for it.
You know, med Crofton was one of our previous presidents and she always used to say, Hey, don't give up on your ideas. You know, it, it just might be a timing issue. Don't go for your last strike. If you've had a great idea, and go for it. Go for it. Hold off. You know, and I've, I've, I've kept that in, in the back of my head throughout my career, and that's happened many times where you come up with an idea and, and you get shot down.
Luckily they did. That worked, and I got motivated to stay. But there are other times I like to encourage people, don't think that, don't get discouraged because your idea or your concept was not, uh, accepted immediately. Give it time, finesse it, go back at it again. If it's a good idea, it'll, it'll eventually happen.
[00:10:50] Djuan Rivers: Well, I think there's two takeaways there. One is about you, the individual having that. Drive and desire to continuously want to improve, even if it, quote unquote, wasn't your job. Like you had these ideas and Disney as a company listening with, with open ears, right? Right. Being open to ideas as opposed to, this is your job, just go do your thing.
So it's, it's, it's a combination of the person as, as well as the, the corporation. The corporate culture has to be one that that's
[00:11:17] Lou Mongello: open to it, ex. Exactly. Exactly. And, uh, when those two things meet, you have a great marriage. Um, when those, when you're in conflict with those two things, one or the other typically gives, um, but I also think it's, uh, if you're tenacious enough and you, um, have the ability to influence people, which is another skill that people need to hone in on, uh, you can get a lot of things done.
I've known people who, um, you know, unsuccessful people have tried things and then you have someone else. , we'll do the, and say the exact same thing and somehow it gets done and, and the other person sits back. I had the same idea. Well, you did, but this person is more, um, [00:12:00] had greater influence and, and that's a, a skillset I think people still need to hone in on.
[00:12:06] Djuan Rivers: you know, as, as you look at, and we're gonna go through obviously your resume and your time at Disney, you know, there's some people who will look at somebody's resume and be like, wow, you bounced around to a lot of different jobs. You clearly don't have focus. I look at it the other way. I look at it as he was in such great demand and had such innovative and creative ideas that one, he was wanted by other sections of the company, and two, had that passion and desire to want to, I, I imagine, I'm guessing cuz we've only met twice, that you don't sort of like staying in one place for a long time.
You want to sort of see how you can help. And improve elsewhere. So you go from Wilderness Lodge, I'm sorry, you go from Grand Floridian on the opening team to, you know, 10 years later you go over to, you come here to Wilderness Lodge. Mm-hmm. and you take over as the general manager.
[00:13:00] Lou Mongello: That's correct. That's correct.
So, you know, I think you have to do what you love and you have to be passionate about what you do and still take a lot of advice. Um, I moved around a lot, but I also moved around a lot because we were growing the hotel business from the Grand Floridian to the opening of the Yacht Club, then the Beach Club and then Dixie Landings and Port, and then All Star Resorts.
So there was the Disney
[00:13:26] Djuan Rivers: decade, the Disney decade. There was a lot
[00:13:28] Lou Mongello: happening. Yeah, a lot happening. And um, you know, there was one point and I was, you know, yeah. I was very expressive about my desire to grow with the company. And I remember I talked to my boss, he's like, well, you're moving around a lot. And I was like, well, you guys are moving me around a lot,
But that was who I was. And because I had an opportunity to work in every level of resorts, whether it was the Grand Floridian, this, the Moderates Premium, all the way down to the Valley and All Star, it really [00:14:00] taught me a lot about running the hotel business and the value of each of those segments. None of which I think are any more important than the other.
I mean, the Allstar is a very important part of our business, and so is the Grand Floridian. And so is the contemporary, whether you have convention resorts or uh, or leisure resorts. So they're all important, but oftentimes people can get, um, um, can, can somehow get swayed to think that one is more important than other.
But if you, but if you believe in the business and you believe in what we do as a company, providing great opportunities for. , all guests think you'll understand the importance of it. So for me, it was great. I'm a guy who likes to move around. I, I'm a hand raiser. I was like, yes, I'll do it. I'll do it. I'll do it.
Do you know how to do it? I'll figure it out. Give me an opportunity. And I think because my background was in, uh, was in economics, um, coming from Emory and I didn't go through your traditional hotel background, I wanted it more, I tried harder, I got more frustrated, um, during that matriculation process, uh, because I'm like, I, I need to grow up.
