“Like nothing else in the world”: How Disneyland is a masterclass in CX

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Written by Mikki Toledo,
• 10 min read
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Picture this: it’s a humid summer day in your childhood home. You’re melting into the living room sofa under the fiery rays of the sun that reach through the window as long, golden beams. You struggle to feel any relief from the single fan spinning in the corner, but its melodic sputtering keeps you company.

School has been out for several weeks and you have yet to do anything exciting for the summer. That is until your mom and dad come in to say the sweetest 4 words a child can ever hear: “we’re going to Disneyland!” And suddenly, the room doesn’t feel so much like hell anymore…but heaven.

What makes this place so special? On the surface, it’s a park with roller coasters and cartoon characters wandering the streets. Basically, it’s fun.

Right?

Well, it’s more complicated than that.

Disneyland is the epitome of CX excellence. Every piece of the park is purposefully designed with the visitor in mind. What’s more impressive is that Walt Disney accomplished creating a park so exceptional that it has been synonymous with childhood for multiple generations.

More than 750 million people have visited Disneyland; over 18 million in 2019 alone. According to their financial reports, Disney makes about 13 billion per day (yes, per DAY) on all six of their parks. That roughly translates to a range of $4-6 million in profit per day for Disneyland. Even with ticket prices rising 70% over ten years to manage crowds, Disneyland still attracts droves of people regardless.

Disneyland is more than a location, more than a park; it’s an experience – and one that anyone in product, marketing, or brand-building can learn from as they shape and evolve their customer experience.

Lean into language.

One of the most important things a business can create is its value proposition. What is the company working towards? In the case of Disneyland, it was to “create happiness.” In a few words, the park’s core was defined for decision-makers. From there, Disney’s team worked itself outward barring those words in mind.

For example, at Disneyland, visitors are called “guests,” crowds are “audiences,” and workers are “hosts/hostesses” and “cast members.” The tweak in nomenclature could be seen as overdoing it to an outsider, but for Van Arsdale France who was in charge of creating training material for Disneyland when it opened in 1955, it was a significant modification.

To him, perspective influenced attitude.

Disney wanted the park’s customer experience to be that of a theater production; everyone has a role to play to make a masterpiece. Using “guest” in place of “customer” reminds employees of Disneyland’s purpose to “create happiness.” And creating happiness starts with excellent customer service. 

Every brand has an opportunity to lean into their language. If you’re stuck, there’s a lot of great resources and tools and exercises out there that can help you work through your brand’s language. We’ve actually developed our own as part of our Brand DNA process to help brand teams with exactly that.

Sweat the small things. They add up.

Walt Disney and his team knew how important every detail was at Disneyland. For example, instead of the gates on main street buildings being made of plastic, Disney insisted on using real wrought iron gates. He even went as far as incorporating an authentic, steam-powered train to bring guests around the park instead of a ride that merely looks like one. 

He thoroughly planned the park’s layout down to having only one entrance so that everyone could behold the grandiose turn-of-the-century main street beyond the main gate. He agonized over the exact height of the castle to guarantee it can be seen at every corner of the park to orient his guests. 

John Hench, a Walt Disney Studios artist turned park designer, noted “Look at the top of the castle. At the base of the highest tower are a series of tremendously detailed gargoyles which you can barely see from the ground. And yet they are part of our ‘magic formula.’ They are part of a thousand little tiny details we are looking at right now but don’t consciously perceive. 

Individually they are nothing. Collectively, they add up to a visual experience that the guest can’t find anywhere else.”

Today, Disney parks have developed even more creative ways of maintaining the magic. For example, Go Away Green and Blending Blue are unique paint colors Disney Imagineers created that can camouflage unsightly necessities like generators and light poles.

Another example is the underground trash system at Disney World. According to WorldofWalt.com, it has 17 collection points around Magic Kingdom and an underground system of vacuum tubes. Every 15 minutes, trash is sucked at a speedy 60 miles per hour to a compactor located behind Splash Mountain. This way, guests aren’t burdened with having to witness oozing trash bags being lugged around the park in wheelie bins.

Photo courtesy of OrlandoParksGuy. Disney eateries use Smellitzer machines to pump the smell of sweet treats to entice guests.

Invest in research.

The Stanford Research Institute was established for the purpose of conducting scientific, economic, and technical research that would benefit the west coast. At the time, data-based applied research was a “new kind of consulting.” Buzz Price, an SRI research economist whose participation was monumental to the early stages of Disneyland, said about his job, “Our job at SRI, on each assignment, was to prove our consulting opinions by the numbers.”

The SRI team was fundamental to Disneyland’s success. Based on their research, Disney scoped and chose Annaheim, California as his location based on where the population of California would be in ten years time, how flat it was, if it was accessible to automobiles, distance from the beach, temperature during the winter, and property prices.

