Mickey Mouse

One of my favorite lessons to teach new custodial managers is the story of how Disneyland came to be — it has a lot to do with cleaning, believe it or not. Regardless of whether you are a fan of the Disney enterprise, the origin of the “Happiest Place on Earth” is an important illustration of just how powerful cleaning is for the human experience.

We’ve spent the past 18 months in this profession clamoring to reinforce the importance of cleaning for health, and rightfully so — it’s what happens in a pandemic. Cleaning for health, however, is multifaceted and provides tremendous benefits that go well beyond preventing diseases. How does this connect to Disneyland? The story goes something like this.

Pick up any biography on Walt Disney and you’re likely to find a passage about Walt’s Sunday activities. Sunday was “Daddy’s Day” for Walt and his daughters, and one of his favorite activities was taking them to small local amusement park. As his daughters rode the rides, Walt would find a bench, sit down and eat peanuts as he watched them.

Back then, it was rare for amusement parks to be clean and well-maintained. Typically, garbage would be overflowing, litter would be strewn around dirt pathways and, more often than not, benches were covered in spilled food — causing a sticky situation for anyone who chose to sit down.

Trash that did find a receptacle didn’t improve matters either, as most public trash cans were made of wire mesh with no liner. When folks threw away their food and garbage at an amusement park, the trash juice would congeal at the bottom and leak out the sides — creating a wonderful garbage odor that is as pungent as it is repellent.

As he sat alone on that park bench and took in the sights, Walt began to conceptualize Disneyland. He wanted a place parents and children could have fun together, but it also had to be a clean, well-maintained park that was similar to his experiences as a child at Electric Park in Kansas City.

Cleanliness was very important to the overall experience, and much effort was spent to control litter and odor. In fact, the modernday public trash receptacle was heavily influenced by Disney’s designs. It is covered with a lid that features a metal flap, which closes with a loud bang — sending a message to anyone nearby that “this is where the trash goes.”

In order to control litter, Disney found that humans will walk about 14 paces to search for a trash can before they become compelled to litter, which is why Disney parks space receptacles the way they do. When you can control odors, visible litter and dirt, people tend to want to help keep the place clean. In fact, I dare you to try littering at Disneyland sometime. My father used to amuse himself at Disneyland by crumbling up a napkin and throwing it on the ground in a thoroughfare at the park. His goal wasn’t to be a troublemaker, rather he wanted to see how people reacted. Most of the time, he would receive dirty looks from fellow park-goers as they picked up his trash and threw it away. One time, however, a park custodian magically appeared 45 seconds after the litter was thrown. As he picked up the napkin with his dustpan and broom, he tipped his hat to my father and said, “Hope you’re enjoying your day at the park, sir.”

While the Disney experience is definitely unique, this idea underscores an important aspect of human psychology. At Janitor University, we teach this lesson as “The Clean Syndrome.” Simply put, when human beings feel like they are in a clean environment, they tend to want to keep it that way. It’s a concept illustrated by the broken windows study that was famously performed in New York in the 1970s. An environment that is clean, tends to stay clean. An environment that is disheveled, will stay that way — and progressively get worse.

Ben Walker is COO at ManageMen, Inc., a leading cleaning industry consultancy specializing in training, transitions, auditing and educational materials. He can be reached at ben@managemen.com.