What is it? And so to, to jump into as many opportunities that, that, uh, that I could, uh, was helpful. Fast forward, I think it translate to, wow, this guy let's, yeah, if we don't know where we're going to, if we need something done and we don't know who's gonna. All right. Maybe Dewan can do it. That's a good reputation to have.
So, and that's how I think I ended up in the cruise line. We, we, you know, cruise line's the biggest, most successful niche product we had, but if you remember, we, we started off on some rocky grounds back then. And so to be able to go from a, I'm trying to think how many general managers have ever been hotel directors.
One Kevin Meyers, I think, but I don't know anybody else's, left their nice chrisy experience at Walt Disney World and go and live on a ship for three months, four months at a time. Um, and that's [00:16:00] tough. You know, you work 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Now the contracts are really nice, but my first contract was for four months and then my replacement didn't show up.
So it ended up being six months without any time off. But nonetheless, I mean, developing a reputation that says, I'm willing to do anything. I can do anything is a, uh, is a good trait. Um, stability also helps cuz people will challenge that, but I think you still have to do what you love and what you want in the things will work out.
[00:16:32] Djuan Rivers: And it's interesting because if you look at this sort of section of your career, grand Floridian, wilderness Lodge, all Star, magic and Wonder Disney Reservation Center, you really touch all aspects of the hotel industry in the many different and disparate yet connected elements. So you are able to bring something that you learn from one and then take it over to the other.
Talk about how not just in, you know, predictable guest turnover every 3, 4, 7 days, but how being a director. The ship brings both challenges as well as opportunities.
[00:17:08] Lou Mongello: Yeah. So taking your hotel experience and then bringing it onto a cruise ship is great. And the reverse, bringing what you learn on the cruise ship back to the hotel business is, it's also, um, fantastic.
But, you know, on the cruise line, you get to deal with, it's the greatest experience. Imagine having a controlled environment where regardless of the, uh, the attendance, um, you get, you get, you get to produce that incredible experience each and every time. So you're not like reducing fireworks on Tuesdays and Thursdays because the population is low.
You're not, not reducing your staff because, on, you know, for the next month we're gonna be low. No, you, you get, you get, you get to, you get to go out every single day with a a hundred percent on your game. And, um, our guests get to experience that. And it, [00:18:00] it turns out, and that's one of the reasons why they have, you know, some of the highest guest ratings, um, um, on property or within the, within the division.
Um, but yeah, the, uh, the cruise line, um, business and how they interact with their, their guests is spectacular. Imagine you have, when I was on board, I'm sure it's probably even more complex, between 60 and 70 different nations of people from around the world. And these individuals are coming and going on contracts every 3, 4, 6, 8 months at a time.
And also leadership is coming and going the whole time. So when everyone, when, so when people say, oh, there's, there's too much mobility and amount of stability, go work for the cruise line. It's embedded within the. with, with within how they do this. Um, but when you have a, a strong vision, great leadership, everyone, um, both Shoreside who does a lot of the detail planning and those who execute on the ship, you can deliver an incredible experience.
And, you know, you've been on them probably multiple times and you've seen it, uh, firsthand.
[00:19:09] Djuan Rivers: And what's interesting about that is, is the ability to create and maintain a sense of, of, I hate to say corporate culture, but culture, right? Is this, this philosophy that has to be ingrained in every cast and crew member day one that they walk in the door, that they start facing guests.
It has to be a part of that. So even with that turnover, not just in guests, but in cast and crew, being able to ma, that's always what amazed me about Disney. And the first time I ever went on Disney Cruise and I said, how are they gonna take this? How are they gonna take this experience with no attractions, with no things and then bring it on?
Forget the fact that's just a moving. You know, city at sea. But I, I've always amazed just from a customer service and a and a cultural level, sometimes it almost feels even stronger there, um, in terms of the way that the [00:20:00] crew makes us as guests feel. Right? This is, this is a company built on emotion, right?
It's a way that, that you as not just management, but, but front facing cast and crew make us feel. What a unique
[00:20:10] Lou Mongello: thing about the cruise line businesses. It's. similar to what our guests are going through, it's an immersive all inclusive experience for our crew. The crew does not go home. They're there with their peers.
