Disney: Designing Magic

What Disney can teach us about designing magical experiences

by Zach Leach

The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio

Walt (right), just months after arriving in California. He’s with brother Roy in front of their first Hollywood Studio, on Kingswell Avenue.

The Walt Disney Company began as a joint venture between Walt Disney and his brother, Roy.

The company, then called the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, started on October 16, 1923. Within three years, the company had produced two movies and purchased a studio in Hollywood, but pitfalls in distribution rights nearly sank the company.

The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio

The creation of Mickey Mouse in 1928 changed everything.​ Around that time, Disney launched many other famous characters, such as Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck, which together became the foundation of a company that has now branched out well beyond animation.

Disney today

An immense surface area for design

  • 6 Theme Parks
  • 25 Resort Hotels
  • Disney Cruise Line
  • 24 Disney retail stores
  • Walt Disney Animation and Pixar
  • 5 Television channels
  • Disney Theatrical Productions
  • Disney+ Streaming Service
  • So. What does it take?

    Act One: Ambition

    Disney has a legacy of creating broad, sweeping visions that capture the imagination. Even if they fall short of delivering that vision, they still inspire.

    Ambition in cinema

    Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)

    Ambition in cinema

    A full-color, full-length, feature film with synchronized sound and music?

    He estimated 300 artists, and it costing $500,000 in 1937. It would end up costing three times as much, and nearly bankrupting the studio.

    “The first thing I did when I got a little money to experiment,” Walt explained, “I put all my artists back in school. We were dealing in motion, movement, the flow of movement. Action, reaction. So we had to set up our own school.”

    Simply put, nothing like it had ever been attempted before.

    Not only did they found an art school, they also had to invent a new camera.

    Disney had the notion that different objects should exist at varying depths in the shot, so they designed and built a multiplane camera. By physically shifting different cels in front of an animator's background drawing, they could simulate multiple depths.

    The MultiPlane Camera

    Three original Disney multiplane cameras survive: one at The Walt Disney Studios, Burbank, California, one at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, and one in the Art of Disney Animation attraction at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris.

    Ambition in cinema

    Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a risk that could have finished Disney. Instead it changed cinema forever. In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it as one of the first 25 films for preservation in the National Film Registry.

    In the end, more than 750 artists, animators and technicians worked on the film over the course of four years, costing the studio $1.6 million. It grossed $181 million after several re-releases. Adjusted for inflation that's $1.5 billion.

    The ultimate stretch goal

    EPCOT (1966)

    The ultimate stretch goal

    EPCOT: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow

    At one point, Disney described the plan for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (or EPCOT) as “an experimental prototype that is always in the state of becoming, a place where the latest technology can be used to improve the lives of people.”

    If that isn’t what UX is in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

    The ultimate stretch goal

    Everything in Epcot City would radiate out from its epicenter “like spokes on a wheel.” Shopping districts, office buildings, convention centers, the hotel and a transportation center would sit at the heart of the community under a common roof, completely enclosed and climate-controlled.

    The ultimate stretch goal

    EPCOT after Disney

    The Contemporary Resort opened with the Magic Kingdom as an architectural remnant of EPCOT's modernist aesthetic.

    After Walt Disney's death, Walt Disney Productions decided that it did not want to be in the business of running a city without Walt's guidance. The model community of Celebration, Florida has been mentioned as a realization of Disney's original vision, but Celebration is based on concepts of new urbanism which is radically different from Disney's modernist and futurist visions. However, the idea of EPCOT was instrumental in prompting the state of Florida to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) and the cities of Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (now Lake Buena Vista), a legislative mechanism allowing Disney to exercise governmental powers over Walt Disney World.

    Galaxy sized ambition

    Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser (2022)

    Galaxy sized ambition

    Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is a revolutionary new 2-night experience where you are the hero. You and your group will embark on a first-of-its-kind Star Wars adventure that’s your own. It’s the most immersive Star Wars story ever created—one where you live a bespoke experience and journey further into a Star Wars adventure than you ever dreamed possible.

    Galaxy sized ambition

    A hotel? A cruise ship?... A theme park ride you live inside?

    Galaxy sized ambition

    Whatever it is, it's expensive...

    Galaxy sized ambition

    ... and controversial.

    “The ‘light saber training’ looks about as exciting as a roadside sobriety test,” one Disney watcher commented on YouTube. “It’s way too expensive,” another said.

    Galaxy sized ambition

    One thing is certain. You can't say it wasn't ambitious.

    Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is a Star Wars dream come true. Everything about it was insanely cool. It’s like playing a Star Wars video game in real life. You truly feel like you’ve stepped onto an actual starship and are a part of a Star Wars movie. The overall story is exciting, the ship itself is impressively built and overflowing with adventures waiting to be discovered, and the character interactions add a sense of fun and immersion.

    via IGN

    Act One: Ambition

    “You must be imaginative, strong-hearted. You must try things that may not work, and you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true—anyone can cook… but only the fearless can be great.”

