Disney Parks for cheapskates

I’ve spent a lot of money at the Disney Parks… too much, in fact. One thing the Disney Corporation is very good at is metaphorically lifting you upside down and shaking all the money out of your pockets… and leaving you happy that they did. While I’ve been one of the millions who have happily handed over my hard-earned cash in his way in the past, I have gotten cheaper in my middle age and have developed some techniques that helps me avoid the Disney “shakedown.”

Go off-season

The first and most obvious tip, go when no one else does. The “off-season” is late winter/early spring and late autumn. The rooms are cheaper, the lines are shorter, and you can take advantage of some special offers. In recent years, to shore up attendance and fill empty rooms, Disney offered free dining and deep room discounts during these periods, so you can get some good deals. The challenge with this if you have kids is you have to go when they are supposed to be in school… and the older they get, the bigger the impact those lost days have. So be mindful of that impact.

BYOFAB (Bring your own food and booze)

If you can, bring your own food and (if you are so inclined) booze. You will pay a premium for both in the parks, and you can pack a lunch every day and bring it in with you. You can request a refridgeator from most Disney hotels and can use an ice chest in a pinch. If you flew in, you can have groceries delivered – still cheaper than paying for the $6 hamburgers in the parks.

Don’t buy anything

This is the toughest one, especially if you have young ones screaming for a souvenir or ten. But a little self-discipline will go long way. Here’s a helpful hint: Using your smartphone, look up the item you or your kid want to buy on ebay. Odds are you will find someone is selling the exact same item, and probably a LOT cheaper than what Disney is selling it for. This “sticker shock” will discourage even the most passionate Disneyphile from buying the item.

Don’t stay off-site

This is somewhat counter-intuitive advice, but bear with me: Staying at an off-site hotel may help you save money but you will have to pay for parking, you’ll be unable to take advantage of the free transportation Disney offers to its own hotels, and you will miss out on special hotel activities that Disney provides. You won’t have to pay for parking at the Disney park. You’ll also have a quicker trip back to your room to rest in the afternoons, and this in turn will help keep your willpower up. Finally, most of the best deals are now “package” deals, and when you don’t stay on property you will miss out on these bargains.

Don’t go to other local attractions

If you stay at Disney, you need to maximize your spend… and that means only going to Disney parks. If you go to other local attractions you will spend more money and you will “waste” a day’s ticket to Disney (the packages default to one ticket per person per day and this cost is bundled into the total cost). If you want to go somewhere else, like Universal or Sea World… Plan that as a separate trip.

Allow yourself one indulgence a day

It may be a nice meal, it may be a drink poolside… But allow yourself to go “off budget” once a day. You are on vacation, after all… And you can’t be super-frugal all the time.

Just say no to the Disney Vacation Club

The Disney Vacation Club, or DVC for short, is a giant money-sucking time share. If you have money to burn, then by all means join and lock in to paying Disney money for the next decade or two. Otherwise… pass.

Stay home

Finally, the easiest way to save money is to not go to a Disney park at all. You can have a Disney “stay-cation” with your family by going to your local Disney store, watching used DVDs of Disney classics, and then visiting a nice local restaraunt.

You may miss the rides, but your wallet will thank you for it… though you may get a disgruntled letter from a Disney shareholder or two for not helping Disney hit their revenue targets.

Disney’s new Fastpass+ system damages the Disney Parks experience

The Walt Disney Corporation recently completed the rollout of their Fastpass+ system at their Walt Disney World park. The system uses RFID technology to allow park visitors to scan wristbands (called “MagicBands”) and walk on rides they had scheduled in advance. The new system replaces the previous ticket-based system, which allowed people to walk up, enter their park pass in standing kiosks at attractions, and get a ticket listing a return time for the attraction. Disney has invested over one billion dollars in the new system.

And it kinda sucks.

As a long-time Disney fan, I’ve visited Walt Disney World almost ten times over the past two decades. I have always been impressed by the service and experiences I’ve received. Until now. Visiting Walt Disney World and using the new Fastpass+ system made it a frustrating experience that made me think twice about making a return visit anytime soon.

(I am also someone who specializes in user and customer experience design, so I am particularly attentive and sensitive to such matters… so please keep that in mind as you read on.)

Here’s the problems, as I see them:

Sorry, only three Fastpasses per customer.