They're, they're with the guests. They're not worried about the, the, the daughter's dental appointment. They didn't have a, their car didn't break down. They're not worried about, they're worried about delivering that experience to the guests all day, every day while the time is there. While, while they're there.
And so you don't necessarily have to go back and forth between multiple roles. You are fully immersed as a cast member just as much as the guest is fully immersed as part of it. But, but number two, um, the, the indoctrination and the enculturation, and every time someone returns, like they go home, they come, they go through, uh, a, a period where they're being caught up reminding them what's new, what's different.
So you really do have the ability to, um, keep your cmer base in a, in a bubble as well. and I think they, they really appreciate it. And remember, these are classrooms from around the world and the, and the, the idea of working for Disney is just a dream. Um, sort of like what you went through back in, you know, when you sold everything and moved down here.
A lot of people come here with these dreams of working here. Um, but you get to get trapped in that dream. You don't, you don't have to. Yeah. Go home every day.
[00:21:37] Djuan Rivers: Yeah. And it's, you know, it's interesting you were talking about this before, this idea of this, there's always been this, I remember as a kid working for Disney was like this brass ring.
Like you had to be like the elite of the elite. And I think that you still do, because I think there is this sense of what this culture has to be and you know, you can quote, unquote train anybody to do anything, but you're hiring [00:22:00] for what's within very quick tangent. What is it about Disney? You talk about how Yeah.
Traditions used to be four days, now it's half a day. And I think. . That, that's unfortunate for a lot of reasons, but you still see that in 99.9% of the cast members mm-hmm. , how, how does that happen? Well,
[00:22:19] Lou Mongello: one of the things I mentioned is that I'm, I'm loving retirement, obviously, um, but I think I might get out and start talking a little bit more.
But one of the things that I've sort of, uh, learned over my, uh, years at Disney is, and which really came to, uh, fruition with my time at, uh, Disney's Animal Kingdom. And, uh, the things I'm gonna talk about in the futures is about, you know, management responsibility, the core essence of who we are and this thing called Spirit of Soul.
And so I remember. starting at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Animal Kingdom has a reputation of everyone who works there. They're like, this place is special. Every park is special. Right? But you go to Animal Kingdom, we're like, oh, we're special. We're we neat? There's this,
[00:23:04] Djuan Rivers: we could work in the heat
[00:23:05] Lou Mongello: in polyester, and polyester.
And, um, you know, then people go and back in. Back then people were like, yeah, that's also because you're like, you're operating hours are short. If I worked there, I'll be there, . But there was something more. And I think it had to do with, you know, you've heard us talk about in the past, uh, role versus purpose, and you've seen a lot of, you've heard a lot of conversations about that.
But in Animal Kingdom, we, we called it the, the spirit or the soul of the park. And I think if you can, um, um, if we can continue as a, as a company, Get customers to not only buy into their particular job, but we also have to make sure everyone within the supply chain, whether you're a dishwasher or the VP or general manager, or the person behind the register, that what we're doing and what they're doing is bigger than the individual task that we are, you know, to [00:24:00] some degree, that family who's we're not, you used to think of it as like you can fall short of saying, we're saving the world, but we're, but we're, we're, we're saving families.
we're saving, uh, distraught people who are burnt out and worked every day and, and unfortunately may live in the same house with their family, but don't spend a lot of quality time. So when they come here, that house member needs to realize that they are creating a lifelong experience for that individual.
That they're gonna look at pictures and they're gonna be in the picture. Remember Jimmy, the popcorn guy? And, uh, we need to, we need to continue to do that. And, you know, animal Kingdom, not only do we do that, we also have the ability to, to, to rally people around conservation and our, um, and our, the importance of animal animal care.
And when people realize that what we do, uh, has this greater purpose, and they themselves, whether it's raising money for the Disney Conservation Fund, or talking to our guests about their individual experience with their favorite animal, I think people. not only will do their job, but they will do this discretionary effort.
They'll, they'll do more than their job. They'll do, they'll, they'll do more if they feel like what they do. You know, the pandemic and everything in between has caused people to seriously rethink why they are doing what they're doing each and every day. And if we as leaders can't convince them that what they're doing each and every day has extreme purpose, then I think we could, um, we can lose cast members easier.
