I just returned from a three day stint at Disneyland with my children and grandchildren in tow. It’s good for me to periodically join the masses of humanity and gain a greater appreciation of what I have at our more solitary ranch home. That being said, the Disney experience has shown me several remarkable tips that I think any Dude Ranch operator could learn from. Here are some take-home lessons for the Guest Ranch/ Dude Ranch industry that I feel we can learn from Mickey Mouse and company.

Good customer relations fuel accelerated business growth. We discovered a minor discrepancy between the confirmation package of our Disney Travel Package and the Disney website text.   My wife Heidi and my son Aaron called for clarification of the hotel inclusions and they were rudely answered by an employee who was curt, and uncaring. The employee ultimately left Heidi and Aaron on “hold” through the closing hours of the office after they asked for her complete name or employee I.D., which she refused to provide.  The original issue was relatively minor, so we decided to ignore this rough start, and proceed with our planned vacation for grandparents, children and grandchildren.  As we were driving into the Disneyland parking facility on our first day, we received a phone call from Bridget at Disney Travel. She had apparently been trying to reach us during our travels from our Northern California dude ranch. She explained that she had become aware of our experiences during a routine review of quality assuredness recordings taken during our prior phone call.

Ultimately, Bridget and her assistant met us at the front gates soon afterward, with passes for an extended third day visit, along with several Fast Pass tickets to various rides of our choice.

The Disney Guest Relations Crew turned a disappointing vacation start into a wonderfully happy Disney finale.  This kind of determination to ferret out guest relation failures and to correct them should set a standard for all of us dude ranchers to emulate. I’ll also call this the “Costco phenomenon” where you can return almost any unsatisfactory item with impunity.  For both Costco and Disney, the investment into guest relations has a greater return on investment than less user friendly business models.

dude ranchers at disneyland

dude ranch owners visit disneyland

Facility Appearances matter! The army of behind the scenes maintenance crews, the ever present sweepers, trash pickers, and cleaning staff minions are an understood reality of anyone who knows Disney. Disneyland looks clean, smells clean and feels clean. The landscaping is immaculate, the paint is always fresh, and there are plenty of seating options and quiet places to relax. When I review Tripadvisor reviews from various dude ranches, one of the common and recurring complaints I read is that the facility is poorly maintained, poorly cleaned, or poorly furnished. Lets look to Mickey Mouse and prioritize our facility infrastructures! We might argue that Disneyland is too commercialized and that a dude ranch should be rustic. OK, but lets not let “rustic” become our go-to standard if we hope to attract a client base that can afford our pricing structure.

Dress the part! Each Disney “theme land” has a required costume. The employees are ALL considered “cast members” and must act, dress, and look the part for the role they are playing. The Disney staff are appropriately dressed in theme appropriate garb. Have you ever seen an immodestly dressed Disney cast member? Have you ever seen a Disney cast member with intrusive counter-culture body adornments that distract from the intended imagery of the park theme? So, when we go to a western dude ranch, should we expect to see staff members in Bob Marley t-shirts, sporting dread-locks and tie dye? The players at a dude ranch, need to preserve the heritage of our western ranch identity and minimize the other-worldly adornments that detract from our primary business model and imagery. We are “on stage”, even when we are in a working ranch setting.

Don’t cheap the deal.  Disneyland is arguably not a cheap vacation. I think I paid about $8.00 for a corn-dog, $3.50 for a bottle of coke, and so-on. But the $45 / plate character’s luncheon served up some of the best tri-tip, lobster tail, and pasta I have had in quite a while. The point here is that we need to not nickel and dime our guests or conversely under-price our service, but equate the ticket price with matching quality of product. I know Disney is not going to be a  cheap holiday when I book, but I also know that I am going to get an equivalent level of service and product for my spent dollar. For me, I prefer to go a step further and set the service bar higher than what I imagine my client base is expecting. An impression of a steep ticket price will transform into a perceived bargain if your guests depart with a sense of rendered service that is greater than what they first expected. In sum, ask a fair price, then give more than they are expecting.

Risk management trumps fun.  The thrill of the Disney rides is bounded by the safety factor of reducing risk to an acceptable level.  Clearly dude ranch events operate in a world of far greater risk exposure than Disney rides.  Cattle drives, horseback trail rides, white water rafting, and the other ranch adventure sports are never operated on a track with hands and feet kept inside a seat belted cart.  At Disney, the goal is to present a PERCEIVED risk or thrill, with a reality of near complete control of actual risk exposure.  For dude ranchers, this phenomenon is reversed.  We have a perceived level of risk that is largely misunderstood or unseen by our guests, while the actual risk exposure is significant and often threatening.  This is illustrated by the frequently asked question of novice riders:  “I galloped a horse for 4 hours in Mazatlan once, why can’t my 7 year old and I gallop and lope our horses on this mountain trail?”

We can can learn a bit from the Disney concept of “perceived” risk by the guest participants contrasted to actual risk exposure.  We can limit our actual risk exposures behind the scenes by grooming horse trails and by remove riding hazards.  We professionally manage our string of horses to be public friendly.  We can require life jackets on raft trips and helmets for adventure horse rides, and so-on.  The lesson here is that we must be diligent and persistent in our efforts to limit risk exposures in those areas that are in our realm of control, while preserving the essential qualities of the authentic ranch experience.

In sum, while we all want to preserve the authentic small venue western dude ranch experience, there may well also be some take-home lessons we can glean from the experts who can comfortably and efficiently host 50,000 guests in a day.

See ya on the trail or in the rapids, but probably not at Frontierland!