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Designing Magical Moments: How Disney Crafts a Delightful Experience

Months of planning and anticipation finally paid off a few weeks ago when my family and I spent a full week exploring Disney World. I hadn’t been since second grade, so I was looking forward to seeing parks and attractions that hadn’t even existed back then. (For reference, Epcot was still only 5 or 6 years old, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios didn’t exist, and Pixar wouldn’t release Toy Story for another 8 years.)

As an experience, Disney World has both the grandest vision and the best execution of any place in the world. Walt Disney clearly cared about every aspect of his visitors’ time while they were in his parks, and he managed to instill that same responsibility into the people who succeeded him.

As I explored the parks with my family, here are some lessons I learned to help me think about creating better experiences for my own visitors.

Tell a story

Disney lives and breathes by its stories. Every world, every ride, and even every shop tells a story. At most theme parks, a roller coaster is a set of tracks with heights, valleys, and maybe loops. Maybe it has a cool name that conjures a story like The Big Bad Wolf. You wait your turn for a few moments of adrenaline. At Disney World, a roller coaster is an expedition through the caves in the Himalayas with a yeti chasing you. Even waiting in line is part of the story, as you trek through a Himalayan village filled with mountain climbing gear, travelling paraphelia, and ancient statuary devoted to the mysterious guardian of the mountain.

This photo shows some of the detailed scenery along the queue area for Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom.

A travel office you pass on your journey to Expedition Everest. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Even the shops and restaurants are themed around stories. Gaston’s Tavern is a quick service restaurant that looks like a 17th-century tavern replete with hunting trophies and giant casks of ale. You can get a drink there that looks like a foamy mug of ale; it’s actually a delicious frozen apple juice with fruit-flavored whip cream called LeFou’s Brew. As you walk into the marketplace in Mexico in the World Showcase, it feels like you’re walking into a small village market at night. There are small shops selling Tequila and delicate glass scattered in buildings to either side with a handful of carts strewn in between. Softly lit lanterns hang above in the otherwise dark room.

The decor at Gaston's Tavern is only a little worse for wear after Gaston's latest archery practice.

The decor at Gaston’s Tavern is only a little worse for wear after Gaston’s latest archery practice.

Appeal to every sense

Disney conveys these stories through all of your senses. Music tinged with medieval tones in Fantasyland shifts to revolutionary concertos in Liberty Square followed by western ballads in Frontierland. Carnival food scents like popcorn and pretzels tease your nostrils near Dumbo. Blackletter and script fonts transition to sans-serif and futuristic fonts in Tomorrowland. Exotic fruits and spicy dishes flavor Adventureland restaurants while Main Street restaurants hearken back to classic American dishes. Even the paths mimic the lands with broad straight boulevards in Main Street and Tomorrowland, twisting, turning pathways in Fantasyland, and blind alleys and tunnels into Adventureland.

Something for everyone

Confession: I can’t do roller coasters. Even a relatively mild one can leave me feeling dizzy and groggy for hours. That didn’t stop me from having a blast at Disney World though, because they’ve designed a multi-faceted experience that appeals to a broad variety of people. There are scavenger hunts, hidden details, and non-ride attractions like the Swiss Family Treehouse and Tom Sawyer’s Island for the explorers. Socialites can dine at world-class restaurants, watch live shows, and participate in impromptu parades. Kids can meet their favorite characters, get dressed up as princesses or pirates, and play with interactive games and toys. And even among the rides, they can be educational like Spaceship Earth, competitive like Space Ranger Spin, relaxing like The Jungle Cruise, or spooky like The Haunted Mansion. (None of which bothered this easily motion sick writer.)

Address problems proactively

Whenever I go on a ride, I’m always thinking of what’s wrong with the thing and how it can be improved.

Walt Disney

The bane of every theme park is the lines. When you create something that everyone wants to see, inevitably there are queues. Disney addresses this pain point in several different ways. For the most popular attractions (rides, shows, and even some characters), Disney provides FastPasses. Spend a few minutes at one of their FastPass kiosks and you can sign up for three FastPass spots to any configuration of rides or shows you’d like per day. Then just swipe your card (or band) at the FastPass entrance and bypass the line entirely. The limited number per person keeps abuse down and lets people choose their highest priorities.

Run out of FastPasses for the day? Even waiting in line at Disney is less of a chore than many places. Most kid-friendly rides have entertainment options along the queue. Dumbo has a playground and gives parents a buzzer to let them know when their turn is up. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has age-appropriate interactive toys and games along the line to keep kids from getting bored. Even the rides for older folks have brilliantly laid out queues that begin telling the story of the ride.

