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UX of Disney, part 2: The parks

16 Min. ReadDesign and UX

The user experience of Walt Disney World

This is the second installment in our UX of Disney series.  It tells my story from pre-arrival to post-arrival reflecting on the entire experience. If you haven’t yet, why not start by reading the first installment?

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.

Exploring and experiencing the different parks and lands

Theming is something Disney excels at like no other. Every park and themed area is meticulously thought through and planned at an impossibly high degree. I mean, they aren’t perfect but maybe as close to perfection as possible. Below I will outline some thoughts about favorite rides and attractions along with outlining the parks in general.

From a child’s perspective: visiting the parks is a truly magical and eye-opening experience. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to instill a sense of adventure, wonder, and foundational empathy in children. For people that live in less diverse areas or aren’t able to travel abroad, it offers an introduction to other countries and cultures. My partner, Maggie, formed an unquenchable thirst for travel by frequenting EPCOT as a child.

All around EPCOT, Disney employs individuals from each country they represent through their cultural representative program. To my knowledge, only persons that live in the country they represent can work in each respective land. College programs offer summer-long opportunities in addition to their one-year cultural representative program. They offer a unique resume-building experience. Working at a Disney park is the watermark and gold standard of hospitality. If you can work for Disney you are a remarkable individual. Because of this attention to detail, each country feels that much more like the real country – you feel that much more as if you’re in the actual country represented. That is not to say it should be a replacement for real travel and experience. The Disney experience strives to be an accurate representation of other countries. 

With the above overview in mind let’s explore the different parks and highlight a few of my favorite rides and attractions found in each park.

Animal Kingdom

There is a lot to love about Animal Kingdom. At face value, the appeal of seeing and interacting with exotic animals is already a compelling enough reason to visit Animal Kingdom. On top of all of that, there are excellent rides, attractions, and authentic aesthetics. Oh, there is also slightly exotic food to be found too.

Walking through Asia, Africa, and Dinoland USA, one can’t help but notice the attention to detail in architecture, artwork, signage and overall impression.

I felt transported to another country when experiencing the Kilimanjaro Safari, Harambe Village, and the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail — all found in Africa. Each experience made me feel as though I wasn’t in some theme park in Florida.The Kilimanjaro Safari felt as close to what I’d imagine a real African Safari might feel like. Walking through the Harambe village felt like I was in an African village — through the use of wheatpaste-like posters adorning each small concession stand, market, or shop.

The Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail gets you as close as safely possible to gorillas in their seemingly natural habitat. No architectural detail is spared and the execution of each nuance is exceptionally well thought through. From the graffiti on walls to the wheat paste posters, the worn and dusty shop exteriors, the barrels of water found throughout the African village to the animals themselves — Animal Kingdom feels authentic. If you allow yourself to believe it, you may just find that you’re in a small African village.

In Asia, you’ll find tigers, bats, gibbons, and Komodo dragons along the Maharajah Jungle Trek trail. The Flights of Wonder theater offers an incredible live bird show that offers excitement, education, and an escape from Florida’s wicked heat and humidity.

Dinoland U.S.A has some excellent rides in the Primeval Whirl and Dinosaur.

Let’s take a deeper look at a few of my favorite rides and attractions found in Animal Kingdom.


This is a very fun ride and without a doubt a highlight of the park. I would have enjoyed it even more as a child given its playful nature, but there is plenty to love as an adult. As a child, I would have been enamored by the realistic depiction of dinosaurs and the thrill-of-the-chase storyline. Your mission is to go back in time and bring back a new undocumented species of dinosaur. Along the way, you almost get trapped in time and must hurry to escape and get back to present day. Along the way, it’s educational and adventurous. My favorite part is the two times you feel as if you’re in a toaster — with a radiant orange coiled glow that surrounds you while the car you’re inside aggressively hurls you across the spectrum of time.

Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain

This is one of my favorite roller coasters in all of Disney World. Spotting the elusive Bigfoot is definitely the highlight. Theming is very elaborate — a depiction of the Himalayan mountains (icy peaks and all) and filled with hiking gear. The end of the line queue right before boarding actually feels like an exhibition lodge one would stay in prior to a long trek.  

One can’t help but be impressed by its nighttime appearance, as well.

