Let’s go to Disneyland (4 content lessons)

December 16, 2020

A few weeks back I completely binged The Imagineering Story on Disney+ (watch the trailer). It’s a 6 part docu-series on the history of Disney Parks, and the people who create magic within them.

Those people are the Imagineers.

When Disneyland was being created, rather than drawing on engineers and architects, Walt pulled from his team of art directors and animators.The series really shows their culture of asking ‘what if’ instead of ‘how’.

They’d figure that out later.

As someone who applies a design thinking approach to content, I love the idea of starting with the ‘what if’ rather than the ‘how’. Some of the best content ideas come from dreaming big first, and then asking ‘how can we do this in a practical way?'

But there were plenty of other lessons I took from The Imagineering Story.

4 in fact.

And here they are.

1. Control the point of view

This was a statement that the Imagineers throughout the years said again and again. How can you control point of view?

One of the ways they do it in Disneyland is by designing the pathways into rides as unique experiences. You feel like you’re on the ride well before you actually are. You are entertained in most queues (which is useful seeing as queues can extend to 4 hours long) and you’re looking at the things they want you to look at. It’s subtle. You don’t even realise your experience is being curated as much as it is.

In terms of content, it’s important to remember that we’re wholly responsible for the point of view we create for our audience. We choose what they see, what they don’t, and how the information is presented.

With that in mind, we need to be careful not to make assumptions about what they do and don’t know. How will they know if we don't tell them? And, we have to be mindful of their journey. Don't think they'll know because you've said it once. Make sure they can get the information they need, where and when they need it.

2. Guideposts

In a similar vein…

One of the magical things about Disneyland is the way it’s been laid out. They intentionally created high, central focal points (think: the iconic Sleeping Beauty castle) throughout the park so you can quickly orient yourself and find your way. They’re guideposts, there to help you navigate without the need for a map or complex directions.

A little story.

I happened to be there on the busiest day they’d experienced in 5 years.

It was 32 degrees in winter. Hot. Sweaty. Boxing Day*. They reached capacity. And New Orleans had begun to flood.

(New Orleans Square is a small part of Disneyland, above the Pirates of the Caribbean underground boat ride. It holds lots of water. Flooding was not ideal).

All of a sudden, they shut an entire quadrant of the park. The place was body-to-body packed. And uncomfortable.

And yet, the design meant that the area cleared really quickly.

There was no panic or frustration, just people going with the flow. Because even if you went in a different direction, you could always get back to Main Street USA (the entrance and central thoroughfare) and find your way.

Guideposts are just as important in content.

Yes, this means website navigation. But menus and labels aren’t the only guideposts we use.

Headings, subheadings and bold text are probably the most useful guideposts we have. They're our Sleeping Beauty castle.

When we land on a new page (blog post, app screen, open a brochure) our first question is ‘will this page give me what I want?’. We use the first heading to signal whether we’re in the right spot, and then might scan down to find the most relevant section.

Screen readers also give users the ability to skip between headings, meaning that the scanning process often happens whether we’re reading with our eyes or our ears.

*For my North American pals - who I don’t think have Boxing Day: Boxing Day is the day after Christmas.

3. Context, context, context

Now there is a lot to be said about Disney as a mono-culture, the ethics of their expansion around the world and the very premise of celebrating early 20th century small town America in a park.

But, even if we don’t agree, there is always an opportunity to learn.

Disney’s park exports have not always been well received (see EuroDisney, Hong Kong Disneyland).

Their initial efforts were near carbon copies of the Disneyland Park. Even down to the food.

This was a problem.

No wine in Paris? Sacrebleu!

I’ve said it before, but context is greater than content.

Disney forgot to pay attention to the context.

Who are their audience? What do they expect? What do they already know, and what do they need to learn? So much of the experience within their parks is grounded in nostalgia, but what happens when you’re assuming a shared history that your audience doesn’t have?

Chinese audiences, for example, don't have the same cultural pull to Mickey and friends as most Western audiences.

The content didn’t land, because the context wasn’t considered.

Audience first, always.

4. Do more of what works well

On the flip side, don’t forget what works well.

While the complete carbon copies didn’t fly, throwing out the rule book didn’t work either.

California Adventure is Disneyland’s sister park. It’s directly across the way. Which means it was a total risk to build.

Why on earth would you go see a celebration of California - in the middle of California - directly across from Disneyland?

It had to be something really special.

It wasn’t.

They stuffed it.

They didn't take lessons from Disneyland’s easy to navigate layout (which explains how I somehow ended up on the giant rollercoaster when I was meant to be on a child’s ride). They didn’t block out the outside world. They didn’t plant any visual guideposts throughout.

And they forgot their brand. Sure, it was a celebration of a nostalgic version of America, like Main Street USA. But it wasn’t Disney.

So, after a few years, when the park was totally failing and they decided to revive it, one of the first things they did was stick a giant Mickey head on the ferris wheel.

They rebranded the rides with nostalgic Disney titles, like Goofy’s Flight School and Silly Symphonies.

And, they brought in their biggest characters. At the time, that was any character created with Pixar. Toy Story. A Bugs Life. Cars.

(Fact: I do not love Cars. I DO love riding through ‘Ornament Valley’ in Radiator Springs Racers).

Iteration is important. And sometimes you have to make mistakes to make something better. But you do need to pay attention to what works.

Do more of that. Test. Fail. Try again.

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