10 Ways Disneyland Used Psychology to Perfect Its Experience

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In 1954, Walt Disney did something a little crazy.

A successful filmmaker, he took a break from the movies and decided to create a theme park. Disney bought 160 acres in rural Anaheim, California, and started building Disneyland.

Walt Disney had some ambitious ideas, so he assembled a team of “creative engineers” — called Imagineers — to get it done.

While creating Disneyland (and later Disney World), the Imagineers developed a playbook for creating magical but effective customer experiences. Crystallized as “Mickey’s 10 Commandments” by Imagineer Marty Sklar, they’re a cheat sheet for creating a brand that people obsess over.

But these principles aren’t just best practice — their effectiveness is also due to the psychological principles underlying each. Let’s kick off with the first — and maybe most important — commandment.

1. Know your audience

Walt Disney’s idea for Disneyland came from a visit to Los Angeles’ Griffith Park with his daughters. He was frustrated because while his kids were having fun on a merry-go-round, he had to sit alone on a bench.

At the time, park rides were only for kids, and there was nothing for adults to do but wait. That experience gave Walt Disney the idea for a theme park where families, not just kids, could have fun.

Disney got lucky because he knew his audience. It was him, sitting alone on a park bench, eating popcorn instead of having fun with his kids.

But once he started building Disneyland, Walt stopped being the customer.

He knew that it would become harder to understand what the guests wanted as the park grew. Walt Disney also knew that if the Imagineers only created rides and park features for themselves, they wouldn’t be focused on giving guests what they needed.

Why is it so important to know your audience? One reason is a psychological principle called the Self-reference Effect.

What is the Self-reference Effect?

This principle says that people remember information more easily when it’s relevant to them. Our brains are more likely to remember, learn, and be persuaded by this kind of information.

By knowing their audience, Imagineers can more easily create an experience that resonates with customers.

2. Wear your guest’s shoes

One of the biggest challenges in design is empathy. But if you’ve experienced the same challenges as your customer, it’s easier to spot what’s broken.

That’s why Walt Disney insisted that his Imagineers visit Disneyland at least every other week and stand in line. That way, they could experience it just like the guests. For you, “wearing your guest’s shoes” could mean using your own product, shopping in your store, or experiencing life as a customer, not a creator.

Why is it so important to have empathy for your customers? It’s down to a behavioral science principle called Recency Bias.

What is Recency Bias?

This principle says that people favor new memories over old ones. The brain gives greater weight to our most recent experiences.

Our brains favor recent memories over older ones.

By regularly visiting the park, an Imagineer could use these memories as fuel for future designs.

3. Organize the flow of people and ideas

“Great stories, and great experiences, have a logic and sequence that pays off for your guests, customers, or readers for the time and effort they have put in.” — Marty Sklar, Imagineer

Walt Disney knew his park couldn’t just be fun — it also had to be easy to understand. Disney knew that an organized park could be more magical because guests would find their way to more fun. 

In his book, One Little Spark, Imagineer Marty Sklar gave an example of organizing the flow of people and ideas: the Disneyland ride, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye."

The line for this ride starts outside, next to the Jungle Cruise, where guests are surrounded by lush plants and the ambient jungle sounds. Marty Sklar described the rest of the queue this way:

“The fifty-thousand-square-foot show building housing the Temple of Doom is your destination… 
Inside, the Spike Room (watch out for those spears!), the Rotunda Calendar (are those large stones moving?), and the show introduction (presented as an old newsreel about the discovery of the tomb) set the stage for the adventure to come.”

Why is it so important to create an organized flow and narrative for customers? It’s down to a behavioral science principle called Narrative Bias.

What is Narrative Bias?

Narrative bias describes our tendency to make sense of the world through stories. We trust stories, become more emotionally invested in stories, and better remember information when it’s in a narrative format.

People trust, remember, and become emotionally invested in stories.

Disney and his Imagineers created an immersive world where every moment is part of a bigger narrative. Stories make visitors feel like they’re part of the magic.

4. Create a Weenie

Before you wonder why Disney is talking about hot dogs, a “weenie” was his name for a visual magnet that guides people through an experience.

Think of weenies as landmarks — they help you understand the flow of the park, where you’ve been, and where you might go next, relative to their location. The most famous Disney park weenies are Spaceship Earth in Epcot and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland.

Spaceship Earth and Sleeping Beauty Castle

Image sources: Adobe Stock | kirkikis - stock.adobe.com (L) and Wikimedia Commons (R)

These visual magnets help guide you through the park. Without them, you might spend your whole day trying to figure out where you are and how you get where you’re going.

What’s the psychology behind why “weenies” are so important? It’s down to a principle called Visual Salience.

What is Visual Salience?

Visual Salience describes how prominent or emotionally striking something is. If an element seems to jump out from its environment or capture’s a person’s emotions, it’s salient. If it blends into the background and takes a while to find, it’s not.

Salience describes the prominence or emotional resonance of an element.

By making visual magnets salient, Imagineers can create an experience that’s easy to navigate.

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5. Communicate with Visual Literacy

Disney knew that people respond better to non-verbal communication, which meant creating a consistent visual code in the park was important. Imagineer John Hench described Disney’s approach to “visual literacy” this way:

“We pay close attention to color relationships and how they help us tell our stories. Nothing in a theme park is seen in isolation [so we] visualize the buildings… in the context of the surrounding pavement, the landscape, the sky with its changing weather…Color assists guests in making decisions because it establishes the identity of each attraction in the park.”
Disneyland used psychology Paris Hotel

Source: Adobe Stock | dogmer - stock.adobe.com

Why is it so important to communicate with visual literacy? It’s down to a psychological principle called the Picture Superiority Effect.

What is the Picture Superiority Effect?

This principle says that people remember and understand images better than words.

Images are easier to remember and understand than words.

By making Disney parks visually-driven, Imagineers keep visitors engaged and make it easier to navigate the park. “Visual literacy” also creates an experience that’s accessible to people of almost all ages, languages, and abilities.

6. Avoid Overload

“Your first task on any new project is to learn as much as you can about the subject of your story or assignment. You second task is to become a great editor.” — Marty Sklar, Imagineer

Disney wanted to create an immersive experience, but he didn’t want to overload guests with too much information or stimulus.

If you’re asking customers to take in too much information, it can be easy for them to feel overwhelmed and exhausted instead of focusing on the goal of Disneyland — having fun with your family. Imagineer John Hench described Disney’s approach to information and choice this way:

“When we come to a point in the park that we know is a decision point, we put two choices. We try not to give [guests] seven or eight so that they have to decide in a qualitative way which is the best of those. You just give them two.”

Why did the Imagineers want to avoid overload? It’s down to something called the Simplicity Theory.

What is Simplicity Theory?

This principle says that people prefer experiences that minimize their cognitive load (the amount of information we have to process at any given time).

In other words, people don’t want to think too hard about your experience because thinking is hard work. They’d rather just avoid your brand altogether if it means less thinking is involved.

The Opposite of Simplicity

Interestingly, some brands do the exact opposite and trigger the Gruen Effect. They make their store purposefully confusing, creating sensory overload with lots of different sights, sounds, and smells.

And when you overwhelm customers with lots of stimuli, their mindset changes. They forget why they came in, get overwhelmed, and start buying more than they planned.

7. Tell One Story At A Time

Disney knew that good stories are clear, simple, logical, and consistent. Here’s how Marty Sklar described this principle:

“The objective is to create a story line that holds together… we try to find the holes in the story, correct them… and ultimately create a clear story line that we can review with any discipline….”

As mentioned earlier in the section on Simplicity Theory, studies tell us that people prefer simple experiences and can get turned off if you make them think too hard.

Consider the Apple store. 

Apple Store in Toronto

Source: Adobe Stock Images | eskystudio - stock.adobe.com

It’s really obvious what story Apple is telling. Its stores don’t sell t-shirts or crowd the floor with inventory. Apple wants you focused on the story at hand — that their products are innovative and easy to use.

That’s it. Anything else is a distraction.

8. Maintain Identity

This commandment means keeping your brand consistent by creating a uniform look and feel for your experience.

Disneyland Hong Kong Characters

Source: Adobe Stock | Savvapanf Photo © - stock.adobe.com

Think about a brand like Coca-Cola. Their logo hasn’t really changed for over a hundred years. 

That repetition makes a brand powerful. People remember it, understand it, and choose Coca-Cola over other brands. 

Coca Cola Logos

Why is it so important to create and maintain a consistent brand identity? It’s down to a psychological principle called the Mere Exposure Effect.

What is the Mere Exposure Effect?

This principle says the more times people see a message, a brand, or even a person, the more they’ll like it.

But if it’s different every time they see it, they’ll have a hard time building that exposure — it has to have consistency to get remembered. And given a choice of two options, they’ll prefer the consistent message that they’ve been exposed to the most (even if it’s lower quality).

The more times people see a consistent message, the more they’ll like it.

By using consistent visual assets and avoiding contradiction, Disney can take advantage of Mere Exposure to drive love for their customer experience. This effect also makes their parks more memorable and fun.

9. For every ounce of treatment, provide a ton of fun 

This commandment says people will sometimes have to do things that aren’t fun, like standing in line. To keep customers happy, we have to balance that treatment with entertainment.

At Disney World, one of the worst parts of the experience is queuing up for rides. But Disney’s Imagineers are so skilled they can even make standing in line fun.

So when you’re waiting in line for the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, for example, you’re kept busy. You can play ghostly musical instruments, see books that fly from their shelves, and even solve a murder mystery while you wait. 

As MIT professor Dick Larson, who studies the psychology of standing in line, put it:

“You might wait 45 minutes for an eight-minute ride at Disney World, but they’ll make you feel as if the ride has started while you’re still in line.”

Why is it so important to pair fun and entertainment? It’s because of a psychological principle called the Idleness Aversion.

What is Idleness Aversion?

This principle says that people are happier when they’re busy — even if they’re forced to be busy.

For example, have you ever seen an elevator door covered in mirrors? That’s not just an interior design choice. The mirrors are there to keep you entertained, checking out your hair or teeth while you wait for your lift to the next floor.

Why? It’s because time moves faster when you’re distracted.

10. Keep it up

Now that you’ve got a great experience, you have to maintain it. At Disneyland, that means everything has to work — from the air conditioning to animatronic characters. As Marty Sklar put it:

“Poor maintenance is poor show. And poor show is unacceptable in the Disney experience.”

Why is it so important to “keep it up”? It’s down to our preference for something called Status Quo Bias.

What is Status Quo Bias?

Status Quo Bias says that once people get used to your “normal” experience, they’ll feel a loss when something deviates from that norm.

Once people get used to your “normal” experience, they’ll feel a loss when something deviates from that norm.

That’s the downside of having a world-leading experience — once you create it, you’ve got to maintain it. Customers get used to perfection. If any elements are broken, they look a hundred times worse compared to the “normal” experience.

The Bottom Line

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” — Walt Disney

While the psychology and behavioral science that underlies these principles are important to Disney’s success, we can’t overlook the role experimentation played.

Without a testing culture, Mickey’s 10 Commandments could have been nice ideas that were never proven.

But because Imagineers felt comfortable experimenting, the theme parks division of the Walt Disney Company went from Walt’s crazy idea to making nearly $7 billion in revenue in 2019.

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About Jen Clinehens
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Welcome to Choice Hacking! 
My name is Jen, I'm the founder and managing director of Choice Hacking.  I've spent my career perfecting omni-channel customer experiences for brands like AT&T, McDonalds, Adidas and more using the power of behavioral science, psychology, and AI. 

Now I spend my time writing case studies and creating courses to help others supercharge their work with science.

My team and I also love helping brands solve their biggest marketing and experience challenges - if that sounds like you, please get in touch to learn more.