Uh, cuz people have options. Yeah. I went to a podcast conference last weekend to hear, um, someone speak you, it's no surprise to you, but I'm like, look how many podcasters are People are turning in their. Their attorney bag. [00:26:00] Yeah. And becoming podcasters or whatever. There's all these other sort of solopreneur, uh, experiences that people are developing and they no longer have to work for us.
They no longer have to get in the car and drive and deal with I four traffic and come here. But we, whether it's here at Disney or some other company, need to figure out how to get people to realize that's important. Their presence here, their engagement with our, our guests. Uh, they're all critical. And, uh, by doing that, you can, you can, you can keep that culture going on and continue to get people to have this, uh, desire to want to be here and, and work 33 years.
You know? That's a,
[00:26:42] Djuan Rivers: and this feeling that we as, as guests, that that cast member that is making eye contact with you, whether it is a cashier back of the house up to. Josh tomorrow in the parks, making the eye contact, making you feel like you were the most important, most special guest There is the differentiator, but you talked about, um, the, these, these changes and being recognized and, and you know, you being the guy that constantly raised his hand.
I think there was this level, there was this shift for you because you go from working sort of in and at the resorts and cruise lines to becoming vice president for new business development at Disney Parks and Resorts. Explain in, in layman guest terms what that means. What a day-to-day looked like for you.
This Paris me for, so at 2007. Oh, right.
[00:27:37] Lou Mongello: Did you, you were, that was new business development. Yes. Yeah, yeah. Um, so those who were here, remember that Disney was really interested in building footprints around the world. But as you know, when we build a footprint, we spend a lot of money. We
theme parts [00:28:00] are not cheap, they're in the billions. But it's also important to figure out, excuse me, how do we, how do we build a Disney experience away from the berm? How do we build a Disney experience that doesn't require all this infrastructure?
[00:28:19] Djuan Rivers: And I remember there was a lot of talk about that going to New York, going to here goes Yeah,
[00:28:23] Lou Mongello: you, you heard 'em all.
I mean, we, we had successful projects and we had unsuccessful projects. Virginia didn't work out. This project worked out. We announced, we announced things, things were pulled back. Um, so I worked with, um, Bob Weis who recently left on a, uh, on an international project. And, um, one of the things he would always, um, reference.
which I have thought about in, in, as I think about developing my think, my, my my presentation in the future is this thing called your core Essence. And so it's really about who are you, like what do you represent? Um, if you strip away everything else, Disney is known for innovation, technology, creativity.
And so when you get that down to a science, no matter where you are, where you are in the world, if a guest walks through that experience, they go like, well, you know what? I may be here, but this feels just like a Disney experience. And so new business development was tr we were looking at projects around the world to create new businesses.
Shanghai was a big discussion point back there. And now Shanghai is, uh, is there, um, other projects that we were working on are not there. But you know, that was, that was one of the ones that we were looking at regional resorts. We was, was on the table. How do you build resorts everywhere? What we're originally, uh, we're looking at, um, um, ultimately ended up with this great project in Hawaii and Alani is a byproduct of that, that thinking back in that generation of how do [00:30:00] we build a Disney experience, literally not only away from, you know, the berms by the away from the core 48.
And, uh, I had an opportunity to do that project.
[00:30:11] Djuan Rivers: So before we jump over to Alani, because again, it was this sort of relatively positive seismic shift in what Disney was doing. I know that there was a lot of concepts that sort of came and went, and if you can't talk about it, just blink twice. But I had heard a rumor that Australia was something that was very seriously considered at one point in and around this time period.
Yeah, we had, he's blinking twice there, by the way, ,
[00:30:38] Lou Mongello: there are projects all over the place, right? There are projects all, all over the place. You know, when you go to these, when you're negotiating with, uh, um, uh, countries, you're trying to, um, you know, create a win-win situation. A win-win scenario, and that win-win scenario is about how do we, um, we want to make sure that we induce tourism or bring tourism to there, but it's also about expanding the brand.
So we were, it was always a, I remember being in a meeting with Ira once and he was like, you. , gotta make sure you are expanding the brand, not always taking advantage of the brand. The brand is a brand, you know, we can always leverage it, but how do we expand it and make it bigger, better? Create new products, um, somehow bring new guests into the fold.
And that was, uh, a, a key goal. Um, and the idea was, you know, how do we do, whether it's an an RD and e or a hotel, retail, dining, entertainment district like Disney Springs, those were the objectives out there. We were looking all over the place. I mean like everywhere. But I mean, there's everything. You have to have the right number of.
Uh, folks that can even get there, you know, you, you have to make sure that if you create this or invest this, is there, are there enough people in the environment that's going to be able to supply this? Yeah. So it's not just [00:32:00] the, the pretty picture. You, it's, uh, as you know, it's a business, a big business, and we have to, uh, continue to make sure that it's gonna be, uh, one that will, um, you know, continue to drive the brand and, and, and, and drive additional revenue, um, streams as well.
[00:32:16] Djuan Rivers: concept art that you're showing me for Australia that's never been seen before as ridiculously incredible . I'm kidding. I'm kidding. But you know, when you, you talk about a place like Hawaii, it makes perfect sense, right? It, it sounds like the perfect destination for Disney. And in 2008, when you are given the role of, of vice president of Alani Resort, this is for you personally.
forget the, the companies sort of moving over there. You literally are the only Disney person on the island. Like you were the fra, you were the first person sent over. Talk to me a little bit about, hey, we have a new role for you and you're going to Hawaii by yourself for a couple of years. Talk to me about that, that sort of process, um, just at, at the very beginning and then, you know, obviously working with Roddy and I wanna talk about the culture and, and whatnot too.
[00:33:10] Lou Mongello: Yeah, yeah. I was wrapping up, um, uh, one of my roles and I got a call to say, Hey, would you be interested in going to, uh, project in Hawaii? That was right around Valentine's Day. And then, uh, the comment was, this doesn't need to happen until like November, December. We're just getting, um, interest. So I was like, yeah, I mean I, uh, I spent a summer in Hawaii in college.
Uh, . I was a pearl diver. That was interesting. Actually. I sold jewelry, but , I was called a pearl diver. Um, so the idea of going back there this time with a job and not being a, a broke student was also pretty, pretty fascinating. But so yeah, I get the, the, the comment, I come back and literally three weeks later, I'm there permanently.
So a lot of stuff happened where [00:34:00] we realized as a company, if this is gonna be a successful project, we need someone boots on the ground immediately. So I had like a week to pack up and get out there, literally. Wow. Um, I, temporary housing, I worked from home, um, until I was able to find an office, hired my assistant.
Um, we worked together independently for about a year before. Um, I started, uh, increasing the number of people on the team, Joe Roddy, and, uh, uh, a few of the other people all did business trips, so everyone was business tripping in, but that was the, the face of Disney and on the ground working with, um, whether it's the, uh, the folks on the construction side, but a lot of the, a lot of it was with the community.
So making sure that as we move forward, the cultural community, the business community, were all in sync, completely understood what we were doing. And then me also working with our, uh, resort development team and, uh, and uh, um, to ensure that as we build this resort, what, what's gonna be sort of unique. But I mean, it was interesting back in your old days, I mean, the design that you see now was not the design that we originally came up with.
It was. We had to go and fight for the fact that, you know, this still needs to be a Disney resort. Mm-hmm. , when someone walks in there, they need to see that the original resort was, we used code named, code named K, so it was resort K. It was great. So imagine seeing like a, a generic hotel that looks great anywhere else, and then you see proposed resort.
Mm-hmm. . So trying to convince people that we have to be Disney off the berm and now do we have to be Disney? We have to be very Disney. It'll be very, very, very much on the storytelling side,
[00:35:48] Djuan Rivers: but still authentically Hawaiian first with a little bit of, I, sort of a little bit of Disney sprinkled
[00:35:53] Lou Mongello: on top.
Yeah. That was the first thing we learned. So we, we went in there with our, um, you know, [00:36:00] Disney had on, and as I sat down with the community, we quickly realized that this thing had a lot riding on it. We quickly went big Hawaii, little d. You know, little Disney, big Hawaii. We had to make sure that it was all about Hawaii, but done in a Disney, Disney way.
[00:36:21] Djuan Rivers: Which, sorry, sets the standard for what Disney does as they move out to places like Shanghai and Hong Kong authentically, authentically Chinese,
[00:36:29] Lou Mongello: and then a little bit of Disney, Hong Kong. Yeah, exactly. You have to be authentic to your community or the community will not support it. And trust me, I as sitting down with so many people, they were telling me stories of, of companies that did not do that and, and failed miserably.
