I’m sitting on the airplane back to Minnesota with Anna and our four kids… another annual trip to Orlando in the books. I think I may have worn holes in my sneakers. I need a vacation from my vacation.
I’ve been working in the theme park business for over 20 years, in Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks, and have visited parks like Sea World and Universal Studios many times with my family over the past 15 years. For the last decade, our timeshare in Orlando has brought us to sunny central Florida and it’s plethora of theme parks for a week of rides, countless miles of sweaty walking around and $6.00 cheeseburgers. Despite the repetition and familiarity with it all (or perhaps because of it) I always leave Orlando reminded of the difference between Disney theme parks and the rest of the them. There is a reason Disney is the undisputed heavyweight champion of all vacation destinations in general, and theme parks in particular. That reason is that they do it all right, and no one else comes close.
Over the years I’ve boiled down the Disney difference into three primary areas where Disney excels so greatly that it significantly alters a visitor’s entire experience compared to another theme park or vacation destination. Here they are in what I see is the order of increasing importance:
Design- Disney parks and resorts are designed down to the last screw, frame and piece of drapery, and not just as eye candy. I don’t think Disney can claim to be the most elaborately designed and visually stunning parks in the world… or even in Orlando. I think you would have to give that nod to Universal Studios: Islands of Adventure in Orlando. That park features the faux ruins of ancient civilizations, Dr. Suess’ world in three dimensions, signs that spins with gears and almost every thing else you can think of. When I speak of design I am talking about function and convenience as much as looks and environment. Actually Disney’s parks are aging and short of ripping them up completely they won’t ever match the overboard uberdesign of a Universal park… and they don’t need to. Disney’s parks don’t swat you on the nose with visual overload, they are more about the little things. The layouts of their parks are easier to navigate, and they spend more time figuring out what would make their guest’s time in the park easier and more enjoyable, and then they incorporate those things with elegant and subtle design. One major example: parking and getting from their parking lots to the front gate of the parks. In every Disney park there is a team of people directing you to your parking spot, and a tram that picks you up and whisks you to the front gate. You never have to wait for more than a few cars to get to your spot, nor more than a few minutes for this tram, and it never drops you off farther than a few rows from your vehicle at night. No matter how busy or slow the park is, they always have a proper number of parking attendants and trams running to make it as easy as possible to get you into the park. That is design and efficiency. Universal Studios has you park in a ramp, where you will often wait to get both in and out, and make you walk an ungodly distance with only a few moving walkways to help you on your way. You are already sweating by the time you get to the gate, and the long walk BACK to your car with exhausted kids in tow is a little like torture. I don’t care how pretty the scenery is at Universal, the designers of that park should be required to make that hike hauling 4 kids after running a marathon in their park every day they work as penance. There are countless other examples from the way they handle the food service to how they allow for people to avoid some of the longer ride lines in a fair and impartial manner. Disney understands what is important to the guests, and delivers it.
Branding- As far as a guest’s experience at Disney theme park, the branding (characters, themes relating to their characters and symbols and other use of logos, film and media ties-ins, etc) should be of least importance on this list. Having Mickey Mouse silhouettes on the back of the chairs and eating in Pinocchio’s Cottage doesn’t make the food taste better or make things more convenient. But let’s face it, Disney is the House that the Mouse built. Anyone who has ever brought their kids to Disney and watch their eyes go as big as saucers when Snow White signs their autograph book and leave a big, red lipstick kiss on their cheek understands the power of Disney branding. Admittedly, Disney has an advantage here that cannot be equalled elsewhere, as they have been a media powerhouse for 60 years and thanks to Pixar they are only getting stronger. Still, Disney handles their branding with the same deliberate smarts and savvy they handle most everything else. It isn’t over or under done. They have characters accessible but not so much that the magic of seeing one is lost due to the common nature of it. They schedule and distribute the appearances just enough that guests can see these characters without too much difficulty. They also manage to keep current and recognize and ride the waves of popularity with both in-park design and merchandising. A great example of this recently is the enormous success of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Disney understood they hit a gold mine with this, and they jumped on board with park redesign, merchandise tie -ins and shows. They redid portions of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to feature animatics of “Captain Jack Sparrow” and other characters from the films… much to the chagrin of Disney purists who for some odd reason find this offensive. It’s a theme park ride… the pirate with the dirty feet on the bridge doesn’t remember you and isn’t out of work, nor are your childhood memories somehow damaged because during the 3 minutes a year you are on the ride Johnny Depp’s animated figure now peeps out of a well. Get over it. Very clever merchandise like the traditional Mickey Ears hat with a pirate scarf and one ear pierced with a pirate earring are now in their shops, and a very good small show with a Johnny Depp look-a-like doing a spot on imitation of his Jack Sparrow plays in the walkway outside the ride at the Magic Kingdom. These additions are cleverly thought out and do not smack of a quick jump on the gravy train. Disney is too smart for that. They know they have a powerful marketing tool in their branding, and they wield it effectively.
Six Flag’s branding might have similar clout, but Warner Bros. has always been ham-handed about using it and they have never done it effectively in their theme parks. Bugs Bunny and his pals and the DC Superheroes (Superman, Batman) have some serious branding potential, but it is mishandled by the Six Flags people. For example, this year Six Flags decided they needed to make a park visit more of an “experience”… their efforts consisted of an afternoon “parade” that included people riding in golf carts, employees walking in superhero outfits, actors from various shows in the park and anyone else who might be wearing a costume of some sort in the normal course of their working at the park walking along. No music to speak of, no show or entertainment incorporated, no floats… nothing but bored looking people waving at a very bored crowd. In one park I saw just regular employees in their park polo shirts walking along waving generic flags. The parade mercifully lasted just a few minutes. I won’t bother comparing it to a Disney parade.
