Book Notes: “Disney’s Land”

Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World
By Richard Snow
Scribner, 2019

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of the Disney parks. I’ve written about the design of Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, about EPCOT, and of my visit earlier this year to Shanghai Disneyland. I’ve also posted my notes on Disney CEO Bob Iger’s recent memoir and another book on Disney history, The Magic Kingdom. I consider Disney’s work in built environments important for reasons that can be gleaned from the posts above.

So when I heard there was a new book out on the history of the design and construction of the original Disneyland, I rushed to read it. The book’s author, Richard Snow, is a historian, and two of his books — The Iron Road and Coney Island — seem like perfect precedents for a history of Disneyland given the park’s roots in both earlier amusement parks and railroading. (I haven’t read any of Mr. Snow’s previous books.) So I had high expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed. Mr. Snow is an engaging writer with clear affection for his subject.

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Shanghai Disneyland

Folks who know me well know I’m a fan of the Disney theme parks. I consider Disneyland among the most successful places designed in the Twentieth Century. I’ve written about some of the reasons why (and about what UX designers can learn from the park) in a post titled 3 Placemaking Lessons From the Magic Kingdom; I recommend you read that before proceeding so you can get a sense of the lens through which I see these experiences.

I visited Shanghai last month for work. While there, I had the opportunity to visit the newest Disney theme park, which is in Pudong. In this post, I’ll share some of my impressions of Shanghai Disneyland and contrast it with the other Disney “castle” parks. (I’ve visited the parks in Anaheim, Orlando, and Paris.) There are many similarities between these Disneylands, but also significant differences.

Let’s start with the similarities. The most obvious is the structural layout of Shanghai Disneyland. There’s a castle in the center of the park that serves as a focal point. (A “wienie,” to use Walt Disney’s term.) The castle — Shanghai’s is the largest of all of Disney’s parks — helps guests orient themselves and navigate the environment.

Enchanted Storybook Castle in the center of Shanghai Disneyland.
Enchanted Storybook Castle in the center of Shanghai Disneyland.

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Book Notes: “The Ride of a Lifetime”

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of The Walt Disney Company
By Robert Iger
Random House, 2019

In the early 1980s, Disney was in trouble. Its movies weren’t resonating with the public. It had invested a lot of money into a theme park – EPCOT Center – that wasn’t meeting expectations. Having lost touch with public tastes, Disney had become a target for corporate raiders, who were looking to buy the company to dismantle it. It was a sad time for Disney fans and shareholders.

It seems hard to believe, given that Disney is now the largest and most powerful entertainment company in the world. The change in the company’s fortunes can be attributed mostly to the leadership of two men: Michael Eisner, who was Disney’s CEO from 1984-2005, and Bob Iger, who succeeded him. Now the latter has written a leadership guide in the guise of a memoir that explains how he did it.

I’m wary of most corporate leader memoirs – especially if they’re in the entertainment industry. These folks are often masters of public relations, and their memoirs tend to be carefully crafted to burnish their public images. These books often come across as being in service to their authors’ egos. Mr. Iger’s book is the opposite. He often discusses how keeping his ego in check has been essential to his leadership style. He’s frank about his mistakes and gracious in sharing the praise for his successes.

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TAOI: Disneyland App

The architecture of information:

Digital experiences are changing our understanding of physical environments. Google Maps gives you the ability to walk around a new city as though you’d known it for a long time. And should you develop a sudden hankering for ice cream, Yelp allows you to locate the nearest gelateria. The most noticeable change comes from layering information on the environment. For example, when trying to decide between two neighboring restaurants you’re no longer constrained to judging them solely by their appearance; you can also peruse their reviews in Yelp. Restaurant A has four-and-a-half stars, whereas restaurant B has three — A it is!

The number of stars is information about the place. You won’t find it in the physical place itself, but in its representation in an information environment which you access through your magical pocket-sized slab of glass. We’ve grown used to these augmented interactions with physical space, and mostly take them for granted. But recently I had one such interaction with an app I hadn’t used before, and which stood out to me for 1) its clarity of purpose and 2) the degree to which that purpose changed the experience of the place. I’m referring to the Disneyland app.

My family and I visited Disneyland a few weeks ago. We hadn’t been in five years, and the Disneyland app was one of the novelties since our last visit. The app presents a map of the Disney theme parks. As such it mostly replaced the parks’ old (and sometimes beautiful) paper-based maps. Thanks to the phone’s sensors, the Disneyland app makes it easy to figure out where you are, where to go next, and how to get there. But the app adds an additional key piece of information to the experience that can’t be had with paper-based maps: attraction wait times. Over every representation of an attraction in the park, you see a little callout that indicates how long you’ll have to wait in line to experience that ride or show:

Disneyland app

This piece of information is always available at all levels of zoom in the map. It’s the definitive element of the experience: in these maps, attraction wait times have the highest visual priority. As a result, wait times become the defining factor in sequencing the exploration of the park. The apps preferred answer to the question “What should we do next?” is always “Whatever is closest that has the shortest lines.”

This is an interesting choice that recalls the park’s old ticket levels. A long time ago, each Disneyland attraction required a separate ticket. Not all attractions used the same tickets; there were several levels ranging from A to E. “E-tickets,” such as the Haunted Mansion, were the most popular and desirable. These were considered the park’s premium attractions; their tickets were worth more than the others. This economic scheme influenced how visitors experienced the park. Ticket “coupon books” only included a limited number of E-tickets as compared to the lower denominations. Guests could buy more tickets inside the park, but having a limited number of the various level tickets affected choices. (I remember visiting Walt Disney World when it had a similar scheme, and hearing things like, “let’s visit this ride next, we have to use up our C-tickets.”)

The Disneyland app creates a similar economy by making attraction wait times the key informational element of the experience. When you’re trying to decide between two rides, knowing you’ll have to wait 65 minutes in line in one versus 15 minutes in another could be the key factor in your choice. (It was for my wife and me. Children get very cranky after waiting in long lines all day!) Our choosing to go on the ride with the lower wait times would contribute to slightly increasing that ride’s wait times and lowering the wait times for the more popular rides. I don’t have data, but my expectation is that this would help even out wait times throughout the park.

That is, of course, if all other things are equal — which they aren’t. The Haunted Mansion is a much more elaborate and compelling experience than Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Also, some rides have higher throughput than others. So the choice of riding one rather than the other doesn’t come down solely to which has the shortest waits.

That said, for someone like myself, who knows Disneyland very well, having this extra bit of information made the experience of visiting the park much better. In our two days at Disneyland, my family and I experienced more of the park than we’d ever been able to before. We also had more fun, since we spent a lower percentage of our time there in queues. But I wonder about the effect on folks who are less familiar with the parks. Will the emphasis on wait times drive them to prioritize less popular attractions over the park’s highlights? Adding feedback mechanisms to a system influences the way the system works. In what unexpected ways does this app change the experience of visiting Disneyland?

EPCOT

It wasn’t supposed to be a theme park. What Walt Disney had in mind when he bought 27,400 acres of land in central Florida in the mid-1960s was a city. He wanted to build an “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.” A real-world lab for experimenting with city forms and processes. You can see him pitch the idea to potential partners and Florida legislators in this film:

Pretty crazy, right? Walt Disney was a visionary. He achieved many things during his life that seemed nuts to the people around him. I don’t know if EPCOT would’ve succeeded as a city, but I’m sure that something like what we see in that film would’ve been built if he’d only lived a little longer. Alas, he died a few weeks after it was shot.

Walt’s team was left with the challenge of building an EPCOT without him. No one had never made one of these before, and now the man with the vision was gone. The state of Florida had granted Disney regulatory and fiscal exceptions on the premise that it’d build something more than a theme park and some hotels on the property. The state expected an EPCOT, so after a few false starts (and the energy crisis of the 1970s) something called “EPCOT Center” opened in Disney’s Florida property in 1982.

I didn’t know this backstory when I first visited EPCOT Center. I thought EPCOT was an interesting — if mildly boring — theme park that looked like a World’s Fair. When I learned about Walt’s original plan for EPCOT, it made me sad. A permanent World’s Fair was OK, but Walt’s original idea was fascinating: A city run by a major U.S. corporation could be a laboratory for all sorts of useful explorations. We wouldn’t want to mess around with certain systems or processes in a “real” city; some would be deemed too controversial or politically impractical. But in a “toy” city controlled by a single entity,​ you could do all sorts of interesting things.

For a long time, the missed opportunity of EPCOT was on my mind every time I’d visit Walt Disney World. However, I was there a couple of weeks ago, and another thought came to mind: perhaps Walt’s dream is coming true after all. While I didn’t visit the theme parks this time around, I did go to Disney Springs, a highly themed shopping district. There were a lot of people there. While many shopping malls are closing around the country, victims of the rise of e-commerce, this place was thriving. Why?

For many in our society, shopping is a form of entertainment. In Disney Springs we experience an environment that is explicitly designed to foster both (much as the theme parks are.) Visitors to Walt Disney World aren’t operating within their everyday mindset; most are there on vacation. They come prepared to be catered to and entertained; to suspend their disbelief; to open their wallets – hundreds of thousands of them every day. (Walt Disney World is the most popular vacation spot on the planet.)

So even though the Disney company didn’t build Walt’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, it did end up managing an environment that faces many of the same challenges as a small city. Transportation, safety, logistics, sustainability, energy efficiency, and climate change are all issues that WDW must deal with. As a private entity accountable only to the market (and the law), Disney can move faster​ than democratically elected city governments in responding to these issues. (Especially so in our time of political polarization and gridlock.) This combination of factors — control of an urban-sized environment, large volumes of people willing to suspend their disbelief (and their usual spending constraints), plus the deep pockets of the world’s largest entertainment company — make Walt Disney World the perfect laboratory to experiment with complex new systems at scale.

The original elements of the WDW plan were very forward-thinking: It featured (among others) new construction techniques for the resort hotels, innovative water recycling and waste management systems, and a monorail transportation​ system. The experimentation is ongoing. A few years ago, Disney deployed a new system for guest identification called MagicBands: RFID-enabled wristbands that identify individual visitors as they move around the WDW property. The ability to track individual users throughout the environment allows Disney to customize their experience and to predict population needs better, affecting staffing, logistics, transportation, etc. (Can you imagine a city doing such a thing?)

Another example is currently being built: the Skyliner, a new transportation system consisting of gondolas that stretch over various resorts in the WDW property. The Skyliner is the company’s most recent transportation experiment: along with those photogenic monorails, the WDW property also features ferries, buses, and — more recently — a fleet of ride-hailing vehicles known as Minnie Vans. (I expect that WDW will feature among the first functional self-driving car fleets in the world, since conditions in the property are so closely controlled.)

Transit patterns in WDW must be similar to those found in cities, with folks moving from resort hotels to theme parks at peak hours in much the same way they move from home to work and back. I can’t imagine it’d be easy for a city to build an entirely new transportation system “from scratch.” In many cases, political and economic pressures would make such a project a decade-long undertaking (at least.) Disney filed construction plans for the SkyLiner in early 2017 and has already started testing passenger gondolas. The system is expected to open later this year. That is astonishingly fast.

Sure, Walt Disney World is much simpler than a real city. For one thing, Disney doesn’t have to deal with property rights when deploying a transportation system like the SkyLiner. But that’s in part what makes this place so perfect for testing complex systems: it leaves out of the equation many of the non-technical factors that make deploying them so difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.

That’s just transportation. But this combination of factors is also in play for safety (e.g., especially against terrorism and violence), environmental sustainability, responding to the effects of climate change, and so much more. These are all challenges that require that cities and towns try new approaches fast. Current political structures aren’t set up for fast experimentation at scale — but Walt Disney World is. So in that sense, Walt’s vision for Florida is coming true after all.

The question is: Will Disney share what it learns from the operation of its Florida property? As a private entity, I understand the company not wanting to share this information with other commercial entities. But I wonder if there’d be a way for city officials and planners to study WDW as a model. Disney has run educational programs in the past aimed at teaching its customer service skills more broadly. Would it be possible for the company to do something similar with its Florida urban experiments?

Walt Disney on Profits

“I knew if this business was ever to get anywhere, if this business was ever to grow, it could never do it by having to answer to someone unsympathetic to its possibilities, by having to answer to someone with only one thought or interest, namely profits. For my idea of how to make profits has differed greatly from those who generally control businesses such as ours. I have blind faith in the policy that quality, tempered with good judgment and showmanship, will win against all odds.”

— Walt Disney

3 Placemaking Lessons From the Magic Kingdom

If you design software, you need to know about placemaking. Why? Because the websites and apps you design will create the contexts in which people shop, bank, learn, gossip with their friends, store their photos, etc. While people will experience these things primarily through screens in phones, tablets, and computers, they actually perceive them as places they go to to do particular things.

Your users need to be able to make sense of these information environments so they can get around in them and find and do the things they came for, just as they do with physical environments such as towns and buildings. People need to form accurate mental models of these environments if they are to use them skillfully.

As a discipline, software user interface design has only been around for about sixty years. However, we’ve been designing places for much longer. There’s much we can learn from architecture and urban design to help us create more effective apps and websites. This article is a short case study in the design of a particular physical environment that has valuable lessons for those of us who design information environments: Disneyland.

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Book Notes: “The Magic Kingdom”

The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life
By Steven Walls
University of Missouri, 2001

Anyone who thinks of him or herself as an experience designer needs to study Walt Disney’s life and work. Human experience was Mr. Disney’s canvas, and he built a hugely influential organization around the idea of creating experiences for people. (The Disney Imagineers—the people responsible for the design of the theme parks—are among the few professionals that can truly claim to design experiences. But I digress…) My fascination with Mr. Disney has led me to various biographies, including Bob Thomas’s studio-sanctioned Walt Disney: An American Original and the more critical Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination by Neil Gabler. Recently I came across another biography that gave me some new insights into the man and his career: Steven Watts’s The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life.

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