And I was like, well, that can happen. Uh, that cannot happen to us. But the early days were, uh, amazing. Um, I remember sitting in a meeting. Weeks of just being, I don't know. It was an uphill battle with people just not believing that Disney was going to do what we said we were gonna do. And, uh, a gentleman by the name of John Dre, who was one of our cultural consultants who pulled me aside and I was like, John, I don't get it.
We're, you know, we're, this was, remember I think 2008, the economy was in the toilet. There was a lot of unemployment and Disney was building this massive resort, one of the big, uh, companies that were, that were actually hiring at the time. And so I thought that was good enough. It wasn't, uh, in their minds, you're just another big.
Company coming in, taking advantage of their culture. And so he pulled me inside and said, look, Dwan, there's a word called, uh, ku, um, ku and KU is a Hawaiian word that's, that really deals with responsibility and that you, Disney have, you guys have the responsibility of telling the true Hawaiian story. And you know, that responsibility kind of manifests itself in, into something, you know, into what we call integrity as well.
But they're very much about [00:38:00] saying, you know, think of a brand, the Hiltons, the Marriotts, all those guys are great. They do a great job. But when they say something as Hawaiian, will people believe them? This Disney says it's gonna be Hawaiian. People will believe them. So you gotta get it right. And I remember sitting down with the CEO of First Hawaiian Bank.
I remember sitting down with, um, uncle Black, who was the, the informal. Voice of, uh, the west side. I remember sitting down with the hula community, the surfing community, the school system, Senator Hanabusa, the governor. I mean, I sat down and was, um, really preaching to Disney Gospel to, to everyone. And in the end, the support that we have from the community building a truly sort of this, everything about the resort was dedicated to Hawaii.
Because a lot of people will go to Hawaii and they will think that it's, they'll see something in, it could be Tahitian, it could be Fuji, it could, it could be from some other South Pacific, uh, region. But we want to make sure we dispelled all that and really highlighted. So the resort itself is built in the formal Ahu Pua, which is very instrumental in Hawaiian culture as, as far as land management.
And this. ability to work with each other. Um, once again in Juliana, um, the responsibility of, uh, ensuring that the what you do and what you say you're gonna do, you're gonna do it. And that's a leadership principle. I mean, leaders have that need to, to do what we say we're gonna do, and the integrity around that is important as well.
Um, so that was, uh, I think, um, well for me it was one of the, the, the greatest experiences I had in my career. And every time I go back to Hawaii, even now, people will still comment and say, you know, no one's done it. Like Disney, you know, the, [00:40:00] the, the impact you guys left was absolutely amazing. So I feel like the, the work we did, um, and the reputation we built, um, paid off, uh, just loads tremendously.
[00:40:16] Djuan Rivers: You know, when people mention Alani, an associate a name with it, , 99.999% of the time, it's Joe Roddy will talk about Joe. But I was thinking about you and your role and I, and I love the way you told the story because as I was thinking about chatting with you today, I said, I cannot fathom the enormous amount of pressure that must have been on you because you have this construction project on one hand that's 800, 900 mil, whatever the number is, it's up there.
We'll call it a billion just to round the number up. But you're also working with local communities. You're working with the local government. You're learning about Hawaiian culture and ensuring and promising, making a promise to the people of Hawaii that you will authentically integrate that into the resort you are thinking about, you know, making sure the environmental and that the environmentally friendly initiatives as you're building it, have to be first and foremost in design and construction.
you have all these different aspects of the business sort of creating demands on you. Oh, by the way, balancing the business requirements with storytelling and guest and experience is the overwhelm as, as massive as I'm imagining it.
[00:41:35] Lou Mongello: It's a lot, you know, but I think between Jim Kovski, who originally started the project on the construction side, Joe Rhode on the design side, in my, uh, being able to influence the operation component of the resort and the, the community piece.
Those three, the three of us working together, uh, were, was truly the answer to make sure that no one person got overwhelmed. [00:42:00] I think my, um, my foundation that I built made it a lot easier for Joe and for the Jim as they interacted because we've already built a level of trust and, um, it. , but we knew that what we were doing, um, had a great deal of pressure on us.
