10 things you can learn from Disney about creating a magical CX
What started out as a humble animation studio almost exactly 100 years ago, was able to grow into a huge multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate.
Last year, the Walt Disney Company made 84 billion dollar. The film, TV, studio and streaming lines made up 66% ($55B) of the company’s revenue and 34% ($4B) of its operating profit. While the parks and experiences division – which includes cruises, live entertainment and theme parks – made up 34% ($29B) of revenue and 66% ($8B) of the operating profit.
The enchantment behind Disney’s success is no coincidence, of course. It’s the result of a potent blend of storytelling, branding, and crafting unforgettable customer experiences. Here are 10 Customer Experience lessons we can learn from this amazing company. Enjoy!
1. Tell a consistent story
Disney theme parks are not just a collection of fun rides and food courts. They go above and beyond to create magical stories for their guests. It’s incredible how they use the power of storytelling to create an entirely different and truly magical world, starting with the entrance sign that states “Here You Leave Today and Enter the World of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy.”
Did you know that they built a berm – a raised hill barrier – around the entire park so no one from the outside could see in, and no one from the inside could see out. Visitors are truly isolated in a parallel world of fantasy and beauty. Even the smells are orchestrated. The “Smellitzer” emits lab-created scents which refer to the surrounding attractions. Main Street smells like vanilla. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride smells like salty sea air, Pooh’s Adventure smells like honey and the Haunted Mansion smells like burnt wood.
Disney thought it crucial that nothing would break that feeling of residing in another world. He made sure that Disney characters were never seen out of costume or doing daily activities like taking lunch breaks which he feared might spoil the illusion. So he built 392,000 square feet of underground tunnels – called the “Utilidors” – at Disney World in Florida so cast members (that’s what Disney park employees are called) can change, eat, rest or take out garbage without disrupting the themed experiences. The secret tunnels cover up to 9 acres with some of them so long that golf carts are used to travel between them.
Disney truly makes sure that everything is 100% consistent with their brand and story.
2. Pay attention to details
An essential part of Disney’s storytelling excellence is the incredible importance attached to details, creating a sense of wonder for visitors. It starts with the naming of customers – which are referred to as guests – and employees – which are called cast members. These seemingly small details make a huge difference for engagement and behaviour.
Every last little detail of the park is on brand. From the delicious smells referred to above, to the Mickey Mouse logo on manhole covers to the abundance of colorful trashcans that are emptied every 20 minutes so that they cannot hurt the experience in any way. In fact, everyone – from The Little Mermaid to the janitor – is expected to pick up trash if they see it for that reason. Every building structure in their parks is built to a specific proportion (eg. 5/8ths of the real size), but the Disney imagineers – the creative and technical experts who design Disney’s theme parks, resorts, attractions, and cruise ships – use forced perspective to make buildings appear larger and taller than they actually are. From a distance, Cinderella’s Castle, for instance, looks larger than life because the bricks at the top are smaller than those at the bottom.
I love that Walt always asked his team “how could we plus it?”, a concept that is now referred to as “plussing”. Disney World’s sidewalks, for instance, have a reddish hue, which helps make the color of the grass stand out even more, as red and green are complementary colors and the contrast makes both the sidewalk and grass appear brighter. Or horses wear special horseshoes with a polyurethane coating in Disneyworld, which makes a louder “clopping” sound when they walk down Main Street.
Not one detail is left to chance. It’s truly impressive.
3. Nurture positive emotions
Dan and Chip Heat’s, The Power of Moments – one of my favorite books on the topic of customer experience -explains that every step in a customer relationship cannot and does not have to be an unforgettable and perfect moment. And Disneyworld is a perfect example of that.
If you were to dissect the entire day of a visit to Disney World and determine a satisfaction score for various parts of the day, the overall score might be low. Because of the large crowds, long queues and expensive but mediocre food you will have eaten. If you were to grade your visit from 1-10 for each attraction or experience in terms of satisfaction, the average score might be 6.5/10. However, most people rate their visits to Disney World as fantastic, awarding scores of 9/10 or higher and the reason for that is ‘the power of moments’.
Companies do not need to have a top score for every interaction to elicit an overall positive emotion. A good ‘highlight’ and a good transition (at the end of the interaction) are important. For instance, at Disney your emotional response to Splash Mountain (highlight) and the fireworks at the end of the day (highlight and transition) provided that positive emotion. In other words, to create positive emotion, customers do not have to score your company excellent on everything, but you must carefully choose your moments. And Disney is exceedingly proficient at that.
