Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

Branding Lessons From Walt Disney World, Part 1: Designing the Customer Experience

Last year, during one of my family’s many trips to Walt Disney World in Florida, my dad and I took a behind-the-scenes tour of Magic Kingdom called the Keys to the Kingdom Tour. Besides exploring the utility tunnels that weave beneath Magic Kingdom, viewing Splash Mountain from behind, and entering the Haunted Mansion through an employees-only corridor (which was just as creepy and richly detailed as every other inch of that ride), I also learned a great deal about how the Magic Kingdom was designed with customers in mind.

Many months later, I encountered two business articles that, though not about Disney, seemed to fit the branding and design techniques I got a glimpse of during my Magic Kingdom tour. With those articles in mind, two takeaways from my Disney trip stood out to me the most.

Don’t underestimate the importance of designing the customer experience.

Don’t just expect your customers to visit your stores and use your products. Instead, actively design their experience so that you have some control over their perception of your brand. Kingsuk Das of the strategy firm Jump explains how companies can shape a consumer’s experience by crafting a “script” for the brand.

A script, according to Das, is basically the set of expectations we have when entering into certain experiences. We expect very little customer service from a fast-food place, but that food better be ready for us right away. On the other hand, at a sit-down restaurant, we wait much longer for our food but expect to pay extra for excellent customer service. Many companies differentiate themselves from the competition by tweaking these sets of expectations and designing a new script for their brand.

So, what story are you telling your customer? How does that story diverge from the other stories being told in your industry?

Disney World – a different kind of theme park.

Disney World – a different kind of theme park.

Disney World, at its core, is a theme park. With a theme park, you’d probably expect the script to include thrill rides, lots of walking and standing in line, overpriced food, and the heat of summer. Disney’s script is very recognizable as a theme park, but the company also twists expectations and has designed the place as something more: an entire world of fun and escapism, completely separate from real life.

Disney’s script for Magic Kingdom revolves around creating the “Most Magical Place on Earth,” a fantasy world where dreams come true. Therefore, every inch of the park is meticulously designed to make such a world come to life. Disney has used various tricks to achieve such results, and also insists on firm employee policies so as not to “ruin the magic” for visitors. Here are some examples, culled from my Magic Kingdom tour:

  • Draw the consumer’s eye to the main event. A combination of forced perspective and angling Main Street USA slightly uphill makes the focal point of Cinderella’s Castle seem larger and grander. Main Street’s design also slows down all the kids trying to run (uphill) toward the rides when the park opens in the morning, and makes it a little easier to walk back to the exit when you’re exhausted after a long day.
  • Main Street Bakery

    The smell of cake is a lie!

    Use industry tricks to enrich the customer’s environment. The bakery, one of the many shops on Main Street, always smells heavenly as you walk by. That smell, however, is actually a manufactured aroma pumped over Main Street to entice tourists to come inside. (The waft of cooking hot dogs from Casey’s Corner is real, though!)

  • Keep behind-the-scenes work … behind the scenes. The Utilidors, Disney’s underground service tunnels, allow employees to travel between the different “lands” of Magic Kingdom without disrupting the experience for consumers — so that a Tomorrowland employee doesn’t end up in 1800s-themed Frontierland, for instance. Deliveries, ride operations, and many administrative services are also handled in the Utilidors, so that customers are less likely to see anything that clashes with Disney’s magical-world script.

How do other companies do it? Apple’s pristine, white-washed stores adhere to a script that stands out from competitors. As Das describes, “Apple has created something very different from the cold, ‘hands-off’ nature of traditional high-end stores, while avoiding the clutter of a warehouse store like Best Buy.” And Starbucks’s coffee-shop script extends to the cozy design of its stores as well as to the pseudo-Italian names of its drinks.

What other companies have you encountered where you feel that the script is markedly different than its competitors’? Do you think that it’s given the company an edge in the industry? How else does Disney World challenge your expectations for a theme park?

Stay tuned for the second lesson we can learn from Disney World, coming this afternoon in Part 2!

Image credit to Miss Millificent and Rachel Hamsmith.


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  1. amy

    This was an incredibly interesting article, Rachel! You blew my mind with the forced perspective talk of Cinderella’s castle. What a great idea to have Main Street on a hill going up as you enter (and more energetic) and slop down as you leave (when all you want to do is crawl). It really goes to show just how much thought Disney puts into their park designs, I’d assume to make the park flat and go from there.

    Really great stuff, Rachel. Can’t wait to read what else Disney does to brand themselves in part 2 🙂

    • Rachel

      Regarding forced perspective, if I remember correctly, the tour guide said that the builders were limited in how high they could build Cinderella’s castle because at a certain height you have to stick a blinking light at the top so that aircraft can see the structure. So forced perspective was a necessity! I think in Hollywood Studios, Tower of Terror was built just 1 foot under the same height restriction so that they didn’t have to add a blinky light there either. 🙂 Amazing how much work and logistics goes into designing this stuff.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Amy!

      • Amanda

        I agree Amy! I found this article super interesting! I had no idea that there was more than one level or that there was a hill built in to make the experience better! How cool! Reading this makes me want to to to Disney World asap!

  2. Mandy Kilinskis

    1. I disagree about Apple. Apple stores lack of stuff terrifies me and I feel scared to touch any of the products. Maybe it’s also the fact that potentially breaking something worth $600 is also terrifying. But I do agree with their assessment of Starbucks’ script.

    2. These are all excellent takeaways that any business could use. It surprises me when theme parks or stores hide some of their best stuff. Why wouldn’t you want to make that the focal point?

    3. Did you know that all of the plants in Tomorrowland are edible?! I don’t know if you’d want to eat them after people have traipsed near them all day, and I imagine they use some kind of chemicals to keep them alive/green/Disney, but if you’re in a pinch – you can eat every single plant in that section!

    • Rachel

      1. Aww, really? I love playing with stuff in Apple stores! Though I’m sure plenty of people feel the same way as you do. 🙂

      2. Indeed! The design of the theme park — or store, or website — can really affect what customers see as the focal point, which makes it even more important to design your customer space so deliberately.

      3. I didn’t know that!!! How cool! I love learning new Disney trivia. 😀 I’ll have to keep the Tomorrowland plants in mind, in case I’m ever held hostage or something at WDW and need sustenance, haha …

  3. Kyle

    The smell of cake is a lie! Hahaha kudos to you, Rachel, for a most righteous reference. 😛

    That really is a fascinating method of advertising though because few things make me crave a fresh baked cake more than actually smelling it!

    And self-emptying garbage cans?! That has Willy Wonka written all over it. I would love to take one of those behind-the-scenes tours because they sound really interesting.

    Great stuff, Rachel!

    • Rachel

      Glad you liked the reference, Kyle. 🙂 And yeah, smells can be a really effective means of marketing! Especially since we associate so many memories and emotions with scents.

      As for the garbage cans, I think how it works is that there are certain areas in Magic Kingdom where the garbage is sent into the pipes below — but not all the garbage cans work that way. Something like that. 🙂 So fortunately, there’s no danger of you getting sucked down a garbage can if you decide to stick your head in one! 😉

  4. Jill Tooley

    I’m so glad you wrote these posts, Rachel! Good stuff. The underground service tunnels were the most “shocking” thing to me — who knew?!? Now I understand why I never saw any Disney employees walking from land to land, like you mentioned. Duh! 🙂

    I have a friend who worked at Disney World for a year or so, and he cites it as the worst job he’s ever had. He said he ended up getting fired for swearing — off the clock and away from all park guests — and it wasn’t even the worst of the four-letter words! They must take their magical image quite seriously… Despite all of that, though, I do enjoy going to WDW because they clearly go to great lengths to entertain guests, which is way more than you’d get at a Six Flags. Of course, it’s a heftier price tag as well. 😉

    • Rachel

      Sad to hear that your friend had such a bad experience working there! 🙁 I’ve known several friends and family members who have worked there and loved the experience. But they’ve shared stories about Disney’s very strict employee policies too, not to mention that most people get stuck in the food service jobs or stroller duty … so I can understand how such a job can be both good and bad. They definitely do take their image there very seriously. 🙂

  5. david k waltz


    Having married into a family that goes every other year (and sometimes every year), one learns to appreciate the magical Disney experience, and having gone to other parks either right before or after, you truly get the sense that they are doing things differently than anyone else.

    Incidently, being different is a requirement if you are shooting for something aspirational – #1’s are never a part of the pack.

    Next time I go I am going to eat a Tomorrowland plant!

    What is your thought on how old kids have to be to get something out of the behind the scenes tour?


    • Rachel

      Regarding the Keys to the Kingdom Tour: Disney puts a 16-year-old age restriction on the tour … so definitely it’s best for kids over 16. 😉 The tour is 4 or 5 hours long — so if you’re looking to do other things that day, or if your companions can’t stand listening to a tour guide for that long, you’ll need to plan accordingly. I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in behind the scenes stuff but who wouldn’t feel like the “magic is ruined” once they find out how things work. (You go backstage a few times and might see off-duty characters walking around, for example.)

      Long story short, I’d say it appeals much more to older kids and adults. For what it’s worth, I’m in my 20s and really enjoyed it!

      Let us know how those Tomorrowland plants taste next time you go … 🙂

  6. Marisa M.

    <3 Disney World.

    • Rachel

      Me too!! Though I suppose that’s pretty obvious at this point. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  7. Laura

    The trash can’s are not self emptying. There’s a cast of thousands of custodians throughout the property keeping it in tip top shape- while dressed in white no less.

    • Rachel

      Thanks for commenting, Laura! I’m sorry if my wording about the garbage disposal system at Magic Kingdom was misleading — I don’t mean to diminish the work of WDW’s amazing janitorial staff! My intent was to refer to the waste removal system in the Utilidors, which sends all the garbage through pipes to a central processing location. In retrospect, though, I can see that my comment was worded poorly and, frankly, doesn’t support my point very well. I’ve removed the sentence so as to avoid future confusion.

      Thanks again for stopping by and pointing this out. One of my favorite WDW memories is of a custodian wishing me a happy birthday and then belting out the “Happy Birthday” song to me on my way through EPCOT a few years ago. My mistake for misrepresenting their role at Magic Kingdom!

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