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.

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.

What are some least pleasant aspects of the Disney theme parks?

I’ve gone to the Disney parks a lot. And when I say “a lot” I mean “over 20 times.” I’ve hit the parks on both coasts, and hope to someday visit the parks outside the US. When comes to least pleasant aspects, I have some examples that I think are worth noting.

First off, there is definitely a drop-off in quality if you stay at one of the value (i.e. cheap) resorts at Walt Disney World. One of the last trips my family took we stayed at a value resort, and the quality of service and the cleanliness of the room left a LOT to be desired. Walking barefoot on the floor of my hotel room left my feet pitch black after a few steps. The staff at the value resorts also tend to not provide as much “disney magic” (i.e. friendly, positive service) as what you get from staff at the moderate and deluxe results. While Disney would like you to think that all their resorts are superb… well, there is a class system at work, and if you pay more you get better service – period.

(Yes, I know that many of you reading this will have had great experiences staying in value resorts, and that’s fine… I have too. I’ve just noticed the difference between the “little-s” service you get at the value resorts and the “capital-s” Service you get at the pricey Deluxe resorts. It is what it is.)

Second, Disney has structured their tickets and vacation packages in a way that is absolutely ingenious… ingenious in getting Disney as much of your money as possible. After their three day tickets, the price of adding extra days are neglegible… less than $10 a day per ticket. This is brilliant, in that it leads many people to extend their vacations and locks them into Disney… why spend $100+ dollars on tickets to Universal Studios or Sea World, when you can go to another Disney park for less than $10? A day that you will be spending money on food, toys, drinks… money that all goes to Disney.

Disney’s Magical Express, which (for free) picks you up from the airport and takes you straight to your resort, is another part of that same strategy. It’s something that you can view as an absolute positive… until you realize that you’re “trapped” on Disney property your entire vacation (unless you call a taxi or buy a rental car).

Third, if you go in summer… be prepared to sweat, especially at Walt Disney World in Orlando. That, and the huge crowds, make a “pleasant” experience nearly impossible. As big as the Disney park is, you are going to have uncomfortable experiences and situations happen if you go to the park at “peak season.” You’ll also pay more for the privilege.

Fourth, if you want to get the most out of a vacation at a Disney Park, you MUST PLAN your days. You need to make your dining resverations months in advance (seriously – the most popular restaraunts book up over 60 days ahead of time) and you need to try and hit all the most popular rides at “rope drop”, otherwise you will probably not get to ride them because of high demand. Many people want a vacation to be… well, a vacation. Disney ain’t like that. To get the most out of a Disney vacation, you need to structure your days and your nights and schedule things out. I’ve gone with family members who had NO IDEA how hard it was to get last-minute dining reservations and to get onto their favorite rides, and because of that they spent a lot of time in lines and eating extremely average counter service meals (that still cost a pretty penny).

Finally, in every resort and throughout their parks Disney promotes the Disney Vacation Club, which is a VERY expensive timeshare that makes Disney a lot of money, with (in my opion) very little value provided to the buyer of said timeshare. Try not to get trapped into a conversation with a DVC salesperson… you’ll end up potentially losing hours away from your vacation trapped in a sales pitch.

See question on Quora