Four Kitchens

UX of Disney, part 3: Post-arrival and magic recognized

11 Min. ReadDesign and UX

The user experience of Walt Disney World

This is the third 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?


Leaving Walt Disney World was just as easy as arriving. The Magical Express provides door-to-door service from the resort to the airport. The overall experience is painless — aside from the heartbreak of leaving the Walt Disney World bubble and being jarred back to reality.

A week or so after we returned home, Walt Disney World sent a wonderful letter in the mail. In recent memory, I cannot think of a similar level of customer experience. Other hotels, resorts, theme parks, brands may send follow up emails and maybe in limited instances some type of physical “thank you” note. None do it like Disney.

Walt Disney World cares about customers

Sure, every resort or business needs to make money — Walt Disney World definitely maximizes monetization strategies and implementation. I believe Disney puts the customer’s interests and experience ahead of monetary gain. You do, of course, have to pay for such an experience. If Walt Disney World were any cheaper I’m afraid people wouldn’t leave. I feel that some people carry their Disney World experience with them forever, recalling pieces in their mind to cope with daily life. That’s the best part about experiences: you never lose them.

Reflecting on our initial trip and overall experience leaves me with a smile on my face. It has also made me a raving fan through the experience and the excitement around the experience. That is no easy achievement. Since returning home, I’ve been wondering how Walt Disney World achieves all this magic. Like any proper assessment, I need to look at their weaknesses along with their strengths.

Not without their faults: improvement areas

As part of praising all of Walt Disney World’s shining achievements, I also must call attention to areas where improvements could be made. At the scale with which Walt Disney World operates, these improvements need to be properly framed from that perspective. Below, I’ve outlined a few areas where I feel Walt Disney World could provide a better customer experience.

Inter-park transportation

In general, Walt Disney World provides several options to travel between the parks. Transportation between the parks and resorts is available in several forms: you can take the bus (at all resorts and parks), the resort Monorail (in specific resorts), and a Ferryboat (also in specific resorts). Not every transportation option is available at each park or between each resort. It’s a nice-to-have, but better or more consistent options would be appreciated. Walt Disney World is rumored to be adding services to rival popular car transportation services like Uber and Lyft. The first of such competitive options is a service called Minnie Van Service. A full list of transportation options is available on the Walt Disney World website.

These options are truly wonderful, but the most consistent and highly trafficked option is the bus service. As a result, wait times for buses can be long and each bus is usually packed to capacity. This is a minor improvement, but if anyone could make travel between resorts and parks easier it’s Walt Disney. They can and should do better.

Additionally, Walt Disney World has begun working on their Skyliner transportation service which would provide another option to travel between parks and resorts. All of these additions exhibit a willingness to change, adapt to newer technologies, and prove that they care about user experience. Perhaps all of these options will take a load off of crowded buses.

Transportation signage

This is another minor gripe, but as a designer the lack of clarity in Walt Disney World’s resort transportation signage is remarkable. What you see below is a photo of a transportation sign/screen at the Boardwalk resort.

Image credit: image from a Walt Disney World forum post that I can no longer locate.

In the image above, the transportation signage shows the following:

  1. The current time represented by an analog clock without denoted 12/24 hour numbers
  2. Disney Transport logo large and centered
  3. A data table showing logos for Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Downtown Disney (Now Disney Springs), Typhoon Lagoon, and Blizzard Beach
  4. Directly underneath each park logo is the time the bus taking you to each location is expected to arrive. The time is shown as a digital clock without leading zeros.

Looking at the sign several times during my visit prompted so many questions about the design decisions that went into its creation.

  1. Why show blank and potentially confusing information?
  2. Does it matter that the current time is represented as an analog clock? Why are arrival times represented in digital form? Can the units of time measurements/presentation be consistent?
  3. Why does the logo take up so much space?
  4. Why are there destinations not serviced by the location I’m in right now?