In fact they are so serious about managing Emotions that it is a crucial part of what Disney calls “Guestology”, the science of treating customers right. These are the four points of their Compass:
✨ N – Needs: understanding the basics of what a customer is trying to accomplish.
✨ W – Wants: these are the features that would make a significant difference in a customer’s life and go above and beyond their needs.
✨ S – Stereotypes: it’s important that you understand preconceived customer assumptions about your brand, experience or even industry so that you can work with or against (if they’re not what you want to reflect) them.
✨ E – Emotions: these are the feelings that customers experience throughout their contact with an organization.
As The Power of Moments states: “Most service experiences are mostly forgettable and occasionally remarkable” but it’s those remarkable moments that really stick with customers. Disney understands that it’s not possible to wow the customer during the entire customer journey but if you can create some peak intense flagship moments, you’ll be fine.
4. Create some non-negotiable rules
Perhaps one of my favorite Disney features is that they have “non-negotiable rules” in CX. One of these is that a theme park ride in the US can never be taller than 199 feet. That’s why their Tower of Terror and their Expedition Everest in their Animal Kingdom are exactly that height. There’s a very simple reason for that: as soon as a building is 200 feet tall in the US, it needs those special safety lights on top, to protect it from airplanes. But Disney refuses to let others define their magical design. These red lights would look really awkward and their practical connection to the outside world would really break the ‘suspension of disbelief’ that characterizes their parks so much. That’s why this is a non-negotiable rule for them.
The concept of non-negotiable rules is so powerful because too many companies draw up CX guidelines that aren’t clear enough for employees. And so some of them follow these guidelines, while others don’t, simply because they don’t know or understand them enough. A relevant and clear non-negotiable rule helps you define the absolute top essentials of CX of your company: the things you will never argue about and that every team member should know about.
5. Make it easy
No one excels at friction hunting like Disney. They are constantly on the lookout for making it easier for guests to plan their trips, buy tickets, and find their way around the parks. Their My Disney Experience App, for instance, plays a big role in solving common theme park frustrations like long queues, crowds, getting lost and finding staff with the right information. It allows guests to book tickets, make dining (and other) reservations up front, manage your itinerary, use GPS-enabled interactive maps and find up-to-the-minute wait times for attractions. It lets you skip the normal hotel lobby check-in and head directly to your room. You can view all of your Disney PhotoPass photos there and track Disney characters for a meet and greet. The Genie+ add-on even allows guests to get priority access for popular rides and reserve times for various attractions.
There’s also a Play Disney Parks app, which is designed to prevent boredom for visitors who are queueing for rides with mobile games that relate to the ride that the user is waiting for. Visitors for Space Mountain at Disneyland can design their own rocket ships and those waiting at Toy Story Mania in Disney California can play games involving Pixar characters. It even uses Bluetooth to trigger special effects in the physical environment. For example, when users are near the front of the queue they can see the results of their game displayed on digital screens.
Disney’s Operational Command Centre also uses data and real-time analytics to track “guest flows”. If the queue for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is too long, the Command Centre will call for more boats. But they will also route a mini parade, or send characters to busy locations to entertain the crowds while they wait.
Disney is truly a master at using technology to eliminate worry and hassle for guests.
6. Embrace cutting edge technology
Not only does Disney flaunt the flawless ability to hunt down and remove friction from their experiences with (often) digital solutions, but they are also deeply committed to embracing cutting edge technology to create better experiences.
Only a few months ago, Chapek – when he was still CEO, described Disney’s vision for the metaverse as “next-generation storytelling” to deliver personalized entertainment experiences. While the metaverse hype has now died down a little, it was interesting to see that they had a really long term view about it back then, spanning the next 5 to 10 years. They understood that the tech was not mature yet, but that it would become an important part of entertainment in the long run. To be clear: I too don’t believe that the metaverse is just a passing hype. To the contrary, I think that it’s a great technology that will become very important for the entertainment and gaming industry. So it perfectly makes sense that Disney would invest in for in the long term.