    Auguste Gusteau, Ratatouille

    Act Two: Details

    Many companies try to emulate the ‘Disney effect’, but no matter how hard they try they just can’t match the attention to detail and experience that Disney is able to provide its patrons and cast members.

    Mastering the art of ecosystem-based service design

    It starts here, with a simple trash can...

    Mastering the art of ecosystem-based service design

    ...That's part of a cleverly disguised trash removal system called AVAC...

    The Automated Vacuum Collection system. There are 17 collection points around Magic Kingdom and an underground system of vacuum tubes. Every 15 minutes, trash is sucked at a speedy 60 miles per hour to a compactor located behind Splash Mountain. Here it is compressed and then removed from property.

    Mastering the art of ecosystem-based service design

    ...That itself is part of an underground city, below the Magic Kingdom

    Utility corridors aka Utilidors

    They allow Disney employees ("cast members") to perform park support operations, such as trash removal, and for costumed characters to quickly reach their destinations on the surface out of the sight of guests to avoid ruining the illusion that is being created.

    → Learn More about the The Underground City

    The largest system of utilidors is beneath Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, but they are not a basement, contrary to popular belief. Because of an elevated water table, most of these tunnels were actually built at ground level, and the Magic Kingdom was built above that. All the guests of the park see streets that are elevated by one story. Parts of Fantasyland, including the Cinderella Castle, are at a third-story level. The ground's incline is so gradual that guests tend not to realize they are ascending to the second and third stories. The Magic Kingdom is built upon soil which was removed from what is now the Seven Seas Lagoon.

    Waste removal: The Magic Kingdom uses an automated vacuum collection (AVAC) system for waste removal. Custodians remove trash from the park twenty-four hours a day, then dump it into AVAC system processors throughout the park. The trash then travels through pneumatic tubes to a central location where it is processed and compressed for transfer to a landfill or recycling plant.

    Electrical operations: The park's computer system, the Digital Animation Control Systems (DACS), is operated and monitored from control rooms in the utilidors. This system monitors everything in the park, from sound systems to attractions, Audio-Animatronic figures to parades, fire prevention and security systems to cash registers.

    Deliveries and storage warehouses: Deliveries are received, processed, and stored at the utilidors until use. This ensures that guests do not see delivery trucks, nor do they see cast members carting merchandise through the park.

    Food service: The park's cooking and prep kitchens are housed in the utilidors.

    Costuming: For years, the park's costuming department (for cast members and Audio-Animatronic figures) was located in the utilidors. Over 1.2 million costumes were housed here, making it the largest operating wardrobe department in the world. In 2005, Disney replaced this facility with a larger location in the cast members' parking lot, West Clock. The only costuming operations that remain in the utilidors today are for costumed characters.

    Cast member services: Separate locker rooms for men and women are located in the utilidors, as well as cast member cafeterias. There is also a check cashing service, an employee hair salon called "Kingdom Kutters", rehearsal rooms, and administrative offices.

    Emergency services: Two medical carts are housed in the utilidors and are deployed whenever there is a medical emergency in Magic Kingdom.

    But... why?

    "People can feel perfection"

    Feeling perfection

    Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa

    Victorian elegance meets modern sophistication at this lavish Disney Resort hotel. Unwind outdoors, indulge in a luxurious massage and watch evening fireworks light up the sky over Cinderella Castle.

    Feeling perfection

    Room Service: Family Dinner Night

    Family night dinner is designed for a family that's had a really long day at the park, who's looking for something easy and fun.

    Feeling perfection

    But there's more... A game?

    This isn’t a traditional “card game” in the slightest, but it’s a cute addition to the meal that works perfectly for a family visiting Walt Disney World. What this game really amounts to is a series of prompts that are designed to create a family bonding moment.

    Feeling perfection

    Feeling perfection

    Magic is in the details

    At the end of the games, Disney sprinkles a bit of magic on the end of your Family Night Dinner with a sort of a puzzle. Flip over the title card and you’ll have to work to find a phone number that you can call from any resort phone.

    Feeling perfection

    Quality is in the imperceptible things that guests might not even know they see.

    Whether that means adding authentic props from the Himalayas to enhance an already “perfect” Expedition Everest attraction or ensuring that each one of a million pieces of wardrobe is “stage ready” every day, devotion to detail lets guests know that they’re worth the effort.

    Everything is an opportunity for magic

    Lets talk about the Manhole Covers

    Manhole covers have to be one of the most generic, standardized building products one can buy. I suspect that it is a highly competitive market, probably relatively regional, that achieves low cost because almost every plate ordered is the same.

    Everything is an opportunity for magic

    Question: What was the meeting about the manhole covers like?