How I would make it more clear

Being clear and deliberate in what you’re showing users and equally clear about why certain things aren’t being shown is critical to effective user experience design. If I were tasked with designing this transportation signage, I would approach it with the following:

  1. Eliminate destinations that aren’t serviced from the location you’re currently in. Add a disclaimer such as, “If you don’t see your destination go to guest services.”
  2. Simplify the presentation of information by eliminating transportation destinations that aren’t serviced by the location you’re currently in. For example, if Boardwalk doesn’t provide bus transportation to EPCOT why is EPCOT displayed as an option on the screen?
  3. Use plain text over destination logos—this is only for legibility. This could be a non-starter recommendation from a brand perspective. I feel like plain text better serves customers from a clear communication point of view.
  4. Use icons more effectively (method of transportation – bus or boat.
  5. Instead of showing an analog clock with no numerals, offer a nested 12 and 24-hour presentation. See the first improvement screen below.
  6. Decrease logo real estate by making it smaller and moving it up to the left-hand corner.

Going further: show more transportation options

The following option introduces a digital clock for both 12 and 24-hour digital formats instead of analog.

Both of these examples showcase critical communication enhancements to the overall legibility and clarity of the transportation board.

Time does not improve all things

A funny thing happened as I was researching Walt Disney World’s transportation signage for this series of posts. In 2012 the bus transportation signage was much clearer and easier to read. They seem to have regressed in clarity for the sake of a bit more modern design aesthetic. However, the old signage did not effectively highlight the current time.

Image credit:

The Walt Disney World Experience Application

Below I have outlined some minor but important improvement that could be made to the user experience of Walt Disney World’s mobile software application.

Clearer hierarchy

The app needs to let me view my entire trip itinerary in a clearer and in a higher visual priority presentation. Currently, you have to click a text link “See All Plans” which should be more prominent. Each “See All ____” pattern could be improved by changing their location on the screen. Currently, the pattern is directly under the section’s title and not clearly identifiable as an actionable link. It might be more successful if moved under the card pattern display. I appreciate how scannable each section is, but think it could be more effective by being more clear about seeing all of your photos or plans and not limited to what Disney feels is most important. To me, I would’ve appreciated a clearer path to all of my photos.

My Photos and Memory Maker

The “My Photos” section could use some UX love. Some of Disney’s monetization avenues, like “Memory Maker”, while being well thought through from a person-to-person interaction and frictionless/convenience perspective, aren’t as thought through from an architecture perspective in how they’re represented in the app. I have a few photos in “My Photos” that are not me at all but some random stranger. I do love the ability to easily view and potentially order prints from rides I went on, but this is a non-starter if the photos it shows me aren’t even mine.

Maybe if we had purchased “Memory Maker” this issue wouldn’t have presented itself? Because each photo is tied to fast passes and/or having to scan your magic band prior to riding, effectively identifying you and your place in the car (the logistics of which blow my mind), the possibility exists to improperly ID you.

Possible solutions

I feel like Disney could make this process more refined if they offered a magic band scanner directly before you enter a ride car – to verify your place in the ride, which in turn registers your car to the photo. Or perhaps cars themselves may somehow be able to read and recognize your magic band. This would be a benefit/progressive enhancement, to visitors that stay in a Disney Resort and/or have a Magic Band. There are still many people that do not visit the parks with a Magic Band at all. I’m sure Disney could figure out a way for them to take advantage of this feature as well – maybe with a special type of ticket that uses the same technology as Magic Bands?

Overall, I am left tremendously impressed with the experience of using Disney’s App while “on property”. You can tell they have spent a lot of time refining and considering all the logistics and infrastructure involved in making an excellent and valuable mobile application. That is not to say it’s perfect based on my experience and need, but it is tremendously impressive.

An odd thing happened: How I became a raving fan

Something funny happened while preparing for our first trip to Walt Disney World. In researching travel tips, advice, and other’s experiences, we found ourselves deep in a YouTube hole. We haven’t come out of the hole to this day. We’ve watched countless hours of Disney World vlogs containing travel experiences, tips, favorite attractions, favorite dining experiences and the counter side to each. What started as an innocent research project about our initial trip has turned into something that we carry with us every day.

