No More Mickey Mousing Around: Understanding the Design of Disney

Part 3, Cultivating Emotional Guest Experiences

by Jennifer Keyser and Reece Dano, Oven Inc,

In this four-part series we explore how Disney cultivates and engineers superior guest experiences within its theme parks. Part 1 and Part 2 explain how Disney effectively fosters “magical memories that last a lifetime.”

In Part 3 we will address the following:

The expectations that go into a Disneyland vacation and why they matter.
How emotions play into the engineering of magical memories.
The role of Cast Members in engaging Guests to create all-about-me moments.
How Disney stimulates the mood of the crowd to create a shared experience.

In order to truly understand the Disney Experience, we at Oven needed to look deeply at all aspects of a Disney vacation. We documented our journey through a series of research questions, exercises and structured observations created to capture feelings and thoughts that influenced our experience. Upon returning from Disneyland, the Oven research team poured over this data. Patterns began to emerge and the magic behind the engineering of memories began to be dispelled.

The post-trip evaluation showed that the most important and memorable aspects of the trip were the “all about me” moments that came from extra customer service touches, devoting time to fun, and being immersed in the magical experience. There were some pain points that arose, including feelings of being socially isolated, directionlessness moments, an onslaught of irrelevant merchandise and a rushed goodbye. In this installment, we will examine three distinct scenes that capture Disney’s method for engineering magical memories: a thrill ride, an interaction with a Cast Member, and a light show. Before going into details about the most memorable and magical aspects of the trip, we will look at the expectations and the process of getting to Disneyland.

Anticipation and Expectations

Before heading to Disneyland, each member of the Oven research team responded to a self-administered questionnaire about their impressions of Disneyland, expectations, preparation for the trip and any memorable experiences from prior trips. The recorded expectations for a Disney vacation turned out to be predictable and somewhat vague, but nonetheless tinged with emotions. They were mostly positive and heightened by official Disney pre-visit communications that emphasized joy and fun, and helped create a sense of preciousness of time and emotional value.

Shortly after making our reservations, a package arrived with passes, tickets, luggage tags, lanyards and coupons for a free pin. The tickets themselves were a bit disappointing: a bundle of papers, each one representing a different reservation (hotel, shuttle, park admission) but nothing that clearly distinguished one sheet from the other. It was surprising that this antiquated format was used instead of some playful print collateral. This experience conflicted with Disney priding itself on technologically innovation, the MagicBand at Walt Disney World being a prime example.

Once the reservations were in order, then came the fun part of figuring out what to do and see at the park. More research was required, especially looking more deeply at both company and fan websites. Overwhelmed excitement arose during the organizing stage. (“How can we fit it all in two and half days?”) Then came a sigh of relief and feelings of “Can’t wait to be there” as we boarded the plane to Anaheim. As we headed to Disneyland, we brought our expectations of finding happiness, getting the most out of the trip and a sense of adventure — all elements key to the engineering of magical memories.


We will begin holistically look at the engineering of Magical Memories by examining the experience of one park adventure. Once in the immersive environment of Disneyland, we had lots of decisions to make to best optimize our experience. First on our agenda was the Tower of Terror, a Twilight Zone inspired accelerated drop, dark ride.

At the Tower of Terror we encountered the first of many lines. However, it moved quickly and the wry comments of Cast Members kept us entertained. Once inside the building, we stepped into a glamorous, yet cobwebbed 1930s hotel lobby, which helped set a dark, foreboding mood. The library provided an enclosed moment that brought the crowd’s attention to a movie screen and interjected a narration into the experience. The storytelling element added a feeling of creepy uncertainty while placing the audience in the situation. The ride itself offered a false start, thrills and scares, and an element of precariousness. Everybody screamed or laughed on the ride. We exited through a dimly lit hallway, which led us to glowing screens that showed pictures from the ride. We immediately scanned for our picture and took a moment to laugh at the goofy expressions. Then onto the gift shop, which was filled with Twilight Zone and Tower of Terror goods, plus expected souvenirs like Mickey ears. The shop was a lackluster moment in an otherwise perfectly executed end-to-end experience. None of the merchandise spoke to us and in order to keep the magic going we moved on to the next experience.

Experiencing emotionally charged events as a group heightens and exaggerates feelings; scary movies feel scarier, happy moments are amplified.

A lot of engineered magic went into that ride. The immersive environment stimulated attention, while the enclosed moment in the library drew the group together and inserted “you” into the experience with a scripted storyline. Psychologist Gary Shteyenberg has found that when participating in something with others, a simultaneous co-attention creates an intensified emotional experience. In a 2013 study, he discovered that experiencing emotionally charged events as a group heightens and even exaggerates feelings; scary movies feel scarier and happy moments are happier compared to when one experiences them alone.

Experiencing novel and emotional events in a group goes beyond heightening sensations, but also fosters bonding. In a study on relationships and intimacy, Arthur Aron found that after participating in something novel, challenging or exciting together, respondents reported a positive impact on relationship quality. As neuroscience has discovered, novelty and risk release dopamine and serotonin, while collective experiences activate oxytocin. Dopamine is linked to attention, motivation and reward. When the activity involves purpose, meaning and challenge, serotonin levels increase. Higher levels of serotonin are linked to positive values of self-esteem and belonging, and can be transformed to a happy outlook. Oxytocin is released when humans are intimate (hugging, watching films, eye contact), and helps build trust and fidelity. It is clear that Disney taps into the science of bonding and togetherness by creating shared experiences that trigger emotional reactions and the release of neurochemicals.

Tower of Terror is designed to address the phenomenon of group experiences. Each group is ushered from lobby, library and boiler room immersed in a story that helps build anticipation and co-attention. Then there is the bonding over the screams and laughter the ride stimulates and the shared reflection of the ride in the group photo at the end of the ride. Margee Kerr, a sociologist of fear, observed in a study of haunted house participants that those who engaged in the experience left happier and even expressed feeling relaxed and less stressed.

The ride itself stimulates a range of feelings. It begins with a false start, which causes the stomach to drop, and activates the vagus nerve and parasympathetic system to lower the heart rate and blood pressure, and signal neurotransmitters to release the feel “better” chemicals of serotonin, GABA and norepinephrine and glutamate. Margee Kerr writes in Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, “Thrill rides offer a unique type of scary experience. Rather than being frightening because of content, they take our ‘thinking’ brain off-line and deliver a quick and powerful jolt directly to our body.” Screaming, is instinctual and cathartic and offers a release of emotions.

Within a single ride the Oven research team experienced immersion in the story, simultaneous co-attention which lead to intensified emotions, neurochemical release that stimulated feelings of high and calm, and the expression of “bottled up” emotions, The fun and thrill of the ride was immediately reinforced with the snapshot of the group on the ride.

This ride experience is a formula that is designed to create “magical memories.” It is repeated again and again through the Disney park: immersive environment, simultaneous co-attention, stimulation of neurochemicals, and mood elevation stoked by emotional release that leads to a desire for more. With a 70% guest return rate, this Disney formula clearly works.

Margie Kerr, sociologist of fear, writes: “Thrill rides offer a unique type of scary experience. Rather than being frightening because of content, they take our ‘thinking’ brain off-line and deliver a quick and powerful jolt directly to our body.”

Active Engagement

The engineered magic Disney employs to create memorable experiences that exceeds expectations is dependent upon the integration of several basic elements: service, setting, employees, and process. The skillful integration of emotions into the experiences helps strengthen the memory. At the heart of the experience lies the actions and behaviors of the Disney Cast Members, as they set the mood, guide interactions and reinforce the idea that the experience is all about the Guest. The work of Cast Members is an interactive performance that requires the management of emotion, also known as emotional labor.[v] Disney directs Cast Members to interact with Guests in a variety of ways including smiling, making eye contact, welcoming gestures, providing assistance, and displaying positive body language.

The skillful integration of emotions into Disney experiences strengthens our memories of them.

