Four Kitchens

UX of Disney, part 1: Pre-arrival & arrival

11 Min. ReadDesign and UX

The user experience of Walt Disney World

This is the first installment in our UX of Disney series. It tells my story from pre-arrival to post-arrival reflecting on the entire experience.

Ever since I was a child I’ve wanted to visit Walt Disney World. My grandmother wanted to take me in the 80s, but my parents—for whatever reason—weren’t having it. Fast-forward a few decades, and I found myself celebrating my 35th birthday in Disney World. I’m not the biggest Disney franchise fan—there are films and characters I enjoy, but no Disney film would land on my list of top 100 films of all time. So I’m not a raving Disney evangelist. I approached Walt Disney World with childlike enthusiasm and innocence, and saw it with life experience and a critical design eye.

My partner, Maggie, saved up for years and secretly planned this trip. As such, the initial planning and booking stages of the Walt Disney vacation experience were kept from me. Let’s start our journey outlining Disney World’s email communication. Every tiny detail builds expectation and sets the tone for the overall experience.

If you are new to Walt Disney World and its unique vocabulary, you may want to take a few moments to review our helpful glossary of Walt Disney World terms.

Pre-arrival communication

Emails and physical mail

As soon as we started booking our trip, Disney sent helpful expectation-setting emails. Their level of personalization is impressive and the personalized booklets that are physically mailed to you are a nice touch. You get the impression that you’re in for something special, unique, and just for you.

Inside each booklet are several pages divided into sections walking you through your trip itinerary and setting expectations around your stay. The cover features your family name (last name of primary booking person) and your name is referenced in several pages throughout the booklet. It makes you feel special—like it was handcrafted for you.

Emails: FastPass+ and dining reservations

Disney emails you as soon as it’s possible to start planning FastPass+ and dining reservations—both of which are absolutely critical to think about and establish. The Disney World FastPass+ system is designed to allow all guests to bypass long lines by booking a time for rides and attractions. You may book three FastPass+ reservations per day of your trip. On those days, you may book additional FastPass+ after the third FastPass+ of the day has been used. This ensures that all high priority rides and attractions are attainable during your visit. The FastPass+ system relies on either physical cards (like credit cards) that are mailed to you prior to your trip or your MagicBands. MagicBands are wearable wristbands that allow you to access the parks, stores your FastPass+ reservations, and allow you to make purchases in the parks. A month or two prior to your Disney stay you receive your MagicBands in the mail. You can choose a specific color or default to basic gray. Immediately after booking your resort stay you can customize your MagicBands. It’s one of the first delightful interactions Disney provides.

Taking the time to book your FastPass+ and dining reservations will ensure you experience as much as possible while on vacation. The process of booking both Fast Passes and dining reservations is very straightforward and approachable at all levels of technological understanding. For less tech-savvy folks, Disney provides physical credit card versions of FastPass+ that you can scan on rides just as you would a MagicBand. Additionally, throughout Disney World, there are FastPass+ kiosks that allow you to book and print FastPasses directly from them. I feel as though the overall user experience has been thought through very well. It eliminates as many obstacles as possible.

All of this communication made me feel special — as though I was going to experience something crafted specifically for me. It also helped to minimize pre-arrival anxiety about crowd size or not having enough time to experience a specific attraction.

All of these little details set the stage for magic and fun through relieving any common trip or travel stress. They clearly communicate: where you’re staying and what the property looks like, what your must-see attraction and rides are, and where you’ll be eating during your stay. I like to think of this experience as Disney meeting and exceeding guests’ basic needs.

MagicBand details

Disney’s first version of the MagicBand had significant UX issues. The largest of which has to do with its shape and lack of definition in visually denoting where the MagicBand’s hotspot technology was in the band itself. A MagicBand works using similar technology as Apple Pay, Android Pay, NFC payments or any tap-to-pay system. The first version was a flat band that looked very similar in shape to a FitBit wristband. It maintained the same width all the way around the band. In the center of what was considered the active hot spot (core functionality) of the band was a Mickey Mouse head. This specific part of the MagicBand is the entire functionality of the MagicBand. Having the Mickey head with zero differentiation in shape to the rest of the band caused users to not know which part of the band to place on the tap-to-enter Mickey gateway pillar that allows you to enter a theme park. As a result, the experience of using a Magic Band involved a lot of trial and error, which is anything but frictionless.