In the previous ticket system you could grab a Fastpass, per person, every hour and a half. If you got to the park at opening, you could potentially snag six or seven through the course of the (very long) day. The alternate to having Fastpasses is (of course) standing in lines. With only three fast passes per person, this means a lot more waiting for return visitors who are used to (and expecting) otherwise.

Here’s a couple of quotes, from long-time Disney park visitors posting at disboards.com, that should give the management at Disney pause:

“We have been giving Disney our vacation dollars for 3+ decades. In those 30+ years and I would say about 35 visits we have NEVER done a single rope drop. We are not rope drop people. Vacation to us is not getting up and running to a park at 6/7 am so we can do what we paid for. Now with this horrible FP+ system, we will be lucky to do one headliner attraction a day. Stand by lines as I predicted are growing and slowing to highest average levels ever. Disney only wants you in their parks to spend money on food and souvenirs(and soon FP’s), not to see their attractions. I’m sorry Disney, it was a good run, thanks for the memories.”

“Very disappointing to see the unfortunate regression from “Magic Your Way” to “Magic Our Way (like it or not)” by WDW execs.”

Protip: When you change the ways things work for customers, never make them worse. Always make them better.

Hitting two different parks in a day? Sorry, still only three Fastpasses allowed.

If you pay Disney extra money, you can get a “Park Hopper” pass as part of your vacation package. A Park Hopper allows you to go to more than one park a day. You would think that the new Fastpass+ system would accommodate these customers (who paid more) and give them extra Fastpasses, right? Nope. There’s actually some thoughts online that Disney HATES park hoppers, because it screws up thier predictive analytics about their crowd levels. So… not only can you not gt any more Fastpasses, but you can’t “split” the three between two parks. Not a great experience to provide customers who are paying EXTRA money to the company.

The Disney Experience site/app is buggy as hell

The site users use to schedule their Fastpass+ passes is still in “beta”, and it’s quite buggy. When my family traveled there in December, I ended up “having” six Fastpasses in one day because it hadn’t removed the ones I had originally selected and later removed. Even worse, the list on the website was different on the mobile app on my wife’s iPhone… So we had no idea what passes were real and which ones weren’t. And I won’t even bring up the UI design of the site and app… it’s fairly complicated and not very intuitive. Still some kinks to be worked out, but it’s clear the system is not ready for primetime.

“Tiered” Fastpasses and longer lines

If you want to schedule a Fastpass for the two most popular attractions at Epcot or Disney Hollywood Studios, well… sorry. The Fastpass+ system has set up “tiers”, so you can’t select two “tier 1″ passes at the same time (reminds me of the old ticket books Disneyland had when they first opened… You could only ride one “E Ticket” ride). You could get Fastpasses for both rides under the old ticket-based system… not anymore. Critics have called this “ride rationing.” The result of this? Longer lines and wait times for the most popular attractions.

Staying off-site, or a Florida local? Tough luck

If you live in Florida, or are not staying at a Disney resort, you have to schedule your Fastpasses after you enter the park… and odds are you are going to have less options and less flexibility with your Fastpass selections, because visitors staying at the resorts have already booked the best ride times. So budget-minded customers and locals don’t get the same “Disney magic” as people who are staying onsite.

In the old ticket-based system, everyone was equal. Now, like in Animal Farm, some guests are more equal than others.


The Fastpass+ system takes away flexibility, reduces choice, and makes a Disney vacation as spontaneous as making a doctor’s appointment. Many of you reading this may be going, “So? First world problems, dude.” My point is that Fastpass+ was not designed or implemented for users – it was created solely to benefit Disney, a company that are getting paid a lot of money by customers to even enter the park.

What benefits? Well, since every park attendee is carrying a tracking device with them, it will be lots of Big Data for the Disney company to crunch and analyze. It (supposedly) reduces wait times for popular rides (though according to some Disney representatives, in practice the opposite has occurred). If customers spend less time in lines they will spend more time in the shops, which means more impulse purchases of all those wonderful Disney souvenirs. And Disney is selling a lot of pins and accessories that customers can put on their MagicBand wristbands, another potential revenue source. Unfortunately, the benefits appear to not be happening as the planners foreseen and the hard (sunk) costs of the new systems is putting some cool projects on hold.

Critics of the new system say Disney should have invested the billion dollars in new attractions, instead of changing a system that (to them) wasn’t broken. With a slow economy and increased competition from other local attracts, only time will tell if these critics are right.