Disneyland is not a passive experience. Visitors must actively seek happiness and make an emotional investment to get the most out of the experience. It begins with the expectations — seeking fun, wanting to escape the stress of everyday life and sharing moments with family and friends. As mentioned in Part 2, it involves the suspension of disbelief as each visitor decides whether to believe in the Disney brand of magic and how much to engage. With an emotional investment comes a spiral of action and then further investment. It is a key element to the Disney experience, which is necessary for the creation of fans and return visitors. Let’s look at how Cast Members are actively part of engineering magical memories through active engagement of guests.

A brief 15-minute visit to the Chamber of Commerce stood out as one of our more memorable Cast Member interactions. It all began with an idle moment, with an hour before a dinner reservation. Out of curiosity we headed toward the Chamber of Commerce building, wanting to know what happened behind the doors. The office had a rather plain facade and was tucked back from Buena Vista Street, sandwiched between First Aid and one of the numerous retail shops along the stretch.

Inside three Cast Members dressed in vests and white shirts greeted us from behind a stark counter, which provided a feeling reminiscent of a car rental kiosk. A Chamber of Commerce-like emblem behind the desk signaled officiality and business. The lobby was small and open, no chairs for waiting, perhaps to discourage lingering, but also to draw Guests to the desk. The Cast Members explained that they assisted Guests with booking tours, making dinner reservations and other service matters. It was a place for an exchange of information.

After welcoming us, one of the Cast Members, Rachel, told us about a variety of tours, using brochures to illustrate the talking points and the various options. Despite our lack of interest in the tours, she continued to engage us by sharing a personal story of her favorite tour. As our attention turned toward the historic photo on the wall of Walt Disney with a pile of stuffed Mickeys, she once again grabbed our attention by telling us the backstory of the image. She obviously enjoyed her work, or simply was engaging in emotional labor through deep acting.

As we lingered in the lobby of the Chamber of Commerce with no intent to buy a tour, Rachel asked if we were interested in learning about an “Easter egg” (a hidden and unique design element within the park). It was a favorite one of hers. Instead of simply telling us where to look, she came from behind the counter and led us to a nearby building. She was enthusiastic and informative, and gave the sense that she did not share this Easter egg with everyone. Through sharing a unique bit of information, she made the moment seem personal and privileged. The interaction was primarily passive with lots of looking and learning. The small space of the lobby with the removal of the outside distractions and the complete attention of the Cast Member helped create an intimate feeling.

The interactions with Cast Members are designed to be positive and engaging. They routinely inquire about favorite rides and whether everyone is having a good time. The conversation between Cast Member and Guest evokes a few of the simple rules of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People: smile, express general interest in the person and encourage them to talk about themselves. Besides personalizing the experience, the Cast Members are working to reinforce the best memories and the most positive aspects of the Disney experience.

Besides personalizing the experience, Disney Cast Members work to reinforce the best memories and the most positive aspects of the Disney experience.

A Shared Experience

Walt Disney desired to create a place for his daughters that he could enjoy himself. The park was designed for families to share time together and explore a variety of experiences. Parades, fireworks and musicals allow for the gathering of groups and focused attention. They provide moments for pure speculation and extended breaks from the rides and other activities at the park. Here we will look at how the shows and spectacles fit into Disney’s process of engineering magical memories.

The park’s nighttime shows punctuate the day by adding a dramatic ending to a long list of activities. Crowds gather to be entertained by familiar characters (re)telling a story that engages the imagination. Access to special viewing sections can be gained through dining packages, which elevates a sense of privilege and anticipation for the show.

With Fantasmic!, one of the nightly shows at Disneyland, technology and storytelling come together to create an experience that references magic and stimulates a variety of emotions. A combination of lasers, lights, fireworks, live action, animatronics and pyrotechnics instill the show with a sense of magic. Flashes of colors and light changes the mood from scary to optimistic as imagination triumphs over evil. Moments of darkness offer the audience repose while intensifying the next scene. As we watched, we noticed familiar characters giving us an easy connection with and understanding of the story.