They learned from this mistake and applied this knowledge to what you see here in version two. The active hot spot is now larger than the rest of the band—sharing more in common with a wristwatch than a FitBit. This recognizable shape sets user’s expectations in a transparent and “known” way. It’s clear by looking at the MagicBand Version 2.0 where the hot spot is located.

Also worth noting—the screws on the back allow you to remove the Mickey hotspot from its band housing and secure it in a couple different housing options purchased from any Disney shop on resort/park property. You can choose from Disney character branded fashion bands such as Lilo & Stitch, Donald Duck, Haunted Mansion or any other Disney thing if you’d prefer a specific Disney MagicBand aesthetic.

Having and using MagicBands is straight up magical. I’d appreciate the functionality and utility of Magic Bands for everyday life. Someday, one can hope that’s a reality. I am personally not a huge fan of things on my wrist, but feel the MagicBand is reasonably comfortable to wear all day. I’d encourage Disney to potentially make the band more secure on one’s wrist. The plastic pegs in holes are somewhat secure but can be easily be ripped off when caught on a backpack strap or something. Perhaps a simple locking mechanism similar to what Peak Design has implemented in their Slide lite camera straps? Basically a toggle-to-lock piece toward the end of the band. I’m no product designer, but this could be neat.

For more information on Magic Bands (and planning for Disney World in general), watch this excellent overview from Krispy Smore on YouTube:


The Magical Express: Airport-to-resort transportation service

This is mostly a pain-free incredible experience. Disney gets it. You’re on vacation, so why does the Disney hassle-free experience have to wait for the resort? Right from the airport, you’re greeted and happily whisked away to your resort destination. Let’s face it — the Orlando airport basically is an extension of Disney. Directly after landing it’s clear where to grab the Magical Express off to resort land.

Once aboard and your luggage is stowed, you’re comfortably seated, treated to a charming bus driver, and can view one of several televisions around you playing classic Walt Disney cartoons.

On property: The Boardwalk Resort

Upon arriving at the resort, the magic continued. Right after checking into the hotel there was a knock at our door and I was presented with a signed photo from Mickey and a Mickey balloon for my birthday. Such a nice detail that enhanced my overall experience by making me feel special. When visiting a Disney resort, upon check in you can let staff know that it’s your first time visiting the parks, if it’s your birthday or if you’re celebrating some special event. These special occasion celebrations can also be noted when you book your stay so Disney can start preparing your magical experience.

If you’d like to, you can wear a button that proudly announces these specific events. When a Disney cast member walks past you, they may wish you a happy birthday or refer to you by name. It’s a nice feeling to be welcomed, to make you feel at home, to make you comfortable in subtle ways that serve to define one’s overall impression. It was wonderful for me but I can imagine it’s a truly amazing and unforgettable thing for a child to experience.

Resort impressions

The Boardwalk Resort is accurate in its facade base-level depiction of early 1900s Atlantic City Boardwalk aesthetic.

I say facade above very deliberately. Disney sticks to the aesthetic for surface-level appearances only. Once you enter the doors above, you’re reminded that you live in the present—with all modern convenience. This isn’t a fault, but I figure it’s worth pointing out for the sake of detail. Before staying at the Boardwalk Resort I was curious to what level Disney went to showcase the Boardwalk aesthetic. Overall, I appreciate the detail and the balance of modernism achieved.

Boardwalk Resort video walkthrough

For an overview of the look and feel of the resort watch the video below:

Also, this gives an idea of what a studio villa room is like:

Resort transportation: buses, boats, and monorails

Walt Disney World provides transportation options to, from, and around all resorts and parks. The transportation options that exist are bus, monorail, airport shuttle, and water trolley. Not all transportation options are available at all resorts. The resort you choose to stay at has implications for how easy it is to utilize Disney’s transportation options. For example, I stayed at Boardwalk and we had the choice of taking a Disney Transport bus to Animal Kingdom, Disney Springs, Magic Kingdom, Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon. We also were able to walk to Hollywood Studios or EPCOT because Boardwalk is within close proximity to both parks. Boardwalk, nearby Beach Club, and Yacht Club all have the advantage of having parks that are extremely walkable.

