Lessons from the Disney Parks — Part 1: From Mundane to Magical

Thought Leadership

By Wells Stringham | September 17, 2021

After closures and limited attendance, Disneyland and Walt Disney World are beginning to reopen to the public. To celebrate, we created this series examining how the best practices at Disney Parks can also inform your digital products. Enjoy part one below, and stay tuned for part two coming soon!

Transforming moments from zero to hero

As creators of digital solutions for diverse industries, from farming to entertainment to healthcare, much of our strategic thinking at Apply Digital focuses on how users will experience the apps we deliver. It all starts by solving the challenges of seamlessly executing high-priority tasks within an app, guiding our creation of the overall user experience (UX).

But in the app development world, we notice that certain aspects of the UX often get little, if any, strategic attention. We’re talking about those mundane processes like registration, loading screens, onboarding tutorials, and help screens that are vital to making a good first impression.

Injecting some life into these bland processes means taking cues from the real world — from companies doing the work to turn something boring into something memorable.

Disney — a company we often look to for inspiration — successfully turns lackluster physical experiences in their parks into something special. Waiting in line, registering, completing a purchase, or listening to necessary safety instructions become magical moments that guests will want to repeat over and over again, all feeding into a positive customer experience.

Boredom? Not if you're Disney's guest

Throughout each attraction, Disney Parks is a master storyteller, maintaining that delicate balance between the necessary tasks of reality and the ever-important suspension of disbelief. They deliver fully immersive experiences unparalleled anywhere else in the man-made world.

If you peel away the flash and sparkle of the Disney customer experience and catch a glimpse of how things work behind the scenes, you’d see a well-oiled machine — one that’s been tested, tweaked, polished, and pushed to its ultimate limits, all before it enters into the realm of park guests.

We know that the most tedious part of any theme park is waiting in line — especially for the more popular attractions that can see wait times up to two hours or more. Throw in a few cranky, tired, hungry kids (or adults) into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for disaster and a potential customer experience nightmare.

Thankfully, Disney Parks knows how to distract you from those long wait times — and to make these experiences less painful. Take the Tower of Terror and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train attractions. Disney extends the ride experience into the waiting area through atmospheric details, ride decor, and fun interactive panels guaranteed to keep you busy as you meander through a lineup.

The decontamination room in Flight of Passage, a ride at Disney World, displays a man in a lab coat on the screen.

Photo by the Orlando Informer: Pandora’s Flight of Passage “Decontamination” queue prior to boarding

Pandora’s Flight of Passage takes it even a step further by making waiting in line a part of the ride experience. Riders load into a decontamination chamber where they video conference with scientists who walk them through heavily themed ride safety tips and instructions. This storytelling-based onboarding tutorial turns a typically uninteresting experience into one that sets the right atmospheric tone and expertly ramps up the riders’ anticipation factor. After all, this was a queue that was designed to support a six-hour wait time.

Taking it one jump ahead

In 2017, Disney got even more ambitious, introducing the Disney Play app, featuring games designed to be played while waiting in a specific queue. For example, if you’re in Toy Story Land and stuck in Slinky Dog Dash’s line, you can pass the time playing Andy’s Board Game Blast! with up to five people.

A night sky is lit up by fireworks at Disneyland's Galaxy Edge

And if you’re visiting Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to ride Smuggler’s Run, the game is dependent on the physical environment around you, giving you clues, answers, and reacting to actions you take in the app.

Taking inspiration from these real-world customer experiences to create parallels in the app world, we can inject experience-boosting and storytelling elements into ho-hum app processes through visuals, content, and attention to design.

Making Disney magic part of our everyday world

Drawing upon your app’s customer-centered themes and goals to build polished processes supported by UX best practices and simple storytelling will create a compelling first impression. Set the scene and anticipate the app experience by weaving its customer benefits into the introductory processes. Here are a few ways:

  • Loading screens: Add quick animations of how core features of UX elements work and highlight the customer benefits of these features where possible

  • Registration and app set-up: Pay attention to visuals to ensure they create the right atmosphere and follow the UX cues of the app itself, whether it’s a task-oriented app or an entertainment experience

  • Onboarding tutorials: Upgrade them beyond dry, instructional how-to processes by selling a simple story — how someone like them used the app to successfully accomplish important tasks

  • Explaining new features: Get your user in the mix and have them actually execute the task with your guidance (that sweet taste of success will make you and the user in the process)

  • Product development road-mapping: Don’t leave these seemingly insignificant pieces of the user experience to the last minute! Build them into your product development roadmap so they can get the attention they need

Done well, these enhancements invite users to stick with the app through the otherwise mundane moments, even if they encounter a blip along the way. A good first impression and attention to detail show your users it’s worth investing their time, their device storage, and even their money into your app.

For help building or improving your app, contact us at hello@applydigital.com.

Co-Written by Judy Renouf and Jaime Chang