    So if Disney decided to order just a few thousand specially designed manhole covers, it probably paid an order of magnitude more per unit for the privilege.

    For what? It’s a manhole cover, for goodness sake, the kind of thing that is not intended to be seen or to stand out.

    via Harvard Business Review

    Everything is an opportunity for magic

    Act Two: Details

    "Practically perfect in every way."

    Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins

    Act Three: Storytelling

    Since the beginning of mankind, stories were meant to share a common experience, entertain or teach. Using storytelling techniques, we can improve the user experience by telling better stories.

    As with many Disney stories,
    we begin with a legend...

    The Hollywood Tower Hotel opened in 1928 and quickly became a star in its own right, a beacon for the show business elite.

    On a stormy Halloween night in 1939, five individuals—an elegant honeymooning couple, a child actress, her nanny, and a bellman—entered an elevator in the prestigious Hollywood Tower Hotel.

    The elevator ascended it was struck by lightning, sending it plummeting to the ground floor, yet the bodies of the victims were never found.

    No staff or guests could determine what happened to the guests inside the missing elevator, so everyone vacated the hotel immediately and the building sat abandoned for years.

    Then, in May 2004, the hotel opened its doors again, offering tours of its historic and glamorous facilities.

    Though the hotel has long since been abandoned and remains in its eerily original, untouched state, the missing individuals are believed to still be roaming the grounds, inviting unsuspecting visitors to enter the Fifth Dimension with them.

    So what exactly happened here?

    As a visiting guest to the Hollywood Tower Hotel, you are invited into the Library to find out. A lost episode of “The Twilight Zone” tells the story of what happened on that fateful night and invites you to step aboard a service elevator that is still in operation.

    Of course, what happens on that elevator is a mystery you’ll have to experience for yourself.

    More than a ride, an experience

    Mechanically it's basically a drop tower type attraction, not so different from Double Shot on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

    More than a ride, an experience

    Grounding this ride in story makes it more than just ride

    It builds a rich foundation for the entire experience, from waiting in the queue to riding, to exiting.

    As product people, we have the opportunity to deliver experiences that would be delightful and memorable — just like in Disney stories.


    How Storytelling Works in Design

    Good stories inevitably involve conflict. Storytelling in design requires you to make users the hero and envision how they can overcome a specific problem using what you’ll offer them.


    What are users trying to achieve/overcome?

    Who are the users: not just demographically, but what insights do you need to understand what they (and their needs) are truly like?

    How can you establish a trustworthy presence to them and still set yourself apart from competitors? How will you reflect the overall obstacles users must overcome?

    What will your design say to users and how? Does a formal/informal tone match their expectations? How much text is appropriate?

    How will the overall design pattern appear pleasant and predictable to users, moving them emotionally?

    How will you present everything so the graphics match the setting the users can sense? Would a classic design or stylized, niche layout meet their expectations?

    How can you make your design outstanding so users will remember it?

    Act Three: Storytelling

    “It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”

    – Alice, Alice in Wonderland

    Designing Magic: What Disney can teach us about designing magical experiences

    Walt Disney: The World’s First UX Designer

    Attention to detail, a focus on immersion, and the desire to constantly improve his products made Walt Disney one of the earliest designers of user experience.

    Designing Magic: What Disney can teach us about designing magical experiences

    What can we do?

    Fix things that don’t work
    The grand opening of Disneyland was, in many respects, a disaster. They ran out of food, rides broke down, counterfeit tickets were being used to get into the park, and the asphalt sidewalks had not finished curing in many places. Though I’m pretty sure there was some yelling involved, Disney met with his team, did a postmortem, and fixed things. We need to follow that example, be self-conscious and objective about our designs, and fix what isn’t working.

    Make special moments
    Disney and his team had a sharp focus on creating a unique experience that guests could not get anywhere else. This focus on making as many special moments as possible resulted in happy (and repeat) customers. Human beings retain bad memories more than good, so providing happy moments results in people revisiting in a desire to relive or recapture those special moments.

    Always be "plussing"
    Disney was never completely satisfied. He always asked for more, always pushed his team to bring more to the table. He called this “plussing,” incrementally improving details and elements of an experience. It wasn’t “adding more stuff”—which so many companies do—it was making a good experience better; making sure the sound effects on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride were loud enough to rattle the riders; making sure that the Tiki Birds were able to have dozens of different gestures, not just ten. It was aspirational, and I think it’s the right way to approach design. Imagine if all designers and developers did their work with this type of attitude.

    Test, refine, then test again
    Disney sent friends and family on rides like Jungle Cruise before they opened to elicit feedback and fine-tune the experience. It’s exactly what we do as user experience professionals, and he did it 50 years ago.

    “Whatever you do, do it well.”

    — Walt Disney