Fastpass+ is not a complete user experience failure – there are many people who like the idea of planning out their vacations to the nth degree. These people will undoubtedly love the ability to plan what attractions they want to do months in advance. But anyone who is spontaneous, who liked flexibility in their choices and activities and want to maximize their vacation… well, they will need to look elsewhere for that.

Maybe Universal Studios…

#UX best practices, Disney style: Lessons from Mickey’s “10 Commandments”

I recently had the privilege of speaking at the Internet Summit technology conference in Raleigh, North Carolina about Walt Disney and how his processes and ideas could be applied in user experience design. In pulling together the presentation deck for that speech I discovered “Mickey’s 10 Commandments”, a list of best practices that Imagineering President Marty Sklar created for his original team, based on Walt’s advice and direction.

Like the methods Walt applied when he built Disneyland, these “10 Commandments” could also be of use to people in the UX discipline, so here they are… with some additional thoughts from yours truly.

1. Know your audience – “Don’t bore people, talk down to them or lose them by assuming that they know what you know.” This is absolutely necessary in UX design, as without a deep understanding of your users you can’t create a solution that solves their problems or adds value to their lives.

2. Wear your guest’s shoes – “Insist that designers, staff and your board members experience your facility as visitors as often as possible.” Such an approach increases the empathy that your design team has for your users, making the designs you create more appropriate and helpful.

3. Organize the flow of people and ideas – “Use good storytelling techniques, tell good stories not lectures, lay out your exhibit with a clear logic.” Storytelling is a vitally important skill in UX, not just in explaining how you ended up with the final design solution to stakeholders, but also in your designs themselves if you are trying to explain an offering to new customers.

4. Create a ‘weenie’ – “Lead visitors from one area to another by creating visual magnets and giving visitors rewards for making the journey.” Very good advice, and when designing a “stepped” process users have to follow a ‘weenie’ will result in lower abandon rates and increased customer satisfaction.

5. Communicate with visual literacy – “Make good use of all the non-verbal ways of communication – color, shape, form, texture.” We are currently having a big debate in the UX design community about skeumorphism (the use of real world visual metaphors in a user experience) and this commandment aligns with the argument advocating such an approach. Skeumorphism done well helps people learn new experiences because of the visual cues that remind them of real-world metaphors reflected in the design. Of course, skeumorphism done badly is… well, pretty awful and unhelpful.

6. Avoid overload – “Resist the temptation to tell too much, to have too many objects, don’t force people to swallow more than they can digest, try to stimulate and provide guidance to those who want more.” Cognitive overload is one of the major issues that can occur when a UI is “overdesigned” with too many options. This commandment is great advice to avoid that type of situation.

7. Tell one story at a time – “If you have a lot of information divide it into distinct, logical, organized stories, people can absorb and retain information more clearly if the path to the next concept is clear and logical.” This is Information Architecture 101, and it is direction like this that convinces me that Walt was the world’s first use experience designer.

8. Avoid contradiction – “Clear institutional identity helps give you the competitive edge. Public needs to know who you are and what differentiates you from other institutions they may have seen.” Walt thought about “branding” before most people even knew what the term meant. Amazing.

9. For every ounce of treatment , provide a ton of fun – “How do you woo people from all other temptations? Give people plenty of opportunity to enjoy themselves by emphasizing ways that let people participate in the experience and by making your environment rich and appealing to all senses.”

10. Keep it up – “Never underestimate the importance of cleanliness and routine maintenance, people expect to get a good show every time, people will comment more on broken and dirty stuff.” Less applicable to UX design, but an absolute golden rule when it comes to process and service design. Always do your best, follow your process and deliver quality.

In closing, if your design team doesn’t already have any best practices or design principles defined, you should consider adopting some or all of the above as your own. You could do a lot worse…

Why did Disney choose to create new characters in Wreck-It-Ralph instead of using existing video game characters?

The answer is simple, and to explain it I will quote Yogurt from Spaceballs:

"Merchandising! Merchandising!"

If Disney used existing characters from classic video games as the protagonists, they would have to share/pay substantial licensing fees to the companies that own those characters when they try to sell toys and other items based on those characters. By creating new characters they can not only tell an original story without any preconceived notions the audience may have about the characters, but they also get 100% of the merchandise profits.

A similar situation occurred with a movie many critics are comparing Wreck it Ralph too, Who Framed Roger Rabbit… though in that instance Roger, Eddie and others were original characters in the novel that the Disney bought the rights to and adapted into the final film.

See question on Quora

Disney buys Star Wars: One fan’s perspective

Slow news day.

As we are all still reeling in the east coast from Hurricane Sandy, and seeing the devastating aftermath, there is no logical reason at all to get worked up over an announcement of yet another corporate acquisition. Millions of people are without power, Thousands are without homes, and many people have lost their lives… how important is one media company buying another in such a context? Not very.

Except… it’s Star Wars.

It shouldn’t matter. Again, more pressing and important matters are before us as a nation. But… as a geek… the idea of the Walt Disney Company buying Lucasfilm and all its assets and intellectual property (which includes not just Star Wars, but Indiana Jones, Industrial Light and Magic, LucasArts, Lucas Games, and Skywalker Sound)… well, that’s huge. And looking at the reaction of my fellow geeks on Twitter, Fark, and other sites, I see I’m not the only one who is processing the news with mouth agape.

Not only are they buying Lucasfilm, but Disney is working on a new Star Wars MOVIE. Correction: THREE new movies, the ones that fans have wanted since 1983.

Episodes 7, 8, and 9.

If you live in Southern California and listened closely when the news broke this afternoon, you could have heard the mini-sonic boom caused by Mark Hamill rushing to the phone to call his agent after the announcement.

So, my initial “reax” (as they say in the “biz”)? Cautious optimism. Disney has done a great job letting the creators of both Pixar and Marvel be autonomous and creative, and the sense I get from reading the announcement is that Lucas will “consult” on the new movies, and that’s it: no directing, no writing. He’s basically retiring, passing the torch onto the next generation of filmmakers. So the creative force behind the prequels won’t be piloting the Star Wars ship anymore.

Which is exactly what Star Wars needs.

Star Trek, my favorite SF franchise, got a huge shot in the arm when fresh blood came in for the reboot/sequel/prequel directed by JJ Abrams. As we have seen from the positive fan reaction to the Clone Wars cartoon, fresh blood and new ideas can make Star Wars exciting again for viewers. And now, the circle is complete. Lucas is doing what all creative people should do: Step aside when your day is done, and let others gave their day in the spotlight. George and company has created a huge playground for someone to play in, and as a certain Vulcan once said, “There are always possibilities.”

Speaking of possibilities, let me have some random fanboy thoughts and suggestions to Disney about their newfound acquisition (and yes, I know Disney will NEVER read or listen to any of my advice. but meaningless advice is FUN):

  • Disney, don’t let Kevin Smith anywhere NEAR Star Wars. Period. Same goes for that Verbinski fella.
  • Let Joss Whedon do WHATEVER HE WANTS with Star Wars. If Joss isn’t interested, Call Brad Bird. Or Neill Blomkamp. Or John Lasseter. Or Christopher Nolan. Just don’t let George near a Director’s chair again.
  • Reboot Indiana Jones. Recast him. Make it like the James Bond series. That way you can recover the fans that you lost from the last movie. Oh, and no flying saucers.
  • Release the original trilogy on blu-ray… remastered, with no new effect or sound mix. It’s a license to print money. Heck, Release the Star Wars Holiday Special too while you’re at it.
  • Get Timothy Zahn and lock him in a room. Have him take the first cut at adapting the Thrawn trilogy and make that Episodes 7, 8 and 9. Or 10, 11, and 12…
  • Build out the area between the Indiana Jones Stunt Show and Star Tours at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and make it “Lucasfilm Land.” Add two more rides there, one based on the Clone Wars and another based on Howard the Duck (kidding). Make it special… just don’t overdo it in other parks (like Epcot).
  • Finally, don’t pander to kids – make movies like Empire, not like Phantom Menace.

It’s up to you, Disney. The lightsaber has been passed, and you can either make Star Wars relevant and vital again to more than just the hardcore fans, or you can drop that lightsaber and cut off your own heads.

May the Force be with you.

Walt Disney, the world’s first user experience designer

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I’m a huge fan of the Walt Disney Park experience, and my family has traveled several times to Walt Disney World and Disneyland. The service we receive is unparalleled to any other vacation spot, and I always return from every visit with at least one extra-special memory.

Why the Disney experience is so consistently good is the same reason that the products produced by Apple are good: a focus on quality, detail and the customer. For Apple, that focus came from Steve Jobs, and for the Walt Disney Company, that focus came from the man whose name is above the door…

Walt Disney was an innovator, a creative force, and a brilliant businessman. But even more than that, I consider Walt Disney the first user experience designer, for reasons I will now specify.

