Making magic: seven lessons from Walt Disney World

As the ‘experience economy’ gathers pace, The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School tourism experts Dr Karen Hughes and Associate Professor David Solnet explain what businesses can learn from Disney’s approach to welcoming thousands of visitors into their theme parks every day.


For young and old alike, Walt Disney World in Florida is where visitors come to experience the power of magic. Yet the real magic lies in how the theme park manages to create a unique experience for each of its 50,000-plus visitors a day and generate an annual income of over $18 billion – equivalent to 2.5 per cent of Florida’s gross domestic product.

As goods and services become increasingly commoditised and businesses find themselves competing with cheaper rivals online, creating excellent customer experiences is one way to stand out from the crowd.

Staging memorable experiences has long been at the heart of show business and is central to the tourism and hospitality industries. It is a strategy that is increasingly adopted by retailers, transport and companies from a wide array of industries. So, who better to look to for guidance than the Disney company, a globally renowned entertainment icon. Overall, Disney’s business model is underpinned by creating magical experiences for millions of visitors annually at their eleven theme parks.

UQ Business School tourism students get a chance to discover Walt Disney World’s secrets firsthand in a study tour to Florida. Onsite they learn about the seven core elements underpinning Disney’s success in experience design and management. These seven elements can apply to a range of businesses:

1. Use language purposively

Disney welcomes thousands of guests – not clients, customers or visitors – but ‘guests’ into their theme parks every day. Staff are referred to as cast members and are tasked with creating magical experiences.

One of the first things cast members learn is the clear distinction between being on-stage (in the public eye and therefore being a visible part of the show) and being off-stage (behind the scenes). These theatre terms aren’t just for fun; they help reinforce the message that magic doesn’t just happen - delivering experiences is a performance that requires everyone to be en pointe and working together.  While this language might not be suitable for all businesses, it’s important for companies to realise that the language they use projects and shapes the organisation’s ethos and core business.

2. Value every member of the team

Disney emphasises that every cog in the wheel is critical to their overall success – no job is too small or menial to go unnoticed. Cleaners are referred to as ‘custodians’ to acknowledge the importance of their role. Management picks up litter, talks to park guests and gets to know their cast members personally – they ‘walk the talk’. The key learning is that organisations who value their team inspire them to give great service and engender loyalty to the company.

3. Consistently deliver

When Disney cast members are on stage, they are expected to be enthusiastic and energetic whatever the circumstances. Disney promotes itself as the ‘happiest place on Earth’, and cast members have to outwardly embody happiness too. Disney’s philosophy is that happiness is contagious – if cast members act happy, they will feel happy and the mood will spread to others, including guests. It may be the 100th time a cast member has welcomed guests that day, but for each guest, it’s their first. Nurturing and embedding a positive attitude in staff is vital for all organisations with a high level of customer contact.

4. If something goes wrong, put it right quickly

All Disney employees are empowered to fix problems on the spot, for example- giving small treats such as ice-creams or fast passes for attractions. Cast members are even trained to actively seek out guests who require assistance and are encouraged to resolve any problems immediately. Service recovery is one thing that Disney consistently gets right – it ensures that small issues don’t ruin a guest’s day.  Tired children, disappointed customers and general misunderstandings are part and parcel of most business operations. However, organisations who prioritise service recovery can significantly improve their guests’ experiences and satisfaction. 

5. Manage those queues

Disney recognises that people in queues are not spending money (and are probably feeling frustrated too)! The company works hard to minimise waiting times through advance booking platforms. These systems allow guests to self-manage their experiences by providing real-time information about the length of lines via apps, websites and on-site signage.

Sometimes queueing is inevitable – in Disney’s theme parks this is where you’ll find audio-visual presentations or cast members creating impromptu performances and interacting with guests. The adage that ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ definitely applies here – believe it or not, queuing can be an integral and even enjoyable part of the guest experience!  It’s all about perceived rather than actual wait times. Customer queues and delays are often an unavoidable reality in business. However, a company’s continued success demands that firms manage real and perceived wait times as proactively as possible.

6. Create multi-sensory experiences

Disney’s theme parks are designed to engage all five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. No guest to Magic Kingdom will forget the theatrical entrance featuring billboards, music, the smell of popcorn, or the famous vista up Main Street to Cinderella’s castle. These elements are deliberately designed and placed to signal that guests are about to be transported into an enchanted land. Businesses wanting to create memorable experiences can follow Disney’s lead by ensuring that the physical layout of their site, furnishings, décor, lighting, sounds, smells (‘sensory’ marketing) and staff uniforms promote the company’s key messages or themes.

7. Find reasons to make guests feel special

Disney staff are trained to listen for clues to give out ‘special occasion’ badges to first-time visitors, or those celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. The badges prompt cast members throughout the park to provide those guests with special treatment, such as small discounts, preference in queues, special seating or a rousing rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. It is the simple touches that mean so much to guests and proof that adding a little magic doesn’t have to cost a fortune!

Last updated:
27 February 2019