Kilimanjaro Safaris

Pictured above is me capturing an image of giraffes and prairie dogs while on board the Kilimanjaro Safari vehicle. There are a few different routes the actual safari may take you on. As a result, and given the nature of animals doing whatever they please, your own experience on the safari will differ greatly. That is one of the greatest joys of the safari experience: the thrill of not knowing what animals you’ll get to see and encounter. Every ride is different. We enjoyed the safari twice on this trip and each safari was very different. The first time out we saw everything — lions, elephants, giraffes, hippos, flamingos, prairie dogs and more. Our second safari produced giraffe encounters, elephants, hippos, and prairie dogs. I very much look forward to going on a real African safari, but for the time being the Walt Disney World experience is pretty great.


The Monorail would connect EPCOT with the other parts of the city, including residential properties — which is now the entire Disney World theme park. More on Project X here.

Today, there are only glimpses of this original intent left. EPCOT is slowly becoming Epcot – a word and not an acronym. Many rides and attractions are being replaced with intellectual property themed attractions. This is a tremendous point of contention amongst Walt Disney World fans. Many feel that intellectual properties don’t belong in EPCOT. They should be limited to the Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios – which are both far more suitable places. This overview is important in setting the stage for my expectation and experience of EPCOT.

If Walt’s original vision was upheld and he had lived to see it through, EPCOT would be so much different. Walt Disney World might not even exist — largely in part because its very creation was the result of Walt’s passing. This also means the wonderful countries represented throughout EPCOT also wouldn’t exist. Which potentially means that millions of children would have never been inspired to travel after the Walt Disney World EPCOT experience.

Spaceship Earth

This might be my favorite ride in EPCOT or at least a close second. This is the “EPCOT ball”, as it were.  This gentle ride takes you from the beginning of time through our perceivable future. Over the course of your time travel journey, you’re pleasantly guided by the voice of Dame Judi Dench. There is a healthy amount of nostalgia to be found on this ride given its age and timelessness. It made me reflect on my own experience with older technology while being driven through time.

Journey into Imagination with Figment

There is a lot to love about Figment, the character Disney created just for this ride in EPCOT. The lovable but stinky Figment is a magical purple dragon encouraging you to use your imagination and break down the barriers that may prevent you from dreaming and seeing the world in new and interesting ways. Eric Idle plays the role of Dr. Nigel Channing of the Imagination Institute. He serves as your guide around the Imagination Institute labs — of which there are five, all based on the human senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Along the ride, you’ll experience all five.

While this ride has its vehement opposers, I fall in the group that adores everything about the ride and character. I suppose you either love it or hate it — with very little in-between.

Living with the Land

There is nothing quite like this water ride through sustainable farming and wildlife. It is a soothing narrated tour, of sorts, that takes you behind the scenes of Walt Disney World’s actual sustainable gardens full of fruits and vegetables — that get served throughout restaurants in Walt Disney World. They also showcase tanks of sustainable fish. It’s the type of relaxing ride you look forward to as a means to take a break and beat out that harsh Florida sun.

Impressions de France

This is an 18-minute long film about France. I adore everything about it; from its dated 70s era film footage to the people and showcased scenery. Maybe it’s my own love of France, but watching this having not been would make me want to go travel even more. I’m sad this film will be closing and perhaps lost to history in the not-too-distant future. I do, however, look forward to experiencing the new Ratatouille ride that’s replacing the film. Thankfully, there are several versions of the film preserved online.

Hollywood Studios

What used to be a stellar throwback to the golden age of Hollywood, rich with classic film and California nostalgia, is now geared mostly toward Star Wars and other intellectual properties. I didn’t love the experience of hearing the Imperial March constantly blaring around me as I’m walking through themed shops. Call it growing pains, but it does reduce the overall quality of user experience. My visit to Hollywood Studios happened to during a particularly awkward time where a significant portion of the park was closed for renovations.

Also, don’t get me wrong, Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land are going to be incredible and I can’t wait to visit them, but I still feel the void for a richer Hollywood experience than Disney can provide today.

With all of the not-so-awesome details out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the most enjoyable rides and attractions during my visit.

The Great Movie Ride

I enjoyed this ride through classic film scenes. It’s quite a unique ride, but dated, technologically. You sit in a long car along a track and coast through classic film scenes depicted through the use of animatronics and live character actors. The films highlighted throughout the ride include: Footlight Parade, Singing in the Rain, Mary Poppins, The Public Enemy, A Fistful of Dollars, The Searchers, Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tarzan the Ape Man, Casablanca, Fantasia, and The Wizard of Oz.

Unfortunately, this was the one and only time I had to enjoy this ride. It is closing August 2017 and will reopen as the very first Mickey ride. I am excited about that but sad to see this great ride close.

Like the Impressions de France film in EPCOT, this ride can be forever enjoyed on the internet. To get a better feel for what The Great Movie Ride was like, or to revisit it once more, watch this excellent tribute point-of-view ride video from The Dis:

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

As you enter the Tower of Terror hotel you can appreciate the detail found in the overall theming. From the elaborate and ornate lights to the cobwebs found on them, along with furniture and down to the elevator (ride card entrance) doors and exteriors themselves.

I love everything about this ride and the experience. It’s wonderful that it offers a random (or one of several different) experience every time you ride it. This level of variety keeps it interesting and engaging. The theming is a spooky Twilight Zone tale about a killer haunted hotel. Next stop, you.

Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith

This rollercoaster might contain the fastest stretch of roller coaster I’ve ever experienced. In fact, my partner and I felt the anticipatory anxiety around its extreme speed. We’re not huge Aerosmith fans but appreciated the familiar soundtrack in our ears throughout the coaster’s duration.  

The storyline involves you being invited to come along to see the Aerosmith show, complete with backstage passes. The problem? Everyone needs to get to the show fast because it starts soon. While the premise is a bit weak, I commend them for making it work. The details are what Walt Disney World excel at and this ride is no exception. Each ride car contains 120 speakers, while each individual seat houses 7 speakers. The ride in total is said to contain 900 speakers. From the detailed audio experience to the imaginative theming along the way there is a lot to appreciate.

The ride is a short but intense one. With its series of twists, turns, roll over, and corkscrew maneuvers and the overall speed — it definitely leaves you feeling the ride’s intensity.

Star Tours: The Adventures Continue

This ride and its theming brought me back to my childhood nostalgic love for the original Star Wars trilogy — which I very much still appreciate today. The theming definitely feels like the late 1970s/80s with its muted colors, gritty textures, and dated futuristic aesthetic.

The theming aside, the experience is tremendously enjoyable and has repeatability. Every time you experience Star Tours you’re experiencing a randomization of four separate segments. The ride offers 13 different segments in total, so the four you experience each time will be a randomization of the 13. This keeps it a bit interesting and definitely worth riding until you’ve experienced every segment.

Magic Kingdom

The separate lands found in Magic Kingdom are remarkable for various reasons. Fantasyland makes me feel like a child again. Frontierland makes me wish I was a settler in olden times. Adventureland’s highlight for me is Jungle Cruise, which is a puny and cringe-worthy laugh fest. My favorite land has to be Tomorrowland — with Space Mountain and Transit Authority PeopleMover being my go-to must-experience attractions.

Haunted Mansion

Talk about bout just plain fun! I adore everything about this ride. What starts with a rather alarmingly dark event toward the beginning is otherwise shrouded in levity and campy humor.

Once you’re in the mansion you’re quickly ushered into the library to hear a deep and creepy voice talk to you about how you’re trapped in a room with no windows and no doors. Suddenly the walls appear to be stretching — or are they? You’re then told there is only his way out, which cuts to a strikingly grim scene on the ceiling of a person hanging. From this point, a wall slides open and you follow the path to your individual ride car and take your journey through the mansion’s sights and sounds. It’s an interesting and mildly alarming way to advance the plot and get you into a ride car, but I found it enjoyably dark.

From the interactive line queue to the take-home hitchhiking ghosts, there is something here for everyone.

It’s a Small World

You could think of this ride as earworm-inducing and sugary sweet, but I adore everything about it. The sense of inclusivity, of belonging, of being welcomed, respected and appreciated. This echoes my own worldview and gives me all kinds of warm fuzzy feels. I appreciate the wonderfully dated animatronics, design, use of color (and lack thereof) and rich detail found throughout. The ride features over 300 audio-animatronic children wearing traditional costumes from cultures around the world. Each is surrounded in an environment that represents their own regional environment. All sing the same song ad nauseam for the sake of unity and to remind us that we’re all connected — we’re all one. Sure it sounds cheesy on paper, and maybe it is in reality, I felt better after the experience.

The song “It’s a small world” is sung in several languages throughout the ride duration and each can be heard as you pass by the lands where they’re dominantly spoken. The instrumentation around the song also changes to use the instruments and styles found in the culture/region you’re passing through. The song is an earworm that will stay with you forever.

Peter Pan’s Flight

This ride is simply pure magic and enjoyment — if a bit too short. It is one of a handful of rides that filled me with overwhelming childhood wonder. From the playful interactivity found in the line queue to the “lift off” into Neverland, this ride gets kids and the essence of the Peter Pan story. As I passed over London and off into Never Land I stared in awe at the details.

Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover

This is a rather simple ride and it’s pretty much a guaranteed no-wait walk-on ride, PeopleMover provides just that. It takes you on a creative journey through Tomorrowland aboard an “emission-free mass transit system of the future” toward a great, big, beautiful tomorrow! Along the way, you’ll get a thorough overview of Tomorrowland and its attractions.

My favorite aspect is one of observation, reflection, and relaxation. It’s a wonderful ride to see another perspective of Disney and its inhabitants.

Waiting in line: the standby queue

It’s not all bad if you’re out of Fast Passes for the day or you find yourself having to slog through a long queue. Some time ago Disney started making their ride/attraction line queues more interactive and in turn, more enjoyable and less arduous. Below, I will highlight some of my favorite interactive line queues.

Haunted Mansion

In the Haunted Mansion, there are numerous humorous tombstones to read. There are books that extend themselves outward for their bookshelves, begging you to touch them and force them back in. There is an organ that plays spooky sounds as you press the keys. All of these add levity to ghoulishness.

Peter Pan’s Magic Flight

This is perhaps the best example of excellent line queue interactivity in its execution of shadow play. As you enter the queue you enter a corridor where interactive portraits and paintings adorn its walls. At the end of the corridor, you enter the neighborhood in which the Darling family reside. Toward the middle through the end of the queue area, you enter the Darling residence and children’s nursery.

In the elaborately themed nursery, you’re presented with butterflies gently fluttering above your head as shadows upon the wall. You can swipe your hand to interact with them, let them land on you, or give a hand swipe motion to dismiss them. In a subsequent interaction (looped after the butterflies) you’re presented with a series of bells, also as shadows against a wall, that you can ring using your hand. There is also a wall that knocks back at you and fairy dust lighting that shimmers on you prior to taking flight.

Each of these interactions along with the high level of detail found throughout queue/Darling house effectively pull you into the world of Peter Pan. More importantly, they set the playful, childlike tone for the magical ride you will soon experience.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is not only one of the best roller coaster rides found in Magic Kingdom but also has an incredible interactive line queue. In the queue, you’ll find interactive screens with a gem matching game similar to Bejeweled or similar match-stacking games found on mobile applications. However, your goal isn’t stacking here it’s more like collecting the right matches as they pass, horizontally, across the screen.

You can make your own music by passing your hand underneath these wood carved animals that shoot water and emit a musical tone as you place your hand underneath. It’s definitely geared more toward families with children, but it’s excellent fun all the same.

There is also a series of barrels filled with lit up gems. When you spin them around they project gem patterns on the ceiling. Characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will appear on the projected imagery to cheer you on.

Winnie the Pooh

This queue and ride, in general, the mostly geared toward families and small children. Along the queue, there is a play area that opens up allowing children to independently play while parents observe from the queue. There are a series of play stations with different themes. Kids can hit melon drumheads, spin sunflowers, and climb there way through wooden crates.

Under a “No gophers allowed” sign, there is a series of gophers that pop up out of their holes to say hello if you step on a square in front of them. It’s a nice and delightful theming touch.

The most popular interactive element has to be the honey wall where you can drag your hand across the screen to manipulate the honey on screen.

Caring about the user/customer experience

These kinds of queue enhancements seek to both reduce the stress of waiting, engage you with the subject matter and characters you love, and make the overall experience truly delightful. These are especially thoughtful enhancements for parents because children likely won’t have a boredom meltdown while waiting in line.

The experience can very effectively influence your mood and, as an adult, help you remember what it was like to be a child and feel as though anything was possible. The interactive queues are so interesting that folks with fast passes might feel left out if it’s their first time experiencing the ride or attraction.

Having interactive queues also sends the subtle message that guest’s time is important. Everyone’s time is important so let’s figure out how to improve the process all around. That is one of the most remarkable ingredients found in the Walt Disney World experience: thought, consideration, and respect.

Next time…

In the next installment of this series, we’ll show what one can expect to receive from Walt Disney World after your stay. We’ll also conclude thoughts around the overall user experience of Walt Disney World based on the observations in this trip.

Read more the of UX of Disney series: