Today, one week ago, I spent 12 hours at Disneyland Paris.
Rewind back to me planning my trip through France and that’s not something I thought I’d ever include in the itinerary. Thousands of people, overpriced merch, coke-d up kids and extreme roller coasters aren’t quite the chic combo that Emily-in-Paris paints for me. But, I was — after all — on a behavioural tour, and my Disney decision was an easy one after reading this article on the clever behavioural psychology behind Disneyland’s design.
Hundreds of € later (something to still convince Natalie-the-BreadCrumbs-accountant about), I decided to summarise my dose of Disney through a behavioural lens. To do this, I explored the Disneyland park using the (F)EAST Framework conceptualised by the Behavioural Insights Team — with the “F for FUN” inclusion from Prof Cass Sunstein (2020).
So, here’s what I found:
F — Make it FUN
Walt Disney was obsessed with fun. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Disney is known for being the “happiest place in the world” and from the moment you step through the gilded arches of the entrance right up until the closing-time fireworks display over the fairytale castle, every move you make in this amusement park is orchestrated to nudge you towards fun.
Disney Imagineer (Imagination Engineer) Joe Rohde said that: “If a detail is there, that detail is there for a reason. The detail does not exist to serve its own purposes. It only exists to serve narrative purposes.”
This Disney narrative is integral to your park experience. Walt Disney knew that when telling a story, you take your customer on a journey, moving them from one perspective to another. In this way, you shape how they see you, at the same time as building affinity for your brand.
Once you’re in Disneyland, you become part of a magical story set — not simply as a visitor, but an ‘extra’ who joins the plot. In fact, as part of several rides you become the main character, flying as Peter Pan over London or sitting alongside C3PO in a space ship. This turns your visit into an interactive game, a behavioural technique of gamification that boosts your connection with the Disney brand to encourage long-term brand advocacy.
In the world of behavioural science, giving people a sense of delight and fun associated with any type of product or service sale is effective in nudging the action, or purchasing decision, you’re after. Added to this, by making things fun we’re more likely to want to do them again. The gold standard with any type of behavioural action? To make it repeatable. No one knows this more than Brent Dodge — a dedicated Disney guest who makes an effort to go to a Disney park every single day of the year(?!).
E — Make it EASY
Insights from behavioural literature show that anything that adds challenge or effort, even if these seem small and irrelevant, make it less likely we’ll follow through with a call to action. Because of this, the principle of making things easy is crucial in nudging action.
Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers dedicated huge amounts of time and money to ensure a slick, sleek, seamless Disney experience. He famously said that guests should “only get lost if they choose to” and the park design has been done in such a way that all roads lead to the main town area (where the merch shops are) and are easily connected to the park areas (Fantasyland, Adventureland, Discoveryland) with multi-lingual signposting and directional arrows to follow.
I’ll speak more about the (in)famous Disney queues a bit later on, but tied to this in the spirit of ‘make it easy’ is the world’s best upsell moment: a rapid access pass to get you fast tracked to the front of the queue. In one of my more impatient 45-minute waits, I was tempted. Luckily for N̶a̶t̶a̶l̶i̶e̶ me, I kept getting an error 404 message when I tried to make the purchase … but even that was a smile-worthy moment:
A — Make it ATTRACTIVE
With all the music, colours, architecture and nostalgic cartoon characters walking around, you wouldn’t expect to hear about rubbish bins now, would you? I had a moment where I laughed to myself thinking that the local Parisienne park-goers were probably thinking “shame*, she thinks that’s something else” as I snapped pictures of … trash cans. Linked to the make-it-easy principle above, Walt Disney wanted rubbish bins placed every 30 metres, the time it took him to finish eating a hotdog. Once I noticed these rubbish bins, I couldn’t help but look out for them — attractively themed to each ride to be part of the ‘set’ rather than generic eyesores.
*Update for international readers: “shame” is a South Africanism used to express sympathy and even cuteness — not used in the stronger disgust sense ;)
Disneyland has been painted and pruned to perfection. Trees are kept trimmed regularly to avoid blocking views of the buildings and bodies of water and the level of intricate detail attracts — and commands — our brain’s attention. All of your senses are engaged. The smell of popcorn hits you at the entrance (apparently vanilla scent is sprayed throughout the park but I didn’t notice this) and the background music is quick-paced and manic early on, only slowing down in the evening to coax you into closing-time.
One thing I was looking out for is called ‘forced perspective’. Here, your brain is tricked into thinking buildings or set designs are much bigger or taller when in fact, the scale of other objects causes this illusion. Smaller windows towards the tops of towers, lighter shades of paint, smaller trees, bigger ropes — all work to transform the visual experience.
S — Make it SOCIAL
I was 20 seconds into the park before social proofing got me. Merch. More specifically, Minnie Mouse ears. EVERYONE had them on and I needed to be part of the herd. I was almost dissuaded by the price tag, but there was some clever price anchoring and scarcity effect here too with the 30th anniversary limited edition collection!
Walking around (all day) with others, ears on head, brings out a nostalgia that even this elder millennial couldn’t resist. It’s a shared experience with thousands of strangers, but those wearing matching ears all got an extra smile.
This made me think about the messenger effect, a persuasive behavioural technique when we’re making decisions that considers who is giving us the message. Do we know them? Like them? Respect them? For anyone visiting, Mickey’s this guy. He waves from the tower as the park opens and his role is one of complete authority and credibility in the context of Disneyland. The original influencer.
T — Make it TIMELY
Time. Without question, our most precious resource on holiday. So, any trip to the “castle-of-queues” seems foolish. When the park opens at 9:30am sharp, thousands of people half-walk-half-run through the turnstiles to get to the popular rides. This means that avoiding queues is impossible (fun fact, Walt Disney actually banned the use of that word by his employees).
Disneyland appears to have cracked the code to offset the inevitable irritation that comes with queueing. Firstly, you don’t see the queue you’re joining. It’s not like one of those airport security queues with the visible snaking that makes your heart sink. Instead, the queues are built around the rides and for Pirates of the Caribbean as an example, one of the most popular Paris attractions, you queue through small zones before moving into the main ride area. By not seeing how many people are in front of you, it’s a weird perception change of the whole queueing experience (#AttentionHomeAffairs). Because the queues wrap around rides, you are constantly moving, too.
Another trick were the surprise-and-delight moments to distract you from the queue entirely. For the Star Wars Tour, for example, you watch pre-ride context videos, interact with the characters, and every few metres of queueing you’re met with holograms and animatronics that set the scene. This links to what’s called the “dual task paradigm” where we lose track of time because of mental stimulation.
A final queue-design element uses what’s called the “Machiavellian twist”. Digital boards at the ride entrances (as well as displayed on the app) hint at slightly longer wait times. Once you join the queue, you realise it moves quicker than what you thought and this positive change in expectation is a welcome surprise.
Hundreds of behavioural scientists are now employed at Disney globally, focused on areas including decision making, mood and persuasion. The insights they uncover help to shape guest experiences across all communication channels of the Disney brand.
In many ways, Disney is a case study in predictable novelty. You know what to expect, but still expect some sort of unexpected. This plays into our deep-seated need for the status quo (we don’t want too much change) coupled with the need for hedonic adaptation (humans get bored easily).
My dose of Disney dopamine was carefully crafted and curated, and that made it all the more appealing.
Today, one week ago, I spent 12 hours at Disneyland Paris.
And lived happily ever after.