If you choose to stay at a resort like Animal Kingdom or a value resort like Disney All-Star, you can only ride the bus to the parks. Due to the volume of people staying at these resorts, the wait times are higher. The buses take longer to get to each park because the resorts aren’t as close to the parks as other resorts.

Essentially, traveling between resorts and/or the parks is somewhat painful depending on your chosen resort home base. You pay a premium through your resort and its level of convenience. It’s all a balance – would you like more convenient access to parks from your resort or are you okay with longer transportation wait times? It’s the classic balancing act between time and money. For the most part, Disney has thought through these monetization avenues very well. Many frequent park visitors choose to rent cars as it’s truly the quickest method of transportation to get between parks and resorts.

This is, once again, a shining example of Walt Disney’s magic. They are actively trying to solve common travel complaints in the best manner they can. Recent reports say they are working on a skyliner method of transportation between the parks and resorts.

Walt Disney World Experience App

The Walt Disney World My Disney Experience App is your Android or iOS mobile companion application and invaluable resource while visiting Walt Disney World. Once you’ve installed and are logged in, you can access your trip itinerary, view fast passes or restaurant reservations and see what’s going on around you in real time. Walt Disney World offers several ways to manage all of these things but the app is the easiest and most convenient method given it’s always on hand.

The application is an extension of the My Disney Experience website. Like most applications, it excels at offering the most used and important functionality from a typical desktop website experience.

My favorite aspects of the app

1. It’s contextual to your location

Using the app you can view the wait times for rides and attractions based on your current location. If you’re in Magic Kingdom, you can easily view the wait time for attractions near you updated in real time. This is true no matter where you are. At home in Minnesota, I can open the application and see how long the wait time is for It’s a Small World and feel sad I can’t be there right now to take advantage of the short wait time.

The app allows you to easily book additional fast passes or restaurant reservations, find the nearest restroom, see showtimes for fireworks and other events, and navigate all other aspects of the park in real time based on the GPS in your mobile device. Using the app, you can see yourself as a dot on a map, which stylistically represents the park boundaries and all rides and attractions therein. As you walk the dot moves with you allowing you to make navigational choices to get you to your destination.

What I find more technically fascinating is how Walt Disney World measures wait times. Disney Cast Members strategically give people in the regular standby line a red card attached to a lanyard. This red card is Disney’s physical mechanism of gauging the time it takes a rider to make their way from the end of the wait line to the doors of their ride car. This information is what populates wait times on both the Disney Experience App and the signage in front of every ride & attraction.

 2. My Photos

The My Photos section of the app provides visitors with an effortless, no-nonsense way to manage, receive, and order photos that were taken using Disney’s PhotoPass products. Whether on a ride, like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, or standing with your partner in front of Cinderella’s Castle, you can capture the memory in a photo. Most Disney rides and attractions have a photo opportunity at some point in the adventure. Throughout the parks, there are Disney Cast Member Photographers that will take your photo with their digital cameras. At any time during your stay, you can choose to print those photos or own a digital copy. All of these photos are stored in the My Photos section of the application and tied to your Disney account.

Overall arrival impressions

Walt Disney World is like nothing I’ve experienced. It was my first real all-inclusive type of resort experience — which sets the bar high for any future similar experience. It was also my first experience at a real amusement park — that wasn’t the Minnesota-centric Valleyfair.

There is a lot to love about the experience arriving in Florida and being whisked away on a magical adventure. The Boardwalk resort experience impressed me — both in the value provided by our room’s accommodations and amenities and the look & feel of the resort itself.

Next time…

In the next installment of this series, I’ll take you through a high-level overview of each park and dive into some details around the Walt Disney World universe.

Read more the of UX of Disney series: