Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

Branding Lessons From Walt Disney World, Part 2: Taking Cues From Theater

In part 1, I discussed how Disney World actively designs the customer experience, thereby elevating its “script” above those of its competitors. My second takeaway from Disney’s Florida theme park is related, but also worth mentioning on its own.

Take your cues from theater and cinema.

Theater and cinema are all about creating worlds for an audience. And if Disney World is about anything, it’s about immersing its customers in the varied fantasy worlds the theme park offers — an element very important to the brand’s script. No matter the script, though, the consumer’s very first impression of any brand is going to have a huge impact on his or her overall experience.

Paul Valerio of the design firm Method compares a customer’s first brand experience to the overture of a musical or the opening sequence of a film. An overture sets the tone of a show. The sampling of various upcoming songs gives the audience a sense of the mood and structure of the production, priming the audience members for what comes next.

Here comes Disney World! Get excited!

Here comes Disney World! Get excited!

The opening sequence of a film often accomplishes the same thing. Valerio’s example,Raiders of the Lost Ark, opens with a fairly long jungle sequence that has little to do with the rest of the film. But the sequence acts as an indicator of what this movie is going to be: a fast-paced adventure inspired by B-movie serials from the 1930s and ‘40s. As Valerio puts it, “Once the entire audience has been on that wonderful opening ride, they are all on the same thematic page, no matter how they entered the theater.” Such is the goal of a brand overture: to prime your customers for what comes next.

So, what tone or style establishes a customer’s first impression of your brand? How do you get consumers to pay attention and prepare them to experience all you have to offer?

Disney’s theme parks are highly influenced by theater, including the idea of an overture. Here are some elements of Disney’s branding to consider:

  • The Railroad Station hides the castle from view.

    The Railroad Station hides the castle from view.

    Thoughtfully design the entrance to your company’s physical and/or virtual storefront. As you approach Magic Kingdom from the parking lot or bus stop, you can’t see a thing: trees and other greenery mask what’s lying beyond the entrance. Even as you pass through the ticket turnstiles, all you see is the Railroad Station overhead. These design choices are deliberate, so that once you do enter the park, you finally turn the corner, and BAM — there stands the castle in all her glory. Just as a camera forces you to watch scenes in a certain order on film, the Magic Kingdom is specifically designed so that you enjoy the entrance the way Disney wants you to, leaving you excited and in the mood to experience more.

  • Invest your employees in the idea. Disney also reinforces the theater idea among its employees. All workers are called Cast Members; everyone wears costumes, not uniforms. Additionally, Disney strictly enforces that Cast Members stay in character while “on stage” — that is, in the park with guests — so as to maintain the suspension of disbelief.

How do other companies do it? Valerio uses IKEA as an example of a retail overture: “At the front door, there are paper tape measures, shopping lists, and pencils. What’s the message? You are going to be doing most of the work here yourself, and there’s so much stuff to see, you’re going to need to take notes.” Valerio also mentions West Coast fast-food chain In-N-Out, where details such as an open kitchen clue customers in to the food’s freshness and why it takes a little longer to complete an order.

So what can we learn from all this? In short, pay attention to what story your brand conveys to your customers, and look to film and theater for inspiration. You probably don’t have the endless resources available to Disney, but don’t let that stop you: even just how you design your website conveys the tone and story of your brand. But if you want to see how the experts do it, go to Disney World! And take your family with you! You won’t regret it.

Can you think of any other stores or websites that use an overture to influence your perception of the brand? Do you see overtures in other areas of Disney World, such as EPCOT or Hollywood Studios? Most importantly, what’s your favorite ride at Disney?

Image credit to knight0323 and daryl_mitchell.


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  1. amy

    Portillo’s instantly comes to mind when I think of creating an experience. Any of them that I walk into has stuff hanging from the ceiling, pictures and posters covering the walls, and an open kitchen format as well. When I was little I would always watch the people on the hot dog line hahaha. I love this restaurant (probably more so than I should) and their decorating sets them apart. I can’t imagine going in there without fearing for my life that the truck being suspended from the ceiling may fall at any moment.

    Great post, Rachel! I had never really thought of other stores/restaurants/etc. creating an atmosphere for their visitors.

    • Rachel

      Great example! I’d definitely say they have a special script that sets them apart from other fast food places — and all the decorations and cooking style that you see upon entering and ordering would surely be the overture, since they prepare you for what to expect in the dining experience. And I agree, the vehicles they seem to like hanging from ceilings can be fairly frightening, LOL. 🙂

  2. Mandy Kilinskis

    Hmmm, I guess the magic isn’t as prominent at EPCOT or Hollywood Studios, because I feel fairly certain that you see the ball and the gaudy hat even before you get into the park. It creates a focal point, sure, but it’s right there. No reveal.

    Then again, once you make your way past the future/technology part of EPCOT and look out at the World Showcase across the lake, that’s a pretty impressive reveal that you can’t see until you’re deeply entrenched in the park. I’ve really forgotten if Hollywood Studies has a reveal, because I’m still angry that I had to miss the Great Movie Ride while they built that incredibly stupid hat. (Yes, I am bitter much.)

    My favorite Disney ride is either Tower of Terror or Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, but I think I favor the Tower of Terror more. And I think it’s because they did such a great job on the atmosphere of that ride. 😉

    • Rachel

      While EPCOT and Hollywood Studios may not have the surprise factor that Magic Kingdom does, I’d still say they do a good job setting up overtures, Hollywood Studios especially. Right when you walk into that park, you’re confronted with Hollywood Boulevard and all its retro decor and shopfronts, which gets you thinking, “Okay, this is movie town!” So right away you’re primed for what you’re going to see and do there.

      I love the Tower of Terror, too! Heck, you could spend pages talking about the script and overture of just that ride. The detail as you walk through the abandoned lobby are amazing and add so much to the style and mood of that ride. I love it. 🙂

  3. Eric

    Favorite ride? Being a red-blooded male, I almost want to say that Hollywood Studios car stunt show. Went there simply wanting to rest our feet, and man, was I surprised! Far as actual rides go? Hmm. “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” used to be my favorite, and since…I’d go with the “Dinosaur” ride simply because (much like the stunt show) I didn’t expect, as an adult, to be amused the same. That ride scared the living heck out of Shelley, and I regret to this day not buying the photo from the ride. Next time!

    Love Disney, therefore, love this post!

    I have to write and give it up to Disney when it comes to atmospheric ride queues. Especially for the Haunted Mansion and – my favorite – the Tower of Terror. Waiting in line is and always will be a drag, but no matter how many times I’ve visited, I always, always find that Tower of Terror completely fascinating, and wish it was a full-scale, fleshed-out hotel.

    They could make it there next theme hotel, but eh, I doubt anyone would take the elevator.

    • Rachel

      Love the car stunt show! And Dinosaur is indeed awesome and terrifying. I’ve been on the ride numerous times and know when the big scares come, but I STILL cower in the corner of my seat — and have photographic evidence of it. 😉

      An actual Tower of Terror hotel would be AMAZING. But you’re right, I wouldn’t take the elevator! Glad you liked the post, Eric. 🙂

  4. Jill Tooley

    I think the entrance is one of the most exciting things about going to Disney. Never put much thought into it before, but they’ve really designed a complete experience! Nothing beats being a kid who has just walked past the train station and into the park…only to reveal a HUGE, beautiful castle. You’re so right about theatrics and following cues! They’re the masters of this strategy. Often copied, but never duplicated. 🙂

    • Rachel

      Main Street even has some literal cues from theater in it — the railroad station is the opening curtain; the upper stories of the store fronts along Main Street are the opening credits, featuring the names of the designers and other people involved in the making of the park (including Disney himself, above the ice cream shop I think). And of course the castle is the main event. 🙂

      Disney is definitely a master of this kind of strategy, agreed!

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