I’ll be honest, when my wife first said she wanted us to go to Disney World for a winter vacation I wasn’t all that excited at the prospect. I had never visited any Disney parks as a child, and I assumed the “Disney Experience” was just something for kids.

So at best I figured we’d escape the Canadian winter for a week and knock back a few cocktails at the hotel pool, but instead I got to observe what happens when a “user first” mantra is applied to every facet of a large operation. What I saw was that even the tiniest of details seemed to have been influenced by asking “how will this affect the guest? How will they experience this?”

Little delights and surprises

This attention to detail presents itself from your very first experience at the park, entering the gate and scanning your tickets. Instead of unceremoniously scanning a barcode under a red laser only to be greeted with a generic “beep-boo-doo” sound and a turnstile, you’re instead presented with an experience that feels straight out of Star Trek, complete with futuristic hardware and lights.

When you arrive at the gate you’re asked to do two things, hold your “ticket” (a plastic RFID embedded card) up to the illuminated Mickey head, and scan your finger print. Both the Mickey head and finger scanner are surrounded by bright white LED lights that swirl around your hands while scanning and quickly change to a very welcoming shade of green when you’ve been admitted. Sure, you’ve just given the Disney Corporation your fingerprint, but the whole thing provides enough of a “wow” experience that it’s easy to forget they now have your biometrics on record, forever.

Making a game out of standing in line

Once you’re in the park and have picked an attraction to visit you’re likely to be presented with one of life’s most unpleasant experiences… standing in line. But once again Disney has gone above and beyond, rather than simply looking to “distract” you from this unpleasant act they’ve gone and made it part of the experience itself.

While waiting in line for the Haunted Mansion (perhaps for the 4th time that day, which is really neither here nor there) you’ll encounter witty grave stones, interactive music walls, and an animated bookcase featuring books that pop out at you, each one inviting you to push it back into it’s place, only to have another one pop out. These interactive elements are so entertaining that often the Disney cast members had to remind people to keep moving onto the main attraction itself.

The little Extras, like easy wifi access

Disney no doubt has 1,000’s of choices to make when planning and operating their parks, each one having the ability to please or displease the end user. Yet in each case it appears they’ve opted to put the guest experience above their own interest.

Case in point, the free Disney Guest wifi, it’s free, it’s in every Disney property, both the free ones (ex: Downtown Disney) and the ticketed ones. Now in of itself this may not sound that impressive, lots of places like Starbucks and McDonald’s offer free wifi these days. But where Disney excels is the fact that I only had to accept their terms and conditions once, on the very first day of our trip.

From that point forward every Disney property I visited my phone would auto connect and I never again had to go through the clumsy “wait for the prompt, check the box, accept the terms, connect” sequence again. I can tell you’ve I’ve spent a single night at some hotels and had to go through that process more than once in a 24 hour period, forget about multiple properties across five days.

Now I’m sure some IT person or bean counter somewhere would find a slew of reason to force the user to accept the terms and conditions multiple times, bandwidth concerns, privacy concerns, or just plain cost. But the user experience won out as it was decided that easy, unfeathered wifi access was more important to the guest than any of those other concerns.

It helps that the free wifi goes hand in hand with their My Disney Experience app which provides things like park maps, dining reservations, and attraction wait times.

Putting the experience before a sale

I’m under no disillusion that Disney isn’t in the business of making money, my visa bill can attest to the fact that the parks certainly aren’t free. But they’ve done an excellent job of balancing the experience against the money makers, even to the point of missing out on potential sales.

This was most apparent to me when we encountered one of the parks photo service people, that is the professional photographers that hang out in some of the most popular landmarks taking guest photos as part of Disney pre-paid photo packages. My wife and I were setting up to snap a photo of one of these landmarks when the Disney photographer standing there graciously offered to take our photo for us… with our own camera,  for free.

My wife and I were setting up to snap a photo of one of these landmarks when the Disney photographer standing there graciously offered to take our photo for us… with our own camera,  for free.

I was gobsmacked by this, there was no sales pitch for their photo service, no bait and switch “I’ll gladly take your photo with the Disney camera and give you a card to purchase it if you like”, just a genuine offer to make our experience a little bit better.

I’m sure in some boardroom somewhere it was suggested that the photographers be encouraged to generate additional sales, be it through offering a “free” photo or pushing people to purchase a photo package, but it appears Disney decided that it would be a better guest experience to simply take the photo for free, even when the could make an extra dollar.

When things go wrong, handling the missteps

Despite all the planing in the world there are still times when things are going to go wrong, from a ride stopping with a full passenger load, to a child breaking down in tears immediately upon entering the Haunted Mansion, you can’t always prevent things from going wrong, but you can be preemptive in your handling of missteps.

Once again Disney excels in this area, when a ride stops and it’s time to give the passengers an update it’s not the ride operator speaking into a crackly PA speaker, but a pre-recorded message themed to the attraction itself. On the Little Mermaid it’s Sebastian the Crab declaring “Oh no! It seems you’ve stopped, must be the evil sea witch! I’ll look into it and get you on your way!”. For the crying child on the Haunted Mansion there’s a cast member right there offering the parent and child a quick and quiet exit to the outside world.

Comparisons with the competition

It’s easy to take all of the above and say “well Disney is selling an experience, of course it has to be good!”, and to an extent that’s very true. But when comparing Disney to the other theme parks in the area (namely, Universal Studios) it becomes apparent that it’s the small details, and guest friendly policies that push Disney over the top.

Remember the whimsical gate experience at Disney? At Universal it’s the standard “beep-boo-doo” sound. (They also wanted my finger print!)
The wifi? Still free, but you’re accepting the terms of service. Every. Single. Time.
Express passes? An extra $30/ticket at Universal, Fast Pass at Disney is free.

While I could cite many more small differences between the two organizations I think the following photo sums it up best, your standard “post ride” photo in the gift shop… with a big old sales pitch overlaid for Universal’s photo service.


I have no doubt in my mind that adding this ugly overlay was a reactionary decision based on people snapping a cell phone picture of the screens instead of purchasing the photos, but it just sums up difference between putting your users first or your business first. 

In Conclusion

Even with large scale operations the litany of decisions you make along the way all have an influence on the end user, each one is an opportunity to make the experience a little big better, or just a little bit worse. Some of these details may seem inconsequential, but when you continuously make user friendly decisions you end up with something that’s greater than the sum of it’s parts. If you continuously put the user first it will show in your final product, and can tip the scales from providing a “good” experience to providing a “great” experience.


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