With Fantasmic!, one of the nightly shows at Disneyland, technology and storytelling merge to create an experience that references magic and stimulates a variety of emotions.

The crowd oohed and aahed and clapped as lights, fireworks and action became more and more impressive than the last display. Guests sought to capture the best moments on camera and video. Unexpected explosions of light, smoke and fireworks caught first-timers’ attention. Experienced fans sang along and chatted about what was different or unnoticed before. Everyone seemed engrossed by the show.

After the grand finale of fireworks, the show ended with a parade of Disney characters. The characters waved and danced granting a happy ending to the dramatic performance. Cheering and clapping ensued; the crowd was satisfied with the 25 minutes of non-stop entertainment. As we wandered back into the park, we immediately began discussing our favorite moments. We were feeling a collective effervescence, a key element of what is known as an “Interaction Ritual Chain.”

Sociologist Randall Collins, building upon Durkheim’s idea of collective effervescence, developed the theory of Interaction Ritual Chains (IRC) to better understand the motivation behind humans seeking emotional experiences. IRCs are defined by Collins as “a mechanism of mutually focused emotion and attention producing a momentarily shared reality, which thereby generates solidarity and symbols of group membership.” IRCs help create Emotional Energy (EE) and once experienced, humans seek to repeat it. EE is socially derived, builds feelings of confidence, enthusiasm, and courage, which leads to taking action and initiative. With EE the neurochemicals of dopamine and oxytocin are stimulated. Collins identified four conditions that allow EE to thrive: assembly of participants, barriers excluding outsiders, feedback between mutual focus of attention, and a shared emotional mood (Collins 2004).

Randall Collins’ theory of Interaction Ritual Chains easily applies to Disney park experiences.

Fantasmic! created a scenario that is very similar to that of an IRC-inducing megachurch or a music concert: an exclusive gathering, a familiar, emotionally imbued story, focused attention and a shared mood. Disneyland creates an immersive environment for the constant stimulation of EE. It perpetuates the IRC through the cost of admission, emotional labor of employees, storytelling and focus on happiness, which leads to the creations of fans. IRC is all about ritual, emotion, creating meaning and connecting with others, and helps explain the secret behind the magic and how Disney has created a kingdom of fans that continually want more of the magical experience.

Cast Members of the Frozen Sing-Along facilitate focused attention, storytelling imbued with emotion, and shared mood to stimulate a highly rewarding Emotional Energy experience — one that many guests seek to repeatedly experience.

Dispelling the Magic

As Oven reviewed the total experience, it became apparent that Disney magic resided in a few key elements: emotional engagement, neurochemical stimulation, attention and social dynamics. Emotional engagement came into play through our expectations and happiness-seeking, but also through interaction with employees and stimulation from rides, shows and environment. Neurochemicals associated with happiness and socialization (like serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and oxytocin) are constantly stimulated through the thrill of rides, dramatic shows and exciting shared moments. Attention is directed and focused using storytelling, the environment (especially in enclosed spaces), and interactions with Cast Members. The collective and group experiences induced co-attention and allowed the sharing of mood, the creation of emotional energy, and provided for moments — and eventually memories — to bond over.

So far, we have covered the highlights of the Disney experience. We have yet to delve into the lows and stagnant moments of indecision, the “being there” and the tempo of the Disney experience. In the next installation, Oven will look at the various touchpoints, especially aspects where the magic was missing. We will discuss further how Disney does Disney best and identify areas for improvement.

[ii] Parker-Pope, Tara (2010, May 10) “The Science of a Happy Marriage,” New York Times,

[iii] Kerr, M. (2015). Scream: Chilling adventures in the science of fear. New York: Public Affairs. p. 224.

[iv] Kerr, M. (2015). Scream: Chilling adventures in the science of fear. New York: Public Affairs. p. 12

[v] It is important to recognize that emotional labor is an intensive and demanding aspect of work that is often expected of employers in the service industry. Since, this study is focused on the experience of the visitor, we won’t go into the deeper implications of emotional labor of Disney park employees.

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