Content lessons from one of Disney's biggest disasters

January 29, 2022

Listen instead

Disney's California Adventure was - in simple terms - and epic fail.

The intent was to celebrate all things California. Entering under the Golden Gate Bridge, strolling along a pier, and palm trees galore.

But the real California, was just outside its gates.

Not only was the idea a mess, but the park was too.

It was poorly organised. Hard to get around. And the attractions didn't exactly...attract.

Many visitors thought that the carpark it had replaced was a better use of the space.

It was 2001, and the renaissance years - filled with the magic of movies like Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992)  and the Lion King (1994) - were well and truly over.

Their problems were issues of strategy and structure.

Between 2002 and 2012, the renovations and changes to make it work would cost (according to one blog I read) over $1.5 billion.

The same thing happens with websites, digital products and other online products.

When strategy and structure aren't clearly set, the content debt quickly stack up (but hopefully not $1.5 billion worth).

And, it might seem strange to think that theme park redesign and content redesign share any similarity at all, but they do.

Investment in imagination

Budget was tight, and the idea of the park was rolled out fast, to be able to open doors and generate ticket sales.

Where the geography of Disneyland had been completely transformed, with fully established trees, waterways, and a large earth mound around the outside blocking views of the outside world, the same couldn't be said for California Adventure.

There wasn't the time or budget to take a moment to step back, and bring together all the ideas into a single approach.

Structure and strategy might sound like they sit a world away from imagination. But empowering people to bring their ideas to the table (or, if you're a solo business owner, giving yourself a chance to dream) is a great first step. It means having big, far reaching conversations that sometimes test the limits of a single project. Which also means you're more likely to end up with a solution that can evolve with you, based on where you might go in the future.

A core idea

Selling California in California, with no tie back to either Disney's foundations or hugely successful renaissance was an interesting idea.

To say the least.

It's as if they forgot the heart of their brand.

Magic. Imagination. Nostalgia. Joy.

When deciding how to approach the redesign, they focused just that. And, the stories that were bringing those things to their audiences.

It was, of course, the Pixar era. Toy Story. A Bug's Life. Cars. And if you go to California Adventure today, they're exactly the characters you'll see.

So never forget your core. There's a bit of theory behind what that is and how to get to it, but it essentially means that you should understand the purpose behind your content, and bring that to all things.

Useful guideposts and hierarchies

In planning Disneyland, Walt Disney worked on 4 levels of detail.

First, there's the level of the castle in the distance, so you always know where you are. Every corner of the park has a major landmark, so that the visitor can easily navigate the space.

Then, you make out the shape of the buildings and other structures. You can get a little closer to where you need to go.

Next, you see the big signs over the door. You can make a decision about what you want to get close to.

Finally, the doorknobs are polished, the pretzels are shaped like Mickey Mouse, every little detail is considered.

This is the structure piece.

The goal of these levels (the hierarchy) and their signifiers (the guideposts) is to help people find exactly what they're looking for. Including joy. It exists to make the process seamless for the visitor.

They tried to bring these principles into California Adventure as an afterthought. And it wasn't entirely successful.

Paying attention to structure helps you plan for how people can move around your content.

Like a theme park, there isn't one single track. The journey isn't linear. A digital experience isn't a classic novel, it's more a choose your own adventure. But even they point you in the right direction.

Paying attention to it early allows you to think about how you can expand and change those journeys later on, instead of just sticking some random A Bug's Life characters in the middle of a theme park.

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