Disney also has embraced generative AI. In August 2023, for instance, it created a task force to study artificial intelligence and how it can be applied across the entertainment conglomerate. And it has already begun to adopt generative AI in a number of ways. For example, Disney has used AI to automatically age or de-age an actor’s appearance in films and TV shows and has also been developing “Digital Humans” that can replicate human performances on screen with computer-generated stand-ins.
It’s even been investing in NFTs, in partnership with Cryptoys, an NFT-native digital toy company backed by a16z. The latter very recently introduced a ‘Mickey and Friends’ collection of 15 limited-edition digital collectibles and accessories which cost $39.99 each. Earlier, in May this year, they also released a crypto collection consisting of 15 limited-edition Star Wars digital toys of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia.
Above all, Disney always makes sure that the new technology is a perfect fit with their brand, the story they want to tell and the experiences they want to offer.
7. Personalize the experience
Disney employees are trained to focus on an experience mentality, rather than a task mentality. They are continuously encouraged to create emotional connections and individualized moments that make guests feel special.
When guests arrive at Disney World, they can for instance ask for a button that informs all cast members that they meet that they’re celebrating a birthday, marriage, retirement, or a first time visiting. Guests can also create their own personalized day with various dining and entertainment options. The aim is always to create great personal interactions.
8. Always look for and act on customer feedback
Disney actively chases customer feedback, really listens and then – just as important – acts on it. Disney World Cast Members armed with tablets pick out random visitors to answer survey questions about their stay at the resort and then they offer them a FastPass voucher to make up for the lost time. It also encourages its visitors to provide improvement suggestions on social media. They also send visitors detailed satisfaction surveys on their latest experience. It’s even common for Disney employees to follow up with customers after they’ve submitted a survey, so they can get more details to bring to company meetings.
Disney constantly upgrades their parks and resorts. And a lot of those upgrades come directly from that visitor feedback. It for instance created ‘Special Assistance’ passes for its disabled visitors when some people pointed out their access challenges in the parks. When it noticed that visitors were frequently asking about the location of some of the costumed characters in the park it introduced the CHIP (Character Hotline and Information Program) to let visitors find out where they are due to be located.
9. Go the extra mile
Disney employees have a reputation for going the extra mile to provide a memorable experience for a guest. In fact, employees aren’t even allowed to say “I don’t know”. They are encouraged to find a solution to avoid frustrating guests.
I really love the HBR example of Keith Sharon, his wife, Nancy and their two children. As their youngest son is autistic and noises and crowds can overwhelm him, a trip to Disney can be stressful. In the past, they even had to leave Disneyland before noon because the stimulation was too much.
But on their last visit their son noticed a clear balloon with a purple (his favorite color) Mickey Mouse inside that he really wanted. So his parents told him that if he behaved, they would get him one at the end of the night. That day at Disneyland ended up being “the happiest day of [his] life.” They went on several new rides they had never gone on before and made it through lunch at incident.
At the end of the day, they went in search of the purple balloon and a cast member told them that they were sold out. One of the happiest days of their son could have quickly turned into a very frustrating night. But when the Cast Member saw how distressed Nancy was he called a fellow Cast Member who went in search of a purple balloon and reappeared with one a few minutes later. “To us, that balloon, that day, that ending … will always be priceless.”, Keith explained.
Though the Cast Member had to deal with intense crowds and lots of questions, he went the extra mile to find a solution and ensure the guests ended their day at Disneyland on a happy note.
10. Empower your employees with a strong common purpose
If you want your employees to go the extra miles for a customer, you must empower them to make their own decisions. But effective empowerment starts with a strong common purpose. So on the first day of Disney’s training workshops, all cast members are taught that their purpose is to “create happiness” in line with Disney’s brand vision. It’s no coincidence that more than 80 percent of Disney employees are “proud of the work [they] do at the Disneyland Resort.”
In fact, cast members aren’t just “doing their job”. They’re playing a specific role that pieces together a bigger story to provide the best experience for their customers. Bruce Jones, Senior Director of the Disney Institute, explained that “When our Cast Members know their primary goal is to create happiness, they are empowered to create what we like to call magical moments. From our park greeters to our attraction attendants, every employee makes decisions regarding a guest interaction centered on this key theme of ‘creating happiness.’”
Walt Disney understood how critical his employees were to Disney’s success. So he spent countless hours perfecting the best strategies for hiring, training, and keeping successful employees. He believed that “Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.”
So these are Disney’s top 10 rules for creating magical experiences for their customers. What are yours? Tell me over the socials.