The team also examined the current state of the amusement park market. Price suggested that they “study market behavior in other amusement parks and public attractions and use it as a basis for judgment in developing an economic feasibility model.” For the SRI folks, it was a challenge to find anything similar to Disneyland because of how ahead of its time it was. Harper Goff, one of Disney’s men working on the topic said, “My wife and I traveled thousands of miles, all over the United States trying to find information about, for example, what proportion should there be of men’s to women’s toilets….How much thievery? How many people came in a car? How big a parking lot?”

The result of their findings combined with Disney’s creative genius would be a totally unique, never-before-seen family experience that would kickstart the theme park market.

Explore new and unconventional forms of creative problem solving.

What IDEO and the rest of the consulting world calls “Design Thinking,” Walt Disney called “Imagineering.” A 1942 Time magazine ad for Alcoa described it as “Imagineering is letting your imagination soar, and then engineering it down to earth.” Simply put, it is creative problem solving.

When Disneyland was being constructed, amusement parks were regarded as stodgy, cheap thrills. Disney sought out to create something “like nothing else in the world.” He ultimately achieved his goal by going against the grain and creating a new category of entertainment: the theme park.

Buzz Price, said on the subject, “It sounded strange, unlike anything you would expect in an amusement park. […] He was talking about customized rides, exhibits, and attractions instead of standard off-the-shelf Ferris wheel and tunnel of love…Rides would be subordinate to story and setting.”

When Disney built his park, he had to find a way to shut out the world around it so guests could be fully immersed in adventure. When guests took the Jungle Cruise, a transformer, highway, or high-rise building should not be seen from any angle. The Imagineers built a berm to shut out the sound outside since trees alone wouldn’t accomplish that. They used twenty feet of earth garnished with all the landscaping they could afford to completely block out the outside world.

Disney empowered his team to tackle Disneyland’s ambitions with design driven approaches. This philosophy has blossomed well into the 21st century as more consultancies like ours here at Digital Surgeons, have fostered design thinking and new ways of creative problem solving that lean into design methodology. Disney had invested in brand experience and growth marketing because of his own creativity and the research foundation SRI provided for him. The result was the birth of a new industry with Disney leading the way.

Photo courtesy of CNN. Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise uses plant species from six different continents to block out the outside world.

Think forward and never stop iterating.

Disney embraced new technology when he built his park. He traveled to Germany to observe a monorail, something not yet seen in America, with plans to incorporate it into Tomorrowland. But, in true imagineering fashion, Disney’s team was able to take current monorail technology and upgrade it from “an ugly loaf of bread” to “the train of the future” with sleek, curved edges that had the appearance of speed even at rest.

He also reinvented the roller coaster; using steel instead of wood and polyurethane instead of rubber for their wheels. They also introduced the “bobsled” carts for coasters so they no longer sat on top of the track, but instead fit between the tracks; something we see as a standard today.

Even now, new technologies and methodologies are embraced at Disney parks. The Magical Express is Disney World’s private ground transportation that transports guests from the Orlando Airport to the resort to make the last leg of traveling easier and more comfortable for guests. The Magical Express also “magically” delivers luggage to guests’ bedrooms; another example of Disney prioritizing ease of traveling for visitors.

In 2013, Disney World introduced Magic Bands; digitally enhanced bracelets that allow guests to enter the park, make purchases, access their hotel rooms, and manage parking tickets with a tap. In 2021, Disney once again simplified guests’ experience and launched the MagicMobile app, thus retiring the Magic Bands.

This is a great example of how they’re fusing modern UX paradigms of near-field communication (NFC) based experiences that have gained major traction like Apply Pay in coffee shops and grocery stories. In light of the new up and coming technologies like NFTs and Web3 at large, the real question is… how will they evolve their CX next? Jury is still out, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see custom NFTs given out at the park or through other medium that park goers can also redeem for limited edition collectables surrounding their favorite characters at the magic kingdom.

Photo courtesy of Disney. Disney is never done upgrading their CX. Magic Bands (left), the already simple way to access cash and room keys, has been replaced by the Magic Mobile app (right).

Disney (the company) is forward thinking; obsessed with outdoing themselves in customer experience. Disney (the man) is an icon for scanning the horizon; looking ahead when others are preoccupied with shortsighted goals.

Disneyland and Disney resorts have one reason why millions of people visit each year; the customer experience is as good as it gets. The parks effectively transport visitors to other worlds without the interruption of the world beyond the gates. It’s truly an escape that was accomplished through innovations centered around customer experience and service excellence.

Thinking about upgrading your CX? Let’s chat. We’d love to help you reimagine what’s possible for your brand.