The bottom line here is that not only does Disney protect it’s branding with only well thought out and designed merchandise and environments, they continue to reinvent themselves.
The People- This is the most important thing about Disney, and it’s something I will never be able to understand how they accomplish so well. The people that work at the Disney Parks are just different than in other parks. In a typical Six Flags park, most of the employees are teenagers that couldn’t know less or care less about good customer service. Six Flags tries really hard to teach these kids how to treat people and how to provide good service, and even how it’s their jobs to make the guest’s day as enjoyable as possible…but it falls on deaf ears. In reality a typical Six Flags park barely finds enough warm bodies to run all the cash registers, and they can’t be picky about who they take. In a regional park it would be very hard to do differently. Even in Orlando at parks like Sea World and Universal there are a lot of bored and distracted kids taking your money and serving you food, and they look more like they are counting to the minutes to their next break or thinking about the party after work than they are interested in your how you are enjoying your day in the park.
Disney, to my knowledge, doesn’t pay significantly better than any other park or service job in Orlando. In fact Disney is kind of known for paying people a relatively low wage. I don’t know how accurate that is, but they sure aren’t known for overpaying. So why is it that the people (most of them, anyway) at these parks seem to be genuinely interested in you and your experience there? Why should the lady taking my money for our family’s lunch ask me how my day is going, and give me a convincing smile when I say it’s going well? Why does the guy selling Mickey Ice Cream bars from a small cart come dashing out when a 3 year old trips on his own feet and goes sprawling on his face, helps pick him up and gives him a fresh ice cream to replace the one that went flying? Why does the woman who sweeps up trash people drop in the walkway stop and ask how our day is going? I have no idea where they find these people or how they get them to understand the cash register ringing and ice cream vending and street sweeping is only the surface of their job. Somehow they get them to see that it’s what they do and how they interact with the guests that make the biggest difference.
This is especially true and apparent to our family, with our special needs oldest daughter Elizabeth. Her autism makes crowds and sensory input like noise and light hard on her. We get her a wheelchair and the obligatory handicap pass that allows us to use the handicap entrance to rides (and their much shorter wait times), but it goes way past those conveniences. Now that Elizabeth is older, it’s much more obvious she is special needs. We are constantly stopped at the parks by everyone from street sweepers to management to ask us if we have everything we need and if there is anything they can do for us. In Disney restaurants they will make us whatever we need and accommodate us in any way they can. The effort they make is not perfunctory, it is in earnest.
Here’s an example. Several years ago when Elizabeth was about 10 we were at the Magic Kingdom and stopped to watch a little show they had going in front of the Dumbo ride. There was a ‘sword in the stone’ prop there, and a Merlin character did an hourly show around it where he picked some people from the audience. The adult couldn’t pull the sword, but of course the kid could. The kid got a medallion and a certificate, and the rest of us clapped outside the marked circle on the ground. Suddenly Elizabeth bolted over the line and towards Merlin, doing her hand flapping and jumping up and down thing. I jumped out an grabbed her with an embarrassed smile to Merlin, who was packing up his stuff. He recognized that Elizabeth was special needs instantly. He could have finished packing up and left, or he could have just spent a second saying hello to Elizabeth and maybe taking a picture with her. Instead he raised his ams and proclaimed in a loud voice that he had found another potential Queen of the Realm. He proceeded to do the entire show over again, with Elizabeth and myself as the participants. That was a 12 minute show at least. He never even hesitated.
THAT is why Disney is Disney. They understand that for some people, it can be a literal hardship or challenge to come to their parks, and they are determined to make it as easy on you as they can. Not just for those with obvious handicaps, but for everybody. Maybe Bobby and Susie Normal wouldn’t get a second Merlin show just for them, but the people that work at Disney are genuinely interested in making your experience a memorable one, and they won’t hesitate to go out of their way to accomplish that. I don’t know how they do it. All I know is that because they do, we keep coming back. Don’t get me wong, we have fun at Six Flags and Universal and other parks as well, but they aren’t Disney.
There was a time a few years ago that Disney looked like it was succumbing to the bean counters of the Eisner era and coming back to the pack. They hadn’t changed their parade themes and floats for years, the parks were looking less well kept and it looked like they were cutting back on staffing which caused longer lines and made things more stressful at the parks. I think they have recognized that too much focus on short term profits in the theme parks would lead to long term damage to their brand and reputation. This year things looked much better staffed and the parades looked fresher. I am sad to say that there are the occasional surly exception to the rule with Disney employees, but the ratio of excpetional ones to bad ones is still very much in favor of the exceptional.
This year’s most obvious Elizabeth moment came again in the Magic Kingdom. We were wheeling her along toward one of her favorite rides, “Winnie the Pooh”, when along came Tigger on his way to a break from a character signing area. He spotted Elizabeth, and made a beeline for her. He spend several minutes hopping around her chair and trying to get her to interact with him. She had an enormous smile on her face, and we got several picture of them together. The guy was probably melting in that outfit, but he spent the time nonetheless.
Thanks, Disney. See you next year. Personally, I’d like another shot at that damn sword in the stone.
758 My cover art for the next issue of MAD, exclusive sneak peek from @entertainmentweekly website
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