Solving problems before they occur isn’t just relegated to addressing lines at Disney. Several times, I caught cast members covering strollers with plastic to keep them from getting wet as it started to rain.

Clear vision and organization

Each kingdom at Disney has a clear vision: Magic Kingdom focuses on the wonder of stories, told across different genres and time periods. Epcot is the Experiment Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a melding of futuristic technology and world culture. Animal Kingdom is a globe-trotting, animal-loving adventure. And Hollywood Studios showcases great movies and music.

Even within these kingdoms, smaller sub-lands have themes. Magic Kingdom has Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Frontierland, and Liberty Square revolving around the Magic Castle and Main Street. While walking through Animal Kingdom, you pass through Discovery Island, Africa, Asia, and DinoLand USA. Each of these smaller lands is framed by visual design, music, and attractions. It’s clear when you’re entering one land and leaving another, and there are big landmarks in most lands to help you find them from other nearby places.

Delightful details

Disney has the grand vision mastered, but they do an amazing job of nailing the little details, too. Look at the ground while you’re waiting for Dumbo or the Magic Carpets of Aladdin, and you’ll notice peanuts scattered around the former and jewels around the latter. Cast members (from characters to shop clerks) appear in appropriate dress for the land they’re in; you’ll never see a futuristic-looking cast member in Frontierland and vice-versa. (For that matter, you’ll NEVER see multiple copies of the same character at the same time.)

Gorgeous circus-style posters adorning the walls near Dumbo and Pete's Silly Sideshow.

Disney’s gorgeous posters promote rides and attractions and blend in perfectly with the surrounding environment. I enjoyed their posters so much, I ended up buying Poster Art of the Disney Parks.

While waiting in line to meet Mickey the Magician, there were gorgeously designed posters advertising his magic show that move when you least expected it. The employee-only door beside Buzz & Woody’s character spot is labelled “Andy’s Toys”. We had a character breakfast with Winnie the Pooh, and my son wore his birthday badge. Unprompted, the waitress brought us a birthday card signed by Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, and Eeyore. (Sure, they probably have the cards stockpiled somewhere, but she paid attention to the little badge on our three-year old’s shirt and made his day.)

This video shows many of the delightful details you'll see waiting in line for Mickey the Magician at Magic Kingdom.

Focus on people

At the end of our second day, my son had reached his limit. He was exhausted, overwhelmed, and ready for a break. We were sitting just inside the entrance to Animal Kingdom after a long, hot and humid day when he broke down, crying and screaming. A passing cast member, a young girl with broom and dustpan, stopped to try and cheer him up. She pulled out dinosaur stickers and engaged him like a friend, asking what he’d done that day and what his favorite parts were.

You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.

Walt Disney

The cynical part of me wants to suggest that it’s part of the Disney training that cast members must do whatever it takes to calm screaming children. (“We ARE the happiest place on earth, gosh darn it!”) But if that’s truly the case, this young girl hid that behind a very convincing facade of kindness. Almost anywhere else, that employee would have turned a blind eye and quickened their step to avoid the epic toddler meltdown occurring. (And I wouldn’t have blamed them one bit.)

Even if it is a part of the training, it’s for a good purpose. Every cast member we interacted with was helpful and cheery. If they couldn’t answer a question, they’d make sure to find someone who could. Passing cast members, ride attendants, and shop clerks would unfailingly say “Happy birthday” to my son or my wife as they passed wearing their birthday buttons. And the kindness is infectious - more than a few visitors also said “happy birthday” in passing. (Of course, they could have been cast members on break, but still.)

In conclusion

As I think about the experience we had at Disney, there are lots of great takeaways that I can think about in crafting a better experience for my own products. Here are a couple questions I can ask in evaluating the experience:

  • How can I tell stories through my product? What elements can I add that enhance the story?
  • Can I appeal to other senses with my product? Building things on the web, it’s hard to appeal to taste and smell directly, but I can still convey scents and flavors with copy and imagery. Textures and motion can make elements “feel” more touchable.
  • How can I build my product for different motivations and interests? Even within a relatively simply application, different users will have different goals and motivations for using it. How can you build it to be adaptable?
  • What problems might my users have? How can I anticipate them? How can I alleviate them?
  • How is my product organized? Is every bit of copy and iconography clear? Does the information architecture make sense and is the content appropriate for each section?
  • Where are the delightful details? Have I engineered moments that elicit a smile or a “wow” from my user?
  • How can I make my product more personal? Can the copy be more conversational? Can the support flow feel more friendly and less automated? Can I connect people directly?

Want more?

I’m certainly not the first person to write about Disney’s magical experiences. Here are a few other great resources to learn more about the Disney mindset:

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