We’re subscribed to so many Disney-specific and Disney-sometimes vlogs and are always looking for more. The experience of watching vlogs about being in Disney World prior to going is, like anything, viewed much differently after we’d also experienced it for ourselves. After we’d been in Walt Disney World, new vlogs about someone’s current trip can better inform and help plan for our own upcoming trip—or provide us with a cathartic Disney withdrawal experience if we’re not going back to Walt Disney World any time soon. The levels and layers of enjoyment are varied and always provide a little bit of happiness to our day.

Favorite YouTube channels

Below I’ve listed out some of my favorite YouTube channels that have directly come from our Walt Disney World research over the past two years–which can now be called our new way of life. This research project has also opened up my eyes to how incredible YouTube is as a community, as a place to share experiences and a place to share anything that you’re passionate about. The community is what makes YouTube so great — which is very much like the open source community we deeply value in our own personal and professional lives.

(Listed in alphabetical order)

Watching one of the above creator’s videos will highlight just how far Disney’s reach is and how much his legacy deeply affects people. Disney meets you at any age in life and provides something of value. A laugh, a cry, a silly costume or an incredible ride. There are moments of joy to be found.

Should you find yourself researching your own Disney trip perhaps one of these creators’ videos bring you perspective or valuable advice. You might stumble upon your new favorite creator and internet friend. It might also be your new favorite place to learn something new or set expectations for an experience you’d like to have.

The real Disney Magic

Walt Disney World excels at letting you leave your brain at home. One can enjoy relaxation and allow yourself to be the best and most positive version of yourself. My time in the parks is one I will fondly look back upon. While I’m not the biggest fan of Walt Disney’s films or Walt Disney as a whole, but they’ve won me over through the overall experience. As a designer and UXer I admire their execution—especially at the scale at which they operate.

The Disney culture is all about customer experience

Disney succeeds in their design and user experience because people visiting their parks and staying at their resorts don’t have to think about any of the observed items in this post. The benefits are intrinsic; it’s part of the experience that one doesn’t need to examine further. The best design gets out of your way and allows you to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish. Walt Disney was, perhaps, one of the original, truly visionary, user experience designers. He knew that the best design is invisible and the importance of understanding how customers think. He also understood how important it is to set expectations is and how to execute them to a high level. Part of executing at such a level is training others to think as you do and placing the customer experience (and personas) at the forefront of the priority list. Walt Disney’s legacy proves he was a great leader and he still leads in spirit.

The Disney we know today succeeds, for the most part, when it comes to design and UX. There are so many levels and layers of Disney’s end-to-end user experience. It’s a lot to take in, process, and even more daunting to consider the administration and facilitation of said experiences. Thankfully we don’t have to think about any of that, we’re on vacation.

Disney succeeds because they…

  • Never stop iterating; adding new features and value to customers.
  • Make you feel special. There is so much positive reinforcement and tiny psychological details happening across the Disney experience spectrum.
  • Promote creativity, imagination, curiosity, and positivity.
  • Set the bar high and refuse to compromise on integrity and brand.
  • Use real data to inform all decisions, enhancements, and improvements.
  • They iterate on everything and never settle for good enough.
  • Adhere to and continue to invest in The 10 Commandments of Mickey.
  • Employ individuals that seek to uphold all of the above.

Like me, even if you aren’t the biggest fan of Disney as an entertainment brand you can’t help but admire how they operate and engage customers. What I’ve highlighted here only scratches the surface of the Disney experience—highlighting my sole experience with Walt Disney World. Perhaps it prompts you to take a closer look at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise, or the Disney brand in general and take away something meaningful to carry with you in your own personal and professional life.

Here’s to your own magical journey.

Missed something?

Read more the of UX of Disney series: