The Disney Experience

Over the past week, I haven’t been blogging much, on account of a week-long vacation in California. During my vacation, I visited Disneyland with some relatives, friends, and my girlfriend, and I was struck by how wonderfully efficient and experiential the Disney parks are.

Now, I’ve been to all four Disney World parks, both water parks, Downtown Disney Marketplace, and the Disney Boardwalk, but never to Disneyland until this trip. When I was young, my parents would load me and my siblings into the minivan with a bungie-corded portable TV, some Game Boys, and a bunch of VHS tapes, and trek cross-country from Wisconsin to Florida, where we would timeshare at the Westgate resorts in Kissimmee every Easter. Every year, we’d go to a Disney park, from the time I was 3 years old until we stopped going regularly in my teens. As a kid, I reveled in the magic of the parks; as an adult and a software engineer, I’m starting to figure out exactly why: Disney’s shining examples of Efficiency and Experience.


When Walt Disney drafted the plan for the original Disneyland park in 1953 (the culmination of two decades of thought on the subject), he definitely had efficiency as one of the key factors in the park’s design.

Even in the original draft, Disney had considered one of the major issues with park layout: transportation. Between designing the park around a central Hub area, placing a railroad around the outside of the park (to avoid clustering around central areas of transit), and giving each location unique, descriptive names and themes to avoid confusion, Disney had architected the park around efficient transit of people. While some areas were abandoned (such as Lilliputian Land and True-Life Adventure), others were transformed (Holiday Land became Adventureland), and the park was expanded even further to accommodate Critter Country and Mickey’s Toontown, the basic hub-and-train structure persists, and has been applied to every major Disney park since.

Walt’s concept for Tomorrow Land was as a showcase for the technology which made the world a better place (and arguably, as a place to show off his corporate sponsors’ creations), but the Disneyland parks themselves have become the embodiment of this value. The Disney parks are designed in such a way that most common tasks undertaken by both guests and cast members, from restroom visits and waste disposal to meeting costumed characters and going on rides, can be done as swiftly and effectively as possible, so as not to detract from the experience. Almost every conceivable detail is handled explicitly through the park’s design, and it shows. To quote an article on the HelpScout blog:

Perhaps the most unexpected finding when evaluating Disney’s penchant for “magic” is the focus on process—the drive and ability to optimize the mundane.

Walt was obsessed with the process. He knew that the deliverance of a magical experience each and every time is dependent on developing processes that allow you to do so.

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The article goes on to describe a (possibly anecdotal) story about Walt Disney’s obsession with trash cans. According to the tale, Walt noticed from visiting other amusement parks that visitors would only take about 30 steps after finishing a food item before littering; because of this, every Disney park has trash bins placed carefully within eyesight of every area in the park (including within the lines for attractions); this visibly and obviously reduces littering to a bare minimum.

Disney parks are set up with “backstages” dotting the park, hidden areas accessible only to Disney cast members, which contain rest areas, bathrooms, cafeterias, park controls, food stores, waste disposals, kitchens, hair salons, dressing rooms, and transportation via hidden roads and footpaths, among other things. Some of these include underground complexes; most notably, the Walt Disney World and Disneyland park complexes include what’s known as the utilidor system, a massive underground utility tunnel system which facilitates various vital park support operations.

As a part of this attitude, almost every conceivable situation, from trash control and food preparation to character meet-and-greets and waiting in line (FastPass, anyone?), is optimized and made more efficient. However, this is not done at the expense of the thing that Disney does so well:


Disney’s mantra is “We create happiness by providing the finest in family entertainment.” Whether it’s your very first time at the parks, or you’ve been going since they opened 60 years ago (as of last Friday), there’s always something new to see or experience. Disney’s four basic service priorities are Safety, Courtesy, Showmanship, and Efficiency; while I singled out the last priority earlier, these are all key factors in providing the best experience to the parks’ guests. From my experience at Disneyland, I was able to see several examples of where this holds true in remarkable fashion:

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We stumbled upon a bathroom that was closed, right when we needed one. Instead of a sign indicating a wet floor, tape over the doorway, or a worker in the bathroom fixing the problem among the guests, Disneyland had posted two Cast Members outside of the bathroom to prevent people from entering. They would tell guests not to enter, and, if asked, direct them to the next nearest restroom. This prevented two negative scenarios from detracting from the overall experience: (1) seeing a messy or broken bathroom, or (2) finding a closed bathroom and not being able to find another in time. A later visit to a different bathroom resulted in me checking two paper towel dispensers and finding them to be non-functional. After leaving the bathroom, I tracked down the nearest Cast Member and informed her of this, and she said she would call it in immediately.

After exiting the Winnie the Pooh ride in Critter Country, you pass by the entrance to a Pooh-themed gift shop. In the first area (specializing in kitchenware and snacks), visible behind several large glass panes next to the checkout counter, are chefs painstakingly crafting the various treats in large batches. While standing in line, we watched the chocolate dip and graham cracker crumb application steps for a batch of S’mores Marshmallow Wands. (Of course, we knew right then and there what we were going to order; what better advertisement than showing it made right in front of your eyes?)

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When riding the Disneyland Railroad around the outside of the park, there was never longer than a minute’s pause between the narrator telling us about each portion of the park we traveled through, as part of the experience referred to as the “Grand Circle Tour”. The famous Grand Canyon and Dinosaur dioramas, the settler’s cottage, and the Zip-a-Dee Lady scene from within the Splash Mountain ride all provided a unique and enjoyable way of passing the time spent on the train, turning what would normally be boring, slow transit into a magical experience in and of itself.

When park-hopping between Disneyland Park and Disney’s California Adventure (to ride the Tower of Terror, of course), we were given a handstamp in UV-reactive clear ink. They could have just as easily given us a black ink handstamp, but they chose to do this because (a) it makes it harder to duplicate, and (b) it isn’t visible on your hands, and therefore doesn’t leave a mark which may look unprofessional the next day.

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After wandering through California Adventure for a short amount of time looking for the Tower of Terror, I came across a guy who apparently was a Redwood Creek Challenge Trail cast member. I asked him where Tower of Terror is, and he gave me clear, concise directions. Since he resembled a security guard, it made me realize: I hadn’t seen a single security guard the entire day at either park, and I’d been at the parks for about 8 hours. According to testimonials on, many of the security guards at Disneyland are dressed as plainclothes cops, disguised as tourists or fellow guests, so as not to ruin the experience with flashy appearances or publicly-visible arrests.

At the end of the day in California Adventure, instead of announcing that everyone would have to leave the park, they effected the park’s closing in a slow, drawn-out manner. First, admission to the park was closed. Next, attractions ceased operation, then stores started to close, then finally, a good fifteen or twenty minutes after the park’s official closing, they started turning off lights: first, just a few in outlying areas, and none that were necessary to find the exit, but more as the closing went on. At some point, the background music shut off, but I was completely unaware. To emphasize, at no time were we ever asked to leave the park.

But what does it have to do with software?

The process of visiting Disneyland, like the process of using software, is based around how well it accomplishes its goal (in this case, to entertain guests), as well as the experience itself. If we put in everything that’s asked for, we risk sacrificing the experience of using our software; Disney addresses this with its parks by using its four tenets of service to ensure that getting the necessary features right (attractions, food, shopping, even waste disposal) never overwhelms the overall experience of every visit. The parks are seen as a developing product, in need of constant improvement; every cast member in the park is committed to making Disney every bit as magical as it proclaims to be, and that means not only putting your best work forward, but also continuing to identify areas of weakness and push forward possible improvements. This is something that the software industry is beginning to accept as an unerring truth, even though full adoption of this mentality, and its application to software development organizations, is lagging behind a bit.

I say, learn from Disney. Ensure that the experience, whether it be from visiting an amusement park or using a software product, is magical. Value efficiency, introspection, customer feedback, and constant improvement of the process as means of achieving that goal, rather than goals in and of themselves. The point is to get people to use what we create; everything in your arsenal should be committed to that goal. As Walt Disney once said:

You don’t build it for yourself. You know what the people want and you build it for them.

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