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Behind the Magic: What Experiential Marketers Can Learn from Disney

Behind the Magic: What Experiential Marketers Can Learn from Disney

5 minute read

  • Disney’s ability to create a memorable experience is legendary, and can be traced back to founder Walt Disney  
  • Walt Disney believed experiences were like incomplete products, which could always be improved upon
  • The Disney “experience” is completely unique and offer key learnings to all experiential marketers

Each year, millions of people flock to Disney’s various theme parks, resorts and cruise lines around the world. In fact, Disney Parks boast a 70% return rate among first time Disney visitors, a remarkable statistic, especially for a theme park. And yet, when most people describe what stood out to them during their visit to a Disney Park, it’s not the multi-million dollar rides —it’s the friendly staff, attention to detail, and the cleanliness that makes their experience so memorable. Truly, Disney is not in the business of selling theme parks, rides or cruises—they are in the business of selling exceptional consumer experiences.

This week, MKTG outlines Disney’s award-winning approach to creating exceptional experiences & identifies key learnings for experiential marketers.


Disney’s success has less to do with the product they offer, and more with how they deliver it

All Disney employees, from guest services to custodial staff, are trained to be effective communicators. Disney team members are trained to actively seek opportunities to connect with guests on-site, and to answer common questions even if it’s “not their job.” Rather than wait to be asked a question, park staff will often approach any guests who appear lost or confused. This ensures that every guest feels important, and are looked after at all times. Disney also goes the extra step by ensuring each experience is personalized. Disney Park staff often hand out badges to guests who are on their first visit, or celebrating a significant milestone such as a birthday or engagement. As ambassadors of the Walt Disney Company, staff are trained to recognize and congratulate any guest carrying a badge. For experiential marketers, Disney demonstrates the value and importance of training and educating on-site ambassadors. To Disney, those on the front line are the bottom line, and ultimately responsible for creating memorable moments with guests. Much of Disney’s on-site success is attributed to the unique culture and language it uses when training consumer-facing staff. For example, Disney “employees” are always referred to as “cast members,” while customers are referred to as “guests.” While this might seem trivial to some, this practice and training sets the right tone amongst ambassadors of the company, which is then passed down to the guest. It is an intentional element of the company culture, a culture that is well defined, clear to all, and is goal-oriented. Everyone at Disney has a role in the show.


It’s what Disney does beyond the rides to ensure a complete experience

Guests of Disney may spend anywhere from a day to an entire week exploring the many theme parks which make up Walt Disney World. However, with the average ride only lasting 1-7 minutes in duration, only a fraction of the time spent within the park is actually spent on a ride. Disney recognizes that the majority of time spent within the park is walking, eating, or waiting in line. As a result, the Walt Disney Company has invested significant research and money to make time every experience outside of a Disney ride more interactive. For years, Disney has included interactive components for guests to experience while they wait in line. For example, before embarking on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride, guests can mine for jewels on digital touchscreens. Disney was also the first theme park to introduce Fastpass, enabling park visitors to schedule their ride time in advance of their trip in order to jump to a separate, shorter line. Now fully digital and available through MyDisneyExperience.com, guests can make fast-pass selections, dinner reservations, check entertainment times, and purchase photos from the comfort of their homes. Disney’s digital portal and onsite technology are examples of successful integration of digital in order to enhance the onsite experience. For experiential marketers, digital technology is a vital tool in helping extend an experience beyond the duration and boundaries of a physical engagement.


Disney doesn’t skip on the details, creating a consistent experience

Disney Imagineers spend countless hours carefully detailing every visual element within the many Disney Parks. However, Disney is just as notable for what you don’t see – litter. Each day, tens of thousands of guests walk down Disney’s Main Street, and yet, it remains spotless, with no traces of gum, wrappers, or spilled popcorn. Disney World and Disneyland’s cleanliness can be traced back to founder Walt Disney, who personally spent many days in the park, mixing in with the crowds - often sleeping overnight in his apartment above the Town Square firehouse. Walt’s hands-on approach enabled him to see the Disneyland from the eyes of his guest. While walking around other theme parks disguised as a guest, Walt found that many visitors would not walk more than a few yards after finishing a food item before littering. Today, trash cans at Disney Parks are never more than 30 feet apart. For experiential marketers, the practice of envisioning themselves in guest shoes is a valuable practice to help uncover important details, and avoid guest conflicts. A key pillar of Walt’s legacy within the Walt Disney Company is his belief that people can feel perfection, and that devotion to detail lets guests know that they’re worth the effort. Walt's ability to experience the park in the same way as his guests contributed greatly to its cleanliness and the success of the parks today.


Disney believes in constant and never-ending optimization

Walt Disney knew that the deliverance of a magical experience to each and every guest was dependent on developing perfect processes, and continually seeking ways to improve upon them. Walt’s obsession with his Disneyland park stemmed from the fact that he saw it as a forever incomplete product which could always be improved. Walt instilled this obsession with innovation with his team, which was subsequently passed along to future generations of Walt Disney Company leaders. Today, as guests walk through Disney World, the volume of the ambient music never changes. This is because more than 15,000 ambient sound system speakers have been positioned using complex algorithms to ensure that the sound plays at the same decibel level throughout the entire park at all times. While music within the parks was never on the list of guest complaints, the company’s constant pursuit of innovation led Disney to achieve a technical feat beyond its own industry, both acoustically, electrically, and mathematically.

Needless to say, Disney, like any great experiential marketer, sweats the small stuff. Despite being leaders in creating exceptional experiences, Disney is always looking for ways to take what they do, and do it even better. Every aspect of the experience, no matter how small, is communicating a message. Like Disney, experiential marketers must devote considerable time and attention to detail in order to create a truly personal, seamless, and immersive experiences.


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