I remember in the early days talking to one of the, um, very tough sort of cultural folks, and he pulled me inside and said, Dwan, if you get this wrong on opening day, we will burn down your hotel . There will be burning tires, and we will, we will destroy it. And I was like, you gotta gimme a chance, . Like, you haven't even given me a chance.
Listen to us. And that's not a metaphor. That's not, and we literally will burn down your hotel. We, they, and he was right, because they've burned down all the structures. So it's not, it's not, it wasn't a joke. But we went from having that sort of friction relationship in the early days to, I remember spending time with him and his family on New Year's Eve, uh, my last year there on the beach.
And he just was, you know, super, you know, thankful about what Disney did. It was to go from an extreme dislike to an extreme. Uh, like was, it is just a huge, a huge jump. You know, we've, you know, we've had experiences where, um, we've had to fight back from that on projects and some projects didn't even happen because of the conflict with the community.
So we've learned a lot that you cannot, and just, you just see how important we are here in Orlando community and all the communities that we're in. That's, that's, that's fundamental to making sure we deliver, um, to our guests, is that we deliver to our, our community cuz that that's our source. You know, you can't ignore that.
Those are the people that will work here and support you and so forth.
[00:43:52] Djuan Rivers: And you learn lessons about, you know, you can't just sort of go and build a theme park and assume that the culture, the culture that is there, [00:44:00] French, Chinese, whatever, is just gonna adapt to the way that Disney wanted to do things.
There has to be this, this marriage in between the two. But I would be remiss if I did not ask on behalf of the person who's. Metaphorically sitting with us. You know, Joe Roddy is, is a, a remarkable creative and a personality. Talk to me a little bit about the experience of working with him, what he brings and, and maybe things that you working with him, things that you helped Joe with, and things that maybe Joe taught you.
[00:44:31] Lou Mongello: Yeah, I think the biggest thing that I was able to do for Joe was to smooth the road for him as he came in and the creative team came in. Um, Joe was originally from Hawaii. He was born there. So he had this extra sense of Julian responsibility to make sure it happened, right? Cuz that's his, that's his home, that's his home state.
And so, you know, working with Joe, he's a force to be working with one of the smartest guys I know. He made sure that anyone who touched anything from a design perspective, they were deeply entrenched on the cultural side. I think he had like a list of 10 or 12 books that people had to get through and master before they had an opportunity to get out there and start touching something.
So it was very important that. The two of us collaborated closely, um, on what we were doing and what we were thinking. Um, WDI takes full control on the creative side on things that we do. This is probably one of the first projects that we said. Okay, we're gonna, we're gonna step back a little bit and we want the community of Hawaii to help with our design.
So the hotel has the largest collection of contemporary Hawaiian art in the world. The outside, uh, fresh, the outside massive images are all Hawaiian artists, not Disney artists. They're all Hawaiian artists. Um, when you walk through the resort, all the work that you see or, uh, all the work that you see, the work is done by, uh, native [00:46:00] Hawaiians.
Um, Joe and I talked a lot back in those days and being able to, for me to. go out and set up a meeting and then, uh, for Joe and his team to come in and just make sure that we did it right. And then at that point, Joe and his team, they went out and set up meetings. I wasn't even there, but we've already, we already had the, the, the ears of people.
And at that point, um, and I think what the, the, the true lesson is you have to listen a lot before you talk. You have to listen a lot before you act. And sometimes, even though you're the expert. And we feel, and we are the experts. We crew does it better than Disney. But we also realize that we were not experts in Hawaii.
We were not experts, uh, with, um, um, what they themselves wanted to see. So we had to listen a lot. And that listening, that caretaking, and then for the design team to go back and, and, uh, produce it, it's almost like I, I akin it to my time at the Grand Floridian. I was like, I have a great idea. And they did it.
the, the people we work with in Hawaii say, I have a great idea. I think you guys should do it this way. And we did it. And they were like, holy, I can't, no. You know, we've had these conversations with multiple companies and no one's ever, no one's ever done it.
[00:47:21] Djuan Rivers: And so that's, you know, again, I look at everything that you do as a stepping stone to the next place that you go to.
So, and believe me, I could spend all day asking questions about Aulani, but your career continues to, to span farther and wider and deeper, because next you go over to Disneyland, Paris. Yes. Um, where you were the vice president of hotels and business solutions. So my guests, and correct me if I'm wrong, is the park has been open for 20 years...