The key to the Disney Park experience is it’s immersive. Everything is designed, down to the exact detail. Cast members are trained on how to treat customers with very specific instructions… even directions on how to wave and smile. What were once orange groves and swampland, there are now virtual worlds that guests can explore. It’s all manufactured, all created with one goal in mind – to entertain and bring joy to visitors.

I first realized that Disney was a user experience pioneer after I was watched a video of Walt introducing “The Florida Project” to the world, which became Walt Disney World. At one point, Walt said that the plan for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (or EPCOT) was that it would be “an experimental prototype that is always in the state of becoming, a place where the latest technology can be used to improve the lives of people.” If that isn’t what UX is in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

And he said this in 1966.

Design like Walt

In building out the Disney theme parks, Walt Disney and his deign team (which he named Imagineers) established many “best practices” that we user experience designers can follow as well. Here’s some of them:

Make special moments

Walt and his team had a sharp focus on creating a unique experience that guests could not get anywhere else. This focus, on making as many special moments as possible, results in happy (and repeat) customers. Human beings retain bad memories more than good, so providing happy moments results in people revisiting in a desire to relive or recapture that special moment.

Always be “plussing”

Walt was never completely satisfied. He always asked for more, always pushed his team to bring more to the table. He called this “plussing”, incrementally improving details and elements of an experience. It wasn’t “adding more stuff,” which so many companies do… It was making a good experience better. It was making sure the sound effects in the Pirates of the Caribbean was loud enough to rattle the ride participants, it was making sure that the Tiki Birds were able to have dozens of different gestures, not just ten… It was aspirational, and it is the right thing to do, always. Imagine if all designers and developers did their work with this type of attitude.

Give customers options

Walt didn’t design one different locale with the original Disneyland… he made four of them, each with a different theme and different experiences. By doing so he was able to appeal to more people, and also allowed for people to either stay in one “land” for an entire visitor use the “hub” to quickly jump from one place to the other. It may seem obvious today, but Walt came up with the idea and did it first.

Fix things that don’t work

The grand opening of Disneyland was in many respects a disaster. They ran out of food, rides broke down, counterfeit tickets were being used to get into the park… Heck, the asphalt sidewalks had not finished curing in many places. Instead of yelling at people and doing nothing (though I’m pretty sure there was some yelling) Walt met with his team, did a postmortem, and fixed things. We need to follow that example, be self-conscious and objective about our designs, and fix what isn’t working.

Take risks

As briefly noted above, Walt sunk a tremendous amount of his own money in two projects: a full-length animated film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Disneyland. Both projects brought him to the brink of losing it all, and both projects were huge successes. We need to take risks with what we design, and “aim for the fence” just like Walt did… because great risk also brings great reward.

Hire smart people

Walt surrounded himself with incredibly talented people and let them do their thing… Though he approved almost all the details, he knew that he needed top-notch people to execute his vision and to bring their own perspective to the table. Do the same when it comes to building your team.


Walt innovated both in making films and creating resort experiences, creating the multi-plane camera for film and a complex series of animatronic robots for his parks. He could have gone the safe route and not push the envelope… But he did, and we all benefited. Where can you innovate in your design work? What new ideas or interactions can you bring to the table?

Use data to make things better (and maximize profits)

Walt Disney looked at traffic patterns and sales data from his parks to change things. Selling out of ice crime in Frontierland last week? Double the number of ice crime stands there. Too many people in line for Splash Mountain? Redesign the queue to make sure that the people have extra shade and fans. Walt was one of the first people to look at analytical data to influence business decisions. Like Walt, UX professionals should leverage analytical data to inform their understanding of users and supplement qualitative user research.

Test, refine, then test again

Walt sent friends and family on rides like Jungle Cruise before they opened, to elicit feedback and fine-tune the experience. It’s exactly what we do as user experience professionals… And he did it 50 years ago. Continue to follow his lead.

Keep moving forward

As noted above, Walt famously said that he wanted his parks to never be finished, that he wanted it to evolve and grow over time. He said the key is to always keep moving forward, to make the good better… To continue to improve things, to strive to make things better. This isn’t just a great philosophy for user experience professionals to develop, but for all of us to strive for: Keep moving forward.